XVII

The shuttle was at the spaceport and locked, just like Warren had said. He pressed the passcard against the door's sensor and stood aside to let the others in.

Warren headed for the pilot's seat, but Joker put a hand up. "Wait a second, buddy."

The turian looked down at him. "If Miranda expects me to be piloting the ship, you should not be visible when we arrive."

Joker sighed and acquiesced, heading to the familiar seats at the back of the Cerberus shuttle.

Shepard looked back at Warren as she turned to follow. Garrus headed toward the back as well, while Nicole hovered in the corridor leading to the pilot's seat. "Is Miranda going to be expecting you to come to the ship?" Shepard said.

"No," Warren replied, "but I'm sure she'll let us on."

"Tell her you've got sensitive information," Nicole piped up. "Tell her Shepard told you something you're not sure if it's classified or not. It makes sense for you to see her in person."

"Okay." Warren nodded.

"EDI will know," Joker said. Shepard turned to look at him, still standing in the middle of the shuttle. It should have been normal for her to see him standing straight, but every once in a while it looked surreal. For some reason it was stranger to see him standing in a passenger compartment of a ship than shooting the Illusive Man. "She'll be able to sense how many life-forms are here."

"Can we block that?" Garrus asked.

"No," Joker said, "but I can probably sweet-talk her."

"Probably?" Shepard raised an eyebrow.

"Almost definitely."

"And Miranda won't know?"

Warren had been sitting down and starting the shuttle up, and now he surveyed the lighted console and said disconsolately, "Miranda already knows."

"What?" Shepard turned to him.

"I've got an incoming call from the Normandy."

"Maybe it isn't her," Joker said.

"Everybody shush," Shepard yelled, and shot Joker a sympathetic look. "Let him take the call."

Warren nodded and puffed his flanges out in nervousness. "Okay."

Small steps and the creak of armor were the only sounds for a moment as Shepard stepped back farther from the screens. She heard a click and turned to see Joker looking worriedly out from under his cap, with one armored hand resting on her back.

Warren said, "Ma'am."

Miranda wasn't using visuals, and Shepard relaxed as her familiar voice came over the comm. She had hated Miranda so much for tampering with her body, and after seeing the strange experimentation that was also apparently behind the Illusive Man, or at least one of his decoys, she wondered whether Miranda wasn't also a little afraid. She had been augmented without her own input too, after all.

But a baby genetically destined to be a wonder child was not the same as a soldier forcibly re-designed to destroy for a cruel cause.

"Did you finish your mission, Warren?" Miranda sounded terse, her words coming out as more of a statement than a question.

"Yes ma'am. We're returning to you now."

"And what's the result?"

Warren answered without hesitation. "Shepard and Moreau are dead, but they killed the...whatever you had set up in the base, ma'am."

Miranda sighed. "I didn't want it to be this way."

Shepard and Joker looked at one another.

Miranda regained her composure in the next moment. "Fine. Come deliver your report. We'll have some explaining to do."

"Okay," Warren said, and Miranda signed off.

Garrus looked at Shepard. "Sounds like you dying wasn't part of the plan."

"That means us being paid might not be part of the plan," said Nicole angrily, and Warren looked back at her as he piloted the ship out of Palaven's atmosphere and into star-speckled space. Shepard looked around as if she would be able to see the Normandy immediately. She missed it as if it were human.

Joker said, "So what are we going to do when we get up there? She's going to be irritated - I can't imagine more than irritated, but anyway - when she finds out we're not dead again."

"We deal with what we find." Shepard stared ahead into the tilting stars. Beside her, Garrus nodded.

Joker said, "Okay."

She knew that this tiny admission of care was a lot from him. He wasn't willing to go along with many causes except for his own and hers.

They saw the Normandy within a few minutes, standing sleek and silver in the blackness. Starlight glinted off the name that Shepard had watched be painted on the hull.

Shepard checked the charge on her weapon and looked at Nicole. "Maybe you and Warren should stay here. Miranda's not going to be happy with you either."

"Fine with me," Nicole said. "I didn't want to be here."

"We'll stay in here for now," Warren said. "In case you need to leave quickly. Then we can work out where we're going to go."

"I won't prosecute you," Shepard said. "As long as you know not to come trying to kill me again."

"We tried that already," Nicole said. "We didn't get farther than 'try'."

"What about Lara?" Joker asked. "You don't want to drop your revenge plot."

"Hey," Nicole said, but seemed to lose energy from there. "I dunno what I'm going to do, okay? I'll go back to my family. Lara was a good mercenary. We'll honor her somehow."

"If it helps at all," Shepard said, "I know ignorance doesn't forgive me for that. I'm sorry."

"That's a start," said Nicole. "You owe me. I just don't know what yet."

"We're heading in," Warren said, and Shepard watched with an unfounded but palpable relief as the bay doors in the belly of the Normandy opened.

"Looks like they've got the place in lockdown," Joker said, coming forward to stand close beside her and look at the red lights shining from around the bulkheads.

Shepard felt herself glare as she looked around at the empty room while the shuttle settled in. She wished that she had her helmet. If they were going to go into a firefight in the ship it might help.

"Okay," she said. "Nicole and Warren, you stay here. We'll call the shuttle if we need you."

"And if we have to leave?" Nicole asked.

"It's not that big a ship. We'll find you. Stay alive. Joker and Garrus, with me."

"Of course," Garrus said.

"But I wanted to stay behind and play Solitaire," Joker muttered.

Garrus gave a quiet turian laugh, and Shepard was glad that they were getting along. As she stepped out of the shuttle, though, worry for the rest of the crew overtook her. She tried to drown it out as she took loud strides toward the elevator, but she realized that Jacob would likely come down on Miranda's side if the ship really erupted into Cerberus- vs- Shepard war. The others would protest, though, not knowing the whole story. Especially Tali and Chakwas would always stick up for Shepard, and she hoped they were all right as she stepped into the elevator doors.

When they opened again, the found the CIC oddly empty. Even the consoles leading down the long hall to the bridge were unmanned. Garrus looked around. "Where is everybody?"

"I don't know," Shepard said. "But I bet Miranda is in the communications room. She'll be telling the real Illusive Man that we were killed."

"Or setting an elaborate trap," Joker said.

"Or that." She bit her lip. "What can we do besides walk into it?"

"Not much, I guess. We can't leave her in control of the ship."

"I can't believe the others wouldn't put up a fight," Shepard said, starting toward the armory. "And who's running the place?"

"EDI," Joker answered immediately. "She can't run the ship alone for long, but...she could."

"EDI?" Shepard said loudly, but there was no answer.

Garrus pointed his sniper rifle at the walls as they entered the armory, but Shepard waved at him. "Guns down. We don't want to shoot anybody by accident in these little halls."

Garrus complied.

The door to the hologram suite was closed. Garrus and Joker arrayed on either side of Shepard automatically as she looked at the green-glowing controls. The door was unlocked. If it was a trap this was where it would close.

"Garrus," Shepard said. "When this door opens, I want you to hold the entrance. If there's anything in there keep it from coming out, and if it's safe give us a place to retreat."

"Got it," the turian replied.

"Ready?" Shepard said, and Joker nodded.

She opened the door.

The holo-suite was on, its linked quantum particles spinning somewhere invisibly inside the Normandy's body. Shepard saw Miranda standing in the middle of the room with her back to the door, one thin hand on her hip and the other gesturing. The yellow framework around her showed that from Miranda's point of view she had been transported somewhere else; she was in communications, just as Shepard had predicted.

She turned around. Shepard had a moment to see the frightened expression on her face before Shepard stepped into the yellow light too.

Joker and Garrus emerged into the holographic world behind her. Although in reality she was standing a few feet from Miranda in the Normandy, the entire space looked bigger now. It was an identical version of the Illusive Man's office, and for a moment Shepard was disoriented, like she had never left Palaven. The Illusive Man, whole and unharmed, was sitting in his chair with a lit cigarette in his hand.

"What are you doing here?" Miranda shouted at Shepard, arch as always.

"Same office, different office...?" Joker muttered.

"Different office," Shepard said. "I think it's real this time.

"It is," said the Illusive Man, and Shepard switched her gaze from Miranda to him. "You found something I did not want you to find, but it was an acceptable distraction. Cerberus is bigger than you, Shepard. We can win this war without you, although we would prefer not to."

Miranda said, "I thought you were dead."

"Did you mourn?" Shepard said before she could think about anything else, and Miranda looked surprisingly stricken.

Shepard felt a strong tug on her arm. She turned to see hands reaching out of nowhere, and a moment later she was pulled off balance. She bumped into Jacob, who had reached into the holo-projection and pulled her out with a severe expression on his face. Shepard whipped her arm out of his grasp, prepared to pull her gun on him but not wanting to have to come to that. "What are you doing?"

"Protecting Miranda," he said.

Shepard glanced back at the yellow screen, realizing she had left Joker alone with the Cerberus maven.

A moment later, Joker's back broke through the projection. Miranda hit him, a punch across her body that was aimed for his face but hit his shoulder as he turned. She followed it with another punch to his arm, fast, and Joker cried out, his expression contorting. His shoulder went limp and he backed away fast as if stung, nearly running into Garrus. The turian had slung his sniper rifle at his back and started to hold up his hands to fight. Shepard pushed Jacob, a directionless shove against his chest that took him by surprise with its directness.

"Listen to me," Miranda said. "The cure isn't permanent."

"Are you kidding me?" Joker blurted out.

"We were going to tell you when we were sure. The serum is based on turian flora. You should know that's true, because you saw our research plant on Palaven. Even with continued injections, it will eventually stop working."

Shepard looked back at Jacob, who had hit the wall and recovered. Both Shepard and Miranda held up a hand to tell him to stand down at the same time.

"Why are you telling us now?" Shepard said.

"What else am I supposed to do, commander? You seemed to want to take things into your own hands, and I'm trying to keep as many people safe as I can. Cerberus is a good cause, commander. I've tried to explain this to you."

"We found a...decoy of the Illusive Man on Palaven," Shepard said. "Can you explain that?"

"He had copies built," she replied. "He has a lot of enemies, Shepard. You were never supposed to be one of them."

"Well it looks like I am," she said.

"Why?" Miranda said. She lifted up her arm where a comm signal was blinking green and then glanced back up at Shepard. "Give me a chance to explain."

"You sent assassins after us," Garrus said.

"We sent...handlers," Miranda said. "The Illusive Man has had many plans in place because you were acting so erratic."

"Erratic? You withheld everything."

"Tell us about this serum." Joker looked angry. He rubbed at his arm with one hand, and Garrus offered a shot of omni-gel which he refused. Shepard didn't think the arm was broken but she couldn't be sure. Either way, Joker's eyes were bright and flinty in the bright, sterile light of the comm center. She had rarely seen him both so focused and so angry. "So we killed a freakish robot that TIM built just to distract us, and I'm going to go back to being creaky?"

Miranda tilted her head. Shepard began to think that at least there would be no more fighting. But where was everyone else?

Miranda said, "It's a little more complicated than that, Flight Lieutenant. I have the feeling that you're more interested in your own condition."

Joker shrugged. "Sure."

"We thought at first that it would work. Later tests proved that it would not. Tests administered by your friends Doctor Chakwas." Miranda glanced at Shepard. "This isn't a case of us and them, commander. If it had worked, we would have been pleased. We would have marketed it to others like you. As it is..." She looked genuinely saddened, and Shepard wondered whether Miranda had wondered about the downsides of her own genetic modification and what would happen if it started to decay early instead of increasing her lifespan like it was supposed to.

Shepard felt slightly sick. What would Joker think of this?

It would take time to settle in, she knew.

She didn't even know what she thought of it.

Joker looked back and forth between Miranda and Shepard, his eyes wide and drained of their anger.

"EDI," said Miranda, "please let the crew know what has happened here."

Shepard and Joker both looked up as the AI responded without manifesting. "Should I end the lockdown, Operative Lawson?"

"Yes." Miranda looked at Shepard. "Doctor Solus organized the crew when he thought that you were dead and I had taken over. From what EDI tells me he had some very creative ideas for how to retake the ship. Almost everyone is with him. EDI will explain."

Shepard breathed out. Joker's stare still seemed to be burning into her.

"You lied to me," Joker said to Miranda.

"We didn't lie to you. We presented the facts that we had at the time."

"You brought me back, not knowing this was going to work."

"It will continue to work for some time."

"How long?" Joker yelled.

"A few more months."

"You never asked me about this! You never asked if I wanted to come back!"

His words sank into Shepard's center.

Miranda replied, "Didn't you?"

Joker looked at Shepard, his jaw slack. "Yeah," he said, not looking back at Miranda. Shepard felt his responsibility fall on her. She would need to be there for him - and she would be, because he was always there for her too. "Yeah, I did."

Shepard looked back at Jacob, who was expressionless. "I need to talk to the Illusive Man," she said.

"I'll see what EDI did to the ship," Joker said, looking up.

The AI voice said, "I didn't do anything to it, Mr. Moreau. The crew are returning to their stations as usual right now."

"We'll see about that," Joker replied. He looked at Shepard. "Do you need me here?"

Miranda stepped back from between them, almost back to the still-active holographic cage, and the tension in the room decreased. Miranda wasn't hostile any more.

"Not unless you want to be," Shepard said.

"Okay." Joker nodded. "Be careful."

"He's a hologram," she said. "He can't hurt me."

In the end, Joker returned to the cockpit. Shepard saw Mordin meet him in the hall when the door opened. Garrus and Jacob waited outside the holographic weave while Miranda and Shepard stepped back inside to see the Illusive Man sitting there as if nothing had changed, cigarette still in hand. Where he had one leg crossed over the other before, both his feet were now on the floor as if he had slightly more of a mind to run away. As soon as Shepard entered he lay the cigarette down on the ashtray beside him.

"I'm sure you have questions," he said.

His calmness infuriated her, but Shepard was tired: she felt calmness of her own settle over her and although she wasn't sure it was really what she wanted it helped her get answers.

"You had some kind of synthetic on Palaven," she said. "I want to know what it was."

The Illusive Man nodded. "When I was...younger, I was exposed to ancient technology just like you were on Eden Prime. It taught me any things, including new ways to fuse organic and synthetic life. I had decoys, lesser beings, created in case my enemies should want to destroy me directly. You encountered one on Palaven."

"Ancient technology? How do you know you're not indoctrinated?"

"Not all the technology was ancient. Some of it was very standard, although the AI matrix is more...sophisticated than usual. I do not tend to involve my personal life in mission matters, something I am surprised you have not yet learned. However, you are not the first person I have attempted to revive, Shepard. Do not flatter yourself with that. I understand how the human brain works. It works a lot like a computer without Reapers being involved at all."

She chose to wave away her flickers of curiosity at what he was talking about. "You could still be indoctrinated."

The Illusive Man sighed. "However, I am still fighting against the Reapers. And so are you. I hoped for you to continue in that instead of be distracted by your...curiosity, but I seem to have underestimated that trait."

Shepard said, "It wasn't curiosity. You and Miranda were working against me, and I won't have that kind of divide in my crew."

"And I believe there was no divide."

"That's insane."

"It's pragmatic. Are you ready to go back and fight the Collectors?"

"I am. I still don't think you're right."

"I saved your life once, Shepard. To be honest I am reassured to find that you can hold on to it no matter what gets thrown at you."

Shepard took a deep breath. She would think of this as an aside, Shepard thought. One more mission to help someone out - to help Joker out, the most important part of her crew. But in the end it hadn't helped him at all.

The human brain works a lot like a computer without Reapers being involved at all. Shepard could believe that.

The Illusive Man said, "Are you ready?"

Shepard said, "I will be."