Disclaimer: Mass Effect is owned by Bioware.
Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea...
--"Crossing the Bar," Alfred Lord Tennyson
She opened her eyes to the dim glow of the Normandy's lower cargo hold. The hum of the ship's drive core vibrated through her the soles of her feet. It was a familiar sound, a comfortable noise she'd gotten used to. The familiar soft whirr and clicks of a gun being cleaned made her look around. Gunnery Chief Ashley Williams stood at her station as she usually was, a professional eye on the pieces of her sidearm as she disassembled it.
Shepard rubbed her head, frowning. Something was off...
"Didn't think I'd have to see you this soon, Commander," Ashley said, rubbing an oiling cloth along the barrel of her gun.
It hit her. Dead. Ashley was dead—whatever was left of her body likely disintegrated by the force of the bomb that Shepard had set off on Virmire.
An explosion of memories filtered through her mind: the Normandy, Ilos, Kaidan, Saren, Sovereign, and the geth. Wait a minute... The Normandy?That strange ship.... The Normandy was... destroyed?
The encroaching vacuum felt like a krogan sitting on her chest. She could see precious oxygen hissing past her face as she tumbled head over heels into the cold void, each breath harder than the next...
"I'm dead, aren't I?" Funny how she didn't feel dead. She looked down at her hands and flexed her fingers—calloused and scarred from eleven years of military service.
Ashley frowned at a stubborn smudge of grease on her gun. "Something like that."
Shepard clenched her hands against her thighs and took a step closer. "Ash, I never got to say how sorry—"
"Don't worry about it, Commander. You did what you had to do. Hell, if you'd saved me instead of going after the Kaidan and the bomb, I'd have knocked you into next week." She smirked and Shepard's gut clenched. How many times had she seen her friend with that expression when she was alive?
"I wanted to get to you first," Shepard said quietly. "But—"
"I know, Commander," Ash said. "The bomb was more important, and you know I can take care of myself."
Shepard licked her lips, looking around. "Where... where am I? This looks like the Normandy, but it was blown up..." It even smelled the same—engine grease, gun oil, and even that dusty scent that Wrex had brought with him when he chose his little spot next to some cargo boxes. She half expected to hear Garrus somewhere behind her muttering turian obscenities as he tinkered with the calibrations to the Mako.
"It's a little hard to explain." Ash put down her cleaning rag and faced her fully. "Commander, I'm here to tell you that there are people waiting to meet you."
"What do you mean?"
Ash nodded her head at the elevator. "Your family."
Shepard walked to the elevator. The door slid open at her approach. It was empty aside from the gentle glow of the console. "They're waiting for me?" Her voice caught in her throat a little.
"Yeah, but Commander, you should know... if you go to see them now, you can't come back."
Shepard let her hand fall from where it had drifted to the control console on the elevator. "What are you talking about? I'm dead right? Why shouldn't I go see my family?"
Ashley walked over to her, looking uncharacteristically serious. "There's something else you need to do. I'm not gonna lie. If you stay, there's going to be a tough road ahead and it's going to hurt. But... you could save billions of lives. Trillions, even."
Shepard turned away, walking to the outside wall of the elevator and sliding down, feeling every bump from the bulkhead on her dead-and-yet-not-dead spine. "The Reapers," she whispered, squeezing her eyes shut.
Shepard was so sick of the choices.
Hide or stay to defend family from batarian slavers.
Skinny sixteen-year-old arms hug scraped knees while bitten and bleeding lips struggled to repeat a prayer. Mother had pushed her into the closet when the four-eyed aliens had started shooting…
Go after the thresher that killed her squad or live to fight another day.
"Toombs!" She clawed frantically at the space where the corporal's hand had been only moments before, but he was gone, down into a deep hole she couldn't even see the bottom of. Her leg was burning, and she looked down to see acid from one of the worm-like aliens burning quickly through her hardsuit. She wasn't going to survive if she stayed much longer…
Spend another night alone or break every reg against fraternization and kiss Kaidan until the galaxy disappeared around them.
"Shepard, you make me feel… human."
Save Kaidan or Ashley, and doom one to certain death.
"No heroics, Williams! I'm coming to get you too!"
"We both know that won't happen, Commander."
"Sweetheart, it's what you choose to do with your gifts that really matters. Ability is run-of-the-mill until you actually do something with it."
Shepard raised her head, looking around wildly, convinced she'd heard her mother's voice. But no. Only Ashley was still standing there, her dark eyes uncharacteristically solemn.
Shepard pulled herself to her feet, feeling mysterious dull pains starting to shoot through her body.
"Ash, can you… can they wait on me a little longer?"
Ashley grinned. "I'll be right here, Commander. Don't worry, your family will understand." She turned to go back to her table of arms. Shepard stepped forward, mouth open to say one last goodbye or apology, and the cargo hold of the Normandy went black.
"My God, she's waking up…"
If she could have screamed she would have. Shepard felt her consciousness being pulled toward wakefulness as if a barbed hook was embedded in her nose. Pain flared all over her body, and she felt her arms flailing.
A firm hand grasped hers. Kaidan? No, a feminine face. Dark hair. Ashley?
"Calm down, Shepard. Don't try to move…"
A wild beeping somewhere above her head, pain, the glare of lights, the pain, someone named Wilson yelling in the background, pain, pain, pain, pain and why won't someone make it stop?
Suddenly the throbbing began to recede and darkness edged around the sliver of her vision. It was okay. She could rest now.
...But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home...