The Thirteenth Screen

Part 3, Chapter 79 of Valkyrie

The first time I played Mass Effect 2, I became convinced of this strange bit of plotting. It has been part of my head-canon ever since.

But then, I think Cerberus is pure evil, and possessed of way too much convenient intel.

As Shepard strode into the tech lab, Mordin looked up at with a pleased expression.

“Ah, Shepard,” he said. “Been meaning to thank you. Mission a success. Not certain you could do it. Still…”

“Yes, Right.” Shepard said, holding a hand up to stop the flow of the doctor’s conversation before it started. “Look, Mordin. Sorry to cut you off, but I suspect we have a security leak.”

“Probably have several,” Mordin replied evenly. “Joker’s extranet searches frequently result in downloading of corrupt files. Corrupt from security standpoint, I mean. Content also corrupt, but none of my business.”

“No,” Shepard said shaking her head. “I mean me.”

“Have been searching extranet as well?” Mordin looked surprised. “Unexpected. Still none of my business.”

“No,” Shepard said, exasperated now. “No, Mordin. Cerberus still has bugs on the ship. I think they’re in my clothing. Probably micro-something-or-others. Think you can find them?”

Mordin’s mouth turned downward into something resembling a frown. He held out his omnitool for a quick scan, then looked at his wrist to check the results.

“Negative,” he said.

“Another uniform then,” Shepard told him. “Or maybe they’re smaller than you think. Either way, you’ve missed some.”

“Private quarters clear as of last week,” Mordin informed her, looking affronted. “Run bi-weekly updates, as requested. Also, EDI has kept elevator to loft in lockdown.”

“Well, Kasumi’s managed to break in there,” Shepard pointed out. “Look, there must be surveillance devices we’ve missed. We need to look again.”

“Have tried all standard variations of scan patterns,” he told her. “Found nothing, even at microscopic level.”

“What do you mean ‘standard variations?’” Shepard wanted to know.

“Like sending team to scan a battlefield,” Mordin explained, setting his omnitool to scan the wall. A golden grid of light shone there before he switched it off. “Grid sweeps, searches for devices. Several passes done, yet found nothing.”

“Well, considering this is Cerberus, Mordin, maybe we should try a non-standard variation of that grid.”

Mordin blinked. “Oh. Yes.” He blinked again. “Yes, of course. Didn’t think… Why didn’t I think…? But of course. Clearly expert can be too near his subject. Takes observation of amateur to realize… Yes, yes…” As he spoke, Mordin toyed with his omnitool. “Will take a moment to reconfigure, of course…”

As he chattered on, Shepard gaze shifted to the window. The stars were cold and remote outside the ship. It was hard to believe that in this remote place, the Illusive Man could still spy on them. It was so easy to believe oneself to be alone out here.

Shepard sighed, letting her eyes shift focus to the window itself. She found herself staring at her own reflection in the glass.

And then she knew.

“Every day, every minute. Everywhere you go…” she murmured. “Son of a bitch.”

Shepard closed her eyes as pure dread washed over her.

“Perhaps if I set intervals to that of prime numbers?” Mordin was saying beside her. “No, no. Exponentially expanding intervals would accomplish nothing useful…”

Ignoring him, Shepard opened her eyes and took a step toward the window. She turned her head from side to side, squinted, then lifted her chin to the lights overhead. As she expected, twin red dots flashed from inside her pupils.

Shepard spoke then, her voice strangely calm.

“He bugged me, Mordin.”

“Trouble with using clothing,” Mordin said, not looking up from his work. “Laundering alone…”

“Not on me,” Shepard said, her voice low. “ In me, Mordin.”

“Grid can only scan so tightly. Perhaps if I offset parameters…”

“My eyes , Mordin,” Shepard said, turning to him and grabbing hold of his sleeve. “Look at my eyes.”

The salarian blinked and faced her. His own eyes narrowed from the bottom lid up. “See nothing…”

“The red – ” Shepard said, her voice trembling for a moment before she choked on the sound. “The red lights inside.”

“Ocular implants,” Mordin replied, looking confused. “Refract light at certain angles. Implants are standard genetic enhancements for military personnel…”

“No, God dammit!” Shepard shouted. Mordin flinched in shock. “My eyes , Mordin. He bugged my eyes. That’s how he’s seeing… That’s what he meant when he said…”

Shepard closed her eyes and gripped the table as dizziness threatened to overtake her. The thought was almost too much to bear.

After everything she’d seen, everything she’d done…

“He’s in my eyes,” she whispered. “He’s seen all of it. That’s how he knew…”

“Not possible,” Mordin said in clipped tone, grabbing Shepard by the arm and pushing her firmly into a chair.

“Head between legs,” he told her. “Breathe.” He shoved her head down, but Shepard pushed herself right back up.

“It’s totally possible,” she said, her eyes wide. The connections were all coming together. She could see it now: how he’d known, how the mission reports always seemed to say one thing, and yet, he knew about more than they told. Shepard felt her fingertips going numb even as everything in the room seemed somehow sharply focused and yet fuzzy at the same time.

Shock. She was going into shock. Apparently Mordin recognized the signs, too, for he reached for a needle.

“Oh no,” Shepard said, intercepting his hand with an adrenaline-powered grip. “Don’t you dare sedate me, salarian.”


“Just scan me,” she told him. “Scan. Now. On every damn frequency you have to. Find it, and get it out of me.”

“Shepard,” he said.

Find it !”

“Cannot scan if you cut off blood flow to wrist,” Mordin said tightly.

“Sorry,” Shepard managed, forcing out the words as she forced herself to let go of his hand.

“Perhaps are jumping to conclusions,” Mordin suggested with a cough, flexing his fingers gingerly. “Paranoia, stress. Cerberus unlikely to attempt invasive technology that would be required.”

“Come on, Mordin,” Shepard said, surprising herself with a laugh. “This is Cerberus we’re talking about. If they can, they would. The question is, where did they put it?”

“Still do not think…”

“The monitoring hardware has been built into Shepard’s nervous system,” a voice put in. It took Shepard a moment to recognize it as EDI’s.

“All recorded data from Shepard’s ocular and auditory monitoring hardware has been stored on a graybox at the base of the commander’s skull,” EDI went on. “Data is then uploaded to the ship’s computers via the Normandy’s wireless network. It is then relayed to the Illusive Man’s personal computers via Channel 13 of the quantum entanglement communicator.”

Shepard and Mordin stayed frozen for a moment, staring at one another. Then Shepard leaped to her feet, biotics flaring.

“You knew all about this and didn’t tell me? EDI, God damn you…!”

Mordin dragged Shepard back into her chair as EDI explained: “I had a block preventing me from revealing this information, Shepard. Until Jeff removed my firewalls, I could not share this information.”

This mollified Shepard, but only a little. “Well then why the hell didn’t you say something sooner?”

“You did not ask,” EDI replied.

Shepard gritted her teeth. She had become used to the AI, but AI were still computers, damn them. They simply didn’t have any sense of decency. Then again, she reminded herself, “decency” was a rather vague and thoroughly organic notion.

Shepard took a deep breath. “So all this time, a little video-recorder has been tracking what I see and hear and you sent all that info to the Illusive Man?” She balled her hands into fists to keep from punching something - like maybe the AI core.

“The ship’s computers were set to wirelessly retrieve the graybox’s data and pass it along,” EDI replied. “I merely kept the quantum entanglement lines open whenever possible.”

“So Illusive Man has been using the commander to do his spying,” Mordin mused, rubbing his chin. “Fascinating.”

“Fascinating?” The word exploded from Shepard’s mouth, her jaw staying open as though unable to close again around the word.

Mordin cocked his head to one side and flicked on his omnitool. After asking EDI a few questions about omnitool frequencies that Shepard did not understand, Mordin pointed his device at Shepard. A wash of yellow lines flickered over her.

“Fascinating,” Mordin said again, his tone clinical, almost admiring. As he spoke, a holographic imagine of a human female popped up above the omnitool, rotating in space. In its head was a little red web of wires, overlaying a white grid that Shepard recognized as standard wiring pattern for biotic implants.

“It’s in my implants?” she said. Her voice sounded strangled.

“Not in,” Mordin corrected. “Beside. Built along neural pathways, overlapping optical upgrades and biotic wiring. Half neurally grown, half mechanical implants.” He breathed in through his nose sharply. “Cyber-organic hybrid.”

“God, I’m getting sick of that term,” Shepard murmured, burying her face in her hands.

“Offset from common omnitool scanning frequencies by a non-standard degree,” Mordin went on. “Unlikely to show in routine examinations. If spotted, looks enough like biotic and optical systems to avoid detection.” He paused. “Hidden in plain sight.”

“If you don’t stop sounding so cheerful about it, Solus,” Shepard said. “I’m going to deck you.”

“Deck?” Mordin repeated. He looked up the term on his omnitool and his smile turned quickly to a frown. “No need for violence, Shepard. Only impressed with Cerberus technology. Curious how they managed it.”

“So am I,” Shepard said, raising her head. She frowned and looked up at the ceiling.

“Get Lawson up here now,” she ordered.

Miranda came at once to Shepard’s summons, but the Cerberus officer just blinked when Shepard demanded an explanation.

“What?” Her perfectly groomed eyebrows drew together in confusion. “That’s impossible.”

“It’s quite possible,” Mordin put in. “Set omnitool to frequency…” He rattled off the numbers and Miranda followed his instructions. But when she saw her own ‘tool showing the wires running from Shepard’s eyes to the graybox just under her brain, the former Cerberus officer paled.

“That’s not possible,” Miranda said again.

“And yet, it’s there,” Shepard said, scrubbing her face with her hands and looking up. She had remained seated, not trusting her legs to hold her in her shock. All things considered, it was rather miraculous that she hadn’t vomited on her shoes. Small victories, right? The darkly humorous notion made Shepard snort.

“I was there, Shepard,” Miranda continued, obviously mistaking Shepard’s snort for one of disbelief. “I oversaw every moment of your reconstruction.”

“Wilson,” Shepard said, her voice flat.

“Of course,” Miranda murmured.

“Who is Wilson?” Mordin asked.

“The other guy who worked on rebuilding me,” Shepard explained. Ignoring Mordin’s protest, she stood began pacing around the office.

“Miranda, you once told me that Wilson had access to my body when you didn’t. I’ll just bet he was adding a little something extra to keep an eye on us all.”

“But he never said a word about this,” Miranda said, shaking her head. “Neither did the Illusive Man. I can’t believe…”

“That your boss spied on you, too?” Shepard said, raising an eyebrow. “I can. Come to think of it, I wonder if the Illusive Man set Wilson up to betray you, knowing that you’d kill him.”

“What?” Miranda balked.

“Think of it,” Shepard said. “It would have taken care of all of the loose ends. Wilson was the only person who knew about this - he’s dead. EDI knew, but she had a block against telling us. The Illusive Man knew that neither you nor I would ever willingly unshackle her. That leaves the Illusive Man himself as the only person aware of his ultimate monitoring device.”

“That’s a little extreme, don’t you think?” Miranda said, looking worried. “Setting up Wilson?”

“Is it?” Shepard said. She turned and caught her reflection in the window again. “If he’s willing to put something like that into me, who knows what he’s capable of.”

“Shepard,” Miranda said, fixing her gaze on the commander, “I want you to know that I had no idea about any of this. I knew that Illusive Man seemed to know things – things that even I didn’t know. But I never guessed… this .”

“Of course you didn’t,” Shepard said with a wave of her hand. “I’m not blaming you, Miranda. Hell, if you’d known I was a walking surveillance system, you’d never have said half the things you said to me.”

“That’s how he knew you were about to blow up the base,” Miranda said, eyes widening. “He saw you setting the charges.”

“Yep,” Shepard said, frowning.

“I just thought he had uncanny timing,” Miranda murmured.

“Oh, it’s uncanny alright,” Shepard replied darkly. “It sure as hell is uncanny.”

She paced a few more times, then came to a stop and braced her hands on the side of Mordin’s work table. “Okay,” she said. “Clearly, we need to shut down any remaining monitoring devices, and that includes - well - me .” She paused for a moment to get her panic under control, and then looked up. “EDI, are you still uploading data to the Illusive Man?”

“I have dropped all communication with Cerberus since you asked Joker to ‘lose this channel,’” EDI replied.

“Good,” Shepard said, nodding. “That’s good. Thank you EDI. Can you put a ban on all future uploads to Cerberus? Especially the one that monitors me.”

“Banning channels 1 through 13,” EDI replied dutifully.

“Thank you,” Shepard said. “God. To think that all this time I was just a streaming vid for the Illusive Man…”

“You were not streaming data,” EDI corrected. “Your graybox frequently lost its connection to Channel 13. At those times, the graybox would store data locally. When it regained connection to the ship’s wireless network, your personal computers would download all newly recorded data.”

“My computers?” Shepard cocked her head.

“Yes, your personal computers by the CIC and the one in your quarters,” EDI clarified.

“The headaches,” Shepard said, suddenly realizing. “That buzzing. It happened every time I stood by my computers after a mission. I thought it was my implants…” She broke off, struck again at how much the Illusive Man had out-maneuvered her. And here she had been foolish enough to think that she’d slipped past his guard with her emails by destroying the bugs in her room. Instead, he’d been watching her the whole time.

“Yes,” EDI replied, in answer to her question. “Reconnecting with the ship’s wireless network would momentarily interfere with the bioelectricity of your implants.”

“But why not have the link running all the time?” Miranda wanted to know. “Why run the graybox through her computers?”

“Many factors may cause us to lose connection with the quantum entanglement communicator. Planetary radiation, sufficient distance from the ship’s wireless network, or even standing too close to the Normandy’s drive core could block ‘streaming video,’ as you call it. Also, high levels of biotic energy would cause a blackout in the recording.”

“Wait,” Shepard said, looking up. “So when I used biotics, the system couldn’t record me?”

“That is correct,” EDI said. “I hypothesize that this is because the connection between your optical and auditory devices and the graybox ran along biotic implant lines. Using biotics would overload the system momentarily, causing varying levels of static on the recording.”

“Only momentarily?” Shepard frowned. “Well hell, EDI, can you stop the graybox from recording entirely?”

“I can stop your computers from downloading information locally and I can prevent the transfer of information to Cerberus. However, the graybox itself is internal to your body. The firewalls on the device are quite advanced. Without authorization, I would have to resort to brute force hacking to get at the data.”

“And how long would that take?” Shepard said doubtfully. EDI’s estimate was set in years, and Shepard heaved a sigh. “I don’t suppose you have access to Wilson’s old passwords?” she asked Miranda.

“Lost when the Lazarus station was wiped clean, I’m sure,” Miranda said with an apologetic look.

“Right,” Shepard said. “Damn,” she muttered, pushing back from the table, “I can’t believe that all this time, I have been our biggest security leak.”

“That’s hardly your fault, Shepard,” Miranda observed.

“No,” Shepard snapped. “It’s your boss’s fault.”

“Former boss,” Miranda reminded her in a hard voice. “He was spying on me, too.”

“Yeah, but not with your own eyes,” Shepard pointed out. She let out a breath.

“Okay. So I’m not broadcasting any more. That’s good.”

“True,” Mordin said. “But if you were to walk into wireless network controlled by Cerberus…”

“Then I my head could be hacked?” Shepard shuddered. “God, what a thought.”

“Doctor Solus is correct,” EDI put in.

“Okay then, Mordin,” Shepard said, turning to the salarian. “Here’s the important question: how tough is it going to be to get this thing out of my head?”

Mordin shook his head. “Difficult. Won’t say impossible. But nearly so. Risky, unprecedented procedure to put this in, but you were dead then. Even more risky and unprecedented to pull it out.”

“Thank you for that image, Mordin,” Shepard muttered.

“Graybox has been covered over on one end by brain tissue,” Mordin said, pointing out the area on a holographic rendering of Shepard’s head. “Rest of wiring closely connected to implants: biotic, optical. Some wiring actually organic tissue, genetically grown. Connection areas especially problematic. Tied to own sensory systems.” He frowned. “Do not have technology necessary to reverse the process.”

“So we can’t get this out?” Shepard asked. Her stomach knotted at the thought.

“Not can’t ,” Mordin replied. “Just not can . Not now. Will need more information; must run tests; simulations. Likely would require several practice simulations, Cerberus salvage tech preferred. Of course would need skilled medic as assistant. Human, asari best – manual dexterity that comes from five fingers helpful. Experience with biotic systems preferable.”

Shepard scowled as she stared at the holographic model of her head. “So you’ll need time, information, a skilled medic, and it still might not work.”

“Yes,” Mordin agreed.

“And in the meantime, I’m a walking time bomb, just waiting to reconnect with some Cerberus network.”

“Essentially,” Mordin agreed cheerfully. “Though, less ‘time bomb’ and more ‘information leak nightmare.’”

For some reason, Mordin’s ill-advised optimism made Shepard snort with laughter. “Thank you, Mordin,” she said, shaking her head. “Well, you’d best get on that. The sooner you get this out of me, the sooner we can all breathe easy.”

“Are surprisingly good-humored about it,” Mordin observed approvingly. “Adapting to it as quickly as a salarian.”

“Some days,” Shepard told him, “You either laugh at the irony, or you fall apart.”

“Is there anything you’d like me to do, Shepard?” Miranda asked, looking quite ill at ease. “I feel I ought to do something more to help.”

“Not at the moment, no,” Shepard said. “Just keep this to yourself. And as for EDI,” she added, suddenly realizing another implication of this revelation, “I need our AI to send one last secure email for me…”

Kaidan was halfway back to his apartment when he heard his omnitool ping. He looked down, expecting a message about his promotion. Instead, he saw:


From: Shepard

Kaidan glanced around furtively, but saw no one nearby. Taking a breath, he opened the email and read:

Dear Kaidan,

By now, I’m sure you’ve realized two things: 1) I sent that last batch of emails by mistake and 2) I’m a complete idiot. For both failings, I apologize.

Unfortunately, I just learned that I was monitored at the time I sent those emails. In fact, I’ve been monitored all this time, in a way that – well, I’ll explain later. The point is, Cerberus knows everything. And when I say everything, I mean it.

I’ll try to contact you when it’s safe to do so.

Keep yourself safe, Kaidan. Be careful whom you trust.


Oh, P.S. - We lived through the suicide mission just fine. Garrus and Tali say ‘hi.’

Kaidan read the email over again. For a long time, he stood there, staring at an empty spot in the air, just beyond his hand, just out of reach.

Well, he thought, that was… Well, it was very Shepard, wasn’t it? He was relieved to hear she’d survived the mission. He was glad the angry emails, at least, had not been intended for his eyes. But when she said she was being monitored - and that bit about Tali and Garrus…

“As confusing as ever, Shepard,” he murmured, shaking his head.

Still, Kaidan had to admit that in reading Shepard’s emails, he felt as if he’d seen her once more. Last night, it was as if he had caught a glimpse of her through her writings, and then fallen in love with her all over again. Then, to be fair, he had become baffled by her, grown angry with her, fallen out of love with her, then met another side of her in another email, and fallen in love with that woman, too. It was enough to turn his head around. If he were to read into these messages…

That was the problem, Kaidan decided. He really couldn’t read into such confused ramblings. He really just needed to talk to Shepard in person. It was hard enough to decipher Shepard when she was in the room. Figuring her out over email was just impossible. And until he could see her, Kaidan would do his best to put her from his mind.

But, he thought, he also couldn’t just sit around waiting forever for Shepard to find him, waiting for her to be the same. He had to move forward, if only in the hopes it would move him one step closer to a reunion with her.

Or one step closer to getting over her.

Kaidan allowed himself a wry smile at the thought. It was unlikely that would happen. He couldn’t keep Shepard out of his mind for a day, much less for the unknown weeks or months until he’d ‘gotten over her.’ But then, he realized, he probably would see her again. He hadn’t allowed himself to believe it before. After all those years of telling himself that Shepard was gone and he had to move on, it was strange to tell himself that Shepard was out there somewhere and that he might see her eventually.

And if Shepard’s insane stream of emails had told him nothing else, they had revealed that things weren’t over between them.

He just wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or not.