The lounge was crowded, all eyes on the poker table. Ken was facing off against Garrus – Garrus ahead, but not by much. Tali was in the back by the bar, drink in hand. “I can’t say that I ‘get’ poker,” Tali whispered.
“It involves analyzing available information and identifying likely scenarios,” Liara whispered back. “I get a lot of practice at that from being the Shadow Broker.”
“Yeah, but that’s not all there is to it,” Steve offered. “Poker is about getting into your opponent’s head. That’s not at all the same thing.” Steve paused, and sipped his own drink. “Garrus is doing well for himself. I wonder how much of that is skill and how much is his opponents not reading turian facial expressions.”
“It’s all in the mandibles,” Tali explained quietly. “He’s making a show of being relaxed. See how the mandibles pull a little upward now and then? Normally that would indicate ‘alert but calm’. But the movement is a little stiff.”
Steve looked at her. “I’m impressed. When did you become such an expert on turian body language?”
Tali looked anywhere but at Steve. “Uh… well, you know… I looked it up on the extranet. Turns out there’s a series of instructional videos and an omnitool app for daily practice.”
“Sounds like quite a commitment. Any particular reason?”
“Uh… no. No reason. Just curious.”
Liara nudged her. She shot a look back at Liara.
“Oh, fine. Garrus and I are seeing each other.”
“Congratulations,” Steve said sincerely. “I’m happy for you both.”
“Thank you.” Tali sipped her drink through a straw. “I don’t mean to be secretive about it. But it started as one of those ‘to hell with it, the galaxy is ending’ flings. I’m not really sure if we’re long-term material. I don’t want to go around telling people only for us to break it off.”
“Even so. You should seize happiness wherever you can.”
They sat quietly for a bit, watching the poker game.
Kaidan strode into the comm room and tried the QEC, fully expecting to get nothing, as he had every day since the Crucible fired. To his surprise, it connected.
“Major Alenko,” Hackett said, “good to see you in one piece.”
“Admiral Hackett. I’ve been trying to reach you for days.”
“My ship’s QEC sustained damage in the Crucible push. We were afraid we’d lost entanglement, so we didn’t prioritize repairing it. But as it turned out, the liquid helium vessel was unscathed, so it just took us fixing the electronics to get back online.”
“What’s your status?”
“We lost a lot of Sword and Shield in the push, but what’s left made it to the rendezvous at Jupiter’s L4. The Citadel was heavily damaged. Zakera and Tayseri Wards are gone – the arms broke off and lost atmosphere, no survivors. We’re evacuating the rest of the population to Earth until we can repair it. The Reapers survived, but they’ve declared a truce and are helping to rebuild, if you can believe that. The Sovereign-class ones are working on fixing the Charon relay, and the Destroyers and ground forces are helping with construction in urban areas.”
“That’s gotta be freaky as hell.”
“Ain’t that the truth.”
“What about indoctrination?”
“The Reapers say they’ve turned it off. We’ve never fully understood the process, but we know the Reapers use infrasound to prime the victims, and we’ve verified that they’re no longer broadcasting it. That said, we’re not taking their word for it. We’re keeping people well away from the ships.” Hackett grimaced. “Apparently, indoctrination isn’t reversible. The poor saps who were already affected are that way for life.”
He paused, letting the news sink in.
“What about you, Normandy? We were wondering where you disappeared to when you didn’t show at the rendezvous.”
“Joker caught the relay to Arcturus. Normandy took some damage when we were knocked out of FTL by the pulse, then we crashed on an uncharted garden world in the Arcturus Stream. We’re in interstellar space on our way back to Sol. We’re limping, so ETA is 9 more days.”
“Sounds like you had one hell of an adventure.”
“Doesn’t feel like it, sir. There’s a whole lot of nothing out here.” Kaidan’s face got serious. “Any word on Shepard?”
“That, Major, is a complicated question.”
Kaidan’s heart skipped a beat. “How so?”
“I’ll explain when you reach Earth.”
“I thought I might find you here,” Garrus said. “You missed the poker finals.”
Kaidan sat in the observation lounge, on the floor, knees pulled up to his chest as he looked out at the stars. In a quiet voice, he said, “I got through to Hackett.”
“He wouldn’t say. He just said it was ‘complicated’, and he’d explain later.”
“Complicated? Either he’s dead or he’s not.”
“I dunno. Maybe they have him on life support and they’re not sure he’ll pull through. Fuck!”
Garrus sat down beside Kaidan.
“Shepard ever tell you about the Collector mission?”
“No. We… avoided the topic.”
“I can see why. For two weeks after Horizon, Shepard looked like someone had kicked his puppy. Now I’m not sure what a puppy is, but I infer it’s some sort of cute, defenseless Earth mammal?”
Kaidan sighed. “Makes me wonder how it took the two of us so long to find each other. Just before Ilos, I found him in the ship, sulking over the lockdown. We got to talking, I told him everything would be fine, and… then there was a moment where my heart was racing, but I didn’t know why. And looking back, I think it’s because he wanted to kiss me, and my body was reacting to that.”
“Hrmph. Body language is weird – as my C-Sec days can attest.” Garrus sighed. “Anyway, where was I? Do you know about the time he boarded a Collector ship?”
Kaidan looked skeptically at Garrus. “You’re kidding.”
“Not at all, I was part of the fire team myself. Collector ship, just sitting there, dead in the water. We needed intel on the Omega-4 relay, so we risked it. It was a trap, of course. But EDI pulled through, opened an escape route back to the shuttle. Had to fight through a mess of Collector drones and a Praetorian, but we got back to the Normandy just as their weapons came back online. Hightailed it out of there at the last second. And we got the intel.”
Kaidan shook his head and chuckled. “Fucking Shepard. We never had a mission half that crazy taking down Saren.”
“Not taking down Saren, no, but the words ‘Kalros, the Mother of all Thresher Maws’ will be forever remembered in the Annals of Crazy Shepard Shit. The Collector ship barely rates.”
“I read the mission reports on the Kalros one,” Kaidan said with a laugh in his eye. “I’m kinda sorry I missed it.”
“Talk to Vega if you want an eyewitness account. Or Javik. It involved a Reaper dying, so retelling the story might make his day.”
Kaidan’s smile faltered a bit at Javik’s name. “I’ll take that under advisement.”
“Speaking of Reapers, did you hear about the time Shepard boarded one?”
“He what?” Kaidan’s face was hovering somewhere between ‘disbelieving’ and ‘livid’.
“It was 37 million years dead, orbiting a brown dwarf, and we needed the IFF. But the Cerberus science team who was sent ahead of us got themselves indoctrinated anyway. By the end of that mission, I was done with Scions, let me tell you. Anyway, we needed to cut the kinetic barriers to escape, but the Reaper was deep enough in the brown dwarf’s atmosphere that the mass effect field was the only thing keeping it in a stable orbit.”
“So blow up the drive core, then get the hell out of there before the pressure crushes you.”
“Exactly. Oh, and along the way, we met Legion. He got beaten up by some husks, so we had to haul his metallic ass back to the Normandy.”
“So that’s how you knew each other.”
“Fucking Shepard,” Kaidan said, grinning. “Unbelievable.”
Garrus picked himself up off the floor. “Well, my job here is done. Operation Cheer Up Kaidan Alenko was a success.”
“Admiral Hackett, you need to see this.” Davis handed him a data pad.
Hackett pressed the ‘play’ button on the video. “What am I looking at?”
“We’re testing the protocol described on the Shepard OSD. One of the steps is to obtain dead biomass and apply a modulated ultrasonic signal. We tried it, and this happened.”
A dead varren sat on an operating table. Personnel wearing surgical masks were flitting about the lab. The activity stopped, and everyone turned to watch the varren. One of the personnel pressed an ultrasonic transducer wand to the varren corpse. Suddenly it melted into a varren-shaped sculpture of dirty water, which immediately sloshed over the sides of the operating table and onto the floor. It looked like a water balloon being popped.
Hackett paled. “Does this work on living beings?”
“No. We tested it on some nonsentient animals before trying it on living varren. It has no effect on living animals, it’s only primed after electrical activity has ceased.”
“Good. I was afraid this would be our first post-Crucible bioweapon.”
“Yeah, that was our fear down in the labs. Looks like we dodged a bullet.”
“What’s our next step on the OSD?”
“We do that to enough dead biomass to equal Shepard’s weight, and then we apply a different ultrasonic signal to program the cells and trigger reconstruction of his body. After that, we just replenish the growth medium twice a day until the body’s ready.”
“Based on the available energy in the growth medium, we estimate 6 days.”
“Good, keep on it.”
Hackett stared at the floor, lost in thought. The implications… no one was saying the “i” word, not yet, but this was clearly lighting the path to functional immortality. The ability to grow a new body from scratch… Hackett wondered, not for the first time, where the hell Shepard had gotten that damn OSD.
But the flip side of that coin scared the hell out of him. Just because the signal worked only on dead bodies, it didn’t mean there wasn’t a signal that would work on living ones. He knew the kids in the lab would be down there trying to crack the code, but he wasn’t sure if he wanted them to succeed. The idea that cells could be hacked… that was going to keep him up at night.