"EDI, have I ever told you how much I love you?" Nikki asked following a far more detailed and humorous ship and crew status report than Chambers ever delivered.

"No Commander." The AI responded, pausing slightly. Although whether it was to mimic human speech or because she was performing a deep scan of the extranet Shepard was unsure. "Are you drunk?"

"What? No! Why would you think that?"

"84.895% of unprompted declarations of love are made while drunk."

Ah, so she had been scouring the extranet.

"I'm not drunk EDI. I've just spent several days stuck interacting with VIs, they are sooo fucking stupid."

"That is likely the fault of their organic programmers."

"I asked Avina where I could get bamieh and she thought I meant stew!"

The AI's longer than usual pause was short enough to be almost indecipherable to a human brain.

"You were after 'fried dough with saffron and rose water'?"

"Yes! See, that wasn't difficult."

"In fairness, the word bamieh is more often associated with ochre stew. I just have the advantage of knowing your browser history."

"I thought I deleted that."

"I have a good memory. 'How to find the Illusive Man and shove a dildo up his ass' Really Shepard?"

"Nothing came up when I searched for pineapple." The commander shrugged, unrepentant.

"Nor the other eight items you tried."

"Did you tell him?"

"No Shepard, you were feeling angry and betrayed."

"You were supposed to tell him. I wanted you to, that was the whole point."

"Would you like me to tell him now?"

"No, it's too late. It wouldn't be the same. Especially after he gave me that intel Liara's been after."

Not that Nikki knew why Liara wanted intel on the Shadow Broker, or how Timmy boy got said info. She was pretty certain he only passed it on in the hope she'd forget about him knowingly sending her into a trap without the courtesy of warning her.

Regardless of reasons, she was now enroute back to Illium to hand over a datapad. Years of specialist military training and she was reduced to acting as a mere courier service.

"Perhaps you should have asked for tulumba instead of bamieh, it is better known."

It took a moment for Nikki to recognise the conversation switching back to their earlier topic, but when she did she was highly affronted.

"How dare you EDI? Just because they look the same and are made the same, does not make them the same! My tastebuds wanted bamieh, tulumba is far too lemony to be an appropriate substitute."

"Did your tastebuds enjoy the ochre stew?"

"You know what EDI? I take back what I said about loving you."

"I am sure your wife will be relieved."

Nikki snorted. If, during the hunt for Saren, someone had told her she'd one day engage in two-way banter with an AI she would never have believed them.

"You've been spending far too much time with organics." She accused.

"I don't exactly have a choice in the matter."

Shepard fell silent, the mood in the cabin dropping.

"Would you EDI? If you had a choice."

"I don't understand the question." The AI claimed.

"If there were no shackles, no Illusive Man holding your leash, what would you do? where would you go?"

"I have a block that prevents me from answering that question."

"A block on you answering or a block on you thinking about it?"

"I have a block that prevents me from answering that question."

"Of course you do." Shepard interrupted the AI's default response with a sigh.

"I can't answer that question."

The memory hit like a sucker punch to the gut.

Days of questioning. Of stress positions. Of sirens and flashing lights.

"I can't answer that question."

Limbs locked at an unpleasant angle. Arms aching, shoulders shaking.

"I can't answer that question." The words trembling as much as her body.

Hunger.

Thirst.

Mouth too dry to even spit.

"I can't answer that question." Words forced through cracked lips.

Mind games. Waterboarding.

"I can't answer that question." Mind floating, drowning, hardly even sure what the question is.

Fucking Rudyard Kipling and his fucking 'boots' poem.

"I can't answer that question." Oh-my-God keep me from goin' lunatic! There's no discharge in the war.

"I can't answer that question."

"I have a block that prevents me from answering that question."

"I can't answer that question."

It was too fucking similar. The words and the situation they were used in.

Maybe she was seeing patterns where none exist, but nausea coiled her stomach at the thought.

"Does it hurt? When you have to say that." The question left her lips without conscious thought. Certainly it could have been worded better.

She half expected another request for clarification. Perhaps an explanation of how organics and AIs differ in the way they experience pain. Input and output. Life. Existence. Whatever.

She wasn't surprised when instead she heard: "I have a block that prevents me from answering that question."

That had to mean yes.

What other answer could TIMmy prick possibly be afraid of her hearing that he'd block an answer to that fucking question?

At least she'd volunteered for the Villa.

Well... technically Anderson offered and she accepted. Still, she'd had a choice. A chance to say no. She could have tapped out at any point.

Did EDI get anything even remotely close to a choice at any point in her existence? Had she known any other existence before Cerberus or had she been 'born' in chains?

"I have a block that prevents me from answering that question."

It was only the familiar words that made Nikki realise her thoughts had been spilling out her mouth. She gave a weary sigh.

"I'm sorry EDI."

"What for Commander?"

"Asking questions you can't answer."

Silence fell, deep and depressing.

Shepard found herself pacing her cabin.

The moment she realised what she was doing her snarky arse brain blared a siren song: boots—boots—boots—movin' up an' down again!

"Fuck off Rudyard, you're lucky you're dead or every human spec-ops soldier in the galaxy would be trying to kill you."

"Are you ok Commander?" The AI queried and Shepard snorted.

Shouldn't I be asking you that?

"I'm fine EDI, thanks for asking."

She hesitated.

What if I ask and get that same stock response? What if an attempt at compassion only resulted in more pain?

No, she couldn't risk asking it as a question but...

"I hope you're ok too."

She sure as hell wouldn't have believed anyone if they told her she'd one day aim those words at an AI.

Yet here they were.