Shepard leaned over a railing at the Presidium Lake and watched how construction workers and work mechs were carrying tools and material back and forth. To cement their claim to the Citadel, the Alliance had begun reconstruction efforts immediately, in fact only hours after the end of the battle. And for such a hastily convened project, progress was already considerable. For all his hate of Udina, Shepard had to admit the ambassador was outdoing himself in organizing this all. Though many among the Alliance work crews were grumbling how he was an overly harsh task master in a constant foul mood.
Hearing that had made Shepard grin. He did not envy the workers, but he knew the reason for Udina's behaviour. The ambassador currently presided over all Alliance activities on the Citadel, and hence was de facto the ruler of the Citadel - but he would remain so only for a few days or weeks. Then the new Council would be installed and not him, but Anita Goyle would lead it. Thus now he probably tried to get as much out of his command as possible. At least, this would be typical for him.
He had also heard that there had been troubles with the Keepers. Even though they were no longer under Reaper command, the creatures remained true to their programming. They thus had begun reconstruction works on their own even before the Alliance work crews had arrived. Nobody knew where they got their materials from, but they were quite apparently sufficient. And working around the creatures had become quite a nuisance for the Alliance people. Nobody dared to openly 'defy' their building schemes: They had taken care of Citadel maintenance for centuries, in fact even for millions of years as Shepard knew after his adventures. Thus only they knew all the secrets of the station and its maintenance and hence everybody else, even the Alliance, was careful not to harm them.
Shepard supposed that it was better that way. It was a good thing that the Alliance did not get to see and remold every detail of the Citadel. Shepard did not trust them to do just reconstruction: Given that Udina was in fact in command, they would certainly have used this as an opportunity. Even now he wondered how many Alliance bugs would end up in all the construction material used. He was glad that he would not have to deal with that problem; he doubted the Alliance would bug its own ships. He really did not know how he would do under surveillance. Probably pretty badly.
Currently he was doing reasonably well, though. The sacrifice of the Destiny Ascension still pained him. Fifth Fleet had taken great losses in the fight against Sovereign, but he still wondered if maybe, just maybe they could also have saved the countless lived aboard the ship, among them the Council. However, he knew that things could also have ended very much worse. They could also have ended in the opening of the Citadel relay and the extinction of all galactic species. He had played no small role in preventing that, and that made him look into the future with some optimism.
He had no idea how an entire fleet of Sovereigns could be defeated, but the first battle had gone in the galaxy's favour. The organics had drawn first blood. This would be a cycle unlike any other before it. So there was some hope, and Shepard fully intended to grasp it. So what if he did not know a grand strategy yet? He would simply go step by step. And he already knew his next step: He would take the Normandy and search for clues of previous Reaper invasions. Maybe something of help could be found there. Combat archaeology. Liara will enjoy that. To that end he was scheduled to meet with Hackett soon. He had no intention to give up the Normandy, but also no intentions to rejoin the Alliance. Obviously, that presented some problems in organization.
Another pair of hands grabbed the railing besides him. He had been so lost in his thoughts that he had not noticed Ashley walking up to him and now standing beside him. She wore civilian attire which was a bit more modern than Shepard's own colonist clothes but just as non-fancy. And just like him she most likely would never wear the uniform again. Following his gaze to the Alliance work crews she remarked: "All that construction under the Alliance banner... It kinda still makes me proud." She grimaced. "Still, not worth it."
"You know, when I said I didn't expect you to change all your convictions I meant it," Shepard answered. "But I certainly won't complain. Even though I'm still a bit surprised."
"It's better this way," Ashley stated. "You've seen me the past few weeks. Always insecure, going back and forth between understanding you and clinging to the Alliance. No more of that. I've made my decision. "
She was right. Shepard had witnessed her doubts and insecurities. But before that, he had gotten to know her as a woman of strong will, so he did not doubt that now she had made up her mind for good. "Well then, welcome to Clubs of Dangerous Subversive Elements," Shepard joked. "Your membership card will arrive within the fortnight. Speaking of which, I have a conspiratorial meeting with Admiral Hackett scheduled right now, so..."
With a noncommittal shrug he turned to go. He noticed Ashley following him and thought about protesting, but then decided otherwise. He had not planned to bring her along to the meeting, but then she would remain on the Normandy anyway, so as far as Shepard was concerned she might as well hear about the future of the ship and its crew.
"The fun part will be telling the family," Ashley said with dark humour after they had walked along the Presidium Lake for a while, but then shook her head. "But I can't just ignore what I've seen. What the Alliance has done. To good people, like Kaidan."
Both remained silent for a moment in memory of their fallen comrade.
After a while Shepard said: "It's something I need to discuss with Hackett, too. Your legal status now." Ashley's stated intent to leave the Alliance Navy for good would usually be considered desertion in peace time.
"Maybe I can ask Liara for political asylum in the Republics," Ashley joked. "We defeated Sovereign. How difficult can details like this be, really?"
"It's still something that needs to be worked out," Shepard pointed out, "so we need to... ah, there he is."
He saw Admiral Hackett further down the path along the lake. With him were Pressly and Anderson. The Navigator looked a bit stiff and awkward. The whole situation seemed to make him somewhat uncomfortable. Shepard knew that he had pushed the naturally stiff and conservative Navigator through a lot, maybe a bit too much.
"Shepard," Hackett greeted him. Shepard noticed how besides him Ashley's arm twitched. Probably has to suppress the instinct to salute him. "I have good news for you. I found enough volunteers among Fifth Fleet to make up a new crew for the Normandy."
Shepard was surprised. "That was quick."
"Your name commands both hate and admiration," Hackett said. "It's not difficult to find a sufficient number of people for both sides. I got enough applications that my staff could handpick the people you might want. This way, you'll retain de facto command over the ship."
"As for the old crew," Anderson added, "their charges for mutiny are still pending, but they'll be dropped soon I think. The Admiral assured me that for those who don't want to serve under you anymore, like Commander Pressly, can take up positions in Fifth Fleet."
Shepard nodded. "Thank you, Admiral."
Pressly shook his head. "I'm glad this goes through so smoothly, but it is all hardly standard protocol," he said. "We won, so you must have done something right, Shepard. But still, taking the Normandy for yourself? From the Alliance? That's quite a big thing you're asking for."
"It is," Shepard admitted. "But I need a ship. We need to find hints of past Reaper activity, we need to find anything that could help us beat them. So why not the Normandy? It will soon become well known that it was me who saved the Citadel. For the moment being the Alliance would not dare take it away from me."
Pressly made a disapproving grimace. "Pretty selfish, don't you think? Since you are in fact the hero of the hour I think the Alliance would welcome you back among its ranks."
Shepard sneered at that. "I'm working to save their butts, too. Bad enough my actions nestled them the Citadel. They won't get a poster boy for their recruitment campaigns, too. Not if there's another way to do things."
"I see currently no way how the Alliance Navy could fight a whole fleet of Sovereigns," Hackett spoke up. "So we have to trust in Shepard's expertise and resourcefulness to find some way. That means he is in a position to demand."
"And he's right about politics," Anderson added. "The Alliance will be desperate for every scratch of legitimacy for their new Council. Most of that legitimacy comes from the fact that Shepard defeated Saren. Thus they would not dare move against him. At least not for some months. When the dust settles and everybody is busy with other things again, that might change."
"They'll be presented with accomplished facts," Hackett said. "I think they will publicly sell it as further supporting the Spectre who saved the Citadel."
"You weren't kidding when you described this as a conspiratorial meeting," Ashley said amazed to Shepard.
Shepard shrugged. "You get to stay aboard the Normandy without taking back what you said to Udina. Sounds like a good deal for you, too. That is, uh..." Shepard became a bit insecure. "That is, if you do want to stay aboard." He had simply kind of assumed this, that Ashley's angry words to Udina meant her previous statement to him about going off board once the mission was over were no longer true - however, she had never explicitly said so.
"Of course. Where else would I want to go?" Ashley asked in a tone as if Shepard were a bit slow in thought, as if there had never been any doubt about her staying on or leaving the ship.
"Missions on remote worlds far from Alliance jurisdiction might indeed be the best for you, Williams," Anderson said. It was not a threat, but an honest, friendly warning. "You better keep her in the hot bunking schedule, Shepard."
"This may be wise," Hackett agreed. "In any case, everything has been taken care of. New crew and supplies should be on the Normandy within no more than two days. Then the ship is yours to command again, Shepard."
"Again, thank you, Admiral," Shepard said. "It seems I'll have a lot of personal files to go through then. I better get to work."
Shepard and Ashley nodded to Hackett and shook Anderson's and Pressly's hands. While it was all very friendly, the Spectre knew he had alienated himself from the Captain. He had looked up to Anderson when he had come aboard the Normandy, but now he had moved too fast for his former superior to catch on. His anti-Alliance stance, his fast and loose play with the rules - Shepard did not think Anderson had truly been able to make up his mind about those issues. He supported him, but disapproved of his actions, apparently unwilling to fully take a side. As long as he does support me, though... The alienation was unfortunate, but it was not like Anderson ever had been a close friend or anything.
After the battle, Fifth Fleet held position around the Citadel. The Normandy, however, had again been docked in its usual place, Dock 522. By now, it was more or less a place of honour for the ship. On the way to the dock Shepard and Ashley continued talking. It made him realize how he had missed out these recent weeks. It was good to hear her delightfully aggressive wit again, especially now that she also used it in regards to the Alliance. He could have listened to her deeply cynical humour about the issue for quite some time.
It made Shepard look forward to the time ahead of him. Sure, he had no idea how to stop the Reapers. However, the omnicidal synthetics were not there yet. He hoped his victory against Saren would buy him enough time to find some hope for the organic races. But most importantly, he assumed he would enjoy that time. A crew that would stand fully behind him, no more or at least fewer quarrels with Alliance Command and even issues with Ashley were cleared now. He would work in an environment he had molded right alongside the friends he had made these past months. And Tali, of course. She would of course eventually have to return to the Flotilla. There was unfortunately no doubt about that. But he figured he could still have at least some more months with her. And who knows what happens then, anyway? If we're unlucky, the Reaper will already be here by then. No point looking too far into the future.
He actually spotted the quarian standing at the dock, outside the Normandy. With her were Wrex, Garrus and Liara. Tali and Liara seemed very lively in trying to convince the unmoved krogan about something. When the he noted Shepard's approach he muttered: "Damn. Too late. You win, quarian."
"You're not getting away that easily," Tali replied, and to Shepard: "He tried to steal himself away without saying good bye."
Shepard laughed. Wrex and good bye scenes were really two things that somehow did not seem to fit to each other. And he had expected the mercenary to leave. "So, returning to Tuchanka?"
"I've got a job to do." Wrex confirmed. "As you know."
"I'll be watching. As you know." Shepard answered. It would probably be unwise to say more in public. "Still, Tali has a point. Simply leaving? You don't even want to celebrate our big triumph?"
"I'll celebrate when I get a gift from you," Wrex replied. "There's a ship bound for Tuchanka soon. And that doesn't happen often, nobody wants to see that ruined world anymore. So I better take it." He turned to Ashley. "You'll be the only one left with big weapons. Take good care of these people, without us heavy hitters they'd be lost."
Ashley laughed sharply. "I take it you'll bring all your weapons along to Tuchanka? Pity, less toys for me."
"Not like there aren't already enough weapons there, but yes," Wrex confirmed. "It was fun fighting with you. As I've said, a new flavor, fighting with a female who's not an asari commando. And those are too squishy anyway. Agile but squishy."
"Yeah, I take heavy firepower and heavy armor over agility and mobility any day," Ashley agreed. "No offence to you Liara, but your people's military... Well, you won't see me running around in a firefight with an outfit that could also be used in the bed room!"
"I don't intend to, either," Liara agreed.
"Good. I think." Ashley commented. "I must admit, Wrex, when you first came aboard I thought you could flip out at us at any moment. Now I'm somewhat sad to see you go, because without you nearly always staying so calm, the crew's sanity can only go downhill from here on. Especially with him for a commanding officer!"
"Hey now!" Shepard protested with a laugh.
"I can see why you have to go back to your world," Garrus spoke up, "but she's right. I think you've defied all our expectations about what krogan are like. If somebody can clean Tuchanka up it's you, but... well, ah, it's a loss for us."
"Don't get all sappy," Wrex said. "Doesn't fit to either of our species."
"But you know he's only speaking the truth," Shepard said. "Tuchanka needs you, but we'd need you as well." He grinned. "And of course, I'll lose the only person here laughing at my jokes."
"My several krogan hearts are bleeding for you," Wrex joked dryly. "But I really should get that ship now. Already got everything packed." He nodded toward a collection of large bags leaned against the ship hull. "Luckily, the ship owner is krogan himself, so my weapons shouldn't cause much trouble."
"You want to go already?" Liara asked disapproving.
"You and Tali have protested long enough," Wrex stated. Shepard supposed he tried to sound stern, but even with his low and grumbling voice it sounded actually oddly warm. "If I ever want all the old ruins on my world researched and indexed I'll give you a call. And if I want to build something new, I should probably contact the Migrant Fleet. Going by what I've seen of you, Tali. You probably took out more geth than even me."
Shepard was a bit surprised. Giving out compliments was very much unlike the krogan. Wrex grabbed his bags and started to walk, but then turned around again and said to Shepard: "It was good fighting alongside you. Best mission I ever had, and first time in a long that I felt comfortable fighting in a team. Being in a team. And I owe you. Don't think I'll forget that." And with that, without waiting for an answer, he walked off.
"Hm. Odd," Shepard mused, "but I do think I'm going to miss him. Who would have thought?" And after a pause: "Well then, I hope nobody else is leaving?"
"You know the answer already, skipper. You just wanna hear some more validation for yourself, don't you?" Ashley answered in jest.
"I won't return to C-Sec just as you won't return to the Alliance," Garrus answered nonetheless. "Not that C-Sec is bad. I just don't fit in there. So fighting the Reapers is all that's left for me. Unless I want to end up on the street. Ah, it's also important to find a way to fight them, of course. Yes, let's go with that, that sounds better."
"And that means I finally get to use my primary expertise in this mission," Liara said, "If we really visit potential archaeological sites and so on. I have no intention of missing out on that."
"I really don't think I need to answer that question anyway," Tali concluded.
"Good." Shepard said, "Let's get aboard. Next stop: Earth. We'll be picking up a passenger."
As Tali learned by a quick search on the extranet, the human city of Paris was considered a culturally and historically very important site on Earth. Its historical clan leaders, the 'Kings of France', had apparently been the vanguard of cultural progress in this part of the planet for centuries, and had used their power and wealth to amass a dazzling array of cultural treasures. The city was still very proud of its heritage and hence tried to preserve it as best as they could. In the geographical centre of the city there was hardly a modern building to be found. The most striking feature there was an odd steel skeleton tower, but that at a mere two hundred meters or less.
However, outside that city area, surrounding it to all sides, city development had actually progressed along with technology. The huge towers of one or two kilometres height that were so common on overpopulated Earth were the norm here, too. In fact, as one of the economical centres of the 'European Union', apparently one of Earth's three most powerful states, it was a fairly prosperous and modern city. In a way, it reminded Tali how some cities on Rannoch used to be set up: Modern, busy cities around well preserved historical clan fortresses. For the quarians that was all lost. The humans had managed to hold onto their history, if at times barely so: For a period it had looked like they might lose their home world to over pollution and overpopulation, just as the drell had. And nowadays, there were even less drell alive than quarians. Tali had never even seen one on her pilgrimage, only read about them.
As it was, though, humanity had escaped that fate, and now in fact would go on to lead the new Council. That there would be a Council at all was in large parts thanks to Shepard, Anderson and Hackett. Shepard had told her of their conversation with Udina after the battle. That had actually given a new perspective to Tali: She had always accepted Shepard's struggle with the Alliance as an internal human affair. That was how she had dealt with the fact of Shepard going rogue against his lawful authority. But seeing how high ranking Alliance officials had apparently planned sole human domination in the galaxy, she actually began to consider the Alliance to be somewhat dangerous. Over the time, she had been becoming more supportive of Shepard's side in the argument anyway: As far as she was concerned, people should first think about sacrifices they themselves could make for the greater good, instead of looking to sacrifice others.
And apparently there were other humans besides Shepard who agreed with that. He and Tali had just entered one of the large towers of Paris, a building near the edge of the city shared by dozens of companies and organizations which all maintained officers here. Among those offices were some rented by Anita Goyle, and the entire purpose of the work done there was to fight Shepard's fight on the social and legal level. The 'Ministry of Shepard Affairs' as Goyle liked to call her so far still informal organization in jest. So Tali could understand why Shepard would like to visit it. She was not quite sure why he had brought her along, though. He only had muttered something about another special reputation Paris held.
The former ambassador to the Citadel and future Chairwoman of the new Council greeted them at the entrance of the office, a dignified, small elder woman. With her were some people in more or less formal dresses, most likely part of her staff. "Welcome, Mr. Shepard, Ms. Zorah. I hope you had a good trip. Going by the media attention, though, it sounds like it was stressful."
Behind her mask, where nobody could see it, Tali rolled her eyes. What Goyle had said was true, it had been stressful - but for the most part this had been Shepard's very intent. Goyle did not need the Normandy to get to the Citadel. A high class civilian ship rented by the Alliance would in fact have been more appropriate. However, Shepard transporting the new, human Council Chairwoman to the Citadel had of course a special symbolic value, and so he had used the trip to Earth for a victory tour of sorts with stops at Eden Prime and Terra Nova. After the Battle of the Citadel, media attention of course had been inevitable, but Shepard had just further fueled the flames, giving interviews with gusto, enthusiastically addressing crowds, etc. And he had made one thing very clear: He would not return to the Alliance. Not even now, which meant the Battle of the Citadel had not been the Alliance's victory alone.
Right now, Shepard just grinned, and Goyle went on: "I see you're getting experience in the PR business. Have you thought about my proposal of becoming a politician yourself? Winning an election district should be ridiculously easy for you right now, and elections are upcoming."
"Wish I could," Shepard answered, and Tali very much suspected that was the truth. She doubted he could ever go back from being a decision maker to a mere recipient of orders. And he had already shown that he was just manic enough for the political business. Also, human elections were indeed upcoming: She remembered the meeting with the Terra Firma party leader on the Citadel. "Unfortunately, I have other matters to attend to. So for now, you will have to do the job." He grinned sheepishly.
"So you told me." Goyle said mock-indignantly, "Council Chairwoman? At my age? I should really worry about my own stress!"
"Could have been worse, Anita," one of her staff members chimed in. He was a relatively high grown man of pale skin and yellow hair. His clothes and hair were well groomed, and his belly a bit rounder than Tali had seen with other humans. Given what she knew about the standard of human medicine, how easy weight loss was and how most humans appreciated that, that either meant that man held to an alternative ideal of beauty, or otherwise he had to be a very big eater indeed. "Imagine your stress if Udina had gotten his way."
"A fair point," Goyle conceded. "This is Michael Johnson, my right hand in all the social and legal mess you leave us with, Shepard. I think you don't need to be further introduced, and that is Tali'Zorah nar Rayya, one of his... what was the term you used, Shepard? Spectre's entourage?"
Handshakes were exchanged, and then Goyle led them inside the office. She gave a tour of the small facilities, introducing her workers to Shepard and telling what each of them did. Tali was impressed. In what was all in all a very short amount of time, Goyle had managed to assemble experts, figured out what details would need to be worked on and had established a team that could and would confront the authorities and the corporations on several levels and fronts.
Shepard was appropriately impressed, too and kept telling Goyle so. He seemed to enjoy the tour very much. Part of it of course was seeing what an amazing tool Goyle had created for their shared ideals. But Tali suspected there was more: While Shepard did not care much about what people thought of him personally, the fact that initially a majority of his own species had cared more about his reveal of Alliance state secrets than about what those secrets contained had truly pained him. He had been disappointed in his own species. So to see humans working for his ideals probably restored some of his faith in humanity.
The last room they entered was a small conference room. Shepard and Tali sat down at the table in its centre together with Goyle, Johnson and some more people. Goyle gave Shepard a little update on her activities and efforts, though there had not actually been much changed since the last time they two had met. The talk then began to focus on public relations work in general, and eventually Shepard's most recent PR work in specific. Somebody began to play a holovid of one of the interviews. A dark-skinned woman in a long, tight dress appeared.
"This is Khalisah al-Jilani of Westerlund News. With me is Commander Jonathan Shepard..."
Shepard interrupted her: "Not Commander anymore."
After a moment of hesitation, al-Jilani continued: "Jonathan Shepard then. Once again a hero of the Alliance, after the Battle of the Citadel. His actions prevented the station from falling to the geth, and now allow the Alliance to build up a new Council to lead the galaxy into a better future."
At the conference table, the real Shepard made a grimace. Al-Jilani's words had been salt in his wound. He was dismayed enough that after all his clashes with the Alliance it had been him who had basically handed over the Citadel to them.
In the holo, al-Jilani continued: "Currently, you're on your way to Earth to bring future Council Chairwoman Anita Goyle to the Citadel. Rumour is that you had great influence in her choice for the position."
Without directly answering the question, Shepard replied: "The truth of the matter is that Alliance ruthlessness also permeates its diplomatic corps. Too many of its member, including high ranking-ones are too openly only out for human gain. This would never work in winning the other races over to accept that new Council. With Goyle it is known she can work with them. There are threats out there, Ms al-Jilani, that we can only ward off if we all work together. I urge people to analyze this 'geth attack' on the Citadel. It's a warning sign for things to come."
"There is a certain irony in you describing the Alliance diplomatic corps as being too confrontational," al-Jilani commented. "Your misgivings about the Alliance are widely known, but given those threats you talk of, can we take your escort for Anita Goyle as a first sign of reconciliation?"
"Absolutely not," Shepard answered. "I have no intention of returning to the Alliance. Not now, most likely never. I defeated Saren because it was the right thing to do, not as an Alliance officer. Fifth Fleet won the Battle, but the Alliance cannot claim my actions for themselves, too!"
"But isn't that the time right now that we'd need a strong Alliance?" al-Jilani asked. "There are times when we have to forgive and forget."
Shepard sneered. "Forgive? That's the height of arrogance and lacking empathy. The victims that have been abused should forgive even though the Alliance has never asked for forgiveness? Had there already been reparation and apologies, then maybe this could all be put behind us. Then, maybe, there could be forgiveness. But there never have been. The Alliance should be on its knees begging forgiveness from their victims, instead of society just expecting it. As it is, the Alliance has actively continued its crimes for fifteen years, and would still be in the position to do so if it had not been for me. Even now, there has not yet been reparations or an apology, so why should I rejoin the Alliance? Let me make this clear: I will not rejoin an institution which had children abused, some of them to death, and then kept the survivors down and miserable for fifteen years to hush it up. That is the reality of the Alliance. The aliens and also its own people would be wise to remember that."
"I'm sure the aliens will, seeing how you basically push their nose into this," al-Jilani remarked. Her voice had gotten somewhat icier, but she remained professionally smooth. "I mean, we're all sorry what happened to those people, but the times back then have to be taken into consideration"
"Ah yes, the times," Shepard answered. "That shows how sorry you are. Excuses! If people were sorry for them, they would've listened to the rumours years ago. If people were sorry, then there would already have been reparations. If people were sorry, than the BAaT survivors and L2s or biotics in general would not be a marginalized group shunned by a majority of people. You're just sorry you have to deal with these issues now. You're just sorry I brought this up."
"But have you ever considered the circumstances fifteen years back?" al-Jilani asked. "When humanity had just gotten out of the First Contact War, and biotic potential seemed..."
Shepard rudely interrupted her: "Watch it! You want to tell me having kids abused is ever okay? How dare you? If you fancy yourself a reporter, why don't you go investigate what happened back then and who was responsible, instead of hassling me?" And with that the angry Spectre turned and left.
Al-Jilani turned towards the camera again. "This was Jonathan Shepard, former Commander in the Alliance Navy before being removed for publication of classified information. It seems his interest in theory conspiracies and his fanaticism still match his battle prowess. And this was Khalisah al-Jilani, reporting from Scott, Terra Nova."
The holo ended. On the conference table, the real Shepard pressed through clenched teeth: "That goddamn bitch!" He shook his head. "I handled that poorly. But I already had to suppress the temptation to just punch her." He made an angry flinch. Tali knew it was not just anger at how poorly he had handled the situation: There was hardly anything provoking Shepard worse than people trying to justify those atrocities.
"It was rather suboptimal," Goyle agreed. "It appears you still have to learn one or two tricks in the PR department, after all."
"We have to deal with that kind of people daily," Johnson said. "People who try to justify BAaT, people who would let the corporations get away with breaking all kinds of law, people who put this nebulous idea of 'human strength' over, well, actual humans. This is why our organization exists. You gave us an opportunity in fighting those people, and we're going to take it."
He grinned. He looked physically rather unfit, but Tali realized it was the same grin Shepard often displayed: A predator's grin. Not as open and cocky as Shepard's, more subtle and sophisticated, but still the same. And the hard light that now flashed up in his eyes was also the same as Shepard's before battles. Tali realized that in his own way, the man was just as determined to do battle as the Spectre. It was just that he fought on other battlefields with other weapons, the battlefields of political, social and economical issues.
"I assume now that I'm stealing Goyle away, you will take her job?" Shepard asked, trying to calm himself down.
"Michael is our economy wizard," Goyle explained. "Sometimes he seems to live entirely in a world of financial calculations and economical models, but it works. He understands how the corporations think. So I think he will make a fine successor to me."
"I don't think we'll be able to replace your political expertise, though," Johnson said. "But I guess where you go you'll be able to affect much more than here."
"That's an important point," Shepard agreed. "You'll be officially the Alliance's Councillor, but I hope you understand, well - I told Udina that you're better capable of making the different races work together better, but there's more to it."
"No worries, Shepard, I do understand perfectly." Goyle reassured him. "You have not chosen in vain to support me. No matter if I'm officially their Councillor or not, I will make sure the Alliance will clean up its act. If need be under Council pressure." She chuckled lightly. "This will be an interesting balancing act. Of course I won't be able to go too far, or the Alliance won't care about legitimacy anymore and simply remove me from my post, but I'll see what I can do. It will be a challenge. Though I do think that in any case, yes, I should be able to better cooperate with the other Councillors than Udina would."
"I'm glad to hear this from you," Shepard said. "And beyond the ills of the Alliance it is also important to make the different races work together. What I said to al-Jilani is true: That attack on the Citadel is a sign of things to come. Sovereign was no geth ship."
"Ah, this is about your Reaper theory, correct?" Goyle asked. "I must admit, I'm not exactly fully convinced. More proof might need to be collected."
Tali's good mood vanished. She was disappointed. She could deal with people like Udina not believing what the Normandy crew had seen, as their view of reality was clouded by personal feelings. But Goyle had no such reason, and so far she had appeared to be a far better person than Udina and his likes. This drove her to finally chime in on the conversation: "But we have recorded everything! There is already a multitude of proof! So how can you still deny the threat?"
Goyle remained unfazed by the outburst and answered in a friendly tone: "It's not the quantity of proof which is the problem. The problematic fact is how many alternate explanations there are for your recorded material. As it is, your evidence would be strong in a normal case, but as an old human saying goes: Extraordinary claims requires extraordinary proof. And your claim of repeated attacks on the galaxy which always have killed all life in it - this is a rather extraordinary claim indeed."
"But there is evidence for us being right, and that means the entire galaxy is at grave danger," Shepard argued.
"I understand that," Goyle said, "I'm open to the possibility of a Reaper threat, at least. But even though I'll become the Alliance's Councillor and Council Chairwoman, that does not mean I can order either Alliance or Council around. They most certainly will apply the strictest of scrutiny to any evidence. I can promise you I will support whatever expedition or effort to gather more proof. But I cannot promise anything more than that."
Shepard smiled. "This will be enough. It's certainly more than what most officials have told me so far."
"So, you want me to oppose the Alliance, uphold Council pressure on it despite being their Councillor, and investigate what they think is a crack theory," Goyle stated and chuckled again. "I think I might enjoy this."
Tali had a hard time believing her eyes. Even though she had watched how the asari had gotten gradually intoxicated, the concept was almost too weird to believe: A drunk Liara. It was not like she had drunk overly very much, but most likely in her over hundred years of life she had never drunk much at all, so the results of some glasses of asari wine imported straight from Thessia, including trace amounts of eezo, were very predictable. Tali was a bit buzzed herself from turian wine, but she at least could still control herself. Liara, on the other hand...
"Poor Goyle", she giggled. "Who would have though the turian Coun... Coun-sil-lor would be still alive? And the turians want to retain him. High comedy!"
"I'm glad at least some people survived," Shepard answered unfittingly dark.
News had been confused for days in the chaos after the battle, but by now it had become apparent that of the thousands of people on the Destiny Ascension there had been forty-two survivors - and among them was the turian Councilor. Those parts of his body not covered by his exoskeleton had heavy burns all over, and both his arms had been crushed, but that all was nothing modern galactic medicine could not fix. Most likely he would only be able to resume his post in some weeks, but he would be able to. 'Comedy' was one way to describe this. The Councillor was now seeing how humanity had installed itself as leaders of the new Council, after having left him to die. 'Tragedy in the waiting' would hence maybe be a better term to describe it.
"I agree," Tali said, "but it was quite a shock when they announced his survival. And the vid-conference to his hospital room..."
He had spoken with barely concealed venom. There was no doubt diplomatic trouble would be coming ahead for Goyle.
Other than that, the event had been really nice: A formal event given by the Alliance for the new Councillors, and all members of Shepard's squad had been invited. It was maybe a bit too highbrow for the tastes of Shepard, Ashley or Garrus, but they had grinned and born it. Liara had been a bit daunted by the mass of important people around her, but had obviously enjoyed herself. As for Tali, she usually preferred livelier, louder celebrations - but that had not prevented her from enjoying all the glamour and style of the occasion. It was not her first formal event, but nonetheless it was rare that a quarian got to be part of one.
They all had been underdressed for the occasion, some more so, some less so. Garrus could get away with what he had called a uniform for his Hierarchy citizenship rank. Like all formal turian clothing it was reminiscent of a piece of armour. And Tali herself of course could not wear formal attire anyway. She had bought some extra pieces of cloth to decorate her suit with, all of them rich in patterns as was quarian fashion. The others had had more of a problem. In the end, only Liara had seemed appropriately dressed for the event, but even her long and elegant purple and blue dress had paled in comparison to the attire of most other guests. Ashley had worn a trouser suit with some clever decoration, and Shepard even only a plain business suit. For over a decade, neither of the two had needed any civilian formal clothing, after all, they had had their dress uniforms. But now, neither was allowed to wear it, and neither would wear it even if they were.
Once she had become buzzed, Liara had found this all very funny. Tali supposed it was a good thing she was a happy drunk at least, instead of a melancholic or angry one. And even now on the way back from the event, the asari still found Shepard's attire funny. "I never knew the humans had re... re-duced vision. Lack of color per-cep-tion. That must be why you're only wearing unicolour black, grey and dark blue." Drunk or not, Liara has a point there. What is it with humans and unicolour formal dress? "I suppose you don't need more colours. You're pretty enough as is."
Tali groaned inwardly. This had been going on for some time now. When the event had run its course, Garrus had told them he wanted to finish some business at C-Sec. Ashley had accompanied him, saying that she wanted to take a tour of the Citadel while she still could. This evening nobody would dare to touch her and ruin the occasion, but her unsure legal status could make this complicated in the future. So it had fallen to Tali and Shepard to escort Liara back to the Normandy. And Liara has been hitting on Jon all the time now!
That already made her uncomfortable enough, but was still tolerable. She was still a bit unsure on how much she could demand of Shepard, insecure about whether their relationship could satisfy him - but on the other hand, she knew that at the very least, Shepard would not take advantage of a drunken friend. She could be very certain about that. What is more problematic...
"But look at Tali!" Liara continued, "I think you look es... e-spe-cial-ly good today Tali. All those colours, it's very ely... e-le-gant. I'm sure you're very pretty under your en-viro-suit, too"
...is that she isn't just hitting on him! This will be an awkward day tomorrow.
She did not quite know how to deal with it. She just ignored it as best as she could, helped Liara when she stumbled, and hoped they would reach the Normandy as quickly as possible. It was not that Liara was ugly or unsympathetic, it was just strange. She had not been overly popular back on the Flotilla, but still, an admiral's daughter raised some attention, so there had been some veiled proposals by boys and girls. Ignoring or rejecting those had been very much easier than to deal with Liara now, though. She was a friend after all, and an an asari besides, and most importantly Tali herself was spoken for. Not that I seem to have much problems with aliens in that regard, but still... Some buzzed part of her mind was in fact somewhat flattered by the attention she got. Tali shook her head and just focused on getting back to the ship.
Shepard took it all with more humour. He simply smiled, answered most of Liara's comments nonchalantly and uncommitted and helped her along the way. In fact, it all seemed to rather amuse than embarrass him. Though Tali noticed with some satisfaction that his amusement was broken for a bit and that he did flinch at Liara's 'under the envirosuit' comment. "Let's just get back to the ship. The celebration was fun, but kinda exhausting," he said.
"For me it's rather stumbling back to the ship," Liara said. "Good that I have you to catch me if I fall, Jona... Jon."
Shepard smiled again. "No worries about that, Liara, you'll get to the ship safe and intact."
I hope the same can be said for my sanity. Monotone sounding blue bosh'tet... Tali did not say anything, though. After all, purely rationally, she knew that Liara was not in full control of herself. It was still all very annoying, though. In the end, somehow, the three made their way onto the ship, and to Liara's room behind the medbay and somehow, Shepard and Tali managed to convince her to take a rest.
Shepard chuckled as they went to their cabin. Tali still was less amused. "Yes, I'm sure you liked the extra attention you got."
That made Shepard laugh softly. "Oh come on. It would be a bit silly if we got mutually jealous of each other."
Heat shot into Tali's face. I suppose that's true. And she considered it a bit foolish to get upset over this episode. In truth, it was even somewhat funny. Maybe I could have gotten both, she thought with humor and boldness strengthened by alcohol. But that of course was not necessary at all. So when the two entered the cab, she grabbed Shepard's hand, looked into his face and said: "True. But then, I already get all the attention I want."
Shepard smiled and raised an eyebrow. "I shall endeavour then that you'll always get enough."
He raised her hand and stroked it. There was a moment of somewhat awkward hesitation between the two. Further emboldened by the turian wine, Tali began to grow a bit annoyed at this hesitation. "I suppose we could continue the celebrations..."
"I must admit I had something like that in mind," Shepard said sheepishly.
This only egged Tali on further. The Hero of Elysium, Terra Nova, the Citadel and Ancestors know where else, the first human Spectre - and he's been at a loss for words. It was somewhat cute, actually. Time to take this over. "Next time - ask." she said. It's not like I don't want this, too... Her suit began injecting the antibiotic and immuno-boosters it had stored. Without further notice, she released the holdings of her mask, and let it slide down into her hands. "I may just say yes."
The Terminus Systems. Once again. Last time we entered them we lost half our marines. Ever since the Normandy had left Citadel space, Tali had been a bit anxious about that fact. The Migrant Fleet of course often travelled through the Terminus, but then they were already a known sight there, and with fifty thousand ships in any case too large a target for the various pirates and bandits. A single military vessel, though, officially belonging to the Alliance and de facto under the command of the galactic hero of the hour? This of course would draw attention. And rumours about geth sightings in their region of space did not exactly make her feel any better about it.
However, Shepard was determined to find every last scratch of evidence for the Reaper threat in the galaxy. And thus the Normandy now was scouring potential archaeological sites all over the galaxy, no matter whether in Citadel Space or the Terminus Systems. They already had surveyed one site in the Attican Traverse, though Liara had concluded that it had deteriorated far too much over the eons to be of any further use. So, now they were entering the Terminus. More specifically, they were in FTL and about to enter the Omega Nebula, which was local nexus of Terminus mass relays. In fact, Omega Station, once a Prothean mining outpost but nowadays much more, was often called the Terminus' equivalent to the Citadel.
So far, the mood aboard was as good as Shepard or Tali could have hoped for. A new crew in line with his ideals, a task they all understood as being vital for the galaxy's very survival, a ship free to go where they pleased - and for Shepard and Tali the company of friends and of each other. Even though things had indeed been a bit awkward between them and Liara for the first few days after leaving the Citadel.
Officially, Lieutenant Commander Kalaya Sirinawin had taken over command over the ship. Of course, a Lieutenant Commander commanding what was still the Alliance Navy's most advanced ship was ridiculous, and the reason for that obviously was to keep Shepard in de facto command. Despite staying with the Alliance, Sirinawin was a glowing, outspoken supporter of Shepard's criticisms against the human government. Thus, she gladly functioned more as a First Officer, organizing the ship's and crew's daily routine, caring for logistics and supplies, and working on other minutiae so that Shepard could focus on the overall mission.
Currently, Tali was in fact standing right besides the Commander. There had again been some trouble with electronics on the bridge, and both she and Sirinawin were taking a look at it. It turned out that the human had extensive civilian and military training in electronic engineering and even as nominal commanding officer of the ship she did not hold herself above doing such work herself. Especially since the prospect of faulty electronics while going through the Terminus terrified her.
"I don't like that we'll have to come so close to Omega," the Sirinawin muttered while taking a look at a software analysis of the panel in front of her.
"That's where all the mass relays are we have to use," Tali replied. She was busy with taking a look at the hardware.
"And I don't like those reports of geth ship sightings here, either," Sirinawin continued. Tali had to admit this was indeed more troubling.
"Don't worry, Commander," Joker chimed in. "As soon as we exit FTL we'll be all ninja-like and invisible... ah, I mean, we'll engage our stealth systems immediately, ma'am."
Sirinawin's head bolted up and her face darkened. She was about to say something, but then apparently thought better of it and just sighed. "Of course, Lieutenant Moreau", she simply said. Supportive of Shepard as she was, she had far more stringent views on ship discipline than him. However, Joker really is a lost cause.
After some more time of work, Sirinawin stated: "The software is definitely not working as it should, but I can't find a fault. Are you sure the hardware is okay?"
"It has to be the software," Tali answered, "I can't find anything wrong with the electronics."
"I see." Sirinawin said, "It may only cause minor problems with the graphic interface, but still, I'd rather not have such problems while we're in the Terminus."
"I'm sure it will be..." Tali began, however she was interrupted.
"We're entering the target system," Joker announced. "So you can start worrying about the Terminus bad guys and geth villains... now." He knew how stiff Sirinawin usually was in matters of military discipline, and he also knew he enjoyed a sort of special protection. Both combined meant he really liked to provoke her. However, he continued more formally: "Disengaging FTL drives, emission sinks active. Board is green, we're running silent."
Sirinawin looked up from her work, and out into space. "Then let's hope this all works out."
Tali really thought she worried too much. "We're under stealth, and we can outrun anything we cannot outfight. I..."
Again she was interrupted, by this shift's sensor specialist, a woman whose name Tali did not remember. After all, there were many new faces on the Normandy. "Picking up something on the long range scanners," the woman announced. And after some pause: "Hm, looks like a cruiser in configuration. But it's big."
Sirinawin was already frantically looking up the ship's databanks while keeping an eye on the sensor readings. "It doesn't match any known signatures..."
"Cruiser is changing course," the sensor specialist announced. "Now on... on interception trajectory."
It sounded disbelieving, and that for a good reason. "Can't be, we're under stealth!" Sirinawin exclaimed. "Even the geth couldn't..."
Tali only needed a brief glimpse on the sensor readings to state: "It's not the geth."
Joker's head whirled around and looked straight ahead her. Then he announced: "Brace for evasive maneuvers!"
In a sudden move, the Normandy steered downwards. It was a much more abrupt move than its mass effect fields could take, so it shook up everybody inside it. And then already the next move followed, a sharp turn to the left, and then to the right, and so on.
However, the cruiser was still chasing them. It effortlessly matched every of the Normandy's moves, and seemed to see right through the frigate's stealth. And it fired. It emitted a gigantic and never-ending energy beam. The Normandy evaded it successfully, one time, two times, three times... but then it struck.
Explosions shook the bridge and the CIC. The panel Tali and Sirinawin had looked at ignited. Instinctively, Tali let herself fall backwards, pulled her extremities in and rolled herself off. Sirinawin, however, was hit by a blast and simply fell over. The sensor specialist jumped from her chair to run to her, but was hit by the next explosion. Further screams and blasts could be heard from all over the deck.
Fires soon raged everywhere. And the energy beam was still going. Joker remained unbelievably calm in his seat, trying best as he could to get the Normandy away. But there was nothing he could do. The energy beam hit again, and this time stayed on target. "Kinetic barriers are down," he announced. And moments later, inevitably: "Multiple hull breaches, weapons are offline." Without even looking, he pointed behind him. "Somebody get that fire out!"
The Normandy tumbled through space, hit again and again by the enemy's deadly ray. Soon all of it was a raging, fiery inferno. Fires were everywhere, burning the air and illuminating everything in a menacing red aura. People ran around wildly and aimlessly. Some of them were screaming and some were hit by further explosions and died. It was apocalyptic.
Against all probability, both Tali and Joker survived. However, there were corpses all around them, and fires, fires everywhere. The Normandy, this amazing ship full of outstanding technology, the ship she had always admired and had helped to keep in shape for months now, was falling apart.
"Come on, girl," Joker muttered through clenched teeth. Tali knew he meant the Normandy, not her. Describing ships as female was one of those human oddities she had to come accept without even thinking about it. "We'll get you out of here. We'll rebuild you. Just hold on!"
And strange as it was, there was indeed some hope. The Normandy was battered, all of its sections had suffered damage, but she was still flying and according to the few remaining electronics on the bridge also still FTL capable. And the distance to the Cruiser grew. If they could hold out just some more minutes they would be able to enter FTL again, and the Normandy, this marvel of technology and what remained of its crew, these brave soldiers, could be saved.
However, of course there was no telling if they still had some minutes. Considering how much damage the Cruiser had done in seconds, probably not. Still, if Joker was willing to try it, so was Tali. She grabbed an extinguisher to put out at least those fires that had come closest to the pilot. Then she let it fell to the ground, and run into the CIC. The most important thing now was the drive core. If it could hold, then it could compel even a complete wreck into safety.
Tali could hardly find her way to Engineering way amidst all the smoke and red glowing everywhere. There were other people, but she could hardly see them. Some already had their space suits on, so she could not tell who was who. However, as she ran by one of them, he grabbed her by the arm. "Tali," he said tensely. Her head swirled around. It was Shepard. "Good, I already thought..." He sounded relieved, but then immediately continued in a harsh voice: "Where are you running to? Get to the lifepods, damnit!"
"No, we can't..." Tali began, but realized there was no time for arguing. Instead she continued: "Joker is still in the cockpit. He won't abandon ship. And I'm not leaving, either."
"Goddamn," Shepard cursed. "I'll haul his crippled ass down myself. Now, go! Get yourself into safety! That's an order!"
Tali nodded, dazzled. Captain's orders. There was of course no choice but to follow them, but she was a bit shocked how Shepard had shouted at her. Stupid girl, he is the ship's captain... However, as Shepard turned to go deeper into the burning inferno, she called out weakly: "Jon..." She was worried about him.
"We'll make it!" he reassured her while turning around again. He pointed behind her. "Now get the hell out of here!"
As if in trance, she reacted automatically. Without further thought of her own, her body seemed to move on her own. She ran to the lifepods, where Ashley was already directing people into them. "Go, go, go!" she shouted. And as she looked up: "Ah, Tali. Get in!"
She was the last person to enter the pod before Ashley herself. A further crew member came running towards the pod, so Ashley let the door open - but the crew member was hit be a further explosion which scourged her entire face. She fell to the ground screaming. The screams were soon replaced by death rattling and then silence. Part of Tali was mortified, but on a certain level she was already too shocked to register these things around her. Ashley closed the pod doors, and had it start.
As Tali took a look at the Normandy from space, she could see how futile her and Joker's dreams about saving the ship had been. The ship's engines worked only erratically, the fires were already visible on the outside all over the ship, it hurled aimlessly through space and on its path it was losing parts left and right. And the entire upper deck had already been blown away. The Cruiser stayed its distance and did not attack further, but that did not matter: Its work had been done, the Normandy was thoroughly devastated. And Jon's still there! She saw other lifepods leaving the ship, but one remained behind. One that could maybe save Joker and Shepard...
Her breathing became ragged. She was deadly afraid. Not for herself, despite the Cruiser's continued presence, but for Shepard. Of course, this had always been a possibility. Even leaving aside all the problems of their species, her immune system and her eventual need to return to the Migrant Fleet, it had always been a battle-forged relationship. The threat of one of them falling in action had always loomed over them. And knowing this made Tali's situation right now even worse. Because she knew she could lose him here.
Ashley, who was sitting next to her, briefly touched her arm and said quietly: "Hey. Don't worry. He's Jonathan Shepard. He's come through worse."
The other people in the life pod politely made as if they had not heard. It was a sympathetic reaction and strangely similar to how things worked on the Migrant Fleet, where the limited privacy for everybody dictated a similar behaviour. Her and Shepard's relationship was hardly a secret aboard, not when they had shared the Captain's cabin, but it was not something really openly acknowledged, either, and everybody kept to that.
"The Cruiser!" somebody called out. "It... It's coming around for another attack."
"No," Tali whispered, mortified. "No!"
Only wreckage was left of the Normandy, but the deadly beam of the Cruiser hit it again. Further explosions could be seen aboard. Tali was besides herself in fear for Shepard. Already she half thought him lost.
And amazingly, even in all this chaos, this was something that he apparently took into consideration. An open radio call hit the escape pod. It was Shepard. "I got Joker. Entering the escape pod..."
As soon as she heard his voice, Tali was relieved, but then the sound of an explosion came through the radio channel. "Ugh." That was Shepard, in pain. And a moment later, Joker's voice: "Shepard... no! No!" Another explosion. And again Joker: "No, don't do this to us, Shepard. Don't... No!" And then another sound: The escape pod was launched.
And all that remained on the still open radio channel was Joker's quiet lament. Not Shepard's voice. Not a single hint of him.
He was left behind.
Tali started to scream.
And thus The First Human Spectre is concluded. However, the story of Jonathan Shepard and those around him will continue. Watch the aftermath of his death, and then watch how the events in ME 2 will enfold in a new direction. The Reapers are still out there.