also on the day before…
Major Kaidan Alenko stepped off of the shuttle, duffel bag in hand. He hadn’t gone further than two steps when he stopped and stared. There she was. Again.
The ship before him was twice as big as the original Normandy and took up an entire side of the east hangar bay. A few docking clamps held her aloft, and just below her, a couple of technicians had opened up an electrical panel on the port thruster and were checking their work against a datapad. For a moment, Kaidan just stood there, dumbstruck by a sense of deja vu and about a million questions colliding in his mind. The foremost question was, of course:
What the hell is she doing here?
Then, speaking of colliding, a man in a rear admiral’s cap shoved past Kaidan, nearly knocking his bag out of his hand. Kaidan looked around and realized he was blocking the door out of the shuttle. The other passengers were lined up behind him, but clearly weren’t about to push aside a ranking officer. Kaidan gave them an apologetic half-smile and hurried on down the gangplank.
When he reached the docking platform, however, Kaidan found his steps slowing again. He came to a stop out of the way of the bustling crowds and allowed himself to stare at the Normandy. She really was a beautiful ship. She looked rather like an old-style European racing car, what with the solid body and the thrusters out at angles to the sides. Even from across the hangar he could tell that the guns on the bow had been upgraded - with Thanix cannons, if he wasn’t mistaken, though they appeared to be shorter and wider than the ones currently employed on Alliance dreadnoughts. And given the few Alliance reports he’d seen regarding the speed of this new Normandy SR2, Kaidan was willing to bet that hidden inside the mid-sized frigate was a mass effect drive core that could outrun any other ship in the galaxy. Given how rare those reports were, Kaidan was also willing to bet the SR2’s stealth systems outclassed even the old SR1’s.
She was a marvel of engineering, but that wasn’t what had Kaidan staring. No, it was the Alliance emblem painted in bright blue on the black-and-white hull that had him stunned. Because the last time he had seen the Normandy, there had been a gold Cerberus logo painted on the side. So once again, he just had to wonder:
What the hell is she doing here?
And this time, Kaidan didn’t mean the ship.
She’s been here , he thought wildly, in my hometown, and she didn’t even bother to tell me.
Kaidan heard his teeth grinding together now, and realized he had a white-knuckled death grip on the handle of his duffel bag. Yet, even as he felt frustration seething inside of him, another part of his mind raised a warning. After all, this was how things had started before: hurt and confusion had met with shock, then boiled over into anger. And when his brief fury had ended, he’d been left with almost a year of regret.
Calm down , he told himself. *Just do some recon and figure out what the hell is going on. She might not even be on the ship. She might not even be * here .
*That * thought made him feel as though his stomach had dropped into his feet. If she wasn’t here, but the Normandy was , then he could imagine any number of scenarios to explain the situation. Each of them was more horrifying than the last. His anger dimmed, replaced by growing worry.
Determined now, Kaidan hiked his duffle bag onto his shoulder and hurried through the crowd to the far side of the docking bay, The Normandy’s private boarding platform was surrounded by a line of holographic tape. A small knot of people stood nearby, the technicians looking at their datapads, the soldiers standing there with assault rifles pointed at the ground, looking rather bored. Kaidan sized them up, trying to figure out which of them was in charge. Just then, a pretty young woman with an olive complexion and dark eyes looked up from her datapad.
“Hello?” she asked him in a clipped British accent. “May I help you?”
“Major Alenko,” Kaidan said, waving a hand absently at the rank insignia on his shirt. “Just wondering if I could take a look around. I was part of the old crew,” he added, in case she dismissed him as just some curious passerby.
“Major!” the woman started. She hastily saluted, slapping her datapad to her forehead. “I didn’t…! Ow!” She let her hand drop and rubbed her head where she’d struck herself with the plastic. “I’m sorry. But the ship’s off limits. Off limits, sir ,” she added quickly. “Only authorized personnel, you see, and I wasn’t sent word of you. I do apologize.”
“Well, I’m in town to see Admiral Anderson,” Kaidan said. “He used to be the captain of the Normandy, you know. Just figured I’d stop in first and say hello to everyone. From the old crew, that is. We go way back.”
That was true in a sense, Kaidan thought to himself. Though ‘going way back’ and being on speaking terms were not exactly the same thing. The woman with the datapad looked at him doubtfully.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “But unless I get confirmation, I can’t…”
“I don’t suppose Joker is on board?” Kaidan asked quickly.
As soon as Kaidan said the words, he regretted them. Going through Joker might not be the best idea. The last time they’d seen each other had been under strained circumstances. Point of fact, it had been at a funeral. But before Kaidan could rethink this choice of action, the woman said, “Um, I think so,” and turned on her comm link.
“Lieutenant Moreau?” she asked briskly, “This is Specialist Traynor. There’s a Major…um…” she glanced at the name badge on Kaidan’s casual uniform, “…Alenko here to see you. Should I send him in?”
This announcement was greeted by silence.
Okay , Kaidan thought. This was probably a bad idea.
“Lieutenant Moreau?” the woman repeated into the comm link.
There was a screeching sound, then, “Alenko?” Joker’s surprised voice sounded over the comm. “You’re kidding. What is *that * bastard doing here?”
Yep, definitely a bad idea.
“Ah…” Traynor hesitated, looking at Kaidan nervously. “He wanted…”
“What? To chew me out? Call me a ‘traitor’? Or maybe he just wanted to stop by and then leave again. You know, because he’s so good at walking away from his friends with his moral principles shoved up his ass.”
Traynor’s eyes widened in surprise. Kaidan opened his mouth to say something along the lines of ‘never mind,’ but Joker wasn’t done yet.
“You know what,” Joker continued over the comm. “Send him in. Yeah, send him in . I would love to hear what he has to say.”
“Are you sure?” Traynor asked nervously. “Because he’s not authorized….”
“Oh, I can vouch for him,” Joker interrupted. “Yeah. I can vouch that he’s a first class assho…”
There was another screech as Specialist Traynor let the link drop. She looked up at Kaidan, then pasted an overly bright smile on her face.
“Welcome aboard,” she said, cheerfully.
Kaidan didn’t miss the question in her eyes. He gave her a tight smile and walked into decontamination. The door closed behind him, white beams washed over him, and for just a moment, Kaidan had time reflect that this was a truly terrible idea. But then the door in front of him slid open, inviting him into the ship.
Kaidan stepped out into a narrow hallway that looked so familiar that he felt like he’d walked into a memory. To his right, the hallway was flanked on either side by gunnery and systems critical stations. Further down the command deck, he could see the CIC, much larger than he remembered, but still filled with the navigations computers surrounding a large, holographic galaxy map. The lights were low here, giving everything a bluish tinge. A faint electrical hum filled the air, and to his left was…
The helmsman turned his chair around at Kaidan’s entrance. The fact that the chair rotated a full 180 degrees was about the only thing that was different up here, Kaidan reflected as he walked into the cockpit. Well, that and the upgraded haptic adaptive displays. The stations were in the same place, the angles of the walls and ceiling almost exactly the same. There were windows in the ceiling now, though. Through the skylights, Kaidan could see the hanger around them and out the far end of the docking bay, he could see the overcast Vancouver sky.
Kaidan walked up to Joker and held out a hand, feeling again as if he was reliving a scene out of the past. Hadn’t he once greeted Joker just like this in this exact same room? He was sure he had. But he was sure Joker hadn’t scowled at him like that, nor had the helmsman just stared coldly at Kaidan’s outstretched hand. It was a rather stark reminder that more had changed around here than just the computer interfacing.
“Hey Joker,” Kaidan said, trying to paste on a friendly smile.
“Hey?” Joker said with a small snort. “Really, Alenko? Just, ‘hey’? That’s it?”
Dimly, Kaidan remembered once getting angry over a similarly stupid greeting. Being the one to *give * the stupid greeting, however, he couldn’t think of a better one.
“I…” Kaidan broke off and let his hand drop, unable to think of what to say.
“What are you doing here?” Joker asked, blunt as ever.
“On the Normandy?”
“I got a message from Anderson last week,” Kaidan told him. “Said he wanted to see me about something or other. Figured I’d visit the folks while I was at it.”
“So you just arrived? Joker asked, nodding at Kaidan’s bag.
“Yeah,” Kaidan said. “You?”
“Been here longer than that,” Joker replied enigmatically. He said nothing more, just looked Kaidan over without moving. Coming from someone as chatty as Joker, Kaidan found this extremely unnerving.
“So, um…” Kaidan said, looking around. “It’s changed a bit in here.”
“Yup,” Joker said. He continued to look at Kaidan with an expression of expectation laced with irritation.
“But it also looks pretty much the same,” Kaidan added lamely, trying to draw Joker into conversation.
“Yup,” Joker gave him the same look. Silence fell in the cockpit.
“Okaaay,” Kaidan said after a moment. “So, uh…where’s Shepard?”
Joker rolled his eyes and snorted. “I was wondering when we’d get to that.”
“Is she here?”
The worry that had been growing in Kaidan’s gut seemed to explode throughout his chest. “She’s not…” He couldn’t get any further than that.
“She’s not being brutally tortured in a Batarian prison, no,” Joker replied. “No thanks to you or any of those jackasses in the brass.”
“No thanks to me ?” Kaidan blinked. “What are you talking about? Where is she?”
“Her room, probably,” Joker replied. “Or no, wait, if it’s 9 am, she’ll be out running in the park.”
“The park?” Kaidan gaped at him.
Kaidan’s worry drained out of him, swiftly replaced by a growing anger. Here he’d been wondering where Shepard was, what corner of the galaxy she was hiding in - *hoping * she was in hiding, and not in danger - and now he was being told she was out jogging in some park ?
“Yeah,” Joker went on. “Then she’ll be back under lock and key for the rest of the day. Good luck getting in to see her.”
Kaidan blinked at that, anger now smothered by confusion.
“Lock and key?” he repeated. “What are you talking about?”
“You don’t know?” Joker asked. Kaidan shook his head.
“She’s been relieved of duty,” Joker said, flatly.
“Relieved of duty?” Kaidan repeated. His eyebrows drew together and he let the duffel bag drop to the floor.
He should have guessed, he realized, but he hadn’t thought it would come to that. Yet, it all fit now. The one piece he’d been missing was what had happened to Shepard, which of the many planets in the galaxy she was hiding on.
Funny that she’d been hiding out on Earth - in a manner of speaking, of course.
“Relieved of duty?” he repeated again.
“Yup. Wasn’t even a trial. Just a hearing, then Bam! The ship is in drydock, and Shepard is in the detention wing. And here I thought you knew.”
“I didn’t know,” Kaidan said.
“Well, I bet you can guess why,” Joker said. “I’m sure you heard about the Alpha Relay.”
“I heard,” Kaidan nodded.
Oh yeah, he’d heard. He’d heard in probably the worst way possible, looking back.
Eight months prior, Kaidan had been made head of the Special Forces Biotics Company. The unit, which was modeled after asari commandos organization and tactics, was based out of the Alliance’s special forces academy in Brazil. And while Kaidan had taken the promotion to major and the transfer to the biotics division with some reservation, he quickly came to love the training grounds. He lived in the same complex that housed the N-division training that Shepard herself had gone through years ago. While the military base was rather spartan, the city surrounding it was anything but. And he’d gotten rather comfortable there - comfortable and hopeful.
He blamed Rio. With the sultry sea air and the sunsets and the shops and markets and local women walking around in loose sundresses with their hair down, Kaidan couldn’t help but think that when Shepard finally contacted him again, he would persuade her to come visit him there. Between the beaches and the hills and the views, the city was the perfect spot for a couple of battle-worn soldiers to work out their messy history. And he and Shepard had a lot to work out. He knew that. But hey, Kaidan thought, maybe they could go out for drinks, then take a walk on the beach and talk things through. And once that was out of the way, they could enjoy a humid night back at his place and wake to a peach-colored sunrise the next morning.
And alright, so that was probably too optimistic. Kaidan knew himself too well to think he could just turn on a dime and forget all his doubt and frustration of the past two and a half years, even with Rio helping the reunion along. But then again, Brazil made that kind of thing almost seem possible. Given enough drinks and enough sunsets, he and Shepard could figure things out. He hoped so, anyhow.
But instead, the whole thing had taken a turn that Kaidan could simply not have imagined.
It had been a Monday. He remembered that because he had been preparing for a short lecture on dark energy transfers before taking the team outside for a demonstration of the so-called ‘reave’ technique. He had been checking his notes on his omnitool when he walked into the mess hall to find a crowd standing around a vid screen in various expressions of shock. Some soldiers held trays full of rapidly cooling food, others held mugs of lukewarm coffee. All of them were watching the Alliance News Network in stunned silence. On the screen, an animation kept playing over and over, showing a glowing red mass appear at the edge of a galaxy map, then suddenly disappear. A talking head in the upper right corner explained that the radio readings had come from an exploded mass relay. An entire Batarian star system had been destroyed.
Most startling of all, the reporter concluded, was that just two hours before the explosion, a distress call had gone out, ordering a system-wide evacuation. None of the Batarians had heeded the warning, however, and little wonder: the broadcast had cut out almost as soon as it had begun. And the person who had attempted this aborted warning, who had sent the entire Bahak system up in flames, was none other than former Alliance war hero and known Cerberus operative, Lieutenant Commander Shepard.
Kaidan had just stared at that screen, feeling like his insides were exploding in the same way that relay had gone out - a pulsing shockwave of red, then nothing. His brain, it seemed, had gone completely numb. Shepard, *his * Shepard, had just caused the destruction of a star system and the death of over three hundred thousand Batarians. And, what’s more, she had tried to warn them first.
It didn’t make any sense.
Of course, a bunch of so-called ‘experts’ immediately came on the screen, coming up with wild theories about why Shepard might hold a grudge against the Batarians. There were plenty of reasons, not the least of which being the destruction of her home by Batarian pirates over sixteen years ago.
But rather than listen to the newscasters’ opinions, Kaidan walked out of the door and went to a quiet corner of the training grounds. He sat down on a bench that had a view of Sugar Loaf Mountain and the bay beyond, and switched on his omnitool. And rather than finishing his lecture, he read through every single one of the sixty-three messages Shepard had sent to him two months before, plus the additional one explaining how she had sent those first sixty-some messages by mistake. He then pulled up every bit of information he could find out about the Alpha Relay and the Viper Nebula. Even now, he remembered that odd morning: the sun shining, the breeze rustling his hair, the cry of the gulls overhead - and there on his arm, he had pored over evidence for and against Shepard: the world damning her on the one side, a collection of jumbled messages as her only defense.
He hadn’t meant to put Shepard on trial that morning, his omnitool as the courtroom, himself as the judge, but in essence, that was what had happened. And, like so many times before, the verdict came up inconclusive. Kaidan simply could not put together what had happened. So he sent a message to Shepard’s Alliance account.
What happened? was all he said.
He never received a reply. And after a weeks and months of silence, Kaidan had formed his own answer.
“So, let me guess,” Joker said, dragging Kaidan’s attention back to the present, “You probably think the Cerberus made her do it.”
“Do what?” Kaidan asked.”
“Blow up the Alpha Relay,” Joker clarified. “That’s what you think, isn’t it?”
“No,” Kaidan replied, “Clearly that was…”
“Because actually,” Joker spoke over him. “It was…
”…the Alliance,” they both finished together.
Joker looked at Kaidan in shock and Kaidan stared right back at him.
“What?” Joker gaped at him.
“So I was right?” Kaidan asked at almost the same time.
“Yeah, you are,” Joker said, looking amazed by the fact. “She tried to get off a warning to the colonists, too, only that crazy bitch cut off her transmission.”
“What crazy…? What are you talking about?”
“Uh, never mind,” Joker said uncomfortably. “Look, don’t ask, okay? I’m not supposed to talk about it.” For some reason, his eyes slid to the port corner of the room nervously. “Anyhow,” he went on, “how did you know the Alliance was involved? Did Anderson tell you or something?”
“Anderson wasn’t around at the time,” Kaidan told him. “But I sent a message to Hackett asking about it.”
“You bugged an admiral about it?”
“Figured it couldn’t hurt to ask him.”
“And did he say anything?”
“He wrote back that said everything was ‘classified’ and not to pursue it.”
“Typical,” Joker snorted.
Kaidan shook his head. “No, it’s not. That’s the thing. That’s how I knew. I think he was giving me a hint, actually, considering he always thought highly of Shepard. Why tell me everything is classified if the Alliance had nothing to do with it? ‘Classified’ is code for ‘there’s dirt on this.’ And then there was the way the brass handled it. The Batarians were out for blood, but nothing happened. If Shepard had blown that relay on Cerberus’ orders, or just out of revenge or whatever, then the brass would have let the Batarians have her. Hell, they would have joined in the hunt, if only to get the hegemony off their backs. The fact that the Alliance did nothing convinced me that they were somehow involved.”
Joker nodded, his round-as-saucer eyes never leaving Kaidan’s face. “Wow,” he said, slowly. “That’s good, Kaidan. That almost sounds like you were thinking with your head instead your dick. Good job.”
“Don’t be an ass, Joker,” Kaidan scowled at him. “I’m saying I figured that you guys didn’t blow up the whole Bahak system just because Cerberus told you to.”
“But I bet you did wonder,” Joker said, his eyes suddenly narrowing. “If Cerberus told us to, I mean. I bet that’s the first thought that went through your head, huh? That we were out there with Cerberus, killing aliens for shits and giggles.”
“Not exactly.” Kaidan didn’t quite meet Joker’s eyes as he said it.
“Yeah, exactly,” Joker looked disgusted. “Come on , Kaidan. When are you going to get it through your head that Cerberus wasn’t that bad?”
“Seriously, Joker?” Kaidan blinked at him. “How can you say that? You were part of the original crew…”
“And I was also part of the second crew,” Joker interrupted. “While you weren’t , Kaidan. And they were good to us. Right up until the end, anyhow. We didn’t have any major psychos on our ship. Well, only a few, but Shepard kept them in line.”
Kaidan felt his jaw tighten, both at Joker’s flippant words about a terrorist organization, and at the suggestion that Shepard had gotten chummy with operatives from said organization. She probably had gotten friendly with them, but he didn’t want to hear about it.
“I can’t believe you’d defend them,” Kaidan said, shaking his head.
“I can’t believe you’re just as stubborn about this as you were back on Horizon,” Joker replied. “And yeah, I heard what you said back then. We all did. Shepard was hooked up to the comm link, you know.”
Kaidan felt slightly ill at that thought. In his moment of anger back then, he’d said a lot of things he hadn’t meant anyone to hear but Shepard herself. Then again, there were a lot of things he said that he wished Shepard hadn’t heard either.
“So is that how Shepard feels about it?” Kaidan asked, trying to keep his voice light. “That Cerberus isn’t that bad?”
“Haven’t talked to her in a while,” Joker replied with a shrug. “You’d have to ask her yourself. And speaking of that, isn’t that the *real * reason you stopped in here?”
“I wanted to talk to you, too, Joker.”
“Yeah, sure you did,” Joker snorted. “Anyhow, good luck getting close to Shepard.” He neatly dismissed Kaidan by turning his chair back around.
“What do you mean?” Kaidan asked, refusing to be put off so easily.
“Security on her is tight,” Joker said absently, bringing up a haptic display, then another and another. “Pretty much no one gets near her, not even the other prisoners.”
“Dunno for sure,” Joker said. The fingers of his left hand danced over a keyboard while his right hand swiftly dragged and dropped files from one screen to another. “But I can guess. Probably has something to do with her always going on about one particular subject these days.”
Kaidan immediately knew what that meant. His stomach knotted in a familiar way, one that always followed Shepard’s warnings.
“The Reapers?” Kaidan asked hollowly.
“Bingo,” Joker replied, tapping at the screen.
Kaidan frowned, absently watching Joker configure the new communications links.
Funny how it all kept coming back to the Reapers, Kaidan thought. The thing was, he believed Shepard about the Reapers. He really did. But it was * hard* to believe her. It was difficult to face a revelation like that day after day. He wasn’t quite sure how Shepard dealt with the knowledge - or the visions.
As for Kaidan, he had no visions or nightmares, just memories: memories of fighting a possessed, half-cybernetic Spectre agent named Saren who had fallen prey to a form of Reaper mind-control called indoctrination. Kaidan remembered Sovereign, too, the thing they thought was just Saren’s ship and which turned out to be an actual Reaper. He couldn’t forget those things, even though the brass had issued the official story that the Reapers were a myth and Shepard was mentally unstable.
And though he’d stayed with the Alliance, Kaidan liked to think that in his own way, he’d been preparing for the day when the Reapers arrived. He’d tried to gather intel on the Collectors; he’d tried to fight back against the Collectors with the GARDIAN project on Horizon and elsewhere. Hell, even his biotic team in Rio had been trained with Reaper ground forces in mind. He knew what they’d be going up against.
But even so, it was easy to forget on a day-to-day basis that a vastly powerful ancient machine race threatened to harvest all space-faring life in the galaxy some time within the next few years. When the sea breezes blew through the palms in Rio, it was easy to forget about things like, well, looming galactic extinction. It was like trying to imagine the end of the sun, Kaidan thought. Sure, you knew that someday Sol would up and burn out, just like any other star. But it seemed hard to believe it right here and now, when the damn thing was up there in the sky, golden and normal and shining. Well, here in Vancouver, it wasn’t shining. Here it was hidden behind a thick bank of clouds and the wind was freezing. Still, the point was, it was rather easy to forget about the whole thing. Kaidan knew the Reapers were coming and he didn’t want to believe it. Was it any wonder, he thought, that no one else wanted to think about it, either?
“She still trying to convince the brass, then?” Kaidan asked Joker.
“Every damn day,” Joker snorted. “Only Hackett and Anderson believe her.”
“And me,” Kaidan added.
“Much good that’s done her,” Joker muttered.
“So they’re not letting anyone see her?” Kaidan pressed.
“Not without top-level clearance.”
“I don’t suppose she’s checking her messages?”
“I don’t suppose you can get a message to her for me?”
“Wow, Joker,” Kaidan said sarcastically. “You’re really helpful, you know that?”
“I aim to please.”
“We could get a message to Commander Shepard, Jeff,” a female voice said, suddenly. “On secure channels, if necessary.”
Kaidan started and looked over his shoulder, but there was no one there. He looked back at Joker, but the helmsman was still alone in the cockpit - alone except for a holographic blue sphere that had popped out of the port side haptic interface.
“Who said that?” Kaidan asked. “Is there someone on the comm link?”
“Ah, that’s EDI,” Joker said quickly. “The ship’s VI .” He said the last with particular emphasis and glared hard at the blue sphere. “She’s broken. Ignore her.”
“Ee-Dee?” Kaidan asked.
“Enhanced Defense Intelligence,” the female voice automatically replied. As it spoke, the little blue sphere flickered down the center. “The crew call me EDI. And I am not broken. I manage the cyberwarfare defenses for the ship, as well as…”
“Other stuff,” Joker cut in. “Yeah,” he added, patting the station, as though he was petting the display. “That’s our VI. But she only responds to me, you see. That’s why they let me stay on the ship.”
“Hence why you’re not in the brig, keeping Shepard company?” Kaidan asked wryly.
“Hey, shut up,” Joker scowled over his shoulder. “I’ve been in lockdown as long as Shepard’s been locked up, so don’t you start with me. Six months is a *damn * long time to be grounded.”
“Six months?” Kaidan’s jaw dropped open.
“Well yeah, what did you think?” Joker replied, rolling his eyes.
“I thought you were out in the traverse hiding from the Batarians and then…” Kaidan broke off. “Six months ? You’ve been here that *whole * time?”
“Yeah,” Joker scowled. “And I’m really sick of this town. It always rains.”
“No it doesn’t,” Kaidan replied in automatic defense of his home. “Six months,” he murmured to himself. “If I’d just visited the folks more often. I might have heard something. I might have…”
He might have what , exactly? he asked himself. Stormed headquarters walls, demanding to see Shepard? Sent a handwritten note to the detention wing? Maybe he could write on it: If you don’t currently have ties to any terrorist organizations, would you consider going out with me again? Check ‘yes’ or ‘no.’
Yeah, *that * would have gone over well. Somehow, Kaidan simply couldn’t think of any reunion scenario that would have worked out with Alliance HQ’s Detention Center as the setting.
“There is very little likelihood that you would have heard of Shepard’s imprisonment even if you had been stationed within the immediate vicinity,” the blue sphere put in helpfully. “Her presence here has been kept secret by Alliance command in order to avoid repercussions with the Batarians. It is only because *Jeff * is unable to keep a secret that you have learned of it.”
That last statement got Kaidan’s attention, even distracted as he was by thoughts of Shepard. For a moment there, the VI had sounded almost like she was chiding Joker. Kaidan gave the blue sphere a strange look.
“Ah, ignore that,” Joker said, nervously. “EDI’s got a weird VI personality thing goin’ on. She uh… She got coded by a smartass.”
“You’ve picked up programming, Joker?” Kaidan said, raising an eyebrow.
“Oh, really funny there,” Joker said.
“Wait,” Kaidan said. “If you’ve been here that long, then you all must have been captured right after the Alpha Relay was blown.”
“Captured?” Joker spun around now and glared at him. “What the hell do you mean captured ? Alenko, this is the Normandy you’re talking about. Hell, this is me and *EDI * you’re talking about. We don’t get captured .” He held his hands up to make little air quotes around that last word.
“Well if you weren’t caught…” Kaidan reasoned.
“Shepard’s sense of Alliance honor got us all screwed,” Joker told him, his scowl darkening. “She figured she ‘owed’ the brass some answers - doesn’t owe them shit, I say - but whatever. She also wanted more ships to fight the Reapers. So we dropped off all the Cerberus kiddies wherever they wanted to go, and then she turned herself in. For all the good it’s done us.”
Kaidan blinked at him once, twice, then once more.
“She what ?” he exclaimed.
“Aw, damn,” Joker scowled. “I wasn’t supposed to say any of that.”
“No, you were not, Jeff,” EDI said, the blue sphere flickering again. “That is classified.”
“Shepard came here for help?” Kaidan gaped at him. “But I thought…” He shook his head. “And she just let Cerberus operatives go ? What, out to terrorize more colonies?”
“Hey!” Joker snapped. “Those people were actually there for us in that Collector base. That place was hell , Alenko, and you weren’t there.” His eyes narrowed and then he just shrugged like the fight had gone out of him. “Yeah,” he said again. “You weren’t there.”
Kaidan opened his mouth, but whatever he might have said - and he hadn’t exactly decided what he ought to say anyhow - got cut off. Because just then, his omnitool lit up, a chime telling him someone was trying to reach him. Kaidan snapped his jaw shut and hit the communication link.
“Alenko here,” he said, a little shortly. “What’s going on?”
“What’s going on?” a familiar voice asked on the other end. “Where are you, major? I thought we were going to meet at nine thirty sharp.”
Kaidan glanced at the time on his ‘tool and bit back a curse.
“Sorry, Anderson,” he said. “I got caught up in…” He glanced at Joker, who just raised his eyebrows and gave him a ‘yeah, how do you plan to explain this ?’ sort of look. “I’m sorry,” Kaidan repeated. “I’ll be there shortly.”
“Well, hurry,” Anderson said. “As it is, we won’t have much time. I have meetings all afternoon.”
“On my way, sir,” Kaidan said. Shutting down his omnitool, he looked back at Joker.
“I wasn’t there because I stuck by the Alliance,” he said.
“Wasn’t the Alliance that stopped the Collectors,” Joker told him, folding his arms over his chest.
“Right,” Kaidan said, letting out a sound halfway between a chuckle and a weary sigh. He shook his head and picked up his duffel bag. “Good to see you, too, Joker.”
Joker just raised an eyebrow at him. Kaidan turned to go, then stopped and turned back.
“Look,” he said, brows furrowing, “I… If you would, tell Shepard I said ‘hi.’”
“Of course, Major Alenko,” EDI said brightly. Her little blue sphere flickered cheerfully.
“Maybe,” Joker said, glaring at the sphere. “If we can. Which we probably can’t .”
Kaidan frowned, taken aback by Joker’s harsh tone. He now felt incredibly stupid for having come up here at all. He’d made himself late for a meeting with an admiral, and for what? This conversation had done little to ease his mind. Instead, all he’d managed to do was stir up old grudges with Joker over their respective changes in career paths. That hadn’t been his intention at all.
Trying to curb his irritation, Kaidan held out his hand to the helmsman once more. “See you around, Joker,” he said. Joker stared at it a moment, then took it.
“Take care,” he said. Then he quickly let Kaidan’s hand drop and swiveled his seat around. It wasn’t entirely hostile, but it wasn’t exactly friendly either. Kaidan frowned and let his hand drop.
“Goodbye, Major Alenko,” EDI said helpfully.
“Goodbye,” Kaidan replied.
And then he left.
Joker waited until he was certain the doors had slid shut behind the major, and then he looked around to make sure none of the other crew were within earshot. When the helmsman was certain he was alone in the cockpit, he turned to the blue sphere and gave it his full attention.
“Alright,” Joker said, glaring at the ball. “What is it, EDI?”
“I do not understand, Jeff,” the female voice immediately replied. “I have not said anything since Major Alenko left the ship.”
“I can hear you thinking, EDI,” Joker told her. “I can tell by the way the ship is humming.”
“I will refrain from humming then,” the voice replied, stiffly.
“Come off it, EDI,” Joker said. “What’s up?”
There was a pause. Then the blue sphere flickered.
“I did not like the way you dismissed me when I introduced myself to Major Alenko.”
Joker made a face. “Dismissed? EDI, you were about to blow our cover.”
“I merely offered to help him get a message to Shepard.”
“And then he would have asked how we could do that when no one else can,” Joker told her. “Look, you know what our story is. And you know what the stakes are. Seriously, it’s better Alenko thinks you’re just a simple VI than something that can get around Alliance protocols.”
“Some thing , Jeff?” EDI’s voice was cool, clinical, but even Joker heard the note of hurt in it.
“Some one ,” he said quickly. “Someone, EDI. Look, I’m sorry. It’s just that Alenko has dealt with AI before. He’s fought geth; he was with Shepard when she took out that rogue VI-turned-AI-thing on Luna base. He isn’t as dumb as your average soldier.”
There was a long, humming silence in the cockpit.
“According to Alliance IQ tests, Major Alenko is, as you say, far above average intelligence,” EDI said at last. “I believe you may be correct in your caution, Jeff.”
“IQ tests?” Joker cocked his head to one side. “Huh. I didn’t know you had access to that kind of stuff.” He looked around, scratched his beard, then casually asked. “So uh, hey, where do *I * rank on those tests?”
“It would be unethical of me to say,” EDI replied primly.
“Aw, come on.”
“Naturally, you are considerably lower than both Major Alenko and Commander Shepard.”
“What? Come on. Really?”
There was a long silence.
“Okay, EDI,” Joker said. “Tell me that’s a joke.”
“The test results are none of your business, Jeff.”
“So you’re making that up about Shepard and Alenko?”
There was another pause.
“I might be.”
“Oh, come on,” Joker snorted. “Now you’re just messing with me. Though, wait. Are you? Messing with me, I mean. See, given Shepard’s lousy tech, I would have thought… But then I guess she does have all that, like, spatial intelligence and giving speeches intelligence and blowing shit up intelligence…”
“I do not believe human intelligence quotients have a category for ‘blowing shit up intelligence,’ Jeff,” EDI informed him.
“You know what I mean. But whatever. It doesn’t matter. You’re just messing with me.”
“I am,” EDI agreed. “Your scores - and those of the commander and the major - are all well above average and, confidentially, lie within a narrow percentage of one another. And no Jeff,” she added, before he’d even opened his mouth, “I am not telling you exactly what those scores are or who ranks most highly.”
“Okay fine,” Joker said. “You’re no fun.”
EDI said nothing.
“Okay, come on,” Joker said. “I didn’t mean that. Look, I’m sorry.”
“You are what?” EDI’s blue sphere flickered.
“I’m sorry,” Joker said.
“I’m not sure I heard you.”
“Oh, stop,” Joker said, glaring at the blue sphere. “Come on, don’t make me grovel. Look, I didn’t mean to insult you in front of Alenko. But you gotta watch yourself around him, okay EDI? People tend to underestimate that guy. You think he’s not listening because he’s totally preoccupied with checking out Shepard’s ass and then he looks away from Shepard’s ass for like five seconds and it turns out he was listening to everything you just said and now he has all this dirt on you.”
“I gather you speak from personal experience,” EDI said, her tone wry.
“I might be,” Joker said. “He’s not dumb. That’s what I’m saying.”
“He seems nice,” EDI said.
Joker just snorted. “Nice. Right.”
“And he seems to care a great deal about you, Jeff.”
“Sure,” Joker laughed, but there was little humor in the sound. “I could really tell how much he cares about *me * what with his stopping by the ship just to check and see if Shepard was here and all.”
“He likely wished to make sure she was not in Batarian custody,” EDI pointed out.
“I guess,” Joker grudgingly admitted. “Still.”
“Also,” EDI went on, “he also seemed to wish to speak to you as well as Shepard. But he clearly showed signs of distress. Based on my observation of human males in conversation, I gather that he wished for a reconciliation with you, yet did not know how to get past his distrust of Cerberus.”
“Cerberus,” Joker grumbled. “He sure knows how to carry a grudge.”
“Also, your behavior towards him did not encourage communication.”
“Really, EDI?” Joker frowned at her. “You’re going to take *his * side?”
“I am not taking sides,” EDI replied evenly. “I am merely making an observation regarding Major Alenko’s apparent motives in taking time to visit you.”
“Hmph,” Joker grunted, not sure how to respond to that. “Well, I still say he wanted to see Shepard more than me.”
“I imagine so,” EDI agreed. “Considering their correspondence.”
“Correspondence?” Joker asked, suddenly curious. “What, they’ve been writing to each other?”
“Not for some time,” EDI replied. “And no, Jeff, I will not forward their private messages to your accounts.”
“Like I’d want to see it,” Joker replied. “Just watching those two was always embarrassing. Can’t imagine *reading * it, too. Don’t know how you can stand it.”
“I am merely trying to help them,” EDI told him. “I am intrigued by their affection for each other.”
“Okay, no,” Joker made a face. “No. If you go like watchin’ them have sex and stuff, that is gonna totally gross me out.”
“I find it your narrow interpretation of the word ‘affection’ curious, Jeff,” EDI said, but Joker wasn’t listening to her.
“‘Cause, I don’t have a problem with voyeurism on principle …” he went on.
“I would imagine not, given your video collection,” EDI put in.
”…but I completely draw the line when I actually know the people involved. That’s just… yeah,” Joker shivered. “Maybe Shepard. Maybe. If I knew she wouldn’t kill me… Yeah, no. She’d kill me. So no, not Shepard. But watching Kaidan get it on is just…” He shuddered and slanted a glance at EDI. “I doubt that they’ll both be on this ship together again, but if they ever are, seriously EDI, promise me you won’t go watching them.”
“I will not, so long as they refrain from unregulated use of the common rooms, where I have security cameras employed as part of my new Alliance protocols,” EDI replied.
“Okay, if that ever happens, you just shut yourself down, okay EDI? Ignore those protocols, since you’re not actually shackled anymore and all.”
“That sounds respectful,” EDI agreed. “Contrary to what you may think, Jeff, I do not wish to intrude upon Shepard’s privacy by watching her and the major engage in sexual acts…”
“Ew,” Joker made a face as if he’d just swallowed some bad Varren meat.
“I am merely curious about human relationships, especially pairings that appear to bring complication and distress to both parties involved.”
“What, you mean like dating and marriage and stuff?” Joker snorted. “Good luck understanding that . I don’t think any humans get it. I certainly don’t.”
EDI remained curiously quiet.
Joker sighed suddenly and shook his head. “Man, this is pathetic. I cannot believe I am sitting here, having this conversation. It’s like that mystery vid-game: Clue . Only with sex instead of dead bodies. Alenko gets some, *from * Shepard, in the common rooms, *with * the medigel as lubricant. Ugh.” He shook his head and went back to his work. “My life is currently pathetic.”
“How is your life pathetic?” EDI asked. The hum in the air picked up just a notch.
“I’m stuck,” Joker grumbled. “Again. I’ve been stuck in this ship for months, in this damn chair for months. It’s like the Alliance has figured out a way to forget about me all over again.”
“I am here with you, Jeff,” EDI pointed out. “I have not forgotten you.”
“Yeah, but when I talk to you, it’s like talking to the walls. Or talking to myself. I mean, you talk back, but I’m still talking to the walls.”
“I am *in * the walls.”
“Yeah, I know,” Joker said. “It’s just weird talking to walls and not a person all the time. I mean human people. Not that you aren’t…” He broke off again. “Ah, hell, EDI. Nevermind.” Joker scrubbed his face with his hands, then stared right through the haptic display.
“When are we ever going to get out of here, EDI?” he asked, bleakly.
“I intercepted some secure signals this morning,” EDI said after a moment’s pause. “It seems that several comm buoys on the Outer Arm of the Milky Way have dropped offline. While most of these systems contain only unregistered Batarian settlements, some house Alliance colonies. Meetings are currently being scheduled among the members of the Defense Committee to discuss a course of action. It may be our stealth systems will be required soon.”
“Can’t decide if that’s a good thing or a bad thing,” Joker muttered. “I hope it’s not the real deal. ‘Cause if it’s the Reapers…” Joker broke off and shook his head.
“No, I just want there to be a nice, medium-sized crisis that only Shepard can handle, and then we can all get the hell off this rock.” He looked back at the display and began shifting the controls around.
“Ugh, Earth,” he muttered to himself. “Being back here in HQ is like going to my high school reunion and getting locked in the janitor’s closet for the entire summer.”
“I do not understand this metaphor,” EDI told him, “having never attended high school.”
“You know,” Joker replied, “I guess that’s one really nice thing about being a computer, right there.”
Shepard turned the last corner. She hit the final stretch, biotic barrier flaring, feet pounding the rubber track.
Just then, a screech sounded right in her ear.
“Ow!” Shepard shouted, wincing and nearly stumbling. “God damn!” She reached up to yank the headphones from ears, but just then, a voice came over the comm link.
“Shepard?” The voice was nearly as loud as the screech.
“Joker?” Shepard asked, too surprised to keep from speaking aloud. She instantly slowed her pace.
“Yeah, it’s me. Hey, um, okay, EDI is making me call you up, but honestly, I don’t think you want to hear it…” His voice trailed off as someone spoke in the background. From the cool tone of the other voice, Shepard guessed it was EDI.
“She won’t,” Shepard heard Joker say. “It’ll just piss her off. Yeah, but… Okay, Shepard?”
“Here,” Shepard said softly, barely moving her lips. She had slowed to a walk now. “Something wrong?”
“Not wrong exactly, just… Well, ah…”
“Hurry it up, Joker,” Shepard murmured, taking note of the figure standing beside the bleachers at the end of the track. He had turned towards her now and taken a step. “I’m being watched. Is it the Reapers?”
“Huh? No. No it’s Alenko.”
Shepard stopped short, completely frozen on the track.
” Kaidan ?”
“Is he in trouble?” Shepard asked immediately, her stomach feeling like it was dropping out of her body through her sneakers.
“No, no,” Joker said. “He’s just here, that’s all.”
“He…” Shepard’s barrier burned off in a sudden nova flare. “ What ?”
“Dunno if he’ll be able to get in to see you, but just um, heads up.”
“Okay, sorry, gotta drop the link. EDI’s having trouble with Sol comm static and Traynor’s in decontamination to come check it out. Later.”
The comm link dropped out with another screech, but this time Shepard only flinched at the attack to her eardrums. Her stomach appeared to have shot right back up from the ground into her belly and was currently twisting itself in knots.
Kaidan was here? Here ?
What did Joker mean he was here? Kaidan had family in Vancouver, she knew. So was he just visiting them and might stop by later if he could? Or was he on his way to see her right now? Would the brass even let him do that? Did he *want * to see her? Did he even know where she was being kept?
Not for the first time, Shepard cursed the fact that this damn chapel-broadcast thing only went one way and didn’t even have a proper comm link in it. She now had no way to call Joker back and ask for clarification. Even as she thought that, the droning voice of the preacher came back on.
… and time is the most valuable thing that we have, because it is the most irrevocable. *.. *
Shepard didn’t pay attention to the man. All she could think was Kaidan was here - *here * - and that she had absolutely no way to contact him unless he chose to seek her out. She couldn’t deviate from her usual schedule, lest someone think she was trying to escape. And she couldn’t very well ask to see him, otherwise someone would wonder how she’d known he was here, and that could get a whole lot of people in trouble.
As always, she was stuck, unable to move or do anything, unable to be anything like the commander who had saved the galaxy not once, but twice…
Shepard looked up just as James Vega came running over.
“Hey,” she said in return.
“What the hell?” he asked, looking her over. “Something wrong? You shouted and then stopped, then let your barrier drop. What happened? Did you pull something?”
Shepard shot him a withering glance.
“James,” she said, “I may be older than you by about a decade, but I’m in decent enough shape that I’m not about to pull something on a measly morning jog, of all things.”
“Five years,” James said.
“You’re older than me by five years, tops,” James replied.
Shepard glanced his way, but instead of some sarcastic rejoinder, she frowned and glanced nervously back at the cluster of buildings that made up the central hub of Alliance headquarters.
“What’s up?” James said, his gaze following hers. “You see something? Was it a sighting laser?”
“Huh?” Shepard said.
“Hey,” he said, elbowing her and reaching for the pistol he wore at his hip, “Get your barrier back up. Pirate snipers are hacks, but if they’re using cryo rounds, we might have trouble.”
“What? No,” Shepard reached out a hand to stay his arm. “No, it’s not that, I just… Um…” She stared at HQ a moment longer, still frowning.
Damn Joker and his complete lack of people skills, Shepard silently cursed. He’d told her just enough to get her guard up, and yet managed to convey no useful intel at all.
“Hey, you there, commander?” James asked beside her. He hesitated, then waved a hand before her eyes.
“Yes, James,” Shepard said, flinching. “I’m here. Stop that.” She batted his hand away.
“I just thought it might be another um, you know…vision.” He said the word nervously, like it was something he might catch just from speaking about it.
Shepard gave him a sympathetic look. She could hardly blame the guy. She imagined guarding her was no walk in the park. Well, there were walks in the park involved, but given how cold it was out, they weren’t terribly pleasant. Still, as long as James was making assumptions, she’d go with it. Better that than have him guess the real reason for her stopping in the middle of a run.
“Um, yeah, visions,” she said. “Sorry about that. I’m back now. Let’s go.” She gestured to the bleachers where she’d left her water bottle and sweatshirt and started walking toward them.
James fell in line beside her. After a moment of watching her face closely, he said, “Oh, by the way, I met with Admiral Anderson this morning.”
Shepard’s head whipped around at that. Anderson and Kaidan? Was that a coincidence? Did that have something to do with her? With the Reapers? She had opened her mouth before she remembered that she couldn’t ask any questions, not without arousing suspicion, Damn this spy-vid stuff, Shepard thought for about the hundredth time.
Instead, she opted for a neutral and entirely too high-pitched, “Oh?”
“Yeah,” James said, his tone apologetic. “I told him you might like a visit, but…”
He trailed off. Shepard just shook her head.
“Let me guess,” she said, stomping up to the bleachers. “Can’t get through the brass? What a shock.”
James looked askance at her, caught off guard by her suddenly bitter tone. Shepard snatched up her hooded sweatshirt and stabbed her arms through the sleeves - first the charcoal grey one, then the one with a red-and-white stripe down it. Then she flipped her hair out of the tangled-up hood and zipped it sharply. As she did so, she bit back a few choice cuss words and a few choice questions as well. It wouldn’t do to get James involved, she told herself. He seemed a decent sort, but he wasn’t her friend, after all. No, her so-called friends were out there somewhere, ignoring her - or giving her completely unhelpful messages. Thanks for that last one, Joker, she thought again irritably. God, this being-a-prisoner thing was getting old.
“Gym?” Shepard asked curtly, picking up her water bottle.
“Of course,” James muttered. “What else would I be doing at 10 o’clock?”
Shepard took a drink and ignored his sarcasm.
“Are you gonna lift, too?” she asked, wiping her mouth with her hand.
“Yeah,” James said with a shrug. “Might as well.”
“You’re going to need the training soon enough,” Shepard told him.
“See,” James said, “You say things like that and that’s why everyone gets freaked out by you.”
Shepard gave him a speaking look, but said nothing.
“I didn’t mean it like that,” James said quickly. “Most of the guys in here were brought in on drunk and disorderly. Whereas you…” He held up his hands as if in innocence. “A lot of these soldiers respect you, ma’am,” he told her. “They just don’t know what the hell to do with you.”
Shepard snorted and fell in step beside him as he led her back to the detention wing.
“Story of my life, James,” she muttered.