What ate up most of their dead flight time was not paperwork but reading. Aboard the Normandy, Shepard had been consumed with the dozens of operational tasks required of a ship's skipper, and that meant filing reports, reading reports, writing reports based on other reports, and filling out enough forms to level all but the hardiest executive officers. Even Garrus, who had first been a contractor for the Alliance, then a mercenary hired by Cerberus, and finally a Hierarchy specialist assigned to Shepard's command, had been forced to face off with the red tape he despised.
Now that they were a crew of two with the Council as their only official superiors, the paperwork had lessened but by no means disappeared. It was, however, for maybe the first time in Shepard's adult life, possible to stay ahead of it. She had leisure time now — not just time to exercise or tinker with her guns, but whole hours and sometimes whole days to pursue her own interests. Occasionally she filled that time with novels or vids, but mostly she, like Garrus, busied herself with reading more relevant to her position.
Shepard was going through the latest catalog from Rosenkov. One of the perks of working for ST&R was the access to top-of-the-line equipment, much of it early prototypes; her Rosenkov catalog in no way resembled the Rosenkov catalog available to less prestigious customers. Garrus was pouring over a ballistics article complex enough to make even Shepard's vision blur while one of his procedural telenovels played in the background. She'd had plenty of technical education, both in the course of her electronic warfare training and because nobody knew how to do what Shepard could do with a rifle without a decent understanding of mathematics, but Garrus had a knack for physics and programming that would've served him well in an academic career. He'd probably gotten that from his mother — she'd left the Department of Intelligence at age thirty with a doctorate in linguistics and a gift for software composition.
"You know what bothers me most?" Garrus said. He didn't really like police procedurals; he just liked to pick them apart. "Any officer who discharged his weapon three times in the span of a week would be assigned to deskwork, not to a date with his supervisor."
"Speaking from experience?"
"Shepard, please. I've never asked my supervisor out."
Over the lifetime of their partnership, there had been two separate occasions when Shepard had wondered if Garrus was hitting on her. The second had been on Menae, immediately after they had been reunited after a forcible six-month separation, when he had briefly taken her hand between both of his. The first had been during a conversation on the SR-2 prior to the assault on the Collectors' base. In retrospect, he'd clearly just had a gift for putting his foot in his mouth.
"Come on, Garrus," Shepard said. "You can't tell me you haven't thought about it. Settling down, having a couple of kids."
He cleared his throat. "Sure."
Shepard turned another page of her catalog. "You don't want any?"
"I've… definitely thought about it. Who hasn't? But if you're asking if I'm going to run off to start a family, then the answer is no."
Rosenkov had retooled their Volkov line to vent heat more efficiently. Interesting. "Haven't met the right woman?"
"Oh, I wouldn't say that," said Garrus.
"A war hero like you? Half of Palaven must be falling at your feet." Heat sinks were still more efficient in most ways, but there was a hell of a lot to be said for a rifle that didn't require reloading, and higher-caliber firearms rarely had a rapid rate of fire anyway. Shepard cared about accuracy, and she cared about precision; she didn't need to spray her targets when one well-placed shot would do the job more efficiently.
"Because I care so much about what Palaven thinks," Garrus drawled. "Anyway, what about you?"
"Palaven won't be falling at my feet any time soon," Shepard said.
"Very funny. No, I mean, uh… kids." Garrus had a way of accelerating his sentences, dragging out each word at the beginning until he tripped over some critical peak and tumbled down the other side. Shepard's discomfort with their line of conversation was so well-buried that she was free to sit back and let him talk himself into a noose. "If that isn't too personal," he added. "Although I've seen parts of your body that should definitely stay on the inside, so we... might be past that point."
She swiped to another page. "Parts of my body?"
Garrus, who had somehow fooled most of the galaxy into thinking he was smooth, squirmed. "This is another thing fiction always gets wrong," he said. "Suspects don't just spontaneously confess to a crime. But here… here it happens every other episode."
"Does it," Shepard said.
"I meant in surgery. Your, uh, body. They let me observe a couple of times when they were attaching the socket and ports for your leg. Remember how they had to replace the original? It took you a while to adapt."
"The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak," Shepard quoted. At his curious expression, she added, "Something my dad used to say. From a human religious text. He was brought up Catholic — Christian."
"What was he like?"
"Big. Red-headed. Warm. Had both his legs, though."
"So not a krogan, then. Guess that means I lost the pool."
"Ha. No, not a krogan," Shepard said. "He said he never understood what my mom saw in him. She was career — staff lieutenant and climbing — but then she met him and decided to resign her commission."
"Was she special forces?"
"Naval command," Shepard said. "Went to the Academy. Not like me." Not like me was currently the highest praise Shepard could fathom. She had thought about having children before, but not in any serious sense; always from that red nebula of genesis in her past until she had woken up in a London hospital minus one limb there had been room only for her career. On human ships, there were strict laws against fraternization, and whatever leeway she might have taken, whatever disregard might have been permitted by her status as a Spectre and her unique circumstances, Shepard had chosen not to take that opportunity.
It was her newfound instinct for masochism that led her to ask, "Turians not to your taste?"
"If Palaven doesn't do anything for you, there's women of all shapes and colors out there. Men, too. War hero will get you through the door, and that voice of yours will do the rest."
"My… voice?" Garrus said, sounding as stunned as she'd ever heard him.
Shepard, artificially unconcerned, flipped to another page. "Come on, someone must have told you."
"Told… me," Garrus said. "Told me… what?"
She may have talked herself into a corner of her own. "Forget it."
"What about my voice?"
On the other hand, it was criminal that nobody had bothered to tell him. Even Traynor had brought it up once, although that had been in the context of a lengthy and inebriated dissertation on EDI. The problem was one of transparency. Shepard strove for transparency in her professional life, could even respect it on a personal level in the context of equivalence, but some hidden part of her shied away from it when it demanded real vulnerability. 'Transparency' may have been the wrong word; what Shepard feared was illumination.
And Garrus's voice...
She didn't like expressing that revealing a preference even to him. Who knew how the hell he would take it? It wasn't Shepard's place to tell him that people quivered when he spoke, that his rich timbre and easy drawl were more erotic than than the most explicit pornography; it wasn't her place to tell him that his voice fell not only on her ears but caught in her throat and dragged up her thighs; it wasn't her place to tell him that the casual, careful tone he used only with her made for the most inadvertently intimate encounters of her life.
Someday he'd figure it out, and he look up his recon scout, and he'd leave behind the hunter's life he shared with Shepard in favor of a couple of kids, a less grueling job, and someone who was not partner but wife. He wouldn't abandon Shepard; he was too faithful for that, and whatever else she thought of him, Shepard knew that his gratitude to her was genuine.
But hell, the things she could tell him… She could tell him his voice was a fixture in the late-night stories she told herself, that she listened for him when she was in the shower and her hand was between her legs. She could tell him that it wasn't only the deep harmonic sound of him that lit her up; she could tell him that his faithfulness, his trust, and his adoration were as much a staple of her fantasies as the filth she imagined in his mouth.
She could tell him, but she didn't. Shepard prided herself on her competence and control, and this line of attack was threatening both.
"Nothing," Shepard said. "You'll figure it out someday. Here, take a look at this hyper rail. Adapts to any mid-size assault rifle."
Garrus hooked an arm over the back of the couch and leaned sideways to look at Shepard's tablet. "I didn't realize they were trying that again. Mhmm… you know, every couple of years they try to push the idea of 'overclocking' the mass accelerator, like muzzle velocity is the only important factor. And increasing the length of the barrel will only get you so far."
"Cavitation is the goal."
"That's less effective than using specialized ammo," Garrus argued. "Say... frangible rounds."
"You know that doesn't work," Shepard countered. "For one thing, a standard ammunition block won't function with the shearing mechanism required to manufacture that kind of large, specialized projectile. And it wouldn't penetrate anything other than an unarmed, unarmored target."
"There's the VI problem, too." He sat back and scratched his cheek. "Same as the hyper rail. Most smallarm software suites don't hold up to extensive modifications."
"Glad you're seein' it my way, Garrus," Shepard said, although she had no real idea of what either of them were arguing about. Garrus was sufficiently distracted, and that was what mattered. Let him ponder external ballistics while Shepard used the feint to cover her retreat.
"Although," he was saying, "that does remind me..." He stood and made his way to the upper deck access.
"Going to tinker?"
"Later," he said. "I just remembered something in the local files we were sent about the Quisling. From what's-her-name. That asari detective."
"Let me know what you find," said Shepard. When he was gone, she let her head fall back onto the cushion and shut her eyes. This, all of it, was laughably, even impressively pathetic. What she was going to do she didn't know, and as foreign as indecisiveness was to her, right now the simple act of existing had stolen all of her effort. Fortunately, there were enough rifle modifications to sufficiently distract Garrus until Shepard either figured out how to light a candle or perished from self-immolation.
On the screen, the last credits of Garrus's crime show ended and the next vid in his library started automatically. Shepard jerked upright when she heard the deep starscream of a Reaper and then relaxed, at least superficially, when she realized the vid was a war documentary.
"But perhaps most insidious among the Reaper's weapons was the threat of indoctrination." The voiceover played over time-lapse footage of a rotting tree. "While most survivors of indoctrination were left with severe neurological damage, experts say that those who were exposed to subtle, prolonged brainwashing but escaped mentally intact when the Reapers were destroyed may number in the hundreds of thousands… or even in the millions."
The camera cut to a salarian. "It's unusual, yes. Still, there are more than you think. Many indoctrinates occupied key positions — military, civil sector. Corporate, occasionally. Targets that were useful. We speculate that the Reapers utilized 'slow indoctrination' when they didn't want to jeopardize brain function."
Shepard disliked war documentaries. They were either aggrandizing or scolding; even the few that approached even-handedness had an agenda. What did fascinate her was footage of the Crucible firing. She had a private collection of clips, culled not only from top-secret sources but also from wide-release recordings, and had watched the Crucible's energy beam shoot towards the Charon relay from every existing angle. It was one of the definitive images of the war and showed up even in vids like this one that were only peripherally related to the Second Battle of Earth.
And there it was. The camera was positioned between the Citadel and the planet, and the long nose of a turian dreadnought was visible in the foreground; this was a ship shot, more stable than the footage taken by drones but also a lower resolution.
"Little is known of the after-effects of slow indoctrination," the voiceover continued. "Victims rarely come forward. Is this because they don't recognize the symptoms, or because they're ashamed to admit them?"
Shepard's reaction to the Crucible was both personal and visceral, but she could put aside her experiences long enough to admit that the idea of it was beautiful. The destructive beam of light that carved its way through the relay lanes wasn't only a human triumph, a turian triumph, a krogan and salarian and quarian triumph; it was a triumph of the protheans, too, and of all the trillions of spirits who had fought and died and added to the design that had ultimately brought about the Reapers' end. It was a triumph of collaboration and legacy.
Their victory should have brought pride with it. Or relief, at least. They may have held the line, but evidently Shepard could no longer be satisfied with winning.
"...Which is the most important information to spread. The effects may manifest as headaches, insomnia, dramatic changes in drive or personality…"
When she'd been a kid, her bedtime stories had been make-believe heroics. Hannah Shepard had taken the roles of both villain and victim, and if their play did more to wind her daughter up than calm her down for sleep, she had never minded. And then that daughter had grown up to discover that real life was messier; sometimes it didn't matter if you won in the right way when winning was merely an act of survival.
Shepard had been sixteen when she had learned that it wasn't always possible to save the day, but she'd never correctly internalized the lesson — or maybe it was only that she'd grown more determined to struggle against the harsh impartiality of the universe in the aftermath of that education. It hit her harder every time she rediscovered that she couldn't control everything or save everyone. She wasn't always the hero. In fact, the quality that others saw in her and named heroism Shepard had only ever viewed as a commitment to doing what was necessary.
"We've barely begun to understand how the aftermath of indoctrination interacts with comorbid conditions like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or Legionnaire's Syndrome. This is a silent epidemic that, when unnoticed and untreated, can lead to disastrous ends."
Somewhere in the dark, a spark flared to life.
And that was the fifth day.