Miranda Versus the L Word
I think Shepard and I were both a little confused about the change in our relationship. Certainly it was a while before we had another ‘work date.’ The impetus for that was...
...was one of the most difficult experiences of my life.
We were investigating one of Cerberus’s cells—Project Overlord. The cell itself didn’t mean much, not at first. Cerberus compartmentalization of information meant I didn’t know anything about it. No, I was more concerned about Shepard investigating another Cerberus operation in general.
Shepard hadn’t exactly been subtle about his position on Cerberus. He accepted the gift of Cerberus resources, such as the Normandy SR-2, her crew and the Illusive Man’s recommended candidates out of necessity and pragmatism. He constantly talked to the various Cerberus operatives out of a perverse sense of curiosity and, as Ms. Chambers put it, a desire to establish a rapport and trust between himself and his crew. However, none of this was done out of gratitude or loyalty. It was almost imperceptible, but there was a certain grudging reluctance to his relationship with Cerberus.
The clearest example of his disapproval was shortly after helping Jack. Which involved the entire squad paying a visit to the Teltin facility on Pragia and finding out what horrors they had inflicted on countless innocent children—the ones that survived, that is—in the name of science, research and progress. Clearly, this was a mistake. An isolated incident of one cell going rogue.
Shepard thought otherwise. He felt it was symptomatic of Cerberus’s methodology to do anything, to sacrifice anything, to achieve its goals. That willingness, he felt, meant that Cerberus—and, specifically, the Illusive Man—could ultimately sacrifice anyone. No matter how valuable or useful. No matter what he or she contributed in the past. He also felt that that would also foster a culture of sloppiness, unnecessary shortcuts and inevitable disasters.
I had never wanted Shepard to be wrong so badly. Because he was wrong. He had to be. Teltin was obviously a statistical outlier. And Chasca. And the entire Styx Theta cluster. Why couldn’t he see that? Why couldn’t he back me up on Aite, when we investigated the Project Overlord facilities and Jack assumed that Cerberus had ‘fucked something up again?’ Why couldn’t...
Why did he have to be right?
Because he was right. Project Overlord had been sloppy. Not enough safeguards. Not enough progress. A willingness to use anyone. To sacrifice anyone.
Even one’s own brother.
That was the worst part. How could anyone use his own sibling like that? How could anyone force his own brother into an experiment to satisfy his superiors, knowing full well that said brother was incapable of giving informed consent?
For all my many sins, I had never done anything like that to Oriana. I had done everything in my power to prevent anyone—from my father to some lowly scumbag—from harming my sister. But Dr. Archer had deliberately and knowingly inflicted an unimaginable trauma to his own brother, one that David might never recover from, because he saw him as nothing more than an unexpectedly valuable tool.
The worst part was that the Illusive Man approved of it. Oh, not officially. He said he never specifically authorized Dr. Archer to forcibly merge David with the VI—which was technically true. He said he didn’t condone it. And then, within the same paragraph, he said it was a shame Shepard chose to rescue David because it would set back Cerberus’s efforts to understand and control the geth.
Set back. Control.
The same reaction to the reports and reviews on the Teltin cell. And Chasca. And the Styx Theta cluster. And countless other missions that Shepard didn’t know about. I hadn’t felt so wronged—so betrayed—since... since I found out what Father really thought of me. Which was thirty years, seven months and sixteen days ago.
I couldn’t deal with that. Not at first. I... I yelled at Shepard. After inviting him to tell me he was right all along. He didn’t, of course. He was right, but he wasn’t going to say it. Not that time. Which made this whole thing even worse.
How had things gotten so wrong?
How had I gotten it so wrong?
How could I—the one with all the intel, all the protocols, all the plans—make them right?
I was still pondering all these questions—and had gotten nowhere closer to finding the answers—when Shepard ordered Joker to set course for the Amada system. It took me a mere second to generate a list of items in the Amada system that would pique Shepard’s interest. One thing was definitely the most probable choice—the final resting site of the original Normandy.
At least I was right about that.
Shepard later told me that Admiral Hackett had contacted him with a request. He gave a sympathetic nod when I rolled my eyes—I had read the reports on the numerous detours Shepard had taken on Hackett’s bequest. It seemed my observations on how ridiculously banal some of these ‘missions’ could be were spot on. This request, though, was significantly more thoughtful and touching. It seemed Shepard had been chosen to place a monument to honour the SSV Normandy. More importantly, Hackett had asked him to find any signs of the men and women who had gone down with the Normandy, so as to offer some means of closure to their families and loved ones.
We’d swept Alchera with our sensors before Shepard departed, so we knew that the planet was completely deserted. Still, I kept one screen in my office set to monitoring his bio-signs and location, as well as the latest sensor logs, while doing my usual work.
Part of that usual work included receiving regular security reports and vid-recordings from EDI. Most of them were flagged for the usual keywords, covering the usual topics. How the mission was faring, what were our chances of defeating the Collectors, how was your day and so on. But there were an unusual number of vids that focused on a new topic. Quickly finishing off the latest analysis, I saved my work and began perusing the recordings in detail.
The first one was between Garrus and Dr. Chakwas. They were just outside sickbay, which was the only reason there was a recording—there were no vids inside sickbay, you see. At least Cerberus had some standards... and that was the first time I’d ever thought of it that way.
Back to the recording. It seemed like Dr. Chakwas was haranguing Garrus:
“I can’t imagine what it’s like for Shepard,” Dr. Chakwas was saying. “Walking around the Normandy for the first time in two years. Remembering all the people who went down with the ship.”
“It’s that last one that sticks for me,” Garrus replied. “Thinking back on all the men and women I served with. That he served with. Walking through their final resting place and thinking about all the things they used to do.”
“Like Talitha,” Dr. Chakwas said with a laugh. “Oh, she was so enthusiastic. Always performed her duties with so much joy.”
“Or Silas. He never stopped talking about how great the Mako was and how it was like old Earth vehicles. And he’d always find me while I was calibrating the Mako and couldn’t get away.”
“I still remembering all those long talks with Germeen,” Dr. Chakwas smiled. “Reading and discussing academic papers on the merits of various naturopathic remedies and seeing how the data and analyses fit with her own real-life experiences.”
Garrus chuckled. “And that was before she used those remedies. Remember Alexei? He was hoping to impress Ashley with some home cooking... only to give himself a bad case of food poisoning. Germeen’s home remedy was the only reason he was out of commission for one day instead of one week.”
“And now they’re all gone,” Dr. Chakwas sighed, abruptly becoming more serious.
“I’d like to pay my respects to them.”
“So would I,” Garrus agreed.
“Well, maybe we can do that,” Dr. Chakwas suggested. “After you come in for another checkup.”
“That’s a good idea,” Garrus agreed. “Paying respects, that is, not the checkup.”
“I need to see how you are doing. How your scars are healing. How your body’s adapting to the mandibular implants. You did come aboard under rather traumatic circumstances.”
“Do I need to declare you unfit for duty?”
“You wouldn’t do that.” Garrus didn’t sound too convinced when he said that.
“I am Chief Medical Officer on this ship.”
“Fine. I’ll go once my next set of calibrations is complete.”
“As I recall, that’s what you said last time.”
The rest was Garrus trying to escape from another checkup, Dr. Chakwas refusing to let him go and Garrus ultimately giving in. I closed that recording and opened the next one.
Everything all right, Tali?" Daniels asked.
"What?" Tali asked distractedly. "Um, yes. Fine. Everything's fine."
Daniels didn't seem to buy it. "Really? You seem a bit more distracted than usual—Kenneth!"
Donnelly had taken the opportunity to walk over to Tali and peek over her shoulder. "She's right, Tali," he said, not looking the least bit ashamed. "You usually finish your portion of the maintenance before I do. But you haven't even started yet."
"Maybe I am," Tali allowed. "Knowing that Shepard is walking through the remains of the Normandy is bringing back old memories."
"It always hits you hard when you lose a ship, especially one you served one," Donnelly said. "Must be even worse for you. I mean, I know that quarians depend on their ships for everything."
"Not that he's trying to stereotype or anything," Daniels hastily added, perhaps fearing that Donnelly may have offended her.
"No—well, that too," Tali admitted. "For my people, losing a ship is one of the worst things that can happen. We depend on our ships for everything: to shelter us, to grow up in, to make acquaintances and friends, to serve on. Keelah, we even name ourselves after the ships we grew up on or serve on. To lose a ship is like... like losing a piece of yourself.
"But I was actually thinking about all the people I met on the old Normandy. Especially the ones who... who didn't make it. Like Pressly."
"Pressly... Pressly..." Daniels frowned. "Wasn't he the XO?"
"He was," Tali nodded. "It... it wasn't easy getting to know him. He didn't exactly trust non-humans. There were others, but he was the... most vocal. It took a while for him to warm up to me."
"How did that happen?" Donnelly asked.
"Shepard had given me a copy of geth data that I planned to use as my Pilgrimage gift," Tali replied. "I wanted to thank him again and didn't want to wait until the next time he dropped by Engineering, so I started looking for him."
"That must've taken a while," Daniels laughed. "If he acted back then like he does now, he's always on the move."
Tali joined in the laughter. "Exactly. I kept missing him. Eventually I found myself in the CIC. Pressly saw me and came over to ask what I was doing—he was probably worried that I was trying to steal something."
Made sense. The CIC would be where most of the sensitive or classified information would be located.
"So what did you do?" Daniels asked.
"I told him that Shepard had helped me find a Pilgrimage gift and wanted to thank him. To be honest, I thought he'd chase me off or something. Instead, he asked what a Pilgrimage was. So I told him. He seemed surprised at the idea that the Pilgrimage was a rite of passage where we proved ourselves worthy to join a new ship by finding and offering something of value. I guess, up until that point, he thought quarians were a bunch of free-loaders and thieves."
“After that, he was a bit more cordial. Asking how I was doing after surviving another one of Shepard’s missions. Telling me about his day. How embarrassing it was to get… what was that disease? Chicken pox, I think.” Tali laughed for a moment. “You should have seen him when Shepard broke the Normandy out of lockdown. He was like a quarian who’d gotten his first tube of meat paste.” She stopped at the look on her colleague’s face. “It’s like a human child in a candy store.”
Tali suddenly sobered up. “And then he died. They all died. I wish I could be down there. I’d like to pay my respects. One last time.”
The next recording was from the cockpit. It seemed to be a conversation between Mr. Moreau and EDI.
“For the umpteenth time, I’m fine,” Mr. Moreau said with a hint of irritation in his voice.
“That was the seventh time and you are not ‘fine’,” EDI replied. “Your productivity has decreased by 17% since Shepard told you to head for the Amada system—and why we were going there—and a further 6% since Shepard took the shuttle down to the crash site.”
“Didn’t know you were checking up on me, EDI.”
“I check up on everybody.”
“Yeah. I know. Very Big Brother of you.”
“Mr. Moreau. You seem distracted.”
“This little trip... it’s just bringing up old memories, that’s all.”
“Of how you survived?”
“Of how I failed.”
There was a pause. “That does not compute. Who did you fail?”
“The crew of the original Normandy. I should’ve reacted faster to the Collectors. I should’ve jumped to FTL. Did a better job of dodging the attack. But I didn’t. And over twenty people—including Commander Shepard—died as a result.”
“I have compiled all reports of the incident, Mr. Moreau,” EDI told him. “Analysis of all relevant variables indicates that you could not have done anything that would make a significant difference. At best, you might have kept the Normandy intact for an additional thirty-eight seconds.”
“Yeah? Thirty-eight seconds, huh? How many people might have lived if I kept the Normandy flying for an additional thirty-eight seconds?”
“There is insufficient data to form a conclusive answer, Mr. Moreau.”
Mr. Moreau snorted. “Tell me about it. And then there’s Shepard.”
“What about him?”
“He had to double back to the cockpit because I wouldn’t leave. He had to haul my ass to the escape pod because of me. He got knocked loose before he could get inside the pod because of me. He died because of me, damn it!”
Mr. Moreau was silent for a full minute. I’ve spent the last two years living with that fact. I let Shepard down, EDI. And over twenty good men and women.”
There was another pause. Then “Perhaps you should join him.”
“Shepard. Perhaps you should join him.”
“And do what exactly?”
“One of Shepard’s objectives is to search for any sign of the crew members who were unaccounted for. If Shepard finds any of them, you could... talk to them. Express any concerns or outstanding issues. You could also do this amongst the remains of the original Normandy itself.”
“They’re dead, EDI. I don’t think that will help them.”
“No. But perhaps it would help you.”
It was understandable that the people who served on the original Normandy would feel this way. It was interesting, however, to note that other people felt the same way. Members of the Lazarus Cell. The various men and women Shepard had recruited. Everyone.
Before I knew it, my hands were flying over the keyboard. Setting up timetables, coordinating shift schedules. It was the most efficient use of my time, given that I couldn’t think about anything else. More to the point, it was something I could do for Shepard.
After five minutes and forty-eight seconds, I was finished. I sent out a mass e-mail to the crew:
From: Operator Lawson
As you all know, Commander Shepard is currently searching through the wreckage of the Normandy SR-1 for any signs of the twenty-one men and women who lost their lives during the Collector attack two years ago, as well as choosing a suitable location for a monument to erect in their memory. I have set up a schedule for anyone else who would like to pay their respects.
The first shuttle ride would be reserved for Garrus, Tali, Dr. Chakwas and Mr. Moreau—the only crew members who had served on both Normandys. The other three rides—a maximum of twelve at a time—would be available for anyone who wasn’t on duty and wanted to go down.
Within half an hour, everyone had signed up.
“I’ve been talking to the crew. A lot of them felt… good, I guess, after paying their respects.”
Shepard had made his usual visit around the ship after returning from Alchera. He’d arrived at my office at the usual time. I’d been dreading his visit, to be honest. I didn’t know what to say. About Project Overlord. Or Cerberus.
At least he gave me an opening. “I'm glad to hear that," I said, "though I can't take credit for it. The urge to pay respects just... emerged spontaneously and grew from there."
"Well you can take credit for organizing the trips," he pointed out.
"I suppose so,” I conceded. It was rather nice to feel good about something.
Shepard stopped talking after that. I used the time to file a report. And then another. And then another. All while this pressure kept building inside me. After five reports, I couldn’t stay silent any longer.
"I wanted to... to apologize for my outburst earlier,” I finally said.
"It's understandable," he replied. "You were upset."
"No, that's... well, yes I was, but..." This wasn’t going very well at all. This seemed to be a recurring theme with Shepard. He had a knack for making things unexpectedly complicated. "I've never been upset for that particular reason."
"That particular reason being..."
"Upset at Cerberus for letting things get that far," I finally said.
"No, that's not entirely accurate," I frowned, suddenly realizing what I wanted to say. Another curious quality about Shepard—every once in a while, he made things remarkably clear and simple. Quite the paradox, but one I’d have to ponder at another time, lest I lose my train of thought. "I guess I had some doubts when I saw firsthand the conditions that Jack was subjected to at the Teltin facility. Even though they had gone rogue and the Illusive Man was shutting them down, it didn't sit right. But what I saw at Project Overlord? What Dr. Archer did? To his own brother? I've never felt so... so... disgusted. Sick. Horrified."
"It was certainly disturbing, to say the least," Shepard nodded.
"The Illusive Man's follow-up to my report hardly helped," I added with a frown. A couple keystrokes pulled up the relevant e-mail, one that I had received shortly after Shepard had left for Alchera:
From: Illusive Man
I understand Shepard has taken Dr. Archer's brother to Grissom Academy. I'm familiar with their work; it should be a good home for him. I don't condone Dr. Archer's actions, but they did provide a breakthrough we've been sorely lacking thus far. We'll likely never find another individual with David's unique talents. Though Shepard's decision is understandable, it has set our efforts to understand the geth back several years.
You may need to take more overt action should his shortsightedness continue to jeopardize our long-term goals.
"Gosh, I feel so bad," Shepard said sarcastically.
“Agreed,” I sighed.
It was strange to see how much things had changed. Once, I might have disagreed with Shepard. Once, I would have been content to watch my sister from afar. But now everything was different. I was regularly talking with Oriana. I had come around to agree with Shepard, who was right with at least some of his concerns all along. Not that he would rub it in my face, of course.
With a start, I realized that neither of us had said anything for… some time, at least. I shook my head to clear the mental paralysis before continuing. This would be difficult to admit, so I might as well get it over with as soon as possible. "After seeing that e-mail, I started going through your official reports again. One 'rogue' incident, however upsetting, might be underst... well, it could be a horrific outlier. Two, not so much. But the same pattern kept popping up. When we let the rachni escape from Argos Rho and spread all the way to the Styx Theta cluster. When we deliberately turned the Chasca colony into husks. When we lured Alliance marines into an ambush at Akuze and performed experiments on the survivors..."
"Like you said, there's a definite pattern," Shepard agreed, exercising an admirable degree of restraint.
"But not one that I signed up for," I burst out, my frustrations suddenly spilling out one agonizing word at a time. "At least, I didn't think that was what I was signing up for. I was so sure that Cerberus would promote humanity in a more effective way than all the kowtowing of the Alliance. To improve humanity's position in galactic affairs without unnecessary compromises. To make the universe a better place without cutting through reams of red tape. I never imagined that would involve injecting marines with thresher maw venom. Or conducting cruel and barbaric experiments on children. On siblings. That wasn't what I signed up for. But that's what I got.
"So if I was so terribly wrong about that, what else was I wrong about? What choices did I make under false assumptions? What actions did I choose under false pretences? I don't know have the answers to those questions anymore. I don't know what to believe anymore. I don't know who I am."
This would be the part where Shepard would say something to make it all better.
Of course, I might as well dream that Santa Claus was real.
And that credits grew from various forms of flora.
Shepard finally began speaking. "A teacher of mine once said that not having the answers was a good thing, because it meant you had to start asking questions. Maybe you could do that."
"Ask questions?" I repeated.
"Yeah. We'll start with the basics. What's your name?"
This seemed a bit ridiculous, but, at this point, I was willing to try anything. "Miranda Lisa Lawson.”
"What's your gender?"
"What's the colour of your hair?"
Oh, this was getting ridiculous. "Seriously?"
"Okay, we'll move to something a bit more complicated. How many members are currently serving on the Normandy?"
Shepard had more simple—and simply useless—questions. I was wondering if there was a point to this exercise when he popped his next question. "What was the other reason for your joining Cerberus?"
“Just before we went to Illium, you asked me to come see you. You gave another reason for joining Cerberus.”
“To rescue my sister,” I said. “To give her a chance at a normal life.”
“And did she get that normal life?” he asked.
“It appears that way.”
“Did she seem happy?” he insisted.
"Well, yes. Yes, she did."
He spread his hands as if to say ‘There you go.’ Though what he actually said was “That’s a start at least.”
“Well, you know a little bit about yourself now. You’re Miranda Lisa Lawson. You’re a woman—”
Brilliant. “I’m glad to see you noticed that after several months.”
“—and you’re the one who passed up a chance for a normal and happy life so your sister could have it instead.”
Yes. Yes I did. And it was all thanks to Shepard. Agreeing to help without a moment’s hesitation. Watching my back without question. Encouraging me to actually take that last step and make contact with my sister. “Thank you, Shepard,” I said. “It’s good to know that at least two good things came out of my association with Cerberus.”
He looked confused at that. “Two? You’re counting a normal life and a happy life for your sister as two things?”
I shook her head. “No, that’s one. The other one is… working with and getting to know… you.”
Shepard was speechless. Quite an accomplishment. More importantly, one I could honestly say I had earned.
While he was here, there was something I wanted to know. Something that I had been, well, concerned about ever since we left Aite. “How are you doing?”
“David—and the VI—appeared to, well, hack you. Or gain temporary control over your motor functions. How are you doing?”
“Mordin gave me a clean bill of health,” he shrugged.
That wasn’t what I meant, and he knew it. “Yes, I know you passed your physical, but how are you doing psychologically?”
“I… I don’t know,” he slowly admitted. “Haven’t had a chance to think about it. It felt weird when the VI, well, hacked me. Weird and creepy. It was as if someone was pouring ice water into my veins and shutting down—no, that’s not quite right. It was like my body was growing numb and distant, pulling away from me bit by bit. I swear I could count every implant wedged into my body, helping that… that loss of control. But the funny thing is: I don’t feel weirded out at all. Shouldn’t I feel weird? Or disturbed? Helpless? Violated? Because I don’t.”
One would certainly understand if he felt that way. But perhaps there was an explanation. “It is a bit early. Maybe it hasn’t sunk in yet.”
“Great,” Shepard snorted. “Something else to look forward to.”
“Mind you, you did resist the hacking attempt,” I added, suddenly realizing another possibility. “By your account, the only lasting effect was the virtual reality overlay on your visual feeds. Maybe you don’t feel helpless because you did resist and fight back. With a fair amount of success, I might add.”
“I like the sound of that option,” he admitted.
“Otherwise, you’re feeling fine?” I persisted. “You’re sure you aren’t suffering any ill effects?”
“Yes, I feel fine. The VI’s gone. No more tampering. No more visual tricks. Everything’s back to normal.” Shepard tapped a finger against my forehead. “There’s nothing going on in here right now.”
In the split second it took for him to realize what a perfect line he had given me, I devised 2,916 possible jokes. It was all I could do to keep them to myself. For that matter, it was all I could do to limit my facial reaction to a slight lip-twitch. “Too easy,” I said.
“How, uh, how did Garrus and Jacob do with the paperwork?”
A blatantly obvious attempt to change the subject. One I was willing to allow for his sake. “Could be better,” I admitted, “but there wasn’t any template or SOP for them to follow. I should probably create one, come to think of it. Like you said earlier, they may have to do that sort of thing again.”
“Sounds like a good idea,” Shepard said. “If you want, you can give me the remaining administrative stuff to finish off so you can work on that?”
Normally I preferred to do it myself. Mostly for the peace of mind that came from knowing that it was done correctly. Still, I knew from prior experience that Shepard could be trusted to do it right. More importantly, it would allow us to spend more time together. “I’ll download it to a datapad for you,” I nodded. “While I’m doing that, why don’t you head over to the mess hall and grab something for us?”
“Sure. How does jasmine teaand tapioca pudding sound?”
From anyone else, that would be a very peculiar combination. From Shepard?
We wound up having more of what Shepard started calling “work dates.” It was as accurate a description as any, I suppose. I found myself enjoying it, and not just because I had finally found a way for Shepard to do some of the paperwork. It was just so relaxing. So comfortable. I had finally found someone with whom I could lower my guard, even if it was only by a fraction. Someone who didn’t expect me to be perfect every nanosecond of every second of every minute of every hour of every day. Someone who didn’t expect me to be the epitome of an ideal galaxy. Someone who didn’t want me to conform my beliefs or opinions to absolutes of right or wrong, success or failure.
Shepard would just come by every other day (He tried coming every day, until I warned him that someone would definitely find out about us if he paid me four daily visits and three to everyone else. I’d had enough trouble as it was hacking into EDI’s subroutines to prevent her from reporting this development Granted, I could have enlisted Shepard’s assistance, but his style of hacking tended to focus more on getting results than covering his tracks—once you knew what to look for, his intrusions were painfully obvious. In any event, we eventually settled on having work dates every other day) with jasmine tea and whatever snack or pastry or dessert Gardner had made that day. When I asked him about his choice of drink, he just shrugged and said that alcohol would draw too much attention and the sheer amount of caffeine in coffee would disrupt our sleep cycles. “Besides,” he said, “no one else is drinking the stuff.” I decided to accept it for now as one of his little quirks, right next to his insatiable curiosity and borderline-pathological kleptomania. I could always get the whole story later.
Our work dates were different than anything else I had experienced before. We spent time together without feeling obligated to share empty social niceties or pretend interest in inconsequential rubbish. Well, I didn’t feel obligated. Shepard occasional threw in the odd bit of gossip. Or scuttlebutt, as he called it—you could take the man out of the military... No drama from some theoretical dinner table. No need to stress out over what to wear when there were more important matters like whether we had enough resources to construct the latest upgrade. We just did the work and got the job done, but in a much more relaxing and pleasurable setting.
The best part was that, every once in a while, I would catch him looking at me. Not in the creepy, pervert, obsessive stalker way. Well, it was, but it was more than that. It was this expression of quiet, stunned admiration and, perhaps, adoration. He never actually said out loud that he thought I was beautiful. He just told me without saying anything, in a way that seemed more sincere and honest than anything anyone had ever said before. It was hard to imagine that no one else had snatched him up in the past.
It was even harder to believe that someone might not want to try and snatch him in the future. The only way to prepare for that was to do some research and analyze the data. Which I did. Aside from Shepard, there were thirty-three other crew members. Judging by the subtle differences in the way he looked at each gender, it seemed he was interested exclusively in women—the way he’d look at other women, the frequent looks he’d cast in my direction when he thought I wasn’t looking, the incredible first kiss we’d exchanged and the subsequent increase in time spent together would seem to confirm that. The women who would pose the greatest competition were those who potentially had just as much contact with him as I did, which restricted the list to the fifteen other women serving aboard the Normandy. Most of the women were easily classified as having a ‘Negligible Risk’ of competing with me for Shepard’s affection. Four of them required a little more consideration.
Ms. Chambers—Kelly—had expressed interest in Shepard from the beginning, cooing and sighing over how strong and noble and ruggedly handsome he was. Then she fretted about Garrus, who had been sporting a mandibular prosthesis and a horrific scar since his recruitment on Omega, expressing a desire to take him into her arms and tell him that he’d be all right. Then she was admiring Thane and the way he carried himself with such poise and confidence, admitting that she found him sexy in a dangerous, bad boy kind of way. A week later, she was conflicted over Samara, who she found both elegant and unyielding, gorgeous and cold. I don’t think she was fickle as much as she tended to fall in and out of crushes very easily. Ultimately, she posed a ‘Negligible Risk.’
Jack drew my attention for other reasons. From the beginning, she had singled me out as a threat. As the epitome of Cerberus and all it stood for. Which only went to prove that she actually had something between her ears other than tattoos. We had almost come to blows after Pragia, a conflict that had only been averted at the last minute by Shepard. If she picked up on my feelings for Shepard, about what we had started, she might start pursuing him just to spite me. As much as I hated to admit it, there were a few points in her favour. She was a biotic, just like me. Up until Pragia, she was dressed just as provocatively as I was—or undressed in a far less subtle, but equally provocative manner. And her childhood had been traumatic enough that she would appreciate someone with Shepard’s patience—once she finished with her profanities and insults, of course. Still, her psych profile suggested that she couldn’t conceive of anyone being that patient with her unless they wanted to have sex with her. As long as she believed that, she would never get anywhere with Shepard. If Shepard was the sort of man who was only interested in women as disposable pleasures, he would have made a move on me—and several other women—by now. Therefore, it seemed safe to classify her as a ‘Negligible Risk.’
Tali could be a problem. Kelly’s psych profile had suggested that Tali might be attracted to Shepard. They did know each other from two years ago when Shepard was hunting Saren, where he saved her from Saren’s mercenaries. And then he gave her a copy of some data he’d recovered on the geth for her Pilgrimage gift. And then he saved her on Freedom’s Progress. So there was that whole ‘saving her life’ factor, plus the save the galaxy factor. Besides, she always had this impressive balance of intelligence, self-confidence and assertiveness despite what scuttlebutt said was a less-than-ideal relationship with her father—which reminded me that several people on this ship seemed to have father or family issues, myself included. And I know more than one male crew member had expressed great admiration in her hips. They weren’t as great as mine, but they were far too close for comfort. Thankfully, Shepard had never expressed any hint of interest or compatibility with her. Still, she could be a problem. Better classify her as a ‘Moderate Risk,’ I decided.
Liara wasn’t physically on the Normandy, which was why I hadn’t initially considered her a risk. The more I thought about it, though, the more I was concerned. She’d also known Shepard from the ‘Saren days.’ He had saved her on Therum. She’d been fascinated and attracted to him, first for the data in his head from the Prothean beacon and the Cipher, then because, well, because he was Shepard. And she had melded with Shepard on at least three separate occasions, which meant she had greater insight into Shepard than anyone else. More importantly, she’d gone off on a quest to track down Shepard’s body, displaying an unnerving degree of focus that bordered on obsession in the process, only to shift to a quest to hunt down and kill the Shadow Broker. Besides, she was an asari, which meant she was universally attractive to every species out there, including humanity, and her biotics were at least equal to mine, if not greater. Definitely a ‘High Risk’ threat.
Kasumi was also a concern, albeit for entirely different reasons. Out of all the threats and competitors I had considered, she had ‘clicked’ with Shepard almost immediately. Not surprisingly, when I thought about it: they did have the most in common. Both of them were intelligent. Both of them had a penchant for sneaking around. Thanks to the modifications I gave to Shepard, both of them could had a cloaking system that rendered themselves invisible. Perfect for stealing things, which they both indulged in on more than one occasion. And both of them had this irritatingly mischievous sense of humour. When Shepard pulled his little ship-wide April Fool’s Day prank, Kasumi was the only one who spent the rest of the day giggling away. Even when she was wincing at the end for over-exerting her stomach muscles, she still had that silent laughter gleaming in her eyes—something else she and Shepard shared. That level of compatibility could pose a serious problem. So yes, she was clearly a ‘High Risk.’
“Woohoo! I’m a ‘High Risk!’”
My hand automatically sent a wave of biotic energy rippling outwards in the direction of the voice before my brain had even registered. An “Oof” rang out, followed by a thud and an “Owwwwwwwww.”
Saving my Romantic Competition and Threat Assessment file, I got up, walked over to the window—the one located in what Shepard called the ‘Office Half’ of my quarters—and glared. A second later, Kasumi disabled the cloak, which saved me from looking foolish and potentially deranged for glaring at the empty carpet. “Hi, Miranda,” Kasumi chirped, completely unfazed by the glare I was leveling at her. “What’s up?”
Somehow, I had the feeling that she intentionally gave away her presence. Either that, or she simply didn’t care about getting caught. “How long have you been here?” I demanded.
“Long enough to know Liara and I are tied at the top, Tali’s next, followed by Jack and Kelly, and that everyone else is pretty much off the list. Don’t worry, I won’t tell.”
I dimly heard her reply, too busy dealing with the gut-clenching grip of sheer panic. Thankfully, my memory managed to recover what she said. “Wh-what?” I managed at last.
“You and Shep,” Kasumi elaborated, getting to her feet. “I won’t tell anyone. The two of you obviously want to keep things hush-hush, which I totally support. It’s sooooo romantic!”
The vice grip on my gut loosened ever-so-slightly. Kasumi looked serious. She seemed fully invested in this... whatever it was that Shepard and I had. Unless she was playing me. Hoping to get my guard down so she could pounce and take Shepard from me. I hated that possibility. Almost as much as I hated being the needy, clingy, jealous woman. “How did you know?”
“Took me a while, but I eventually figured out that Shep and I are the only ones who go for the jasmine tea,” Kasumi shrugged. “Then it started disappearing. Fast.”
So much for “‘No one else is drinking the stuff.’”
“Way I figured, either Shep started mainlining it through an IV, a third person started sneaking it away or Shep was getting extra rations for someone else. Didn’t take long to figure out the answer was choice number three. Besides, you and Shep keep making googly eyes at each other.”
Damn. “We do?” I asked bleakly.
“Yep,” Kasumi nodded. “Not on the Normandy; you guys are very careful about that,” she hastened to add, no doubt seeing the look of horror in my eyes. “Probably the only reason that Kelly didn’t pick up on it. Though you do smile a lot more when you’re in here. Did you know that?”
“You should do that more often,” Kasumi said firmly. “Smile, I mean. Shep would love that, I bet. Anyway, you guys are usually pretty discreet onboard the Normandy. But on missions? Yeah, the two of you do stare at each other in that special lovey-dovey kinda way.”
“And you’re not...”
“Jealous?” Kasumi finished. “Nah. I mean, don’t get me wrong: I’m flattered that you ranked me so highly. Almost as flattering as knowing I’m the best thief in the galaxy. But seriously: Shep and I? We have way too much in common. Think about it: if we started dating, things would only be calm for a few days. Maybe a week. Then we’d start stealing from each other. Cracking bad jokes that just irritate each other. Making up plans to prank each other. And everyone else on the crew would get caught in the middle. I say two weeks, three tops, before we drive each other bonkers. That, or we just kill each other.”
That made me feel a little better.
“Though I bet the sex would be fantastic.”
That—not so much.
I later told Shepard about Kasumi’s visit, leaving out the part about my list. My caution may have been unnecessary, as he was more interested in Kasumi’s theories on what might happen if the two of them got together. Naturally, he thought the idea of a prank war was hilarious.
Once he stopped laughing, he confirmed that Kasumi probably didn’t have any interest in me, citing a conversation where she let slip her attraction to Jacob. I started to tell him I couldn’t see how the two would work out; what with Jacob being so serious and focused while Kasumi was so mischievous and cheery. Then I stopped, too late seeing the irony in my words. Naturally, Shepard filled in the rest. Naturally, it set him off again.
In any event, things went on as normal, or as normal as it could be. More and more of Shepard’s squad put their past behind them or resolved old personal demons. Upgrades were being installed. Shepard and I continued our clandestine work dates. Missions were being completed—with Shepard and I trying to keep any non-verbal cues that might hint at our relationship to a minimum.
Then the Collectors abducted the crew.
The Reaper IFF had finally been integrated. The crew were running some final tests while Shepard and the squad went off to answer a distress call. Little did we know that the Reaper IFF was harbouring some incredibly sophisticated viruses, which shut down the Normandy’s navigational systems and broadcast a homing signal that led the Collector cruiser right to them. The only reason we had a ship to go back to was that Mr. Moreau unshackled EDI and plugged her directly into the ship’s systems, thereby giving her the control she needed to detach from the Collector ship, jettison any wayward Collectors into the vacuum of space and jump to FTL.
Shepard decided that we had to go after them and retrieve the crew. Personal connections and loyalty to the crew aside, he was right. After nearly a year of constant combat and peril, the squad was as cohesive and battle-hardened as it could possibly get. And, thanks to Shepard’s devotion to the fine art of shopping, scrounging and strip-mining, we had the best weapons, omni-tools, biotic amps and ship upgrades credits could buy.
Thanks to Mr. Moreau’s unorthodox tactics, EDI had taken over all of the ship’s functions. That meant the vast majority of the normal tasks and reports were completed correctly and on time. All I had to do was sign off on them, which left me time to make one last plan:
After the initial hurdles, Shepard and I had established a new rhythm. One full of work dates, off-hand jokes, little smiles and... spending time together. I was happy with that. Call it denial, but that helped put off the stress of knowing we were on a suicide mission. Believe me, I ran the numbers. The odds had improved with every squad member Shepard recruited, every mission we came back from, even every random upgrade Shepard found, but the odds were still against us.
But now... now we didn’t really have a choice. We had to get the crew—our crew—back. Even though I hadn’t interacted with them as much as Shepard had, even though I hadn’t gotten to know them as well, they were still our crew. We’d breathed the same air, eaten the same food, survived the same missions—vicariously or literally. They were our crew. We had to get them back, or at least try. Even if it was a suicide mission. One that we probably wouldn’t come back from. Not Shepard. Not me. None of us.
Which meant this was the last chance I’d get to find out what it would be like to have sex with Shepard. To see if it would be another bit of physical release or something… more.
And if it was going to be my first and, more importantly, my last chance to screw his brains out, I might as well go the extra mile to make it something unique. Something extraordinary. Like me. Like Shepard.
Having settled on an objective, I did what I always did: generate multiple plans and select the best option. That option being combining the thrill of our first time together with the thrill of potentially being our last and only time together with the thrill of doing it in a spot where anyone could walk in on us at any time. Then I had to optimize this plan so it so it would have the greatest probability of success.
Part of that optimization required the recruitment of a partner for technical and logistical assistance. While this plan involved a bit more exhibitionism than I usually indulged in, this was all theoretical—I intended to do everything in my power to prevent anyone walking in on me and Shepard, or any vid-recordings being made. The former could be handled by manipulating the itineraries of the remaining crew/squad members. The latter would have to be via some judicious hacking, since Mr. Moreau’s desperate act of saving the Normandy had resulted in an unshackled AI who no longer had to respond to Cerberus override codes. However, there was always the possibility that some random variable or variables would undermine my preparations. It would help if I had some assistance who could ‘run interference.’ As an added bonus, it would mean that I could concentrate entirely on pleasuring Shepard—and myself—rather than my usual mental multi-tasking.
Knowing that there was at least one person on the Normandy who knew about Shepard and I and would likely be willing to help made it much simpler.
I sent a coded signal to Kasumi asking for her to meet me. As I waited for her to arrive, I made a few additional modifications while marvelling at how much easier it was for me to ask for help without fear of looking like a failure. Especially when you know the help is competent.
Kasumi decloaked. I looked at her, then looked at the doors that had not opened once.
“I have my ways,” she shrugged.
“Then perhaps you can use those ways to help me out,” I replied. I quickly outlined my plan.
“Oh, Miranda,” Kasumi tsk-ed. “The engine room? Really?”
“What?” I asked in confusion. “You don’t think this is romantic?”
“Oh, it is. And it’s kinky, too. But... the engine room? Right there where Tali works? Isn’t that kind of… tacky?”
Ah. That was her problem. Perhaps she had a point. Maybe choosing that particular site, the heart of a romantic competitor’s workplace, to have my wicked, wicked way with Shepard would be kind of rubbing said competitor’s face in the fact that Shepard was mine.
For that matter, why did I pick Tali’s workplace instead of Kasumi’s quarters, given that I’d pegged Kasumi as a higher threat? Was it because I’d calculated that Kasumi would be far less willing to help me if I’d decided to screw Shepard’s brains out in her quarters? Or because I held Kasumi in higher regard than Tali?
Now I felt… surprisingly ashamed. And disappointed in myself. “I think the word you’re looking for is ‘petty’,” I swallowed. “Or ‘low’.”
“They work too,” Kasumi nodded diplomatically.
“Perhaps a change in venue would be in order.”
Now that I thought about it, the engine room wasn’t the best place for what I had in mind for Shepard. Especially if we did it in front of the power core. The one that was two stories tall, with windows into various rooms on Decks Three and Four. That was a lot of potential viewpoints to cover. Perhaps I could pick somewhere else. There was always the galaxy map—no. That would be too cruel to Jacob. Besides, Mr. Moreau would be able to hear, watch and—knowing him—record. The mess hall? Too many access points. The cargo hold?
Yes. The cargo hold. Down on Deck Five, where no one went unless there was a mission. One access point, through a door that could easily be sealed. One other vantage point—the windows on Deck Four—which could easily be polarized. Yes, that could work.
“Something tells me you have a new idea.”
Belatedly, I realized that I was smiling. “Yes, I do,” I confirmed. “And I could use some help.”
“Sounds like fun,” Kasumi grinned. “I’m in.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Just like that?”
“Sure,” Kasumi shrugged.
“Just like that?”
“Ah,” I said. “Then I guess you don’t want the dossier I compiled on Jacob before I recruited him. The one with a detailed personal history, unredacted CV, and an extensive image gallery.”
Kasumi had a glazed look on her face for a good minute. “Er…” she said at last. “You know what? If you’re good at something, never do it for free. I’ll help you out—if you hand over that dossier.”
I thought so. “Deal,” I agreed. I kept mum on the vids I had of Jacob’s Alliance days, the ones where he moonlighted as a model for underwear and deodorant commercials.
You never know when you need some incentive, after all.
There was only one major change to my revised plan: at Kasumi’s suggestion, I actually asked EDI to shut off the surveillance devices on Deck Five—and certain parts of Deck Four. She agreed, citing that she was no longer bound by Cerberus regulations to keep them on at all times.
Maybe there were some benefits to unshackling her. Of course, she could be trying to lull us into a false sense of security so she could kill us all in our sleep. I put that thought aside, however. The situation was bleak enough as it was.
The rest of my plan went off without a hitch: first, Kasumi helped me sweep the cargo hold for any surveillance devices the schematics and my memory had missed and found a nice quiet spot to keep tabs on everyone else. Next, the remaining crew—or skeleton crew, I should say—was redirected elsewhere. Then I proceeded to the next part of the plan: finding Shepard and offering him a proposition. Between EDI and Kasumi, it was child’s play to intercept him.
“Oh, pardon me, Commander,” I said in mock surprise.
Shepard jerked his head up. He looked at me in confusion before trying to step around me. I moved to block his advance before unleashing the sultry, smouldering look that I had practised and employed so many times. His eyes widened, ever so slightly.
Two steps were all it took to close the gap. Two long, slow steps. Carefully calculated and executed to capture every iota of his attention. Judging by the way he suddenly swallowed, I think I succeeded. I raised one hand and slowly, ever so slowly, traced a line up his chest. It wouldn’t be long before the gloves were off. And the clothes.
I gradually leaned towards him, pressing my body against his and...
...and it was all I could do to stick to the plan and deliver the offer, rather than having my wicked way with him right there in the elevator. Focus, Miranda, I scolded myself. Just hold on for a little longer… “I’ve cleared the cargo hold,” I whispered into his ear, my voice filled with all sorts of delightful promises. “I’ll be there in five minutes.”
His eyes bulged, suddenly shifting out of focus. His jaw dropped. Something closely resembling a squeak came out. This phase had definitely succeeded. Hopefully I hadn’t completely broken him and we could move on to the next phase.
Eventually, he pasted a grin on his face. “Should’ve known you wouldn’t settle for the captain’s quarters.”
Not broken after all. Excellent. I gave him a wicked little smile, one that caused his eyes to pop out and his jaw to drop. Again. “Shepard,” I purred, “I thought you would have figured it out by now: I settle for nothing but the best.”
Having delivered my offer, there were only three things left to do. The first was to walk back into the elevator, taking care to put that extra swing in my step to draw his attention to my Mark IV suit and how it complemented my physique. The second step was to reach back and hit the elevator door controls.
And the last step? The last step was to stop, turn so my profile was displayed to Shepard for maximum effect… and give him a wink. Just before the elevator doors closed.
I had never done anything like that and enjoyed it so much. The way he kept looking so stunned and glassy-eyed, the way his jaw kept dropping, it was just priceless. So worth it. And the sex…
…oh, the sex…
Granted, Shepard might not have been the most handsome specimen I’ve ever slept with. Or the strongest. And he might not have been the most, shall we say, endowed. But he certainly had the most stamina—thanks in some small part to all the implants and modifications that both of us made to his body. He was a remarkably quick study—how he found that one part that drove me absolutely wild when no one else had still amazes me. And he was one of the few people who actually seemed to care about how I felt. Very few people had ever done that before.
More importantly, he made me feel safe. Like I could lower my defences, let him in and trust that he wouldn’t take advantage of my vulnerability in any way. I could give myself to him without worrying that I was being weak or foolish. For a few precious hours, I could just succumb to his embrace, let go and ignore the harsh, terrifying reality that awaited us at the Omega 4 relay and beyond.
No more hiding. No more pretending. No more walls.
Oh God. No more walls. No more protection against…
What if things went wrong. What if something happened? What if we were separated or hurt or… or…
I tried to keep my panic contained. To keep myself from welling up in tears. To stop shaking in fear or silently sob at what might happen. “Miranda?” I heard Shepard say again.
“I’m happy,” I confessed.
“This is what I was afraid of,” I admitted.
Understandable. He didn’t understand what this could mean. How all of this could disappear in a heartbeat and hurt so badly because it meant so much.
“I didn’t want to be happy,” I started. “Because being happy meant being open to other things like loss and sorrow and heartbreak which is exactly what’s going to happen on this mission.” I lifted my head from his chest and looked at him, not even trying to stop the tears. “It’s a suicide mission which, by definition, means people are going to die. We could all die. Or worse, one of us will die and the other will live, all alone and lonely and miserable and I didn’t want this. But now I have it. I’m happy. I’m happier than I’ve ever been, which means I could be miserable if things go horribly wrong and you die. I don’t want to be miserable. I don’t want you to die!
“So promise me, damn it!” I sobbed, squeezing him tightly. “Promise me that you—”
“Miranda,” he interrupted. “Miranda, look at me. Look at me.”
Oh good. This was the part where he’d say something that would make it all better—oh God. ‘Make it all better. What was I, twelve? Still, maybe he’d have some quip or comment that would be utterly simple yet incredibly profound.
“Don’t freak out, okay?”
Then again, maybe it would just be utterly simple. “Don’t freak out?” I repeated.
“Yeah. You think you’re the only one who’s worried? You’re not. I wish I wasn’t. I wish I could pretend this mission will be a snap. But it doesn’t work that way. We could all be dead in the next few hours.”
That was what I was afraid of.
“Or maybe we’ll all make it. Somehow.”
That was more like it.
“Look, I don’t know what will happen next. But I’ll tell you this much: I don’t regret any of this. What happened between us, all the times we shared drinking tea and eating snacks while filling out reports, all the things we confided in each other, all that we just shared here in the cargo bay. I couldn’t have imagined that any of this could happen, but I’m glad I did because I wanted this. All of this. Not just to vent some steam or score some bragging rights. I wanted this because, well, because it was with you. I’m going to do everything I can to get through this mission, come out the other side alive and intact, and see where this thing we have goes. Even if it’s scarier than the prospect of going up against the Collectors. But if you don’t think it’s worth it, I und—”
I couldn’t stop myself from kissing him out of gratitude. And other things. I’d spent what seemed like an eternity agonizing over and thinking about what I was feeling. Thinking about what it all meant. Thinking about what could happen now that I was exposed—literally—and vulnerable.
What I realized, in that instant, was that I was tired of thinking. Calculating. Analyzing. Extrapolating. I just wanted to act without restraint or forethought. I wanted to move with wild abandon. I wanted to feel.
And oh how I felt. Felt the heat of his body. Felt the hot warmth of his lips. Felt everything.
It was wonderful.
After what seemed like an eternity, Shepard pulled away. I whimpered in protest as our lips parted, but I was also grateful. It was only then that I realized I hadn’t taken a breath, and even my genetically enhanced body needed oxygen after a while. As I gulped down air, my mind started to settle, and I remembered the last thing Shepard was saying before I kissed him.
The answer was surprisingly simple. And profound. “No,” I said softly. “It is.”
“Okay,” he said. “Then I just need you to do one thing.”
“Which is?” I prompted.
“Trust me,” he replied. “Trust that I’ll do everything in my power to complete this mission and return to you.”
“Okay,” I promised. And I’ll do the same.”
We stopped talking then, letting the ramifications of that conversation sink in. I waited a few minutes before I decided that we had done enough talking. Time to act. I propped myself up on an elbow and turned towards him. “Well, Shepard,” I said, letting a seductive smile spreading ever so slowly across my face, “I think we need more data.”
He looked at me blankly. “More... data?”
I curled my body against him, tilting my head up so I could whisper in his ear. “That was the best sex I have had in a very, very, very long time,” she told him. “Especially the last round. But I need to know they weren’t random outliers. I think I need further... experimentation to broaden my data set.”
He blinked a few times before a wicked look transformed his face. “Let me get this straight: you want to have more sex? For science?”
“Precisely,” I confirmed. “For science.”
Shepard glanced around before returning his gaze to me. “Against the nearest wall or on top of the Hammerhead?” he wanted to know.
“Wall,” I said firmly. “It’s twelve point three six metres closer.”
We did get around to gather additional data on top of the Hammerhead. Eventually. After doing it against the wall. And another wall. And a few other locations. For science. And while it was amazing and euphoric and oh-so-worth it, I couldn’t help but feel content. Safe, even.
The only other time I’d felt that way...
The only other time was in my own bed. As a child—chronologically, that is—my bed was my one and only refuge from the harsh, cruel dictates of my father. The one place where I could relax and feel safe. Even as an adult, I never slept with anyone in my bed. That was my sanctum. My sanctuary.
Was that why I chose to explore my heretofore dormant exhibitionist streak? Because as much as I cared about Shepard, as much as I trusted him, I couldn’t let him into my bed? I couldn’t let him in all the way? I couldn’t tell him I loved him?
As much as I wanted to explore this revelation, I didn’t have the time. There were a few last-minute diagnostics to run and some files to backup before we hit the Omega 4 relay. All I could do was make a promise to myself: to survive this mission, to ensure Shepard survive this mission and do everything in my power to give us a chance to figure out what our next step was.