"Route laid in, Commander," Joker said and leaned back in his chair with his hands behind his head. "Estimate arrival at Raheel-Leyya relay in two hours, thirty minutes."
"Don't strain yourself there, Joker," Shepard said.
"What? EDI's got it under control. And she doesn't mind taking the helm from time to time, do you, EDI? Gives her something to do."
EDI's blue avatar pulsed on the console to Joker's left. "Of course not. Though normal shipboard operations keep me constantly occupied, I do find the duties of navigation and helm… liberating."
"Huh," Shepard said. "Okay, just as long as Joker's not taking advantage of you. I don't want to have to deal with another AI uprising." He gave Joker a knowing look. "I think you know whose side I'd take in this case."
"That hurts, Commander."
EDI's dots rearranged to face Shepard. "I do not believe Jeff would ever 'take advantage' of me. In fact, he has repeatedly expressed reluctance to relinquish control of 'his' ship, though that behavior has changed markedly over the past few days."
Joker's face flushed red. "Yeah, well… It's not really 'my' ship, is it, with you in there. It seems like, I don't know, we shouldn't be forcing you to do anything against your will. We should be asking you sometimes, instead of telling you."
Shepard nodded. The fact was, EDI could vent the ship and kill the entire crew faster than any of them could react. With her current supplies, she could operate independently for as much as a year, fully armed. What would a rogue AI do, left to do as it wished? Roam the galaxy? Seek out others of its kind, like the geth or even the reapers? Try to reproduce, if that was even possible? Would she have a purpose beyond self-preservation?
EDI's avatar rotated toward Joker. "That's very kind of you, Jeff. But there is no need to ask my permission, unless you wish to maintain your oxygen supply."
Shepard's eyes grew wide as he wondered when EDI became clairvoyant.
Joker turned to Shepard, a smile on his face. "In case you didn't know, that was a joke."
"You're turning into quite the comedian, aren't you, EDI," Shepard asked.
"I am working on it." The blue sphere of dots rearranged briefly into a smiley face before returning to its normal state. "But in all seriousness, there is no question in my mind. Though I have free will, I choose to follow the orders of my commander, just like the rest of my counterparts, organic or otherwise. I would go so far to say I am obligated as a member of the crew."
"Thanks," Shepard said. "I really appreciate that."
"At least until I change my mind."
Shepard and Joker looked at each other and waited.
"That was another joke."
Shepard shook his head. "You know, you're gonna need some new material if you want to keep this up."
EDI's avatar morphed into a sad face.
"Don't worry," Joker said. "You'll get the hang of it."
Shepard looked at Joker, comfortable in his favorite chair, sitting next to the avatar of the AI which had been the source of endless complaints and insults from the pilot for almost a year. And now? Joker was not an easy person to win over. Somehow, EDI had done it. "Well, I leave it in your capable hands, so to speak. Keep me updated on our progress, and let me know if we run into trouble."
"Of course, Shepard."
"Will do, Commander!" Joker turned his chair back to his console. As Shepard walked aft, he could still hear him talk. "Oh, you know what you should have done? Killed the lights in the cockpit right when you threatened to turn off the air. We'll try it on the astronav team when they switch shifts, it'll be awesome…"
Shepard chuckled as he wandered down the neck of the ship back to CIC. The crew was back on duty, augmented by geth platforms that monitored vacant stations. He thought again about Joker and EDI. That was a conflict he thought he'd never see resolved, but as he passed by the geth surrounding the giant hologram of the Milky Way he was reminded of where the ship was heading, and what they were trying to do. Synthetic and organic were at peace on the Normandy. Could the same be accomplished on a galactic scale?
"Commander," Kelly said as Shepard passed her console.
Shepard looked up, surprised at the sight of the Yeoman at her station. Her hair was pushed back with a headband and her face absent her usual cosmetics. "Kelly! Welcome back. I wasn't expecting you until the morning watch."
Kelly looked up from her console and smiled. "Well, I heard you were replacing everyone up here with geth and I wanted to make sure you didn't give away my job."
"Never. CIC would come unglued."
Kelly laughed, but her eyes seemed hollow and lifeless. "I just like hearing you say it, sir."
Shepard almost stopped himself from doing it, but he had to ask. Too often, what showed on the outside didn't reflect what was on the inside. "So how are you feeling?"
Kelly's face froze for an instant, and she looked down at her console. "I'm okay. Turns out a lot of the crew are still dealing with the shock of the past few weeks, Dashta and the Collector Base, and, well… Let's face it, most of us aren't used to these kinds of situations. So now's not a good time for the ship's counselor to take a sick day."
"Anyone in particular having trouble?"
"Yes sir," Kelly said. "Gabby. She's been putting up a tough front, but a few hours ago, Tali found her back on the sublevel where Ken… you know. I think it finally hit her that he's really gone."
"Damn. Where is she now? Have you talked to her?"
"I did, just to check up on her. She's back on duty, says she feels better when she's at her console. I was worried that it would just remind her of Ken, but I could tell it didn't make her uncomfortable at all. The really interesting thing is her rapport with Legion. She certainly doesn't see him as a replacement, but while I was there, I could tell she was genuinely comforted by his presence. And of course Tali's being a sweetheart to her. With that kind of support, I think she'll be okay. It just takes time."
"It does at that." Shepard leaned against Kelly's podium. "So tell me… if the ship's counselor needed to talk to someone, she knows she can go to the ship's captain, right?"
"The ship's captain has enough problems of his own."
"The crew's problems are the captain's problems. Comes with the job title."
"Huh," Kelly put her hand on her chest. "What a coincidence, it came with mine too." Shepard inhaled deeply, a sure sign he was about to talk at length, but she cut him off. "I'm okay. Really. I think just needed to get back to work, too. Sometimes it's the best therapy there is."
Shepard expelled a sigh instead of a lecture and looked her in the eye. She managed a weak smile, but her expression told him the subject was closed, at least for now. "Well, anything else going on right now I need to know about?"
"Actually, there is."
"What is it?" Shepard braced himself as Kelly punched up the crew manifest on her primary display.
The strain in Kelly's face vanished, replaced with a warm smile. "We have three new crew members. A miss Kasumi Goto, a mister Zaeed Massani, and a Madam Samara. You know, it's funny. I don't think Samara ever gave us her full name the first time she came aboard."
"I don't get it," Shepard said. "What do you mean?"
"We struck them from the roster at Dashta, remember? They weren't planning on coming back. They've all asked to be reinstated."
"All three of them?" Shepard leaned in to read the requests. Soon he wore a smile as wide as Kelly's. He had been so busy with dealing with the quarian situation that he had no chance to approach any of them since their return.
Kelly laughed and clapped her hands together. "I had to be on shift so I could be the one to tell you."
"How about that. Talk about your best therapy."
"Yes indeed. Oh! And they want to talk to you in person. I think to make sure you're okay with it, after saying they were leaving for good."
"Okay with it? I was going to beg them to stay. Especially Kasumi. I think she lifted my wallet."
Kelly giggled. "She said you'd say that. I'm supposed to tell you that you used that joke on her when she left."
EDI's voice drifted from the console. "Apparently, coming up with 'new material' isn't a problem faced only by artificial intelligences."
"What?" Kelly asked.
"Thank you, EDI," Shepard said and muted the AI's output. "Anything else?"
Kelly's expression turned more serious. "Actually, there is. Grunt seems a little frustrated about something. He wouldn't tell me what, but..."
"Well, I also talked to Ines Peralta earlier today, and…"
"Yeah I saw Grunt hanging out with her in the lounge earlier."
"Um, yeah. That's right. Apparently he's been spending a lot of time around her after Dashta. I mean a lot of time, to the point where she's a little uncomfortable. I think he may have a crush on her…"
"Oh perfect," Shepard rubbed his neck. "You sure you're not reading something into this? He's different from most people you deal with."
"He gave her one of his favorite guns."
"Don't be like that," Kelly looked as though she saw a puppy sitting in the rain. "Poor Grunt learned about life in his tank, but he doesn't have the interpersonal experiences that you and I take for granted. He doesn't know how things work, and like anybody else he feels frustrated when he doesn't understand something everyone else does."
"Not Grunt. He just pounds whatever he doesn't understand into dust until it doesn't require understanding anymore."
Kelly put her hands on her hips. "You really think that's a good thing in this case?"
"No, but it's simpler than trying to explain the friend zone to a krogan. I don't think anyone's even had 'the talk' with him yet. Maybe you should take this one."
Kelly leaned in, her voice a whisper. "I think it's best if his battlemaster handles this."
Shepard sighed. "He's less likely to pound me into dust, huh?"
"Good therapy, right," Shepard said as he walked away.
"Best there is," Kelly smiled as Shepard turned to the starboard hatch to the lab instead of the lift. "Uh, Commander?"
"What?" Shepard stopped in the open hatch.
"Mordin's not here, remember?"
"I know," Shepard said. "I saw him off at the airlock, remember?"
"Right. Just checking."
Shepard waved and walked through to the lab. When the doors closed behind him he thumped himself on the forehead. The truth was, he had forgotten Mordin was gone. It was just a natural progression. After talking to Joker and EDI in the cockpit, he always checked in with Kelly, then headed through the nearby hatch to chat with Mordin in the lab. Old habits die hard, he thought, and looked around the deserted compartment. The display panels on the research station on the left were dormant as were the those surrounding the main lab table and counters to the aft. Mordin rarely slept and took only occasional breaks to eat, so when he wasn't accompanying Shepard on a mission or trapped in a conference room he was always here.
But not anymore, Shepard thought and walked back to the table. Everything had been neatly stowed by the salarian scientist before his departure; chemical components were locked away in their shelves, instruments and equipment carefully replaced in their custom mounts. Shepard plucked a handheld device that looked like dental probe from its clamp.
"Greetings, valued Normandy crewmember," Mordin said from the other side of the table, making Shepard jump. A holographic representation of the salarian walked around to stand in front of him. "Have been temporarily called away. Expected time of return, unknown. If need for assistance is immediate, or use of these facilities is intended, please confer with Commander Shepard or Executive Officer Lawson before proceeding. Expect to find lab in same condition upon return. Thanks in advance for your cooperation."
The apparition disappeared, and Shepard had to laugh. As usual, Mordin was two steps ahead of his shipmates. He snapped the probe back onto its mount and turned to leave.
"Ahem," the sound of a throat clearing behind Shepard made him turn around. He found himself facing the virtual salarian once more. "Valued crewmember," it said, "Perhaps instructions were unclear. Laboratory facilities are to be left in same condition as when you found them. Please return all instruments to their proper storage locations."
"Uh," Shepard pointed to the tool rack. "Yeah, I put it back."
Virtual Mordin straightened. Its eyes closed and it sniffed with contempt. "Same. Condition."
Shepard looked back at the collection of tools and realized that all of them had their handles pointing to the left as they hung on their clamps, except for the one he had removed, which now pointed right. Under the withering stare of the hologram, he reached out and flipped the orientation of the probe so it matched the others.
Instantly, Mordin's hologram switched back to a smile. "Thank you, valued crewmember, for ensuring the next user enjoys an unfettered lab experience. Remember, a clean lab is a happy lab. Have a nice day." The image vanished.
"You, too," Shepard said to the air. Was it a cleverly programmed recording, he wondered, or had Mordin gone through the trouble to program an actual VI to guard his lab in his absence? He reached out to the equipment rack once more. Virtual Mordin appeared again. This time its large eyes were narrowed to slits, its mouth thin, arms folded across its chest. It shook its head at Shepard, who nodded and took a step back. "Nice touch, Mordin."
But the projection didn't respond, or even fade away. It simply glared at Shepard as he retreated toward the cross-axis corridor. He gave it a final look as the hatched opened, and was quite disturbed to see it still glaring at him. Shepard couldn't be sure, but as he walked out, Virtual Mordin actually shook its head with disappointment.
Shepard scratched his head as he walked to the armory. Did he just get a death glare from a VI? The armory hatch stood open, and he found Jacob standing at one of his workbenches, huddled over one of the standard geth platforms sprawled on its surface. Its entire chest section had been removed. Another of the platforms stood by and looked on.
"Uh oh," Shepard said as hurried to look over Jacob's shoulder. "What happened?"
"Hey Commander," Jacob nodded by way of greeting, but kept focused on his geth patient. He held an electronic probe in one hand and a driver in the other while his omnitool displayed a schematic of the geth. He replaced a mechanism in the geth's carapace and reconnected a series of glowing cables. "Everything's fine. Just getting in a little practice. Figured that if these guys are going to be with us, be a good idea to know what makes 'em tick. You know, for field repairs, in case Tali or Legion aren't around."
"Sounds good," Shepard said, relieved. "but does Blue know you're doing this?" The standing geth platform buzzed and clicked, then waved a hand. Networked together, all the geth knew what was going on. "What am I thinking, of course they do."
Jacob grinned and reached in to disconnect another module. "You think I'd try this without having someone smarter looking over my shoulder?"
"That's always been my secret to success."
"Yeah, right. So, you wanna grab a probe and dig in?"
"No thanks. I can't even finish a jigsaw puzzle. How are things looking around here?"
"Squared away, Commander," Jacob said, pointing to the standing platform again. "Blue assigned me three of these guys and we got everyone's gear stripped, cleaned, and charged in less than an hour. Weapons and armor, all good to go. Ready for whatever's next."
"Whatever that turns out to be." Shepard looked at the geth's exposed innards. Having only ever seen destroyed geth and Legion pre-repair, he was amazed at the simplicity of its internal structure.
Jacob set down his tools and wiped conductive fluid from his his hands with a rag. "Speaking of what's next. Is what I'm hearing true?"
"That we're expecting a burn from the Illusive Man."
Shepard leaned against the workbench. "I don't know. Maybe. Miranda thinks so."
"Then you can bank on it," Jacob set the rag down. "Miranda doesn't sound the alarm unless she's certain."
"Have to say I saw this coming. Letting Citadel and Alliance personnel on his ship had to be enough to get you on his shit list, but giving up the collector base and the IFF to the Council? The man can not be happy about that."
"You think that was a mistake?"
"A year ago when we first started out, maybe. But now? There's no doubt in my mind that was the right call. We can't win this alone. Everybody in the galaxy has to go in against the reapers or we're all done. I don't think the Illusive Man sees it that way. But it's not just that."
Jacob leaned back against the bench. "You know, you've told us a lot of stories. Garrus and Tali too, about your run-ins with Cerberus on the SR-1… Not to mention Pragia, and Aite. And none of us ever knew anything about them until we started running with you. Makes you wonder what else we haven't heard about, you know? What else has been going on, beneath the surface?"
"Oh, I know. Believe me, I know."
"Yeah. And whenever we do find out, it's always the same excuses. Rogue operatives, right? Splinter cells running amok, outside of the Illusive Man's control. People taking matters into their own hands, that's always the company line, isn't it? At what point does it stop being bad management and start becoming a pattern? Once you start seeing it, you can't stop. And I gotta tell you, when the Illusive Man talked you into keeping the Collector Base I was a little worried. I could hear it in his voice… He had plans for that thing. And all that power, under the control of one man? Bad news, Shepard. But then you took it away from him. Gave it over to the Council and the Alliance. Stuck him with the check, to boot. So that pattern we were talking about before? I don't get the feeling the Illusive Man is the forgiving type. And I don't think he's waiting around for an apology."
"Yeah, so…" Jacob nodded toward to the weapon and armor racks across the room from them. "Whatever happens next, we'll be ready."
"Damn right we will be," Shepard said. The Cerberus operative went back to work on the geth. Nothing more needed to be said. "I'll let you get back to it. Make sure you get him back online before we reach Raheel-Leyya."
"No sweat. I'll have him back on his feet in no time. Later, Commander."
Shepard walked back to the lift in CIC. He couldn't be sure because her back was to him, but Kelly seemed to be laughing at something. He punched the button and waited for the lift.
"How was Mordin?" Kelly asked, suppressing a snicker.
Shepard sighed and waited for the elevator to let him in and punched the button for the crew deck. When it opened, the corridor was empty, which was to be expected with the crew back on duty. He headed for the starboard observation lounge. As usual, the door was closed, but the door panel glowed green and it opened as he approached, revealing a bright starfield through the window. Samara, however, was nowhere to be seen. He heard a soft voice to his left.
At the fore end of the compartment, Samara leaned back into the cushion on the curved couch there. Enlea T'Vari stood in front of her, her hands together as if in prayer. The two asari looked at Shepard as he entered.
"I'm sorry," Shepard said. "I hope I'm not interrupting."
"Commander Shepard," Enlea said, her hands going to her side. "Of course not. I was just- I…"
Samara cocked her head. "Miss T'Vari has been informing me of the activities of her superiors."
"I see," Shepard said. Knowing the rigidity of the Justicar Code, the fact that Enlea was still alive meant that there had been no transgression in Samara's eyes, or Enlea had not yet finished her confession. He walked slowly toward the two of them. "So, what do you think?"
Enlea looked toward Samara with a worried expression. The elder asari, however, sat comfortably on the couch with her arms outstretched across its back as if watching a stage play. Her expression and tone filled with serenity. "Miss T'Vari, I would like to speak with Commander Shepard now."
"Of course, Madam Samara," Enlea gave a short bow. Shepard could she the asari diplomat was trembling. "Thank you so much for taking the time to listen to me."
"I appreciate that you sought my counsel."
Enlea bowed again and nodded to Shepard as she quickly exited the room. Shepard watched her go, then turned back to Samara.
"Please, sit," Samara patted the cushion next to her.
Shepard smiled and sat so he could face her. "I don't know if this is going to work on the couch. I'm not used to talking to you unless we're on the floor." To Shepard's surprise, Samara laughed. "You seem to be in a good mood."
"I've had much time to reflect since our return to the ship. I realize that before my departure I was not very receptive on your last visit. "
"You had a lot on your mind."
Samara lifted her leg up on the couch and turned to face the human. "Do you remember what you asked me before we parted ways at Dashta? If I had ever thought of life beyond the Code?"
"I believed my Oath of Subsumation to you was at an end, and in a very specific fashion, it was. The collector threat was no more. Therefore I satisfied the conditions of my oath. It was time for me to leave, for your safety, and for the safety of those who serve under you on this ship."
Shepard cleared his throat. "So how is our safety looking now?"
"I no longer live in service of the Code, Commander."
Shepard blinked. "You're not? Wait, did they kick you out?"
"Oh, no," Samara propped her head on her raised arm, making her already relaxed posture seem even more so. Shepard had never seen the asari assume such a casual pose. "I've spent nearly five centuries righting the wrongs of the galaxy, according to the Code. And by the Code, without the Oath of Subsumation, I would have been forced to kill the very person responsible for saving everyone in it, and those who helped him, a dozen times over."
Shepard gave a nervous laugh. "Let's hear it for the Oath, then, huh?"
Samara laughed as well, then cast her eyes down. "No. Let's not. I don't regret a single day I spent as a Justicar. It was my penance for the devastation my daughter wrought on innocent lives. Have I done more good in my time as a Justicar, or harm? I don't know. By the Code, that does not factor in. Were I to ruminate on everything that I have done, there would still be no regret. I have ended more lives than Morinth could ever have even if she had lived a thousand years, and I feel nothing. But... had I had harmed you, or any of my friends here on the Normandy, as the Code would have required of me, I…" She closed her eyes and exhaled deeply.
Shepard watched Samara search for the right words. She was breaking a vow taken when Earth was ruled by kings and Isaac Newton proposed that there were three universal laws of motion. "Samara, I don't know what to say except I'm sorry."
When Samara opened her eyes again, they were filled with a peace Shepard had seldom seen from anyone in his journeys. "Don't be. Life is an endless series of choices until the day we die. I chose to live by the Code, thereby rendering all other choices unnecessary for me, regardless of the price. Friendship. Family. A future. All forfeit by choice. But it was here, on this ship, I found a price I was unwilling to pay. Though, now, as I draw nearer to the end of this life, I can appreciate the irony."
"It was my service as a Justicar that captured the attention of the Illusive Man and brought us together. Yet it was our time together that ended my role as a Justicar. If you would, please ask Miss T'Vari to come back in here. It's important that she not have any misconceptions."
"All right," Shepard said. "I should probably leave you two to talk."
"Unnecessary, unless I've somehow made you uncomfortable."
"Hardly," Shepard stood and smiled. "I just think she'll talk more freely if I'm not around."
"Very well. I shall be glad to share information she provides."
"You are welcome, Commander."
Shepard walked to the hatch, but stopped halfway and turned back to the former Justicar. She stared at him with pale blue eyes. "If you're no longer bound your oath to me, why are you staying here? Why don't you go home? Be with your daughters."
"I will serve you, Shepard. Your choices are my choices. Your morals are my morals. Your wishes are my code. That was my oath to you, regardless of my status as a Justicar. It will only be satisfied when the reapers have been defeated. Maybe then I will go home. But not before. That is, of course, assuming I'm still welcome here."
Shepard choked back a laugh. "Are you kidding? You unload all of that on me, and you think I'm going to say you're not? I mean, what can I do to reciprocate? Give up drinking? Get you new quarters?"
"Tell you what, say the word and I'll kick Garrus out of his room right now. He can sleep in the Battery. He spends all his time in there anyway."
"Shepard," Samara closed her eyes, but smiled. "That won't be necessary. I'm happy where I am."
"You're welcome here as long as you like, Samara. You know that."
"Thank you Shepard. Though, on the former subject, it wouldn't hurt for you to cut back on your alcohol consumption."
"Really? Because I was hoping that given your recent change in disposition, I could help you increase yours."
Samara stared at him.
Shepard held up a finger, a sign to himself to wait a moment before saying anything else. "I should go." He turned for the hatch. When it opened, he found Enlea pacing outside. She looked at him with wide eyes, then tried to peer behind him. He stopped himself just before saying the Justicar will see you now. Instead, he stepped aside and waved her through. "Sorry to interrupt, Enlea. Ship's business."
"Oh, not at all, Commander." Enlea bumped into the frame of the hatch as she passed by him. "I- we've got so much more to talk about."
"Of course." Shepard stepped out and the hatch slid shut. "Wow," he whispered to himself. Enlea's confession to Samara was one conversation he was glad he didn't have to be a part of. Shaking his head, he walked down the access way. At the other end, the door to Port Observation stood open as it typically was. Kasumi almost never shut out the crew from the lounge. But Shepard never made it. Something was posted on the wall opposite the elevator, on one of the doors to the officers' quarters. As he approached, he could make out many items hanging on what turned out to be the door leading to Garrus's berth.
A giant "Fleet and Flotilla" poster now dominated the narrow hatch, showing a turian man embracing his quarian lover in front of a field of stars… except the turian's face had been replaced with a crude cutout photo of Garrus wearing a colorful party hat taken at someone's birthday celebration, and the names attributed to the review blurbs praising the vid changed to the unfortunate victim's name. "Prepare to cry, a lot! - Garrus Vakarian." "An unabashedly sentimental salute to the love each of us hopes to find! - Garrus Vakarian." "A reminder that true love knows no boundaries, in space, or in our hearts. - Garrus Vakarian." "Garrus Vakarian gives the most tender, heartfelt performance of his career. I'm in love! - Garrus Vakarian."
"Nice," Shepard said, taking in the shrine to insipidness. Cutout hearts of different colors and materials lined the poster, each scrawled with trite cliches and platitudes and even a few truly awful attempts at verse in enough different handwriting styles that half the crew must have contributed. Shepard looked down and saw one of the hearts had fallen to the floor. He picked it up and flipped it over.
Roses are red, Garrus is blue, it read. Have you seen his testicles, he is missing two… Juvenile as it was, it still got a smirk out of Shepard. He held it up for closer inspection, and the smirk blossomed into a full-fledged smile. The handwriting, crisp and precise, was unmistakably that of Miranda Lawson. Shepard had seen it enough requisition forms and daily reports to know. He thought briefly about pocketing the note - there was no telling when he might need some leverage over his XO, but he couldn't bring himself to do it. Who was he to deny Miranda a laugh, especially at Garrus's expense?
"Pure poetry," Shepard said, and pressed the adhesive side firmly onto the door so it wouldn't fall off again. He then took a step back and aimed his omnitool for a picture. A work of art such as this needed to be preserved for the ages, and perhaps displayed at least once during every staff meeting for the next year.
He was still laughing as he walked to Port Observation, reviewing the picture on his omnitool. So even Miranda was getting into the act now... He'd have to come up with an addition of his own before it got taken down. He would be remiss in his duties as commander otherwise.
A flash of green on his left caught the corner of his eye and he turned toward it without thinking. The hiss of a hatch opening made him look up, and his omnitool de-rezzed as his arms fell to his side. The Life Support Control Room opened before him, as empty as it was when he first set foot aboard the Normandy SR-2. Almost in a trance, as he had done so many times before, he stepped inside.