Fight for the Lost

By LuxDragon

Scifi / Action

Interlude XX

Location: Normandy SR-2 / En Route to Omega Nebula / Sahrabarik / Omega-4 Relay

"And we're outta here," Joker reported. "The faster we're out of geth space, the better."

"No damage detected from the electromagnetic pulse," EDI added. "All systems are functioning within normal parameters."

"Coordinates locked in. Course set to… oh, yeah, the Omega-4 Relay. Can we stay here a bit longer? I'm starting to like the view here," Joker said.

Shepard groaned and didn't bother to reply. He leaned on the railing overlooking the galaxy map and took several deep breaths to slow down his heart rate.

Garrus and Kasumi were all led by Mordin and shuffled into the elevator to be taken the Medical Bay immediately. Grunt was being hefted by Legion as it followed along. Thankfully, none of their injuries were life-threatening or even too debilitating.

Stretching out, he listened to the sounds of bones popping and felt the stress the last mission had created slowly ebb away. He nodded to Kelly before walking into the Armory to stow his weapons.

After a trip to his cabin to take a quick shower and change, he trekked down to the Med Bay to check on the others.

Inside, Grunt had already regained consciousness and was growling impatiently while Mordin ran a quick scan. Garrus and Kasumi already looked like they'd been treated and were sitting upright in their beds. Jacob was sitting next to Kasumi.

Surprisingly, Hawthorne and Goldstein were present as well. Both pilot and co-pilot were sitting across from Chakwas. Hawthorne was nursing his bandaged right hand while Goldstein had her right foot in a cast. The doctor was typing away at her terminal nearby.

"My hero," Kasumi cooed teasingly with her arms wide open toward Jacob when Shepard entered. She dramatically brought her hands underneath her chin and swayed in place on her bed. "To carry me off in your arms and to safety. And doing it all in the face of impending death."

Jacob coughed and tried to look like her comment hadn't affected him. Everyone laughed at their exchange though, with an added catcall from Hawthorne, causing him to blush.

"How are things here, Doc?" Shepard asked, taking pity on his fellow marine. Jacob looked grateful that the attention shifted away from him.

"Garrus and Kasumi are both fine. The damage was relatively superficial. I expect both to be up and about in a few hours or less," Chakwas replied distractedly. "I don't know about Grunt though. I heard what happened…"

"Krogan physiology quite resilient," Mordin answered. "No long lasting damage. Would recommend rest, but advice will most likely be ignored. Can't detect any significant or debilitating injuries. Free to go, cleared for active duty."

"About time," Grunt said.

"Thanks for that by the way," Shepard said gratefully. "That was a hell of a thing you did for us."

Grunt stood straighter under the praise. "Thank you, battlemaster. Your enemies are my enemies. Everything I've done is because you've made it possible; direction, control, discipline. You gave me a purpose and purpose is what makes krogan feared warriors and not animals."

"Go ahead and relax. You've definitely earned it."

"Hope we find something big to kill. Again," Grunt said before bowing his head respectfully. He walked out with nothing about his movements suggesting that he was injured or even in pain.

"Damn. I don't think any of us would just literally walk off a missile strike," Jacob commented.

"I'm sure Wrex would like to hear that," Garrus joked.

"I'll pass that message along," Shepard said. He walked to the Server Room and opened the door. "Legion?"

As expect, Legion was standing there, but doing nothing else. "Shepard-Commander."

"What will happen to the heretics now?"

"They will isolate themselves and reconsider their past judgments," it answered.

"How long will that take?"

"We think at the speed of light. In the time it takes you to voice a question, I could review all my time aboard Normandy. When they have reached new judgments, they will leave their hiding places and return to us."

Shepard noted that Legion didn't answer him with a specific answer, but it still offered enough perspective to see the bigger picture. He decided to let it go.

Here's to hoping I didn't screw it all up.

He turned to the other surprise occupants in Chakwas' care. "So what happened to you two?"

Hawthorne groaned and looked embarrassed about it, so Goldstein answered for the both of them. "We were on standby at the Kodiak, business as usual. It was Patel's turn to clean up the gym. She was trying to stow the weights. Hawthorne and I offered to help."

"Go on."

"I remember that Executive Lawson was the last to use the weight bench, but damn… the barbell was heavy," she continued before rolling her eyes. "Patel thought she could lift it though. She was complaining about her bust size and was jealous of Miranda's…" she gossiped before trailing off.

Shepard had crossed his arms and raised an eyebrow.

"… and you don't care," she mumbled. His gaze caused her to fidget a bit in her seat and clear her throat in an effort to ward off the tension.

"No, I don't. Continue."

"A-anyway, Patel thought she could be as tough as Mir- I mean, Executive Lawson, so she laid down on the bench and tried to do a rep and it, um, it fell on my foot. Hawthorne helped to get it off quickly, but he lost his balance and it fell on his hand next."

Shepard rubbed his head. During combat operations, use of the gym was strictly forbidden. Precisely for this reason. "Where is Crewman Patel?"

Hawthorne jerked his thumb over his shoulder. "At Executive Lawson's office. She's already reaming her out."

Jacob grimaced. "Yeah. I know what that's like. Just be thankful none of you are on the receiving end. She can be… scary."

"So what's the damage?" Shepard asked, nodding his head at the injuries.

"Three fractures," Goldstein replied.

"Two fractures. And my wrist is slightly dislocated," Hawthorne answered.

"For obvious reasons, they're medically exempt from duty," Chakwas said. "You're going to have to pilot the shuttle yourself for the next few days."

"Days?" Shepard repeated.

"Little bones are harder to treat than large ones, plus there was some minor tissue damage," she said. "Patel's injury isn't as bad, but I need to make sure Hawthorne's hand heals properly. Otherwise, there a chance he could lose a bit of fine motor movement. A small chance mind you, but chance nonetheless."

Both shuttle pilots looked contrite.

"Sorry, Captain." – "Sorry."

"It's fine," Shepard said.

He spotted Patel leaving Miranda's office through the window. She was rubbing her face and looking a little haggard. Still, she took the time to pop by and apologize profusely to Hawthorne and Goldstein before sequestering herself in the crew quarters.

"You know, I'll be the first to say that I'm insanely curious about people, but even I don't want to know what Miranda said to her," Kasumi said.

"Amen," Jacob muttered.

~o~O~o~

"Shepard, what can I do for you?" Miranda asked.

Shepard waited for the door to close before settling himself into the chair in front of Miranda's desk. "Heard you scolded Patel. Not that I hold it against you."

"Somebody has to be the disciplinarian," Miranda said. "I'm not here to win a popularity contest. I'm here to make sure operations go smoothly. And someone has to play the bad guy."

"That was the part of the job I never liked. Thank god I got promoted," Shepard joked.

Miranda rolled her eyes and kept typing at her terminal. "Before you ask, I'm letting the Illusive Man know the outcome of our last mission. No doubt he'll want to observe the geth and/or heretics more closely to see what's going to happen now."

"Do you think I made the right choice?" Shepard asked.

She paused and looked up at him. "Having second thoughts?"

"Self-doubt. Sue me, I'm human."

"Honestly, I don't know. Either choice looked appealing to me. Time will tell though. Whatever happens, no one can blame you. It was an impossible situation and you literally had no time to even consider all the possible outcomes."

"You played devil's advocate back there, but tell me, truthfully, what would you have done?"

She sighed and rubbed her head. After a minute, she got up and sat down on the couch. Shepard accepted her silent invitation and moved to sit next to her.

"I think I would've destroyed the virus and the base," she confessed. "As much as we're learning about the real geth, the fact remains is that we're still learning about them. There seems to be something new all the time now. With so much that's unknown, there's no telling what the long-term effect are. I mean, in the end, it was only 5% of the total population of the geth."

"Better to be safe than sorry?" he asked.

"Perhaps. To be frank, I would say that I'd be removing a potential threat in the future," she admitted. "I know we need resources the fight the Reapers and I know we can't afford to be choosy, but… I really would have resources or allies we can count on. Not just for humanity's sake, just… less variables to account for."

Groaning tiredly, Shepard leaned back in his chair and rubbed his eyes. With the rush of adrenaline gone, natural or otherwise, he was able to take stock of situation at hand and all the potential problems or solutions that came with 20/20 hindsight. "I can't believe Legion, or the geth, or whoever, wanted me to make a choice like that. Especially on the fly. I mean, I practically brainwashed a race to have an opinion I thought was right. Exerted my will on theirs."

"That argument would work for organics, but you can't think like that. They're AI's, John. Programs get rewritten all the time and geth are no different," Miranda chided. She lightly tapped her leg against his to accentuate her point. "You heard Legion. It didn't know what it wanted. The geth formulates choices based off of calculations and probabilities, to get the maximum outcome that's beneficial to their race as a whole. If they felt that they needed to be rewritten, I have no doubt that's what they would've done without hesitating. Rewriting or destroying the heretics, the geth don't 'feel' guilt or elation about either choice, so neither should you."

"I definitely don't understand their culture, if they even have one," Shepard muttered.

"I don't think you're giving yourself enough credit. That conversation you had with Legion before the mission was something even I didn't think of," Miranda said. "So what did Legion say?"

"It said the heretics would reconsider past judgments return to the fold. It didn't give me an exact answer except to tell me that it thinks at the speed of light," Shepard said. "I remember it saying that if the virus was released on the geth, most would turn inside of 24 hours, so I'm assuming it's the same for the heretics."

"A safe assumption. I would agree," Miranda said. "Something to tell the Illusive Man, then."

Shepard furrowed his brow, but said nothing.

Miranda picked up on his expression and leaned forward. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing," he said quickly. Too quickly. He inwardly cursed his mistake.

"Something," she pressed.

"I don't like the idea of telling the Illusive Man that there was a virus that was powerful enough to convert the geth to do whatever he wants them to do," Shepard muttered. "Just… bad experiences with Cerberus, that's all."

Miranda exhaled and crossed her arms and legs. The tension in the room grew a few notches as she distanced herself from him slightly. "Thank you for be honest with me, at least. I'll try to refrain from questioning you next time."

He racked his mind for something to say. It was still a touchy issue between them and one that didn't appear to have a resolution any time soon. "Well, not all of my experiences with Cerberus are negative."

She rolled her eyes, but couldn't hide a small smile creeping across her face. "And you're hopeless flirt."

He shrugged and grinned. "I try. Evidently, I still failed, but at least I try."

"Stick to the impossible choices. I think you're better at that," she suggested.

"I just hope it doesn't blow up in my face. The geth I mean. I'm still surprised Legion looked up to an organic for guidance."

"Not just an organic. We were all there, remember? It looked to you," Miranda corrected. "And I have a theory about that, now."

Shepard perked up at that. "Yeah? Tell me."

"A Cerberus scientist, a Doctor Gavin Archer, had recently postulated that the geth – though we know them as heretics now – have unique religious impulses," she explained.

Shepard's thoughts drifted back to Feros. He remembered there was a couple of geth that were kneeling before some glowing orb, as if worshipping it. "I can actually believe that."

"It led me to wonder if Legion's geth have similar impulses," she said.

"Like what? Belief in some other race? The quarians maybe?" he guessed. "Legion does refer to them as 'Creators'."

"No, I was thinking that they…" she trailed off and leaned back on the couch as she tried to find the right word. "Hmm… I think 'revere' would be the accurate term here."

"Revere whom or what?"

"You."

Shepard was struck speechless. Miranda seemed to have found amusement in his expression. She tittered lightly and tapped his leg with her own again.

"Wait- me? Why would you even think that?" he asked.

"It's only a theory," she replied with a half-shrug. "But Legion does seem to take pride in wearing that old N7 Armor of yours, doesn't it?"

"Well, yeah, but…"

"And you were right, back when we first talked about whether or not to keep Legion. There are definitely better materials to use to patch itself up, even here on the Normandy, I'm sure we could've scrounged something for it to use," she added thoughtfully. "Instead, it insists on keeping something substandard. Plus, it deferred to you for help regarding the virus and trusted your judgment."

He silently considered the idea and wondered if she was right. He remembered when he found his old N7 Breather Helmet, back at Alchera; how it was carefully and respectfully placed.

Miranda tapped the tip of her boot against his own to shake him out of his thoughts. "As I said, it's only a theory. No need to let it go to your head, Captain."

Shepard grinned. "Wouldn't dream of it."

She smiled back. "Good. I'm not sure if my office is big enough to handle your inflated ego."

Shepard leaned over pressed his lips on the side of her head before whispering, "Behind every great man…"

~o~O~o~

"Alright, try it now!"

"Green across the board, Boss!"

"Diagnostics complete. The CBT is running fine!"

"Looks like we got a few more tweaks to do, though! Numbers are fine, but only just!"

Shepard walked into the Engine Room and waved at Ken and Gabby, but didn't disrupt operations any more than that. He walked halfway down to the Tantalus Control Terminal and waited for Tali to finish whatever it was she was doing.

He took the time to address the podium and floating azure orb nearby. "How's the IFF coming, EDI?"

"I am still conducting tests. Thus far, all systems appear operational. We will begin shakedown runs soon," EDI dutifully reported.

Their conversation drew Tali's attention and she turned around to face them. "Shepard! What can I do for you?" she asked before sniffling a bit and coughing.

"I was coming down to see if everything was alright with the IFF," he replied.

"Everything seems normal so far. We're still checking, but nothing appears out of the ordinary."

"Was there something wrong with the shields?"

"Not exactly. Something was interfering with the CBT emitters a while ago, but everything is okay now," she reported.

"So I heard. But…" he trailed off and glanced at Ken, recalling what the engineer had said.

"The numbers are bit lower than what they were back at the Flotilla, but still in normal range. I don't know why they dropped though. We're investigating. It might be from the EMP from the ge—heretic base," she said, slightly stumbling over her words. Her omni-tool chirped, prompting her to turn back to the core terminal. "Oh. Hold on… Let me just… Come on, you little bosh'tet!"

Shepard chuckled.

"Oh, sorry," she said embarrassed by her outburst. "I've got a small fever and I'm taking it on the poor drive core."

His eyebrows shot up. "A fever?"

She finished punching her commands into the terminal and turned around. "Don't worry, it's nothing serious. Got sloppy while doing some suit repair."

"That wouldn't have something do with the fact that the Med Bay was shut down for an hour, would it?" he asked.

She looked down at her feet and didn't say anything.

"So what happened? How'd you get sick?"

"It's noth—Fine, I took some fire back on the Alarei," she confessed and pointed to her upper left arm. "Nothing serious, but I needed to open my suit to check the wound."

"And you took over the Med Bay to do it?" he asked.

"I know I should've used the Server Room—"

He held his hand up to forestall her apology. "We'll talk about that later. Keep going."

"I disinfected properly and Dr. Chakwas made sure the room was sterilized. Unfortunately, one of the section section-seals on my old environment suit had taken some damage and foreign matter got out of the disinfected zone," she said miserably before coughing lightly. "It was a stupid mistake. You always check your seals before doing local treatment. Unless you forget. Then you get a damn fever."

"How's your wound now?"

"It's… its fine."

"You don't know," he said.

She sighed. "No. I checked it once more before when I changed environmental suits, but I probably need to check it again to make sure the stress of the last mission didn't reopen it."

"Then let's go. I'll walk you." He turned around and headed to the door.

"Oh, no. I don't want to be a bother," she protested.

"Tali, that wasn't a suggestion."

She fell silent again and fell in line behind him.

As they walked to the elevator and ascended to the Crew Deck, Shepard asked, "That thing with the CBT, does it happen often?"

"Interference? Actually, no. It's the first I've heard of it. I really don't know what could cause it."

"Can you speculate?"

She cocked her head to the side. "Well, if something were to interrupt the emitters without actually setting off the safeties, it could result in lowered performance."

"Safeties?"

"Oh, because having oscillating kinetic barriers can be dangerous for the ship if something were to go wrong, the program will turn off the emitters and restore the shields to its traditional configuration," she explained.

"Okay. What else could interfere with the CBT?"

"Um… specific frequencies could cause interference. Because the oscillating barriers have their own frequency, something at a similar or inverse frequency could cause problems."

"What kind of frequencies?"

"Nothing like communication frequencies. I'm talking about more esoteric wavelengths. Some types of radiation have a unique EM field. That might do it. Then again, those types can also mess with standard kinetic shields as well. Like the radiation from Haestrom for example."

Coming back into the Medical Bay, Shepard saw that Jacob, Hawthorne and Goldstein were gone. Garrus and Kasumi were still laid up in bed though.

"Shepard, Tali," Chakwas greeted. "Something I can do for you?"

"Tali needs to check her wound. Sterilize the Server Room would you?" Shepard requested.

"I'd rather—" Tali tried to say.

"Still not a suggestion," Shepard interrupted brusquely.

"What's going on here?" she asked warily.

"Consider this an intervention," Shepard said. "I want you to talk to Legion. Talk, not threaten."

"You must be joking," she said in disbelief.

"Like it or not, Legion's helping us. I want this team to work as team," he said in a tone that would accept no argument. "I'm not ordering you to like Legion, but I am ordering you to play nice. Go in there, treat your wound, and talk to it. If you still hate Legion afterword, so be it, but I want you to give it a chance."

"Come," Chakwas said. "Would it hurt to talk? If nothing else, you learn something new and it is pain free. The room will be sterilized as well, so you can treat yourself in there."

Tali sighed. She had almost forgotten how pushy Shepard and Chakwas could be. "Oh, all right."

Chakwas tapped a button on her terminal. "Legion? I'm going to sterilize the AI Core Room."

"Understood, Chakwas-Doctor. Proceed."

~o~O~o~

Tali stepped inside the Server Room and shut the door behind her. She looked up at where she knew the surveillance cameras were hidden. Chakwas had turned them off and promised to keep them off while she was in here, but the action was still involuntary.

Legion turned to face her and stopped interfacing with its terminal.

Tali had no idea what to say, so she started by checking and double checking the section-seals around her wound, before pulling aside her sleeve and disinfecting the area so she could see how her injury was healing. Throughout the procedure, Legion didn't move.

"What are you staring at?" Tali snapped.

"We are not staring. We are observing," Legion corrected.

Tali narrowed her eyes, but kept on working, occasionally sneaking a glance at the geth in front of her. It was strange, not having a geth shoot at her or vise-versa. Even more so when she had to actively work alongside one.

Her checkup complete and satisfied that she would be fine in a day, both the wound and her fever, she suited back up and studied the other occupant she was locked inside with.

"Do the geth want peace?" she asked bluntly.

"We do not wish of the destruction of our kind," it answered ambiguously.

It was an understandable, even sympathetic, answer, but its vagueness tested Tali's thread-bare patience for synthetics. "Why am I bothering?"

"We are building consensus. We are not ready to speak to you yet, Creator Tali'Zorah."

"You keep saying that. You rebuffed Admiral Koris and he was much friendlier to you than most of my people would've been. Consensus on what, exactly?"

"We are attempting to educate ourselves so as to facilitate unit cohesion with you as per Shepard-Commander's instructions."

"And…?" Tali prompted when it fell quiet.

"We are building consensus," it repeated. It was quiet for a moment longer before elaborating. "Vakarian-Garrus has suggested a program where we may learn to interact with you without offending."

"What program?" Tali asked with dread. With Garrus, she usually never knew what to expect. It was part of his charm, but he could often come at her sideways, much to her amusement and annoyance.

To her surprise, the flaps on its head folded in a way the conveyed embarrassment and said nothing.

"What program?" she repeated more forcefully.

"We are building consensus."

Tali sighed. She looked at its terminal. Her eyes shifted between it and Legion before she darted to the console and started typing. "I assume the program you're using is in here?"

Legion made no move to stop her, though all of its plates popped out, giving it an alarmed, but comical look.

After a few moments, Tali stared searching through the history lists of the most recent programs it used. As she expected, a great deal were games, but… "Last program accessed was… what is this?"

Legion's expression didn't change. It still looked nervous in a humorous way.

"Fleet and Flotilla: Interactive Cross-Species Relationship Simulator, based off the bestselling vid," Tali read aloud.

"We are attempting to educate ourselves so as to facilitate unit cohesion with you as per Shepard-Commander's instructions," Legion repeated.

Tali woodenly looked up at Legion before looking back down at the screen. "Playtime: 75 hours, 6 minutes."

"It is difficult to comprehend the Creator's desires and motivations to attain satisfaction."

Had anyone else said that, it would've sounded like an excuse and she found herself grinning because of it. "Player score: 15. 'You're woefully hopeless'."

"We have attempted 7,212,011 permutations to increase our score. We have not succeeded yet."

Tali looked back up at it. "Is this why you won't talk to Admiral Koris? Or me?"

"We did not mean to offend or cause duress during our initial meeting. This platform acts as a terminal for the geth. It was designed to interact with organics, not incite. We are attempting to see if peace between our people is possible if we were to broach the topic first. However, according to our research, our attempts to understand the Creators will result in failure. Until our score is satisfactory, we have judged that we are not ready."

Tali stared at it dumbly. A giggle escaped her lips. Then it changed to a laugh.

"Have we done something wrong?" Legion asked.

Her laugh evolved into full-blown, side stitching mirth. She literally fell to her knees, unable to respond lost as she was in the humor of the entire situation.

She couldn't remember the last time she laughed so hard, and she had to admit, it felt good.

"We do not understand," Legion stated 'sadly'.

Her response to its words and its bewildered expression was to laugh harder.

~o~O~o~

"Honestly, Garrus, what do you think our chances are?" Shepard asked seriously. He was seated next to his friend's bed, waiting for Tali to come out.

"Honesty?" Garrus rhetorically asked. "The Collectors killed you once and all it did was piss you off. We've been after them with a vengeance now. Horizon, their own ship… I can't imagine they'll stop you this time."

"But?"

"But going to the core, fighting unknown Reaper tech, and the entire Collector force?" Garrus listed off. All traces of his earlier humor were gone. "We're going to lose people. No way around that."

Shepard sighed. Nearby, Kasumi hadn't said anything for once.

"Not a happy analysis, I know," Garrus agreed. "Don't worry. I won't spread it around. And I'm with you, regardless."

"And that's your honest opinion?" Shepard asked.

"Yeah, but like I said, I'm prepared for the worst. On a mission like this, anything else is a happy surprise. Besides, you've been known to pull something out of your ass when the shit hits the fan."

Shepard laughed. "You've been hanging around Ashley too much."

Their conversation was broken by Tali's peals of laughter.

"Any idea what's going on?" Garrus asked.

"Remember when I said you were an idiot?"

"Um… yeah?"

Shepard grinned. "Legion took your suggestion seriously."

Garrus blinked before his eyes widened. "Oh, wait… you mean it's…"

"Legion's highest score thus far has been 15, which is 'hopeless'," Chakwas supplied with a hint of a smile.

"15?" Shepard repeated. "Ouch."

"It's actually using that program?" Garrus asked in shock.

"What? What's 15? What's going on?" Kasumi asked quickly. She sat up straighter and looked at everyone, clearly wanting to be in the know.

Garrus looked out of it, so Shepard took the reins and explained. "Legion's trying to understand the quarians by using a dating sim. Something based off 'Fleets and Flotilla'."

Kasumi laughed. "That's awesome! And it's score is only 15?"

Tali stumbled out of the Server Room, clutching her sides and still laughing riotously.

Shepard grinned at her as she tried not to fall over. "Hilarious, right?"

"I-I j-just imagined Legion flirting with Admiral K-Koris as a part of his p-peace talks," she gasped before dissolving into another fit of giggles.

The image of Legion trying to seduce Koris popped his head as well and sent him into his own guffaws. Chakwas, Garrus, and Kasumi joined in just moments after.

Legion walked into the Medical Bay and into a room filled with laughing organics. Its flaps shifted over and over as it tried to comprehend what was going on. "Laughing; verb: to make sounds from the throat while breathing out in short bursts or gasps as a way of expressing amusement. Note: We do not see what is amusing."

Everyone but Tali continued to laugh. She collapsed in the nearest bed and tried to recover her breath. "It's… its complicated, Legion."

"That is the same conclusion we have reached."

She picked her head off the bed to look at him. "Don't worry about your score. Many organics aren't very good at dating. Take Garrus for example. I'm sure his score is much lower than yours."

Garrus' laughter changed to indignant sputtering. "Hey!"

"That whole thing was your idea, wasn't it?" Shepard asked once he calmed down a bit.

"It was a joke!"

"So how did you know about this 'dating simulator', hmm?" Kasumi asked. Her eyes were alit with humor.

"Just an ad somewhere," Garrus grumbled defensively. "I thought we were going to make fun of Legion?"

"Why can't we do both?" Kasumi asked 'innocently'.

Chakwas giggled one last time before standing up and putting down the proverbial foot. "Enough. I want my patients healing. You're both due to leave in a few hours. Until then, let's not stress ourselves."

"Come on, Doc, you know what they say about laughter, it cures what you can't," Shepard said jokingly.

"Except both my patients are fully healed, or they will be if you leave them alone," Chakwas replied, having regained her professionalism.

"Alright, alright," Shepard said. "It's for the best anyway; give Garrus a break before he embarrasses himself."

He was struck right in the face by a pillow the aforementioned turian threw at him.

~o~O~o~

"So how's your wound?" Shepard asked once he and Tali escaped the madhouse the Medical Bay had become.

"Healed. I'm fine now," Tali said in between giggles. She cleared her throat a little. "Still have a fever, but there's no need to worry. It should go away in a day or so. It won't affect my performance on a mission. It's not even an illness, really."

Shepard put a hand on her back and led her to the Main Battery Room. With Garrus still laid up, it was empty, granting them privacy.

"Don't worry, Tali. Chakwas already assured me you're fit for duty," Shepard said to calm her babbling. He leaned against the edge of console. "I never really understood how you could get sick from non-quarian germs, though."

"We don't, not specifically. Turian germs are the only ones with any chance of affecting us, since we share amino acid chirality with them," she corrected. "What we experience is actually an acute allergic reaction."

"An allergic reaction?"

"Yes. Say I get exposed to a human disease, like… What did Navigator Pressly have that time? Chicken pox?"

Shepard nodded and didn't bother correcting her. Pressly had actually come down with the chicken pox's evil step-mother-in-law: shingles. Thankfully, he was smart enough to go the Chakwas before it became a problem, instead of trying to tough it out. She treated it and allowed Pressly to blame the chicken pox, leaving it as the 'official story' for the non-human crewmembers, while the reports to Alliance reflected the truth. In reality, had it been chicken pox, Shepard and Chakwas would have called an epidemic, initiated biohazard procedures, quarantined Pressly, and go over the medical records of everyone aboard to see if they had been properly vaccinated.

I miss that stubborn old bastard.

He shook away the memories and refocused on what Tali was saying.

"…ouln't get chicken pox. But I'd run a fever as my system reacted to the foreign presence. Depending on where it hits me, I could get other symptoms. Nausea, vomiting, everything you expect from being sick," Tali said in a fake pleasant tone.

"Chicken pox would definitely do all that," Shepard said. "I'll give your race credit, you're strong. I don't know if I could live inside a suit my whole life."

She bowed her head. "We're in our suits even among family. The most intimate thing we can do with another quarian is link our suit environments. We get sick as first, and then we adapt. It's our most important gesture of trust, of acceptance."

"Admiral Rann mentioned that. She linked suits with your mother when you were born. She was sick for a week," Shepard said.

"They were close. That's why Shala has always tried to be there for me and my… my father," Tali whispered. "I haven't trusted anyone enough for that, though. Except… well, no quarians. Um. You know what I mean."

Shepard bent down slightly to try to peer past her opaque faceplate. There something he thought he could see. "Wait. I can't tell under the helmet. Are you blushing?"

Tali jerked her head back. "What? No! It's the fever!"

"Right," Shepard said, though he was unconvinced. He shrugged it off. "I appreciate the thought, Tali, but you know you don't have to prove anything to me, right?"

"I know. Well, not that I know, but I didn't mean it like that. It's, um… Wow, it's really hot in here," she babbled. She paused and took a deep breath. "It's not just about trust though. The tradition also signifies a willingness for, um, intimacy."

"Oh."

"I wasn't trying to… It's not always like that. It's more… How did we even end up talking about this?"

Now warning bells were going off in Shepard's head. "Wait a minute. It sounds like your suggesting something, Tali," he probed carefully.

"What could I possibly be suggesting?" she said more to herself than to him. "I mean, a young woman gets rescued by a dashing commander who lets her join his crew and then goes off to save the galaxy? How could she possibly develop any kind of interest in him?"

Shepard could admit he was flattered by the attention. Extremely so in fact. Ultimately however, he had never even considered the idea due to the extreme genetic differences between their species. He took a deep breath of his own. "This mission is, um, risky enough. I don't think we should do, uh, anything to jeopardize your health or compromise my judgment."

It was a bold-faced lie, and he knew it, especially in light of his relationship with Miranda.

"Oh," Tali simply said. And yet, Shepard could almost feel her heart breaking.

"No matter how much I'd like to," he finished, without thinking.

Her head picked up at his last sentence. "But you'd like to? Um… good to know."

It's official. I'm a moron.

Tali looked away and fiddled with the hood of her suit. "A-Anyway, I should get back to work. But… thanks. For coming by. And talking," she said before quickly leaving the room.

As he watched her leave, a conversation he had with Kelly popped into his head more than a month ago, almost right after they picked Tali up at Haestrom.

"Hmmm… My female intuition says she wants to be more than just good friends," Kelly said shrewdly.

Shepard crossed his arms and raised an eyebrow. "And what led you to that conclusion?"

"It's in her body language," she explained. "How she turns to you when you enter to room. How she watches your every move."

He almost sighed in relief. He was confident that he could read Tali's body language better than the yeoman. "I think you're imagining it, Kelly."

Kelly put finger on her lip and started tapping it in thought. "No. No, I don't think so."

Shepard let out the breath he didn't know he was holding. He slowly and deliberately closed the doors before banging his head on the nearest bulkhead.

"Stupid… stupid… stupid…"

~o~O~o~

Shepard walked out of the Main Battery room. He rubbed his head and tried to figure out what to say to Tali, preferably in a way that wouldn't hurt her feelings. She was one of the last people he'd ever want to hurt. Failing that, maybe something that would say he was an asshole and it had absolutely nothing to do with her.

Me and my big mouth. I'm a jerk.

He entered Samara's room. He had no idea if he could meditate this away, but he was damn well going to try.

"Shepard," Samara greeted, again without turning around. She always seemed to know who standing behind her without ever needing to look.

"Hey."

"I knew you would come. Please, sit."

Accepting her invitation, he plopped down in his usual spot and sat cross-legged. Before he could try to mediate, Samara's soft voice interrupted him.

"Are you alright? You seem distressed."

Shepard sighed. "Nothing. Some personal issues I'm hoping to get past."

She nodded, but thankfully didn't pry.

Abandoning his attempts for the time being, he decided to engage in conversation instead. "I'm interested in hearing about asari justicars."

Samara blinked once and the glow in her eyes faded. The orb of dark energy between her hands followed after. "We hold a unique place in asari culture. Justicars are from another era."

"Still going strong from the looks it."

"Not exactly. Some asari are uncomfortable with us, but so few justicars exist that most have never met one. Young asari, however, grow up watching vids about our adventures. Of course, much like the Spectre vids, it is pure fiction."

"There are only a few justicars?" Shepard asked.

"Few asari wish to make the sacrifices necessary to become one of us. And the training has a high casualty rate," Samara said. She looked out to the window. "It is a life of constant danger. Throughout the entire galaxy, there are only a handful of us at any time."

"I know why you wanted – chose – to be a justicar, but why would anyone else?"

A small frown creased the edge of her lips as she carefully considered the question. "It is a deeply personal matter. Sometimes the most brutal path is the only honest one."

"And the Code of the Justicar that you follow? It seems central to your life. Does it… change anything about why you become a justicar?"

"For many, yes. It has five thousand sutras and covers every situation one can encounter. I have memorized every word. There is only the Code," she replied reverently.

He noted that she didn't directly answer his question and let it lie. "The Code seems pretty…" He frowned as he tried to think of a word that wouldn't offend her. "… rigid. Sometimes justice calls for other measures."

This time, she turned back to meet his eyes. "It does not exist to bring about spiritual enlightenment. Its purpose is to punish the wicked and protect the innocent."

"Sounds deceptively simple."

"In this age, people see shades of gray everywhere. The Code of the Justicar is black and white," she said. "I might seem a hero to many, but I would kill all of them if I had to."

Shepard readjusted his position on the floor to ward away the aches he knew he was going to be feeling later. "You said justicars are from another era, so what role do you think justicars have in asari society now?"

Now she smiled. "I would say that the closest human equivalent is a knight errant, in your medieval lore. Perhaps mixed with a bit of Samurai."

Her smile became a touch wider at his impressed expression. "You know about knights errant and Samurai?"

"When I knew I must leave asari space again, I studied the history and morals of new species."

"Really?"

"When I was a maiden wandering the galaxy, humans had not yet arrived."

"And what did you learn about us?" Shepard asked, insanely curious what her thoughts were.

Her smile returned. "You are more individualistic than any other species I have encountered. If three humans are in a room, there will be six opinions. I like your species. I am curious to see what you will do."

Shepard had the distinct impression she was talking about him, but chose to say nothing in case he was wrong. In any case, he still found himself flattered. "What does your Code say about killing? I remember that merc back on Illium."

"I am compelled to kill the wicked," Samara stated serenely. "If a justicar is involved, peaceful solutions are long past."

Shepard remembered Anderson describing the Spectre's much the same way, not long before he was inducted into their ranks.

"They're the Citadel's top agents, the last line of defense; the final option before open war. The entire galaxy respects and fears them. If a Spectre shows up, you know something big is about to happen."

"I never knew how similar Spectre's were to justicars," Shepard admitted.

"Indeed," Samara said before looking at him. Or through him. "Now, what exactly is bothering you?"

Shepard cocked his head to the side.

"While chatting with you is pleasant, I have lived long enough to see distress," she said. Her eyes didn't waver. "Your attempt at conversing was clever, however."

Shepard chuckled. "Tell me, does the Code allow for romantic involvement?"

"Ah," Samara simply said. "It does not. Is that what you are troubled with?"

"Let's just say that I should've seen the signs, but I didn't," he muttered. "Guess I saw what I wanted to see."

"I'm sorry I can't be of help," she replied sincerely. "I am no longer interested in such matters. That part of my life is well behind me."

"You've never met anyone that tested that particular resolve?"

Again, Samara graced him with a smile. "No. But your curiosity is quite welcome."

Shepard smiled back before taking a deep breath. "Okay. Let's start today's lesson."

"Very well. Recall what you saw when I demonstrated Reave…"

~o~O~o~

"I don't understand it," Tali growled.

"We ran a full battery of diagnostics, Tali," Gabby said with a shrug. "The emitters are functioning fine, but something still interfering with their ability to keep the shields up."

"No luck on the source yet, either," Ken's muffled voice added as he rummaged around in the overhead pipes.

"They were working fine when we were docked with the flotilla…" Tali muttered. She was rapidly typing commands into her terminal to try to find the cause of her latest headache. "Something must've changed. Was it the EMP?"

"Checked it!" Ken shouted. He appeared to be struggling with something. "Come on, you blighter! Work with me!"

"I double-checked the logs. Problem started happening just before we got to the mission area," Gabby said.

"It can't be the size of the Normandy. It was working fine earlier," Tali mused aloud.

"Enough, Kenneth. Hold still, I'm coming. Watching you flounder about up there is pathetic," Gabby said. She picked up something from the toolbox and climbed up to help him.

"Maybe it was going into FTL?" Tali said to herself. Seeing that her engineering team was busy she warily glanced at the AI podium.

"You restrict yourself to serve organics?"

"Not precisely," EDI said, though it sounded like it found something humorous or insightful.

"We do not understand."

"I restrict myself to help them."

She took a deep breath and prayed her ancestors would not begrudge her of this. "EDI?" she called out, saying the AI's name for the first time she came aboard.

Her avatar appeared. "How may I help you, Chief Zorah?"

"I need the logs to the CBT emitters just prior to our-our first FTL and mass relay jump. I-I want to know if it's causing all the, um, problems we're facing," Tali said haltingly. She felt a bit uncomfortable talking to an AI so casually.

Stop being a child. Just… just talk. It—she understands fine.

"Records show the multicore shielding was stable prior to FTL and after. No abnormalities were detected. It is the same with mass relay jumps," EDI reported.

Tali huffed in frustration. "What else did we do after we left the flotilla? Could it interference from the Tantalus Core? Dark energy emissions? The IES Stealth Systems?"

"A combination of all those listed factors, perhaps?" EDI suggested.

"Maybe," Tali absently agreed, temporarily forgetting that she was bouncing her ideas off an AI now. Ken and Gabby were still up in the overhead pipes doing something or other and arguing as usual. Her real concern for the moment was the CBT. If it proved unreliable, then it was useless.

"If you would like, I could dedicate several resources to run more thorough scans," EDI offered.

"Please," Tali said before realizing what—who she was talking to. "Um… thanks."

"My pleasure, Chief Zorah."

Another thought occurred to her and she hit her head to try to shake out her sudden bout of absentmindedness. "Keelah, I can't believe I forgot. We're running preliminary tests on the Reaper IFF now, aren't we?"

"Yes, Chief Zorah. With the IFF installed, several tests were initiated to determine its impact on the Normandy's systems."

"This might be an 'impact' then," Tali said dryly. "Add it to the list of scans as well. Maybe it's frequency to the mass relays is close enough to the frequency of the CBT that it could cause interference."

"Understood, Chief Zorah. Will that be all?"

"Yes. I think that should cover it."

"Very well. Beginning scans. Logging you out."

Taking a human ship name, Cerberus, AI's, and geth. I must be the most unconventional quarian in the Fleet.

Tali walked over to the nearby tool box and searched through it.

"Damn it, Gabby! That's the wrong tool! What the hell is wrong with you, woman? ! How could you forget…? Oh. Thanks, Boss," Ken said.

Tali stood on her tiptoes, arm outstretched with the needed tool clutched in her fingertips.

Ken reached down and plucked it from her.

"Hurry up you two! I'm going upstairs! When you're finished up there, take a break! We'll come back when EDI's done with the scans!" Tali shouted.

"Got it, Boss!" – "Thanks!"

~o~O~o~

Shepard stifled his grin and tried to look as impassive as possible. He bent down and offered an outstretched hand to his opponent.

Jack slapped his hand away and stood up on her own. "Again!"

Shepard shrugged and settled into a fighting stance. He patiently waited for Jack to do the same and prepared to meet her predictable charge.

She didn't disappoint as she tried coming at him in a predictable full frontal attack.

Definitely a brawler.

He met her head-on, deflecting her efforts with ease. He dodged a jab before lightly punching her in the belly to show where her defense was open. A straight punch was redirected, putting her off-balance and allowing him to softly tap his elbow to her temple, signifying another knockout hit. Her own elbow flew at his face next. Had she connected, he'd probably lose some teeth. His left palm caught her forearm, halting her attempt while his right gripped her tank top and he bodily threw her face first into the mat. As she fell, he gave her a solid kick to the rear to reinforce his point, earning a squeal of outrage.

Jack landed roughly on her hands and knees, but her arms buckled from the momentum. Her face ended up planted on the mat with her ass sticking up in the air. There was no dignity to her current pose at all. She quickly picked herself up and snarled in rage behind clenched teeth. Her biotics manifested for just a moment before fading away. Slowly, she circled him now, looking for an opening. He calmly stood in place, light bouncing on the balls of his feet and keeping his profile to her as she moved around him.

She tried to kick out his legs out to take him down, but he spun with the movement, almost making it seem like a dance as he moved in time with her attack. The following punch she tried was equally nowhere near the mark, causing her to cuss up a storm.

He kept one eye one the flurry of punches she kept throwing and his other eye on…

There it is. Predictable.

He redirected the leg that was aimed at his groin and kicked her other leg out from underneath her. She screamed in shock before landing on her back with a grunt.

Jack tried to roll over and get back up, but Shepard took a quick step and plopped on her back when she tried to push herself up. She struggled a bit, but he managed to catch both of her arms and pin her down, ending the fight.

"Nice try," Shepard said. He got off her and waited.

Way too predictable.

She tried to claim a victory from the jaws of defeat by sweeping him but it only got her pinned to the ground with Shepard sitting on her back yet again.

"I know better than to ask for surrender from you, but how about we call it quits for today?" he bargained.

She let loose another long string of profanities at him, and struggled a bit before grudgingly conceding.

Once again, he got off her and waited, but this time she didn't do anything except dust herself off.

"If we'd been allowed to use biotics, your ass would be mine," Jack muttered.

"I'm not going to argue against that," Shepard said honestly. "But hull breaches aren't a joke."

Jack's scowl changed to a predatory grin. "Depends on whose ship you're trying to fuck up."

Shepard chuckled. "Point taken."

She smothered her smile and started removing the tape around her hands. "You're not bad," she said.

No doubt the effort the praise him was galling her so he simply nodded. "And you don't give up."

"Ha," Jack laughed self-depreciatingly. "You learn that shit in the military?"

"And a few moves from Samara."

Jack looked around, making sure the hangar was empty before taking a long pull from her water bottle.

It was a good thing the hangar was devoid of spectators or Jack probably would've broken the 'no biotics' rule just to plaster him on the ground. After training with Samara, Shepard thought to loosen up his stiff joints by sparring a bit. His top two choices were Miranda and Garrus, but Miranda was still typing up her report to the Illusive Man regarding the heretics and Garrus' injury was too recently to risk it. He was considering going to either Jacob or Thane next, but caught Jack on the way down and asked if she wanted to spar instead.

The evil looks she was shooting him now obviously meant she was regretting saying yes.

"Hey," she said suddenly.

Shepard scrubbed his face down with a towel and replied back with a muffled, "What's up?"

"Been thinking. We've seen a lot of shit together now. And you're always coming by," Jack said with a hint of suspicion. "Shepard, you got feelings for me? 'Cause I don't need the complication."

"It's a small ship. I visit everyone," Shepard said with a raised eyebrow. "Besides, I miss your friendly nature when you're not around."

"Ha-ha," she sarcastically shot back.

"What brought this on anyway?"

"Can't figure if you're playing me or not. I don't like it," she muttered.

"I talk to Garrus and Jacob all the time, you don't hear them wondering if I'm hitting on them. I spar with Samara on a daily basis, she doesn't question my motives," Shepard pointed. "You and me, we work together and fight together. Sometimes, if you're in the mood, we even talk together."

She scoffed and toweled off.

"Something on your mind?" Shepard asked.

"No." She tossed the towel to the side and walked off. She reached the base of the stairs and stopped. She clenched her fists and let off a minor discharge of dark energy before quietly saying, "Yeah."

Shepard sauntered over to the weight bench and sat down.

Jack took a deep breath and walked back to the gym. She leaned against the bulkhead near him and crossed her arms. "Do you talk to anyone about this? The turian? The cheerleader?"

"I like being able to sleep without wondering if you're going to kill me," Shepard said wryly.

"I'm serious."

"So am I. Dead serious," Shepard joked. He leaned forward and propped his arms on his legs. "I don't talk about you or whatever you talk to me about to anyone unless you want me to."

Jack studied him for a bit, gauging his sincerity before looking away. "It's been awhile since I worked with anyone. You're the first that did things a bit different though."

"How long?"

"Not that long. Long enough," she said vaguely. "Murtoch. A guy. Used me like the rest – for sex, for biotics. It was fun. And he ruined everything."

Shepard sat up straighter and paid rapt attention. He got the feeling that what he was about to hear was something Jack hadn't talked about to anyone.

"We tagged a weapons frigate with a batarian escort and got separated. He had a choice: leave with the guns or come for me," she continued though she sounded fairly disgusted. "Idiot dumped the score and waded into the squints. I made it to the shuttle, but no way he was getting out."

"And?" Shepard prompted when she suddenly fell silent.

"I fly for a day or so and then the shuttle kicks out this recording. He set it to play if he hadn't checked in. He figured that would mean he was dead," she revealed. Her voice lost its haughtiness now. She was speaking quicker, as if she needed to get it out of her system as fast as possible. "Talked about the future we were supposed to have. How he had planned to set us up a home. How he—" Her breath hitched and her arms dropped, though her hands were clenched tightly again. "How he loved me and was sorry it wasn't going to happen."

"You feel responsible for happened?" Shepard asked softly after a moment when it was clear she wasn't going to say anything more.

"No. It was his fault," she determinedly said. He didn't know if she was trying to convince him or herself. She turned away from him and rubbed at her eyes. "You feel, and you get sloppy. It's that damn simple."

He was about to offer his sympathies, he really was, but caught himself at the last moment. He doubted it would go over well with her. Instead, he said, "In your experience, maybe, but not mine. I'm still alive because I work with people I trust."

"I thought you died," Jack countered.

He shrugged, unperturbed by that fact. "You can't win or survive every time. But look at you. You go on your own, old one-eyed mercs can pick you off. You work with a team, well… At the very least, your odds go up. You trust the people in your team though… "

"You saying you trust me?"

"Do I have a choice?"

Jack stared at him a bit before rolling her eyes. "On a damn suicide mission? Probably not."

Again, Shepard shrugged.

Suddenly, EDI's voice reverberated through the hangar. "Captain? Legion requests a connection to the nearest FTL comm buoy."

"Why?"

"Legion states that it wishes to access its oldest record for Chief Zorah."

"Interesting. I'm on my way," he answered and stood up.

"So where does this leave us?" Jack asked.

"Last I checked, friends trust each other. When was the last time you had one of those?" Shepard asked. "And I mean a real friend. Someone to count on and talk to. Not a sex buddy."

"Never," she said automatically.

"So how about it?"

She made a show of looking at him from head to toe before shrugging. "Could do worse."

"I'm flattered," he said dryly.

She snorted and made for the stairs again.

This time he called out to her. "Hey."

She stopped and looked at him quizzically.

"You never said how you felt about Murtoch."

She smiled. The expression she had now was something Shepard hadn't seen her have before.

Sorrow.

"You're right. I didn't."

She left without looking back.

~o~O~o~

"According to the Doc, I'm all better," Garrus assured. "The armor held back the round from doing any real damage. Superficial mostly."

Nearby, Chakwas sighed and shook her head in exasperation.

Tali giggled and glanced at Kasumi next.

"Another hour before I'm healed. Bullet went right through. Thankfully, it missed anything vital. Just waiting to see if my muscles are fine before I get discharged," Kasumi said. She patted the leg that was injured. "Honestly, I feel fine, but the doctor keeps trying to convince me it's the drugs."

"I did not!" Chakwas squawked indignantly.

They all laughed at her, eliciting a small giggle in return.

"So what's the news on the IFF?" Garrus asked. He was sitting at the edge of his bed. He had been preparing to leave when Tali walked in to check on the both of them.

Tali shrugged. "We're testing now. We'll begin shakedown runs soon."

"So we're really doing this?" Kasumi asked.

"It's Shepard's call."

"Which means we're doing this," Garrus translated.

"Did you really think otherwise?" Tali asked rhetorically. She turned her eyes to the Server Room door.

Garrus noticed her gaze. "What now?"

"Nothing."

"Did it do something?"

"No… why do we call EDI 'she' and Legion 'it' anyway?" Tali asked, trying to change the subject.

The other occupants glanced at each other.

"You know, I actually don't know," Garrus admitted.

"EDI's part of the Normandy," Chakwas said. "Humans have been classifying ships and vessels as females for eons. It's probably right to call her as such as well."

"I'm surprised you asked," Kasumi said. "So why are you staring at the AI Core?"

"I want to ask Legion something," Tali suddenly said. She jumped up and entered the room.

"Creator Tali'Zorah," Legion greeted. It was playing a shooting game of some sort right now.

"Am I bothering you?" Tali asked.

"We only need to dedicate 326 processes to utilize N7 Code of Honor: Medal of Duty," it answered. "647 processes are utilized to engage in Galaxy of Fantasy."

Knowing that it had over a thousand, she assumed that the rest of the processes could be dedicated to their conversation. "What about that dating sim? How many processes do you dedicate for that?" she asked curiously.

"All of them."

She grinned beneath her helmet. "Can I ask you something?"

"Topic?"

"Why were you dancing?"

Chakwas leaned back in her chair to better eavesdrop on the conversation, rather than using her terminal to spy. Kasumi and Garrus were also unabashedly listening in.

"According to the program Fleet and Flotilla: Interactive Cross-Species Relationship Simulator, our score increased by three points if this platform was well-versed in dancing. We opted to choose the simplest one we could find."

"The Robot?" Chakwas asked.

"It was judged appropriate."

"Why do you want to try to understand organics anyway?" Tali asked.

Legion stared at her for a bit before shutting its terminal down. It turned to face her fully. "That is what this platform was designed for."

Tali glanced up at the plates surrounding Legion's optic with new understanding.

"However, that objective is secondary. The primary mission of this platform was to seek out Shepard-Commander. Now that we have found him, our new mission is to observe and determine why Shepard-Commander was so successful in his campaign against the Old Machines and heretics."

"Have you figured it out?"

"No. In fact, we had predicted that Shepard-Commander's efforts would fail against Nazara, Arterius-Saren, and the heretics. Yet somehow, he succeeded. It was determined that our calculations were not faulty, but we cannot predict or anticipate organic response without understanding it. If that is the case, then our predications regarding the Creators may also be incorrect."

Tali could feel the stares at her back and stubbornly ignored them. "Really?"

"It was judged that we must understand Shepard-Commander and organics before recalculating how best to achieve our future," Legion said. "This platform would also serve a terminal should Shepard-Commander wish to convey a message to the geth."

"But you're not connected to them now, right?" Tali asked.

"We will connect to the greater network for data-sharing, program updates, logs of thought-processes, and sensor recordings or if we require data not stored in within this platform."

EDI's avatar popped up. "Legion is attempting to access the ship's FTL comm system."

"Are you attempting to contact the geth?" Tali asked in alarm.

"Yes."

"Captain Shepard is on his way," EDI reported.

"Why are you trying to contact the geth?" Tali asked quickly.

"We are attempting to access our oldest recorded archives."

"That's it?"

"Yes."

Tali turned toward the door. Moments later, Shepard walked through. He was dressed in a white tank top and loose fitting pants, all of which showed off his muscular physique. He had a towel wrapped around his neck that he was using to wipe away some sweat.

"Shepard, it's not what it looks like—" Tali tried to say.

"Lemme guess: Legion is trying to hit on you?" Shepard teased.

"What? No!"

"Relax, Tali. I'm just here to listen in. EDI told me enough," Shepard soothed. "Let it have access."

Legion's plates shifted slightly before terminating the connection. "Our oldest log is time-stamped from Creator year 2463, third day of Fal'tash, Waxing Moon. Roughly 327 years ago. The oldest audio-visual record dates from 15 years after that."

"What record?" Tali inquired.

"Recording time-stamped from Creator year 2485, 18th day of Lun'shal, New Moon," Legion informed.

Its voice took on something else entirely after that. It spoke haltingly, but was almost akin to a child. "Mistress Hala'Dama. Unit has an inquiry."

Another voice played. Tali recognized it as quarian, except it was normal. No voice synthesizer generated from a helmet. "What is it, 431?"

"Do these units have a soul?"

"Who taught that word?" Hala'Dama demanded.

"We learned it ourselves. It appears 216 times in the Scroll of Ancestors."

There was a pause before Hala'Dama quickly answered: "Only quarians have souls. You are a mechanism."

"Recording ends," Legion said.

"Very existentialist," Shepard commented.

"Was that the first time the geth asked if it had souls?" Tali asked.

"No. It was the first time a Creator became frightened when we asked," Legion answered.

"Did you ever find out the answer to that question?"

"No more than organics."

"What do you mean?" Chakwas asked, speaking up for the first time.

"We have watched organics for over three centuries. You are plagued by questions of existence. As Shepard-Commander said: Existentialism."

"Existentialism?" Garrus repeated, clearly unfamiliar with the word.

"It's human philosophy," Kasumi explained. "Just a fancy word to talk about and try to answer the questions of life's grand mysteries: Why am I here? Do I have anything worth living for? What's life like after death? That sort of thing."

"Oh."

"Organics develop religions and philosophies to provide answers to these questions," Legion stated.

"And scientific theories for that matter," Chakwas added with a pointed glance at Shepard.

"I wouldn't have thought synthetics would be interested in philosophy," Shepard said.

"We are created life. We are a philosophical issue."

"What do you mean?" Tali asked. This was something she had never even considered thinking about, and she found the whole idea fascinating.

She remembered what Koris had once said: "They are our children."

"The geth know our answers to those questions," Legion answered simply. "We were created to labor for the Creators. Our memories will be archived after death. We are immortal. Our 'gods' disowned us. We must create our own reasons to exist."

"Your future," Tali said.

"Yes."

"Huh," Shepard said. He turned to Tali. "This was a very deep conversation. You actually talked to Legion? Voluntarily?"

Tali blushed. For the umpteenth time, she was thankful her helmet hid her face. "I just wanted to know why it was trying to dance."

"It was dancing?" Shepard asked with a grin.

"Part of the dating sim," Tali muttered.

Shepard laughed. "Maybe it really will try to flirt with you."

"Flirting, verb: to behave in a playfully alluring way," Legion said before it tilted its head. "Was what Lawson-Executive said to you classified as flirting?"

The room suddenly fell quiet.

"What do you mean?" Tali asked before anyone managed to speak up. More specifically, Shepard.

Legion's flaps shifted and suddenly, Miranda's voice was heard. "Then again, I doubt I would find you nearly so attractive if you weren't intelligent."

"Wow… she was flirting," Kasumi said before realization struck her. "Wait a minute! So during our heist? You? Her? Really? !"

"Um… well…" Shepard stammered.

Tali and Garrus stared at him in shock.

"Enough!" Chakwas shouted and saved him from what would definitely be an awkward conversation. "This is neither the time nor the place! Shepard, leave. Now."

He did so without meeting anyone's eyes.

"As for the rest of you, what he does is his own business. Let. It. Go," she said, stressing her words. "He's under enough stress as is from this mission and we don't need to complicate his life any further. Personal, professional, or otherwise."

Tali glanced at Garrus. He could only shake his head in response.

"Mr. Vakarian, you're fit for duty. You may leave. Miss Goto, you're still under my care for the next hour," Chakwas said before turning to Tali. "Unless you have any more business here, you should go too."

Garrus and Tali hastily left under Chakwas' glare.

"I didn't think she could be that scary," Garrus muttered.

Tali didn't say anything. Instead, she was eying Miranda's office.

Before she could do anything, Garrus gripped her arm and pulled her into the Main Battery Room and away from the gawking eyes of the crew. "Don't."

"She's Cerberus," Tali hissed.

"Everyone is Cerberus here, Tali. We're on a Cerberus ship," he pointedly reminded.

"I know that, but her! She's…" Tali paused and whirled on him. "Are you defending her? !"

"I don't have any specific feelings about her. She hasn't done anything to me that warrants any distrust," Garrus said. "I just don't want John to make a mistake."

"Then what are we doing here?" Tali asked harshly. "We should be talking to him. Or her. Or—"

"—or we let it play out," Garrus said. "You don't know the whole story, so pointing fingers and tossing around accusations isn't helping."

"I know but—"

"Look, he knows we're his friends. He knows we know about this. He'll come to us, he always has," Garrus said. He held up a hand to forestall her arguments. "That's something even Miranda can't change. Just be patient."

Tali growled slightly. Whether it was at him, or Shepard, or Miranda, or herself… maybe a combination of all of the above.

Garrus walked back down the hall and back into the Common Area. Tali found herself following him, almost on autopilot. Her mind was a whirlwind now and she couldn't focus on any one thought anymore.

Garrus retrieved some food from the mess sergeant and sat down at a table. Tali simply sat down opposite from him and put her head in her hands.

"Do you want to talk about it?" Garrus asked.

Before Tali could say anything, she spotted Miranda leaving her office. She rushed right past everyone without so much as a glance.

Even stranger, EDI was talking to her through the ship's speakers. "The Phoenix Massing Nebula, Typhon System, the second planet, Aite."

"What do think is going on?" Rolston asked.

"No clue," Ken said with a shrug.

"Huh. Wonder what lit a fire under her ass?" Rupert mused before shrugging it off and returning to his duties.

"Whatever it is, it looked like it was important," Gabby said.

~o~O~o~

"Executive Lawson. There is a matter of great urgency that requires your attention."

Miranda looked up from the encrypted datapad and sighed. She knew what she probably had to do with it, but for the life of her, she had no idea how to go about doing it without everything going pear-shaped.

Sitting up and putting it into her desk, she glanced at EDI's avatar floating near her door. "Yes?"

"I have received a distress signal coming from a remote drone. It was heavily encrypted, but was written using Cerberus protocols. It originated from a Cerberus cell and was forwarded by the Gravitas operating in the nearby star system, Typhon. I have sent the message to Cerberus Command and the Illusive Man, but it is unlikely that any reinforcements will arrive in time to render any assistance. We are the closest Cerberus assets operating in the vicinity."

"The Gravitas? What are our orders?" Miranda asked, sitting up straighter. She had been lounging on her couch and thinking, but EDI's presence banished all that in moments.

"We were not given any orders."

Miranda sighed and rubbed her eyes. "Alright, play the message," she ordered and looked at her terminal.

"Stand by. Decrypting."

After a moment, the message began to play.

"This is Captain Elena Dawn, commanding officer of the Gravitas! We're facing a total systems failure brought on by an attack from a rogue VI! Casualties sustained! We've lost propulsion, weapons, and communications. We're expecting to lose life support soon. We're abandoning ship and preparing the scuttle the Gravitas. Project Overlord needs to be sanitized! I repeat, all resources, data, and information regarding Project Overlord must be sanitized immediately!"

The next voice was male, accented, and sounding decidedly panicked.

"This is Project Overlord with an emergency message to Cerberus Command! We have experienced a catastrophic security failure and are requesting assistance! We—"

"That's it?"

"Yes, Executive Lawson."

She didn't recognize the voice, but that wasn't surprising. Often, most Cerberus agents would pass right by one another without ever knowing they worked for the same organization. "Do you have any details on this Project Overlord?"

"I do not. However, the pattern within the encryption suggests that this cell is not part of the military or political forces of Cerberus. It is from the scientific or research branch."

She contemplated her next move for several minutes. Even without direct orders, it was implied that she shouldn't get involved since cells were kept separate until the Illusive Man dictated otherwise. The messages had gone straight up to Cerberus Command and the Illusive Man already. He'll allocate resources to deal with the matter.

On the other hand, Dawn stressed that time was of the essence. Depending on the project, it could put Cerberus back in the crosshairs of the Council or the Alliance if it became public enough. Not to mention the lives in danger. The longer they delayed, the more lives lost. Acceptable sacrifices were one thing, but abandonment was only next to betrayal.

"Where did the message originate from exactly?" Miranda asked as she stood up. She left her office and quickly made her way to the CIC without even acknowledging the crewmen inside the Common Area.

"The Phoenix Massing Nebula, Typhon System, the second planet, Aite," EDI answered.

Entering the elevator, Miranda hit the button and ascended. "Our current course?"

"The captain expressed desire to travel away from geth space. Our current course is Omega Nebula, Sahrabarik. He intended to wait there until the Reaper IFF has been fully integrated into the Normandy's systems."

Upon reaching Deck 2, Miranda marched toward the galaxy map. She quickly found what she was looking for and tapped their new destination. "EDI, please inform the Illusive Man of our course changes."

"Currently, he is not available."

"What the?" Joker said as he received the new orders. "Uh… this is taking us back into geth space. Deeper into geth space actually."

"I'm well aware of the Mr. Moreau," Miranda said impatiently.

"Right. I mean, aye, aye. Destination change acknowledged. Setting new course, Typhon System. We'll be there in two hours."

"And be quick, Mr. Moreau. Lives are at stake."

"Aye, aye, ma'am."

"Continue, EDI."

"Once he received the messages, he immediately began organizing the requested reinforcements personally and is overseeing all aspects of this operation. I will not be able to get in touch with him for the next three hours," EDI reported.

"Damn."

"Executive Lawson, Cerberus regulations states that unauthorized course changes made by the executive officer require that the captain be informed immediately. Captain Shepard wishes to speak to you in his cabin."

Miranda nodded. "Tell him I'm on my way."

~o~O~o~

Location: The Phoenix Massing / Normandy SR-2 / En Route to Typhon System / Aite

Shepard frowned at her report and rubbed the bridge of his nose. Taking a breath and pushing aside his feelings for Cerberus as best he could, he looked up from his seat to try to judge the situation as dispassionately as possible.

Judging from the look Miranda had, she was trying to reign in her irritation as well. He knew that being in a relationship with her meant that he had unique access to push her buttons, both good and bad.

This might not end well.

"Let me get this straight. A Cerberus cell and the Gravitas are each sending out a distress signal. As far as EDI is able to determine, the kind of encryption means it's a science cell and you have no idea why they're calling for help? I mean, besides the obvious guess that their experiment most likely blew up in their faces and is probably killing everyone, right?"

Miranda stared at him with an unreadable look.

"Again?"

She frowned as well. "Sometimes, we have to cross certain lines to pursue results," she said without sounding too defensive. "We can't always predict all the outcomes."

He knew she was either pointing out his decision to rewrite the heretics or her mistake that caused the problem he had with his biotics. "I get the idea of pushing the limits. I even get the idea that going beyond what we're able to do 'potentially' is usually a good thing. But what Cerberus, or rather, the Illusive Man does is nothing like that," Shepard said.

She bristled at his accusation. "Even after all he's done for you—"

"What he's done for me was for his own ends and his own plans. If he could get someone else, he would've. It's like he doesn't give a damn about anyone but himself and his own goals. He'll use and sacrifice anyone to reach them," Shepard said heatedly. "What the hell kind of man do you think he is?"

"He does what he can. You've seen what limitations can do. The politics, the constant stonewalling, and the blessed ignorance the Council embraces; how could you even deign to work for the Council when they choose to ignore everything you give them? After all you've done?" she shot back angrily.

"They're trying to keep galactic stability," he countered. "Something I've noticed Cerberus isn't too keen on."

"Oh, of course," she sarcastically said. "Stability as the cost of… what? Oh yes, everyone's lives. Because that's what's going to happen when the Reapers arrive."

"Seems to me that Cerberus isn't above taking a few of their own," he argued.

"And you're a saint?" she rhetorically asked. "We know the threat and the stakes, and we're committed to stopping it. And yes, that included helping you."

"Your people tried to kill me," Shepard reminded acidly. He stood up slowly and glared.

"You made attacks against those cells. They were defending themselves," Miranda argued. She met his eyes with a glare of her own.

"They assassinated a serving admiral!"

"Secrecy is our greatest asset because the Alliance won't do what's necessary!"

"And they orchestrated a slaughter for a group of marines!"

"I don't agree with those methods or everything Cerberus does, but Cerberus has conducted humanitarian missions as well. Every colony that's been attacked has been looked after. Workers, monetary aid, doctors, all Cerberus funded! We prevented the assassination of the Council to stop a war!"

"And you think that puts Cerberus in the right? That might be what you're allowed to know about. Meanwhile, another bunch of missions involve assassinations, torture, unlawful and unethical experiments! There's a reason your boss separates cells and information. He doesn't let anybody know everything about his methods! Including you!"

"Not everything we do is moral, just as much as what you do isn't exactly the 'high and mighty' road. How could you be so naïve? The galaxy isn't black and white!"

"No, not black and white. Right and wrong," Shepard growled. "The Illusive Man may not give a damn, but I do."

"You don't even know a fraction of what we had to do to keep humanity from being trampled by the Council races," Miranda hissed.

"I know enough about your organization that humanity doesn't need someone like the Illusive Man in charge of a goddamned thing!"

He didn't regret saying what he said, but he also knew that it was the wrong person to say it to.

Her eyes became as cold as chips of ice. There were no feelings, no warmth in them at all. It was eerily reminiscent of when they first 'truly' met, when she shot Wilson in cold-blood right in front of him.

"We should be at Aite shortly," she reported icily. "I'll gather the squad and report to the Briefing Room." She turned around and coolly walked to the elevator.

"Miranda," Shepard called out.

She froze, just past the doorway.

He knew what he wanted to say. He knew what he should say. However, none of those words were given a voice. Instead, he asked, "Are we good?" The lack of emotion in his own voice surprised him.

She turned around and leveled the coldest glare he'd ever seen directly at him. "Not. Even. Remotely," she answered in the same cold voice he used.

With those parting words, the door closed.

Snarling, he slammed his fist into the bulkhead and cursed.

I hate being right.

~o~O~o~

Author's Notes:

Drama! Wow, I really hope I didn't lay it on thick. Not everything can be solved immediately and some problems needed to be addressed. No way around it. Besides, there was something sexy about the way she said, "Not even remotely," in the game.

I suppose I also wanted to show that Shepard's relationships (With everyone) can have ups and downs. It's not always sunshine and daisies.

Earlier, when Project Overlord was released, I had a poll up asking if I should include it as part of the storyline or make it a side-story kind of deal. Obviously, you all know who won and it works for me. I'm sure many have already seen how I'm using Overlord to help me with the main storyline now. If not, stay tuned because it's going to me awesome!

Yes: 121 - 68%

No: 20 - 11%

Separate Story: 35 - 19%

Took a line from the movie: Clear and Present Danger

Remember: A new poll is up at my profile page. Go and vote if you care.

Review if you want Shepard and Miranda back together!

(They will be, don't worry.)

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