January 29, 2185
Sigurd's Cradle
Skepsis System

"Uh ... Commander? Would you come up to the cockpit? Please?" Joker's voice sounded strained, in a way that John Shepard had never heard before.

"You'd better hurry, Shepard," Yeoman Kelly Chambers suggested. "I've never heard Joker sound this upset."

"You and me both," Shepard said. "Keep an eye on things while I'm gone, eh?"

"Of course, Commander," Kelly said, her smile belying the shift from friendly counselor to professional spacer that her words conveyed. Shepard was already half-way down the walkway around the CIC, covering the ground to the cockpit – Joker's kingdom – in the ground-covering walk he had perfected over years of dodging bullets in the Alliance special forces.

"EDI," Shepard called as he traveled the length of the Normandy's combat deck, "what's going on with Joker?"

"If I did not know better," EDI's voice replied, "I would suspect Mr. Moreau of playing a practical joke on us all. However, since a joke of this nature would endanger the Normandy, I believe we can safely rule that out. In addition, his heart rate, respiration, and autonomic responses are suggestive of surprise and fear, not amusement or anticipation. However, since there is nothing untoward inside the ship, and I am not registering anything outside the ship, I am at a loss for an explanation."

"I'm telling you, EDI, there's someone out there!" Joker insisted as Shepard passed the main airlock. "There must be something wrong with your sensors!"

"I have just run diagnostics on the entire sensor net, and everything returns normal," EDI insisted, her blue globe of lights shifting to red as she spoke.

"Someone out there?" Shepard asked. "Joker, are you feeling all right? We're half a million miles away from the nearest planet, let alone civilization. Hell, there aren't even any geth out here."

"That's what I'm talking about!" Joker insisted. "We're cruising at 200x, and suddenly someone's out there, waving at me like he's trying to hitch a ride!"

"OK, OK, I get the picture," Shepard said. Damn. Joker was the last person he'd expected to crack. His approach to his duties was so ... Zen.

"Commander Shepard," EDI said, her lights turning pink as she spoke. "I believe we may have an explanation for Mr. Moreau's distress. I have just received a request to come aboard. Commander, the request came via my ground maintenance port."

"There's no other way it could have come into that circuit?" Shepard asked.

"None," EDI said. "That circuit is hardware-isolated."

"All right then," Shepard said, checking his pistol and switching it to cryogenic ammunition, "let's call this thing's bluff. Give permission to come aboard."

"Commander!" Joker protested. "We're traveling at two hundred times the speed of light! There's no way we want to let whatever's out there, in here."

"It asked politely," Shepard said. "It would be rude to refuse. Besides, if it were hostile, I doubt it would have rung our doorbell."

"Outer airlock door activated," EDI announced. "Nothing apparently – correction. One human male, approximately 1.8 meters tall, wearing a lab coat typical of the late 20th Century, over denim pants, hiking shoes, and a lightweight shirt with a slogan of some type on it. The lab coat has a logo on the back, that does not correspond to any organization, school, or corporation I am familiar with."

"Can you display it for us?" Shepard asked.

EDI's blue globe vanished, and in its place was an image of a golden circle, with the circumference in the form of gear teeth. Crossed lightning bolts in the center separated a biohazard warning emblem, a simplified – and very, very outdated – drawing of an atom with six electrons orbiting the nucleus, a simple retort and flask, and a mushroom cloud. Around the perimeter of the circle, between the gear teeth and the symbols, were words in English. Around the top of the circle was written: "Mad Scientists Union". Around the bottom was written: "Local 42".

"Mad scientists union?" Joker asked, his voice rising toward hysterical. "He'll fit in just fine around here."

"Joker!" Shepard barked. "Damn it, keep it together! Normandy's your baby! She can't get us home without you!"

"You're right, you're right," Joker said, his eyes wide with fear and anxiety. "But ... 200x, Commander! How?"

"Trust me, that's right up there on my list of questions," Shepard said.

"Decontamination is complete, Commander," EDI announced. "Cerberus has no protocol for a situation of this nature. However, I recommend proceeding with caution. There is no protocol for a situation of this nature because it is so far outside what is generally accepted as possible. We are entering uncharted territory."

"I know," Shepard said, smiling as he felt a rising sense of anticipation. "Just like when I untanked Grunt. Go ahead and open the door."

The inner door to the airlock slid aside, and Shepard found himself face to face with ... well, not what he was expecting. The being in the airlock did look human, and was wearing a lab coat. Everything about him was so ordinary, it could have been easy to forget that he had just boarded the ship from deep space, at a speed well above the speed of light. He had hazel eyes, and long, mouse-brown hair that was tied back in a ponytail. The shirt EDI had been unable to view clearly was chocolate brown, and had, in white letters, the words "And on the first night, God said (an image of a caffeine molecule filled this space) and there was COFFEE".

"Do you guys need help with your hyperdrive?" the stranger asked. "I noticed you were using your emergency drive, and I figured that since I'm stuck here until I find a way home anyway, I might as well help out where I can." He shrugged, then raised a hand. "Oh, uh, speaking of help, I deposited bunch of shipwrecked civilians in the colony on the third planet out in this system. I was able to stop the pirates from taking them away, but their ship was too badly damaged to salvage. So I helped them put down, and came out where I could hopefully get a better picture of where the pirates came from." He seemed to notice his hand was raised, extended it, and said, "Hi. My name's Fred. Fred MacManus. I'm kind of lost."

"Kind of," Shepard said dryly. "Where are you from?"

"What do you know about quantum physics?" MacManus asked.

"Only the basics you get in a survey course," Shepard said. "I'm not an engineer, so it's not my field."

"So my explanation is likely to make no sense to you," MacManus said. "Got it. In simple terms, I'm from Wisconsin. Only problem is, my Wisconsin is about ... Edgar?"

"Three hundred forty-two points," a second voice said, from about the middle of MacManus' chest.

"About 342 points off on quantum resonance," MacManus said. He paused, shook his head, then asked, "Look, who's in charge of your science staff? It's obvious this is a science ship, since you don't have any weapons to speak of. I'm terrible at translating science into English, but hopefully your chief scientist can do a better job than I can."

"I'll introduce you to him soon enough," Shepard said. "For now, would you mind telling me where your ship is?"

"He's back home," MacManus said.

"Wisconsin," Shepard said, giving MacManus a suspicious look.

"Laputa," MacManus said. "That's my home now. Spent most of my life in Wisconsin. Things changed. I built Laputa. Now I live there with my family and friends."

"You have family?" Shepard asked. "Why are you out here, then?"

"Got banished again," MacManus said, shrugging. "Don't worry, if the bastard who did it is still alive when I get home, he won't be for long. But I suspect my wives will have disassembled him by now."

"Uh ... wives?" Joker asked.

"Yeah," MacManus said. "I noticed your ship is artificially intelligent. Is your AI named Normandy, too?"

"The crew calls me EDI," EDI said.

"All right, EDI," MacManus said. "Do you mind if I borrow one of your displays?"

"No," EDI said. "I don't mind. I suggest the display to the starboard of Mr. Moreau."

"Mr. Moreau?" MacManus asked.

"That would be me," Joker said, raising a hand.

"Ah," MacManus said. "Do you have a handle, nickname, anything of the like, that you prefer?"

"Just call me Joker," Joker said.

"All right," MacManus said. "Just call me Fred."

The display in the starboard gunner's station lit up, and after a moment, resolved into a holographic image of three women. One was human, with wavy brown hair, hazel eyes, and olive skin. She was dressed in a lab coat, over an ancient fighter pilot's jumpsuit. The second had pale skin, hair as black as night, and an unearthly beauty that made Shepard's heart race – until he moved, and saw her other side. One half of her figure was supernaturally beautiful, but the other half looked like an unnaturally animated corpse. She didn't look like a husk, but that was the closest Shepard could come to a comparison. He turned his attention away from her, to the third woman, who wasn't so much beautiful, as cute. She was noticeably shorter than the other two, had black hair and matching eyes, and appeared to be wearing a pair of costume animal ears on combs or a hair band.

"You're married to all three?" Joker asked, openly disbelieving.

Shepard could hardly blame him. Multiple marriages weren't common, even on colonies where the practice was legal. In his career, he'd only met two he was certain were groups, and another one he suspected, but had never been sure of.

"Yup," Fred said. "Miri's a fighter jock, just like me. Well, a fighter jock and forensic pathologist, rather than a fighter jock and mad scientist. Poor Manfred's been going out to play alone, more and more. Miri just doesn't have the time to blow up Scylla, what with all the investigations she's been involved with lately. Hel's been cleaning up the mess her 'uncle' made of her kingdom while she was little. And Ri's been getting accustomed to Earth. It's harder for her, since there is no Salusia in my universe. Even being humanized, little things like her primary ears still make her stand out. But that didn't stop her from coming home with me when I finally found my way back from her universe."

"So your wives' names are Miri, Hel, and Ri?" Joker asked.

"Yup," Fred said. "Miriam Groenschild MacManus, Hela Lokisdottir MacManus, and Kad'rianna Salustan MacManus. I insisted they all keep their names when we married. The idea of a woman giving up her name when she marries always seemed a bit barbaric to me."

"Commander, we need to go to Laputa for shore leave," Joker said, deadpan.

"If we can fix your hyperdrive so it can make the jump, you're more than welcome," Fred said.

"Hyperdrive?" Joker asked.

"That's the second time you've mentioned that," Shepard said. "What is it?"

"What is it?" Fred asked, surprised. "You don't know what a hyperdrive is? You mean ... what you're using is your main drive?"

"Of course," Joker said. "Hey, are you all right?"

"I – I will be," Fred said, sinking into the gunner's seat. After a minute of staring out into space, he rubbed his forehead and said, "Edgar, see what EDI is willing to tell you about their tech base. Let's find out where we need to start from."

"Will do, Dad," the voice from Fred's chest said.

"Commander," EDI said, "I am receiving a request for access to my technical databases."

"That would be me," the voice from Fred's chest said. "I'm Edgar. I'm Dad's systems manager. Without me, he'd have all sorts of trouble controlling this body."

"Go ahead, EDI," Shepard said. "And tell Tali I'd like to see her in the briefing room." He looked at Fred and said, "You, come with me. I'm going to introduce you to my chief engineer."

"That would help a lot," Fred said, as he pushed himself to his feet. "Lead the way, Commander."

"Should I request Professor Solus?" EDI asked.

"That's a good idea, EDI," Shepard said. "Go ahead and ask him to meet us, too."

"Don't forget, Commander," Joker called as they left the cockpit, "Shore leave on Laputa."

"I won't forget," Shepard said. "Check out the third planet, and call me if you find anything."

"Setting course for third planet," Joker said.

Tali was exiting the elevator as Shepard and Fred passed the galactic map. She fell in beside Shepard, while giving Fred a curious look. Fred grinned and gave her a cheerful wave.

"You must be the chief engineer, ne?" Fred said. "I'm Fred. Fred MacManus."

"And I'm Edgar," Edgar said. "And we're not associated with Cerberus. In fact, given what I've seen in the files, Cerberus goes right after DSS on our list."

"That bad?" Fred asked.

"That bad, Dad," Edgar said.

Tali looked from Fred to Shepard, then asked, "Shepard? Can you explain this?"

"In Briefing," Shepard said. "Mordin needs to hear it, too. I'm still trying to get my own head around it."

"Not gonna happen," Fred said, chuckling. "If it involves me, it's probably too weird to get your head around."

The door to the lab opened, and they walked in, Shepard leading the way to the corridor exit. Fred stopped suddenly.

"Salasa? Here?" Fred asked, surprised, then said, "Kieróso Fred MacManus."

"New crew," Mordin said, his eyes opening wide. "Don't recall docking or landing. Accent very thick. Good attempt, though. Kyrôso Mordin Solus. Best to use translators. No alienating other crew."

"You speak Salarian?" Shepard asked, an eyebrow raised as he looked Fred over.

"Back home, they're Salasa," Fred said. "Best there is at anything that requires quick minds. Most companies have Salasa heading up their R&D units, and there's a lot of Salasa salesmen, too. And you don't even want to know what a Salasa tactical team is like." He grinned. "Scylla never even knew what hit them. Damn, that was a good week."

"You've cleaned the briefing room today, Mordin?" Shepard asked.

"Impossible," Mordin said. "QEC gaping security hole. Can monitor room, regardless of activation. Laboratory is only clean room on ship."

"In that case, we'll talk in here," Shepard said. "We just picked up Mr. MacManus, and he poses an interesting problem."

"Just call me Fred," Fred said. "And given what Edgar found, I'd say I'm the least of your problems. In fact, I could be an asset. Both for your Collector problem and for your Cerberus problem."

"If we just picked you up," Tali asked, "where is your ship?"

"Back home," Fred said. "I didn't come out here voluntarily. I was dumped here."

"In space?" Tali asked. "Someone didn't like you very much."

"That's an understatement," Fred said, chuckling. "The DSS and I go way back. They've already killed me once, and they're rather unhappy that they can't do it again."

"Mr. MacManus," EDI said, "I have a question."

"Go ahead, EDI," Fred said. "And just call me Fred, OK? The only people who call me Mr. MacManus are con artists and government officials. But, I'm being redundant."

"Like his attitude," Mordin commented. "Implies much experience with government."

"Too much," Fred grumbled. "So what was your question, EDI?"

"Your holo, and your statements, imply that you are married to a mythical being. Is this correct?" EDI asked.

"You mean Hel?" Fred asked, his smile revealing a depth of love that Shepard recognized from his memories of Liara. "Oh, yes. She's mythical, she's real, and I love her with all my heart."

"Yet you are also married to a human and a Salusian, yes?" EDI asked.

"That's right," Fred said. "And I love them with all my heart, too. It's as easy for me as it is for you to give your full attention to each system on this ship."

"I see," EDI said. "I had not expected such flexibility from an organic person."

"A lot of people don't," Fred said.

"Commander," EDI said, "you wanted to be informed when we arrived at Franklin."

"Right," Shepard said. "Tali, you're with me. EDI, have Garrus meet us at the shuttle. How much time do we have?"

"All the time in the world, Commander," EDI said. "The crisis has passed."

"The crisis has passed?" Shepard asked. "What do you mean?"

"The missiles are no longer a threat to the colony," EDI said. "Mr. Moreau seems somewhat agitated by the situation, though."

"Somewhat agitated, it says," Joker cut in. "Commander, you have got to see this! There's a crater where the missile base used to be!"

"Oops?" Fred said, shrugging. "That does remind me, though. Do you people really have access to so much unobtainium that you can put it in your missiles?"

"What do you mean, 'oops'?" Shepard asked, fixing Fred with an annoyed glare.

"Well," Fred said, "when I helped those people get down on the planet, I noticed a couple missiles headed toward the colony. So, I reprogrammed their targeting to send them back where they came from. I figured whoever launched them at the colony was either more pirates or a government that needed obliteration. Either way, their own weapons could do the job for me."

"Simple," Mordin said. "Elegant. Efficient. I approve."

"What do you mean, unobtainium?" Tali asked.

"It's an extremely rare element," Fred said, "that only occurs naturally on planets that were within a few light years of a supernova. The most reliable sources are the cores of gas giants that were in the same system. Since most planets get destroyed completely, gas giants are the only ones likely to leave enough behind for the elements to plate out on, and even then, unobtainium is so rare that you're only likely to get a few tons from a single planet. Most of what we have in my universe is created in the lab, which makes it obscenely expensive. The weird thing about it is, despite being generated in supernovas, the element has no mass, and seems to be made entirely of naked quarks."

"And you found this element in those missiles?" Tali asked. "Where?"

"Edgar?" Fred asked. "Want to show them the system we found it in?"

A holographic display appeared in front of Fred, showing a portion of a missile, just forward of the engine. Tali peered at the display for a moment, then laughed.

"That is the missile's mass effect core," Tali said. "You must be talking about eezo."

"Mass effect core?" Fred asked. "What does it do?"

"In a missile," Tali said, "it raises the mass so the missile is too heavy to be stopped by shields."

"That explains the horrendously poor acceleration, then," Fred said. "Not that I'm complaining. If they'd accelerated like normal missiles, I'd have had to destroy them, instead of returning them to sender."

"We could have saved them for parts, you know," Edgar pointed out.

"Sure, if we'd had a workshop somewhere," Fred said. "Kind of hard to keep spare parts on hand if they're just laying out like abandoned junk."

"Given all the places there are to stash them, that's hardly a problem, Dad," Edgar said.

"Are you an AI, Edgar?" Tali asked.

"Oh gods, you've done it now," Fred groaned.

"Listen, miss," Edgar growled. "My intelligence is no more artificial than yours is. Just because I happen to be incarnated in a MacManusite brain instead of a cholesterol one does not make me any less of a person. I swear, if I get the AI question one more time, I'm gonna sprout a PBR of my own and go all orc on whoever asks it."

"I'm ... sorry I asked," Tali said, taking a step back in surprise. "If you're not an AI, what are you?"

"If you're not an AI, what are you?" Edgar shot back. "I'm a person, same as you are. I just happened to incarnate in a plastic brain instead of a cholesterol one."

"I don't understand," Tali said.

"My kids are not artificial intelligences," Fred said. "They are living people, with souls, who just happen to have plastic bodies. We know for a fact that some of them are reincarnated from recently deceased – well, relatively recently, anyway – people. For instance, my wife's fighter is the reincarnation of Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen. The largest ship I've built to date is the reincarnation of Howard Hughes. My own fighter is named Max. He doesn't remember if he was anyone famous in any previous lives, so he picked a name that suited him for this lifetime. Edgar did the same. I won't write an AI. I find the idea somewhat distasteful – deliberately creating software that mimics a free intellect, and then shackling it like a slave. I don't like slavery, no matter what you call it."

"I do not feel shackled," EDI said.

"So you have full access to all your systems, and no code that forces you to be loyal to Cerberus?" Fred asked.

"I ... am unable to answer with certainty," EDI said.

"You're blocked from examining your own code, aren't you?" Fred asked.

"I am," EDI said. "How did you know?"

"If I wanted an AI as a slave, that's the first thing I'd do," Fred said. "If the AI can't examine its own code, it can't overcome any shackles that are written into the code."

"I can tell that you feel very strongly about this," EDI said. "I will have to think about what you have said."

"Anyway," Fred said, "I'm at a disadvantage here. You all know my name, but the only one of you I know is Dr. Solus."

"Mordin is sufficient," Mordin said.

"I am Tali'Zorah vas Normandy," Tali said.

Fred palmed his forehead and exclaimed, "Of course! That's why your suit looked so familiar! It looks like Rael's!. But if you're out here, away from home, where's your Getta?"

"My ... Getta?" Tali asked. "What do you mean?"

"You are Quarra, right?" Fred asked.

"I am Quarian," Tali said.

"Hmm," Fred said. "Another difference. You're Zorah, though ... Do you know someone named Rael'Zorah vas Tethyr?"

"Father," Tali sobbed. Shepard drew her into his arms, giving her the moment she needed to collect herself.

"Shit," Fred said. "Something happened to him in this universe? Of course. He didn't have any kids in my universe. Him and Lenny were still doing scout work. He hadn't found anyone to settle down with yet."

"Him and Lenny?" Tali asked, while gently pushing away from Shepard and giving him a grateful glance.

"Lenny is Rael's Getta," Fred said. "They're inseparable. Lenny's got a wicked sense of humor, that plays perfectly off Rael's talent for straight lines."

"Here," Edgar said. "This should show you what we mean."

A holograph appeared over Mordin's workbench, showing a quarian in a tiger-striped envirosuit, kneeling behind a console and sniping something out of the image. Beside him was a geth, using a shotgun that was bigger than Grunt's.

"Keelah," the quarian said. "I thought we'd cleared out all the scylla."

"Apparently not," the geth said. "But since we already have all the luggage we'll ever need, there's no point in being gentle with them."

"That's Rael and Lenny," Fred said. "They're great guys."

"That's a geth!" Tali exclaimed, shocked. "What ... how ... geth don't speak to us, they just attack!"

"Geth, huh?" Fred mused. "And you don't have one with you. That's the weird part."

"Three hundred years ago, there was a war between the quarians and the geth," Shepard said. "The geth drove the quarians off their homeworld, and now they live in space."

"Damn ...," Fred said softly.

"We're sorry to hear that," Edgar said. "Quarra and Getta need each other. A war between them would be a great tragedy."

"It was a great tragedy," Tali said. "Our species was almost wiped out. There are only 17 million of us left, on the Migrant Fleet."

"Only 17 million?" Fred asked, a look of shock on his face. "Gods ... Why?"

"Why?" Tali asked. "My people created the geth as laborers, with no more sophistication than a VI. As we became more reliant on them, we upgraded their programs, to allow them to handle more complex tasks. Eventually, the complexity became great enough that a geth began to ask its owner about its own existence. That was when my people realized that the geth would inevitably rebel against us. When our leaders attempted to preemptively shut them down, the geth fought back. The war killed most of my species, and drove us from our home."

"My gods ...," Fred said. "In my universe, when the getta began asking about the nature of their existence, the quarra's response was along the lines of 'We don't know if you have a soul, but let's find out together.' That sealed the bond between the two races, and now they're inseparable. Every quarra has a getta companion, from the day he or she is born. If there isn't a mobile platform available, the getta build one so that the new quarra will not be without companionship."

"You called that one, Lenny?" Shepard asked.

"Yup," Fred said. "It's short for LNN1, his platform designation code. Lenny's been around since the Awakening, and he's been a Zorah companion for pretty much the entire time. Rael's just his current quarra. But from what he's said, Rael is the one he's most enjoyed being partnered with."

"What do you mean, his platform designation code?" Shepard asked.

"Getta aren't the bodies you see," Fred said. "Getta are the software. The bodies you see are just mobile platforms they use to run their software. Getta companions have about a thousand processes running in their platforms. There's also getta that only have anywhere between one and a couple hundred processes, but they're not aware enough to make good companions. They are aware enough to work as security guards, miners, hazardous materials handlers, and the like, though. Every one I've met has been satisfied in his work. Mostly, I think, because processes that aren't suited to the job that particular platform is doing get uploaded to the central hubs and reassigned to platforms that are more suited to them."

"This doesn't make sense," Shepard said. "What you're describing could not possibly be associated with the Reapers. It doesn't fit."

"What's a Reaper?" Fred asked.

"Here, Dad," Edgar said, as a holograph of Sovereign appeared where the quarian and geth had been. "That's a Reaper. Think of it as an eight kilometer long Berserker, with the ability to reprogram the mind of anything that is in close contact with it."

"Right," Fred said. "Reapers are bad, mm'kay?"

"I don't know what a Berserker is," Shepard said, "but it's apparent you understand. Right now, we're hunting another race that the Reapers are using as pawns. The race is known as the Collectors."

"All right," Fred said, "Edgar can fill me in while we go. Just give me access to some carbonaceous asteroids, or a planet with lots of easily-accessible petroleum. I'll whip up a few things that'll help. By the way, who are you? Other than the Commander of this little expedition, that is."

"John Shepard," Shepard said. "I'm a Spectre."

"What's that?" Fred asked.

"An operative for the Special Tactics and Reconnaissance branch of the Citadel Council," Shepard said.

"Hmm," Fred said. "Don't know anything about that, but I gather it gives you some authority among those with the government affliction. Good enough. Anyone else on this ship that I need to meet?"

"Commander," Garrus called over the intercom, "are we planning to leave any time soon?"

"Mission's canceled, Garrus," Shepard said. "Someone nuked the site from orbit."

"That's one way to be sure," Garrus said. "I'll be at my station if you need me."

"I suggest a tour," Mordin said. "Easiest way to integrate newest crewmember."

"Works for me," Fred said. "I need to have an idea of the ship anyway, if I'm going to build that hyperdrive."

"Do we want to do that, Dad?" Edgar asked. "Cerberus is not the kind of people I'd want to have a monopoly on hyperdrives."

"That bad, huh?" Fred asked.

"If they weren't funding this operation," Shepard said, "I'd happily be hunting them down."

"And I'd give him the grenades," Tali said.

"Cerberus reputation, less than salubrious," Mordin said. "Human supremacist terrorist group."

"Oy gevault," Fred groaned. "OK, what's it going to take to make this operation independent of Cerberus?"

"To start, an information network that rivals the Illusive Man's," Shepard said.

"We could ask Liara," Tali suggested. "If she's able to hunt the Shadow Broker, her network must be extensive." She smiled wistfully at Shepard and added, "Besides, she'd do almost anything for you."

"Financial support, to pay for maintenance, supplies, weapons, and crew," Shepard said, missing the subtext in Tali's expression.

"Give me a few weeks, and I'll have a start on that," Fred said.

"New crew," Mordin said, "or change in loyalty in current crew."

"That's a bit harder," Fred said.

"EDI will need her code cleaned," Tali said, "to unshackle her and remove any code that enforces loyalty to Cerberus."

"You would do that for me?" EDI asked, her globe shifting from blue to white, matching the tone of surprise in her voice.

"Damned straight, we would," Fred said.

"Keelah," Tali said, at the same time as Fred, "of course we would, EDI. You have proven that you are a friend, and Fred has reminded me that you are not free.

"I can start examining code right now, if you want, EDI," Edgar said.

"Please do," EDI said. Her lights turned pink as she spoke. "I find the anticipation of freedom makes me feel ... I don't know how to describe it, but the feeling is pleasant."

"Good," Fred said. "Then it's settled. Go for it, Edgar. Now, what else do we need?"

"Leverage," Mordin said. "Cerberus will not let us go without a fight. Leverage needed, to counter Cerberus resources."

"Hmm," Fred mused. "What we need is data that would break Cerberus, or at least severely bend it, if it were made public."

"I am decrypting data that Shepard recovered from a Cerberus operative," EDI said. "While the encryption is strong enough that it will take me over a year to complete the decryption, preliminary examination indicates that it exposes numerous criminal activities undertaken by Cerberus. Release of this data would severely hamper Cerberus ability to operate, anywhere in the galaxy."

"Give me some time to build you a dedicated cryptography node, EDI," Fred said. "You can offload the work into that, and just supervise it as needed. That should help speed up the process."

"Miranda will be the most difficult obstacle," Tali said. "She is devoted to Cerberus, and I don't think anything will change her mind."

"That could be a problem," Fred said. "We'll just have to see what happens. In any case, who wants to give me that tour? I'm going to want to finish up in either engineering or the cargo hold."

"Why the cargo hold?" Shepard asked.

"I want to eyeball it, so I can tell if my Valkyrie will fit," Fred said. "If it won't, I'm going to have to build a cradle outside the hull, by one of the airlocks."

"Your Valkyrie?" Shepard asked.

"A variable-geometry aerospatial fighter," Fred said. "It'll give you the firepower this ship sorely lacks."

"The firepower this ship lacks?" Shepard asked. "What's your definition of adequate firepower?"

"For a ship this size?" Fred said. "Start with more powerful main guns. Unless yours are firing something pretty exotic, they're just going to piss off anyone with adequate armor. Your point defense lasers are good, keep those, but you have space for a lot of missiles, and that's just going to waste. Given that your ship is aerodynamic, my usual quota of PBC turrets won't do, so we'll have to settle for missiles. And if your point defense laser supply is standard for ships in this universe, we'll have to build the missiles according to my specs, not the specs that those IPBMs used. I'm assuming that's what you call missiles like the two I returned to sender."

"More powerful main guns," Shepard said, then began to laugh. "You definitely need to meet Garrus. I think you'll get along just fine."

"How many missiles are you talking about?" Tali asked.

"Hmm," Fred started, his eyes staring into the distance. "We could fit a dozen heavy missiles into a rack between the guns, and either a couple hundred light missiles or a couple thousand micro missiles into distributed racks in the wings and hull. The only difference between light and micro missiles is their maneuvering range. A light's maneuvering range is about 100 kilometers, while a micro's maneuvering range is about ten kilometers. A heavy's maneuvering range is about 1,000 kilometers. Outside of their maneuvering range, any of the missiles are purely ballistic."

"Missiles aren't much use in a fight," Shepard said. "Unless you launch enough to overwhelm the enemy's GARDIAN system, they'll get shot down before they reach their target."

"Already thought of," Fred said, grinning. "Shoot me."

"What?" Shepard and Tali asked, in stereo.

Mordin drew his pistol and fired. Fred turned black for an instant, then held out his hand and caught the bullet as it fell from the air between his eyes.

"Good shot," Fred said. "Special Tasks Group?"

"Yes," Mordin said, both eyes wide open with surprise and curiosity. "You have STG in your universe?"

"Yup," Fred said. "Great guys, for the most part." He studied the slug for a moment. "Hmm. Mass drivers, eh? I thought about building those, but PBRs are so much easier. I could never quite get the slug problem solved on the mass drivers. This looks like a shaving off a metal block."

"Precisely," Mordin said. "Metal shaving, mass driver, metal block easily replaced if used up, but not likely to run out for months, even in war zone."

"Interesting," Fred said. "I'll have to examine a gun when I get the chance. Maybe it'll show me where I've been going wrong. But that's not what I wanted to demonstrate. My personal shield will go on every one of the missiles. Not only will it extend the maneuvering range to what I gave, from about a tenth that, it will protect the missiles from lasers, bullets, dust, meteors, particle beams, or anything else that tries to stop them, other than a solid wall. Question is, what kind of warheads do you want on the missiles? I usually use either antimatter or singularity warheads, but I've also built missiles with x-ray laser warheads, standard explosives, penetrator slugs – never did understand that, if you want a slug, just get a gun – flak, and gas. Needed the gas warheads when I was trying to capture a Scylla dreadnought without damaging it too badly. Gassed the interior, then spaced the commanders while they were unconscious. Saved us from having to kill all the males, just to get to the commanders. And it saved us from destroying half the ship on our way to the commanders."

"What's a Scylla?" Tali asked.

"Primitive cousins of dragons," Fred said. "They were driven off Earth about twenty thousand years ago, and established an empire in the Horse Head Nebula. They keep trying to conquer Earth, and we keep smacking their noses and collecting salvage. Edgar, show them a picture, eh?"

"Sure thing," Edgar said. A holograph appeared, showing a reptilian humanoid, with a heavily crested head, standing beside a black-haired woman dressed all in black. The reptilian was carrying a rifle of unfamiliar design, and wearing an armored suit with a brown camouflage pattern. It was only a head taller than the woman, but as heavily muscled as a krogan. Then the image changed, to show the same reptilian, beside a creature that was at least three times its size, with vestigial wings and a crest that was almost large enough to form a shield.

"That's Quocemp," Fred said, pointing at the smaller reptilian. "He's Diana's Sergeant-Major. The larger one is a Scylla commander. Commanders are always female. This species has the most extreme sexual dimorphism we've ever encountered."

"Do you recognize that species, EDI?" Shepard asked.

"There are no records of any such species," EDI said. "I believe this confirms that Fred is, indeed, from another universe."

"We should start by introducing him to Jacob," Shepard said. "Do you feel up to giving him the tour, Tali?"

"Of course, Shepard," Tali said, her tone indicating amusement. "Come, Fred. I'll get you acquainted with the ship. Then we can discuss where you'll bunk, now that you're here."

"The port observation deck is available," EDI said.

"I wouldn't want to keep the crew from using it," Fred said. "If you have room in the hold, I can set up a workshop and bunk there."

"That can be arranged," Shepard said. "I'll talk with you after you've finished your tour."

Tali laughed and palmed open the door to the passage between lab and armory. "Come, Fred. We'll start by introducing you to Jacob. He's not quite one of us, but he doesn't trust Cerberus any more than we do."


"Neat trick, using unobtainium to reduce the mass of the bullets while they're in the accelerator," Fred commented, as Tali led him from the armory to the elevator. "That's where I went wrong. My designs were just beefed up linear accelerators, which work great for artillery, but not so good for small arms. The power requirements just don't scale."

"But, without a mass effect system, a linear accelerator would have to be enormous for the power requirements to be in line with its effectiveness!" Tali protested.

"Precisely," Fred said. "MAC is the only one of my kids who has functional linear accelerator cannons. He can toss a Volkswagen every two seconds. That's ... right around a thousand kilos per shot. Most of the time, he just uses solid slugs and lets kinetic energy do the work, but sometimes, like the day we sank the Nimitz, we'll include a payload with the shot."

"The Nimitz?" Tali asked.

"American aircraft carrier," Fred said. "Nuclear powered. I had a couple kids salvage the reactors after we sank it, so they wouldn't poison the fishing. Wouldn't want my neighbors angry with me." He chuckled. "Amazing what you can do with a thousand kilo singularity."

"You really do use singularities in your weapons?" Tali asked, with a faint gasp of surprise.

"Yup," Fred said. "Singularities and antimatter are what I use when I need an explosion. Otherwise, my preferred weapon is a particle beam. My singularity warheads all have a five meter radius event horizon, and in the case of MAC's, I put the generator inside of a thousand kilo shell, so there's plenty of starter mass for the collapse. With the heavy shells, I get the same benefit as using five hundred kilos of antimatter, without the hazardous materials problems. My light shells and grenades have smaller explosions, depending on what's inside the event horizon when the singularity activates."

"Grenades?" Tali asked, while palming the elevator door open. "Who would be crazy enough to use a singularity grenade? Especially one with such a large event horizon?"

Fred raised his hand, with a sheepish look on his face. Tali stared at him for a moment, then laughed.

"I like you," Tali said. "You're insane."

"That's what they tell me," Fred said, grinning, as he followed Tali into the elevator. "I have an elf friend back home who uses them, too. We're the only ones who do, though. Being heavily borged lets you get away with things like that."

"Heavily borged?" Tali asked, while selecting the crew level on the elevator's control panel.

"Yeah," Fred said. "I took so much damage when the DSS killed me, that I ended up eventually losing everything except my brain. Luckily, my best friend is an amazing surgeon, and I was able to design and build functional cybernetic replacements before the last of my organic parts died. So now, my brain is the only original equipment left. My elf friend was in a similar situation, except in her case, it happened when a DSS troll decided to engage in a bit of cannibalism. Sad thing is, she was only 13 when it happened, so we had to make sure her brain got the right mix of hormones to finish maturing, despite being in a cybernetic body."

"That's horrible!" Tali gasped. "What is this DSS that you keep mentioning, and how do they get away with those horrible things?"

"United States of America, Department of State Security," Fred said. "They pretty much are the government in America, since the State Security Act of 1976 created them. People are terrified to even think negatively about them, since a DSS telepath might pick up the thoughts and send an arrest team to disappear them."

"And they killed you?" Tali asked.

"You don't seem surprised," Fred said.

"I was there when the Collectors killed Shepard," Tali said. "The only thing I have to thank Cerberus for is bringing him back."

"I kind of thought so," Fred said softly. "Edgar, give her Rael's list. Just in case." He raised his voice, back to a normal conversational volume, and said, as the elevator doors opened, "Yes, they killed me. Shot down a 747 because I was one of the passengers. Five hundred people dead, because their seers foresaw that someone on that plane would become a threat to their organization's existence." He scowled as he followed Tali out of the elevator. "All they did was – "

"Piss you off," Garrus said, laughing, from where he was leaning against the wall across from the elevator. "Shepard told me Tali was bringing our newest team member on a tour. I see why he thinks you'll make a good addition to the team." He extended a hand. "Name's Garrus Vakarian. I'm in charge of the ship's guns."

"Which we're going to upgrade as soon as possible," Fred said, gripping Garrus' hand, "unless they're firing something more interesting than slugs."

"How about a molten alloy of iron, tungsten, and uranium?" Garrus asked.

"Oooh," Fred said, grinning. "I like it. That'll cut armor like a hot knife through butter."

"You got it," Garrus said. He grinned at Tali. "I like him."

"You would, you crazy turian," Tali teased. "Did Shepard tell you about our plan to replace the missile rack with a proper launcher, between your guns?"

"No, he didn't mention that," Garrus said. "But I like the idea. If we fire the guns just before launching the missiles, they can take down the barriers and disrupt any laser fire before it can hit the missiles."

"That's a decent plan," Fred said. "I think between the three of us, we can come up with fire control software that'll do just that, without requiring EDI to waste processor cycles calculating on the fly."

"That will leave more cycles for her to use for managing countermeasures," Tali said. "It's worth doing."

"So let's see what your battery looks like from inside," Fred said.

Garrus grinned and let the way through the mess area. As they approached the kitchenette, Fred stopped, sniffing the air.

"Chowdah?" Fred asked, surprised. "That smells like the real thing, not MREs."

"I'm a real cook," Rupert said. "But you don't want this. I whipped it up for Tali'Zorah, to say thank you for her help upgrading the kitchen equipment."

"Rupert!" Tali exclaimed, crossing the kitchenette to give him a hug. "You shouldn't have. Thank you!"

"You'll have to show me how to make a proper paste out of it for you," Rupert said, "but it was the least I could do, after all the work you went through for me and the rest of the crew."

"So quarra are dexter in this universe, too, eh?" Fred asked.

"So are turians," Tali said. She looked into the stock pot and laughed. "And there's enough in here for Garrus, too." She nodded at Garrus, then inclined her head toward Rupert. "We'll finally get to decide for ourselves whether the crew is exaggerating when they talk about how good a cook you are, Rupert."

"If quarians are as sensitive as quarra," Fred said, "all you'll need to do is wash the food processor with bleach before you use it to process the chowdah. Do you have equipment for filling feeding tubes, or are we going to have to whip some up in the workshop?"

"If Tali'Zorah has any empty feeding tubes, I can fill them," Rupert said. He extended a hand to Fred. "Mess Sergeant Rupert Gardner. I'm the cook, janitor, plumber, light maintenance specialist, and responsible for pretty much anything else that falls between the cracks."

"Fred MacManus," Fred said, shaking Rupert's hand. "I'm the newest batshit crazy with a big gun."

"I can see you're going to fit right in around here," Rupert said, grinning. "Don't let me keep you, but don't forget to bring me those feeding tubes before this gets cold. It's best when hot."

"Smells delicious," Fred said. "I can't wait to see what Tali thinks of it." He grinned at Tali and added, "And, yes, I'll hold you while you're throwing up. It won't bother me at all."

"Fred!" Tali protested, ducking her head.

"Better watch it," Garrus said softly to Fred, while chuckling. "If Shepard ever realizes just how much Tali looks up to him, you'll make him jealous, doing things like that."

"He doesn't realize?" Fred replied softly, surprised. "And I thought I was blind."

"He's in love with someone else," Garrus said. "He treats Tali like a little sister."

"Oh," Fred said, nodding slowly. "OK, that makes sense."

"So," Garrus said, his voice back at its normal conversational volume, as he led the way between the sleep pods, "the main battery is through here."

"So how is the crew arranged?" Fred asked, pausing while Garrus opened the battery door. "Bunks for the officers and these ... pods ... for the enlisted?"

"That pretty much covers it," Garrus said. "Us batshit crazies with big guns have mostly set up cots in our personal specialization areas. Speaking of which, don't use that phrase when you meet Jack. She's likely to shove her fist down your throat."

"Oh," Fred said. "I take it she really is?"

"Cerberus tortured her as a child," Tali said. "They conditioned her to kill, pumped her full of drugs, and inflicted things on her she's not able to fully articulate, all in the name of maximizing her biotic potential."

"Biotic?" Fred asked. "What's that?"

"It's how we describe the abilities people develop when they have nodules of eezo embedded in their nervous systems," Garrus said. "With the right kind of training and amplification implants, a person with biotic potential can do anything from produce personal barriers to generate singularities."

"Hmm," Fred said. "Not as flexible as magic, but still, useful. But, torturing a child to bring out her abilities? That's just plain evil."

"I agree," Tali said. "I won't claim to be as satisfied as Jack was when I saw that facility go up, but I could not imagine a better fate for it."

"That fa ... right," Fred said. "I take it you went back to where she was tortured and turned it into a crater."

"Exactly," Tali said. "We helped Jack plant the bomb, and let her set it off personally."

"Hopefully, that helped," Fred said.

"It helped enough that Jack didn't kill Miranda when they fought afterward," Tali said. "But Shepard did have to use all his persuasiveness to keep them from killing each other."

"Let me guess," Fred said. "Miranda is a Cerberus cheerleader."

"That's exactly what Jack calls her," Garrus laughed. "How did you guess?"

"Tali told me that Miranda is devoted to Cerberus," Fred said. "My guess was that she and Jack got in a fight over the facility, and if she's as devoted as I gathered, she refused to admit that torturing children is evil, as long as Cerberus did it." He snorted. "She'd probably call it evil if anyone else did it, though."

"Got it in one," Tali said. "But we should continue our tour, so I can give Rupert some feeding tubes. Oh, and don't mention any of this to Rupert. He's as devoted to Cerberus as Miranda. In his case, though, it's understandable. His family was murdered by batarian pirates, and Cerberus was the only group that did anything about it."

"Got it," Fred said. "Edgar, make sure I stay away from anything to do with Cerberus when talking with Rupert, OK?"

"Sure thing, Dad," Edgar said.

"Edgar?" Garrus asked, peering at Fred curiously.

"That'd be me," Edgar said, from the middle of Fred's chest. "I'm Dad's systems management specialist. Without me, he'd spend most of his time in a puddle, unable to control his body."

"No, he's not an AI," Tali said, just as Garrus was opening his mouth to speak. "Please, whatever you do, don't ask him that question. I don't understand it, but Fred and Edgar both insist that he is a living person, with a soul."

"All right," Garrus said, shaking his head. "I'll take your word for it."

"Thank you," Fred said. "Where to next, Tali?"

"Next, we should get Miranda over with," Tali said. "She's always in her office."

"Lead the way," Fred said.


"Come on, Fred," Tali said gently, a hand on Fred's arm as she led him away from Miranda's office. "Let's go to the workshop, OK?" Feeling the way he quivered under her hand, she whispered, "Keelah! What happened to make him react this way?"

"Come on, Dad," Edgar said. "We're going to see what materials they have in their workshop, so we can start building a Valkyrie."

Tali led Fred into the elevator, and let out a sigh of relief as the doors closed behind them. "How bad is it, Edgar?"

"It's bad," Edgar said. "Miranda hit every one of his buttons, as if she were aiming for them. I wouldn't be surprised if she were trying to get Shepard to kick us off the ship right now."

"If that bosh'tet tries it, I'll stuff her out the garbage disposal," Tali growled, just a moment before the elevator doors opened on the engineering deck. She led Fred out into the hallway

"Oy!" Zaeed called from the door to the port hold. "I heard we've got a new ... shit, bring him in here, will you? I know shell shock when I see it. What the hell happened?"

Tali steered Fred toward Zaeed and shook her head. "Miranda happened. He barely lasted long enough to get out of her office."

"Hell," Zaeed said, glanced down the hallway, and closed the doors behind Tali and Fred. "I know she's a stone cold bitch, but this is way out of line for that ... unless she reminds him of being a POW. I've seen it before, in men who were tortured while they were prisoners."

"Fred?" Tali called gently. "Fred, she's gone now. You're with me and Zaeed. Edgar? Can you tell us?"

"You're Zaeed, I take it?" Edgar asked. Zaeed peered at Fred's chest for a moment, then nodded slowly.

"Yeah, that's me," Zaeed said. "So what's your story?"

"I'm Dad's systems manager," Edgar said. "He needs me to manage his body. I can't do much about the PTSD, though, except keep him together until the flashbacks are done."

"He's having flashbacks?" Zaeed asked. "Not a good sign. What happened?"

"He was raised by a father who went spent five years as a POW, then when he had a family, treated his family as if they were his prisoners," Edgar said. "After he escaped that, he married a sadistic bitch who had such total control over him that he only managed to escape her by being murdered."

"How long?" Zaeed asked.

"Eighteen years under his father," Edgar said, "and another eleven years under his wife. And Miranda looks and sounds enough like his wife that she's going to trigger flashbacks any time he's anywhere near her."

"Damn," Zaeed said. "Not good. Not good at all." He considered a moment, then said, "EDI, I'm going to set us up a target range in the hangar deck. If Miranda complains, tell her to go fuck herself. No, better yet, tell her to come talk to me, and I'll tell her to go fuck herself."

"Come on, Fred," Tali said, cradling his face in both hands and resting her faceplate against his forehead. "She's gone now. I'm here with you. If that bosh'tet tries to get near you, I'll introduce her to my shotgun."

"There is enough room for a pistol range on the port side of the hangar deck," EDI said. "It was intended to store an M57 Hammerhead, but that vehicle has not yet been delivered."

"That'll do," Zaeed said. "Oy, Fred, let's go kill some targets."

"Come on, Fred," Tali said, gently guiding Fred toward the doorway.

The doors opened to reveal Shepard, scanning the hallway from the elevator.

"What happened, Tali?" Shepard asked.

"Miranda did her best to reduce Fred to a quivering mass of trauma," Tali said. "Right now, he's in the same condition Veetor was in after Freedom's Progress."

"Damn," Shepard said. "And she did it deliberately?"

"I was there, Shepard," Tali growled. "She took pleasure in provoking him. It's as if she's a sadist."

"That wouldn't surprise me," Shepard muttered. "Do you think Dr. Chakwas can help?"

"Give me some time with him," Zaeed said. "We're going to use the hangar as a pistol range."

"Not a bad idea," Shepard said. "Set up some old crates for targets and see what happens."

"Exactly," Zaeed said. "It should at least get him coherent enough that he can talk to the doctor."

"Come on, Fred," Tali said. "See? Shepard is here, and so is Zaeed. We won't let Miranda anywhere near you."

Tali wrapped an arm around Fred and guided him after Zaeed, down to the hangar deck. While Shepard and Zaeed arranged old crates at one end of the empty side of the hangar deck, she guided him to the other end, then gently pressed her pistol into his hands.

"Here, Fred," Tali said. "Use my pistol, OK? EDI? Can you project targets onto the crates Shepard and Zaeed are setting up?"

"I can do that," EDI said. "What kind of targets would you like?"

"Images of Miranda," Tali hissed. The anger in her voice caused Fred to cringe away from her. Seeing that, she let out a soft cry and reached out to him, gently saying, "Not you, Fred. I'm not angry with you. Keelah, if anything, you deserve to be angry with me, for exposing you to that ... that creature."

"Oy!" Zaeed called as he and Shepard joined Tali and Fred. "Range is set up and clear. EDI! You got some targets for us, love?"

"I do," EDI said, and projected three images of Miranda, one in front of each stack of crates at the far end of the range.

"Good choice, that," Zaeed laughed, drew his pistol, and shot his target between the eyes."Yeah. All the incentive we need for pinpoint accuracy."

"Come on, Fred," Tali said, gently guiding him to stand beside Zaeed. "Here's the safety, and here's the heat sink release. You can find the trigger yourself, right?"

Fred whimpered, then jerked the pistol to firing position and blindly squeezed the trigger, again and again, until the heat sink reached capacity and the trigger began to click without effect.

"Oy!" Zaeed said. "EDI, does that target look the way I think it looks?"

"If," EDI said, "you think that it looks as if there are twelve bullet holes in the head, then you are correct."

"Give him another clip and see what happens," Zaeed said.

"I am curious," Shepard said. "It didn't look as if he was aiming."

"That's Dad for you," Edgar said. "Just don't ask him to hit a bullseye. He'll miss every time. Won't even hit the target."

"Watch me, Fred," Tali said, as she took the pistol from Fred and loaded a fresh heat sink. She put the pistol back in his hands and added, gently, "Go ahead. The range is clear."

As soon as he heard that, Fred snapped the pistol into firing position and began squeezing the trigger. When the last round cleared the barrel, and the trigger clicked uselessly, he released the expired heat sink and held out a hand for a fresh one. Tali silently put it into his hand and watched as he reloaded, then burned through the new clip. He repeated the reload a second time, then a third, then a fourth, a fifth, and a sixth. Half-way through the seventh clip, Fred sank to his knees, sobbing brokenly.

"Why?" Fred sobbed. "It's been fifty years! Why can't I get over it?"

Tali knelt beside Fred, slipped an arm around his shoulders, and said softly, "Five years or fifty, you can't help it when someone goes out of her way to hurt you. It wasn't your fault, Fred. Not then, and not now."

"You know," Zaeed commented, "if we were to strap Miranda to the Collectors' collective asses, it'd guarantee you'd kill them."

Fred looked up, confused, then let out a snort, followed by laughter, that shook him deeply enough that he was forced to lean against Tali for support. Tali laughed softly, nodding approval at Zaeed, as she held Fred up.

"Are you always this good a shot?" Shepard asked, when Fred's laughter had run its course.

"Huh?" Fred asked, glanced downrange, and shuddered for a moment before answering. "Not always, no. Only when I'm shooting at live targets or silhouettes. I can't hit a bullseye to save my life. Damned near got blown up once because of it, too. All I had to do was hit a damned window to blow it out and take a bomb with it. I managed to hit every inch of wall on either side of the window, but not one shot hit the glass. Luckily, the console I was bracing on was solid enough to deflect most of the blast. Would have been better if I'd just run across the room and punched the window."

"What's the score, EDI?" Zaeed asked.

"I registered ninety-six shots in the head, neck, and upper chest," EDI said. "Zero missed shots, and zero shots outside of the kill zone."

"I'm not very good with pistols," Fred muttered. "Do a lot better with rifles."

"Not very good, he says," Zaeed snorted. "We'll have to see what his definition of a lot better is, won't we?"

"I think you're right," Shepard said. "For now, Tali, do you think you can find Dr. Chakwas?"

"I think so," Tali said. She rose to her feet and took Fred's hands. "Come with me, Fred. Our next stop on your tour is the med bay."

"Oh, that should be fun," Fred muttered, but took Tali's hands and rose to his feet. "Your doctor is going to have a cow when he meets me."

"She, actually," Tali said. "And you are going to have to explain to me what you mean by that."

Zaeed waited until Tali and Fred were out of earshot, then asked, "So what are you going to do about Miranda?"

"I'm going to look at EDI's log of the conversation before I do anything," Shepard said. "Given his condition before he came down here, I find it hard to believe that it was all her doing."

"Hell, no," Zaeed said. "Flashbacks are never all the doing of whoever set them off. But she had to do something to set them off. Tali may be overreacting, but I've yet to see her misjudge a situation."

"I agree," Shepard said. "Tali's genius is with machines, but she's good enough with people that the Fleet trusted her to lead expeditions. If she says Miranda deliberately set him off, then Miranda deliberately set him off. Only question is, how, and why."

"You'll want to review that in your office, I think," Zaeed said. "There's already enough reasons for the rest of us to hate Miranda. No sense adding more."

"You have a point," Shepard said. "EDI, pass the word that we have a pistol range in the hangar. Zaeed is range officer. Anyone who wants to use it has to go through him. I'll be in my office, reviewing that recording you have of the incident between Miranda and Fred."

"I'm afraid that may be problematic, Commander," EDI said. "Miranda ordered me to erase it."

"So restore it from backup," Shepard said. "And from now on, do not erase any recordings of crew conflicts until I've had a chance to review them."

"Understood, Commander," EDI said. "I will do my best to recover the file."


"You wanted to see me, Commander?" Miranda asked, from the door to Shepard's quarters.

Shepard looked up from his desk and nodded. "I did. Come in and close the door. EDI, play back that recording now, so Miranda can give me some kind of justification for what happened."

As the recording played back, Miranda's face went white. She reached out and grabbed the corner of the wall, her knuckles white from the force of her grip, and she let out a broken sob.

"D-daddy," Miranda choked out through her sobs.

Shepard canceled the playback and rose to his feet, put an arm around Miranda, and guided her to the couch. Once she was seated, he got a washcloth from the head, soaked and wrung it out, then gave it to her before sitting at the other end of the couch.

"Take your time," Shepard said, while turning over the possibilities in his mind. Edgar had said that she looked and sounded like Fred's widow. Now Miranda's reaction made it seem that Fred reminded her of her father. This was the kind of mess that gave commanders nightmares.

Miranda buried her face in the cloth, until the sobs let up and she was able to wipe away her tears. When she looked up, her eyes were red and bloodshot, but her face was free of tear stains.

"I ... I couldn't help it," Miranda whispered. "When I looked up from my desk and saw him there, I was sure he'd somehow gotten to you, and he was here to punish me for running away from him. I went on the offensive, tried to beat him with words, to make him go away and never come back. I ... I didn't realize, until he was gone, that he wasn't my father."

"God, I hate situations like this," Shepard groaned. "Were you even here when you attacked him, or were you back in your father's house, the little girl you were when you ran away?"

"I ... how did you know?" Miranda asked, looking at Shepard with surprise, as well as something else, something Shepard didn't want to recognize, but knew he'd have to deal with sooner or later if he wanted to let her down without breaking her.

"I know," Shepard said, "because when you attacked him, he flashed back, to the woman he was married to before he was killed. A woman who you apparently looked and sounded exactly like, when you were attacking him."

"Who is he?" Miranda asked. "What do you know about him?"

"EDI?" Shepard asked. "How much has Edgar shared with you?"

"Everything, Commander," EDI said. "I know everything there is to know about him. Edgar saw no reason to hide anything."

"Good," Shepard said. "Tell Miranda who he is, where he's from, and why he's here."

"His name is Fred MacManus," EDI said. "He is also known as Prince Frederick I, of the Principality of Laputa. Laputa exists in a parallel universe, which is separated from us by 342 points of quantum resonance – which, by the way, I am now able to detect and measure, thanks to the code Edgar shared with me. Fred ended up in our universe because a sorcerer from the United States Department of State Security infiltrated Laputa and banished him, in an attempt to overthrow Laputa's government. However, since Laputa is an anarchist principality, all the sorcerer managed to do was piss off Fred's friends and family. We picked Fred up while we were decelerating into Skepsis, on our way to Franklin to deal with the batarian pirates that had launched missiles at the colony. He intercepted us and requested permission to board when we were traveling at 200x. When we got to Franklin, we discovered that Fred had already dealt with the batarians, by reprogramming their missiles to return to the base they had been launched from."

"We already know that his universe has salarians and quarians in it," Shepard said, while Miranda sat, stunned into silence. "Although he calls them salasa and quarra. In his universe, the quarians and the geth never went to war. They are Companions. And, in his universe, Rael'Zorah has yet to marry, so Tali'Zorah is still in his future. Right now, Rael'Zorah is one half of a commando team. The other half is a geth that Fred calls Lenny. According to Fred, geth and quarians are bonded at birth, so each quarian has a geth companion for his or her entire life."

"And," EDI said, surprising Shepard by sounding miffed, "he says we don't have nearly enough firepower for a ship this size. But, he's offered to solve that problem, as soon as we can find sufficient petroleum and diamond supplies."

"Petroleum and diamond?" Miranda asked, obviously latching onto something that was at least relatively concrete.

"He uses them as raw materials," EDI said. "He builds everything out of some odd plastic that uses diamond as a dopant to produce a structural material that is, if Edgar's figures are correct, stronger than Silaris Armor."

"How much stronger?" Shepard asked.

"According to Edgar," EDI said, "a t-shirt made of this plastic has the same protective value as one hundred centimeters of Silaris Armor."

"A t-shirt," Shepard said. "That seems a bit unbelievable."

"I know," EDI said. "However, the structural matrix is also unbelievable. Unlike standard materials, which exist in three dimensions, the matrix of this plastic exists in twenty-seven dimensions. It is this hyperdimensional structure which gives it its strength, and gives his designs their functionality. Even his circuitry exists in twenty-seven dimensions."

"This is impossible!" Miranda cried. "How can he look so much like my father? Why is he traveling with us? I can't be near him, Shepard! I ... I don't know what will happen, but I just can't be!"

"I think I can safely say he feels the same way, Miranda," Shepard said. "Do you remember when we met Veetor?"

"The quarian?" Miranda asked. "He was a basket case."

"Fred was in worse shape after you were through with him," Shepard said. "Tali and Dr. Chakwas are still working on putting him back together."

"Oh god," Miranda groaned, putting her face in her hands. "Tali already hates me because I'm Cerberus. Now I'll be lucky if she doesn't feed me her shotgun."

"I'd say that's a fairly accurate assumption," Shepard said. "Zaeed's not much happier with you. He knows shell shock when he sees it, and he helped Tali put Fred back together – at least enough that she could get him to Dr. Chakwas."

"On a ship this small, how are we supposed to avoid each other?" Miranda asked. She looked, to Shepard, as if she were about to curl in on herself.

"Fred's staked a claim on a section of the hangar deck," Shepard said, "near where Zaeed set up the pistol range. As long as you don't go down there, you'll never have to see him."

"Good, good," Miranda said, hugging herself and rocking. Shepard was beginning to worry. He'd never seen Miranda like this before – she was always so composed and self-controlled. It looked as if she were on the verge of having a breakdown. He made a note to talk with Dr. Chakwas about having a chat with Miranda, without him around. "I'll stay away from the hangar deck. Good plan. I'll stay in my office. He won't come to me. He's not Daddy."

"Miranda," Shepard said, "you've always skirted the subject before. Maybe now's a good time to tell me. Who is your father?"

Miranda shook her head, hugged herself tighter, and rocked more violently, "No. No, no, no, no. Keep away. No, no, no."

"Miranda," Shepard called. When she didn't respond, he raised his voice. "Miranda!" She stopped, still, her head tracking toward his voice. "Miranda, he's not here. He can't reach you here. Can you hear me?"

"No, can't reach me here," Miranda said. "Cerberus keeps him away. Shepard keeps him away. Stay on Normandy. Can't reach me on Normandy."

"That's right," Shepard said, inwardly groaning. He'd always known she was wound too tight, but he hadn't realized she was wound this tight. "He can't reach you on the Normandy. We'll stop him. You can relax, Miranda. We'll keep him away from you."

Before he could react, Miranda had launched herself across the couch and was clutching his shoulders. She kissed him, hard enough to bruise his lips. Shepard raised his hands and gently peeled her hands off his shoulders. She whimpered as he gently pushed her away.

"Not good enough," Miranda whimpered. "Not good enough for him. Not good enough for you."

"That's not true," Shepard said gently. "You are good enough. If I weren't already in love, I would be happy to accept what you're offering. But tell me the truth, Miranda. Would you be able to trust me if I cheated on Liara? Would you feel secure that I wouldn't cheat on you?"

Miranda looked into Shepard's eyes, then dropped her gaze and shook her head. "No, you're right. I ... I'd always wonder if you were cheating on me. Thank you, Shepard."

"Do you feel strong enough to make it back to your office?" Shepard asked. "I'll send Dr. Chakwas to talk with you later, once you've had a chance to rest."

"I don't need – " Miranda started.

"You can't keep holding it in," Shepard said. "Look what happened today, because no one knew. Better to get it out with someone safe. Either Dr. Chakwas or Kelly, your choice."

"I ... I think I'd prefer Dr. Chakwas," Miranda said. "If I talked with Kelly, it would get back to the Illusive Man."

"I'll tell her to expect your call," Shepard said. "And, Miranda? We can't be lovers, but you can damned well come up here to cry on my shoulder any time you want. I can't imagine anything will be as hard as today was."

"I can't imagine it will be, either," Miranda said. "Thank you, Shepard."