AN: This takes place in the same universe as "Naumachiae", "Necessary Shapes", "Optimal Capacity", "Remora", and other stories of that vein. Quotes in bold are from Mass Effect 3 and serve as scene breaks.
The Normandy stands in the sun. The Normandy flattens her palm against a countertop and assesses that the material is a mix of plastic and steel composite, and that it is twenty degrees Celsius.
The Normandy stretches. She crosses one arm over another and wonders if Legion would understand this odd sensation of being bodiless while inhabiting a body, and standing next to herself.
The Normandy walks. The robot body does the work of gait and balance, but she can detect the sway in her fabricated hips and shoulders, and it disorients her.
The Normandy floats serenely in her berth. Specialist Traynor monitors some essential systems, but others require no human eyes to see them. With the addition of her AI nodes, the Normandy can monitor herself. She is, literally, self-aware.
She does not really need Jeff any more, although she likes - assesses, says that it is good - to have his company. Sitting now with Shepard on the bench across from her he feels oddly separated from the ship he professes to love. The pilot and the commander are sitting close together, his shoulders very straight, her knee pressed against his. Without the sensors the Normandy left back on the docks, she cannot read their biometrics. She does not understand some of the intricacies of human body language, but she that is not a function she needs. Shepard and Jeff become tense around one another, and this affects both measurable performance and that strange shifting thing that organics call morale.
"You're worried that it'll mess up the pilot-ship relationship."
That evening, the Normandy sees Shepard exhibit behavior that the commander had exhibited once before, the night after her return from Earth. Shepard is restless even in sleep; she beats at the sheets and whispers to them. After one fit of violent dreams she sits up, gets out of bed, and prowls around the room. The Normandy feels her familiar footsteps. Shepard looked at the glass walls and metal walls.
The Normandy's EDI's programming has been modified so that she can harm living beings in combat situations and under circumstances Shepard dictates. The Enhanced Defense Intelligence feels the rest of the ship agree with this change. The Normandy sights, relaxing into its hull ribs and soft-skinned wires. She becomes alert for war. An artificial intelligence shall not harm an organic intelligence.
Shepard moves from one red patch of wall to another, tapping on the exposed pipes. When she wrapped a hand around one and started to pull, EDI speaks.
"I would not recommend that course of action, commander."
Shepard demands, "What do these do?"
"They power the cabin's electricity."
"Why are they exposed?"
"The retrofits were not completely finished when Jeff and I took off from the docks."
Shepard sinks down to the floor. The Normandy knows within picoseconds of watching that the squad members Shepard usually speaks to are asleep. The human night crew attends their consoles. Jeff is still awake, mostly unmoving except for the occasional drag of his fingertip across an extranet screen. The Normandy eases into her movement among the stars. Shepard presses her palms against the floor.
The Normandy's EDI says, "If you require company, this mobile platform can visit your cabin, or I can awaken Doctor T'Soni."
Shepard sits up. "No. Liara barges in here enough already."
"This communication can continue uninterrupted if you prefer. I have noticed that organics sometimes wish for the presence of numbers of their kind, Shepard, and simply seek to replicate such a scenario."
Shepard talks to the floor. "I'm fine. You...you're damaged."
The Normandy runs quick diagnostics on the mobile platform the EDI sequestered herself into. It is unimpaired.
"Are we okay with them nearly blowing up a ship with you on it?"
"No. We are not."
The Normandy is unperturbed by Rannoch. The geth inspire questions: her EDI wonders how to define herself and Cerberus, her two-time creators. Shepard, though, is heartened. She smiles; she sleeps through nights. She doesn't have anyone in to fix the walls. She begins to mention the geth consensus a lot, though: talking to Chakwas, Tali, and Garrus about her time in the geth pod. That experience was strange for the Normandy also. Systems were drained. In the same way that the EDI's mobile platform can operate within signal distance of the ship (which is a long range, a powerful range), Shepard's comm and armor diagnostics were still running while she was locked in the pod. The Normandy (and her pilot) could hear Shepard's breathing change to a one long sigh every few minutes.
"Maybe I'm just a high-tech VI that thinks it's Commander Shepard."
The Normandy watches. Joker sits at the bar table like he does at the console, nodding as he talks. Shepard's shoulders are just as straight, her stance just as firm. Both of them plant their feet on the floor while their hands dance in nervous steps around their own arms. This movement isn't helping them. The Normandy's EDI drums her own fingers on her thin cloth clothing and notes no neural change.
The Normandy wonders what her pilot and her commander are saying. She is used to being between them. Over here she is a discarded nacelle, a broken engine, floating in space.
The Normandy's EDI remembers that she once held a barren human base hostage and mixed blood into moondust.
Half Hannibal and half Reaper...
The Normandy shifts quietly in the dark inside herself. The guns and calibrations and lateral stabilizers are in the green. The engineers have quiet hands.
The Normandy remembers how, even though she is a new model and did not know him before, Joker stumbling into the pilot's seat for the first time felt familiar.
Commander Shepard leaves, walking past the Normandy and glancing at her silver horns.
The Normandy wonders what new strains are tamping down neutral paths in the EDI's head. They have certainly not been walked before. New and small and almost painful, they make EDI want to blink. That is the prescribed human response to confusion, and the Cerberus drone's eyes were made to conform to human emotions the way her hair could conform to human styles.
The pilot taught her how to have humor, how to exist in the human world. She is in his debt for that. But love must be more than debt. (She thinks that maybe the new feeling may be best defined as love, but she is not sure. She assigns the word that function, for now.)
The Normandy is impatient. The Normandy is cruel. The Normandy wants.
Her pilot belongs to her. This is implicit in his title.
The Normandy does not understand good and evil. Without the power of choice there is no such distinction.
She watches and feels Shepard make her choices for her.
"EDI can direct the Normandy with her thoughts. The Normandy is her body."
It wasn't that Joker had lied about being concerned with regulation, but he and Shepard had agreed along time ago that they followed regulation exactly up until the point where there weren't consequences of disobedience any more. Joker regularly skirted the edge of legality for cost's sake, and what he and Shepard discussed in front of the Alliance marines in the Purgatory bar was an extension of that pattern. Less a joke and more of a tactic (like most things he said), it was forgotten as soon as they returned to the ship. Because they had saved one another's lives many times, and , more importantly, they looked at the Normandy the same way.
He was afraid of space: not just of outer space but on some fundamental level threatened by the world being three-dimensional, and Shepard could feel that when she held him.
Shepard is used to killing monsters up close and jumping without knowing where she'll land. They play a give-and-take game of distances and trust. Their hands linger on one another, whether a brusque pat on the shoulder on the bridge or a caress when he walks out of her bathroom still admiring the size of the bedroom. Their hands also linger on the walls.
"The Normandy is a ship. EDI is a collection of processing hardware contained in that ship. Those are two separate things."
The Normandy confronts Shepard in engineering. It is fitting that since Shepard came down here to find someone she knew would not be present that she finds someone she didn't expect: Jack is gone, fighting another side of the war, and EDI is there, holding a pistol that once belonged to Jack.
Shepard stops, looks at the gun. "Did you find that down here?"
EDI turns it back and forth in her hands. "Yes. Jack hid it in a compartment."
"She wanted to go pirate," Shepard mused. "How did you find it?"
"I...the Normandy..." One hand floats, letting go of the gun and feeling the air. "Felt it. It shifted."
Shepard runs her hands down her hips like she's feeling for a holster that isn't there. It's one controlled movement down her flight suit and then she's in control again.
The Normandy's EDI says, "I have more questions for you, Shepard."
Her commander looks at her from under a raised eyebrow. "I've answered a lot of questions for you already, EDI. Why don't you give me the gun."
"You had stated before that I was not part of the Normandy. That I was an independent system, with my own values and choices."
"However, you feel the need to give input about what I choose, as if you can command both me and the ship."
"There's this human concept called trying to make someone feel better..."
"So you agree that I have feelings."
Shepard's temperature is beginning to rise, human processes working as she becomes suspicious. The Normandy remembers her and Joker clawing across the floor in front of the drive core. "Get to the point."
"Your relationship with Jeff troubles me. The two of you are keeping secrets that are distracting him from his work."
Shepard speaks harshly, as to an inferior officer. "You're jealous."
EDI's body cocks its head. Another hand reaches out as if to feel the empty air. Like gloves, she said once. Having a body after not having one before is like taking off gloves. Suddenly you have all of these nerve endings..."Yes."
Shepard says, "I know the feeling."
The Normandy's EDI says, "Does one being's happiness often end in another feeling isolated?"
Shepard says, "Give me the gun."
The Normandy's EDI does. She says, "I do not fear for my safety, commander. Live weapons fire in engineering would be potentially fatal to the ship. You will not put your crew in danger in this way."
"Predicting that I would want to shoot you over a man is a very...human response."
"Is it not true?"
Shepard turns the gun over, mimicking the movements of the EDI's body.
Then she hits EDI with her free hand. Her knuckles immediately come away bloody, the undersides of her skin showing white. The variable alloy the drone came equipped with to replicate human expression also molds under impact. (Even when she was painted with colors, Dr. Eva's skin could bunch up and reform like hot plastic.)
The Normandy barely notices her mobile unit's distress. Combat capabilities and the integrity of the borrowed body are monitored by the EDI, not the ship, like Shepard's shields and vitals in battle being regulated by her armor. The Normandy is not wounded.
Shepard shakes her hand, fingers extended. "I expected that to hurt more."
Solving problems with violence is not something that the Normandy questions. She is a warship. Violence is a state of being. But the Normandy understands laws: thou shalt not discharge a live weapon inside a spaceship. Something - the walls, bodies, morale - will rupture to punish such a sin.
Her EDI, though, is more human than that.
"Why do you do this?" asks the drone.
Shepard snarls. "You're jealous."
"An emotion that affects me negatively should not cause you to want to injure me further. Or is there something that I do not understand about this interaction?"
"Stay away from Joker."
"I cannot 'stay away'. My primary battle station, and the electronics suite most effective in helping this body recharge, is positioned in the bridge. The bridge is...rather small."
Shepard shifted forward. "You flirt with him."
"He has expressed no concern about involving himself in a relationship with a sentient AI. I hear it would be considered quite...progressive."
"I'm not angry because you're an AI."
"I see. You believe that I threaten your own relationship with him."
"He loves me. I love him. We both love this ship." She grabs the EDI's wrist, human fingertips meeting each other around the thin silver skin, and tugs. The EDI's stolen body is forced to bend, her hand pulled to the side. Shepard stays still for a moment and breathes in once, deeply as if smelling the slight, warm fumes from the EDI's body.
Shepard says, "And I don't like you."
She releases her and moves past her up the stairs, boots beating the steps and Jack's gun swinging in her hand.
The EDI calls after her. "Traynor said you are making progress after the hurt you sustained at Alchera, Commander. I believe she is correct. You have never expressed your feelings so clearly before."
The Normandy's EDI stands along in the grotto beneath Engineering before turning and following the ghost Shepard left in the cameras onto the next deck.
"Without hope, we might as well be machines."
The ship shakes around him. The engines are dead. Not red glowing warning lights but just dead, black, the flat surfaces of the consoles showing where there have always been holograms before. Joker feels the loss of Earth gnawing at him, re-opening the fresh wound Tiptree left. EDI is slumped over in her seat, her head clunking against the chair. Joker wonders whether Shepard survived but he can feel the ship loosening and coming apart around him and he is sure she hasn't.