Keeping a Promise

I don't own Bioware, but I love playing round with their characters, especially Ashley.

"God didn't promise days without pain, laughter without sorrow, sun without rain, but He did promise strength for the day, comfort for the tears, and light for the way."

UNKNOWN LOCATION

COMBINED FLEET HEADQUARTERS

April 7th, 2190

"This is it, our last chance at victory. Does everyone know what to do?"

Ashley stared out at the burning blue star. Somehow, they had managed to keep this last bastion safe. A final outpost, a stronghold, a rally point. One lone beacon of hope, trying to shine light on a galaxy consumed in darkness.

Five years since Shepard had destroyed the Collectors. Four since the Reaper invasion. Two since Supreme Commander Hackett and what was left of the Salarian fleet had perished in a blaze of glory, destroying eight Reapers' in the skies over Sur'Kesh, and allowing the rest of the Citadel Fleets to survive to fight another day. Hackett had gone out like a soldier, evacuating most of his crew, and then ramming the Everest right into N'Thrazata's main body, neatly bisecting the Reaper.

Yet somehow, Cerberus had kept this base hidden. Every record was wiped, all navigation data destroyed. The Anderson Protocol had enforced the destruction of all unsecured navigation databases. When the Reaper's attacked the Citadel, they found no ships or fleets to oppose them, just wave after wave of minefields, and automatic GARDIAN turrets. Half a dozen of the gigantic machines burned and died, their defences overwhelmed. And when they landed their indoctrinated servants, they found no civilians, only a few hundred C-Sec volunteers, commanded by Bailey. One by one, Bailey's men perished, but they accomplished their goal, the vast computer systems that the Citadel housed, storing millions of terabytes worth of data, had all been destroyed, safeguarding the hiding places of a dozen fleets and hundreds of colony worlds.

Five years of preparation, warfare, sacrifice and unbearable loss, and it all came down to today. Ashley remembered when it had all started for her, on April 8th, 2185. The day her life had irreversibly changed.

"Hey Ash, I'm sorry I missed you. But I guess it makes this easier."

Jennifer Shepard had been a hero. The unassuming child of a hellfire Marine Corps Lieutenant, and a mild mannered navigation officer. Any accusations of nepotism she had brushed aside with her frequent demonstrations of talent, courage and raw ability. Millions of non-combatants on Elysium could attest to that fact.

"About what you said on Horizon, you might have been right. But I meant what I said; Cerberus is the only group willing to put everything on the line to combat the Reaper's. We're going to need them...scratch that, you're going to need them."

Ash had stayed late at the armoury that night, testing one of the new M-98 Widows. She had been surprised on her return to her apartment, when her VI informed her of the audio message from Shepard. She had been even more shocked by its contents.

"We're about an hour out from the Omega-4 Relay. I'm taking the Normandy after the Collector's. They attacked the ship again, took most of my crew. I'm going to get them back, and finish the Collector's off, once and for all. I've cleaned my weapons, double checked my armour, and now I'm in Zero Dark Thirty. So many questions and prayers are on my lips. I heard New Canton was hit a week ago. While the Collector's were kidnapping those colonists, I was on Ilium, having new armour fitted and helping my XO with a personal matter."

Miranda had barely survived the suicide mission. She led the first diversionary team, successfully fighting through the initial Collector counter-attack, and opening the door for Shepard. One of Harbinger's biotic blasts had struck her in the chest as Tali worked to close the blast door, temporarily stopping her heart.

Mordin and Jack had saved her life, the former by using his omni-tool as a debrilator to restart her heart, the latter by carrying her back to the Normandy's Sickbay, all the while hurling curses and biotic shockwaves at the Collector's trying to kill the crewmember's that Shepard had rescued.

Ashley hadn't initially wanted to work with her, but she had to admit, Miranda (now Admiral Lawson) was efficient, dedicated, and loyal.

"I know I can't wait any longer. If I do, I risk dooming my crew and thousands more colonists to whatever fate the Collector's have planned. I've helped as many of my crew as I possibly could, tried to get them focused on the mission. Justicar Samara and myself tracked down and eliminated a dangerous fugitive whom she had chased for centuries. She's a focused centre of calm in the sea of this insanity."

Samara had been everything Shepard made her out to be. Hundreds of Reaper slaves had thrown themselves against her at the Fall of Elysium, but the aged warrior had crushed them like insects, allowing Admiral Zaal'Koris to escape with his makeshift flotilla, former Migrant Fleet ships packed to the brim with human survivors. It was rumoured that she had killed a Reaper by dragging it down from orbit. Nobody was sure if that was true, certainly no one had returned to Elysium to confirm it.

"I was able to clear Tali of all charges at her trial; I tried to sow the seeds of peace between them and the Geth. Turns out the Geth are open for negotiation; I have a representative on board, an amalgation of programs known as Legion. I helped him to re-program a segment of the Geth that were loyal to the Reaper's. I pray this doesn't come back to bite the rest of the galaxy in the ass, but I have a feeling it may do exactly the opposite."

Shepard was correct. The Geth had returned the Quarian's home world to them, allowing them a safe place to house their civilians, before sending their military ships to the frontlines, and set their transports to evacuating civilians and getting them to hidden colonies. Tali herself was now an Admiral, leading the combined Quarian/Geth warships.

"Jack... she's a troubled soul, but I helped her put her demons to rest on Pragia. I know she's ready for this fight, but I'm not sure how much longer after that. She respects strength, and I know you've got plenty of that. Give her a reason to follow you and she'll fight like an army unleashed."

Jack was on Earth now, somewhere in Europe, fighting in one of Anderson's resistance units. The local militia had nicknamed her "The Angel of Death". Jack was probably pleased by the title.

"And Mordin, my dear friend. Participated in genocide and never forgave himself. He has the means to begin again, to create a cure for the genophage. I'll do my best to make sure he survives. This cure could be the answer to Wrex's problems.

It had taken Mordin three years, but he had solved the problem and gifted the genophage to the krogan. Birth rates quadrupled overnight. It had been one of the sweetest days in Ashley's life when she witnessed the Council approaching Wrex and the ruling Chieftain's, humbly begging for forgiveness and help. The krogan had provided tens of thousands of warriors, all ready for fighting. The Krogan had proved again why they were the best fighter's in the galaxy. Ash had seen for herself the power of the Hoard for herself, when Pashtan the Magnificent had boarded a Reaper with his battalion and destroyed it.

Mordin had not lived long enough to see the fruits of his labour. His tired old heart had finally given up, two days after the genophage cure was successfully implemented. Perhaps it was better that way; he had not witnessed the utter obliteration of his beloved home world of Mannovai.

Mordin was the last of my successes. Before I could take Grunt through his Rite of Passage, I received an urgent message from the Illusive Man, informing me of a Collector Ship that had been disabled. I couldn't wait, I needed to take that thing down. And after that mission was over, there was just no time to return to Tuchanka, it was so far away from my Area of Operations. Jacob received word that maybe his father was still alive, we were en route to investigate when I got the news that maybe Tali was in trouble on Haestrom. Jacob insisted we divert, I could tell that it troubled him more than he let on. And Thane...after I helped Legion, he confided in me, told me that he wanted to help his son. I assured him that there would be plenty of time later...but not now, not anymore.

Ash had seen the mission recordings. Lieutenant Jacob Taylor had ordered the rest of the team back to the Normandy, intending to stay and guard Shepard's final assault himself. Grunt had refused to abandon his post, seeking to prove himself, maybe by taking down every Collector in the base. Thane had also disregarded the order, choosing to finish his life on his own terms.

Grunt had killed a Praetorian with his bare hands, ripping it apart piece by piece. It had sensed his intentions and self-destructed, taking the tank-bred krogan with it. Grunt had died, but his name was etched into Krogan history. Thane had been simply too fast for the Collectors, moving like a wind among their ranks, snapping necks and delivering point blank killshots. It had taken a mass of seeker swarms to grab him and drag him away.

And Jacob? His shotgun smashed into pieces, out of thermal clips for his pistol, the titanium combat talon snapped in two. Covering himself in biotic energy, he had charged right at the foe. He had fallen, riddled with more bullets than anyone cared to count.

"I have a feeling you'd like Kasumi, Ash. She's funny, smart, and has a great poetry collection. I helped her pull off a raid on a crime boss by the name of Donovan Hock, to retrieve a grey box that had belonged to her friend. Things went bad I'm afraid, we killed Hock, but the grey box was destroyed in the process, she never got to see what was on it. She seems distracted by this, but I'll try as hard as I can to keep her safe."

Kasumi Goto, Master Thief, had fallen to her death. Shepard had tried to grab her before she fell, but the smooth material of the small woman's jumpsuit had slipped through her hands. All the good intentions in the world would not have saved her. The sharpened intellect and cunning instinct could do nothing against simple gravity.

"Garrus...well, he's always Garrus. Smart, dependable, courageous. I know that he won't let me down. Or at least, he'll try his hardest not to."

And Garrus had tried, but even he could only do so much. Injured from the beam that had fallen onto him, wounded by gunshots, so very tired, right when Shepard had needed him the most...

"Why am I telling you all this? It's fairly simple, I've got that feeling again. The same one I got the night I stepped off the Agincourt, ready for shore leave, on Elysium. Like the one I got before Eden Prime. The same damn twitch I've had just before shit hits the fan in a big way. Virmire, when Kaidan put his back against the bomb and went out fighting. And the morning before I died...the first time anyway. I don't think I'm coming back."

Shepard had planted the radiation device in the middle of the Collector Base, refusing to allow such a resource to go to waste. Her opinion was that it served as a game changer, on the scale of mass driver technology. And then, with nothing more than a missile launcher, she had killed a Human Reaper.

"I'm not going into this fight with some sort of death wish. I want to make that clear, I really don't want to die...again. But I know, deep down, that something's going to go wrong. I know that...somehow, this is my last fight. Fuck...I'm scared of death, but I'm more scared of what my death will mean. I assumed that taking down the Collector's would be a stepping stone to beating the Reaper's, but this might be the stone that sinks under my weight."

The ground collapsed underneath her as she ran. Her fingers clawed at the airlock. Garrus tried to reach her, but his wounded arm couldn't sustain her weight. Joker dropped beside him, trying to help. Shepard smiled, whispered something, and then dropped. Flawed, mortal, human.

"I need you to take care of a few things Ash, things that I wouldn't trust anyone with. The first thing is...tell Liara that I love her. Tell her that I wish I had taken her up on that offer that day, that we really had just taken the Normandy somewhere for shore leave, not heading off on the Council mission to find the Geth. In another time...another life. Help her track down the Shadow Broker if you can, keep a promise I made to her."

The Shadow Broker had blustered fruitlessly, the massive Yahg stood head and shoulders above all of them. He reached for the Revenant mounted on his desk. A full platoon of Alliance riflemen cut him down without remorse. Liara had taken his place, cold tears of fury and pain streaking down her face as she assumed control of his massive network.

"The second thing, help Garrus track down the turian that betrayed his squad. I owe the big guy more than I can ever repay, if anyone deserved a bit of revenge, it's him."

"General Vakarian?" The security guard commander pushed the thin turian 'We found him trying to break into the armoury."

Sidonis stared up at his former leader, now decked out in the hard suit of a Hierarchy general officer. "I wanted a weapon, I want to help fight them."

Garrus stared at him impassively, muscles tensing with silent rage. Ash lays a hand on his shoulder and shakes her head. He nods. "Give him a rifle and send him to the front."

"Zaeed Massani. If you or I had met this bastard before, we would have killed him on principle. Hard to say whether he's grown on me, but the urge to punch his teeth out has faded. Either that...or sticking a gun in his face on Zorya was more therapeutic than I thought. Long story, you'll have to hear it from him. I won't consider you honour bound to help him finish his hunt, but I did make the ugly bastard a promise."

Vido's own bodyguards held him in place as Zaeed levelled his pistol. "Come on Massani! We can talk about this, please!"

"Everything you had is mine now," his contempt for his former partner's please was palatable. Ashley looked away, she knew what was coming. "I've had to wait twenty two years, but now I can definitely say it's been worth the wait. I'm taking back my Blue Suns, taking back everything you stole from me, and taking your life into the bargain. Enjoy hell."

The M-3 barked twice. Zaeed grinned slightly. "Always promised myself I'd double tap the motherfucker, just to make sure. Right, Williams? Let's get on with being big bloody heroes."

"The worst part about dying is not knowing what will happen after I'm gone. You're my insurance policy in that regard. Listen close, because I'm only going to say this once. You need to step up to the plate. The galaxy doesn't need a symbol, they need a soldier. Unite them, lead them. I don't care what species they are, if they're big enough to pick up a weapon and shoot it accurately, then recruit them. If a ship can mount a shield generator and a missile launcher, use it. Because they're coming Ash, with nothing to hold them back. Just courage and hope. Good luck Ash, Godspeed...and good hunting."

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"General Williams? The Fleet is ready," Liara spoke softly. Her hologram shivered, it was a long distance from the 'Observatory' to the Shadow Broker's ship orbiting Hagalaz.

"Thanks Liara," Ash turned. The Illusive Man, Garrus, Tali and Miranda were also in the room. The 'Big Six' as they had become known, the last commander's of the Combined Fleets. "This is it. Everyone knows what they have to do. Admiral Lawson, Admiral Zorah, take your fleets in; keep the Reaper's distracted while General Vakarian lands his troops on Earth to relieve Admiral Anderson and General Massani's fighters."

"Is the virus ready?" Liara asked Legion. The Geth nodded.

"If General Williams and her Special Operations units are successful in infiltrating the Reaper flagships, we anticipate twenty four hours till ninety seven percent of the Old Machines are eliminated."

"We'll get the job done," Ashley flexed her right arm, cybernetic now. Only one of her lungs was still operational, and her heart was running with the aid of a pacemaker. Her long black hair had been burned almost completely away, rough stubble all that remained. Injuries sustained when the Normandy SR-2 had been ambushed by Harbinger. Just one more thing that he would be paying for.

"Joker is on board the Shepard," The Illusive Man took a deep drag of his cigarette. "He reports the new stealth systems are ready to go. We've made all the preparations we can. Earth can't hold out any longer. We need to launch the assault."

"Agreed," Garrus grunted. "Are the emergency plans in place if we fail?"

Illusive Man nodded. "I received the report from Admiral Shala' Raan. All our refugees are safe, hidden behind the Perseus Veil. One hundred and seventy billion souls, of all species. Enough to start again...should the worst come to pass."

"We have to take that possibility seriously," Ashley picked up her helmet. "If you get the message...if I fail my mission...then you and Liara take everyone who's left, retreat to Quarian space...and destroy the Mass Relays connecting the Perseus Veil to the outside world. In another few million years, it should be safe to start re-colonizing. Just make damn sure our descendants know what is coming."

"We will," Liara was on the verge of tears. "General...Ash, you won't fail. You can't."

"Don't worry. I made a promise to Shepard. I'll keep that promise, even if it means my life."

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A/N: Reading through one of the Mass Effect Meme's on Deviant Art, one of the questions was "If Shepard died, who would you expect to rise up and take her place?" My answer to that would be that I bloody expect all my team to rise to the occasion.

Military Terminology: Zero Dark Thirty: Referring to a time after midnight, when soldier's await a dawn operation.