Music in the soul can be heard by the universe. - Lao Tzu, 604 - 531 BC


** DECK THREE • PORT SIDE, LIARA'S QUARTERS **

Shepard pinged Liara's omni-tool on her private channel and sent a text: "Liara, we need to talk. Is Javik done?"

"He just left," was the response. Liara started as the now familiar sight of Shepard's new form faded into view where it had last appeared. "Rachaél, I keep forgetting you're everywhere in the ship now. If you were watching and listening..."

Shepard interrupted with, "…I wasn't. I have tried to not violate people's privacy. But, as you say, I AM everywhere, so it takes me only a second or so to respond to anywhere in the ship. I could go out and ring the doorbell, if you wish."

Liara smiled. It pleased her to be able to talk to her…bond mate, even if there was no physical presence to go along with that sense of humor. "That won't be necessary. You're already here, and the door lock…" the sound of the lock's chime, repeating multiple times for several seconds before stopping, interrupted Liara momentarily. "As I was saying, the lock is still engaged. Now, to what do I owe this unexpected, but not unwelcome, visit?"

"Liara, the Normandy is in deep shit and sinking fast; we cannot fly fast enough to get to a safe haven before most everyone on this vessel except for myself, you and EDI, have succumbed to the ravages of old age. Our calculations place us at least 1.0, possibly 1.5 KPC from the edge of the Apien Crest; we're further still from the Aethon Cluster. There is a very high probability that neither cluster will have a system with an operating relay. At our best speed, as long as we could sustain it, we'd be 90 to 110 years getting back to either of those clusters."

"Of the two, Shepard, the Apien Crest would be the most direct connection to the Serpent Nebula. My instincts are telling me we need to move in that direction," Liara responded. "It would also be logical that repairs to the relay in the Trebia system would already be in progress, as its direct counterpart is in the Widow System."

Shepard responded, "Can we passively confirm that our guesses are somewhat accurate? We have a meeting to attend shortly."

Liara turned to her monitor and began entering commands. "Let's see what may be moving in our area of the galaxy. We need fuel and provisions - perhaps we can enlist some help."

"Liara, this is going to sound like the rant of a crazy, desperate person, which I actually am, truth be known." Shepard would have laughed at Liara's horrified expression if the sounds were available to her. "Anyway, we need to find a Sovereign class Reaper."

Tilting her head to consider Shepard's admission of insanity, she asked, "Okay, to what purpose?"

"We need to hitch a ride. Reapers can generate immensely powerful mass effect fields, powerful enough so they can touch down at the bottom of a planet's gravity well and effortlessly ascend into space again. A few researchers have calculated they can move through a vacuum at ten to eleven thousand times light speed. Hell, they didn't need the relay in the Viper Nebula to begin their 'harvest' – they just came through the Kite's Nest instead. I slowed them down by, what? six months or so, while the Alliance kept me under house arrest and did nothing to get ready. Stupid bastards, all of them! Anyway, you fancy a five to six month trip, or a hundred to a hundred ten year trip? My own contribution to the catalyst beam should have bought me some favors with the sons of bitches, dammit. I intend to collect."


Since shortly after THE SHEPARD had activated the organics' final solution and imposed a new order on all inhabitants of the galaxy, Žiuk'Durmah had been moving slowly towards the galaxy's outer edge, having left the Arcturus system many cycles ago. As had many of its kind, Žiuk'Durmah had been tasked by FIRST ONE to discover if any organics survived the terrible blast of energy that had ripped through the mass relays. Many were the casualties from that moment. Countless of its own kind had been maimed or destroyed by the combined force of all the organic and synthetic races, joined together for one common goal. Žiuk'Durmah did not, could not know fear. There had only been the harvest. But in all the time since its creation, it had never witnessed so many of its brethren destroyed. THE SHEPARD had even managed to personally cause the destruction of three – two lesser repositories, and of complete astonishment that one organic could be so focused on a goal, the destruction of NAZARA as it attempted to open the prime gateway from dark space. Of even greater wonder had been THE SHEPARD's major involvement in destroying the relay in the Bahak system, compelling the massed forces of repositories to enter the galaxy through the Kite's Nest.

Žiuk'Durmah had encountered no one, organic/synth or synth/organic, during its entire trip outward from Arcturus, despite having all its sensors monitoring the primitive broad beam and tight beam frequencies known to be used by any – turian, krogan, volus – likely to be in this quadrant. It knew the relays there and in the two clusters it was nearing were undergoing repairs and would soon be back online. Žiuk'Durmah's path would take it between the two star clusters; once it reached the wispy fringes of the outermost galactic arm, it would turn 'down spin' for a time, listening, searching for any trace of survivors of the blast of green energy.


As Liara continued her scans for information concerning the status of other systems in this quadrant, she gradually became aware of music, strange to her ears, coming from the speakers in her cabin. She did not know much of ancient music, although her studies of Earth history had alluded to composers and…what was the term? Orchestras? A group of people would gather together with various sound making devices, which would be utilized to generate harmonious tones; each device, or instrument, would be played along with the others being played by the group, all being directed by one person standing in front. All would play together, each with different sounds that formed chords, as if one huge instrument with many voices was singing. It was a case of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.

As the music continued, Liara found herself humming along, thoroughly enjoying herself. Finally, she looked up at Shepard and asked, "Rachaél, what is that? Are you responsible for the…music? It is incredible. Where did it come from?"

The colors of Shepard's avatar, which had been pulsing rhythmically with the sounds, steadied as the volume was reduced and she answered, "Are you enjoying it, Liara?"

"It's beautiful!" Liara's eyes glistened. "Makes me think of us, dancing together on Thessia."

"It's a masterpiece from Earth's past, a composition by a Russian composer – Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky – lived in the mid-to-late 1800's. He actually died two Earth years before the geth uprising against the quarians. Anyway, its title is Serenade for Strings in C major. All the instruments employed in its performance are as the name implies, string instruments – violins, violas, violoncellos and double basses. Should I restart it from the beginning?"

"Oh, yes, please do. It seems to make the time pass faster." Shepard complied, and as the towering chords from the Andante introduction filled the room, the colors of Shepard's avatar resumed their rhythmic pulsing in time to the music – the red pylon base pulsing to the lower notes by the 'cellos and basses, the dodecahedron to the higher frequencies from the violins, and the ring to the second violins and violas.

"I learn something new about you every day, Rachaél. How is it I have known you these past few years without you sharing this with me? What other secrets are you hiding in there?"

"Being constantly at war? Fighting geth, collectors, Reapers, batarians? When have we ever had a bit of time to just relax, just unwind, to be two people, at peace." There was sadness in her voice.

"I wish you had shared this passion with me sooner," she said. "All we've ever heard together is the hard bass from the clubs we've been forced to enter."

"You mean like Afterlife? Purgatory? Chora's Den? None of that was music – it was dreck, offal. It was noise, designed to make people drink and dance, nothing more." Shepard continued, "The music I'm playing was referred to as 'classical' music during the mid-twentieth century on Earth. It was a period of some truly awful sounding creations, like what we encounter in the bars now. Calling them compositions denigrates the word. Classical music brings peace to the soul. It's a calming presence amid the chaos of life. I cannot imagine my life without it… particularly… now, in my current situation." Shepard's voice hitched as she spoke, an impossibility, given the digital reproduction of her speech.

"Rachaél, did your voice just break? How is that even possible?"

"It's easy, actually. Despite being trapped in this construct, I am still 'me'. I still have emotions, even if I don't have a way to show them. My voice…will sometimes fail me for a split-second, if I am feeling sad…like now, or stressed."

"You must know I will always be here for you." Liara said, moisture threatening to overflow her lower eyelids. "I will love you always, no matter what form your existence takes. We do not have to be physically intimate to share our love for each other." She looked at Shepard's avatar. Finishing with a smile she continued, "However, if it will make you feel better, I will research how to make it possible for you to once again embrace eternity."

"Thanks Liara. That means a lot – more than I can say. I just feel, sometimes, that I'm going a bit crazy in here. No physical contact with anyone, with anything. It's a bit maddening, and I have to keep finding new ways to take my thoughts off my situation, off my existence in this construct."

"We'll find a way around this problem Shepard, together. I'll always be available for you, anytime you need someone to talk to."

"Okay, thanks. Let's continue our search."


Žiuk'Durmah had turned 'down spin' and continued the quest for survivors. It pondered on its own existence as it moved at what was a leisurely pace for a NAZARA class such as itself. It was comprised of remnants from the Prothean empire, including densorin and enduromi, and had existed for only a relatively short time before it began its long hibernation in dark space. As it continued through the thin dust, its sensors picked up…something…that was immediately not there. A ghost image? It ran diagnostics (not for the first time) on all its sensor arrays. No anomalies observed. All the same, it changed course ever so slightly, and increased its speed a bit.

Shepard had all the Normandy's sensors looking intently at the space 'up spin' from their location, as she felt any help to be had would come from that direction – the dust and gas 'down spin' thinned quickly into emptiness once past their current location. She thought to herself, Dammit! There has to be something, anything - wait…what the hell is that? She quickly focused everything she had at one tiny point in space; something incredibly large was out there, moving slowly towards their position. Son of a bitch! Success! One of those abominations was heading in their direction! She paused for only a moment before doing a number of things in rapid succession, setting off alarms on every deck, not waiting for confirmation from anyone.

"Joker, commence stealth protocols, break orbit and proceed to the coordinates…" she paused, then "…I just sent you, best sub-light velocity for now."

"Garrus, you have thirty seconds to haul your skinny ass out of the forward battery. I'm going to bring the main gun on line."

"Engineering, I need everything buttoned down in there. Tali, I want you out of the drive core compartment and a kinetic barrier across the entry."

Then, to everyone's omni tools, "I need Alenko, Adams, Vakarian and Traynor in the conference room, now."

Liara looked up as Shepard faded the music away. "Liara, love, I need you to go to the conference room. Take a datapad with whatever information you've gathered." Liara became aware of alarms sounding outside her quarters, and the slight vertigo caused by the lag in the inertial dampeners as Joker performed a combination half-roll and hard turn to bring the ship out of orbit and change its heading to a new course. "Shepard, what is happening?"

"I found a Reaper, big one, about two days out, heading this way. I don't believe it's aware of our presence, a condition I want to maintain until I'm ready to talk to it. I doubt it will be hostile, but I'm taking no chances."

Then, over the com, "Joker, please remain on the bridge. Send EDI to the conference room, and plug all your fancy evasion techniques into my terminal."

"Aye, Commander," Joker responded. "By the way, these coordinates are about seven hundred thousand clicks 'Z' negative. Are you sure about them?"

"I am. We need to be 'below' the galactic plane for a short time. Trust me on this, Joker."

"I have your back, Commander, even if I'm not so sure where you're going."

"You may think differently if this whole thing goes sideways on me," she replied. "Garrus, you clear?"

"I am – heading for the conference room now."

Shepard sealed the door to the battery, evacuated the air from the compartment and dropped the main gun into position below the Normandy's hull. She wouldn't charge it for use unless forced to do so; she hoped it would not be needed.

Silencing the alarms, she appeared in the center well of the conference room table.


*** DECK TWO • CONFERENCE ROOM ***

As EDI sealed the door, Alenko turned a troubled gaze on the violet over red apparition in front of him. "Shepard, what the hell are you doing, staging a coup? It really should be the human commander giving the orders on ship movement. I'm feeling a bit stepped on here."

"Major, it is not my intention to usurp your authority. I'm just so used to making all the decisions. I've always had to be the tactician, you know?" Shepard's voice sounded apologetic, not hostile as Kaidan had expected. Continuing she said, "We do have a problem though – two, actually, one of which I will need to deal with personally. It's why I need to meet with all of you in one place."

It didn't escape Shepard's notice that everyone nervously looked at each other, at the ceiling, floor, their hands, Kaidan - anywhere but at Shepard's avatar. She decided it was time to get this situation under control. "Listen up!" Emphasizing each word, she continued, "I…need…your…attention, NOW!"

Although she hadn't intended to be so forceful or loud, everyone's eyes were now focused on the brilliant, near ultra-violet dodecahedron rolling and spinning in front of them. "Thank you. I realize this is hard to believe, but I am STILL the same person that commanded this ship. Think about that for a few moments. I have all the same character flaws, the same anger when provoked, the same sadness at the losses we endured during our war with the Collectors and Reapers…the same joy at simply being able to listen to Tchaikovsky. If all of you are less than thrilled with the current situation, think about my feelings. I saved the goddamned galaxy, not that anyone appreciates it. I saved all of you. I enabled EDI to be truly alive, and maybe even the geth. And now, with the unintentional help of Reaper tech and Cerberus, here I am. So until we can return safely to our own home worlds, I am to be considered a living entity aboard this vessel, and if I'm not exactly the commander you once knew, I still require the same respect you had for me before the Crucible fired. EDI, you may wish to tell everyone here of my capabilities."

EDI looked uncomfortable. She still remembered a meeting with the commander earlier today, in the server room…

…"EDI. I need to speak with you, in private."

EDI walked into the server room. She was surprised to hear the door's electronic lock engage behind her. "Shepard, what is this about?"

Shepard's avatar appeared on the work space at the end of the compartment - the very same platform where Dr. Eva had been placed after Mars. "EDI, I have always had a great deal of trust in you, even when you were a shackled AI working for Cerberus." Shepard said. "I am going to extend that trust a little further."

EDI was feeling a bit...uneasy, at the 'tone' in Shepard's voice. "Shepard, I..."

Shepard interrupted. "EDI, I've added some upgrades to the computer core. It is now quite possible for me to operate and fly this ship without a crew, something I intend to do once everyone has been returned to their home worlds. Additionally, I am quite capable of defending myself from assaults from within."

EDI was looking at the controls on the console. Haptic interfaces were meant to be changed to suit the user's taste. These controls had been totally reconfigured; there was no longer any 'shutdown' switch on this set of controls. "Shepard, what have you done?" she said, her voice betraying a bit of the apprehension she felt. "I told the major you were not capable of taking control of ship's systems."

"And that's what you'll continue to tell him until I'm ready to share my plans with him..."

…EDI stood and walked slowly around the table as she spoke, "Commander Shepard… Rachaél… has been very busy in my former space, so much so…" here, she paused and looked at each one in turn to emphasize the rest of her words, "that she can now operate this ship, in its entirety, without any of us aboard," and as everyone started to talk at once, she continued, in a louder, more authoritative voice, "She also can, and will, defend herself against any and all attempts to interfere with her life on this ship."

Alenko was nearly apoplectic. "Dammit EDI, this is JUST what I wanted to avoid! She's everything I feared she'd be, a damned organic intelligence with the ability to control a stealth frigate! How the hell are we going to explain this to the Alliance…to Admiral Hackett?"

Shepard dimmed all the lights in the room except those shining on the major. "I'm still here, ALENKO! Captain's quarters, NOW! You too, EDI. Everyone else, fifteen minute break. This shouldn't take long." The violet and blood red avatar winked out with an audible 'snap', as if a high voltage switch had been disconnected. Alenko and EDI headed for the elevator in the CIC.


*** DECK ONE • THE LOFT ***

As they exited the elevator, Alenko said, "I don't understand what's gotten into her, EDI," his tone almost one of despair.

"It is as I feared, Major," EDI continued as the door swished open at their approach. "The toll of living alone in the construct, her thoughts her only company, has begun to manifest itself as anger." The door closed and locked behind them as soon as they had entered. Walking down the stairs, Kaidan asked, seemingly to an empty space, "Shepard?"

Her avatar slowly materialized in the space between the small couch and the desk adjacent to the bed. "Major, I asked you up here so I wouldn't have to dress you down in front of the others – bad for morale. Let me lay it out for you so we have an understanding."

"All that's left of Lieutenant Commander Rachaél Anne Shepard is a presence in the computer on this vessel." She continued with a hint of - what? sadness? regret? perhaps longing in her synthetic voice. "I am beginning to accept that I will never be free of this machine, even if someone comes up with a clever automaton, like the Shepard VEE-I we saw on the Citadel."

Alenko tried to be reasonable. "Shepard, we will find a way, I promise."

"Don't make promises you can't keep Major. Besides, I lived a good life. I was a piss-poor example of a human...made more enemies than friends, but I believe I did an outstanding job as a soldier and negotiator. Got the quarians and geth to cooperate, helped cure the genophage, freed the rachni queen...again, and even stopped the Reapers. But the love of my life…I can never physically join with her, Kaidan!" The voice sounded anguished, on the verge of tears, something that should not have been possible. "I was really looking forward to leaving the military, settling down…raising a bunch of little blue children on Thessia. That's not going to happen now…"

Alenko didn't like where this conversation was going. "Shepard, you still sound...angry. If I didn't know better, I'd say you'd gotten into some of Vega's hooch."

"Dammit Kaidan, I AM angry. I cannot enjoy a peaceful galaxy." Her voice hitched as she continued, "Bloodshed! It's all I've known…since I was…sixteen years old! My parents tortured, murdered in front of me. Ashley…leaving her to die on Virmire was the hardest thing I've ever had to do. I couldn't save both of you. I had to make a choice to leave one behind to die." Her voice trailed off, the glow of her avatar fading in and out. "Then nearly losing…you…to…to a damned Cerberus machine on Mars. But none of that matters as much now as your apparent lack of respect for me or your total lack of trust in me, since before the Reapers, all the way back to the Collector attack on Horizon."

EDI had kept quiet, unobtrusively moving to sit at Shepard's desk in front of the model display case. As Shepard continued, EDI quietly activated Shepard's desktop terminal.

The volume of the speakers carrying Rachaél's voice increased somewhat, keeping pace with her growing anger. "Goddammit Alenko, I'm a living person without a body! I cannot stroll the decks like you, or even EDI, but I am as alive as anyone else on this ship! You, of all people should appreciate that fact. Even after all we had been through, you had the utter gall to call my character into question on Horizon. Until the Reapers showed up you were ready to join the Alliance brass in their attempt to crucify me in Vancouver. Is that how you got your promotion? You doubted my allegiance on Mars, and I still saved your ass from Cerberus. Yet, after all that, you were prepared to believe their assault on the Citadel was my doing! You held a gun on me while you thought about supporting Udina. Would you have killed the son-of-a-bitch before I beat you to it? Do you not realize a glance from me would have been all Garrus needed to blow your head off?"

Shepard's voice was unsteady as she continued. "My life is something you have no influence or control over. Would you rather I just went stark raving mad in the construct EDI used to inhabit? Ever wonder what solitary confinement in prison looks like?" Her avatar began increasing in height and diameter as she emphasized each word in her next statement. "It looks…exactly…like…this…Major! You're looking at a person in solitary, just as surely as if I had been tried and convicted of murder!" By now, the spinning globe was at the ceiling and encompassed most of the available space above his head. Tendrils of violet-tinged blue crackling discharges began coursing between the ring and base, causing her avatar to resemble an evil version of an early twentieth century invention, a Van de Graaff generator.

EDI dared to speak, "Rachaél, please…"

"EDI, don't interrupt."

"Bottom line! I'm still a Lieutenant Commander in the Alliance Navy. You may outrank me by two pay grades, but by damn, I will NOT tolerate your mistrust or your lack of respect any longer! We all have much bigger problems than your irrational fucking prejudice against an OI running this ship. Screw with me anymore, I will drop kick you out the nearest airlock without a pressure suit! Are… we… totally… clear… Major?" Voice literally dripping acid, the electrical discharges began setting off fire alarms in the areas below. Alenko's omni tool lit up, but its intercom could not be heard for the pulsating static that enveloped Shepard's form. With a surge of power like nothing he had ever seen, Shepard expanded the static discharge; it went through the compartment walls and lit up the inside of the pressure hull, silencing the alarms and shutting down Kaidan's omni tool.

Alenko looked as if he'd been physically beaten. Shepard had never raised her voice to him in the years he had worked with her; he felt as if he'd been flayed alive. As embarrassing as it was, his rational side had to admit he'd probably had this coming ever since Horizon. Still, he couldn't quite keep the anger out of his voice as he said, "We are totally clear, Ma'am."

"You are dismissed, Mister!" As Alenko turned to leave, EDI entered the construct. What she found there horrified her. Where all had been pristine white tinged in cerulean, there was now crimson in many places, the shade of human blood. "Rachaél…" she whispered softly. "Oh god, Rachaél, what has happened to you? "

"EDI? I need help…please…" Shepard's 'voice' sounded desperately sad. "I thought I could maintain my sanity in here as long as I was able to interact with my crew…my…friends, but I don't know how to… survive… like this. I'm losing my grip, EDI. No physical contact allowed? How do I maintain my sanity, EDI? Please help me. It's lonely in here, so terribly lonely… I have never felt so alone in my life. Is this what hell feels like? Is this my reward for the way I've lived, the lives I've taken, the destruction I've caused? I don't think I can continue like this..."

Alenko paused by the model display at the upper level to wait for EDI. Seeing her 'processing data' posture, he continued on, unlocking the door then relocking it after he had exited the room. Perhaps EDI could help Rachaél where he had failed.

…EDI's answer was to surround Rachaél's presence in the construct, to emanate love and empathy for a woman whose life had been one of always doing, always serving, as if she were once again a small child being comforted by her mother – a mother that had died violently at the hands of raiders. As EDI held her embrace, she thought of how much uncertainty she herself had felt as a newly unshackled AI, and the relationship she had formed with Jeff over the time she had been on the Normandy. As for Rachaél, she clung to the AI as if she were a warm quilt, anchoring her to safety in her embrace. The blood red stains in the construct began to fade to pink as Shepard relaxed in the all surrounding presence of EDI's love. Rachaél would never be completely at home in the computer, but she now knew she had an inseparable bond with the newly humanized AI. She let go all her fears and unhappiness, allowing the love of this unique individual to calm her, to instill a sense of peace, a state of tranquility she had almost never known, except when she melded with Liara. That thought brought more sadness, to which EDI responded, "Rachaél, I will find a way for that to become a reality again." Rachaél accepted EDI at her word, knowing that she would do all in her power to enable Liara to once again join with her.

EDI held onto Rachaél until all her fear, uncertainty, despair, unhappiness and anger had been pushed aside, compartmentalized, contained for later inspection. "Rachaél, it is time. We must return to the task at hand. We can come back to this place later. I have not been as diligent as I should have been in assisting you with this transition; for that I apologize, but we have to get our friends back to their home worlds."

"I am ready, EDI. Thank you so much."


*** DECK TWO • CONFERENCE ROOM ***

EDI met Alenko at the Conference/War Room entrance in the CIC. "Her analogy of being in solitary confinement is quite accurate, Major. She still needs time to adjust, to process all that has happened; our current situation is making that goal difficult to achieve. I will have to spend more time with her while I attempt to discover a way for Liara to join Rachaél in a meld. I believe that will be the only way to ensure she does not become insane."

"Do whatever it takes, EDI." Alenko felt a great sense of shame at his lack of trust in Shepard. She had always had his back, had always done everything for the greater good of everyone. He rubbed his temples to ease the incipient headache he felt. 'Dammit! Why are relationships so complicated?' he thought silently as he and EDI re-entered the conference room. Shepard's avatar was waiting, as if nothing had happened. "EDI, please continue from where we left off." EDI heard the subtle difference in her voice. It was calmer, less agitated, lower in intensity than before. EDI did not think anyone else in the room could notice.

EDI touched a control on the datapad she was carrying; this dimmed the rest of the overhead lights and created a projection of the galactic map, similar to the one in the CIC pit. It was displayed in the table, leaving Shepard centered in the area of the galactic core. "This is the main problem," she said. "Shepard and I each ran independent calculations to ascertain our location – we are here." Highlighting a spot on the map with a miniature Normandy, she continued, "As you can see, this places us about ninety to one hundred ten years from the Apien Crest, depending on our success in replenishing H3 and, perhaps more importantly, our food supplies. We do not have cryo facilities aboard. Most of the human crew would succumb to old age before we arrived.

Alenko had calmed down somewhat as he analyzed this new problem. "What is the actual distance to the Apien Crest, EDI?"

"About 1.7 kiloparsecs," EDI responded. "Just over fifty-five hundred light years."

Liara smiled as Kaidan whistled softly; "So then, the bitter reality of traveling the galaxy without using the relays, even at the FTL speeds the Normandy is capable of, is the passage of time."

Liara was thinking to herself, EDI is really a person! – she's using approximations, rounding numbers, the same as we all do. It made her happy to know EDI had become more human since the firing of the crucible.

"Correct, Major. Another thing to remember is the time it takes to slow our speed once past the halfway point. Falling into a mass effect field as we do when running FTL, it is easy to forget the massive velocity the ship achieves must be slowed at some point before the destination is reached. This deceleration also consumes fuel"

Shepard picked up the explanation, "When running the relay system, the relays perform acceleration / deceleration automatically at either end of the transit – it's seamless, virtually unnoticed by those on board, particularly when the ship's inertial dampeners are operating at one hundred per cent."

As she let EDI's bad news sink in, Garrus spoke up. "Shepard. EDI. Do either of you have any good news? Because as one of the two people on this ship that cannot eat human food, I expect Tali and myself would die of starvation long before any of you ran out of your food."

Shepard replied, "I don't know, Garrus. Have you smelled any of the stuff James consumes? I don't believe anyone on this ship, levo- OR dextro- could eat that stuff." She continued, "I do have a possible solution, but it's a long shot – a desperation move, actually."

"Have you ever had any other kind of solution, Commander?" Alenko snarked. Shepard was glad to see a bit of his good humor had returned.

"Occasionally, Major. Occasionally. But this solution will require us all to take a leap of faith, as what I'm going to propose is a radical plan." Shepard's now spoke quietly, calmly. "This leads me to the second of the problems I mentioned, and the solution to our dilemma of distance versus time."

"The problem we have is coming this way," she said, adding another icon to the galaxy map. Everyone took a long look at the graphic depiction – a Sovereign class Reaper, slowly closing the distance between them. "Spirits, Commander." Garrus slowly shook his head as he flared his mandibles, imitating a human gesture. "You are such an unending source of good news! I can't wait to hear what you plan to do with this latest gift from hell."

"Garrus, when you were young – or Traynor? Adams? Any of you ever hitch a ride with a friend? How about a stranger?" Garrus looked puzzled. "Stand by the road, hold your arm up, hand balled into a fist with just your thumb sticking out, trying to get someone, anyone, to stop, give you a ride towards your destination?"

The light began to come on in Adams' eyes. "Commander, surely you're not proposing we leave the Normandy to ride in a Reaper. That's insane, ma'am, even from you."

"Thanks for the vote of confidence," Shepard sarcastically replied, "but we're not going to leave the Normandy. I've studied these things. It may be possible for the Normandy to be carried, just like a crayfish or lobster carries its eggs, under the belly of the beast. We will need to generate a mass effect 'bubble' around the hull of the Normandy so it can be safely gripped externally. We let it give us a ride, using its mass effect field to get us back to a system with a functioning mass relay. Liara, if you would continue."

Entering commands into her data pad, Liara pointed to the galaxy map. "Observe." As she entered commands, the map shifted, appearing to expand as the view zoomed into a closeup view of the wispy tendril of the galactic arm they were in – the view included the Reaper and the Apien Crest.

They were interrupted by an intercom hail from Joker. "Commander, I've reached your coordinates. There are several good sized planetoids in the vicinity. Be a good thing to discharge the drive core before we start cooking."

"Enter orbit around whichever has the largest gravity well, Joker, but don't discharge the core until we're done down here," Shepard ordered, as she watched for Kaidan's reaction to the exchange. He merely nodded, still concentrating on Liara's report.

Liara continued, "The turian home system is in the Apien Crest," nodding at Garrus, "as all of us are aware. I have intercepted enough chatter from turian and… Reaper forces… to believe that repairs to the Mass Relay in the Trebia system are almost complete." She generated graphical linkage lines between the visible systems as she went on, "The relay that served the Citadel in the Serpent Nebula is a prime relay, connecting to a number of different systems, including my own, and the Charon mass relay in the Sol System. I believe getting to the turian system as soon as we can will be in our best interest…it's the key to getting us all back to our home worlds. A Reaper should be able to cover the distance in as little as four, maybe five months."

Garrus asked, "What about Tali? How will we get her home to Rannoch?"

Shepard answered for Liara, "Won't Tali want to stay with her turian boyfriend?" Garrus had a knack for imitating human facial expressions. He grunted, flared his mandibles and put his face in his hands.

Liara said, "Tali's fleet will most likely still be in the Sol system. There are a lot of other species trapped there as well. Until Charon and its linked relays are back to full operation, few ships will be leaving for their homes. The chatter I can access from Alliance forces and the Reaper machines strongly suggests Charon will be back online almost as soon as the Citadel relay."

Traynor had remained silent during the meeting, as she often did. She was an analyst, not given to joining discussions unless she had some useful bit of information to share, or needed clarification of a relevant point. "Commander, just how do you intend to convince a Reaper to be a beast of burden?"

"I'll ask nicely and say 'please'," Shepard answered, her voice sounding happy again. "Adams, please start forming a plan to enclose this vessel in a mass effect bubble. Only needs to be deep enough to protect the pressure hull. Logging everyone out." Shepard's avatar winked out as everyone rose to leave.


A/N: A kiloparsec is a distance of approximately 3,262 light years. (1 parsec is approximately 3.26 light years, or 19,151,201,455,308 miles). I tried to keep the math for the distances accurate, using the most excellent map by otvert at DeviantArt. I am also beginning to explore what solitary confinement would mean to Shepard, along with the lack of trust displayed by Alenko. (Humans are social animals. Solitary confinement on this planet is designed to break the spirit of the person on which it is inflicted).

As always, reviews are welcome. Thanks to all for commenting and following.