Chapter 5 - Cause and Effect
The rest of the afternoon had passed uneventfully, with the press dispersing after only an hour. He'd managed to get away with only a couple of statements and an apology from the Asari journalist. He had had the good grace to accept without snapping, which had surprised him. Now, however, he was moving to a much more pleasant duty. He stood in front of the airlock, his heart thundering in his chest. Just like yesterday. He remembered the first time seeing her - Joker leaning nonchalantly against a Cerberus bulkhead, a smug look on his face. He could see the sleek shape stretching out, visible through the portholes nearby.
"Ready?" His mother's voice was cool and collected, ever the admiral. He glanced at her and smiled, looking past her to Miranda, who had insisted on joining him on this. Her exact words had been Someone has to brief Chakwas and make sure you don't jump into another suicide mission. He gave her a nod and turned back to the door, shifting the grip on the cane in his left hand. Part of him resented it, never really liking that he had to rely on external support - he'd always prided himself on his resilience. However, Miranda had pointed out his reliance on a team, which was similar. He had shot back that he couldn't upgrade the cane's sidearm or engage it in an interesting debate on the ethics of history.
And yet it was a comfort as well, a tacit reminder that he was here. The pressure against his palm, the feel of support. He'd have preferred another type, but that thought was pushed to the dark place at the back of his mind. Something to deal with later, something to plan about when he could think clearly and in peace. Or something he could ignore and hopefully never have to address again.
He let out a shuddering breath and felt Hannah's hand on his shoulder. She thought he was worried about this. If only it were that simple. Eyes locked straight ahead, he adjusted the new Admiral's cap atop his head and stepped forwards as the airlock slid upwards.
A two tone whistle announced his arrival, followed by an accented voice bellowing:
"Admiral on Deck - Company, 'ten-SHUN. Pre-sent ARMS."
He stepped through as dozens of feet clanked against deck plating. As he entered the corridor behind the cockpit he couldn't help but smile. Crew lined the thoroughfare all stood at rigid attention, their hands raised in salute. In front of him Vega grinned lazily, arm raised in salute, his dress blues clearly under a lot of strain over the man's ridiculous bulk.
"Ship ready for inspection, sir."
Shepard leaned slightly on his right leg and pulled the cane under his left arm, like a baton of old, before slamming a crisp salute of his own.
"Thank you Lieutenant Commander. Please, stand the men easy. The Captain?"
"Captain Alenko is in the CIC ready to brief you, sir. An honour to have you aboard."
"You're loving this aren't you."
"Hey, not every day you get to make the great Com-Admiral Shepard get all dressed up. Not in my usual day-plan, loco." Grinning, James presented another salute, returned by Shepard, before turning smartly to the crew. "At EASE! Stand easy."
The hands dropped, the crew slammed to at an ease pose and relaxed. Shepard nodded, satisfied then peered into the cockpit at a still-seated Joker, EDI sat in the co-pilot's seat. The pilot braced up in his chair and nodded.
"Welcome aboard, sir. Hope you don't mind if I don't stand, might take a while."
He chuckled - Joker was actually a little embarrassed!
"Stand, or rather sit easy, Joker. Ignore the gold braid, never was much one for formality, you know that. Good to be back aboard. She still handling well, or is she now too much for a now average Alliance pilot?"
"Ooooh them's fighting words Co- Admiral. Dammit sir, not fair. I'd break my hand and get tossed in the brig." Joker chuckled, "Still handles like a dream… the ship too!"
EDI looked across at him sharply. Shepard snorted and turned away to avoid further shocks.
"Carry on… or rather, wait until I'm out of earshot please."
He heard Miranda greeting the pilot behind him, their old formality long lost - there was the hint of a teasing note in her voice now when she spoke. He proceeded down the concourse away from the cockpit, towards the CIC, cane clicking against the deck plating. He nodded at every crew member, spared a word, a thank you, a hand-shake, until he reached the large holographic map. Kaidan Alenko came to attention and performed a crisp salute: Shepard was getting bored of this now. He returned it with a mock-steel glare at the Captain..
"Don't tell me you're going to pull this official crap too?"
"Only for the Camera's sir. I see Al Jilani is accompanying us."
"We've come to an accord. You'll probably get the reruns later on ANN," he looked around at the crew and nodded, "Thanks for this, Kaidan. I mean that."
"Ready to say a few words?"
"When am I not?"
"Point taken. Talking my damn ear off to get me to explain about BAaT down in the mess. Don't know how I handled that boss."
"Mental scarring, deep denial and a pathological urge to outdo me? Well done on that by the way."
Kaidan chuckled and gestured to the podium of the CIC, which raised over the holographic image of the Normandy and starmap. He hobbled onto it, watching as the crew filed in to listen. There'd be a few at duty station in engineering and the cargo bay, but most were here. Regardless, he keyed the shipboard PA system.
"Ladies, Gentlemen… Vega. It is an honour to be back here again. This is going to be the second speech I've done today, but this one is for me. Selfish, maybe, but I wanted to say thank you to all of you. Each and every one. You have given so much and you continue to give. I am proud to have served with you and damn proud to be allowed back on board, considering the crap you put up with in the past!"
That got a couple of cheers and some laughs. He waited for them to subside and look across the room.
"I heard about your little Gilligan's island period, lost in the wilderness. I cannot imagine how that must've been. The fact you all held together, pushed through and brought this hunk of rust home is a miracle and a blessing. Everyone sacrificed so much, but for me The Normandy and her crew have always led from the front, always survived the odds. You are the reason I'm still here, getting me through stuff that should've killed my team and I over and over again. And if there are gods out there, ones not interested in galactic obliteration, then I want to thank them letting me get back to just say thank you. Now," here he removed the cap from his head and leaned against the railing as the applause rattle dutifully along; he swore he could see a couple of the crew sniffing, even Specialist Traynor, her mock sarcastic facade cracking a little, "I distinctly remembering there being a bar aboard. Rear Admiral Shepard has advised me that her crew will be overseeing duties for the rest of the day aboard ship. Who wants a beer?"
The cheering and applause could be heard all the way down in engineering.
Shepard roared with laughter and slapped his leg, which caused him to go wide eyed with pain, which just got more laughter from the crew, Chakwas included.
"And then you said 'but why four?'" Donnelly elaborated, as Gabriella glowered. She smacked his chest as the Scottish engineer draped an arm around her.
"Hey, how was I supposed to know that he was talking about… those. And I didn't expect that to mean it was a proposition!"
Shepard wheezed, wiping his eyes. He prodded Donnelly.
"So, you were all ready to jump in and defend her honour?"
"Oh aye, totally. Would've brought the scaly bugger some ryncol first for being brave though!"
Another smack, but he just kissed Gabby's forehead. She blushed and muttered something under her breath. But she was smiling.
"I see your point. See what you missed out on Adams - young love, blossoming against adversity…" he watched the elder engineer roll his eyes, swigging from a bottle.
"A horny Krogan and a tattooed psychopath…" elaborated Gabby, with mock nostalgia. She glared at Donnelly and grinned wickedly, "'Course there was that time Jack managed to…"
"Ah! No, we dinnae need to go there - Ah've still got the scars from the cloth burn."
Shepard pushed himself to his feet and wobbled. He grinned as he steadied himself, waving away their concerns.
"Look, just because I had the Citadel drop on me doesn't mean you lot to treat me like I'm a glass statue. Now, enjoy, I need a top up."
He limped to the bar and eased himself into a seat, nodding gratefully as Gardner passed him a beer. The cool alcohol was a welcome respite, a chance to to wallow in a good moment with no concerns. Before, any socialising had been done against a backdrop of war, or imminent destruction - moments of peace snatched against chaos. That always lent a sense of manic desperation to proceedings; or at least a "throw your arms in the air" kind of dance. Now, though, in this place aboard what had once been his ship? Now it was a sense of peace, of family and friends. He smiled as Miranda chatted animatedly to Traynor, the woman utterly oblivious to the stare and rapt attention the British Specialist was giving her. Or maybe she was. He noticed Miranda's thigh brush Samantha's knee a couple of times and she was certainly orienting herself against the light.
"Admiring the view sir?" He glanced up at Kaidan's wolfish grin as the Captain eased down into a stool next to him.
"It's like watching a hunter and prey playing out. Can't decide which is which though."
"Things do change. Why isn't she staying on Earth? Thought she had a sister."
"Apparently Oriana is helping in a refugee camp in Sydney. Plenty of security, lots of resources and the promise of Miranda's wrath should any harm come to the girl. She's got a couple of Krogan guards. But really, not much to protect against down there - the odd separatist or fanatic, maybe some husk remnants, shielded from the transmission." Shepard took a swig and saw Kaidan shift, "Something on your mind?"
"Do you think there're any left, Shepard? Any that survived?"
The Admiral shrugged, "We killed most of them. Sovereign was just one and we killed it with an unoptimised fleet. Now… now we know what to look for. But I don't think the ships are left. Maybe an enclave of indoctrinated. Maybe some husks, or a destroyer, lost and alone. But so long as we hold together, no… they're gone." Kaidan nodded, seemingly reassured. Shepard patted his arm, "And if something does emerge, something does come back from the dark… we beat the damn fleets at the height of their power. They aren't invincible. And they know we know that. Any that are left… are insane and trapped."
He saw the man's curious expression and suddenly he felt the urge to change the subject, to avoid those memories, that light, the voices.
"Kaidan, I want to thank you. I know this is damn near borderline me coming aboard. Feels like I'm taking over. Appropriating your ship for a lift."
"I feel the same," Shepard jolted slightly, but raised an eyebrow, relaxing as Kadian chuckled, "How d'you think I felt when I took command after you were… gone? Felt like I was wearing someone else's clothes, someone else's skin. Still do to an extent. This will always be your home Shepard, as much as any of us. So, don't feel bad. You've even got your cabin for the trip. And we cleaned the sheets for you, boss. So, thanks are unnecessary. For pulling our asses out of the fire, for having our backs… a lift is the least we can do." He took a swig, "It's why we're also giving you some beer and food. I think that makes us even."
Across the room, Traynor was glassy eyed as Miranda had leaned in to whisper something in her ear, hand on the woman's knee. The former Cerberus operative had pulled away with a grin, before damn near gliding across the room to talk to someone else, before vanishing out of the room. The Specialist had smoothed her shirt nodded to herself, looked around and positively sprinted from the room. The pair of officers chuckled. Shepard raised his bottle and clinked it against Kaidan's.
"I'll drink to that."
A tower of blue-veined skulls. It moved, becoming a walking spire of tendrils. Each skull fixed their three-socketed gaze upon his face. They screamed - a deep, blaring horn of a noise, undulating with higher pitched tones. Blood oozed from the walking monstrosity, bubbling beneath its hulking form. It strode forwards, smashing against indistinct towers. dissolving shadowy figures beneath it with another echoing shrieking bellow.
He staggered under the onslaught. He tried to run, but his feet were bogged down amongst a pile of dessicated corpses. The face of a collector oozed to the surface of the pile, a chitinous hand grasping at his wrist. Another bellow dragged his panicked gaze upwards. A tendril closed down on him, threatening to crush him. As it drew inexorably nearer, the tower of death roared again, a reverberating sound; the skulls at the tentacle's tip drew apart, revealing a shattered, purple visor…
He shot awake, sucking in deep, ragged breaths, the pistol clutched in his hand, pointing at the door. There was nothing there. The room was dark bathed in a blue glow from the fish tank, still fully populated. They kept the fish he'd thought as he had staggered, limping unsteadily, back into his old cabin. Kaidan and Liara had decided to use the XO's cabin for this trip, letting him have his old haunt back for a while.
But there was still a noise - not a bellow, but an insistent beeping. He saw the orange light of his, no Kaidan's, personal terminal flashing. Though it probably wasn't his place, he got to his feet, planting bare skin against deck plating. Carefully he edged along the bed, using the coffee table, then the pillar of the display case to ease his aching form up to the raised office area. Dully, he realised the pistol was still in his hand, but he seemed unable let go of it. Surely Kaidan would've rerouted all messages? Or Liara would at the very least. Which meant it was likely for him.
He keyed the acknowledge button, noticing that his hand was shaking as he pressed the button. He was still staring at it as the voice emerged from the speakers.
"You complete bosh'tet."
His gaze whipped up, meeting a purple visor and slitted silver eyes. She was shaking herself. He could tell. Not quite as much as him. He saw her pause, evidently taking him in. But whereas before her next question would've radiated concern, now her voice was clipped and angry.
"A year. You ran off and left me and now you waltz back after a year, you selfish selfish man. Have a nice time? Get some Asari pregnant?"
He had never seen her like this. Now he saw her he could take in more detail - her once loose purple cloth was now a tight wrap, darker in hue, nearly black. Her suit, as she leaned back, was more military now - Admiral markings, utility straps more uniform across her chest, armour as well it looked like.
"Coma,." he managed to breath out.
He shook his head and frowned, utterly utterly lost. And angry as well.
"Yes, well, dropping off an exploding space station kind of ruined my day."
"Really? It fucking ruined my life you inconsiderate human."
"And now you're back, waltzing back like some conquering hero. You selfish ass."
He ran a hand through his hair, feeling his fingers come away wet with perspiration. A really bad dream then. His thoughts were fogged by fear, stress and not a little bit of alcohol.
"Well, can't have been that bad. I hear congratulations are in order."
He saw her stiffen, her helmeted head tilting in what he knew was her "Oh now I'm pissed" face. He felt a little twinge of bitter victory there.
"Yes. And at least he hasn't abandoned me when I needed him. Someone I can actually build a future with." She practically spat the words at him. He leaned back slowly, the death grip on the pistol somehow tightening. He heard it scrape across the desk. Now she saw him properly, not the fuzzy ill-lit version, hunched over a terminal. She saw the etches on his face, the still-present exhaustion, the tracery of scars and still-not-healed stitches. The clear shine of sweat on his form. And the pistol. The twisted head straightened, clearly confused and, for a moment, she tilted forwards, concerned. He saw her hands drift together briefly, before she forced them out of view. He snorted, suddenly more tired than he'd ever felt.
"I'm glad it was a quick resolution for you. Let me know where to send the card. Good night Admiral Tali'Zorah."
He punched the disconnect button, cutting off her retort, then keyed in a block on incoming calls.
Only now did he realise his breathing was sharp and shallow. He forced himself to relax, a trick he'd learned during N7 training, during those long sniper assessments. But it didn't work. He staggered to his feet, vision blurring. He stumbled, falling against the cabin door. With a yell he launched the pistol at the model display, shattering the glass. With a choke he slid down the door and sagged, dry heaving for tears that wouldn't - couldn't - come.
After what seemed hours, he pushed himself to his feet. Like a man on autopilot he limped to the storage locker and pulled out a set of slacks from his meagre pile, as well as a shirt. He glanced at the time display - only ten minutes since she'd called. Wow.
He lurched through his door, onto the elevator, barely noticing the descent. He stumbled out on the crew deck, eyes fixed on the lounge. A few crew were slumped in the mess hall, he could hear their snores. He felt a hand grip his bicep and he turned, a snarl on his face. He met a calm stare from a serene blue face. She nodded slightly and pursed her lips in sympathy. He could see Kaidan lingering behind her, shorts and tee his only garb. He managed to make a couple of connections.
"I see I'm not the only one getting late night calls."
"I'm sorry Shepard. I am not sure what happened. Communication links are very tight, we barely had comms with Rannoch. But what you're about to do is… not the right course."
He managed a shrug, but it felt forced.
"Seems like a good fallback. It's how she handled her issues once. Learn from the master, maybe?"
Liara gripped his shoulders. Slowly she shook her head. Her eyes were softer now, soft like they used to be before all this. Before war had robbed them all of the wondrous ignorance and innocence. He buckled and sagged, near impacting the deck. He saw Kaidan move, then pause as Liara held up a hand. His shoulders shook as suddenly, the weight of everything came home to rest. Arms enveloped him, as he breathed raggedly into a shoulder, the grief too big to bear not allowing him release. His voice was hoarse, ragged.
"All dead. All dead. And no matter what I did we all lost. And I can't bring them back. Pressely, Javik, Anderson, Williams. All those people on Earth and Tuchanka and Thessia. And now… now Tali. Is there nothing nothing I can make that lasts? That isn't tainted, ruined, destroyed?"
He clutched at her, felt her rise and pull him up with her. Other arms gripped him, Kaidan helping him. They limped to the XO's cabin, where they helped him onto the sofa. His friends hovered nearby, then sat down near him. Kaidan ran a hand through his sleep-ruffled hair, looking at his clearly broken former Commander. Through it all he'd never seen the man break, never seen him really falter. He had let the man down once before. Not again. He leaned forwards, resting his arms on knees.
"I think we better explain what happened on our… Gilligan island."
Even through the haze of despair and pent up grief and loss, Shepard managed a weak chuckle. Liara massaged Shepard's hand across the small table. Only now did the commander note how the place had been redesigned into more of a living space, rather than an office. Always picking up the little things. Stops the big things getting in the way. He took a shuddering breath, must've been the fiftieth that evening and leaned back, nodding. His mind was a jumble, but he marshalled himself, shoring up his old blocks; but now he knew they were so so fragile.
"Right. Let's do this."