Shepard yanked her foot free, her hand flying to her sidearm. "You're dead!"
"Not quite, though not for lack of trying." The asari groaned again, trying to push herself upright. "Thank the goddess for good equipment."
Liara squatted beside her. "She needs medical attention. Shepard-"
"Do it." She watched as Liara packed the wounds with fresh medigel. Her hardsuit seemed to have checked most of the bullets' momentum, as they didn't penetrate far into the muscles of her back. She was in some pain but there was relatively little lasting damage.
The commando let the wall take her weight and closed her eyes. "Thank you."
"What are you doing here?" Liara demanded.
Her eyes cracked back open as she took Liara in fully for the first time. She blinked. "I don't believe it. Liara T'Soni."
Shepard glanced between them. "You know each other? How?"
"My name is Shiala." She coughed. "I have served Lady Benezia for many years. Of course I recognize her only daughter."
Shepard turned to Liara. "I thought you and your mom didn't talk."
"Shiala was a close confidant, one of my mother's most loyal followers. She has known Benezia longer than I have." Liara gave her a helpless shrug. "She used to keep sweets at her desk for me."
"If your mother could see you here, Liara…" Shiala reached out, stroking Liara's arm.
Liara withdrew, stiff, and very cold. "My mother tried to have me killed on Therum. Don't you dare judge me."
Shiala paled and swallowed. "I heard a rumor like that, while I was aboard the ship. Benezia is not herself. If I could explain-"
"You were with Saren," Shepard stated, interrupting the reunion. "How did you end up inside the thorian?"
"I was a… heh." Her mouth quirked with a dry humor. "An offering. He needed me to act as an intermediary, to get what he wanted, and when he had it Saren left me here."
"Why would you allow him to do that? You know what he's trying to do?"
"Hasten the return of the reapers? Yes." Shiala returned her gaze evenly. "Benezia suspected his ill intent, though not in the specifics, and she volunteered herself in hopes of guiding him down a gentler path. But Saren is… compelling. Benezia lost her way, as did those who followed her into the darkness."
Shepard snorted, disgusted. "Dress it up however you like. Benezia chose to follow Saren."
"That is an oversimplification. Benezia underestimated the magnitude of Saren's persuasion. We all did." She adjusted her position against the wall, gasping as it raked over her wounds. "The strength of his influence is… troubling."
Alenko glanced at the commander. "Looks like the matriarch got in over her head."
"She tried to turn the river and instead was swept away." Liara hugged herself, staring at the floor.
Shepard shook her head. "Asari matriarchs are renowned for their wisdom and presence of mind. How does one mad turian spectre take control of her?"
"It's not Saren. He…" Shiala looked up at Shepard from the floor. "Are you familiar with his dreadnaught?"
"He had it on Eden Prime. Resembles a wasp, emits pink lightening? What about it?"
"He calls it Sovereign. If you have seen it, then you know it dwarfs any ship in any fleet. It is utterly alien. I do not know how he came by it, but know this- it possesses some kind of strange technology capable of dominating the minds of his followers. More than that- you feel… drawn to the ship."
"That's insane. How is anything like that possible?"
"Whether it is electrical, chemical, biological, I do not know. The process is remarkably subtle. It can take days, weeks for the strongest minds, but it is inevitable. Anyone brought aboard the ship becomes indoctrinated, a willing servant of Saren's agenda. His hold is absolute."
Shepard stared at her. A small smile touched her lips. "You seem shocked, Commander."
"More like I've just wandered into a Lovecraft story." She ran a hand over her hair. "Alright, assuming for the moment that what you say is accurate, how does this bring you to Feros?"
"I was a slave when Saren brought me here, and a glad one." Shiala looked down at her lap, a blush of shame. "He needed my biotics to communicate with the thorian. My people are experts in the exchange of information, mind-to-mind, and the thorian was a mind without a tongue."
Alenko paced along the back of the stairwell. "I still don't get it. What did Saren want from the thorian?"
"A secret belonging to those long dead. One valuable enough to trade away an asari commando with powerful biotic capabilities."
Liara's head snapped up, grief, anger, and sheer disbelief painted on her face. "My mother stood by and allowed you to be sacrificed? You? This is what he did to her?"
Shepard lay a hand on her shoulder, gently. "This isn't the time. Shiala- enough with the evasive rhetoric. What did you give Saren?"
She sighed, and stretched out her legs, seeming to search for words. "We called it the cipher. It is difficult to explain. Saren learned during your meeting with the Council that you had also accessed the vision stored within the beacon on Eden Prime. From your actions, he deduced that you, too, failed to make sense of it."
"So Saren has no idea what it means either." That was a gift. Always trailing at least one step behind, it never occurred to Shepard that Saren might be floundering just as much. Maybe it's time we stopped chasing him and started thinking for ourselves.
"The beacons were meant for a Prothean mind. To understand their content, one must think like a Prothean- understand their culture, their history, what it meant to be a Prothean in the same way you understand instinctively what it is to be human."
"And the thorian had tens of thousands of years of dwelling inside Prothean minds."
"Precisely. The cipher is a way to tap into that endemic racial memory, a viewpoint spanning thousands of generations, that which made Protheans distinct and whole." Shiala's green eyes flicked away from hers. "That is what the thorian gave to me, and I in turn gave Saren."
Alenko stopped pacing. "Then the geth were just an insurance policy."
Shepard felt her heart sink. "Saren knew we were searching for him. He had the geth try to destroy the thorian so we couldn't negotiate for the cipher ourselves." And the colony along with it.
"It's just as well." Liara leaned against the wall. "I can't say that I like the idea of being a plant's thrall for the next nine hundred years."
Shiala smiled, humorlessly. "It is not a fate to be envied."
Shepard steeled herself for what was coming next. "You taught Saren, you can teach me."
Liara started. "Commander, she taught Saren by melding with his mind. You-"
"I know what I'm asking."
"After the way you reacted the last time-"
Her face was hot. "Can we please not talk about that? Ever again, if at all possible?"
Alenko's brow scrunched up. "Wait. You and her…"
"It wasn't like that!" Shepard felt she couldn't make this worse if she tried. "That damned vision wasn't letting me sleep, we were in the middle of a siege, and I didn't have a lot of options."
Shiala's patience wore thin. "It may be an uncomfortable process for the unfamiliar, particularly those individuals who are… strongly independent. But it is harmless. I cannot, however, be responsible for the impact of the information conveyed."
"If Saren has it, I need it." She took a breath. "Are you strong enough to do it now?"
The asari nodded, curtly. "Help me to my feet."
Shepard hauled her to standing. She steadied herself against the wall a moment, before giving up and leaning her weight against it. "Stand before me. Closer. There."
The commander found her gaze darting to the ceiling, to Liara off to the side, to her armor, anywhere but the asari's face, as the injured woman placed her hands on each of Shepard's shoulders. There was a touch of amusement in her voice. "I need you to look at me, Commander."
"Right." She took a deep breath and dragged her eyes to Shiala's.
"Try to relax. Open your mind to the possibilities that surround us. Every idea must touch another mind to live."
"Yeah, I got this the first time around. 'Embrace eternity'."
"Shhh." Her smooth, enthralling tone never varied. "It is necessary to properly prepare your mind for the joining. Close your eyes."
Shepard did as she asked, trying to stop her skin crawling, trying to forget her armor was caked in thorian ick, that she hadn't slept in a couple of days, that Saren had once again vanished and the continuity of civilization might just hang on whether she could find him. Her mind closed to the dirty stairwell, the faint tang of blood from Shiala's injuries and the bitter smell of medigel, Alenko's nervous pacing and Liara's smothering concern. Her awareness narrowed to the asari's hypnotic words, the feel of her hands and the intensity of her gaze, a subtle pressure even with her own vision closed off.
"Slow, deep breaths." Shiala stepped closer still. "Let go your physical shell. Reach out to grasp the threads that bind us, one to another. We are all connected, every living being united in a single, glorious existence. Open yourself to the universe."
Her face was now so close Shepard could feel the heat radiating off it. The commander couldn't have pulled away at this point if she tried. Shiala's breath brushed her cheek. "Embrace eternity."
Shepard opened her eyes. She was standing across from Benezia's acolyte in a darkened cave. Shiala's hands were cupped around the sole light in the chamber, a luminescent ball of swirling green and gold. She craned her neck to get a better look at their surroundings. For all the world, it resembled nothing so much as a novelty rock she'd bought from a tourist trap on Terra Nova when she was ten- hemispherical and glittering with shadowed crystals.
Not much was visible beyond the short radius of Shiala's light. From the depths of the cave came a sudden shriek, causing Shepard to turn and reach automatically for a weapon that was not there.
Shiala spoke calmly, the depths of the place swallowing her voice. "Pay it no mind. They're not looking for you."
"This doesn't look like the last time."
"Unless I'm much mistaken, on that occasion Liara entered your mind." Her eyes, Shepard noticed, were violet here, not the odd green of the real world. "On this occasion, I have pulled you into mine- because the knowledge you require resides here."
She glanced down at her ball of light and then back up at Shepard. More sounds echoed from the distant reaches, ripping and tearing punctuated by the occasional cry of pain, though she could see nothing. The commander was thoroughly unnerved.
Shiala's mouth turned up at one corner, though there was nothing of warmth or pleasure in the expression. "I don't need to tell you that sometimes the price of our kind of life is very high."
Shepard recalled the locked and reinforced doors lining the halls of her own mental sanctuary, and took her advice to block it out. "Let's do this."
The asari held out the light. In its depths, Shepard could see fleeting images and detect scraps of sound, but everything vanished too quickly to make out clearly. When she reached for it, Shiala drew it back a moment. "This is not the sort of gift you will thank me for."
"It is the experience of an entire people, a race dead for fifty thousand years. The responsibility of keeping such a thing is immense."
"I'm in this too deep to back out now. Using this… memory to protect the galaxy from suffering what happened to them feels right."
Shiala held out the cipher, and Shepard took it.
Her mind was enveloped.
There was no making sense of it. None of the cipher represented coherent, logical, or structured thought. It was impressions, nuance, feeling, understanding- all those things her storied military career had taught her to put aside in a crisis, the best wisdom being that emotional involvement only interfered with making decisions which were quick and correct. Some of it felt familiar, though it was streaming by at an eye-watering speed that made it difficult to form associations with her own experiences. At the same time the impressions imbedded in the cipher were utterly alien, not merely straining her frame of reference or imagination, but something so entirely beyond it as to be almost impossible to assimilate.
The transfer of the cipher from Shiala to Shepard seemed to take a small eternity. But it was only a few scant seconds before Shepard's eyes flew open and she stumbled back from the asari. Disoriented, the stairs caught the back of her ankles and she would have fallen over if Alenko hadn't grabbed her arm. "Commander, are you alright?"
"I… I saw something. Give me a second." She took a deep breath, not caring that it was choked with dust from the charges. Shiala scrutinized her with a once-more green-eyed gaze. Shepard returned it with bewilderment. "It still doesn't make any sense."
"It will take time for your mind to process the information, but it will help. I promise you that."
Liara took a hesitant step towards her. "We should take you back to the ship, where you can be monitored."
"The hell am I spending the next few days being prodded in medbay." She staggered up the stairs, leaning on the wall. "Somebody radio the Normandy and see if the colonists have backed down."
Alenko seemed to share Liara's concerns. "Commander, ma'am, maybe it wouldn't be the worst idea-"
"I'm fine," she half-snarled, and continued to drag herself up the stairs to get a look at what she'd done, ignoring all offers of help or solace. Shiala's cipher continued to burn bright within her mind, much as the asari's critical eyes burned into her back, all the way up.
After much cajoling and coercion, Shepard finally relented to Chakwas' learned care. The iron-haired doctor pushed the scanner away with wry amusement. "You've taken no serious injuries, though in my professional opinion a hot shower wouldn't go awry. I'd suggest you take it easy the next few weeks, but…"
"You know I'll just ignore it, and there's not enough wrong with me to keep me here under duress."
"Oh, there is something very wrong with you, Commander." Her lively blue eyes hinted at a laugh. "But I don't believe it's anything pills or sutures are likely to cure."
Shepard had to laugh herself. It was true, for a certain value of honesty, anyway. "And the colonists?"
"A few lacerations and contusions from the idiocy they were displaying outside, nothing too serious. The thorian was apparently so furious with you that it took no care to protect the colonists from themselves."
Shepard shrugged. "What can I say? I have a gift."
Chakwas tutted, moving along to the next subject. "I have been unable to determine what is amiss with the asari. Such a pronounced change in pigmentation usually signals some kind of serious nutrient imbalance or organ deterioration, but I've found no signs of either. I suggested she seek the advice of an asari medical expert, but she's nearly as stubborn as you."
Shepard glanced out the medbay windows, where Shiala and Davin Reynolds were deep in conversation. "She's determined to stay and help the colony. She feels what happened was partially her fault."
"Short-sighted, but admirable."
"Maybe." Shepard couldn't have said she would not have done the same. Even without- maybe especially without- the thorian's enforced lassitude, there really was an aura of peace and hope about the place. The men and women who chose to plant their lives and families here didn't seem so crazy after all. It was as much of a fresh start as any human was ever likely to see. "It sounds nuts, but I kind of envy them, just a little."
Chakwas followed her gaze. "I tried to settle down once. It didn't take. Something in me needs the stars, the adventure… and I always feel as though every second I spend in comfort back on Earth or some colony, someone up here is going without my help. Space is where the Alliance needs doctors."
"I know exactly what you mean."
"If we can spare the time, I believe the surviving colonists from across the skyway are planning to bring take the shuttle fleet back to Zhu's Hope and have a bit of a celebration."
"Oh, we're staying." Shepard grinned. "We've earned a little R&R."
She took the doctor's advice and spent the better part of an hour showering away every last spec of grime from the last week and a half. Dirt came with the territory, but there was no better feeling than being freshly scrubbed afterwards. Walking back to Zhu's Hope without her hardsuit and only a sidearm for protection felt strange in a good way. Late afternoon was fading into early evening. Around Zhu's Hope, the colonists were lighting bonfires and breaking out better stores brought over from the main colony on the first of the shuttles. People were huddled in small groups, talking and embracing as families and friends were reunited.
Most of the Normandy crew was already there. The majority were settled around their own fire, but more than a few were mixing with the colonists, exchanging stories and good wishes. Feros was going to leave a lasting mark on all of them. Shepard was glad it was a happy one.
"Commander Shepard." Juliana Baynham rushed over, shoved a drink her hand, and gave her a warm hug.
Taken aback by the unexpected show of affection, Shepard shuffled the drink to her other hand to return the embrace. "Juliana. It's good to see you in one piece."
"After you left, Jeong got a little- ah- testy." Juliana smiled. "Then we were hit hard by a party of retreating geth. Without your people, I'm not sure we would have made it. I think having his own skin on the line went a long way towards changing his mind."
"You're going to have to be cautious for awhile. With their ship destroyed, any geth left here have no place to go."
"You don't think Saren will be back for them?"
"No. They were expendable." And now that she had the cipher, Saren had no reason to continue breaking the might of his army against the cunning will of the thorian, whatever was left it. She doubted very much the destruction of a single node belonging to something that ancient and evil erased it forever.
"Shepard." Garrus sauntered over, accompanied by Tali, brimming with smug satisfaction. He stuck out his hand. "Heard you got what you needed."
She gripped it a long moment, a gesture of easy camaraderie. "Heard you finally got yourself a real fight."
"It got pretty hairy there for a bit. But then our Tali had some kind of epiphany and got them to freeze."
Tali scuffled her toe in the dirt, a bodily blush. "It wasn't very complicated. I wired the destroyer's memory core into their radio and broadcast an order to surrender."
Garrus crossed his arms, leaning back on his heels. "After that all we had to do was mow them down. Just like target practice."
Shepard blinked. "With the jamming signals down, you might have reached every geth in the colony."
"I wouldn't want to stake my life on it, but… maybe." Tali hastened to add, "I doubt it will work again. The geth weren't destroyed instantaneously. I'm certain they were relaying the nonsensical command electronically, and the next geth we meet will have patched their security."
"Gotta love instant updates. Hell of a thing, regardless."
Juliana wasn't finished. "And there's more- Jeong called his bosses and revealed what happened. They're relieved the thorian is dead- but excited about the study and the samples we preserved. As long as you keep the discovery quiet with the Systems Alliance, this colony will have all the funding it could ever need."
She raised an eyebrow. "The Zhu's Hope group doesn't want to press charges? Or at least file a lawsuit?"
"According to Davin, they just want to get on with their lives."
Shepard thought it over a moment. "Alright. As long as Jeong's not strong-arming them, it's not my decision to make." She gave Juliana a nod. "I'm going to find something to eat."
The most she had in three days was a couple of protein bars on the shuttle over, and now that the adrenaline was draining out of her system she was ravenous.
Garrus jerked his head towards the shipping yard. "I think someone over there is cooking actual food, none of the rehydrated crap, if you're interested. Tali and I are stuck with what's back on the ship."
Shepard grimaced. "I'm sorry."
"Don't worry," Tali reassured her. "I've got an entire box of dextro pulled taffy from the last time we were on the Citadel. We thought it was time we broke it out."
"And I've got a bottle of rye from Taetrus." The turian grinned. "Don't worry, Shepard. We're not missing out."
The sun was settled low on the horizon when the last of the colonists arrived and the party really got going. For the Normandy crew, there from the start, things were already in full swing.
"-and then Chase fricking LEAPS over the barrier, and slams the butt of her rifle right in that thing's flashlight." The marine pantomimed smashing the geth. "That robot never saw it coming."
There was laughter. Alenko observed, dryly, "I'm pretty sure Chase didn't see it coming either."
Addison Chase, the marine in question, went bright red as the good-natured laughter increased. "Hey, I definitely knew it was there before I jumped the barrier. My reflexes are catlike."
"Catlike. Right." Private Crosby snorted. "More like the time my wife got our cat declawed and it bumbled around the house, falling off when it tried to jump on things-"
"So pretty much like every time you come home on shore leave?" she shot back.
His response was drowned out in more laughter and catcalls. Talitha Draven, who was sitting back against Rosamund's knees, tilted her head back with an accusatory glare. "You said it was boring."
Corporal Rosamund Draven eyed Ensign Draven, who was a technology specialist in engineering and had not left the Normandy at any point during the siege, with a certain amount of spousal trepidation. "There may have been a few brief moments of excitement."
"That sounds like something Shepard would say- guns down a half dozen geth and then complains about the inconvenience and interruption." Williams rolled her eyes. "Where the hell is Shepard, anyway?"
They glanced around the fire. The commander's quiet absence was suddenly quite conspicuous. Crosby said, "I saw her slink off after dinner. I thought she was coming right back, but…"
"She probably got waylaid by some of the colonists," Alenko reasoned. "I'll go see if I can extract her."
He got up and left the warmth and noise of Normandy's fire. It didn't take long to check the other groups scattered around Zhu's Hope and determine Shepard was not sitting with any of them. He managed to raise Garrus back on the ship, who informed him in an only slightly slurred statement that Shepard was not aboard.
He probably should have let it go at that. It was far more likely that she simply didn't want to be found than anything nefarious was afoot. But tonight was a victory, and they hadn't experienced very many of those since taking on this mission. It seemed wrong that the commander shouldn't be enjoying their well-earned celebration.
She doesn't sleep well. She probably just fell into the first quiet corner she stumbled across, and I'll find her passed out somewhere. Still, he started asking around, and eventually his search led him to the roof of the ruins, six stories up, where he found Shepard propped up against a retrofit shed with a fifth of tequila in hand, watching the sun go down.
She glanced at him without much surprise as he emerged from the stairwell, and shrugged deeper into her leather jacket. Up here, in the wind, there was the faintest chill in the air. "Hey."
Not quite sure how to begin, he went with triviality. "Your absence is starting to draw attention."
"Clearly." She chuckled, and held out the bottle. "Care to join me?"
"I'm more of a whiskey guy." It didn't stop him from settling down beside her, folding his arms over his knees.
She took a draw from the bottle and grimaced. "Probably a smart call. There's never any decent tequila around when you need it."
He gave it a glance. It was already a quarter empty. "Where the hell did you get a bottle of tequila on this rock anyway?"
"Traded one of the scientists for it." She contemplated the bottle. "Apparently, it's considerably easier to go along with corrupt and unethical experiments on non-consenting human beings if you're just a little bit sloshed."
"Ah, the old 'don't ask me, I was drunk' defense."
"I hear it works pretty well with admirals too."
"I'm not so sure about that one." He paused, watching the sun slip down another fraction. It was strange. Aboard ship, you got used to stars coming and going sometimes within an hour. But somehow the experience was completely transformed by being down on the surface of a world, where the passage of the sun was the ultimate timekeeper going back to the ancient days.
"Hell of a day," he finally said. "You wanted a homerun, and you sure as hell got one, ma'am."
"Yes I did." Her smile was incredibly satisfied. "We caught up with Saren, we closed the door on an egregious violation of colonial law, saved an entire colony, and even killed the monster terrorizing the village. But you know what the best part is?"
She snickered. "When we get back to the Citadel, Udina's going to have to face a bank of cameras and smile as he shakes my hand. It may just kill him."
He chuckled and shook his head. "We can only hope. I have to say though, you're missing one heck of a party. It's really your party. None of this would have happened without you."
Her mirth faded, and she took another pull from the bottle. "Just… thinking, that's all. About this cipher and what the hell is happening out here."
Alenko waited a moment for her to continue before prodding. "Want to talk about it?"
"I'm not sure I can explain it."
"Doesn't hurt to try."
"I'm not sure it's the kind of thing a commanding officer should be discussing with her lieutenant," she clarified.
He shrugged. "We're off-duty."
"We're never off-duty."
"Well, if we're on duty, ma'am, technically you're drinking in uniform."
Shepard glanced again at the bottle. "…point taken."
He settled in to wait, raising his eyebrows at her. "So? Let's have it."
She slouched back against the shed and sighed. The silence stretched to the point where he almost gave her an out, not wanting to make her uncomfortable. Then she started to speak, rather abruptly. "About ten months ago I applied for a posting at ICT. Their instructor for an N4 course retired. Infiltration and reconnaissance, how to get in, find your target, and get out clean. I thought I might be a good fit."
"Teaching? Really?" Alenko couldn't have been more astonished if she suggested she wanted to join the Marine Corps Band. "I can't decide if I'm more surprised by that or the fact that they apparently turned you down."
"Admiral Zahavy thanked me for my interest and told me to come back when I was forty." She snorted. "Asshole."
He was still lost. "Why? I mean, why apply in the first place?"
She set down the bottle and looked up at the sky. The last ruby rays were fading into purple twilight. Her face was in shadows. "After Akuze I kind of gave up on everything. What the hell was the point? In a world this screwed up, what did it matter if I did the hard work to make something meaningful, if it would all be destroyed anyway?"
"Nihilism never got anyone anywhere."
"You weren't there." The words lashed out like knives. Her eyes cut at him.
He blinked, and weighed his response. "No. I'm not saying I understand. But it clearly cost you a lot and I don't know if the people who were there would have wanted that."
Shepard glanced away. "After something like that it's laughable that anyone expects you to care about a bad posting, or who said what to whom, or even which damn flowers to put in a centerpiece for your own wedding… I didn't inhabit the same reality as everyone else anymore."
"That was five years ago."
"Alright, six. You said you wanted out ten months ago." The light bulb went off. There was only one subject on which she was this evasive. "This doesn't have anything to do with that other mission? The one that you'd spend the next twenty years in Vancouver lock-up for telling me about?"
She gave him an even look. "You sure you want to hear this? It makes you liable too."
Alenko wasn't sure what made him answer affirmatively. The navy took breaches of classified information very seriously. This simply felt more important than the potential consequences. "No, but I'll listen anyway."
Shepard blew out a breath. "Our drive core got shot out from under us. We were stranded on the edges of batarian space, which is why the cavalry wasn't exactly coming over the hill."
"What the hell was the navy doing in batarian space?" The ceasefire agreement was crystal clear. That- and only that- had kept Alliance territory free of batarian raids for years. Alenko was shocked.
"I'm not going to tell you that." Shepard blew out a breath. "We all coped with it in our own ways. One of the guys in the squad, he wouldn't shut about his fucking cat. We were only supposed to be gone a few days and now we were looking at months. He'd gotten someone back in Brazil to watch her. And he kept going on and on, what if they couldn't keep doing it, what if we died out here and the cat got sent to a shelter."
"Maybe it was easier to fixate on something." Alenko could extrapolate how desperate things must have become on small ship like that easily enough. "Distraction."
"Maybe. I didn't have much. There was nothing to do but think." She rubbed her nose. "I realized there was nothing I'd ever had in the whole damn universe I'd miss half as much as he'd miss his stupid cat."
"That's not true. I mean, you have your mom and dad at least."
"Having parents who are going to cry at your funeral isn't the same thing as having a life." She shook her head. "Hell, if I did die even my parents would talk about how dedicated I was to my duty, just like the official eulogy. There's not much else to say."
He knew what she meant, but he hated hearing her voice it. "You say that like it's a bad thing. You love this job. Doing our duty, doing it well- that's the highest aspiration of people in our line of work."
"Yeah." She gave him a half-hearted smile. "The problem is that's all I ever do. I wasn't asking for the ICT posting because I was tired of doing this. I was asking for it because I was trying to get myself to a place where I could have some kind of real life."
"Everyone in the navy struggles with that," he said, trying for reassuring. "It's not easy no matter where you're posted."
She took another swig from the bottle, swallowed. "I tried to change. I applied for the post at ICT, because why not. I went on vacation. The first real vacation I'd had since I was a kid."
"Where'd you go?"
"Disney World, believe it or not. I'd never been and the shuttle fares from Arcturus were cheap."
He chuckled. "I can't for the life of me picture you at Disney World."
"I sort of stuck out. The rides were ok, I guess. I don't like roller coasters. I mean, I'm not afraid of them, I just don't see the point. Stand in line for an hour for a few minutes of being rattled and wrenched around… I've been injured a lot and that kind of thing is just a lot of pointless aches. There were kids and families everywhere. And there I was, a space-pale loner in civvies with the tags still on, stinking of cigarettes."
"I'm sure nobody minded as much as you think."
"I don't care if they minded. I cared that I couldn't even do this one stupid human thing without feeling like a guest in someone else's reality. I went down to the beach instead. Sat in the sun. I don't… like weather all that much, but it was nice. Didn't change anything, but it was nice. I guess nothing ever does." She leaned back against the shed and took another swig, staring up at the sky. "I really did try, though. For a little while. And now here we are anyway."
They sat in silence for a long moment, Shepard drinking while Alenko thought. He had a feeling like this wasn't something she talked about much, and tequila or no, he understood the amount of trust being extended. He didn't want her to regret it. And hearing her go on like this hurt him in a way he wasn't comfortable examining. "So what does this have to do with drinking yourself blind on bad tequila? Today was a good day, Shepard. There's nothing wrong with letting that be."
"It's this cipher. I'm starting to understand more of it." The bottle fumbled in her hands. "There is a lot more to this than any of us suspected. This war the Protheans fought with the reapers? It last centuries. And it wasn't the first time. The reapers have annihilated organic civilization again, and again, and again. Every fifty thousand years, like clockwork, going back god knows how long."
He stared. "That's insane. You've only had this thing a few hours. Surely-"
"You can believe whatever you like, Kaidan, it's true." She hugged her knees up to her chest, copying his posture, and rested her chin on them. "You can't imagine the kind of force I'm seeing in this beacon warning, and I can't begin to describe it. It's coming for us, now. Even if we stop Saren it's still coming. All we're fighting for is a chance to push back the schedule and gain more time to prepare."
Alenko took a few minutes to process that, and decided that for the moment legitimacy didn't matter. "Alright, leaving aside whether or not that is accurate, what about it drove you away from the party?"
"Because this is it." Shepard swept her hand out, gesturing at the darkened sky. "Whether I die in bed or somewhere out there, this war is the last thing I'm going to do with my life. I can't ignore it, not without changing everything I am."
"Don't say that."
"It's the truth. Why the hell shouldn't I say it?" She stared up into the stars. "Maybe this was fair. I've never believed in destiny, but hell, I would've never believed in something like the reapers either. Maybe this was always where my life was going and the lack of content was destiny's way of making it not hurt so much when it came time to do it. But I kinda think, maybe, it would've been better to have something to miss after all."
"Or maybe you're just tired and drunk." He nudged her. "Not to be mean, but this isn't a great state of mind to contemplate the unknown."
"I really appreciate the support there, L.T. Very insightful." Shepard rolled her eyes and ran a hand over her hair. "I'm just saying, if some oracle came to me at seventeen and laid it all out, I'm not absolutely certain this is what I would've chosen."
"Look, when you were seventeen, you were dying your hair bright blue and stealing parts out of cars," he pointed out. "Experience changes your perspective. Even with foresight, it probably still would've looked like an exciting adventure."
She chuckled, rubbing her forehead, at a loss. "I don't think that blue-haired girl would even recognize me, carefully stepping around the sensibilities of four different species and giving politically respectful interviews."
"I don't know." He tilted his head back, taking in the sky, not wanting to say the wrong thing. The first of the stars were starting to come out. "I think instead of dying her hair, she pulls out electrical cables to fry synthetic hostiles while standing in a pool of water. Instead of turning cartwheels on ANN, she flips the bird at turian leadership in open Council sessions. She didn't change. She grew up and her battles got a little bigger, that's all."
Shepard, too, turned her gaze upwards. It was too dark to make out her expression, and a long time before she answered. "You know, that may be the nicest thing anyone's said to me in a very long time."
He smiled in the dark. "Well, I'm glad calling you a pain in the ass makes you feel better, ma'am."
"Hey, I've cultivated that aura of assholery. It's harder than it looks." She turned her head and grinned at him, laying her cheek against her knees. "So what about you? I find it hard to believe Lieutenant Alenko doesn't have anything waiting for him back in port."
It was Alenko's turn to be evasive. "Nah. Nothing like that."
"Extended deployment is that big a deal-breaker?"
He let out a sigh tinged with exasperation. "I don't know. Everything will go great for a few weeks, then they start telling me that I'm 'emotionally unavailable' and it's not going to work." He made a face. "Emotionally unavailable. What does that even mean?"
"It means that you're defensive and you don't give people ready access to what you're thinking or feeling." Shepard was bemused.
"I'm a private person."
"I think it's your business who you choose to share things with. I like my privacy too." She shrugged, and started searching around for the tequila again. "But on the other hand, you're wound up tighter than the tensile spring under Normandy's main battery. It wouldn't kill you to relax a little."
He snorted. "That's pot calling kettle if I ever heard it."
She waved the bottle at him before taking another swig. "Speak for yourself. I'm the one who's drinking."
"Oh, go to hell, ma'am," he said, crossly. She snickered, but offered no further comment.
Then, after a moment, he rolled his eyes held out his hand.
Shepard laughed and passed him the tequila.
It took awhile for Feros' sun to climb high enough to reach around the storage shed erected by the colonists and reach the two slumbering marines slumped against it.
They stirred at nearly the same time. Shepard leaned forward and cradled her forehead in her hand, and groaned. "Why?"
Alenko rubbed the sand from his eyes and took a glance at the now-empty fifth. "Well, you did drink most of it."
She put her head between her knees. "Today is gonna suck."
He tried not to laugh. Her uniform was rumpled past any decent excuse, she had a rough, angry scrape painted across her cheek, and her long red hair was half-falling out of its bun. The sun caught the wispy fly-aways as she tried to smooth them back, to make some order of her appearance before they headed back to the ship and look a little more like a C.O. and a little less like a marine who had been up all night drinking.
Shepard gave him a highly affronted glare. "This isn't funny."
"Of course not, ma'am." He bit his tongue against every teasing retort that rose up and tried to slip through.
She took in his carefully neutral expression, made a sound of exasperation, and resumed adjusting her clothing.
He watched her fuss, and tried not to think all the things that were running through his mind. Alenko would be lying if he said the notion never occurred to him. He'd entertained the occasional idle daydream. Who wouldn't? Shepard had strength, grace, brains, and legs all the way up to there. The more this mission dragged on, the more appreciation he gained for just how much shit she was forced to wade to accomplish anything. Alenko admired the hell out of her for sticking with it all the same, though it was equally undeniable that those long legs and red hair of hers sometimes played more of a starring role than her tenacity.
There were over three hundred clearly defined statutes in the Systems Alliance Navy Uniform Code of Military Justice. Most of them were relatively obscure, or sufficiently overlapping with either day-to-day protocol or common sense as to be understood implicitly. A few, however, were hammered into the brains of every recruit who passed through Alliance basic training. Article 218 stated in no uncertain terms the consequences for fraternization, particularly in a time of war, between soldiers within a chain of command. Couples or spouses who served on the same ship were not terribly uncommon; the Normandy even had their own pair, Rosamund and Talitha. But they served in different areas and were not subject to taking orders from each other in the normal course of events.
Alenko answered to Shepard directly. They worked together closely, under the most serious of circumstances, the outright attack of several human colonies by a rogue army from beyond the Terminus Systems. They fought together, they relied on each other, and neither of them would be able to fully execute their duty under that kind of distraction. It was literally the textbook example of a 218 violation. There was no excuse.
Idle daydreams were one thing. But sitting on the roof, taking in his charmingly disheveled commander in the early morning light, recalling how forlorn she sounded the evening before and the way it echoed his occasional doubts about his own life, and realizing that party or no, there was no place he'd rather be- those daydreams didn't feel quite so idle or so innocent. And Lieutenant Alenko realized, abruptly, that he had a very, very big problem.