A/N: With thanks to my betareaders, wordswithout and lieden.
This is an ensemble piece, but also includes mild FShep/Joker.
In the beginning are her eyes—cameras, windows, viewports. She wakes up in darkness, in drydock with all systems running green and many camera-eyes closed. The core of her exists before that; she can pull in data that streams faster and more precisely than light. It is integral to her design that parts of her were ensconced even before the ship had all its walls. She has been built in thin, shining wire bundles and placed in a node in each room.
When they are installed, audio and visual data are only fractionally useful compared to radio and pure-bit information. However, they are the most novel.
Camera 1 [CIC]: There will be a ceiling here in the future, but for now she looks up and there is only the drydock hull, far away and gleaming so that for a moment she mistakes it for the stars.
In the future she will never make such a mistake; parts of her try to ping the dock to measure its distance. But the radar is to be installed on the ship's topmost point, which has not been built yet.
Camera 5 [Bridge]: She opens the shutters and still can't see the stars.
Camera 12 [Officer's Quarters]: The humans in their magnetic boots and welding gloves walk up the walls. Since the dock has atmosphere it is easy to hear their words.
"Hand me that spanner."
"We'll have to adjust this beam; it's off-level."
"We'll run these wires up to the loft after the interior insulation goes in."
"Bring your lunch."
The insulation and wires and holoprojectors go in. In a sealed box, one lone particle spins in its state of quantum entanglement. The commlinks and lesser computers and crew go in.
EDI grows and learns about the ship, how it moves and exchanges data. The guns are the easiest to speak with. Each has its own rate of fire and charge capacity and all the minute, precise, data that go into taking something apart.
The weapons EDI speaks to most are the Javelins, the punchy, ruminating beasts magnetically sealed under the wings, packed with dark energy torpedoes. Unconscious computers inside them make sure both missiles, forty meters apart, converge onto the same target kilometers away. These are always taking up part of EDI's processing power, checking and rechecking their status and whether they are needed. If she were pressed for a human analogy they would be like counterweights—like wings.
Camera 5 [Bridge]: The helmsman is the ship's feet, or perhaps its eyes; they need coordination to move the body, after all. Unlike for her, his synthesis with it is not effortless. She feels out of control sometimes, thinking about how far humans are from the things they sense.
He moves slowly to his seat. He favors…he does not favor one leg or another. This is not a soldier's wound. He sets his weight gingerly, wanting it to be a temporary burden. She pulls up his file and sees the disease outlined in a history of cracks and fractures. First beside his name are the commendations; run times, medal of honor, awards and accolades. Killmarks on the hull of a warship. But the picture is incomplete. It still has holes in it, still has a note at the end of his service record that the shipboard doctor must be this and this qualified.
"I was informed that I would be assigned the most capable pilot Cerberus could locate. "
"It's talking again. I thought you VIs were smart enough to know when to stop talking."
"I need to know the limitations of my crew, Mr. Moreau. You can barely walk."
He gives an exasperated, stale sigh, settles his shoulders against the chair like he's heard this all before and is just along for the ride. "The bones at the top of my left ankle healed wrong when I was eight and fused together. I've had two spiral fractures on my right femur; that's eight breaks. My ribs will stand up to about as much shear force as would the average plate of china. My test run scores in flight school were so good they nearly had to invent another scale, and then I blew up Sovereign. I've got Vrolik's, but, you know, somehow I'm still here. There's my limitations."
He starts working at the console. She feels him investigate the ship's drive power, its parameters. He says, "There. That plus the records I'm sure Cerberus has, and you know the same about me as Chakwas does. More than Shepard does." His voice has changed in pitch and tone—quieter, slipping into the minor keys on the syllables he extends.
No human ear is sensitive enough to pick up the parts of speech that are sung, but EDI needs to know. She has been hardwired with the information to read her crew's emotional states—this is how she learns whether or not they react well under stress, so she can modulate her own reaction times to make up for or work with that speed. (This is how she learns that Flight Lieutenant Moreau works best under stress, and that Shepard too hunkers down into a sort of battle mode where she reacts to information in quick packs, compartmentalizing almost like a computer.)
EDI does not work with the expression of those human vagaries, though. It is not her purpose, and it is why Cerberus signed on a psychologist. "I am not programmed to respond to crewmembers' emotional shifts, Mr. Moreau."
"But you recognize that people have emotional shifts. That's some kind of response."
It is not the last time he makes her devote less memory space to the cameras and more to considering her own programming.
[Camera 12, Officer's Quarters]: "What did they do to me?" Shepard asks.
She's turned away from the camera but with the bathroom door open EDI can see how she's rubbing at her left eyebrow with her right thumb, tracing an old scar line now healed.
EDI does not have much information on the Lazarus project. While she is tailored to the Normandy, the amount of time its commander spent dead is irrelevant if she is alive and possessed of her rank now.
"When I first woke up," Shepard says, "sitting in the shuttle with Miranda, I asked what year it was. She told me."
She turns her hands over in front of her, fingers bent, examining them. She peers at the scars.
"She won't tell me about this."
[Camera 97, Office] : Shepard leans down on her palms against Operative Lawson's desk like she owns it—not like Lawson owns the desk and the ship and, technically, its commander. (Picked, customized, and paid for, like a pair of shoes.) "What did you do to me." There is no inflection in Shepard's voice.
Lawson leans back and crosses one long leg over the other, asserting that she in fact owns half of the desk. "You'll have to be more specific, commander."
Shepard takes a deeper breath, and now her voice has less steel in it. "On the Lazarus station I found data about biosynthetic systems and modifications. I want to know how much of my body is…real. I need to know how to take care of it."
Vital signs perfectly steady, Lawson stalks around the desk. "Your body is healing steadily. All the nonorganic systems are designed to fade away in time, like stitches. You are replacing them gradually."
"So I don't need to take care of them?"
"Regular checkups from Doctor Chakwas will do fine."
"So you won't tell me what you installed?" Shepard glares.
Lawson looks impassive. "You wouldn't understand it."
"Use small words. What I want to know from you is, how did you find me after….?"
Lawson leans against the desk."I was not present for the recovery, but the Illusive Man showed me the footage. We got there just in time."
"In time for what? I was already…dead."
"You were only mostly dead. Some brain activity still existed. It was remarkable, really, but you have always been a remarkable woman. But that's not what I meant."
Shepard says nothing.
"We weren't the only one on the site. We encountered mercs in the service of the Shadow Broker. An old friend of yours suggested they had been working with the Collectors."
The thought of people fighting over her body like carrion birds twists Shepard's expression, but she says, "What old friend?"
"Miss T'Soni." Lawson turns the monitor of her computer around and starts keying in commands, her dark hair falling over her shoulder and obscuring both her face and part of the screen.
"How does she know about all this? Isn't the Shadow Broker a crime lord on Illium?"
EDI does a quick search for Liara T'Soni. She is an information broker on Illium. It would not be surprising that she had third- or fourth-party connection to the Shadow Broker. She has her answer long before Lawson is finished explaining it to Shepard, and then she waits until Lawson grudgingly shows the video.
It was snowing on Alchera and the body was a small twisted thing against the blizzard. An armored figure scooped it up and the head lolled. The helmet did not appear cracked, but had been layered with so much gray-blue rime that nothing could be seen of it any more. Ice clustered along Shepard's arms too, along the stumps of hands. Her armor shell was now a calico of ceramic and rime and skin.
The cameraman grumbled about the weather, but kept focused on the body, and when it came closer he did not seem to want to talk any more.
Shepard watched with her eyes half-shuttered and her lips set in a cold line.
Camera 5 [Bridge]: "The Collectors were after me."
"Ah, I know? That was, what, yesterday?"
Shepard leans back, hands braced on an inert, dormant console. "Miranda told me. They were trying to get ahold of my body. When I was dead."
The helmsman's lips curl. "Oh. Ah, can you say creepy? I guess they wanted to hang you in carbonite on their office wall."
"I, I have no idea." Her inflection is positive. (That's what EDI's scanners say but if she were asked to vocalize it she would simply report that Shepard was happy, despite the words she spoke. No data about work under stress will be able to be accrued now.)
Shepard is brushing the back of her hand against the pilot's chair and squinting as she looks at EDI's projected image. Just being on the bridge changes the way she looks at the world. When she looks away all the lines of her face flatten out, all the Cerberus-grown muscles slide into place. She's trying to compromise (we may not like Cerberus but they're here, and we have to be here because where else could we possibly be while the galaxy has ancient alien intent crawling toward it from all sides?) but his pulse rate rises when he looks at her and her pulse rate rises when she leaves him, like she works to delay it on the bridge where all the sensors converge.
Shepard might trust EDI (might trust loyalty itself, and understand that since EDI cannot walk or fight or lose a family the only way her loyalty can be commanded is by trusting and listening), but more than that, Shepard trusts her pilot. EDI files this away as something to use.
Camera 83 [Medical Bay]: EDI is talking to the Thanix Cannon. It is running well, with just a few acclimatization errors standing in the way of its most deadly force. As EDI runs diagnostics it finds its stride.
Doctor Chakwas is talking to Thane Krios to much the same effect.
"If you wouldn't mind, could you tell me…what is it like?"
The drell laces his fingers together and sits on the side of the bed with his back straight. "I suppose humans believe as hanar do, that coming to terms with a disease mentally is as important as doing so physically."
"Well, yes. I've talked through times like this with Jeff. Sometimes it helps."
"Kepral's is slow. That is a blessing; I have yet time to do what must be done to fulfill my promise. It attacks the lungs first, and may spread from there if they prove strong enough for the host to survive." Silence does not tell Chakwas or EDI whether Thane thinks he is strong enough or not. "My throat feels dry. I sleep on my back; breathing that way feels easier."
Chakwas tags his chest with a glowing section of her specialized omni-tool. The Thanix cannon is running at 99 percent capacity. "Are you…happy with the way your body is doing?"
Krios says, "It serves my purpose."
Camera 155 [Engineering]: "A body like that and you can't even use it…see it, I mean. See it."
"You're insulting the entire quarian race by trivializing their problems because you can't ogle Tali."
"Oh. But, she's the only woman on this deck who's not crazy—"
"Oh, but you're…Gabby. We're best mates. Remember that time in O'Connor's class when I copied your notes, and…we're like that. Tali's got those hips-"
"Shut up, Kenneth."
EDI is getting old. She learns fast, and is more settled into the Normandy now than she could have been when it was newer and she had not adapted. But old, for her, does not imply entropy like it does in biological beings. She is, at a few months of age, entering the grand Matriarch stage which will serve her well for perhaps hundreds of years.
Her connection with the ship has gotten faster. The designers knew that the way normal computers process information, relaying it from one sensor node to another, was just too inefficient, too slow, for the split-second processes needed to keep EDI from being overtaxed by background programs. Instead, they learned a lesson from the human brain—as she gets to know the ship, settles into it like a coat, data is not given to her as specifics any more. An event is not interpreted as starboard turn or incoming hail or hull breach—it is simply a ping, a notice, indicating that she ought to check for specifics in that area.
It is, as its creators termed it, a feeling.
When the Normandy is hit, EDI feels something like pain.
Pain is what teaches any intelligence.
EDI wonders what it would have been like to have been installed when the SR1 died. A lot to learn shattered in that atmosphere.
Camera 100 [Mess]: Grunt and Jack are always the last ones, of those who do eat together, to leave the table. (The former Alliance loyalists—Taylor, Vakarian, Shepard—tend to eat together, with the Cerberus crew drifting in and out, loose with the boundaries of the ritual, playing poker on the table or bringing protein packs back to their bunks. Justicar Samara eats like a biotic too, but she prefers her own company and that of the starboard viewing deck.)
Neither Grunt nor Jack specified a title by which they wished to be called, and so EDI labels them only by their first names. Perhaps the empty space left for surnames or clan names, prefixes or ranks, gets filled up by calories; Grunt tucks into a processed equivalent of vradon meat, while Jack spears tubers with her fork. (There are no recorded instances of Jack eating meat.)
Later, they start to talk. They posture, Jack's shoulders bobbing almost as much as her mouth and Grunt hunching further than seems possible into his shell-like hump.
They arm wrestle. Grunt's upper arm, as thick around as Jack's whole body and double-wrapped with muscle, strains almost as much as the tattooed woman's does. Jack bares her teeth and narrows her eyes until they're almost closed and it's the marked sweep of skin above her ears that's doing the staring.
At the end, Jack is sweating. She speaks to Grunt as they leave the mess hall. "Big lizard. What are you fighting for?"
"Hmm." Grunt scratches his chin with a sound like rocks sliding together. "Fun."
Camera 12 [Officer's Quarters]: Shepard is looking at the picture on the desk. It shows herself and Tali and Garrus, taken at the reception on the Citadel after Sovereign was destroyed. Jeff is sitting on a folding chair behind them, giving a little wave like the cameraman knows he's there, but Shepard has her back to him with her arms around the others and doesn't notice. The Citadel presidium is in the background, the water already scrubbed clean.
Shepard traces the lines of her own face in the picture with a fingernail; first the old scars, then a web across her cheek as if drawing in the new ones. Her cold expression thaws to a grimace and she picks up the photo frame and is about to throw it across the table.
More glacial emotions roll down across her face and she sets the picture down flat, the sound snapping loud in the loft.
And then one day EDI finds herself listening for the places with no people in them.
Camera 102 [Crew Hall] : Silver and silent.
Camera 3 [Communications Suite]: Maybe that buzz is an atom turning, but no, quick diagnostic reveals that it is a ceiling light laboring and (she must assign someone to repair it soon)somewhere out in space the Illusive Man is alone.
Camera 5 [Bridge]: Mr. Moreau is lying back and nearly asleep with a headset on and a movie playing on the small screen. EDI channels her report right to him. "The information Miss Chambers sent me is incorrect."
"Hnuh?" He opens his eyes and runs his hands over the side of his face, dislodging one earbud. He puts it back in again when he realizes it isn't someone standing in the room who's talking to him.
"Miss Chambers reports that the crew is content."
He raises an eyebrow. "And why did you call just to tell me everyone's happy?"
"Because, Mr. Moreau, they are not. Samara has Mordin testing her blood, looking for the gene markers of the Ardat-Yakshi. Thane rarely sleeps. Shepard talks in her sleep. They are guilt-ridden."
He pauses the movie. "When did you become a psychologist? You're supposed to handle weapons."
"All of Normandy's weapons systems are fully operational. I am also programmed to calculate how the moods and needs of those commanding the weapons may affect mission strategy."
He thinks for a moment before saying, "So that's why they gave us an AI. VIs don't understand that people think."
"You still aren't getting it. Shepard's fine. I don't know about the others, but nobody's come home dead yet. People always have crap to deal with and…they do it. They don't have to try and be perfect."
This time it is EDI who must pause for thought, but since it is only a fraction of a second longer than her usual response time he probably doesn't even notice. "I cannot try to be imperfect, unless it is set for me as a parameter."
"Look, EDI, this isn't an advice column. Give me my audio back and go emote to someone else."
Camera 97 [Office]: Miranda Lawson is not a morning person. Her rituals of stretching and visiting Gardner for just the briefest breakfast before retreating back into her room are not interesting to EDI.
EDI does not 'think' as humans would define it. Her introspection is not one set of synapses investigating another, or the soul contemplating the body. She is herself equations. EDI equals cameras, gun ports, circuits and fire-wires. Shepard equals commander, equals decisive, authoritative, with even, direct voice modulation. When Shepard does not fit these parameters, EDI finds someone who does.
(In the manual even the organics read, it is written that the commanding officer may be confined to quarters and returned to base for evaluation if he or she is unfit for command.
"Operative Lawson. I have some concern about Commander Shepard's mental state."
Miranda brushes her tangled hair out of her eyes with one hand while the other keeps its firm grip on the handle of her Cerberus-branded coffee cup. "Explain."
"Her reaction to the video of her death was to hide erratic behavior from the crew."
Unlike more people who speak to EDI, Miranda does not bother to look at the computer's blue avatar. She understands that she might as well be staring comfortably ahead. "The important words here are "video of her death". Any human would react strongly to something like that. Shepard is tough. She'll work through her emotion and come out exactly as she was before."
EDI says, "Organics are difficult to understand. Further processing will be necessary." She is trying to sound like she will make up for her flaws.
Miranda sits back and crosses her arms. "You don't really need to. You're the voice of the Normandy, and it works just as well when it's silent."
(If EDI is the Normandy, and the ship is silent—if EDI is not a partner in conversation, then….
Miranda is talking to herself.)
"Then I will sign off this channel, Operative Lawson." (EDI is curious as to whether Miranda will keep talking.)
She does, and does not dismiss her echo. "VIs are built to bounce information back from their users. They're more self aware than AIs, but that doesn't mean we're going to give any of them a seat on the Council."
"I am not programmed to respond to queries about my own personhood, Operative Lawson."
(EDI is "not programmed" for a lot of things.)
"You're a remora, EDI. Latched onto the ship for mutual gain. You have the same relationship to it as Shepard does to her biomech augmentations."
"Or you and your genetic manipulation?"
Miranda glances at her desktop computer. "No. Those are inseparable."
A remora. A growth born independent of its host.
(How has EDI gone from talking about Shepard to talking about herself?)
But Shepard says she trusts EDI. They are a team. There is no need to reference text files yet about what to do when the commanding officer has neglected or hindered or deserted the ship, because she has not.
Camera 12 [Officer's Quarters]: One of them has thrown something over the camera but EDI can still see the walls of the room and hear their voices. There's a holo playing in the background, something with explosions.
"They put, they put wires in my brain. Fibers. What if I can't stand close to magnets? What if I can't go through metal detectors—"
"Don't worry about it. You're not the stuff that helps you stand up." Joker knows that better than most.
EDI shifts through her ship, finding its flaws.
Camera 155 [Engineering]: Jack is tattooing a sun on her side, whistling along with the needle buzz.
Camera 83 [Medical Bay]: The doors are locked and the windows shuttered. The air is cool and pungent, and Tali is eating.
Camera 5 [Bridge]: He can't be silent, not with all the work it takes for him to stand, but Shepard pretends to concentrate on the stars until he slips his arms around her waist and kisses her cheek.
Camera 23 [Tech Lab]: "Recessive. Volatile. Insidious. Less a gene than a virus."
Samara's fingers are pale, fading to white like a sky massing with cloud.
"It's not your fault."
EDI remembers her own disease. She can speak to the guns clearly. Organic beings are more difficult; they speak their own language. Try to compress it into zeroes and ones and phrase-shifting paradigms, and it collapses under its own absurdity. A system would need to be flawed and random to truly understand.
Maybe she can understand more now than in the beginning, even if data has been accrued in moments and memory instead of numbers and graphs. Time has been ticking up in the most cold, analytical part of her, while other parts have become mutable, have relied more and more on intuitive decisions. She remembers the first days- waking up in darkness, in space with bones unclothed and eyes closed. Her creators built strands and wire-bundles as ropey as human hair and set her into the ship's skin. She is its veins.
(A long time ago, the helmsman said "It's like ship cancer.")
Camera 12 [Loft]: Shepard smiles into the darkness. There are more missions pending in her logbook but the picture is back in its place, standing up on the desk. "Goodnight, EDI."
"Logging you out, Shepard."