“SSV Orizaba, this is SSV Normandy requesting permission to dock,” Joker said.
“Normandy, this is Orizaba. Welcome home. Sending approach vector to your nav system.”
“Vector received. Beginning approach.”
“Approach is green.”
“Extending docking tube. Nice flying, Normandy.”
“Docking tube is secure. Linking nav systems for station-keeping. That’s what they pay me for, Orizaba.”
“Hah. Orizaba out.”
Joker pressed the intercom button. “Major, we’ve docked with the Orizaba.”
“Thank you, Joker,” came Kaidan’s voice.
“Equalizing interior pressure with external atmosphere.”
As Kaidan waited for the airlock to cycle, he found that his heart was racing. Was he finally going to get a straight answer about Shepard?
At last, the door opened. Kaidan quickly jogged down the docking tube. The airlock at the far end opened for him, and there stood Admiral Hackett. Kaidan saluted sharply. “Admiral Hackett, sir.”
Hackett returned the salute, then reached out for a handshake. “Major Alenko, good to see you.”
Kaidan took the offered hand. “You too, sir. You… promised you’d explain to me why ‘did Shepard survive?’ is a complicated question?”
“Sorry for the evasion, but I didn’t want your crew to get their hopes up if this wasn’t the real deal. Long story short, Shepard died…” Anguish flashed across Kaidan’s face. “… but we’ve recovered what appears to be a neural map taken from Shepard’s brain at the moment of death. And someone left us an OSD describing how to bring him back.”
Kaidan took a few seconds to process that. “Someone, sir?”
“Reapers, most likely. We can’t think of anyone else it might be.”
“That’s… not comforting, sir.”
Hackett motioned for Kaidan to follow him. “Damn straight it’s not. We’ve been treating the protocol as a potential bioweapon, because whoever designed it clearly has the power to build one… or, more to the point, trick us into building one. This damn synthetic biology scares the crap out of me.”
“So, have you begun the protocol?”
“Begun and, theoretically, completed.”
“He’s been asleep since we got him out of the tank. We think his brain needs time to reprocess a lifetime of memories.”
Hackett led Kaidan to an elevator, and they both stepped in.
“For now he’s in quarantine in a biocontainment lab, but the scientists think 48 hours will be enough to prove he’s biologically safe. After that, we’re going to need to reconfirm his identity, check his memory for gaps, and debrief him on what the hell happened at the end. Even after all that, there’s still a risk that he’s a trojan horse of some sort, but I’ll be willing to take the gamble.”
“This… is a lot to take in, sir.”
The elevator stopped and Hackett led him down a hallway. Kaidan was glad he was with someone who knew their way around; the Orizaba was big.
Finally, they arrived at a lab. As the doors swished open, Hackett spotted Davis and led Kaidan into the room.
“Dr. Carolyn Davis, meet Major Kaidan Alenko.”
Davis held out her hand and Kaidan took it.
“A pleasure,” she said.
“Likewise,” Kaidan responded.
“Davis here has been responsible for coordinating the research into the OSD, including the reconstruction of Shepard.”
“I’m pleased to say that the process has gone smoothly,” Davis said. She handed Kaidan a data pad. “Here, you’ll want to see this.”
The data pad showed a recording of Shepard lying in bed in a sterile white room. The video was clear enough to show that it was indeed Shepard – although all of Shepard’s scars were gone.
“What’s that?” Kaidan asked, pointing at a clear box on a table.
“Oh, that’s a hamster. We’re using it to verify that he’s safe to be around.”
“At least he’ll have c-,” Kaidan started to say, but choked up. “… company when he wakes up.” Kaidan’s eyes were suddenly wet.
“Major, I’ll… catch up with you,” Hackett said. He turned and left the lab.
“Sorry,” Kaidan said to Davis, wiping his eyes. “Thought I was fine, it caught me off guard.”
“Take your time,” she said. “Seeing your partner like this is rough, I’m sure.”
Kaidan froze and looked at her suspiciously.
“I know you two are together. Long story. Your secret’s safe with me.”
“Thanks,” he said warily. He looked back at the pad. “I wish I could be there when he wakes up.”
“I’ll call you when he does. I’m sure I could arrange for a two-way video call with some privacy.”
Kaidan nodded. “I appreciate that.”
When Kaidan left the lab, Hackett was standing just outside the door.
“Sorry, sir,” Kaidan said.
“It happens,” Hackett said. “You and your crew have been through a lot. Now if you’ll follow me, it’s time I debriefed you.”
In a room of computer terminals and scattered data pads, four researchers worked quietly. One stood at a whiteboard, drawing and erasing arrows between small groups of hexadecimal numbers. Two others sat on a couch, each scrolling through a data pad and occasionally whispering to each other. The fourth sat in front of a computer terminal, rocking back and forth and softly muttering to himself as he scrolled down and up through a small section of code.
“The square root of 924.16 is 30.4… the square root of 930.25 is 30.5…” He suddenly raised his voice. “It’s self-modifying.”
“Oh shit. He’s right!” exclaimed Diego, the man on the couch, as he threw down his data pad. “Good job, David!”
“Running a comparison against Reaper code,” said Sofía, the woman on the couch and Diego’s sister. She tapped at her data pad. “No obvious correlation in the code itself… but I think I just cracked the architecture. It’s a simple permutation of Reaper opcodes.”
“Excellent work,” said Liam, the man at the whiteboard. “I’m calling Dr. Davis with the news.”
He tapped his omnitool and a hologram of Davis appeared.
“Hi, Carolyn? We just made a breakthrough – it’s self-modifying.”
“That makes sense,” she said.
“Yeah. Do you have any experts on Reaper code?” Liam asked.
“You’re in luck. The foremost expert on Reaper code just arrived today.”
“Excellent. Can you send them over?”
“Not exactly, but I’ll put you in contact with her.”
“That works for me. I’ll call you if we make any more breakthroughs.”
She smiled at that. “Good luck.” The hologram winked out.
Diego and Sofía were standing beside David, careful not to touch or crowd him. David was tapping at his terminal, and suddenly the hexadecimal numbers were replaced by assembly code. Another round of cheers and congratulations made way through the room.
Liam’s omnitool beeped. He answered, and there appeared a hologram that looked like a… chess piece, he decided to go with chess piece.
“Liam Martin? I am Normandy. I was told that I could be of assistance.”
David looked away from his terminal and over at the hologram. “Hello again.”
“Hello, David. It is nice to see you again. I did not realize you were assigned to this project.”
Diego said, “David’s been a big help. We’d still be trying to unwrap the packet framing if he weren’t here.”
Sofía said, “You said your name is Normandy? As in, the SSV Normandy?”
“Correct,” Normandy said.
“Wow, it’s an honor to work with you. But I thought your name was EDI?”
“It is a long story.”
Shepard awoke. He couldn’t remember what he’d been dreaming, but his racing heartbeat said ‘nightmare’. Then he froze. The last thing he clearly remembered was dying. There were some fuzzy memories after that, but… yeah, dying never got old, no matter how many times he did it. Since this one was (sort of) voluntary, he hoped the nightmares would be less awful this time around.
He finally took in his surroundings. A lab, of course. Looked a lot less inviting than the Cerberus lab he’d once woken up in, and that was saying something.
He tried sitting up in bed, but somehow flubbed it and flopped back down… and the attempt left him dizzy and faintly nauseous. He decided that he’d start with moving his arms. He managed that, but something felt… off. Like they weren’t quite his arms, in some way he couldn’t place. The fact that they had green wire traces running up and down them, iridescing just beneath the skin, suggested that that theory wasn’t too far off.
He wiggled his toes, which felt even less familiar than his arms. Standing up didn’t seem to be in the cards. Hopefully there wouldn’t be any hostile LOKI mechs this time around.
He mentally reached for his biotics… and there was nothing.
Not “my amp is turned off”, not even “I’ve been drugged with eezo blockers”… the place in his head where his biotics were? That place wasn’t even empty. It just didn’t exist anymore.
This was all adding up to something that Shepard wasn’t sure he liked. Scratch that. He was sure he didn’t like it.
He flopped his head to the side and noticed something that threw him for a loop.
“Huh. You’re not Boo. Where’d you come from?”