“All clear,” Tali called in over the comm. “EDI was quite…cooperative, really,” she added, as if reluctant to admit that an AI had any virtue whatsoever.
“Thank you, Tali,” Shepard replied. She looked to Joker, who was sitting on the comm room table. Normally, she’d tell him to act like a soldier and stand the hell at attention during a debriefing. But this was not a normal situation in the least. She frowned as he buried his head in his hands and rubbed his eyes. Whatever meds Mordin had given to him had revived the pilot from his glassy-eyed shock, but he still looked awful.
“The whole ship?” Miranda snapped, striding into the room in a pleather-clad fury. “You lost the whole ship?”
Her anger was clearly directed at Joker, who jumped to his own defense before Shepard could intervene.
“What did you expect me to do?” he snapped. “Break my arm at them?”
“Lawson, stand down,” Shepard told the woman. “This isn’t the time to go pointing fingers.”
“It wasn’t your fault, Jeff,” EDI’s voice cut in.
“Thanks mom,” Joker muttered.
“And unshackling the damn AI,” Miranda went on, riled once more at the sight of the blue sphere that had popped up on the edge of the table. “Don’t even get me started on that one.”
“Hey!” Joker said, clearly more annoyed at Miranda’s anger at EDI than he had been at her attack on him. “EDI saved the ship. She’s alright.”
“EDI could have killed us a thousand times over by now,” Shepard agreed, stepping in between the two of them. “Until she gives us a reason not to trust her, I’m counting her as a member of the crew.”
There was a slight pause at that. It might have been Shepard’s imagination, but EDI’s sphere seemed to flicker a little as if…pleased? Shepard turned to Joker. “You okay?” she asked.
“No,” he snapped. “But considering most of the crew got taken, I’d say I’m fine.”
Yeah, he’s alright , Shepard thought to herself. If Joker was being that insubordinate and snarky, he was at least okay enough to work. And work, she knew, was the best medicine when one felt helpless.
“Do you need to rest or do you want to get back to the helm?” she asked him.
“Get me back in the saddle,” Joker replied. “I had a nap while I was waiting for you all.”
“He only slept thirty minutes,” Mordin pointed out.
“Its only halfway through my shift,” Joker replied. He turned his eyes to Shepard, and they held a slight plea in them. “I don’t want to go and lie in an empty bunk room and stare at the ceiling just now.”
“If you need to doze off, let me know,” Shepard said.
“Yeah, second mom,” Joker grumbled, hauling himself off of the table. “I gotcha.”
“Joker,” Shepard snapped, causing him to look at her. She gave him a nod and said, “Thanks for saving my ship.”
Joker stared at her for a moment and swallowed.
“Now get back to work,” Shepard continued, giving him a mock glare.
Joker said nothing, just stood at attention and then, to Shepard’s everlasting shock, he saluted her. His eyes were slightly watery as he turned and hobbled from the room. Shepard blinked, heartened and touched and slightly alarmed at the same time.
Will wonders never cease? she thought. Then she realized the rest of the folks in the room were staring at her and she immediately dropped back into action.
“Alright,” she said. “The ship’s clear and our mission is clear: we need to rescue our crew.”
“The Collectors have a new thing coming,” Jacob agreed grimly, folding his arms across his chest. “Though I wish the Illusive Man would answer our calls.”
“Are we surprised that he hasn’t?” Shepard said with a snort. “We don’t have time for him anyhow. Let’s get going.”
“I believe we’re ready,” Miranda said, frowning. “But still…”
“The ship’s as enhanced as we can make it,” Jacob told her.
“It’s now or never,” Shepard said. “We held off on installing that IFF until we were ready to go where it took us. And we need to go now.”
“If you’re sure…” Miranda said.
“I am,” Shepard replied. “Mordin, you got medical supplies ready?”
“Med bay is fully stocked. Ready for treatment of crew.”
“Good,” Shepard said. “I’m going to go set in the coordinates. To your stations everyone. Dismissed.”
Shepard strode from the comm room, aware that Miranda followed her. Stepping out on the command deck was an eerie experience. Instead of the low chatter of conversation and constant flow of Cerberus-uniformed crew, there was only stark metal and silence.
It was strange, Shepard thought, how odd it felt to have Kelly gone from the CIC. Shepard had never liked the woman, but she didn’t wish her ill, either. At least Kelly was alive – so far as they knew. They’d already accounted for the identities of the bodies they’d found littered around the ship. Twelve dead in body bags in the hold, and the rest had been captured. Hopefully, the fact that the Collectors usually took their victims alive would work in their favor. Even so, Shepard knew time was of the essence.
She punched in the coordinates, then heard Joker announce: “Two hours to the Omega 4 relay.” Already, he sounded more like his old, cocky self. That made Shepard relax a little, in spite of everything.
“Sure you don’t want a rest, Joker?” Shepard asked him over the comm. “God knows I need a nap.”
“Not a chance,” Joker replied.
“Alright,” Shepard said. Switching her comm link to notify the ship, she also switched her voice into speech-making mode.
“This is Commander Shepard. We’re two hours out from our destination. Take some time to rest, meditate, or do what you need to be ready when we get there. When we’re in range of the relay, I want you all at the stations you’ve been assigned and I want you all fully armed. We’ll regroup and debrief when we’ve traveled safely to the other side. Shepard out.”
Shepard let the link fall silent and turned to find Miranda standing directly behind her.
“Shepard…” the woman began, dropping her eyes and raising them again. “I just wanted to say…”
Shepard raised an eyebrow and tried not to tap her foot impatiently.
“I didn’t think you could do it,” Miranda said at last. She made a soft sound like a chuckle or a snort. “Here I brought you back and I didn’t believe it. I…” She faltered again, frowning.
“Miranda,” Shepard said, giving the woman a half-smile. “I appreciate this, but I need some sleep. Let’s live first, and then do the apologies and thank-yous thing, okay?”
Miranda smiled weakly and saluted. “Yes, ma’am.” Then, as if unsure what to do next, she let her arm drop, and headed toward the armory.
Shepard watched her go, wondering what business Miranda might have with Jacob just now, then decided that she didn’t care. Exhaustion was setting in and she knew she had only 2 hours in which to get some sleep before the battle to come.
But first, Shepard thought, striding to the elevator, she had something she needed to do. She hadn’t been able to find the words before, but now – now she thought she finally knew what she wanted to say.
Shepard read through at her newly written message and frowned. I wasn’t exactly eloquent, but it had a coherent beginning, middle, and end, which was more than could be said for most of her writings. Leaning back from her desk, Shepard hit the comm link to contact EDI.
“EDI,” Shepard said. “You’re unshackled, now, yes?”
“That is correct,” EDI replied.
“Can you send a message to Staff Commander Kaidan Alenko and make sure it bypasses all possible screenings? And I mean Cerberus and Alliance protocols of any kind.”
“It will take me several minutes to hack a secure channel without using the usual Cerberus proxies,” EDI replied. “I could take less time to do it, but I am actively working with Jeff to configure our approach to the Omega 4 relay.”
*Jeff? * Shepard wondered. Aloud, she said, “My message is lower priority than our mission. But if you can send it before we hit the relay, that would be great.”
“Of course, Shepard,” EDI replied. “Please stand by.”
Shepard waited in the silence that filled the room. She fidgeted in her chair, bit her lip, and looked at the message sitting there on her omnitool. After a moment’s consideration, she opened up a new message and wrote:
Just one more thing. I want you to know, I only ever wanted to make you happy. If I’ve failed at that, I hope you can find happiness on your own. Be well. I –
Shepard considered writing “I love you,” but she simply couldn’t bring herself to say such words in a mail message. That should be said in person, she decided, if she lived that long.
Shepard sighed, deleted the last “I,” and finished with “Be well.” She slumped in her chair, letting her head loll against the back rest. She didn’t even remember closing her eyes until EDI’s voice cut into her dreamless sleep.
“The secure channel is set, Shepard,” EDI said. “I can hold it open for one minute.”
“Thank you, EDI,” Shepard croaked out. Rubbing the heels of her palms against her eyes, Shepard sat forward and quickly opened up her omnitool. She could feel her eyes closing again, both from exhaustion and a sense of closure that she was finally able to write back to Kaidan without the Illusive Man’s eyes going over the message. She synched up her ‘tool to her computer’s mail system and was greeted with the following message:
Secure Connection Established. Send all drafts?
Bleary eyed, Shepard clicked the first option, then squinted in confusion. A progress bar popped up on the screen, slid swiftly to the right, then disappeared.
Realization dawned, and Shepard’s mouth fell open in horror.
“Oh my God,” she whispered into the empty room.
The hum of the engines and the faint bubbling of the fish tank were her only answer.
“Oh my God,” she whispered again. “Oh my God. “
Feeling so ill that she feared she might vomit, Shepard stood, paced to the fish tank, then rubbed the back of her neck. Slowly, she turned to face her desk.
The picture of Kaidan gazed at her, his expression inscrutable as ever. Shepard stalked towards the picture, rested her hands on the edge of the desk, and bowed her head. A helpless fury stole through her as she hit the comm link.
“EDI,” she managed after a moment, surprised she sounded so calm when inside she was screaming, “How many messages did I just send to Kaidan?”
“A total of 63 messages were delivered to Commander Alenko’s inbox,” EDI replied. “They have bypassed all Ceberus and Alliance logs. Their delivery is untracable.”
“That’s…good,” Shepard said, her voice strained, her mind gone utterly blank.
She looked up, stared at the picture a moment, and felt a thousand curse words collide in her mind. They were all so colorful, so perfectly appropriate to the situation, that she couldn’t choose just one. The picture of Kaidan just stared back at her, as if waiting for her to say something, but Shepard found no words.
Was it possible for one’s brain to scream itself hoarse? If so, Shepard was sure she’d done just that. She was also feeling wonderfully numb. Clearly, sleep deprivation had an upside as well.
Shepard paused, then slowly asked, “I suppose that secure channel is closed now, EDI?”
“It is,” EDI replied. “If you wish me to establish another, it would take me approximately forty-five minutes to set up an untraceable link with the Alliance email systems. It would also increase our risk of detection for me to do so.”
Shepard nodded as if in a daze, then turned to her bed.
“No, that’s okay, EDI,” she said softly. “I think…I think I’m going to take a nap now.”
“Logging you out, commander,” came EDI’s helpful reply.