To Live Forever
This was the kind of house that should have a proper name, Kaidan decided. 'The' something-or-other. Like the names they gave to old mansions, or flights of architectural fancy stamped with the name of some Van Gogh of the drafting table and auto-CAD rig. At least that's what it felt like to him, months and years since he'd spent any significant amount of time planetside, much less in a large living space.
In fact, the space was almost vertiginous, the light on a sunny day descending in shafts through the windows. He'd grown so used to the normality of small, dark, cramped spaces. Of variable gravities and oxygen levels maintained at low optimal to prevent the outbreak of fires. Endlessly recycled air, water and heat. Where anything growing was doing so without permission, and would shortly be ended in the sweep of decontamination cycles.
Here there were plants, real plants, growing out of large clay pots, their leaves glowing yellow in the sun. Kaidan was fairly sure that given a bit of time, this place would accumulate things like dust bunnies and escaped crumbs. This was not a metal tube of a spaceship… it was a space for living in.
Despite the few days he's been there now, he'd still had to fight the gnawing sense that there was something terribly wasteful going on. So much space. Two floors at the top of a twenty-story building. The carpet was thick, heated from underneath on cool evenings. The water plentiful, the couches and vid display enormous. Nothing rationed or controlled. No cameras in hidden spaces, no commanding officer in the next room through overly thin walls.
And yet a secret part of himself defied his adult, professional mind. This part loved every second of being here. It scrunched his bare toes in the carpet, lingered in the shower, sat in a sunbeam and read with a cup of coffee. Stood on the balcony and let the wind ruffle his hair. His secret heart ran over and over the fact this place was his, and Shepard's. Both of theirs.
The doorbell chimed. He stared at it for the moment it took to remind himself that he no longer had to fret about who might discover him in Shepard's room, or see him barefoot in civvies. He went to the door, and was greeted by a box with legs standing in the hall.
Liara's blue face craned around it. "Oh! I am early."
He smiled. "It's okay. I'm just tidying up. C'mon in." He held out his hands. "Let me take that."
"No, have it." The box pushed past him and steered itself to the kitchen table, Liara in tow. She wore a wine-colored dress cut with a jacket. She put the box down, and as she reached up to open it, Kaidan suddenly realized what was different. She had a left hand.
She must have noticed his double-take, because she put down the lid, raised her hand and wiggled her fingers. She wore gloves, as was usual for her choice of attire, but the silhouette was just slightly different than her original hand. "It is new," she said with a smile. "Would you like to see it?"
"Sure." He paused. "I mean, if you don't mind."
She seemed unruffled by his spark of enthusiasm. "I knew you would."
She plucked at the tips of her glove, then withdrew it. Underneath were smooth, segmented fingers capped in chased plating, a matte composite material in dusky blue. The back was actually inlaid with a complex filigree of silvery metal. As she turned it, he heard the quiet sound of the network of actuators working in concert.
"It's amazing," he said.
"Do you think so?" she said almost shyly.
"Oh, yes! The artistry is something else. And it's so fluid! How's the feedback?"
"Perhaps fifty percent. It suffers most when it comes to fine resolution sensation. Not comparable to newer models, but quite good for the time it was made. "
"When was that?"
"This was given to me by Councilor Manayan. It used to belong to Matriarch Telianna, so it's about six hundred years old."
Kaidan blinked. "Uh, wow."
She seemed taken aback, but only for a moment. "It isn't that old, for us. But Telianna was a matriarch of some renown. She lost her own hand during the krogan rebellions. Is… something funny?"
He shook his head with a chuckle. "It's just that when something is six hundred years old, we usually put it in a museum and pay to ogle it behind glass. Six hundred years ago we were still figuring out chemical propellants and mapping our home planet!"
"I know," Kaidan said, grinning, "we're amusing hairless monkeys."
"Your people's dynamism is more than merely a curiosity, Kaidan. If you hadn't progressed as fast as you had, we would be decorating the Reapers' trophy room. We needed you, as we did the salarians." She shook her head. "It was not until these events that I truly began to appreciate how… stagnant the asari can be. Thank the Goddess for your stubborn disregard of Citadel traditions!"
Kaidan looked back down at her new hand. "Do you think you'll go in for an organic limb regrowth at some point?"
Her brows furrowed. "That is a difficult thing to answer. Had you asked me before the last battle, I would have said yes, unequivocally. I… was already laying aside any money I could for the procedure. But now, I find myself less sure." She flexed each finger in turn. The mechanism was nearly soundless.
"Well, now I get to wear a piece of history. But no, it is more than just that. I find the wound… troubles me a great deal less than it did when it was fresh."
"Did you get phantom pains?"
"After a fashion. It was the person who took it that troubled me more."
She nodded. "Now that it is ended, I find myself with a certain peace I did not have before. I grieve for the parts of me that are gone, both physical and emotional. But… perhaps I do not think they are so easily replaced. And the more I consider it, the more this prosthetic could be useful in other ways." She frowned in consideration. "Housing a dataframe, for instance. Tools. There are things I could do with this I could never do with a real hand."
"And it's cool."
He almost instantly regretted saying it out loud, but Liara just laughed. She held the hand out at arm's length and admired it the way one might a new ring. "It is, isn't it?" She stuffed the glove into her belt. "Now, I have been, how is it that you like to say it, pulling strings."
She reached into the box and withdrew a bottle, then another. "I tried to get a mix of things… well, they are mostly Earth-brewed, but there are some I have always wanted to try!"
"I'll let you sort through them, I need to finish a few things."
Kaidan left her by the table and jogged upstairs to put on socks and change into a dress shirt. When he came back down, he spotted Liara's holo drone loitering behind her. She spoke half to herself and half to Glyph as it listed wine and food combinations. A projection of a jaunty little bow tie hovered under its orb body.
Time caught up to Kaidan quickly as he rushed around attending to stray details. He ran through a quick system test of his surprise for later and made sure the bathrooms were presentable.
The doorbell chimed again. This time it opened to James. He wore grin, and had a cooler balanced on his shoulder and another dangling from an arm, wrinkling his shirt. "Meat's here!" the marine declared.
Behind him, Steve put on a cool smile. "Yes, yes it is."
James cast a narrow eye over his ample trapezius. "Careful, the peanut gallery might be last in line for steak!"
Steve tried to look innocent, but a smug smile lingered on his lips. He looked impeccable in a dark grey suit and silk shirt, instantly making Kaidan feel underdressed.
James didn't look quite as classy, but that was clearly a low priority in his mind. He fixed Kaidan with a steely eye. "You promised me a barbeque?"
Kaidan jerked a thumb toward the window. "Balcony. And yes, I checked the gas. There's an extra tank."
"Bueno, because we're gonna need a lot of it!" He marched past Kaidan with the purposeful stride of a soldier seeking out dinner.
"Major," Steve said, clasping Kaidan's hand warmly as he stepped inside.
"Please, we can leave all that at the door."
"Old habits. You have room in the fridge?" He pointed at the smaller cooler James had dropped off in the entrance hall.
"There's a second one in the back room, almost empty. Past the kitchen. I see you got someone to do your heavy lifting?"
Steve wiggled his fingers. "It's how I worked my magic and kept you calorie-swilling jarheads fed all this time. I know how to delegate."
Kaidan laughed. "Wise man. My stomach is grateful."
"Where's the lady of the hour?"
"On her way, last I checked."
"They don't give her a day off, do they?"
"It's supposed to get better, but that's what they told us a week ago."
Steve gave a knowing nod. As he did so, the sound of footsteps came down the hall outside. "Over here!" he called down the hall, then turned back to Kaidan. "Here comes team dextro. Going to go claim that fridge space before it disappears!"
Kaidan held the door open as Steve brushed past him. A moment later, Tali and Garrus appeared around the large ornamental plants, also bearing boxes and coolers.
"Kaidan!" Tali said. "Keelah, what a great building!"
"Security looks good," Garrus commented with a nod. "Nice tall structure, open perimeter, balconies on two sides for sighting lanes…"
Tali huffed. "Really, Garrus? A house like this and that's what you comment on?"
"What? It's important."
Kaidan couldn't tell how serious he was being, but he privately suspected that was the point when Tali elbowed him in the ribs.
"It's a beautiful place, Kaidan," she said. "Do you mind if I take pictures? For inspiration. Oh, I want a tour! It's so big I feel like I'm going to float away."
"C'mon in, guys," Kaidan said, stepping aside.
"We brought food," Garrus said. "I'll just need to borrow your stove for a bit."
"Great. I think Steve rustled up some dextro stuff too, but you guys probably have better connections than he does."
Kaidan ushered them inside. Tali helped Garrus for a moment before giving in and all but bouncing into the living room. The turian accepted his fate with a wry chuckle and a comment about being cooped up on tiny ships with politicians for too long. Kaidan showed him the kitchen, and between them they set about negotiating the use of utensils and pans between the two food types.
Several minutes later there came a cheer from the hallway, voices calling Shepard's name. Kaidan smiled to himself as he worked.
Shepard herself sidled into the kitchen a couple of minutes later, looking slightly bewildered. "I thought you said 'a couple of people'."
"It started out that way," Kaidan said, "but then EDI told Sam and, well… It got rapidly out of hand after that, with everyone in town." He kissed her forehead. "Get yourself a drink, sit down, and have something to eat. You don't have to do anything, let me worry about the details."
"Yeah. Yeah, drinks are a good idea."
He took her hands in his. "Everything all right?"
"Glad to be home." She smiled wistfully. "Home. Man, that sounds good. Glad I have tomorrow off."
There was another commotion out by the door, and Kaidan heard Feron's name, as well as Joker's distinct laugh.
"Better greet the arrivals," Shepard said. "And change." She made to go, then half-turned, "Hey, d'you think they'll let me crash your classes again?"
"I think they'd be overjoyed if you did."
She smiled and stepped out. A minute later Joker appeared, dress jacket lazily open and cap still perched on his head.
"Damn," he declared, making a show of looking around the kitchen, "you could bunk a dozen marines in here alone!"
"Hi, Joker," Kaidan said mildly. "It was actually supposed to go to Admiral Anderson, but he gave us the deed instead."
"Really? Shit, I need to kiss up to more admirals!"
"Come on, you'd go stir-crazy in a day."
Joker tugged the bill of his cap. "Yes, but the difference is I would go stir-crazy in serious style. Like, hot tub and champagne fountains style. I could go crazy in a hot tub."
"Not in mine, you won't."
Joker squinted at him. "Oh, of course this palace has one." He waved. "But we'll let the booze flow a little first. Ha!"
There was evidently a new arrival in the hall, and the thump of heavy feet and a deep shout announced who it was before Kaidan even stuck his head out the kitchen entrance. Wrex stumped into the hall and swept Shepard into a bear hug. "There you are!" he declared loudly.
Shepard laughed as she was further smothered by Grunt. The elder Urdnot must have had to arm-wrestle the young krogan into something other than his ubiquitous armor, because Grunt wore the relatively simple suit like a brick would wear an evening gown. For his part, Wrex almost looked like a gentleman in black and silver-grey, the cool besuited bruiser who'd escaped from some spy serial.
By the time Kaidan looked back, Joker had made himself scarce, probably retreated to the living room away from several hundred kilos of over-enthusiastic krogan. Garrus was out by the dining table fussing with something. Instead, Kaidan found EDI standing by the kitchen island, peering around with evident interest.
"Hi, EDI," he said, "welcome."
She smiled at him. "Thank you. I am curious, is this arrangement more in line with the usual form of human domestic habitation?"
"Yeah, for this part of Earth. Though, this is a little bigger than average."
"I have only directly observed human living behavior within the context of a military vessel. I am looking forward to comparing empirical experience with my datalogs."
"Um, yes, well, we're still not exactly the average. Most humans don't have a bunch of alien friends. And we're still way more used to military living than this kind. Honestly I'm still getting used to it."
"I will control for these factors."
Kaidan wasn't quite sure if he was supposed to laugh or not. He was sure there was no ill intent behind it, but EDI still had a way of making him feel like an ongoing science experiment. "How's the Normandy?" he asked instead.
She cocked her head. "It is good to finally have the proper repairs affected to all systems. However, fuel rationing remains a concern. I have been idle for a time."
"There's talk of exploratory missions to nearby systems for resources."
"Yes. I look forward to being allocated the fuel to move about freely again. However, I will not be engaged until my personhood hearings conclude."
Kaidan nodded. He was fairly confident the outcome of those hearings would be in her favor. Ironically, for all the consternation about supposedly illegal active AI systems, she was a considerably less complicated case than the geth. After everything that had happened, there seemed to be no serious disagreement that AIs should be accorded the legal rights of sentients, the question was how. EDI was an individual, indivisible so far as her blue box was concerned. The geth were another kettle of slippery fish. Each individual runtime was arguably not sentient, even by their own admission. It was only in the aggregate that they displayed obvious traits of sentience. But those gestalts were freely changeable, and one individual could be broken down and made into an entirely new one on a virtual whim. How did one decide personhood on a legal level when it was that fluid?
Kaidan imagined there was a whole herd of personal rights lawyers going through coffee by the gallon on this problem.
"In the meantime," EDI said, "I am taking the opportunity to further acquaint myself with platform-level interaction and planet-side life."
"You're welcome here any time."
While his friends chatted and lounged in the living room, Kaidan went back to ferrying things around, checking cooking times and arranging plates. James took over a corner of the kitchen to salt and otherwise massage his prize cuts of meat into preparedness.
Soon, Miranda and Jacob appeared, followed shortly by Samantha. Miranda hugged Shepard, and the warmth of the gesture surprised Kaidan a bit. The history between the two women had a complexity he could only really guess at from the snatches of the story he'd been privy to.
Their own party contributions ferried inside, to Kaidan's surprise, Miranda approached him first.
"Hello, Major," she greeted him after she'd been welcomed. "I have something for you."
She produced a small box wrapped in brushed silver paper, taped tightly at the corners. "This…" her voice took on a tone of consternation, "appeared on the passenger seat of my gravcar this morning. It's addressed to you."
Kaidan stared at the box with bafflement. "Me? That's… very odd."
"To say the least. I had it thoroughly scanned, and I can tell you its contents are inorganic, and don't appear weaponized in any way. So it's either a joke in poor taste, or you have strange friends." She pressed it firmly into his palm.
"I know I have those."
She smirked. "Indeed. Which is why I brought it instead of having it incinerated."
Kaidan turned the box over in his hands. It had a certain heft to it. His name was hand-written across the top in neat black letters. He glanced up to find Miranda staring at him expectantly.
"I guess I should open it," he said.
"I'd at least like to know if I should be concerned about my gravcar or not. I promise not to tell Shepard if it's from an 'admirer'."
"For all I know Conrad Verner has a new crush," Kaidan muttered. "Next time I see him he'll be all in blue..."
He ran a thumbnail around the tape on one side of the box and peeled it back. Within was a black lacquered cube with a metal clasp. There was a figure of a tree with curling boughs inset into the lid in rich red wood. He felt Miranda lean closer. Now genuinely curious, he thumbed the tiny clasp and opened the lid.
It didn't explode. Immediately under the lid was a square of thick, hand-laid folded paper. He lifted it out and read the short note within, written in the same precise hand as his name on the paper.
Thanks for putting yourself out there. Both for life and for love.
Long life and good fortune to you both!
"Goto," Kaidan murmured.
"Who?" Miranda said.
"Uh, no one you need to worry about. She's… tricky, but unless you have the Mona Lisa in your closet, she won't bother you."
Miranda raised a perfectly manicured eyebrow.
He peeled back the thin sheet of crepe paper covering the box's contents, and was greeted with the cheerful cheshire smile of a small cat figurine with a raised right paw. He plucked it from the box between thumb and forefinger. It was cool, with the heft of solid metal. And between the deep golden shine and his knowledge of who it came from, he rather suspected that metal was pure.
"A maneki-neko?" Miranda said. "You do have strange friends." She chuckled and turned on her heel, apparently satisfied this wasn't some new plot on their lives.
Kaidan rolled the little cat around in his palm. So, Kasumi had made it out alive too. He smiled and slipped it back in its box. He'd told Shepard a little of the story, now he'd have to tell the rest.
"Miranda gave you that box she found, did she?"
Kaidan looked up to see Jacob, standing with a hand extended. Kaidan chuckled and shook it. "Yeah. Nothing dramatic, though. Welcome."
He didn't know the man very well, but Kaidan had a sense they'd get along just fine anyway. A cool professionalism radiated off Jacob's stance, but his smile was friendly. He'd already availed himself of the beer.
"Thanks," Jacob said. "Nice digs you got here. Wish I could stay late! I miss getting loud."
He smiled. "Pregnant girlfriend. But can't complain, she's doing all the work right now."
"Oh that's right, congratulations!"
Jacob chuckled. "Have to enjoy a few drinks now, the real hard work begins in a month or so. I'll miss the Normandy. Miss being out there, getting things done."
"It'll always be… something unique." Kaidan said speculatively. "But there's a lot to be done here, now."
"Man, you said it. Lucky the Alliance thinks so too. With our service on the Crucible project, and Shepard's good word, they've decided the whole Cerberus business can stay under the rug."
"Contingent on good behavior, I assume."
The former operative laughed, one soldier to another. "Guess I can't blame 'em for that. Well, once maternity leave is through, Brynn's going to want to get into those relay studies, so that should keep me out of trouble. Gonna be too busy figuring out this whole 'Dad' thing."
"Basic all over again."
"Hear hear." Jacob took a long swallow of beer.
"One side," James declared from the kitchen entrance, "coming through!"
Wearing an apron emblazoned with the phrase 'My meat is hand-rubbed', the big marine paraded through the living room with a laden roasting pan and a handful of tongs and basting brushes.
"Hey, is that real cow?" Joker called after him.
James stopped and shot the pilot a flat stare.
Joker spread his hands. "Hey c'mon, valid question."
"Lucky for you," James said archly, "the Reapers weren't yet at the stage of wiping out livestock."
"Cows. Not smart enough to set off the giant metal death-squid dinner bell."
"And I have taste in food." With a prim lift of his chin, James bustled out onto the balcony with his charge. The wide pig iron-black gas barbecue distorted the evening light in waves of heat.
Kaidan chuckled and retreated back to the kitchen to check up on a few things. There was a platoon of dangerous-looking cutting knives upright in the drying rack next to the sink, and the salt grinder looked to be about half-depleted, but otherwise James hadn't left a mess behind.
Steve poked his head around the corner. "The oven's hot, right?"
"Should be, why?" Kaidan said. "There's even a second one."
Steve walked in and heaved a bag onto the counter. It sagged to once side, limmed in frost. "Wrex brought three huge bags of chicken wings."
Kaidan chuckled. "I guess he finally found a human food he liked?"
"Why don't you let me take a shift in here? Go socialize a bit." Steve skirted the kitchen's center island and pulled out the drawer under the oven, which was stacked with metal cookie sheets.
"That's nice of you to offer, but…"
Steve waved away the objection as he lined the metal sheets one next to the other on the counter. "There isn't a kitchen built I don't know my way around, and it's not like timing hors d'oeuvres is going to be a steep challenge. Besides, James is going to come blowing in here with his steaks and a head of steam, and you probably won't want to be underfoot."
"Okay, well, let me know when you need relief. Thanks."
Steve smiled and shooed him away. Kaidan picked up the two finger food trays he'd prepared and crossed into the dining area to set them down on the table. Most of the huge apartment was modern, but the table was a huge slab of dark wood that probably required a forklift to move around. His friends had helpfully piled it with all manner of edibles, plates, cutlery, glasses and a dizzying assortment of drink bottles. Little blue tags stamped with the stylized frilled head of a turian adorned some of them.
Kaidan turned and was surprised instead by a shapely asari with arresting pale eyes. There was no mistaking the jawline nor the circlet hugging her brow.
"Major Alenko," Justicar Samara said. Her cool voice raised the hairs on the back of his neck.
"Ma'am," Kaidan said automatically. "Thank you for coming. Would you, uh, like a drink?"
A small smile quirked her perfect features. "Under the circumstances, I believe I will indulge. But first, I wished to thank you for everything you have done to see this conflict brought to victory."
"Doing my job, ma'am."
"How easily we dismiss great acts with small words," she mused.
"Well, that's just how it seemed at the time, I guess. There… aren't really enough words to encompass it all, are there?"
"Truly spoken." She regarded him. "Does my presence concern you?"
"Oh, no, ma'am. Call it... professional awe? It's not every day I get to be in the presence of a true master of biotics."
"You are no amateur, Major. Both your abilities and Shepard's speak highly of the skills humans will one day display. Your people's progress has been… shall we say, shocking, for an old soul like mine."
Kaidan rubbed the back of his neck. "War is a ruthless teacher."
She nodded. "It is indeed. I am told you now teach others."
"I do. It's all a bit ad-hoc right now, but yes." He blinked. "Hey, if you're in town for a little bit, would you be willing to stop in on a class? I mean, uh, I don't know if you have rules about who you're allowed to show your techniques to…"
The Justicar regarded him for long enough to give him a flutter of nervousness. "The Code forbids me from using my biotics for personal gain or public display, but demonstrations for the purposes of teaching are permitted. Indeed, I believe I would like to meet your students."
"They'd be thrilled. And honored. Thank you." Kaidan felt himself flushing. It was an exciting prospect, but also an intimidating one. He doubted very much Samara would go easy on them out of misplaced courtesy. They were all going to look like a bunch of kindergarteners around her.
She smiled, and it had an almost wistful cast. "It has been many, many years since I have been in a class, either as a student or a teacher. A fine space to learn and share knowledge… yes, I miss such spaces. It will be a welcome change of rhythm from my duties."
"How do your duties change now? I mean, with the relays…"
A frown creased her brow. "The Code does not cover a situation as extreme as this one. It was not written to work in such close proximity to alien peoples and governments. However, among the asari I remain empowered to seek out and bring to justice those that transgress." A hardness flickered in her shark-like eyes. "And after recent events, it seems the Code is far from obsolete."
Kaidan nodded. "We have to renew our discipline. All of us, if we're going to get through this."
Samara appraised him. "Your students have a fine teacher," she said. Then she gestured to the army of bottles clustered at the end of the dining room table. More stuck out of a cooler beneath. "Now, do you have a recommendation from this selection?"
Kaidan did his best to oblige, without really knowing what the tastes of a thousand year-old warrior-monk might be. But if she disagreed with his choice, she showed nothing of it. He privately suspected it would take nothing short of a thermonuclear strike to displace even a stone from her towering bastion of calm.
In the living room, Liara was showing off her new hand to Shepard as Feron watched. Grunt appeared to add his own opinion in the form of his still bluntly mechanical prosthetic. Even from the dining room, Kaidan clearly heard his gleefully graphic accounting of what it could do to Reaper drones.
Doctor Chakwas appeared by way of the kitchen, startling Kaidan.
"Doc!" he said. "There you are."
"I'm sorry I'm late," she said, "work is being a bear again."
"As always. You're a hero, you know that, right?"
She smiled. The past few months had taken their toll, but her eyes were still bright. "Modesty is great, but let's be honest, it's always nice to hear that." She held out a bottle to him, a high-necked piece of dark blue glass with no label. "Would you be a dear and squirrel that away somewhere? It's a bit of something special for Shepard."
He took it from her, curious. "Of course."
"Have you both been getting enough sleep?"
Kaidan chuckled. "Better than on the Normandy, I think."
"Good. Thank you, Kaidan, for being a rock." She squeezed his arm and dropped her voice. "Sometimes, I patch you marines up and you go right back out and keep hurting yourselves, even if you're not on a mission. Shepard's been through a lot, and I can't tell you how much better I feel knowing she's got support to go home to even when she leaves my office. How's your head been?"
"Nothing outside the usual."
"I guess in the scheme of things, that's good news."
He shuffled his feet a bit. "I do feel like I'm hogging the meds sometimes, with the rationing."
"Don't. Your needs are very specific, you aren't taking morphine from broken legs or anything. Anyway, supplies are starting to recover now."
"Oh, are they? Glad to hear that."
Chakwas eyed the table full of finger food. "I've been on my feet since seven A.M. If you don't mind, I'm going to get started on stuffing my face and have a seat."
Kaidan laughed and handed her a plate. Leaving the doctor safely helping herself, he plucked a beer from the cooler, popped the cap, and ambled over to where Joker was telling another story about Citadel recovery operations to Shepard, Sam and Garrus.
The pilot finished his tale, then eyed Shepard. "So, you gonna miss it?"
"C'mon," Joker prodded.
"Which part?" she said. "Being shot at every other day, the constant anxiety and fear I could never show, having to decide between a thousand lives here or a thousand lives there, getting blamed for everything regardless, being blackmailed into working for an organization I loathe, having most of my friends and peers stop trusting me, aliens forcing their way into my mind, nightmares, or getting kidnapped, beaten, burned, permanently maimed and suffocating to death in hard vacuum?"
Joker stared at her, beer bottle hovering frozen halfway to his lips. "Well, when you put it that way…" he floundered.
"Or maybe the part where no one will ever know even a fraction of it, and won't want to either, because it disturbs their narrative?"
"With a few exceptions," Shepard murmured, "the ones that keep me just on this side of sane."
"Geez." Joker put on a plaintive face. "Stop using your powers for evil."
"Disturbing your badass Commander Shepard narrative?" Shepard said with a small smirk. "Ask me again in a year or two, by then maybe I'll be free of enough official posturing to be able to wax nostalgic."
"Is that where you were just before arriving?" Sam asked. "Debriefs again?"
Shepard let out a long-suffering sigh. "Lawyers this time. A lot of them."
Joker made a face. "I thought they'd sorted out all the non-disclosure paperwork."
"Not with me they didn't. And Tevos might have been ousted, but that doesn't mean her faction is powerless. At that conference, I gave the whole asari government a reason to want to shut me up. And I made everyone else very nervous." She rubbed her temple. "I'm still trying to get immunity."
"Immunity?" Joker said.
"From prosecution?" Sam guessed. "For what?"
Shepard shrugged. "The people I've killed, places I've invaded. Data stolen, property damage… fraternization… You name it. I'm pretty sure just about anyone could come up with something if they tried hard enough. Spectre status waives a lot of it in theory, but… I don't trust that. If someone got a bug up their ass to come after me..."
Joker snorted. "Come on. I would seriously love to see someone try to bring a case against you."
Shepard grimaced. "I can't think of much worse."
"No really, your defence team and character witnesses would be epic. They'd need to host the trial in a stadium."
"My friends are in this apartment, Joker."
"Commander," Sam leaned forward slightly, "have you been watching the news? At all?"
Shepard shook her head. "I... stopped doing that a while ago. After the whole Cerberus business. It's never been anything good."
"You are aware that a significant portion of the krogan nation considers you, and Doctor Solus, the saviors of their people, right?"
Joker chortled, sweeping a hand over an imaginary audience. "For the defence, a few hundred of the meanest, gnarliest krogan warriors, whose legal arguments include the liberal use of heabutts, shotguns and threats of imminent ingestion."
Sam shook her head. "Their women, Joker. The males like to bluster a lot, but, well, I've been paying a lot of attention to their communicaes. If you think the warriors are frightening, there isn't enough heaven available to help a person if the krogan women get wind of them threatening Shepard in any way."
"And the rachni wouldn't be far behind," Joker went on. "In this corner, a whole hive of singing car-sized cockroaches!"
"Then there's the geth," Sam said. "I genuinely think they would do just about anything for you, Commander. You could probably ask them to build you a private moon, and they'd ask how big you'd like it to be."
Joker's eyes lit up. He opened his mouth.
"No," Shepard cut him off, jabbing a finger in his direction.
"Oh come on," the pilot laughed. "A moon! You could get them to install a giant-size pixelboard so you could write important messages like 'I'm Commander Shepard and this is my favorite moon in orbit!' for the entire planet to enjoy!"
"'I should go' will appear right before moonset," Garrus supplied.
Joker laughed louder.
Shepard rolled her eyes. "You're never going to let that go, are you?"
"Only when you stop making jokes about calibrations," Garrus said.
"You could literally moon the entire planet!" Joker turned around and mimed yanking his pants down. "I'm Commander Shepard and this is what I think of-"
"Alright, enough," Shepard said. "After the morning I've had, you're just giving me ideas."
"Then there's us," Garrus said, "the turians, I mean."
All eyes turned to him.
He ran the pad of his finger around the rim of his glass, head cocked at a speculative angle. "It's not something outsiders really get, but it comes down to hierarchy, and what Sparatus did during that conference."
"Kneeling?" Sam said.
Garrus nodded. "I think most of you probably saw that as symbolic… and momentary." His mandibles flicked upward. "That's not what every turian saw. There was nothing transient about it. Now, Sparatus isn't Victus… but he isn't that far down the hierarchy, either."
Everyone looked back to Shepard. Her brows bunched up in disbelief. "Come on," she said, "he thanked me. He didn't make me a general."
"Well, it's… a little murky." Garrus frowned. "You aren't a citizen of any part of the turian protectorate, so there's no official or legal ramifications. But from a cultural perspective? He didn't just thank you, Shepard. He made himself lower than you. In front of everyone. With the Primarch's implicit approval."
"I didn't… think of it that way."
"He essentially handed you status. It's not quite an official title, but it's still going to mean something to every turian you deal with from now on."
"Except you, I hope."
He winked. "I know you too well. But hey, it means being your friend is that much more interesting. And it means that any turian would find a kind of legal attack on you based on your actions during the Reaper war all but impossible."
Sam nodded. "The fact is, it's really only Tevos' faction of the asari you'd have to worry about. And let's just say public perception is not on their side right now. They won't come after you. I think even the most cynical of our leaders recognizes they have entire populations teetering on the edge every day. What they need is hope."
Kaidan shifted his weight to bump Shepard's shoulder. "Heroes."
Joker nodded sagely. "Action figures and t-shirts. Movie deals. Talk shows."
"You're not helping, Joker."
"Bite your tongue. I want an action figure. With a whole Normandy playset!"
"What I'll miss," Shepard said, and Kaidan heard the very slight tremor in her voice, "is you guys."
"Good thing we aren't going anywhere, then," Garrus said.
The voice was Grunt's, coming from the living room.
Shepard's eyes widened. "Uh oh. What did you break." She turned and headed for the hall.
Kaidan tagged along behind her, to where Grunt sat on the floor next to the coffee table. There was a bowl of popcorn between his legs. As soon as Shepard appeared, the krogan fixed her with wide blue eyes and pointed at the huge vid-screen occupying the entire south wall that wasn't window.
"What is that?!" he demanded.
She came around the couch and peered at the screen. Kaidan immediately recognized the green field and on-screen markings of a sport, but it took an extra few seconds to register the players and their gear.
"Looks like rugby," Kaidan supplied. He couldn't immediately tell if it was live or pre-recorded. The channel markers at the bottom of the screen were foreign to him.
"Rug-by?" Grunt repeated, his large mouth folding around the word as he stared intently at the images of the players running a play, which ended in a huge pile of bodies. "Is it ritual combat?"
"It's a sport," Shepard said, chuckling, "which, I suppose, you could call a kind of ritual combat."
"Nothing ritual about football fans," Sam muttered from behind them.
"No one gets killed, though," Shepard said.
To Kaidan's surprise, Grunt didn't seem fazed by that detail. "I want to play this game!" he declared, pounding a fist into his mechanical palm.
Wrex rumbled a chuckle. Despite his lack of armor, the end of the couch still sagged under the krogan's considerable weight. He reclined in it like someone's grizzled great uncle, legs outstretched, one arm over the side, popping entire chicken wings into his mouth, bones and all.
"Break his arm!" the Grunt shouted at the screen as one of the players heaved a pass.
"They're women, Grunt," Sam said mildly.
"Oh." Grunt huffed, scooting closer. He palmed a handful of popcorn and threw it at the display. "Get the ball thing! Get her! Headbutt!"
"This is gold," Joker chuckled. "I definitely want to see krogan rugby."
Wrex grunted. His broad face had a curious, even speculative expression painted on it. "Would you?"
"Are you actually considering it?" Garrus said with a chuckle.
"Funny thing happened." Wrex scratched languidly under his jaw. "One of my warriors, Gavarg, told me something. See, he's been in a work gang. The rough stuff. 'Unskilled' or whatever they call it. Anyway, he was carrying pipe for some human. Put that here, that there. He started asking why. Instead of acting like a pissant pyjak about it, the human starts explaining what they were doing. Pretty soon he's got Gavarg putting in this or that connection. Few weeks go by, and the human isn't just giving him pipe to carry but basic work orders."
The krogan chuckled. "A week ago I get called in 'cause Gavarg roughed up someone. Seems a young warrior mouthed off about a warrior doing plumbing. Gavarg broke the pup's jaw and six ribs."
"I guess the work frustrated him?" Garrus said.
"Heh. That's what I thought. But Gavarg told me something. Said at first he did hate it. But then he started to feel something strange. He said every time he passed one of the new buildings he's put pipe in, he felt proud." Wrex's red eyes glittered. "Understand something… Gavarg is a great warrior, one of Urdnot's proudest. He's probably somewhere north of five hundred, fought every kind of battle you care to name, kill list longer than both your arms. And he said it was the first time he'd ever built something with his own hands."
Grunt cheered, still intent on his game, thrusting both fists in the air. "Score!"
"Funny thing," Wrex mused, staring at Grunt, "funny things is how it's starting to spread. Building 'cause we have to… becomes building because we want to. But my problem is, it doesn't suit all of us."
"That's true for all species, I think," Garrus said.
"We're older than dirt, turian," Wrex rumbled, "but we're only just waking up to the fact that we don't all have to be killers. But some of us are too… set in our ways. Something like that," he jabbed a thick finger at the vid-screen, "might be just the thing for the ones that don't wanna build."
"Get her!" Grunt shouted at the vidscreen. Another handful of popcorn flew and scattered in all directions.
"Grunt!" Wrex boomed. "Respect your warlord's territory!"
Grunt froze. He looked at Shepard, who arched her brows meaningfully at the strewn popcorn. The young krogan grumbled something under his breath and began picking up stray kernels and eating them.
"All of it," Wrex growled.
"I'm willing to bet we could find someone to teach rules and strategy," Kaidan said diplomatically.
Wrex looked up at him. "Yeah? I'm gonna hold you to that."
"Look at you, Wrex," Shepard said. "A leader."
"I know." The krogan paused to fish around in his ample mouth for a stray piece of bone. "Revolting, isn't it?"
"And now," James' voice echoed from the kitchen, "the real reason you're all here. Food!"
Kaidan turned in time to see him sweep into the dining room with a large wood platter heaped with thick slices of steak, which he deposited in the center of a red square of cloth laid out in the middle of the table.
"I feel I was remiss in not organizing a brass band for that entrance," Steve mused.
Organized chaos broke out as everyone clustered around the table with plates in hand. Kaidan hung back and allowed himself a little moment of pride. There were a lot of little things that might have been improved, but nothing could diminish the pleasure of seeing his comrades and friends trading jokes and jibes as they helped themselves to the fruit of their labors. When the initial rush had passed, Kaidan piled his own plate high. James had evidently prepared for both biotic and krogan appetites, because even after everyone else had taken their portions there was still enough steaming steak left to knock out a full-grown Siberian tiger. It made his mouth water. They'd have steak sandwiches for days.
He got back to the living room in time to see Shepard walk in front of the vidscreen, turn it off and clear her throat. Conversation quickly sputtered out. It seemed to Kaidan sometimes that her presence was diminished, but moments like this proved that it was by choice. It all came back when she demanded it.
She raised her full wine glass. "Before we all get started, I want to propose a toast to the people… who couldn't be here with us. Who fought and bled with us, who, ultimately, bent their knee so we could climb on their shoulders to reach higher."
"Yeah," Joker said, raising his. "To Ashley Williams. She was proud to serve on the Normandy, proud to call you Commander, and I know she's proud of us now. And she'll point and laugh at anyone who cries."
"Mordin," Wrex said. His deep voice was low, but seemed to penetrate Kaidan's chest. "A funny one. Never did quite get him. But I didn't have to. Hell, maybe that's the point. He still made the choice to be the conscience of his people. And he gave me back mine."
"Jack," said Samara, "proud, wild, and strong. A life cruelly enslaved, but even in the end, a life reclaimed on her own terms. A life that teaches us hope for… lost daughters."
"The gestalt called Legion," Tali said. "For being perhaps the... unlikeliest of true believers. When we needed to believe the most."
"Zaeed Massani," EDI said.
She looked right at Shepard. Something passed between them Kaidan didn't quite grasp.
Shepard seemed to draw a steadying breath. "To those who… lost their way along the road. Tennyson, you old bastard." She looked at her wine glass for a long moment.
"To those who came out from the dark to find their path again. To Thane Krios, steady hand and steady heart, a voice of calm in a mad world. A father who found his son again.
"And Javik." Shepard frowned. "It's a little strange to meet yourself, your mirror from another time. I wish… he'd lived to see what peace actually looked like. But I hope, in some way, the Avatar of Vengeance found his peace.
"To everyone who fought, so we could see today, and tomorrow, and pull off something everyone else thought was impossible."
"To the Normandy!" Joker shouted.
That got a hearty cheer.
"And to all who crewed her, to all of you." Shepard swept her gaze around, deliberately to each in turn, "who believed me. And believed in me… even when it didn't seem like you could any more."
A stab of heat knifed through Kaidan's chest. He swallowed hard. Everyone else cheered, and he joined in, but took a rather large gulp of wine.
"Now eat!" Shepard said, smiling.
"And drink," Joker said. "Lots of that!"
The room swelled once again with the buzz of conversation and food.
Shepard appeared at Kaidan's elbow. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing. I just wish…" He thumbed his glass. "Wish I could include myself in that one about…"
"Believing in me?"
He tried to smile. "I didn't do a very good job of it for a while there."
"So it took you a little while to come back around. But we're past that. And you… more than made up for it." She leaned closer to him. "I couldn't have done this without you, Kaidan. Through… everything."
She stared down the last vestige of his doubt.
"Yeah," he conceded.
Shepard nudged his wine glass out of the way and kissed him. He felt a new tingle of heat in his chest. It felt so strange to just… do that in front of everyone.
"Now,"she said, "eat your steak before you implode."
A steak had never tasted better. The buzz in the room was cheerful and getting just a little drunk. Kaidan realized he couldn't really remember the last time he'd done something like this, in his own space. Years and years. It hadn't even been an option for so long.
But he was a different person than he'd been back then… and the world was very different too. Going for another helping of dinner, he thought again about the kid he'd been, coming home from Jump Zero. What the world had looked like through that narrow lens. What had been important to him back then. That kid could never have imagined where he'd end up.
Later, Shepard sidled up to him again. "I don't think I'll need to eat for a week," she commented, rubbing her stomach.
"Good," Kaidan said, "all that leftover steak is mine, then."
She shot him a narrow look. "Good luck with that, buster."
"Wrestle you for it."
"Oh, that is on. Later." She looked around the room. "I need to get away from…"
"Here?" he said.
"What? No, not here. The machine. The Alliance. Politics. All the bloody ass-protecting. I need to get out and see… what I did."
"Yeah." She grimaced. "I'm… afraid, I guess."
Her shoulders slumped. "Blame. That someone… like your brother and his wife might..." she paused, swallowed. "I know, I should be able to brush it off. I can't carry everyone's burdens. But there's so much pain out there."
He put his arm around her. "You told me once I think too much. Well, you still take too much of all this into yourself."
"I know. I have to... just go out and do it. Face this world I helped create."
"You won't be alone when you do it. I think you'll find the vast majority of people are just glad to be alive. And they all know it's because of you." He gave her a squeeze. "I set something up this week I hope you'll like."
He went down the short flight of stairs into the short end of the L-shaped living room that wrapped around the outer part of the bottom floor. Hidden in the cabinet beside the media computer was a squat box he'd acquired from a dealer selling reclaimed electronics of all kinds, stuff pulled from rubble all over the city. This particular piece had been taken from a wrecked dance club somewhere. It was not in itself a jukebox, the beast of a media center the apartment came with was more than adequate to the task of pulling songs from their library and playlists. It was, instead, an imaging processor. But not one he'd ever seen before.
Kaidan checked the cable connections to the holo-emitters one last time, then cued up the playlist he'd winnowed out of what he knew of Shepard's favorite music, with some of his own added in.
When he stood up he found Shepard standing behind him, curious. She opened her mouth, no doubt to ask what he was up to, when the lights dimmed down and the first strains of a song started up.
A circle of light bloomed between them, spinning over itself not unlike Glyph's avatar. As the song gained complexity, each disparate instrument and tone grew itself a representation, dancing in time. Kaidan knew the little machine was reading ahead, constructing a visualization of the sound waves. But whoever had designed the software had created no mere oscilloscope - the program seemed to have some grasp of harmonies and patterns. Some brilliant, and perhaps a little eccentric, designer had gone to a great deal of effort to write a program that could doodle in images, using sound as a base pattern. And more than that, the machine was only on a base setting. From what Kaidan had been able to glean from the interface, it could take almost infinite variations and pre-set customizations.
Shepard stared at the apparition, at first in surprise. But the light coming off the holo painted her face clearly for Kaidan to see as her expression slowly changed into a look of open wonder as one of her favorite songs was given a ghostly shape.
She stuck her hand into it. The trackers installed in the ceiling picked up the movement below and the whole holo shifted and flowed around her arm like a school of brightly-colored geometric fish. She spun, slowly, watching as the shapes followed, singing and dancing with her.
Her delighted laugh was the best thing Kaidan had heard in a long time.
Behind the image, he saw the others drifting over, curious. Tali bounded down and into the patterns of light. They reflected off her visor as she mock-chased a stuttering orange square past Kaidan.
"This is amazing!" she said to him as she went by. "I love vis systems!"
Kaidan was pretty sure he'd shortly be ensnared in a long conversation about specs and customizations, but she was too busy with the images, which were spinning and breaking off into new groups as the trackers read new bodies coming into range. Garrus, who loitered at the edge, got himself grabbed by the wrist and bodily dragged in by Tali.
Shepard bumped into Kaidan and wrapped her arms around him. "Where did you scare this up?"
He laughed. "Hey, I haven't been spending all of my time working."
"Now you can point and laugh at my bad dancing whenever you want."
"Now you'll never be too far from a little stress relief."
"You put all my music in there, right?"
She kissed him, wrapped in music and light.
The world is quiet again.
Broadcast news really isn't all bad, she decides. She squints at the screen in the dark, trying to focus. Her eyes keep trying to slide closed. It's past 3am, and that's just the last time she checked. Nights on a planet have an immovability to them not present in the abstraction of shipboard shifts.
But the house is comfortably empty, the couch wide and comfortable, and the blanket warm. The apartment had detected her moving around, and silently raised the temperature a few degrees from its overnight, energy-conserving low. It's friendly that way. It's also new, nearing completion when the Reaper attack struck, but had escaped subsequent damage. There are no ghosts in its walls. That makes her feel better in ways she can't quite articulate.
The news feed is blathering on about reconstruction efforts. They haven't once mentioned her name, much to her relief, and surprise. There's an overeager sort of optimism in the overall tone that has the slight whiff of propaganda to her nose.
But then again, maybe her nose is a little too sensitive these days. Those wounds are not quite raw, but still sore. She still eyes rooftops for snipers, reaches for a pistol grip at a loud noise. More than anything, she still doesn't trust a good word. That hurts the worst. Physical paranoia is something she's lived with her whole life. But this gnawing fear of being betrayed… that's new. And she doesn't know when it's going to pass.
So maybe the battered planet can use some optimism. It's a damn sight better than the alternative. And maybe if she actually watches it, some of it will seep in, and it'll stop feeling like they're going to lay into her personally at any moment.
It still helps to imagine she left Commander Shepard back in that white beam, everywhere and nowhere. They can't touch the totem there. They can't diminish her successes, or her mistakes.
Lying on her side, her left hand is wedged in her line of sight, outlined in the dancing images on the vidscreen. When she curls her fingers into a fist, her middle finger still lags behind, its scarred tendons not expressing a full range of motion. Of all her lingering injuries, at least that one has a bit of amusement value. She'll always have a built-in excuse when she needs to flip off someone who deserves it.
She closes one eye so her raised finger crosses over the babbling newscaster. She's content to be amused by it, for now. She's starting to get sick of the cycles of surgery and rehabilitation. If she shifts a bit she'll feel the edge of the connection port installed on the stump of her leg. It's still too new, still a foreign party. The leg, leaning against the couch, is too new. It's good. It works well. She likes wearing it out of the house. But it's still an interloper.
The image of the newscaster behind her hand shimmers and blue-shifts. She wiggles her fingers in the corona, watching its subtle dance. Her oldest, most tempestuous and loyal friend, that aura. Her ghost, her rage made real and far more than just an impotent rush of blood to the head.
Maybe that blue ghost is, and always has been, the true Commander Shepard.
The truth is, Commander Shepard didn't stay behind. She sleeps beneath her skin, singing softly in her nerves.
A faint thump draws her eyes away from the screen. There are no other lights on, but the vast expanse of vidscreen haloes the furniture in glowing shapes. She didn't quite pick up the direction the sound came from.
A minute later there's the sound of bare feet on the polished stairs. Kaidan, in all his mostly-bare glory, walks into the half-light of the glowing vidscreen. He notices her and stops. Standing by the end of the couch, he looks down at her, and there's something a little wild in his eyes.
"What is it?" she says.
He breathes out, scrubs the heel of his hand into one eye socket. "I couldn't… find you."
A faint guilt tugs at her. She stretches her leg free of the end of the blanket and hooks a toe around the hem of his boxers. "I'm here. Bad dream?"
He nods. "I hate… how real they feel sometimes." His voice is rough with sleep, and his tone suggests he's still not wholly convinced this is reality yet. He examines the room with the squint of someone whose eyes are still hurting from the brightness of the vid-screen, but is searching the shadows for monsters.
She tugs on his boxers again. The warm light picks out the details and curves of his musculature she's no longer shy about staring at. It makes her itch to explore that landscape in fine detail. Nice bodies aren't all that uncommon in their line of work, but she happens to think this specimen is nothing short of perfect. In her more prurient moments, she finds herself thinking that after all the bullshit, the least the universe could do was grant her access to such a body and the permission to play with it on a regular basis.
Her lascivious reverie is interrupted when, instead of joining her on the couch, he crouches down and gathers her up, blanket and all.
"Good end to a bad dream," he says, "found you." A smile plays around his mouth. "Rescued the princess."
She snorts quietly, but feels a tremor in his limbs. He's more upset than he's letting on. She wraps her arms around his neck and lets him carry her back upstairs to the bed she crept out of an hour ago.
"That's why you went into space, wasn't it?" she teases quietly. "See the stars, get the girl."
"I win," he affirms.
Despite the dark, he negotiates the door without knocking into anything. He deposits her in the bed, burrowing into the covers, then flops half on top of her with a contented sigh.
"Still my favorite part," he murmurs, hugging her close, fitting himself to all of her and tugging the blankets up.
She nuzzles him back. There was a time she might have snickered at that bit of sap, not out of mockery, but because it's always been a bit hard to really believe. But his sincerity has all the same quiet power it always has, brushing aside her years of cynicism. And she loves him for it. This warmth of bodies is something like magic.
She relaxes, but can't quite settle. After a few minutes, the buzz of that which drove her downstairs in the first place remains.
"The geth…" she closes her eyes, "asked me if I want to live forever."
The warmth of his breath tickles her skin as he exhales, slowly, fingers kneading lightly into her palm.
"You can't just say something like that," he mutters reproachfully into her neck.
She can tell he's awake now, but he's waiting her out. She chews her lip, sure she's going to mangle the science part of it somehow. But she's not going to get any peace until she tries.
"It's... strange, talking to them," she says. "They're nothing but direct, and always literal, but sometimes it's hard to figure out what they're really saying. But… they seem really affronted by the idea that organics just die."
"Something to do with information?"
"I think so. When you get right down to it, each of us is an absolutely unique configuration of matter capable of processing inputs. Our brains are some of the most complex systems that exist in the known universe. And we live a few years, not even an eyeblink in cosmic terms, and just die and rot away. All of our experiences, our uniqueness vanishes back into the stew of the cosmos. The geth… seem to think that's a waste.
"I have to do a lot of reading between the lines, but…" Once again, she's never sure of the fuzzy, invisible distance between truth and arrogance. "They're afraid, in their own way."
"Of what? Dying?"
"No. Becoming Reapers."
Now he's really awake. "Huh?"
"They'll tell you they don't know what the Reapers were doing. The why of it, I mean. Not enough data. But I pushed and prodded for an opinion, and they said they thought the Reapers were mining the entire galaxy for… some kind of crop they'd let grow. Well, that's not how they phrased it. Something about collecting a whole new set of variables and calculations."
He presses his cheek against her chest. She can perfectly picture the way his eyebrows are screwing up in thought at this moment. "That's simplistic, but it sounds like it could have some truth to it."
"They're afraid that if they lose access to, well, my perspective, if I die, they'll make a bad decision somewhere, or maybe a few, and set off a cascade of events. Maybe not for centuries, but eventually…"
"Reapers? That's kind of a long shot, isn't it?"
"They seem to think any risk is too much."
He runs a hand lazily down her arm, tracing lines of muscles. It raises goosebumps. "And how do they plan to do this?"
"They found a system with a young star, with no planets suitable for organic inhabitation. Out near the rim, away from trade lanes."
"That's either prudent or ominous."
She wets her lips. "They're building a Dyson array. A new one, much bigger than the orbital array near Rannoch."
He's quiet for a long moment. He has to know, probably better than she, what that meant.
"The whole system?" he says quietly.
"A big computer," she affirms. "Built from the planets. Drawings its power from the star."
"Wow," he murmurs. "And they want to upload…"
"Anyone who volunteers. Eventually."
"They don't want to ever become Reapers, Kaidan. Every detail of the war is burned into their memory. They don't understand suffering the way we do, but I think they have their own version of it. They said they didn't understand why the Reapers let their new variables mature for so long, and then came in and corrupted all."
"I didn't understand at first either. But I think that's how they understand suffering, as some kind of corruption. Not in a religious sense, mind you. But as… an inefficiency? A lot of bad data."
"Corruption in a programming sense."
"And they want…" she stops, swallows.
"You," he says softly.
"They said their goal is to get the array operational and tested within my 'average' expected lifetime. They don't know if or how it'll work, exactly. They don't know if scanning a mind into the system would destroy the original. They don't know if there would be any continuity of consciousness. They said I could take my time to reach a personal consensus on it. They promised me in no uncertain terms that one way or the other, it was my decision."
He hugs her tighter, possessively.
"Their fondest hope," she says, "funny to say that about an artificial intelligence, isn't it? Their fondest hope is one day, they'll be able to upload anyone who asks. They'll be able to integrate us into one big consensus. Take all the good data, make better decisions. Think better. Know more. All by choice."
He's quiet again. "I think I understand why you couldn't sleep," he says finally.
"I don't know what to think about it. I don't even know where to start."
"And you won't have to for a long time."
He shifts. She can see the faint gleam of his eyes in the dark. His hand slides along her neck and cheek, armor calluses still rough.
"This isn't your fight if you don't want it to be," he says.
"I know," she moves closer, nuzzling into his chest. "But I do want to help them if I can. For now, as myself. I mean, we don't want new Reapers. We don't want AIs losing their reason to value organic forms of life. In the meantime, I… have an awful lot of actual living I want to experience before I even start to consider virtual immortality."
"If I learned anything in the last few years," he says quietly, "it's that I have no idea what the future is going to look like."
She thinks again of the toast she offered her friends a few nights ago, the one that came after a lot of laughing over silly jokes and all the strange anecdotes they've accumulated over the last few years. I can't wait to see what happens next.
And the words she thought but didn't say. I never thought I would.
What she'd told Garrus that dark night that seems so far away now. We're fighting for a world we don't belong in. A world past soldiers, past wars, past all the petty fears.
But just a couple of years ago, this reality she's now living in seemed to her not just impossible but a contradiction. Even them, even the Reapers, a machine, a universe-system so sophisticated even thinking about her dim memories of their mind gives her a headache…. Even they couldn't imagine this now.
It's wholly possible, she thinks, there's another impossible world in the making. Right now. That a tomorrow she can't imagine is quietly unfolding its wings beneath the fabric of the universe.
She presses her cheek to Kaidan's. "It's going to be something to see."
Little did I know what I was getting into, back in early 2008 when I passed some writing to someone I met on LJ in exchange for a bit of Mass Effect photoshop work. That writer would end up becoming my beta, and over the years, a dear friend. I owe her a debt of gratitude for always being there to swat me on the wrist for my persistent mistakes, keep me encouraged, and above all, teaching me things about the craft. Thank you, Lossefalme, for sticking with me and this crazy crusade for all this time.
What started innocently enough got rapidly out of hand. One story finished, the bug had well and truly set in. The further I got, the more I realized I was in for the long haul. And then, against all expectations (and indeed, hopes) we got a trilogy resolution that was not merely mediocre but cried out for a wholesale fix. I could hardly leave my beloved characters hanging, consigned to that unfulfilled, nonsensical end. Through it all, it was never just about the story, of course. It was also about the people, the community it made me a part of.
Thank you to all my readers and commenters, for sticking with me on this insane ride. I appreciate all of you, and every kind word you left me. To those that messaged me to chat, or just dropped a kudos, all of it. For making me laugh, for your screenshots and tidbits. For taking my version of Shepard and her world into your hearts. It all served to keep me going when things were getting rough.
Thank you fandom. For all the turmoil, the churn has ever been a font of creativity and humor, a place where the things we make with our hands, hearts and minds have real value.
Where I go from here, I'm not sure. A break, to start with, then perhaps I can finally get moving on something original. That said, I doubt this is the last bit of fanfic I'll dabble in… it's just too much fun to play in the sandbox. In the meantime, you can find me on Tumblr and DA.
Thank you. May your muses be ever fruitful and your OTPs always get together. ;)
I should go.