Part 4, Chapter 9 of Valkyrie

From his vantage point in the darkened room, the Illusive Man did not see the dying star beyond the glass. He did not see its roiling fires reflected in the glossy tiles at his feet. He did not see how the whiskey at his elbow caught the amber glow of the star’s rays, nor did he see the ash falling from his forgotten cigarette onto his highly-polished shoes.

His focus was entirely set on the holographic screen before him. The body of Major Alenko dropped out of view and the camera swung around to a landing platform, covered with the wreckage of a broken shuttle. A woman stood there in Alliance armor, a lone, gray figure in the dust storm. Her pistol was trained at the camera, as if she was aiming right through the screen at the Illusive Man himself.

The screen seemed to lurch forward; the Illusive Man felt as if he was shooting forward with it. Time seemed to slow, as though the seconds had stretched themselves out to the length of minutes. Shepard’s pistol fired once; the screen flickered with static. The pistol fired again; Shepard drew closer. The pistol fired a final time. The screen went suddenly black.

The Illusive Man clutched the arms of his chair, crushing his cigarette in his fingers. He found his heart had stopped a beat, as if he had been shot through the chest.

The Illusive Man took a deep breath, trying to slow his now-racing heart. At the back of his mind, he felt as though a door had opened a crack and a timid figure - doubt, perhaps - peeked out. If Shepard could do this, he thought, if she could take down his Eva unit, his troops as well, if she could secure the Prothean data in the nick of time, then she was much stronger than he had thought. No matter how well-woven the web, she might yet tug at one corner of his plans and the whole thing would unravel. It might be that the entirety of his tapestry was about to be undone by that one loose thread…

The Illusive Man slammed the door shut at once. No. There was no way that Shepard, in all of her ignorant meddling, could undo his work now. He had used her for a reason, after all. She had the ability to get things done, but lacked the far-sighted vision that was necessary to carry out plans as ambitious as his.

For what the Illusive Man was weaving, as he had told her in their brief conversation over the QEC, was a pattern of control: a leash by which to ensnare the Reapers, to reign over them as one might a very large and useful pet. But Shepard, as was to be expected, had rejected his plans.

Shepard, the Illusive Man thought with a sneer, was far too attached to her limited world. She would never understand the truth: one had to let go of everything in order to grasp true power. Her friends, her one-time lover, even her lofty principles - the Illusive Man’s lip twisted in a sneer - these things she clutched in her fists so tightly, it was a wonder she could uncurl her fingers in order to fire a gun.

Forcing to his face an expression of calm, the Illusive Man pried his fingers loose from the chair and stubbed out his now-ruined cigarette in the chair’s ashtray. All would be well, he told himself. There was no reason for fear, no reason for deviation from his plans. He must - he would - continue on as before. He now had the Prothean data, including the pieces that Eva had deleted from the central servers before Shepard had arrived. In that sense, he held the vital key to this device. From his vantage point, he could see much farther than Shepard’s limited vision.

With that thought, the Illusive Man smiled. Yes, Shepard’s limited vision, he thought. Thanks to the Eva unit, the Illusive Man now had more data taken from Shepard’s graybox, as well. He wasn’t sure how long the video feed was, but surely there would be some useful information there.

Settling his back against the chair, the Illusive Man set one of his computers to start decrypting the Prothean data. With a smile, he turned his attention back to the holographic panels before him. He would study the Prothean data soon enough, he told himself. But for now, the Illusive Man sat in the darkness and turned his attention to the thirteenth screen.

Shepard’s heart felt like it was beating as slowly and heavily as the pistol shots she had just fired. She lowered her gun, her gaze shifting from the synthetic lying there on the landing pad to the quiet body of Kaidan beyond. To her horror, Shepard couldn’t sense his biotic energy at all.

Shepard instantly holstered her pistol and ran to Kaidan’s side. This shouldn’t be happening , she thought wildly. A simple bash to the back of the head shouldn’t be enough to take down a guy as tough as Kaidan. He was wearing full armor, for God’s sake, and his helmet… Shepard stopped as she reached Kaidan’s side and stood over him. His helmet was crushed onto his face and had buckled upward in the back as well, exposing the back of his neck to the elements. A mass effect shield flickered over the skin, acting as a miniature barrier against Mars’ atmosphere. Shepard’s mind seemed to freeze in panic for a second. Then she shook herself into action. She dropped to her hands and knees beside him and quickly brought up her omnitool to assess the damage.

Shepard let out a sigh of relief to find that first, Kaidan was alive and that secondly, he hadn’t sustained any spinal injuries. Even so, his vital signs were low and he was clearly out cold. Shepard was about to scan on a different frequency to look for head injuries, when she heard Joker hollering over the comm that the Reapers were now in orbit around Mars.

Looking up into the storm now, Shepard could see several large, roach-like silhouettes descending through the red dust to pick clean the bones of the Mars station.

Yeah, good luck with that, Reapers , Shepard thought grimly, *the Illusive Man * did most of your work for you with those Husk-troopers of his.

“Shepard!” Liara called through the comm. Her voice was nearly lost in the howling of the wind. Shepard turned her attention back to the landing pad to find that the Normandy had landed at the far end of the space, the door to the cargo bay open in welcome.

“Dr. Core,” Liara said, pointing to the downed synthetic. “She might have some relevant data stored on her. We should bring her with us.”

Shepard didn’t like the idea of taking that murderous hunk of metal anywhere, but she had to admit that Liara was probably right about needing the data.

“Do it,” she said with a nod. Shepard turned her attention back to Kaidan. It appeared that they needed to get out of here immediately. It was probably for the best, she thought. The Normandy’s med bay was a better place for first aid than a dust storm anyhow.

Thank God she’d been in training, Shepard thought as she hauled Kaidan up off of the ground. And thank God that James had always made a competition out of their daily weightlifting. Kaidan wasn’t exactly a lightweight, after all, and the gravity regulators of the Mars station weren’t doing her any favors, either. Given his armor, his muscle, and the fact that he was slightly taller than she, Shepard was having to use everything she had to get him up and onto her shoulders. Of course, the adrenaline was helping with that, too.

Shepard got Kaidan adjusted on her shoulders and headed straight for the Normandy. James and Liara were already aboard. James used his one arm to help Liara limp to the elevator, his other arm held the synthetic on his shoulder. The lot of them crowded into the elevator together.

“You want me to take Blue?” James offered as the elevator began its ascent.

“I got him,” Shepard said, adjusting Kaidan’s weight on her shoulders. In truth, it probably would make more sense to let James carry Kaidan and put the lieutenant’s meaty shoulders to good use. But there was no chance in hell that Shepard was letting Kaidan go if she could possibly manage to carry him. If anyone was going to haul the major’s ass out of the line of fire, it was going to be her.

As the elevator door slid open onto the crew deck, the ship seemed to pitch. Shepard recognized the strange twisting sensation as the Normandy kicking off into faster-than-light travel, racing away toward the Charon relay at the end of the Sol system.

“It’s gonna be a near thing getting out here,” James said, looking nervously up at the ceiling.

“If anyone can do it, it’s Joker,” Shepard replied. She carried Kaidan into the med bay, Liara and James at her heels. Walking to the line of cots, Shepard gently laid Kaidan down on the hard metal.

Shepard yanked off her helmet and set it aside, then ran her omnitool over Kaidan again before taking off his helmet as well. His heartbeat was low, his breathing nearly stilled. His biotics didn’t even register, not on the omnitool as residual pulses in his nervous system, nor to Shepard, who was feeling for them with her own biotics.

This was bad , Shepard thought, panic grabbing hold of her once again. This was very bad .

Shoving that thought aside, she began looking around for some sort of medical VI to help walk her through the first aid process. Liara came hobbling up to the other side of the cot and James headed over to the opposite wall, dropping the synthetic down on a table there with a careless thunk .

“Don’t put that thing in here,” Shepard said, pointing at the burned chunk of metal. She knew it was irrational, but she didn’t want the synthetic anywhere near Kaidan.

“Shepard,” Liara said gently, “It’s offline.”

“Still,” Shepard grumbled, glaring at it.

“What, you want me to put it in the closet?” James asked, hiking his thumb at the doors beyond. They led into the AI core, which didn’t strike Shepard as the best place to store an enemy robot.

“If you place the Cerberus platform within the AI core,” EDI’s voice spoke politely over their heads, “I can monitor her for possible reactivation, as well as scan her for useful information.”

Shepard nodded at the ceiling. “All right, fine,” she said. That took care of the synthetic, now she just needed to help Kaidan.

“Where’s the doc-in-a-box?” Shepard asked EDI. The AI understood the idiom at once.

“The Normandy retrofit is incomplete,” EDI informed her. “We do not have medical VIs.”

“And we don’t have a doctor,” Shepard said, gripping the table to keep the panic at bay.

“We’re on our way to the Citadel,” Liara told her. “We can find medical aid there.”

“How far out are we, EDI?” Shepard asked. On the other side of the cot, Liara took off her breather mask, fired up her omnitool and scanned Kaidan from head to foot.

“We are ten minutes out from the Charon relay,” EDI replied. “From there, it is an additional twenty minutes to the Citadel.”

No one bothered to comment that these time estimates were only valid so long as the Normandy reached the mass relay ahead of the Reapers.

“Shepard,” Liara said softly. Shepard turned to the asari at once to see a spinning holographic miniature of Kaidan standing on Liara’s arm.

“What have you got?” Shepard asked, feeling her stomach knot in anticipation of the diagnosis.

“Major Alenko’s biotic amplifier has been damaged,” Liara said, tapping her omnitool. The holograph expanded to show an outline of Kaidan’s neural wiring, both natural and augmented. The amplifier at the base of the holographic skull flashed a deep crimson.

Shepard blinked in surprise. She certainly hadn’t caught that in her initial scan. As gently as she could, Shepard lifted Kaidan’s head and turned it to the side. Sure enough, right there where the helmet had broken open in the back, she could see the glinting silver of Kaidan’s amp jack through his hair. She carefully brushed aside the dark strands and saw that the metal disc was bisected by a deep crack.

Shepard swallowed hard as the implications of such an injury hit her.

“Dear God,” she murmured.

“Yes, exactly,” Liara replied.

“What’s wrong?” James asked, coming back out of the AI core and frowning at them both. He’d taken his helmet off and his face was smeared with dust and sweat. “Is Blue gonna be alright?”

“God, I hope so,” Shepard said. She caught the meaning of her words and repeated them even more softly, as a kind of prayer this time. The knot that was her stomach seemed to have dropped into her boots.

“We should get Kaidan hooked up to a life support system at once,” Liara said decisively. “His vitals are low and we don’t want to risk losing him.”

“Right,” Shepard said, grateful for the suggestion, for something to do. “EDI, do we have anything like that?”

EDI informed them that there were, indeed, ER field-medic crates aboard and directed them to the proper cabinet. Shepard carefully set Kaidan’s head down and went to fetch the gear. She carried the box over to Kaidan’s bedside and Liara began unloading the equipment at once.

“I thought you were an archaeologist doctor,” James said, as Liara worked, “not a doctor doctor.”

“I am not a medical professional,” Liara said as she took out a heart-monitoring device and fired up the setup sequence. “But I do know a little first aid and a good deal about biotics. Even so, this injury is far beyond my ability to heal. We need to get Kaidan to a medical facility that specializes in human biotics.”

“Do you know of one?” Shepard asked her, reaching for the clasp to unlock Kaidan’s ruined helmet.

“I’ll look into it,” Liara said. “Given your Spectre status and the resources available on the Citadel, I should be able to…Oh my.” She broke off as Shepard lifted the helmet off of Kaidan’s head.

Shepard said nothing. She didn’t trust herself to speak. Kaidan’s handsome face was a mess of purple-red bruises, like a broken web spinning from his nose all the way out to his ears.

“Damn,” James muttered. “That doesn’t look good.”

Shepard felt rooted to the spot, all words caught behind the lump in her throat just then, Kaidan’s eyes seemed to flicker slightly behind his eyelids. She started at once.

“Did you see that?” she asked Liara.

“See what?”

“He blinked,” Shepard said.

“I didn’t see it,” Liara said. “But you may be right. Let’s get him hooked up.”

Shepard nodded and slipped an oxygen mask over Kaidan’s face as Liara pulled off Kaidan’s gloves and attached sensor leads to his wrists to monitor his heart rate. Shepard did the same to the pulse points at his neck, while James just looked on with a frown.

“So I’m guessing that a cracked amp is bad?” he asked, clearly uncomfortable with being left out of the first aid process, but apparently not sure how he could help without getting in the way.

“Actually,” Liara said softly, glancing up at Shepard, “in this case, it’s remarkably lucky.”

“Lucky?” James asked incredulously.

“She’s right,” Shepard said. She could hear her own voice sounded thick with emotion and she tried clearing her throat before she explained. “Most amp jacks are shaped like small cones, partially embedded in the top of the spinal column.” She brushed her gloved hand over the back of her own neck.

“Ow,” James winced, noting the metal there.

“Well, you’re unconscious when they put the thing in, and afterward you get used to it,” Shepard said. “The risk of it is, of course, that it’s basically a metal wedge right at the back of your head. Give it a hard enough strike at exactly the right angle…” She broke off, unable to finish the thought.

“Holy shit!” James exclaimed, putting together what she was saying. “So that robot was trying to shove Blue’s biotic amp into his brain? Maldito . What a way to go.”

“Dr. Core probably saw Kaidan’s barrier and thought to finish him off quickly with hand-to-hand combat,” Liara observed.

“It would have worked, too,” Shepard said, taking a deep breath. “Only she didn’t count on Kaidan being old-school.” She looked down at him and just barely resisted running her grime-covered fingers through his hair. “He’s an L2. The old-style jacks were more like a plug on the outside of the spinal cord. They aren’t half-built into the brain like the later models. His setup is powerful, but it puts a lot of stress on the nerves in and around his head.”

“Which is why Kaidan always got such bad headaches,” Liara put in. “Humans should have used the asari model from the beginning.”

“Yeah, well, they did eventually,” Shepard said. “But it’s a damn good thing Kaidan was never retrofitted. His L2 implants saved him,” she murmured, looking down at him. “He’ll be amused to hear that when he wakes up.”

If he wakes up,” James muttered.

Shepard was thinking the same thing, but she didn’t like hearing James say it aloud. Trying to ignore that worry, she reached under the cot and found a pillow there. Gently as she could, she tucked the pillow under Kaidan’s head so that his amp jack wouldn’t be resting against the hard metal of the cot.

“It’s a miracle he’s alive,” Liara said softly in response to James’ statement. “As far as I can tell, his suit went into environmental lockdown procedures at the same time his amplifier was broken. His body received a shot of adrenaline at the same time that his nervous system went into arrest. He was knocked out cold, but there appears to be no lasting damage.”

“I hope you’re right. T’Soni,” Shepard said, adjusting the pillow a little. All this talk of Kaidan’s injuries was making her feel physically ill.

“Still,” Liara went on. “I think it best if we give Kaidan a strong dose of anesthesia to keep him unconscious. If he should wake up before we get his hardware fixed and he were to try and use his biotics…”

“Do it,” Shepard said tersely. She could just imagine how badly a biotic with a blown-out system could injure himself. At best, Kaidan might give himself a nosebleed or break a limb with improperly directed power. At worst, he could short out his brain forever. The thought seemed to make Shepard’s insides twist, although that might just have been the folding of gravity as they hit the Charon relay and jumped to the Widow Nebula relay, a quarter of the galaxy away from Earth.

Shepard gripped the edge of the med bay bed, as much to right herself as to keep her hands from shaking. It seemed that what looked like a simple head injury wasn’t so simple after all. The worst part was, she still didn’t know if Kaidan would ever wake up, or if there might be lasting damage to his brain if he did.

Before Shepard could worry about Kaidan’s condition any longer, EDI came over the med bay comm to tell Shepard that they were now within hailing distance of the Citadel. EDI had started the docking protocols so that a medical team would be ready to pick Kaidan up the moment they reached the Presidium. Also, EDI informed Shepard, Admiral Hackett was trying to reach her on the QEC.

“On my way, EDI,” Shepard said. She hated to leave Kaidan’s side for even a moment, but she knew that her day was far from over. “Liara,” Shepard said turning to the asari, “Can you…?”

“I’ll get Kaidan settled and join you in a moment,” the asari replied, clearly guessing what the commander was after. Shepard nodded tersely and hurried from the room.

Yet, as she stepped into the elevator, Shepard felt as though, in a way, she was still carrying Kaidan. She felt a weight on her shoulders, anyhow, like the survival of Earth rested on her alone.

Well hell, Shepard thought, running her hands through her hair. It did .

Ever since that damn day back on Eden Prime, Shepard thought, ever since she touched that beacon, she had been set on this course. The really strange thing, Shepard thought, was that the day she’d touched that beacon was the same day she’d met Kaidan. It was like the best man she’d ever met had dropped into her life on the same day she’d been given the monumental task of, oh, nothing much, just saving the galaxy.

Shepard chuckled a little at that and shook her head. God, what a thought. She would have wished her fate on someone else, only she wasn���t sure if anyone else would have been in a position to do anything about those visions once they’d seen them. Then there was the fact that Liara seemed to think that anyone else would have gone mad from the visions in the first place. The asari believed that Shepard’s strength of will had saved her from breaking down under all those visions of pain and death. Shepard wasn’t so sure about that, but she did know that she’d seen enough pain and death in her lifetime that the beacon’s visions hadn’t been quite so harrowing by comparison.

It was odd, really, Shepard thought, as the elevator slid open on the crew deck. The moment she had touched that beacon, it was like she’d become the last Prothean, the last witness to a lost civilization and its untimely end. As a result, the last three years of her life had been nothing more than one long, never-ending op, trying to get intel on an enemy no one had ever defeated and mobilize a galaxy that wanted to remain blind to the threat.

And yet, as much as Shepard wished the Reapers weren’t coming, that they weren’t here now, she was glad, in a way, that she had touched that beacon all those years ago. She wasn’t sure if it was some noble impulse like honesty or if it was just plain cussedness, but she wasn’t so attached to her own peace of mind that she was willing to accept comfort at the price of ignorance. Even if knowledge of the Reapers was terrifying, Shepard thought, even if it frightened her to the very core, she figured she’d rather know the dark truths of the galaxy than not.

She just hoped that whatever it was that Liara had found on Mars was knowledge enough to defeat the Reapers once and for all - and that they would have enough time to use it.

Liara stood in the doorway, watching Shepard bow her head to the QEC, as if it was a Siara temple and Shepard was a supplicant, praying for guidance.

It was a sentiment Liara could understand. She had no real time to compile her notes on the Prothean device before running down here to give Hackett a briefing on the thing. Instead, she had logged into the network of comm buoys to try and figure out which hospital was best for Kaidan. As soon as she had done so, Liara had noticed all manner of reports on the extranet about the Reaper attacks. It seemed that Reaper forces had swept through batarian space and then concentrated on Earth. There were scattered reports of Reapers sighted in other systems, but no one had been hit as hard as the humans.

Thessia, her birth-planet, was safe, thank the goddess. And the Citadel was completely untouched. Liara smiled sadly to herself. They had the Protheans to thank for that small mercy, she supposed. In many ways, she thought, this cycle had a better chance of survival than the Protheans themselves.

For this device, this ‘Crucible,’ as the Prothean dialect named it, appeared to be a weapon after all. At least, the device appeared to be capable of harnessing and focusing massive amounts of dark energy. In that respect, it reminded Liara of a biotic amp - on a much larger scale, of course. But where the energy was to come from or how that energy was to be directed, these were things Liara could not yet determine. Hackett had asked for the blueprints to the device though. He planned to assemble a team of scientists to build the thing, and already Liara was thinking of the Prothean experts that she had met back in her university days. If any of them were still alive, she would send word to them at once and encourage them to go help Hackett.

A long sigh drew Liara’s attention and she saw that Shepard still stood at the railing by the QEC. For a moment, Shepard appeared weary, as if an unseen load pressed down on her shoulders, but then she sucked in a breath and turned around. By the time Shepard faced Liara again, the commander was back. Her eyes were lined with dark circles that Liara had learned meant a human required sleep, but there was a confidence in her pose and in her gaze that reassured Liara at once. Liara straightened her shoulders in response.

“How’s Kaidan?” Shepard asked, walking away from the QEC. Her voice was tight, and Liara thought she heard some doubt there, belying the confident pose.

“Sleeping,” Liara replied. “Well, in a manner of speaking. The emergency life support will hold him for a time. The difficult part will be transferring him over to a hospital system and then re-constructing his biotic amplifier. But we’ll leave that to the experts.”

“Experts,” Shepard repeated. “You found some, then?”

“We’re cleared to have an ER team aboard as soon as we dock.”

“Good,” Shepard nodded. “Nice work, Liara.” She patted Liara on the shoulder before continuing on into the war room beyond. She walked down a short flight of steps, then stopped in the center of the room. Shepard stared moodily at a holograph of the Crucible that was hovering in the air above the circular conference table. The glowing model spun around once, twice, then exploded into all its various parts, then re-assembled and spun around again. Prothean descriptions floated in the air beside the diagram. Liara could decipher most of the words, but taken together the notes didn’t entirely make sense.

*Connector? Or…? * one comment read.

Power gauge appears here , read another. Or should it read, *Appears * to be * a power gauge here* ? Liara wondered. The trouble with these notes, Liara thought, was that there were a lot of missing verbs. She couldn’t tell if that was because of the dialect it was written in, or if the Protheans simply knew their device so well that they didn’t bother to write the instructions out clearly for anyone not intimately associated with the project.

“This looks so familiar,” Shepard murmured. Liara looked up to find the commander squinting at the holograph of the device as if she might see past the lines and curves to find little holographic Protheans inside, ready to tell them how the thing was supposed to work. At that thought, something occurred to Liara.

“Your visions,” Liara said eagerly. “Do you have visions of the Crucible? Have you seen how it works, perhaps? Or maybe a glimpse of someone working on it?”

Shepard shook her head.

“No,” she murmured. “That’s the weird thing. The beacons were a galaxy-wide communications network and what I saw was some kind of emergency broadcast. Given that, you’d think that news of this would be in there, wouldn’t you? Some sort of ‘have faith, we’ve got guns on the way,’ sort of message, you know?”

Shepard sighed. “I dunno, Liara,” she said. “I seriously don’t know what I’m looking at when I see those visions. It’s just pain and death and hardly anything useful at all. Well,” she gave a bitter laugh. “ You know. You’ve seen them, too.”

“I’ve only seen a shadow of what’s in your mind,” Liara said gently. “It’s not quite as clear - or as…disturbing.”

“True. But after three years, you get used to it.” Shepard shrugged. “See, the thing is,” she cocked her head and squinted at the holograph again, “this thing looks familiar, but I don’t know why. I feel like I should recognize this outline, but…” She stared at it for a moment more, then blinked as if to clear her eyes.

“Huh,” she said, frowning. “Why isn’t this more familiar? Because really, it doesn’t look all that Prothean, does it?”

“What do you mean?” Liara asked. “I agree that the dialect is very…”

“Not the words,” Shepard said, pointing at it. “The device. Look at the lines. Protheans favored straight columns and triangular shapes. All their stuff looks crystalline, but this is all circular.” She snorted. “Well, of course its circular, its a sphere impaled on a curvy post.”

“There are Prothean spheres,” Liara pointed out. “Like that one we encountered on Eletania, or that one you brought back from Kopis.”

“I guess,” Shepard said, “But still, when I look at this, I don’t think of the Prothean stuff we’ve seen. That beacon on Eden Prime, those triangular pyramids they built. Heck, the databanks down there on Mars, or even those towers on Feros and Ilos…” She broke off, blinking.

“Ilos,” Shepard said softly. “Why didn’t Vigil mention this?”

Liara blinked as well. She hadn’t thought of that.

“Vigil told us that the scientists on Ilos had put themselves into life support pods as their empire fell,” Shepard said slowly. “They were the ones who then got themselves to the Citadel…”

“Through the relay on the Presidium that everyone thought was just a monument,” Liara finished for her. “And they prevented the Keepers from responding to the Reaper signals in subsequent cycles. That’s likely why the Citadel remains safe even now. Those Prothean scientists gave us all a fighting chance.”

“Much good we’re doing with it,” Shepard said darkly. “But yeah. If those Prothean scientists knew so much, then why didn’t Vigil mention this Crucible thing? He was monitoring the best R&D lab the Protheans had to offer, so why wasn’t this in the databanks there?” She nodded at the holographic globe for emphasis.

Liara sighed. “There are so many possibilities that it’s hard to say. It’s likely the various research labs across the galaxy all worked on different projects to avoid being detected by the Reapers. They likely didn’t communicate overmuch for the same reason. So Vigil probably only held information on what his creator was working on. He wouldn’t have had data about any other branch of research.”

“I guess,” Shepard said doubtfully. “It just seems strange that information about a device as powerful as this one was found on Mars , of all places.” She made a face. “I mean, the Archives were just a duck blind.”

“A what?” Liara asked.

“A…” Shepard seemed to struggle for a way to translate whatever metaphor she was trying to communicate. “Mars was an observation post. The Protheans only hung out there so that they could watch primitive humans. Why would the details of a device like this be hidden there ?”

“The Protheans had a vast empire,” Liara replied. “Given that the Reapers were so careful to destroy much of their civilization, it’s little wonder that the only data archives that survived were on remote worlds. Because Mars was a…what did you call it? ‘A goose that cannot see?’ That is why the data survived.” Shepard looked like she was fighting back a smile at Liara’s words, but the asari was not sure why.

“What we found buried deep in the Archives was a data storage backup of many larger files,” Liara went on. “We had only begun to delve into its mysteries. Given how disorganized the data was, I imagine that as they fell under attack, the Protheans simply dispersed their information as quickly as possible throughout their galaxy-wide data network. They likely back up their files everywhere they could, with the idea that a later cycle might be able to find such a cache and use the information.”

“I guess,” Shepard said, though her expression clouded. “It just seems so…” She paused, gazing at the holograph of the Crucible as if searching the Prothean symbols for the right words.

“It seems a little too convenient,” Shepard concluded at last.

“Convenient?” Liara repeated. Given how confusing the data was to decode, ‘convenient’ was not a word Liara would have used to describe the Crucible.

“Yeah,” Shepard nodded. “Everything you’re saying makes the Protheans sound like these fairy god-aliens, like they’re showing up just in time to give us a dress, a carriage and a big-ass gun to take to the ball. But if they had the weapon, why didn’t they go to the ball themselves?”

Liara hardly knew how to answer Shepard. Her translator was clearly not making much sense of all this talk of old woman and dances, any more than it had made sense of the visually impaired water-fowl.

“And besides,” Shepard went on. “What is the device even supposed to do ? Shoot Reapers with dark energy? If it can actually generate that much power, should we even let it near our fleets? Hell, for all we know, when we go to activate it, the thing might set off a chain reaction of dark energy that could blow out all of our ships’ drive cores.”

Liara shook her head. “The Protheans must have planned for that,” she said. “I imagine that the instructions for such a safety mechanism are in the data for what they called the ‘Catalyst.’ Cerberus stole that piece of the data, but once we know what the Catalyst is and how to build it, I’m sure we’ll have the information we need.”

“Really, T’Soni?” Shepard asked doubtfully. “I’m sorry to rain on your pro-Prothean parade, but I don’t like the sound of this - any of this. I’ve been thinking guns, battles, the tactics of a long rebellion. This Crucible is beginning to sound like a miracle in a box, and I don’t like it.”

“This was the Protheans’ solution,” Liara said defensively, pointing at the device. “They were far more advanced than we are and they almost defeated the Reapers.”

“Yeah, but they didn’t defeat the Reapers, did they?” Shepard asked. “Look, I know you have a high opinion of the Protheans, but what if this device doesn’t work out after all? I don’t want to get so attached to this thing that we think it’s our only solution.”

“And what other solutions do we have?” Liara said bitterly, her voice low. “I’ve researched for years now and found little else. This is the only hope I’ve found in all my studies…” Liara didn’t quite know how to continue.

“You’re right,” Shepard said with a sigh. “This is the best lead we’ve got. And you’re the Prothean expert, not me. I just…” She let her gaze drop to her hands as they rested on the railing and spoke more quietly now. “You didn’t see what they did to Earth,” she murmured. “There were so damn many of them. How is one weapon supposed to make a dent in that ? Across the planet, across the Sol system, across the galaxy?”

“I don’t know,” Liara said honestly. “But I think we ought to give the device a chance, at least.”

Her conviction must have shown through, because Shepard lifted her head and nodded.

“We can try it,” she said. “If nothing else, this Crucible - that’s seriously what the Protheans called it?” When Liara nodded, Shepard shrugged. “Weird name for a weapon if you ask me.”

“Yes, well, your favorite submachine gun is called a ‘grasshopper,’ Shepard,” Liara pointed out.

“It’s a Locust…” Shepard broke off and nodded her head to the side in acknowledgement. “Good point. Well, this Crucible will be a good rallying point if nothing else. We’ll present it to the Council and hope they help us build it. But I don’t want us to lose sight of other options. If this gun doesn’t fire right, we’re going to need a whole plague of Locust guns and a shitload of thermal clips.”

Liara let out a sigh of relief, grateful that she had Shepard’s support for this project.

“Let’s hope things turn out better than that grasshopper plague,” Liara said hopefully.

“Well that went badly,” Councilor Donnell Udina snapped.

The human councilor stormed into the room and glared at Shepard as she leaned against his desk. She couldn’t tell if it was her presence or her casual treatment of his office furniture that offended him. She had half a mind to brush the dust off of her armor and into his coffee mug, just to see what he would do.

She had been waiting here for less than a minute, which wasn’t very encouraging. Shepard had hoped that if Udina stayed in the Council Chambers for a while, it would mean that he had managed to convince the rest of the Council to help Earth after all. It seemed from his quick return, however, that the human councilor was as ineffective as she in speeding up the great pendulum that was galactic bureaucracy. It was no less that she had expected, of course. Earth might be burning, but God forbid that humanity fail to file the requisite paperwork before asking for help.

And actually, it seemed that no amount of paperwork could move the Council at present. The salarian and asari councilors had listened to Liara talk about the Crucible, nodded grimly, then complained that they needed to protect their own homeworlds, not send armies to Earth. They seemed to think that they could actually keep the Reapers from coming, Shepard thought grimly. Of course, neither Thessia nor Sur’Kesh had been invaded yet, so they didn’t know how hopeless it was to try and hold off such an attack alone.

Shepard had pointed out that they were completely ignorant of the Reaper’s power and tactics. She had spoken with all her usual candor and the diplomats had not appreciated her blunt manner to say the least. Valern, the salarian, had then asked how she could possibly know the strength of the Reapers if she had simply run away from the field of battle. Shepard had kind of snapped at that point.

“The only reason it’s not Anderson standing here before you is because he’s trying to hold Earth together with an omnitool and duct tape,” Shepard replied. “He sent me, so do him a favor and send help back to Earth.”

“Anderson,” the asari councilor had said with a slightly condescending tone, “Understood the delicate balance of galactic security.”

“Right,” Shepard replied. “He understood that humanity protected the Citadel after your own fleets were wiped out, leaving our colonies vulnerable to Collector attacks.”

“He understood,” the salarian councilor said, his lower lids narrowing up over his eyes, “that humanity was still proving itself in the eyes of the galaxy. He also understood the proper respect due the Council. For you to storm in here, as though you had been digging in a field somewhere like some colonial peasant…”

The little jab at colonists had not curbed Shepard’s temper in the slightest.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” she sarcastically, her eyes flashing and her brows drawing together, “Does my bloodstained armor offend you? Well you know what? I was in a hurry to get this intel to you in time to *save * your scaly asses and I didn’t have time for a shower or a change of clothes.”

“Commander…” Tevos, the asari councilor began warningly.

“Don’t ‘commander’ me,” Shepard snapped, cutting her off. “You all take a good, long look at the blood and dirt on this armor. Because apparently all of you are long overdue for a dose of reality. *This * is * * what a Spectre looks like when she’s done doing your dirty work. This is what it looks like when a woman has been battling Reapers. I did all this to give you a chance to save us all and it’s a chance you’re throwing away with both hands, just like you’ve done time and time before!”

Shepard had flared from head to foot and nearly shouted the last the words. At that point, Udina stepped in and told her to leave while he convened with the others. The asari and salarian councilors said they doubted there was anything more to say; Shepard was clearly as unwilling to see reason in this case as she ever was.

As for the turian councilor, Sparatus, he said nothing at all. Shepard had a childish urge to make little air quotes at him as she left the room, but managed to restrain herself. Instead, she had walked out of the Council chambers in with some semblance of dignity, dusty head held high, and gone to wait for Udina. Sadly, she hadn’t waited very long.

“Where did the asari go?” Udina asked, looking around as if Liara would pop out of thin air for him.

“To set up her, uh…stuff,” Shepard said. And by ‘stuff,’ she meant Liara’s Shadow Broker command center. Joker had suggested that they call it Liara’s ‘Asari A-Spy A-Shit’ while EDI had suggested that Miranda’s old XO quarters had the most wall space for all the screens Liara would need to set up her video feeds. Shepard had been thinking that the XO quarters belonged to Kaidan, since he was, in fact, the XO. But as he was currently unavailable for comment, Shepard agreed to turn the room over to Liara. There were a lot of places that Kaidan could bunk if - when - he got back on his feet.

Like maybe deck number one, Shepard thought hopefully. Though even as she thought that, she realized that she was being a little premature and a lot unprofessional.

“Hpmf,” Udina snorted, bringing Shepard back to the present conversation. “Your asari ‘scientist’ didn’t do much to state her case. Though, unlike you, she managed not to curse at the leaders of galactic government.”

“I didn’t cuss for a full five minutes,” Shepard replied. “Not until they refused to see reason.”

“To see reason,” Udinda he said, sitting himself down behind his desk. “That’s the trouble. The Council doesn’t see much at all. They don’t see this as a war. They see the Reapers as a problem for humanity, one they don’t have to deal with until the threat comes directly to their door.”

“Then they’re idiots,” Shepard said flatly.

“Yes, well,” Udina said, “On that count, I agree with you. But you don’t need to say so to their faces. I do my best to put humanity in a good light, but you undermine that in so many ways, Shepard. It doesn’t help that you used to work with Cerberus, the very organization that has opened up a second front against us.”

“If the Council had given me help against the Collectors a year ago, that issue might have been avoided,” Shepard said. “I would have worked with them instead of Cerberus.”

“If you had put me on the Council instead of Anderson,” Udina returned, “I would have given you that help.”

“I doubt that,” Shepard muttered.

Udina just frowned at her and pushed himself up out of his chair. “And while you are sitting here being your usual, unhelpful self, Shepard, people are dying.”

Shepard bit back another smart-assed retort. The fact that Udina was right made her realize that she should probably shut up and stop arguing with the one person on the Council who actually wanted to help humanity. She certainly hadn’t won Earth any allies with her short temper so far.

“You’re right,” she sighed. “Humanity got hit hard. Harder than any other race, it seems. Well,” she amended, “except the Batarians.”

“Hmph,” Udina snorted. “Serves them right. The Hegemony insisted on rejecting the Council’s law for centuries, and then they wonder why they have no allies. They’re reaping what they sowed.”

“No pun intended, right?”

“What?” Udina blinked.

“Nothing. It’s just hard to imagine all those Batarians dead.”

“It’s hard to imagine that you care , Shepard,” Udina had returned.

Shepard glared at him, but said nothing.

“When I heard you had arrived on the Normandy, I thought you had Anderson with you,” Udina’s voice took on a brittle edge as he continued to stare out of the window, his hands behind his back. “But no. You’ve left him back on Earth. God only knows how long he’ll last. Instead of help, all you’ve brought to is half of the blueprints for some Prothean device, and we don’t even know what it does.”

“It generates a lot of dark energy,” Shepard told him, repeating the line she’d heard from Liara.

Udina waved his hand, as if he was tossing this explanation over his shoulder and into the trash. “And what does that mean?” he snorted. “This device sounds like nothing more than an expensive pipe dream. How am I supposed to advance humanity’s interests with garbage like this?”

“Advance our interests?” Shepard gaped at him. “What the hell are you saying ? This isn’t about a trade agreement, Udina. This is about the survival of our species.”

“I understand the stakes, Shepard,” Udina said wearily.

“I don’t think you do,” she said. She turned around, and put both her hands on desk so that she could better glare across the polished metal at Udina’s back.

“I’m going to get as many allies as I can,” Shepard told him. “I’m going to cash in every chip I’ve ever earned, that humanity has ever earned, and I’m going to search for intel, search for answers, put together an army and then fight like hell. So as for you , what I need you to do Udina, is to keep pushing the Council for all you’re worth.”

“Save your speeches for someone who hasn’t heard them all before, Shepard,” Udina said, giving her a withering glance over his shoulder. “I’ll do my part. I’ll file a petition, set up a hearing…”

“Too slow,” Shepard said decisively, pushing away from the desk. “Anderson can’t hold out forever. I figure we’ve got a month, maybe two, before there won’t be enough of Earth left to save.”

“What?” Udina started at her words, turning around to face her with an astonished expression on his face. “We simply cannot get the Council races behind us in so short a time. Politics don’t work on that kind of a timetable.” The door slid open behind him, but neither Shepard nor Udina looked up to greet the visitor.

“Then we make politics bend to us,” Shepard replied. “We have to.”

“Shepard,” Udina said, pinching his forehead as though he had a headache, “Without a carrot, you cannot lead the mule. And you not only have no carrot, you’re trying to add to the load on the mule’s back and you expect him not to kick you.”

“That’s an incredibly mangled metaphor,” Shepard said, raising an eyebrow.

“Humanity needs something to drive the aliens to our side, something that shows our power,” Udina went on, ignoring her sarcasm. “A device which is not yet built and which has incomplete plans is *not * that carrot.”

“And yet,” a voice spoke from the doorway. “It’s all we’ve got.”

Shepard turned around at once to find that the turian councilor stood behind them.

“What?” she snapped. “I thought you’d ‘dismissed’ all claims of the Reapers.” Shepard gave into temptation and used air quotes as she spoke. Sparatus’ brow plates drew together as he watched her waggling fingers.

“We can argue about the past or we can talk about the future,” he said, his twanging voice holding a note of warning. “Both of us are in need of allies at present.”

“The turians need allies?” Shepard asked, confused. They’d come running from Earth so quickly, she really hadn’t heard much about which other worlds had been hit. Sparatus nodded at her, then squared his shoulders and took a deep breath.

“Palaven is lost,” he said. “It appears that the Reapers know our strength is in our fleets and our weakness is in our civilian population. They came in moderate numbers but their ground forces have torn through our cities. In fact, I just received word that my mate…”

He broke off and looked away. Though his face remained the picture of turian stoicism, Shepard heard emotion in his silence and immediately thought of Kaidan.

“I’m sorry,” she said, her voice full of the curt sympathy of one soldier speaking to another. She found that her contempt for the alien was suddenly gone. Funny how war really did make for unlikely allies.

“What can I do?” Shepard asked at once.

“For him?” the turian said, still facing the corner. “Likely nothing. He must fight for himself and his troops.” Sparatus turned and fixed Shepard with his sharp little eyes.

“But for my people,” he said, “I am hoping you can do a lot more.”

Shepard wandered through the docking bay, taking note of the the humans crowded into makeshift camps in the corners. Already the space was filling up with people who had lost their homes mere hours ago, who had nowhere else to go. Dusty as she was, and with a good bit of gore crusting over the N7 logo on her armor, Shepard looked like just one more refugee who had escaped the Sol system by the skin of her teeth.

Only Shepard wouldn’t be staying down here. She had only come down to the docking bay in search of a little bit of contraband to sneak into Kaidan’s hospital room. Thankfully, Bailey had been willing to tell her where to get the illegal gift.

Shepard continued walking past a crowd of lost-looking colonists and slipped into the elevator. After all this time and all these detours, she was finally on her way back to Kaidan’s side. She supposed she could have squeezed in a visit to see him earlier than now. But she had told herself that the mission came first and it would take the hospital staff a few minutes to get Kaidan settled. Thus, when the Normandy had docked at the Citadel, Shepard had headed straight for the embassies.

Or rather, she thought she had headed straight for the embassies. Instead, Shepard had found the elevator doors opening on Huerta Memorial Hospital. It was strange, that. She was sure that she had punched the button for the embassies. Clearly, her mind had a mind of its own.

So she had done the responsible thing and hit the elevator button again. The lift had taken her to the embassies. There, she had met with the Council, argued with Udina, and then, surprisingly, gotten help from a most unlikely quarter.

For the turian councilor had come to propose, of all things, that Shepard cutting the Council out of the picture entirely. The leader of the turian Hierarchy had been removed to Palaven’s largest moon for safety, but unfortunately, contact with his unit had been lost. If Shepard could find the Primarch and get him to safety, she could hold a summit with him and form a pact between the turians and the Alliance.

Shepard had agreed at once. This was exactly what Anderson would have wanted, she thought. Using her Spectre status, she would meddle in turian affairs and then using her commander status, she would broker a partnership with between the Hierarchy and the Alliance. For the first time since she had left Earth, Shepard had a mission that she felt was worth doing.

She just didn’t like the idea of doing this mission without Kaidan.

And at that thought, Shepard had left Udina’s office and come straight back to Huerta again, well, by way of that shopping trip through the refugee camp in the docking bay.

Shepard now stepped out of the dark elevator into the overly-bright light of the hospital reception area and walked to the desk. The receptionist sniffed disapprovingly at her dirty armor and directed her to wait for a moment. Kaidan was undergoing a series of pre-op inspections, but they could allow her a few minutes time with him, if she would please have a seat and wait for someone to call for her.

Shepard nodded and headed to a couch in the corner and plunked herself down. The moment her butt hit the pleather seat, she felt a deep bone-weariness crash down on her. It occurred to her that she couldn’t remember the last time she had sat down.

Actually, she realized, the last time she hadn’t been standing was when she’d kneeled down to lift Kaidan onto her shoulders back on Mars. That felt like a lifetime ago. Memories of Earth felt even further away. Though technically, now that she checked her omnitool for the time, she saw that twenty-four hours had not yet passed since she had woken up in Vancouver, expecting just another do-nothing day.

Shepard sighed and scrubbed her dirty gloves over her face. There was a bitter irony in all of this, she thought. Time had been marching slowly for six months in a cell and then suddenly, the Reapers hit and her world had picked up speed at an alarming rate. And she imagined things weren’t going to slow down anytime soon.

God, she was tired, Shepard thought, sprawling inelegantly back against the couch. She knew she had so much left to do, had an op to be planning for, and yet right now, she wasn’t sure if she could even stand up again from this couch.

“Sheea’ Pard?” A voice politely inquired.

Shepard looked up to see an asari standing there with a datapad, looking right at her. Shepard gave her a slight smile and wearily raised her hand. So much for sitting down. The asari looked down at Shepard with a frown, her eyes seeming to linger on the bloodstain on Shepard’s right knee. The asari then motioned down the hallway and Shepard forced herself to her feet.

She walked wearily through the doors to the inpatient ward and past a decontamination field. That made her feel a little better about visiting Kaidan now that she’d at least been zapped free of harmful bacteria, if not of dust. The whole of Huerta, she saw, had been built on top of one of those giant struts that spanned the Presidium. It had a metal floor, a metal ceiling, and glass walls on either side of its narrow length. Frankly, the place gave her a little bit of vertigo.

Shepard found her way down the hall, checking the door numbers until she came to Kaidan’s room. She could see through the frosted glass door just enough to make out the outline of Kaidan - or a dark smudge on a table in front of a large picture window, anyhow. Shepard paused there, feeling suddenly and unaccountably nervous. What she was nervous of , Shepard didn’t want to examine too closely. She also didn’t want to think about what might happen if Kaidan’s surgery went badly, and if his surgery went well, it was unclear what would happen then. He might want to join her on the Normandy, but then again, considering how angry he’d been with her on Mars, he might not.

Taking a deep breath, Shepard squared her shoulders and touched the door panel for Kaidan’s room. It turned green at once and the doors slid open to let her in. Shepard’s steps were slow as she walked into the bright, window-walled space. The air was filled with a thin, tinny humming, with small, mechanical beeps and whirrs. It sounded like a garden of synthetic bees and birds, she thought, all cheerfully keeping Kaidan alive.

In the middle of that machine garden was one human figure, lying strangely still on a metal bed in the center of the room. Kaidan wasn’t wearing a shirt, which alarmed Shepard a little. What the hell kind of hospital was this, she thought, where they just left guys lying around half-naked in their beds? But then, she thought, maybe the staff just hadn’t grabbed Kaidan a hospital gown yet. They’d probably gotten him out of his armor and onto the life-support machines, and who knew what kind of stuff they had to attach to him before an operation?

Shepard supposed that Kaidan was fine, that the doctors knew what they were doing, but even so, she couldn’t help but worry a little. She didn’t like to think of Kaidan stuck here with no hospital gown, no visitors, no friend nearby to greet him when he woke up. She sincerely wished she could stay and keep an eye on him.

At that thought, Shepard blinked and looked away.

In truth, her hesitation in coming here was largely due to the fact that “keeping an eye on” Kaidan had a rather nefarious double meaning so far as she was concerned. She still had that damn camera in her head, after all. And if she wasn’t mistaken, her graybox had been accessed back there on Mars. She didn’t imagine that the Illusive Man would have much of a show to watch, of course. All he’d see was her and Kaidan and Liara and James mowing through scores of his husk-troopers, and good riddance. Maybe it would shake the bastard up a bit to see how easily a few good old-fashioned Alliance soldiers had dispatched his overly-modded people.

With that thought, Shepard pursed her lips and turned her attention back to the bed.

“Hey Kaidan,” she murmured. After a moment’s hesitation, she reached for his hand. She was a little surprised to find his fingers just lay there limply and didn’t curl around her own. Well, of course they would, she told herself. Still, it was strange, and it made her heart constrict again at the worry that he might…

No, she told herself, squeezing Kaidan’s hand even though he didn’t squeeze back. He would be fine. Surely, he’d be fine.

His hand was warm, no doubt a function of the heated hospital blanket rather than his own body temperature. His fingers were calloused, too, just as Shepard remembered. She brushed her own fingers down each of his own, and found that his index finger had a distinct callus right at the left side of the top knuckle. He always did prefer to set his guns to have a heavy pull on the trigger, Shepard thought. It was less convenience for the soldier, requiring a stronger grip and more force. It could also mean a dangerous split-second longer in reaction time. But there was less chance of an accident happening that way. It was very like Kaidan, Shepard thought, to put himself at a higher risk in order to protect others.

That thought nearly undid her. A shaky, wheezing sort of noise broke over the low hum in the room and Shepard was horrified to find that the sniffling sounds had come from her . She blinked furiously, trying to stem the tears that suddenly filled her vision. It was the light in here, she told herself, squeezing Kaidan’s hand and dropping her head. It was just that the light was too bright and it was hurting her eyes.

Because surely she couldn’t be crying over Kaidan. He was fine, after all. He had only been injured, while so many others had died. Kaidan had medical care, a clean, safe facility to recover in, while back on Earth people were hurt, confused, frightened, and alone. It was pointless to waste time, she told herself, pointless to lose focus. It was pointless to melt into tears when what needed doing, she told herself, what had always needed doing was to keep moving, to keep fighting…

*Just keep * fighting *, Kaidan, * Shepard thought. Squeezing her eyes shut, she felt tears dripping down her nose and onto the floor. She heard more gasps, heard herself take a few wheezy breaths.

God, I sound like a volus when I cry , Shepard thought. She laughed at that, and the sound was enough to help her choke back those last few tears.

“So Kaidan,” Shepard said aloud, striving for a smooth tone, but hearing the ragged edge to her voice all the same, “You missed seeing me cry. Yeah,” she said, wiping her eyes with her grimy gloves. “Commander Shepard cries. Sometimes. A little, I guess. Doesn’t happen that often, thank God.” She let out a long breath. “Probably a good thing, because I turn all pink and puffy like a hanar with allergies..”

She attempted a smile, but when she looked down at Kaidan, all she could manage was a sickly expression.

“Damn it, Kaidan,” she murmured. “You’re supposed to be the Alliance liaison, remember? You’re supposed to, I dunno, liaise . You’re supposed to be keeping me in line, aren’t you?. So get the hell out of that bed and get your ass back to your post.”

Kaidan didn’t move, of course. Shepard fought back a feeling of complete and utter helplessness. This injury was an enemy she simply couldn’t fight. She could only hope that Kaidan would manage this battle on his own. Swallowing hard, Shepard squeezed Kaidan’s hand again.

“Look, Kaidan,” she said, striving for calm, “I have to go.” She let out a bitter laugh and shook her head. “Damn, I always seem to be saying that. But the thing is, this time I really, really don’t want to go. I wish I could sit here and talk to you until you get well, but I can’t. So instead, I’m going to leave you this.”

Shepard reached for her omnitool and synched her ‘tool to Kaidan’s, grateful that EDI’s quick programming had made the gift work properly.

“Technically, this is illegal,” she told him, “But they say that when someone is in a coma, it helps if you talk to them, so they can hear voices and all. Since I can’t be here, this is the best I can do in a pinch…”

Just then, the omnitool chip that Kaidan had embedded in his left arm activated the holographic mitt over his hand. An image popped out of the omnitool, and it now it appeared that a miniature woman with blonde hair and wearing an N7 jumpsuit was standing right on top of Kaidan’s bare chest.

“Hey soldier,” the Shepard VI said. “You’re a hell of a looker.”

“Oh God,” Shepard said, shaking her head. “That thing makes me sound like a Mindoiran chipmunk.”

“I sound seven percent more like Commander Shepard than any other bootleg VI copy,” the VI informed an unconscious Kaidan. The holograph then gave Kaidan a salute and a saucy wink. At the same moment, the holographic N7 jumpsuit disappeared, replaced by a string bikini, before the thing shut itself off.

“Uhh…” Shepard frowned. She hadn’t remembered that part of the programming when she’d checked out the demo of this thing down in the refugee camp. Maybe this wasn’t such a great idea after all.

“Well,” she said aloud, “it’s set up to go off every hour on the hour. It’s gonna drive your nurses nuts, but EDI made sure it would keep playing until she deactivates it. See,” Shepard added with a weak smile, “now you’re going to have to wake up. You have to come back to us if you want to get rid of it.”

Shepard paused for one long moment, then impulsively reached out and lifted Kaidan’s hand to her lips. She kissed his knuckles, then held his hand in her own.

“I’m not good at this kind of stuff, Kaidan,” she said, softly, looking down at their entwined fingers. “I think it takes a much stronger kind of person than me to wait and watch and keep the home fires burning. I’ve always been more a set-fires kind of woman anyhow.”

She set Kaidan’s hand down gently upon the blanket and pressed it once before letting go.

“Wake up soon, Kaidan,” she said, softly. “We need you.” Her throat constricted once again and she added in a whisper:

” *I * need you.”

The whoosh of the door behind her told her her time was up. Shepard hoped her eyes weren’t red, but clearly they were, because the salarian doctor who entered the room looked at her with obvious alarm. Or maybe, she told herself as she slipped out of the door, it was because she had left some dust on Kaidan’s blanket there. The doctor was probably trying to assess how much of an infection risk she was.

Shepard wiped her eyes with the heel of her hand as the doors slid shut behind her. Kaidan was in good hands, Shepard told herself. He was fine. He just needed medical care and some rest and he’d be back on his feet in no time. And as for her, she needed to get moving again. After all, just now, she had stopped to rest and had nearly come undone.

Shepard strode off down the hall without looking back. And so, she didn’t see that as she left, Kaidan’s fingers curled slightly against the bedsheets, as if grasping for a hand that was no longer there.