THROUGH AN AI, DARKLY.
My first attempt at a chaptered fic, I own nothing but do admit to borrowing on occasion. Rated M for adult themes and content in later chapters, warnings will be placed as necessary. Takes place after the suicide mission, story plotted just need to set aside time to write.
Thanks to my beta, Ryftling.
Chapter One – No Rest For The Wicked
Shepard woke suddenly to the unwelcome sound of both static bursts and Joker's voice over the intercom.
"What is it, Joker?"
"We have a situation, Commander. You need to get down here right away."
Shepard sighed impatiently. There's always a damn situation. "What's going on?"
"Uhh, easier to show and tell."
Oh, for – "On my way."
Pulling her clothes on she glanced at the clock and saw it was 3am. A whole 4 hours sleep. Great. Not that she'd been sleeping particularly well after the mission through the Omega 4 Relay but she might have been able to wring another hour or so out of the night before getting up to pace the corridors of the ship, mind circling furiously. As she stepped out onto the bridge her brain caught up with the rest of her and she suddenly noticed a difference in the ship's usual background hum. There was none. Most of the crew was in bed, Joker pulling an overnighter as he was wont to do recently to 'make sure EDI didn't suddenly go bananas and deliver their asses to the nearest Reaper' as he not so succinctly put it. Nearly all of the unmanned terminals were dark and the stars were static.
"What the hell, Joker? Why aren't we moving? EDI, status report. "
Joker shot out of his seat, twisting his cap nervously in his hands. "Commander, if you'll sit down I'll explain what's –"
"The hell I will! What's happened? What did you do?"
"It wasn't me, Commander! Well, not all of it. Listen, EDI picked up a small probe on a scan earlier, origin unknown. She advised we bring it aboard for study and I said okay..."
"And I know I should have checked with you first but you were sleeping and, "Joker paused, eyes moving over his consoles uncomfortably, "you haven't been sleeping well recently, so I didn't see any harm in leaving it for a while. Shit, this is typical. As soon as it hit the deck a metal...thingy appeared out of nowhere and EDI suddenly went nuts!"
Shepard held up a hand. "A metal thingy? From the probe?"
"Yeah, look." Joker gestured towards the airlock. "I haven't touched it. "
Sitting in the airlock was a cylindrical unmarked object about 3 metres long. It seemed metallic on first glance but had an odd sheen that made Shepard vaguely uncomfortable to look at. If I didn't know any better I'd say it was lurking with intent. A cable extended from one blunt end, disappearing down into the grated floor underneath.
"That doesn't look good. What happened to EDI?"
"She said she was being infected. That she had to quarantine the infection in the core and lock out the main systems to protect the ship. After that there was garbled noise and everything went dark. "
"Definitely not good. Can't you get into the systems manually like you did before? During the Collector attack?"
"No, Ma'am. EDI was helping me then anyway. Nothing's responding, believe me I've tried, Commander. Luckily environmental systems are on auto."
So...drifting, blind and unprotected. Huh. Been there before. Least I'm inside a ship this time round.
"Get the others into the briefing room."
"Yes, Ma'am," he hesitated, twisting his hat uncomfortably. "Commander, I –"
"Stow it, Joker."
Shepard eyed the faces around the briefing room console. Varying expressions ranged from Mordin's thoughtful pursed lips to Miranda's tight faced rage. She watched her shoot death glares at a cringing Joker with vague amusement and made brief eye contact with Garrus who quickly looked away. Awkward. Thane gazed at her steadily and she shifted uncomfortably. Even more awkward. Focus.
"Thoughts? Suggestions? Helpful ones please, people."
There was a soft buzz and Legion raised a tentative appendage. Shepard suppressed a smile. "Go ahead."
"We surmise the infection to be of synthetic origin although we are unfamiliar with the source, Shepard-Commander. Perhaps an advanced AI. We suggest ourselves appropriate to the task of studying the anomaly. We have redundant storage to act as quarantine if required.
Tali shifted slightly to look at Legion. "And how do you know you won't end up like EDI? The virus must've spread through her systems pretty quickly. Maybe you'll reboot to default and try and kill us all again. " She fingered her pistol hopefully.
"We suggest that the EDI-Program was caught unawares and was forced to shut down to protect the ship. We will take adequate precautions before attempting connection. "
"No other options, Legion?"
Mordin sniffed and nodded several times in succession. "The construct's reasoning is sound. Use a AI to study a AI. I concur."
"Can't we just rip the damn cord out?" rumbled Grunt.
"No no no no no!" tutted Mordin impatiently. "No telling what might happen if VI threatened by actions. Energy burst, explosion. Or worse..." he sniffed. "Not advised. Careful study best option. Would prefer to do it myself but lack relevant attachments." He sniffed again, sounding disappointed.
"Noted, Professor. Ok Legion, "Shepard sighed. "Just don't make me shoot you." She shot a glance at Tali. "Or give anyone else an excuse to."
The crew gathered around the galaxy map, watching as Legion made preparations. Mordin flitted around nervously, data pad in hand, checking leads and tripping over wires. Shepard strode in last and noticed to her dismay that the only relatively free spot was next to Thane. Hell. Well I couldn't avoid him forever. Negotiating various cables she nodded at him, leaning against a nearby console. He moved closer to her almost imperceptibly and pitched his voice so the rest of the crew could not overhear. She fought down the deep stab of attraction his proximity caused, adjusting her tunic to cover her discomfort.
"I trust you are well, Siha?"
"I'm good, Thane. Little less excitement and a little more rest would've been nice though." Her dismay increased as he drew closer, turning her away from the crew.
"I have been meditating on our last conversation." Here we go. Shepard glared at him out of the corner of her eye.
"Not here, Thane."
He looked amused. "There is no more appropriate place, Siha. Here, you can neither avoid me, leave suddenly nor threaten me with violence." Shepard relaxed minutely at his teasing tone, lips quirking involuntarily.
"It's true. You have me pinned. Go on then." She raised one eyebrow slightly, turning to face him.
"I...understand your reasons for not wishing to continue our relationship. I have tried to respect your decision but I have found myself missing our conversations. I am finding the situation difficult to resolve. You brought me back to myself and I do not wish to leave again so soon. My time is shorter than most but we are all dying, Shepard. In one way or another. For now I simply wish to remind you that I am still waiting." He touched her hand gently. "I miss you..."
Not fair. "Thane, I understand what you're saying. I...miss your company. But this really isn't the right place to discuss this. It's not fair to either of us and I have work to do. I'll come see you after we've resolved this...whatever it is and we'll talk properly."
Thane nodded, touching her hand once again before turning to face the crew. "That is all I ask, Siha." He said softly.
Shepard turned to face the cockpit, folding her arms. She stole a glance at Garrus standing opposite and started guiltily when she saw him glaring at her sidelong. His eyes moved to Thane and back to her again. It isn't what you think, Garrus. Flushing, she drew her attention back to Legion who was clicking in satisfaction.
"Good to go, Legion?"
"We are, Shepard-Commander. We believe we can interface our protected module with the VI as a maintenance program to avoid detection."
"Alright, let's do it."
She fidgeted with her pistol as Legion made its way over to the object and bent to insert a cable. For a few moments there was silence.
"We believe we have connected safely, Shepard-Commander."
No explosions yet. She blew out a relieved breath, heard Garrus doing similar and smiled wryly at him. For a moment he simply stared at her then raised a talon, mandibles flaring slightly. Scratch one.
"We were correct in our calculations, Shepard-Commander. The object appears to be an AI, origin remains unknown. Very advanced. Complicated systems. May take a while to analyse."
"Take all the time you need, Legion. Can you see any way of freeing up EDI?"
"One moment. Interesting. The AI does not appear to have infiltrated the EDI-program's systems. It is merely drawing power. There are, however, various unusual sub-routines. Analysing. Correction. These routines are scanning programs. Caution."
Legion suddenly straightened, trying to remove the cable from the probe. Shepard darted forward, gun in hand. "What's wrong?"
Legion glanced at her. "Probe is scanning us, trying to upload data. Disguised analysis as background chatter. Must disconnect before - "
She watched as Legion spasmed suddenly and clattered to the floor, heard Miranda's shout of alarm behind her and was on the point of turning when something hit her hard in the back of the head and everything went black.
What was I saying?
She felt momentarily dizzy and shook her head to clear it before continuing down the slope towards the crew who were relaxed in various attitudes around the small grassy area. She stretched luxuriously. The sun was warm on her back and the breeze light. Did I zone out for a minute there? I'm sure I was talking to Legion...
Just for a second she caught an underlying smell of ozone and smoke and a cloud passed over the sun, darkening the sky briefly. Just as quickly it was gone and, frowning slightly, she slapped at an insect crawling on her neck.
"C'mon Shepard, Miranda's about to start." Garrus beckoned her over and wound a warm arm around her as she plopped herself down next to him. It felt nice so she left it where it was, deliberately avoiding Thane's gaze. Miranda turned to her flip chart and began outlining their next mission, gesturing with a pointer, Joker heckling intermittently in the background. Garrus nudged Shepard slightly and pointed with his chin towards where Tali and Samara giggled together like schoolgirls. Jack was carving her name into a nearby tree.
She sighed with satisfaction and leaned into Garrus. Another beautiful day on Virmire.