Updated disclaimer: I own nothing that is copyrighted by anyone else.
Ash watched as the fish nibbled at their food, and idly wondered why Jack had wanted them in the first place. After all, in her opinion, they were better classified as living decorations than as pets. She looked away, spun a couple of times in the office chair, and started playing little imaginary vids in her mind starring the model ships. Again.
This new longer FTL travel was incredibly boring, she'd discovered. The only thing she really had to do was approve EDI's projected course updates and authorize the fuel requisitions all along the route. She idly wondered if it had been like this on Earth back in the early 20th, when airplanes were still new.
There was little for her to do with anyone on board. Donnelly and Daniels down in engineering only seemed to be interested in engines, extranet gaming, and each other. She'd managed to engage them in some Skyllian Five. Once. They refused to play with her anymore. Maybe she shouldn't have made that crack about sentencing them to latrine duty for beating her…
Joker and EDI were occupied with the running of the ship and with their own relationship to be bored, either. In fact, the only one who seemed to actually be bored was Ash. She finally decided to check out the rather well-stocked collection of paper books Jack had kept here in his cabin.
The first few were military texts, followed by some recent mysteries by a couple of newer authors. Next to those sat some classics from the early 21st century and older. Finally, her eye lit upon a dusty old copy of the Tennyson collection he'd bought for her in the hospital.
She thumbed through it half-heartedly, having memorized several of the poems years ago. When she reached the end, she found the traditional last poem, "Crossing the Bar". What did surprise her was the small collection of notes in Jack's handwriting on the opposing page.
The first was written under a picture of her that was clipped to the page. Companion.
Ash wondered at that momentarily before reading further. The next was even more cryptic.
JRRT 6Bk, Companion's last line. Next to that was a doodle that resembled an old padlock that was unlocked.
So, something would be unlocked by this line…whatever it was. Ash smirked. At least she wouldn't be bored.
A few hours later, she'd gone through the majority of the books with no positive results. She resigned herself to being unable to find it on her own and paged EDI. The AI lieutenant promised to search the data-storage archives for anything Shepard might have left, then began her report on the progress the Normandy was making toward the Relay Test Site. Ash listened halfheartedly as she glanced over the remaining titles on the shelf. About the point where EDI was listing off some of the perishable items that the crew needed to replenish before the test, the commander's gaze fell on an apparently well-read tome.
Ash grabbed it and looked it over. It turned out to be an extremely old leatherbound omnibus edition of the classic Lord of the Rings trilogy. She was about to return it to its place on the shelf when she noticed the author – J.R.R. Tolkien
JRRT! The realization flashed through her mind in an instant, and she almost tore off the cover trying to find the table of contents. Her search was interrupted by EDI's sudden pause.
Ash stared at the intercom for a second, before the AI's voice came through again. "Commander, I have found something."
Ash turned to face the intercom. "Whatcha got?"
"There is a small data block left by Jack just before the Battle for Earth. What is most intriguing is the level of security. It is heavily encrypted. While this would ordinarily not be problematic, there are also safeguards in place to delete the data if standard hacking techniques are employed. Even my most basic probing protocols nearly tripped the defenses. As such, I have no information on the content."
Ash glanced at the note. "Thanks, EDI; I'll take it from here."
She accessed the data and immediately ran into the security block. She turned back to the old book on the desk and looked through the table of contents. The last section was called Book 6. She flipped through the pages in an attempt to determine first who the Companion even was, then what his last line was.
A couple of hours later, the marine had decided that she should read this sometime, especially since she was no closer to her goal. She'd all but given up when she came to a dog-eared page just a couple of pages from the end. The text was clear about some of the characters. Ash had figured out that Sam was the Companion. She was speed-reading to find his last line when she found one of Frodo's lines underlined -
"I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them."
The words leapt out at Ash for their truth in her situation. She could easily see Jack Shepard feeling a kinship with Frodo in this moment.
The Spectre blinked back the tears threatening to fall and continued reading until she'd found Sam's last line. Thus armed, she returned her attention to the console and began typing the line. The security block remained in place, but now displayed a message.
WARNING! ANY FURTHER ATTEMPT TO BREACH SECURITY WILL RESULT IN ERASURE OF DATA.
Great. Ash thought and looked at the text sitting before her. A burst of inspiration flashed into her mind, and she toggled the voice command mode on for the console. She studied the text for another second, then looked at the console and quoted, "Well, I'm back."
The message disappeared, then was replaced with another message.
ACCESS GRANTED. DECRYPTING AND EXTRACTING DATA.
Ash jumped as the Loft's lights auto-dimmed, and the projectors embedded in the display case lit up. It was more than mildly unsettling to see Jack Shepard smiling back at her as though he'd just punched up a call on a whim. She tapped the corner of the image to play the message.
Three months of knowing he was gone, of being haunted by dreams portraying his passing, had not prepared Ashley to hear Jonathan Shepard's voice once again.
"Hello, Ashley. If you're watching this, it means two things.
First, congratulations on figuring out my little literary puzzle. In my defense, it wasn't the most subtle I could have come up with."
The hologram's head drooped now.
"That's the good news. The bad is that if you're watching this, it means I didn't make it. Yeah, this is one of those vids. The first thing I would have done if I'd survived, upon getting back to the Normandy would've been to delete this. So, apparently, I didn't.
I wish I could say I was entirely surprised. But since you already had to dig through my book to find the decryption key, you will have already found that section a page or two before it.
When I read that, I could see…I felt an empathy with Frodo. Like that would be my fate, too. Though, I suspect, knowing me, that instead of a ship into the west, I gave myself a Viking funeral, complete with high explosives."
Jack chuckled and quirked a grin. Ash couldn't help but do the same.
"I decided to make this to make sure you know how I feel. While I'd like to think that I've made that quite clear, I just have the need to tell you.
Ashley, I love you. The first thing I'm planning to do after this is all over is propose. Yes, Ash, I want to marry you. I want us to retire on some colony and grow old together. I want to chase little raven-haired tomboys around the house. I want to wake up and always see you there. I want to sit on the porch and see whatever sun we're under set.
But, if you're seeing this, then I'm sorry. I couldn't get that for us. But I did it for us. I know that you, humanity, the Council, the whole galaxy, will move on. That's not flattery; it's fact. Life may or may not be the same, but everyone will find a way to make it all work. That is what I did this for – for you to move on and enjoy your life. To have that family that carries on the proud Williams name and tradition.
Life goes on, Ash. For you. For the Alliance. For the galaxy. Everyone will mourn and bury their dead, and will draw closer for it. Like you and Sarah at the memorial. And then they'll make a better galaxy together.
And so will you. I haven't the foggiest idea what your future will hold without me in it. But I know you'll be fine at whatever you choose.
And so, it's time to say it.
Goodbye, Ashley. I love you."
The image froze at the end of the vid, leaving Jack staring out at her with a happy, loving smile. Ash suddenly sucked in a breath. She'd almost been able to forget this whole thing, to imagine Jack was simply calling her up from another location instead of this vidmail from the grave.
With one hand on her belly, she reached up with the other to the smile frozen in time.
"I love you, too, Jack. We'll miss you. Goodbye."
The intercom came to life with EDI's voice. "Commander Shepard, Captain Chen from Fuel Station Chi-178 would like a word with you at your earliest convenience. I believe he needs some help."
With a wry grin to match Jack's, Ash rose from her seat. "On my way, Lieutenant."