Instead of whisking me off to my quarters, the traitorous elevator stopped at the CIC. How Kelly had known I was in there remained a mystery but her motivation did not. “Commander Shepard, you have another important message at your private terminal!”
I screamed internally at the interruption and reached for the button that would allow me to resume my short journey. “I’ll check it upstairs,” I responded and waited for the doors to slide shut. Nothing happened. I jabbed it two or three more times before I thought to look at its counterpart.
Kelly’s finger was still on the button outside the elevator. “How are you?” she asked, her voice dripping sympathy. I hadn’t spoken to her much since we’d returned from Alchera, being busy with Krogan puberty and pissy research assistants and all. She was taking this opportunity to remind me of her position as putative counselor about the SR-2.
With a suppressed snarl twisting my mouth I answered, “I’m fine, Yeoman. I would just like some privacy,” and glanced pointedly at her still-insistent finger.
“Oh, Commander, are you sure you should be alone right now?” she gushed at me, wide-eyed. I may have sprained something in my leg restraining it from kicking her squarely in the chest. To forestall any upcoming offer of company I reached out of the elevator and briskly slapped her hand away from the controls. “Yes.”
I hurriedly mashed the button on my side of the wall again and the doors closed on her astonished face, much to my satisfaction. They next opened on the short and blessedly empty hallway outside my quarters. I entered and set the box on my desk. After the events of the previous weeks I thought I’d better check my bathroom before assuming I was finally alone. Thankfully none of my cohorts had decided an urgent meeting by my toilet was in order just then.
I turned to the box, an anticipatory step or two escaping me. I’d never seen Kaidan’s handwriting before so I studied my name for a moment, imagining him laboriously forming the letters with a pen of his own. How I missed the face he made when he concentrated deeply on something, the tweaking eyebrow that signaled amusement, his habit of running his right hand over the lump of wavy hair that rose away from his forehead when he was flustered.
Suddenly, my mental picture changed to Admiral Hackett wielding the pen. The box could have been from anyone! It was only Garrus’s use of the word package that had led me to assume it had come from Kaidan. Staring at the wrappings would get me no closer to knowing so I approached it cautiously. Who knew how deeply Cerberus had infiltrated the Alliance? With my luck I’d find a Miranda bobble-head and a note from TIM that read, “Ha ha.”
Unable to take the suspense I snatched up the box, stepped into the bathroom, and shut off the broadcast and recording “features”. I tore off the outer layer and lifted off the lid revealing, much to my surprise, some black leather. I fervently hoped it was from Kaidan. The package wasn’t large enough to contain much. A firm tug unfolded a short, snug-looking dress and something feathery that fell to the floor.
What the bleeding hell? I thought as I stooped to pick up what turned out to be a mask. A piece of paper lay on the bottom of the box. It contained a date, time, and location in one of the ritzier wards on the Citadel and was signed with the letter K. I hadn’t the faintest idea what Admiral Hackett’s first name could possibly be, in my moment of shock, but I was pretty sure this wasn’t from him.
Somehow I felt I should be more relieved or excited but mostly I found myself wondering what the hell Kaidan could possibly have planned that required a somewhat slutty dress and a rather extravagant mask. The idea of wearing them in public made me queasy enough that I was glad to be near the head. I’d have to sneak them off of the ship and change in a public restroom somewhere. My stomach gave another lurch at that the thought of changing where anyone might walk in and see me before I got the mask in place.
When I was reasonably sure I wouldn’t vomit I tucked the mask, dress, and note back into the box and stashed it in my closet for the time being. Clearly Kaidan had known our schedule as the date was tomorrow and we’d make it to the Citadel with about twelve hours to spare. With no way to contact him I could see no option but to don the ridiculous outfit and kill him when he showed himself. Urk.
I decided not to think about it until I had to and, hoping for some distraction, turned to my terminal. TIM had sent another dossier to me, this one for a professional thief. Apparently my ship was to be the repository for the most clever and useful criminals in the galaxy and I was beginning to get delusions of arch-villainy. That dovetailed nicely with my galaxy map looming but otherwise made me even less comfortable with the turns my life had taken.
I just hoped this woman would have more to recommend her than the ability to liberate valuables from their owners. The message specified that I would find her on the Citadel, a subtle reminder that TIM, too, knew where I was going and when. What I wouldn’t give, some days, for at least the freaking illusion of privacy.
Joker’s voice came over the intercom. “We’re about to hit the relay for the jump to the Citadel, Commander.” I’d have enough time for a quick nap before we docked so I let him know that was what I’d be doing. EDI volunteered to wake me once we were cleared to leave the ship. Since the Collector ship incident she’d been awfully helpful. I accepted her offer and asked Joker to join me when I went ashore. “It’s been quite some time since we had a drink together,” I reminded him.
It seemed like I’d no sooner closed my eyes than EDI’s voice was notifying me that it was time to open them again. I shook off the last of the horrible dream in which I clomped about a dance floor like an over-muscled sport star wearing a tiny dress and a bowl of fruit on my head. Faceless people stared and pointed and I could hear my name whispered again and again as laughter started to fill the room. Gee, could it be that I was concerned about my upcoming rendezvous with Kaidan?
I threw on the first thing to hand and met Joker at the airlock. He suggested breakfast at a busy pub he knew in an hour and disappeared off to whatever errands he had, probably navigating a secret passage that would let him pop up unobserved wherever he was going. I wandered into the docking area and an advertisement began speaking to me.
Normally I tune them out completely, having spent enough time there to learn that being addressed by name usually means someone wanted to sell me life insurance, as though I had any heirs to benefit from such a purchase. I don’t know how long this one had been attempting to get my attention before I realized it wasn’t your normal ad pillar.
A bemused voice congratulated me on my ability to ignore the increasingly-intrusive direct marketing on the Citadel and revealed that she was, in fact, the thief who was supposed to join my crew. Naturally, she had a price that apparently involved a nearby stop. I promised we’d fit that into our schedule and invited her to move into the Normandy. As her face faded from the screen, thought that Joker would be sorry to have missed his chance to welcome such an attractive woman to the ship personally.
I consulted a map and grabbed a taxi. It took me half an hour to get to The Elephant’s Ear and, for once, I beat Joker to a meeting. The decorator for the place had to be serving time somewhere for committing the sorts of excesses that filled the walls with lurid drawings of Earth’s mammals, prominently featuring pachyderms, naturally, and the floor with pots of enormous fronds. The place was packed and I searched in vain for a table.
The turian bartender waved me over and gestured over his shoulder at a door. Sure enough, I opened it and there Joker sat in the kitchen. Shaking my head, I joined him at the counter on which a plate sat, piled with some baked things covered with soft cheese. A steaming machine to our right exuded the blissful, promising smell of fresh coffee. I tossed our comm units onto a shelf near the grill where meat sizzled and snapped and snagged a mug before settling in to eat and talk.
Between bites and compliments to the chef, I asked Joker whether he’d been able to establish a rapport with EDI. He began to explain how he’d been going about it but I had to cut him off when I saw the Asari working a few feet away was blushing so hard I thought she might pass out onto the grill. Apparently it wasn’t only people on whom he foisted his inter-species porn fetish. “I don’t care how you do it, I just want to know where its sympathies lie.”
“She’s been doing some investigating of her own,” he said, “and I think she’s come to the same conclusion we have: TIM and Cerberus use people—and things—for their own aims without regard to their safety.” She? “She won’t come right out and say it but I don’t think she’s passed along any information about the times when we go to radio silence or shut off recording on board.” If true, that would definitely be a relief. Even the most trusting of self-styled puppet masters, which TIM was not, would find it suspicious that the same four crew members repeatedly disappeared into closets and bathrooms together.
“She’s also been letting Jack access some pretty…wide-ranging files,” he continued. “I’m taking that as a sign of good faith. Most of them have nothing to do with Pragia or biotics. Jack’s been filling me in on some of the dirty details in our meetings.” The smile that accompanied that sentence made me change the subject in a hurry lest he share the dirtiest of them. I wanted to know how likely it was that TIM knew about our little set of double agents, not to get the scoop on just how cozy he and our resident anger management problem found those maintenance spaces.
“That’s reassuring,” I said. “Now, what do you know about this evening’s festivities? Are you in on this?”
“Of course, Commander.” If anything, his leer grew leer-ier. “How do you think he knew what size to buy?” I slapped my forehead. That was just what I needed, my pilot snooping through my unmentionables.
Joker laughed rather harder than I thought strictly necessary. “He asked me to pass on a message, too.” He cleared his throat. “Trust me.” Apparently Joker was capable of a passable Kaidan imitation: those last two words could have come straight from my former lieutenant’s mouth. The spot about five inches below where my delicious breakfast was now threatening to come back up melted a little despite my frustration.
“Damn it, he knew I couldn’t say no.” Joker’s grinned even wider. If it grew any more he’d give himself a flip-top head. “You’d better knock that off or I’ll tell EDI to let Kelly into your bunk.”
“You wouldn’t,” he whispered, but he had grown satisfactorily pale. He knew I would, and that was good enough for the time being. If I had to wander around the Citadel in a skimpy dress with feathers on my face he could live in fear for a few days. Who knows: if things go badly enough tonight I just might have the yeoman pay him a visit as payment for his involvement.