Chapter 44


All told, the maglev train ride from the Silversun Strip's central metro station to the big Presidium transit hub adjacent the Alliance Navy docks was less than a nine-minute trip.

Not long ago, the Citadel's expansive rail system was generally the domain of the station's lower-income, second class residents and the various locally-based military personnel. Skycars were the preferred mode of transport for those who could afford the fares or lease a private vehicle. Back before Saren Arterius led his attack on the station, that privileged group amounted to roughly half the station's adult population. The galactic economy was booming back then, and the Citadel was the most exclusive artificial real estate in the galaxy. Things were different now.

Today, other than the vehicles reserved for government transport, private skycars were a scarce luxury beyond the means of all but a handful of the station's elite. Aside from the skyrocketing cost to own and operate them, a significant percentage of the massive fleet of X3Ms and similarly sized personal inter-station vehicles had already been impounded on Council authority. The individual components and raw materials of the cars were far more valuable in supplementing the war effort than moving civilian bodies from place to place. For Citadel citizens and visitors alike, the vast, sub-level rail system was now the only practical option to get from one ward to the other or to transition over to the Presidium ring. The trains were efficient, cheap, and, for the most part, ran on time.

With Normandy in dry dock, undergoing repairs and upgrades, Shepard had been traveling back and forth along the same route from the apartment he shared with Miranda to his temporary post at the Alliance Navy's regional command headquarters just about every day. Nearly five weeks in now, he'd witnessed the maglev system's passenger density steadily increase as progressively more people joined him on the line that ran through his local station at Silversun all the way to the Presidium. Most were civilians commuting to jobs on the Presidium, but just about every day, he was noticing an increase of uniformed soldiers joining him along his route to the government and military districts. Human, turian, salarian. Lately, there was barely enough room for everyone to squeeze into the rail cars.

The war was displacing billions of people galaxy-wide and the Citadel, parked at the hub of a couple of dozen mass relays, was a transition point for a significant percentage of them. The ancient station was a good deal larger than anything humanity or any of the other major spacefaring species had ever constructed, but even it was straining against the exponentially swelling population. Shepard had no idea how many people the Citadel could support but he figured they'd be testing the theoretical capacity limits any day now.

The train slowed to a stop at another station, the doors hissed open, and a few more people joined the first shift herd. Shepard tried to minimize his lightly armored bulk as best he could, shifting a little deeper into the corner of the car before the doors closed and the train began moving again. He grasped an overhead handle with one hand and held up his PDA with the other, scrolling through a dozen different reports and bulletins while doing his best to ignore the occasional curious glance he caught from the other passengers.

His personal fame still wasn't something he'd figured out how best to handle. The attention tended to come in the form of pointing, staring or whispers when he walked by. For the most part, none of it was meant as an insult. He'd had his image plastered on vid screens for years now, so it wasn't unusual for people to recognize him. But after a month on the Citadel, the longest stretch of time he'd been stuck in one place since his pre-war confinement on Earth, and even with the recent tabloid coverage fixated on his relationship with Miranda, most of his fellow commuters were getting used to seeing him up close and personal.

The Citadel was like that. After a few hundred years of standing squarely at the diplomatic and cultural heart of the galaxy, citizens of the massive station were accustomed to encountering all manner of celebrity. Most people here didn't go out of their way to hide their curiosity, but there was almost always a respectful distance kept. It would have been more of an issue at one of the big L5 stations around Earth where overall diversity was dialed way down. Of course, none of those huge human-built stations existed anymore, so there was that.

Shepard glanced up from his datapad and made a quick, practiced survey of the other passengers in the train car. Half a lifetime of combat experience meant constant vigilance was a matter of habit and after all that had happened, he didn't need to be reminded that threats could come from anywhere at any time. But this day, there was nothing unusual to see. Most of the faces where those of his usual fellow commuters as well as a handful of people who were likely newly arrived refugees, heading over to the Presidium for services or to look for temporary work. At the opposite end of the car, near the forward hatchway connecting the next train segment, a pair of asari C-Sec constables were standing together, looking alert and wearing dour expressions. They both wore the department's new standard light body armor kit over their uniforms complete with tactical headsets and compact submachine guns slung over their chests.

The Citadel administration had long resisted the excessive militarization of its local security and law enforcement force. The policy was closely tied to the spirit of neutrality and peaceful galactic community the station was meant to symbolize. But the latest attack had forced the Council's hand. With the war raging just beyond the nebula's borders and after the mauling the force had taken at the hands of Cerberus, it would have been criminally irresponsible not to better equip the people tasked with keeping the place safe. Nevertheless, the shift left Shepard feeling a little disheartened. It was clearly necessary, but also one more stark reminder of the compromises this immense struggle demanded of a civilization struggling to avoid falling to pieces. So many things were changing he wondered if they'd ever go back to how they were before the Reapers began to pour through the relays. It didn't seem likely.

He caught the eye of one of the security officers and exchanged a respectful nod. She knew who he was, had seen him at least a dozen times before on that very same route, but didn't make anything of it. Her focus was on her duty.

The Thessia-based Asari government may have rapidly evacuated their diplomatic teams along with former Councilor Tevos when it appeared a Reaper assault was imminent, but almost a full third of the Citadel's permanent population remained asari. In the days immediately following the botched coup attempt, after the security lockdown had been lifted, a few thousand asari citizens decided to follow the urging of their government to flee the station and return to the Athena Nebula. But they'd been a relatively small minority. The vast majority of asari on the Citadel had chosen to stay and help rebuild.

The bond the local asari community felt to the station had proven more compelling than the call of a distant homeworld. After their government's desertion of the Citadel, feelings of betrayal and resentment aimed at their sisters back on Thessia became common. Many were taking on extra volunteer work at the hospitals and refugee centers or throwing themselves at the endless backlog of station repairs. Well on its back foot after the Cerberus assault, C-Sec was left with a huge number of vacancies that needed filling. But just last week, Commander Bailey had mentioned to Shepard that over half the total applicants he'd seen come across his desk were asari. They were rallying around their home and looking to prove they stood with the rest of the galaxy facing down the Reapers.

The asari people could be awfully pretentious and were often prideful to a fault. They could be nearly insufferable when boasting about their cultural and technological superiority. But in Shepard's experience, no other species in the galaxy surpassed their collective compassion or could top their capacity to overcome obstacles when faced with extreme odds.

The shockwaves of the Asari Republic's official retreat from the Citadel Council were still reverberating throughout the galaxy. The entirety of the Parnitha System was closed with the local relay reported to be guarded by two reinforced asari battlegroups, led by the Destiny Ascension, tasked with turning away all non-asari or otherwise unauthorized starships. The other core worlds spread throughout the Athena Nebula had followed Thessia's lead, obeying instructions from the central government to cease relations with most of the other major spacefaring species and expel nearly all foreign embassies. Much of the nebula had gone dark to the rest of the galaxy.

But beyond their home system's borders, things were playing out differently across asari civilization. Many of the younger colony worlds were defying the orders coming from Thessia. Foremost among them, Illium had refused to comply with the directive to seal their borders and cease all unsanctioned interspecies trade. The idea of halting what amounted to more than eighty percent of the planet's total commercial activities simply wasn't a sacrifice the local administration was ever going to go for. Besides, Illium had long maintained a frosty relationship with Thessia. Operating independently of Council-imposed market regulations and treaties was at the heart of the world's identity and there wasn't any amount of desperate, angry pleas from their sisters in the Parnitha System that would change that.

But shrugging off the last few remaining bonds of Thessian influence was about more than simply keeping the markets free and open. Illium found itself in a tough spot. The same nexus of easily accessible frontier systems that facilitated the colony's wealth and rapid growth left it exceedingly vulnerable to attack. Even if they'd chosen to remain in the good graces of Thessia, there was almost no hope that the Asari Navy could defend the planet from a determined Reaper attack or any number of other, more conventional threats. Cerberus was rapidly consolidating influence in the neighboring Terminus Systems, had seized control of Omega, and was coming off the massive success of hijacking an entire battlegroup from under the Systems Alliance's nose. Unregulated capitalism and ambition had turned the wheel on Illium for generations, but these days it was a finely-honed sense of self-preservation that was setting the agenda.

Within days of Thessia's official response to the Citadel attack, Illium's independent consortium of leaders moved decisively to negotiate new trade and defense treaties with the Human Alliance and Turian Hierarchy, solidifying the colony's break from the Asari Republics and catapulting it to a pivotal role among the other asari worlds that had chosen to stand apart from Thessia.

Incredibly, for what had very recently been a planet many had viewed as a rogue, vaguely corporate criminal state, there was already talk that the Citadel Council was preparing to recognize a new union of asari worlds with Illium at its center.

When the train glided into the station a few minutes later, Shepard filed out of the tube car along with most of the remaining passengers. He bypassed the huge bank of elevators arrayed near the tracks and hurried up the wide stairway to the main concourse level. He strode along the familiar path, past station walls adorned with two-meter-high vid screens that shouted advertisements or looped through newsfeeds and arrived at the transfer terminal that led to the docking ports reserved for the Alliance Navy. He scanned his credentials at the checkpoint and made his way through the heavily guarded security zone manned by a mix of C-Sec officers and fully armored human marines.

Normandy's assigned dock at Bay D24 was another hundred or so meters down the main concourse, past several additional bays occupied by a collection of other frigates and smaller corvettes. He made his way along the pathway already crowded with sailors and marines lugging their deployment bags until his ship came into view through the six-meter high banks of armored glass separating the station interior from the vacuum beyond. He strode up to one of the observation alcoves and leaned out over the railing, an appraising gaze fixed on the sleek warship.

After the few weeks she'd spent in the local drydock, the Normandy was looking pristine again. His eyes tracked along the length of the hull, bow to stern, settling on the section where the Reaper deployment pods had punched through to the shuttle and primary cargo bay. He knew the repair crews had replaced nearly two hundred individual ablative armor panels there, mended three bulkheads, and patched dozens of neural network conduits, but to the naked eye, it was like it had never happened. Big umbilical cables still linked Normandy to the port facility and a handful of techs clad in maintenance exo-suits designed for hard vacuum crawled along the hull, attending to the last few touchups. But all in all, his ship looked ready for action and spoiling for a fight.

He lingered a while longer, watching the techs work before eventually turning and walking back across the concourse to the nearby bank of elevators. He passed the crowded lifts with barely a glance and instead took the steep and narrow utility stairwell, sliding down the railing with a well-practiced form that always made him feel a bit like the blue-navy sailors of Earth from more than a century in the past. Dropping to the level below, he marched along the familiar passageway that snaked through the station's underbelly before letting out into the cavernous hanger sublevel.

Beneath the personnel concourses, the massive hanger deck stretched out before him, hundreds of meters in either direction. This was where the bulk of the freight and replenishment activities for the docked warships took place. The ceiling rose nearly four stories overhead, heavy loaders and cranes were interspersed up and down the deck, and huge airlocks designed to accommodate cargo hauling shuttles were integrated along the outer walls at regular intervals.

Shepard stepped out of the pathway alcove to find the deck humming with pre-deployment activity. A small army of Supply and Logistics personnel were using electric carts, heavy trundling loaders and fixed cranes to distribute huge pallets stacked high with Fleet deployment crates. There were rows upon rows of ordnance arranged carefully around the deck, missiles, and torpedoes of every variant, pallets of kinetic-weapon slugs and point defense cannon ammunition. More than a dozen Kodiak and Dragonfly drop ships that looked like they'd just rolled off the assembly line were lined up snugly at the far end of the hanger. Even a few Mako IFVs were parked in one corner. All the while, a conga line of freight-hauling shuttles were coming and going through the huge airlocks, ground crews with lighted batons directing the traffic, guiding the ships to their designated landing spots interspersed throughout the deck.

The Citadel served as the primary waypoint in the region for soldiers, warships and supplies transitioning through the dozens of relays surrounding the station or ferried directly over from nearby Bekenstein. And as the war effort ground on, Shepard had yet to see any sign of things slowing down on the station. But this morning's action had reached a fever pitch, leaving little doubt that the Normandy wouldn't be alone when she cruised back out into the black the following day.

Stepping smartly, he weaved his way through the busy deck toward the supply and staging zone reserved for his ship. Ashley was already there, standing near a small pallet of deployment crates, a datapad held up in one hand while she glowered at a pair of impatient-looking deck technicians.

"Morning, XO," he said as he approached. "What do we have here?"

Ashley lowered her PDA and glanced over her shoulder. "Good morning, sir," she said, snapping off a quick salute. Beside her, the two deckhands did the same. "Manifest says it's additional gear for some VIP passengers we're supposed to be taking on board. Orders just came down from Fleet that we'll have to arrange quarters for three human civvies. Two female, one male. But no details on who they are exactly, just instructions to give them comfortable berths, at least one private, and store their supplies in an accessible area."

Shepard made a face and gazed down at Ashley's PDA screen. "Comfortable and private berths. On a frigate. That's funny. Right, well, do the best you can, and I'll see if I can't figure out who we'll be entertaining."

"Copy that, sir," Ashley said, signed her acknowledgment of receipt for the gear, and gave a curt nod in the direction of the waiting men. "We'll take it from here. As you were."

The two supply handlers saluted the Fleet officers again and hurried off, jumping back onto the forklift they'd arrived on and speeding back across the deck. Ashley then waved over one of the Normandy's own crew hands and set him to work transporting the newly arrived supplies over to the ship.

"Aside from mystery passengers, how are we looking?" Shepard said.

Ashley glanced around the busy deck and blew out a breath. "Actually, pretty solid, Skipper," she said. "All things considered, we're in good shape. Ship's stores' resupply operations are nearly complete, the last of the neural network patching was wrapped up late last night, and the techs should be finished with final systems QA checks by fourteen hundred today. The yard monkeys have all the dents hammered out and have even sealed up the last of those exposed interior panels and conduits. Normandy looks shiny and brand new again, inside and out. We'll be topped off with reactor fuel and ordnance by the end of second shift."

"Outstanding. Crew status?"

"We've got a few stragglers still scheduled for transit back from leave on Bekenstein, but they're all due to arrive on station by early tonight at the latest. All department heads have checked in with no major issues reported and the last of the crew transfers have all been approved. We're fully crewed up for once in this boat's history, at least the Alliance Navy part of it, which feels like a minor miracle."

"Normandy operating without a short-staffed crew?" Shepard said with a wry grin. "I guess that'll put an end to my moonlighting down in Maintenance and Safety."

"Damn straight, Skipper. Make sure you hand in your mop before we cast off will you," she said, sharing a laugh with her captain. "Seriously though, it's amazing how quickly you can cut through red tape and bullshit when the wolf is at the door. Even with all the personnel shortages across priority occupational specialties, I've had almost no problems getting our first choices from the transfer candidate pool."

"Yeah, well, we've been fortunate with that," Shepard said. "Normandy's been bumped right near to the head of the line, thanks to our unique mandate. Not a lot of other ships have been as lucky. I hear Boudicca is still getting priority for materials and trained personnel with the rest of the Grissom-class hulls they're racing to piece together right behind her. But there's plenty of other ships farther down the line forced to scrape the bottom of the barrel. Fleet's probably only another few weeks away from flipping that barrel over to check for anyone reasonably useful-looking stuck underneath."

"Five-by-five on that. Believe me, I'm counting my blessings and trying not to gloat too much to the other XOs at the officers' lounge."

The two of them remained on the hanger deck for another fifteen minutes or so, the pace of the supply activities going on around them showing no sign of slowing down. Shepard mainly stayed out of the way, reviewing the ship's manifest on his PDA and checking in with a few of his department heads while giving Ashley plenty of space to run the show. Eventually, they handed the watch over to Chief Sun and set out for the Fleet briefing.

Taking the elevator up several levels and through the Alliance security zone, they emerged out onto a wide-open concourse that tracked along a big stretch of Presidium greenbelt. With a bit of time to spare and the Alliance Command Operations facility less than a five-minute walk away, Shepard and Ashley fell into a casual pace.

"Care to venture any guesses on where we might be heading, Skipper?" Ashley asked as they strode along, side-by-side.

"None I feel especially confident in betting on," Shepard said. "There's a potential need for us in at least a few dozen crisis zones all over the galaxy. But bringing on board civvies is an interesting twist. Not much chance this is a simple milk run though, not with all the other ships in the neighborhood warming up their drives. There's definitely something big in the works and we're definitely not going to be alone when we shove off."

"I hope you're right. About this not being a milk run. I have had just about all the maintenance cycles and simulated war games I can stomach." She cracked the knuckles on her right hand. "I am positively itching to get into a tussle and wouldn't complain one bit if it ends up us chasing down Cerberus. I'm dying to kick those fuckers in the balls after what they did here. And after bagging Udina, I'd love to complete the set with that traitorous asshole Kaneda."

"Never know, you might just get that chance. But wherever we're heading, we'll be ready. You've got Normandy as squared away as she can be, Ash. It's a helluva job you've been doing."

"Thank you, Captain," she said with a playful smirk and side-eye glance. "So, you mean you haven't been dropping by first thing every morning for the last week to check up on me and make sure I'm stowing the toilet paper in the right place? I was honestly starting to think maybe you were regretting handing over my old post."

Shepard grimaced. "Damn. Yeah, sorry about that, Ash. I can definitely see how it looks like I've been breathing down your neck. It's not that though. I've just been getting antsy, like you, waiting on the next mission. All the command briefings and joint-military strategy sessions are starting to wear on me, and I can't help feeling we've been stuck in one place for far too long."

Ashley nodded slowly. "Yup, I get it. I really do. But you sure that's all it is, Skipper?"


"Come on, Shepard," Ashley said, a trace of exasperation in her voice. "The thing we seem to keep dancing around. Lawson. For God's sake, Miranda-fucking-Lawson. You're honestly telling me that you have zero second thoughts over me taking your girlfriend's place on Normandy?"

He cringed internally a bit and then guided Ashley gently by the elbow over to the side of the pathway, stopping next to a railing overlooking a small park with a fountain at its center a level below. "I thought we'd been through all this?" he said a little more sharply than he'd intended. He let out a sigh and reigned in his annoyance. "Listen, Miranda stepped up in an emergency because she knows the Normandy backward and forwards and there was no one better suited to take on the role. It was never intended to be her permanently taking your command. And she and I both agreed with Fleet brass that bringing you back was the absolute right call. There are no hard feelings about it. This post is yours. You trained for it. You've earned it."

"Frankly, sir, you're damn right I've earned it," Ashley said. "Before I got stranded here after Mars, I'd been working my ass off for more than a year getting ready to take the reins. Believe me, I'm exactly where I want to be, and totally confident in my ability to run day-to-day on Normandy. But acting as your XO while we're stuck here in dry dock is one thing. The recipe gets shaken up as soon as those docking clamps release and we push out beyond the local relays. When that happens, I have to know that you're not going to look across the CIC pit and regret it's me standing there instead of Lawson. I need to know that you have total confidence in me or else this isn't going to work, full stop."

Shepard held Ashley's gaze for a long moment, hands on his hips. Then he relaxed his stance and channeled his best captain's voice. "Lieutenant Commander, you have my complete confidence. Full stop. And you know damn well you have my trust. Normandy is fortunate to have you as her XO. I'm lucky you'll be there to keep her purring like a kitten. No doubts, Ashley. No regrets."

Ashley stared back at him and exhaled deliberately. "Okay," she said. "Sorry, Skipper. But you know I just needed to hear that out loud. One last time before we shove off. Could be I'm wrestling with some pre-mission jitters as well. But I believe you and I trust you. So, I won't be bringing it up again. Promise."

Shepard smiled and nodded as they turned to resume their trek toward Fleet Command. "No apology necessary, Ash. Sometimes I think I forget how unorthodox things on Normandy can be. It's easy for me to take it for granted."

"Yeah, well, just so you know, I wouldn't have blamed you all that much if you had decided to put up a fight with Fleet to keep Lawson where she was. I'd have been pissed and disappointed, but I wouldn't have blamed you. Not after seeing her in action, up close and personal. I am fully willing to shove a little crow down my throat and admit the woman is a legit badass. And goddamn, she can fly a drop-ship."

Shepard chuckled softly. "She's definitely got a knack for it."

"Uh, yeah, that's putting it mildly. She's a natural behind the stick, not to mention flat out terrifying in a hand-to-hand brawl. Not as scary as that tatted-up biotic nutcase you two were palling around with, but still not someone I'd care to tangle with."

"You and me both, Lieutenant Commander," He said with a wry grin. "Good thing we're all on the same side now."

"Mm-hmm," Ashley said before going silent for a few moments.

"Something else on your mind?" Shepard said.

"As a matter of fact, yes. I do have one tiny little staffing concern, Captain."

"Tell me."

"Second watch Comm-Ops lead. Lawson's little sister."

"Oriana? What's the issue?"

"Well, first off, it's not the family connection, so let's not go there," Ashley said. "You know I'm the last person who'd hold a bias over something like that. But she's green, Shepard. I mean, she's literally two days out of the accelerated DCO program. You know as well as I do those three and a half weeks of classroom lecture and simulated ops are barely enough to prepare you to guard a hatchway on a warship, much less be the primary relief for a department head. Even with all the personnel shortages across the fleet, I've got a list of half a dozen qualified sailors who could take that post and hit the ground running. And that's not even counting the turian and salarian officers available through the new allied service transfer network. Hell, did you know Comm-Ops wasn't even Traynor's occupational specialty? I know she stepped up in a big way during the last deployment, but don't you think we ought to have someone a little more seasoned backing her up?"

Shepard nodded thoughtfully. Ashley wasn't wrong noting there were available people more qualified and experienced who could step into the role he'd reserved for Oriana. In a way though, that was an anomaly.

After the Alliance was savaged during the opening months of the war, every military branch was left facing massive personnel shortages, especially across the command and highly technical specialties. With all the old major training facilities and academies reduced to craters or clouds of fine debris in space, the Navy had been forced to patch together several ad hoc solutions for new recruit intake, including two hastily organized accelerated direct commission officer training schools, one on Elysium and another on the Citadel.

Armed with Councilor Goyle's recommendation, Oriana didn't even need Shepard's influence to be accepted to the inaugural batch of recruits at the Citadel DCO school. Her cohort had graduated just a few days ago with the younger Lawson, unsurprisingly, at the head of her class. As far as the Navy was concerned, she was ready to serve. But just as important to him, he'd made a promise.

"I hear your concerns, Ashley, and I'm not going to say they don't have some merit," Shepard said. "Generally, I'll leave most ship's staffing decisions to you. You're welcome to work out rotations as you see fit, but I'll have to overrule you when it comes to Ensign Lawson. She's earned that post and even been tested under fire. Hell, I'll bet she's already got more real-world combat experience than any of the other orphaned console jockeys on that list of yours. Sorry, XO. Her slot is non-negotiable. I understand your doubts but give her a chance and I think you're going to be impressed."

"Okay," Ashley said, though her face made it clear she wasn't entirely convinced. "You're the boss. But on a semi-related note, I also want to remind you that we have a goddamn android roaming the decks, literally plugged into every critical system on the ship. You know, the same one that bashed my skull in on Mars? It's my prerogative as your second to point these little annoyances out."

Shepard smiled. "You absolutely have earned that right," he said and looked at her. "But tell me honestly, Ash. Are you going to be alright with EDI? Because I need you to be. As you say, she and the Normandy are a package deal. Transferring her off the ship isn't an option."

Ashley gave him a wry smile and rolled her eyes. "Yes, we're good. Don't worry about it, Skipper. We had a little heart-to-heart, girl-to-silicon-brained girl. It won't be an issue."

Shepard snorted a laugh. "I'm glad to hear it."

They continued along the concourse for another dozen meters or so before arriving at the first security checkpoint leading into the greater Alliance military compound. They both paused to allow the guards to scan their IDs before heading into the building that housed most of the System Alliance's critical command and control facilities in the region, a sprawling campus of interconnected buildings that occupied a significant portion of Presidium real estate. Cleared through, they made their way down another set of passageways and crowded into an elevator that would take them up to the main administrative level.

"So, Ash, how's Edgerton?" Shepard asked. "I haven't seen him around in a while and I heard Pegasus is deploying later today."

"Yeah," Ashley said a little wistfully. "He's fine. We said our goodbyes last night. He's like us, anxious to get back out into the fight. Garrison duty here in the nebula didn't suit him either."

Ashley's proclivity to recite Tennyson from time to time, usually when her father was on her mind, exposed a sentimental side of the woman only Shepard and a few other close friends seemed to be acquainted with. But he wouldn't go so far as to say she was the overly romantic type. She was a pragmatist at heart. Which is why the hint of something deeper in her voice piqued his interest. "You two still good?"

Ashley gave a faint shrug of her shoulders. "Sure. I mean, with things how they are, neither one of us has any clue when we'll share shore leave together again. But I guess you could still call us a committed couple." She exhaled a long, deliberate breath. "I was actually all set to give him his freedom while out on deployment. I mean, we're exclusive but we don't have to be that exclusive. You know, if the stress started to get to him. But he wasn't having any of it and I can't say my heart was really into the idea either."

"I like him. He seems like a good man, Ash."

"He's a cocky son of a bitch, just like every other fighter pilot I've ever known. An overconfident adrenaline junkie. It's no wonder you like him. But I do care for the guy. Kinda a lot, I guess. Do you want to hear something crazy? Chronologically, my relationship with Edge has been the longest of my life. Exclusive for just over a full year now. But we've only spent a total of forty-seven days physically together. Most of that back on Earth before everything went to shit. forty-seven days. Seriously. I counted."

"Military relationships are never easy. Especially when you're in the middle of a shooting war."

"Oh, believe me, I know it, Shepard. Which is exactly why I always tried to steer well clear of all that business. Long-term entanglements in this line of work usually don't turn out so great. The occasional deployment spouse, three months or so at a time, was all the commitment I cared to make. That was plenty."

"But something changed."

Ashley nodded. "Something changed," she said, glancing at him, smiling. "But I'm not sharing those bits with you just yet, Captain, if that's what you're fishing for."

Shepard laughed softly again. "Copy that, XO. Someday, maybe."

"Yeah, don't hold your breath, Skipper."

Shepard and Ashley exited the elevator and joined the parade of the fleet and marine personnel cruising the hallways of the command facility. They turned a corner and nearly collided with Commander Kahlee Sanders who'd just emerged from one of the private comm rooms, her eyes glued to the floor.

"Sorry," Kahlee muttered distractedly before she glanced up to see it was Shepard that she'd almost barreled into. "Oh. Hello, Captain. I apologize. I wasn't looking where I was going." Her eyes were red and a little puffy.

"Is everything alright, Commander?" Shepard asked.

Sanders glanced between the other two officers, brushing a stray hair out of her face with one hand, trying to conceal her embarrassment. "Yes… Umm, yes. Everything's fine. Thank you."

Ashley exchanged a glance with Shepard, looking eager to extract herself from the encounter. "You know what, sir, I'm just going to run to the head really quick before the briefing starts," she said. "I'll see you there." She flashed a taut smile and gave Kahlee a respectful nod before hurrying down the corridor.

Shepard placed one hand gently upon Kahlee's shoulder and guided her a couple of steps to the side, next to the wall and out of the way of foot traffic. "What is it, Kahlee?" he asked. "Has something happened? Are the students alright?"

"No, no, nothing's happened," she said, waving a hand before taking a long, steadying breath and leaning one shoulder lightly against the wall. "They're all fine. I was just talking to David. I finally managed to get a few minutes alone with him over the QEC."

"Oh," Shepard said.

He hadn't known Kahlee Sanders for very long, their paths having only just crossed a few months back during the incident at Grissom Academy. But after she'd spent time on Normandy, the two had quickly developed easy, natural chemistry. The daughter of the legendary Admiral Jon Grissom, Kahlee was one of the few of Shepard's peers in the fleet who could relate to the unwelcome celebrity he often had to endure. But even more so, it was their mutual connection to Admiral Anderson that bonded them. His friend and mentor had rarely offered up details about his personal life or given more than a hint to the depth of his relationship with Kahlee, but after getting to know her he'd finally been able to piece together a semi-complete picture of their story.

Kahlee actually looked quite a bit younger than her forty-seven years. Her rare, natural blonde hair contributing to a unique beauty. But her attractiveness went well beyond the superficial. There was a magnetism about her, an authenticity that drew you in and made you want to be near her. After spending a good deal of time with her on the Normandy, it hadn't been difficult for Shepard to understand why Anderson cared so deeply for her.

"How is the Admiral?" Shepard said.

"Still in one piece," she said. "Still defying the odds, like he always has. You'll be seeing him in your operational briefing." She crossed her arms and stared back down at the floor, exhaling a shuddering breath. "Shepard, I can't shake this feeling that I just talked to him for the last time."

"Kahlee," he said softly. "Don't give up hope. Anderson's the toughest man I know. He's going to get through this." He paused, uncertain how else to comfort her. "What can I do?"

Kahlee looked back up and gave him a pitying smile. "There's nothing to be done, Shepard. I know you're in the business of fixing things for other people, but this one's out of your hands." She looked over at the men and women in uniform walking by, a distant look in her eye. "Regret is a hard thing to live with. The choices we make, the lies we tell ourselves to sabotage our own chances at happiness. It all seems so absurd now." She turned her head and looked him in the eye. "I've seen what you and Miranda mean to each other. Don't waste that. Don't let this war take that away from you, Shepard. Don't let her go. You understand me, Captain?"

"I do," Shepard said.

She gave a nod and faint smile and tugged on the bottom edges of her uniform tunic to straighten it out. "I'm due in Goyle's office in twenty. I'll see you around, Shepard."

Shepard walked into the Fleet conference room to find the place about a third full. He paused at the door, nodding at a few other officers filing in, before spotting Ashley sitting toward the front of the room, her long ponytail easy to pick out among the other Alliance people in the room. He maneuvered his way down the row and took the seat next to her.

"What was that about?" she whispered under her breath.

Shepard shook his head. "Nothing," he said. "Forget it."

Ashley made an irritated face but didn't press. "Not exactly a full house, huh?" she said, looking over her shoulder, surveying the sparsely filled room behind them. "Sometimes I forget how many people we've lost."

Shepard nodded soberly. Just over five weeks ago, the same room would have been packed full of the command staffs of the permanent Citadel Fleet and a good portion of the people running the auxiliary support craft that contributed to the defense of the region. Now, those fifty-odd men and women were officially classified as missing in action, though just about everyone understood that at least a handful of them must have been complicit in Kaneda's plot, traitors to the Alliance, just like the Admiral.

Weeks ago, when the Normandy and Dunkirk had entered the nebula to find the station under siege and learned the bulk of the Citadel Fleet was flying into a trap, Captain Dah had sent her ship racing to intercept. But she arrived too late, finding only a slowly expanding field of wreckage and a few escape pods from the destroyed turian warships. Every last one of the Human Alliance ships under Admiral Kaneda's command, nine priceless hulls in total, had vanished.

The turian survivors recovered at the scene provided a few answers, reporting they'd been attacked moments after dropping out of FTL, ambushed by advanced stealth warships hiding in the area as well as taking fire from Kaneda's own flagship, the huge dreadnought SSV Elbrus. While the Hierarchy ships were being overwhelmed, the other Alliance vessels had gone silent, dead in space after apparent system-wide failures to propulsion, comms, and weapons. Whatever had happened on board the human ships prior to and immediately after the ambush remained a mystery. The prevailing theory was that a small group of Cerberus collaborators had affected the sabotage and then used the life support systems to incapacitate the bulk of the crews. Nobody at Fleet was willing to believe that the renegade Admiral had convinced thousands of sailors and marines to rebel. The chilling notion that all those men and women were being held against their will and at the mercy of the Illusive Man was what they were left with.

The whole episode had nearly torn the tenuous Human-Turian alliance apart. It took an emergency summit between Primarch Victus, Anita Goyle, Admiral Hackett, and a few other key diplomats and military leaders to prevent the whole enterprise from falling apart. In the end, the alliance had held, both governments understanding neither could stand against the Reapers alone. But the incident had seriously chipped away at the mutual trust they'd developed.

In the end, the Illusive Man had failed to fully cripple the cross-species partnership he'd targeted. And his uncharacteristically clumsy attempt to paint the Alliance as the aggressor on the Citadel was exposed, largely thanks to the efforts of Shepard, Miranda, and Ashley. But the bounty the captured ships represented was probably victory enough for Cerberus. And regardless of what the various leaders and politicians knew, the memory of human mercs and combat mechs sporting Alliance insignias gunning down people in the Wards wasn't something that was going to fade from the public consciousness overnight.

A dozen or so conversations were going on in the conference theater when the door at the side of the presentation stage opened and an unmistakable figure clad in fleet blues stepped through. A first lieutenant sitting in the front row shot out of his seat and called the room to attention.

"Holy shit," Ashley said under her breath, standing next to Shepard and watching as Fleet Admiral Steven Hackett stepped to the lectern. "Did you know the old man was here at the station?"

Shepard gave a thin-lipped smile, shaking his head slightly. "Not a clue."

Hackett placed a datapad on the lectern surface and glanced around the room. "As you were," he said. Behind him, his personal aid stepped through the same door and quickly faded into the background a few meters behind the admiral.

There was a collective rustling as the officers in attendance sat back down and got out their own PDAs for the briefing. Hackett tapped out a quick series of commands on the room's A/V controls embedded in the lectern, dimming the lights slightly and activating the big vid screens that took up the majority of the space along the back wall and on either side of the elevated dais. The faces of more than a dozen Fleet commanders attending remotely appeared in individual tiles on the screens.

Shepard recognized Admirals Lindholm, Singh, Mikhailovich, and Navarro. Captain Dah was there as well, sitting in what he assumed must be her ready room onboard her new command, SSV Boudicca. Admiral David Anderson stared back at the room from the screen to his left. The big man looked like he'd just gotten back from a three-week overland endurance exercise, his uniform and light battle armor dusty and badly scuffed. A marine major who appeared every bit as worn out and beat up was standing next to him.

"Good morning," Hackett said, surveying the room before him. "Welcome to Operation Chimera. Before we get into the details and objectives, I want to immediately turn things over to our comrades on Earth. They don't have much time and it's important everyone here has a clear understanding of what the situation is back in Sol." He glanced over to his right and nodded. "Admiral."

"Thank you, sir," Anderson said. "I'm afraid there's not a lot of positive news to report today. The Reapers maintain total control over the high ground in orbit and we have no way to challenge their dominance there. However, we have been successful in gradually expanding the scope of resistance activities on the ground, linking up with regional militaries and informal militias spread out across the globe. Communication among our coalition forces is improving and we're getting better at coordinating operations. These mainly consist of guerrilla-style, hit-and-run attacks on targets of opportunity. We're focused on harassing the occupying ground forces wherever and whenever we can, sabotage of Reaper troop processing and manufacturing facilities, and disrupting the enemy's efforts to round up civilian populations. However, we're forced to take a measured approach with our actions or else risk exposure to orbital strikes. So, everything's small scale. It's already difficult enough avoiding their drones and attack craft in the atmosphere."

Admiral Anderson paused for a moment before continuing. "The enemy is settling in for a long occupation," he said. "With the planet's industrial and military infrastructure thoroughly wrecked, the Reaper forces have begun to bottle up major population centers. Osaka, Mexico City, Beijing, São Paulo, Mumbai, Delhi, New York, and a few dozen other megaplex cities have been totally cut off. Recently, Reaper operatives engineered to look and behave like unmodified humans are being dropped into these places. At first, our local intel people thought these things were simply high-functioning indoctrination victims. But we've since confirmed they're definitely of the synthetic variety, similar to what was seen on Arcturus Station before the invasion. They move in, gain sources through coercion and indoctrination, and set up whatever institutions necessary to keep the populations pacified.

"Behind the walls, the people in the blockaded urban centers get to carry on reasonably normal lives. The Reaper heavies and ground troops stay well clear and the skin jobs and collaborators keep order while the drones patrol the airspace. The whole thing came together so quickly that it seems pretty certain that this was the occupation's planned second phase all along; corral as many humans as possible to process them in an orderly manner." Anderson gave a weary shake of his head. "To the Reapers, they're all cattle waiting for slaughter."

There was a collective shifting around among the officers in the room as they absorbed Anderson's report. Shepard already knew all about the specifics of what had been happening on Earth. Most of the others in the room with him had a decent picture of the situation as well. But with a few thousand light-years separating them from Earth, it was necessary to be reminded from time to time of just how fucked their homeworld was.

"We've scouted and set up permanent observation of more than two dozen big human processing centers scattered around the planet. Most are positioned near densely populated zones," Anderson said. "Our spotters think roughly half are geared for troop production. They're seeing regular batches of human prisoners arrive and, after a few days, an equal number of husks emerge. Most end up getting transported off-world, but around fifteen percent are staying put on Earth. We figure for garrison duty. We don't fully understand what's occurring inside some of the other facilities. They take in regular deliveries of human prisoners just like the troop factories, but husks don't come out. We have some guesses though. The intel Captain Shepard brought back from Collector space made it clear the Reapers have more than one use for human biomass."

Another chorus of murmurs rippled across the conference room. Shepard glanced at Ashley to see she'd gone white and was busy biting her lower lip. She wasn't the only one in the room having that sort of reaction. At the podium, Hackett's expression was stony and unreadable.

"In other news, last week, an element of the regional Chinese military launched a tactical nuclear strike against one of the larger Reaper troop processing facilities outside Chengdu. We're not entirely clear on how they managed to get their package through the enemy's defenses, but the strike leveled the facility. Collateral civilian casualties were significant. The Reaper response was worse. Twenty minutes after the nuke went off, the enemy bombarded the entire city and surrounding areas from orbit. They completely leveled the place. It's a total a wasteland for thirty klicks in every direction."

"Jesus," Ashley said. "There had to be, what, something like twenty million people living in that megapolis?"

Shepard nodded grimly. All the numbers coming out of Sol were like that. Astronomical casualty counts racked up over absurdly short spans of time. He and everyone else in that briefing room knew that if they couldn't manage a counteroffensive or some sort of relief within the year, there wouldn't be much of an Earth left for them to liberate.

"It was a message received loud and clear," Anderson said. "Since the rogue Chinese action, there haven't been any further direct strikes on that scale against Reaper installations. But that doesn't mean we're standing down." He gestured to the marine officer standing next to him. "Major Coats."

"Right," Coats said, rubbing his gloved hands together. "We're turning back the clock about half a century here in order to keep up the fight. At great cost, we've discovered that the Reapers are extremely adept at sensing and targeting anything utilizing eezo or generating a mass effect field. Something about the exotic radiological emissions acts like a beacon to them. So, we've grounded all the Kodiaks, Dragonflies, and other modern attack craft we have left. Our airpower now consists almost entirely of old tilt-rotor transports, various other conventionally powered VTOL-capable craft, and the old F-4 Viper ground attack birds. Anything capable of achieving orbit is basically a suicide ticket, so we're stuck operating in low atmo.

"It's taken some effort, but we've got a handful of synthetic fuel processing sites up and running and tucked undercover. Between those and the reserve depots we raided in the early days, we're keeping ourselves mobile. We're gradually standing up basic maintenance and support infrastructure to service the old birds, scattering bases in as many remote regions as we can manage. North Africa, the Middle East, Greenland. A handful of other spots.

"On the ground," Coats went on, "we're usually humping it on foot, keeping to old transit tunnels where they're available or in dispersed formations whenever we're exposed. But we are also steadily gathering and staging heavy armor. We're mostly talking Grizzly and Bearcat infantry fighting vehicles with any eezo retrofits disabled or torn out completely. We even managed to liberate a few columns of the old Panther heavy tanks before the enemy got around to blasting the auxiliary depots out of existence. Our rides don't move like Makos, but their railguns and autocannons are still capable of giving a Reaper platoon a bad day. But without a proper air screen, we're usually forced to keep the heavy munitions and hardware out of sight and save them for when you lot make it back."

A smattering of amused laughs filtered through the room as Shepard and Ashley shared a glance that meant they were thinking the same thing. Coats was describing fighting a technologically superior force with the equivalent of spears and catapults. But what else could they do? These were the people who'd been left behind or had chosen to remain behind. They were soldiers facing an enemy that would offer them no quarter. Prisoner of war wasn't a term relevant to their struggle with the Reapers. There was nothing left to do but keep fighting. Fight and wait for help that might never arrive on time.

Coats gave a wry smile and glanced at Anderson. "On the bright side, we haven't seen a Reaper capital ship on the surface for more than a month now. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean all that much to us in the dirt. There are still upwards of ninety Destroyer-class units confirmed positioned around the planet and there's nothing in our current arsenal capable of defeating their shields and armor."

Coats gave an involuntary grimace as if he'd just remembered something unsavory. "We've also cataloged a new trans-atmospheric airframe prowling the skies. We've designated them Raiders. They're big bastards that appeared a few weeks after the initial invasion, much heavier than the Oculus drones we're used to seeing buzz about. The buggers are fast and extremely nasty. We've seen them deploy troops in tight LZs but mostly they just make short work of anything of ours they find in the skies. A Dragonfly with a good pilot might be able to spar with one, but that's beyond what we can muster. For now, when a Raider comes calling, we hunker down and pray they don't spot us." He drew in a long breath and glanced down at a datapad he clutched in one gloved hand. "Anyway, we're sending all the intel we have through the secure data stream."

Anderson nodded to the major and glanced back into the camera. "To put a bow on all this uplifting news, we're facing tougher opposition every day without any way to replenish our ranks," he said. "As Major Coats said, the Reaper heavies were all called back upstairs weeks ago. It doesn't seem like they're fond of keeping those things on the surface longer than necessary. So, that's something. But we're mostly blind in orbit, so there's no way we can be certain of the situation beyond low-atmo. Dirtside observation posts are prime targets for the enemy and every drone we've tried to send up into orbit gets swatted right back down before any meaningful telemetry comes through."

"We're working on a solution for that," Admiral Hackett interjected. "Acquiring a full and complete picture of what's happening in the Solar System is at the top of the priority list."

"Fair enough," Anderson said. "While you're figuring that out, you know where you can find us. We'll keep harassing the enemy wherever we can. But I can't stress enough that the longer we allow these bastards to settle in the tougher it's going to be to scrape them off the planet." Another battle-worn soldier stepped into the QEC's field of view and said something in the major's ear who in turn relayed the message to the Admiral. "Alright, we're getting word that we're going to have to relocate again. We'll check back in at the regular interval once we're in a new location."

"Understood, Admiral," Hackett said. "And Godspeed."

Anderson gave a curt nod and the vid screen relaying the QEC transmission from Earth went black and then reverted to the Human Systems Alliance Navy seal. The briefing room remained dead silent.

Hackett paused for a moment and surveyed the room before speaking again. "Pretty grim, I know," he said. "But there is no one among us who can afford to lose sight of the suffering being inflicted on our friends and family back home. And Earth is home. I don't care if you were born and raised on that ball of dirt, grew up among the outer planets, or are a colony kid who's never stepped foot on Terran soil. It's the rock we all came from.

"We have lost billions. You've all seen the numbers. But there are still billions of more souls needing saving on Earth, holed up in emergency shelters on Mars and Luna, and spread all over the Jovian System outposts. We're not abandoning them. And I'm here to tell you that we are finished surrendering the initiative to the enemy. It's a long, bitter road we'll be taking to get back to Sol, but our first steps along that path begin right now." He tapped out another command on his datapad, activating the huge holotable situated between the lectern and the front rows of auditorium seats. The holographic map that appeared depicted a highly detailed tactical view Shepard instantly recognized. The Trebia System.

"Situation is this," Hackett said. "Palaven. Our turian and krogan allies are staging a massive, combined counterattack. The turians have an eye toward relieving the pressure in their home system while the Reaper forces have somewhat thinned out in the region, dispersing some of their hardware among nearby colony worlds. The Zhukov along with the rest of Colonel Langston's battlegroup will help spearhead the offensive element in space. We're also contributing Force Recon teams and other N7 special operators to support several salarian STG units that will be deployed planetside. Specific battleplan details are classified and will only be available to forces directly involved in the mission and after all allied forces have reached their respective staging areas. That said, the bulk of Alliance efforts for the overall operation will be focused elsewhere." He hit another command on his datapad and the holotable imagery shifted, depicting another well-known star system. Just about everyone in the room perked up at the sight of it.

"The Reaper presence at Terra Nova is still relatively light," Hackett said, gesturing to the holographic image of the Asgard System laid out in front of him. "We aim to change that. Shortly before the counterattack at Palaven commences, Admiral Singh will take the entirety of the Third Fleet along with the Boudicca and Shasta battlegroups to the Asgard System.

"Our primary goal here is two-fold. First, evacuation and salvage operations. There are still over a million colonists and troops holding out in seven known underground shelters scattered around the planet. We're going to rescue as many of them as possible and recover as much equipment and materials as practical.

"Secondly, and just as critically, we're going to make a whole lot of noise and create as much of a diversion as possible. The plan is to make a convincing showing in Asgard, so much so that the enemy will have no doubt about our intention to retake Terra Nova. But this attack is a feint. We will maintain rescue and recovery operations for as long as possible, but the bulk of our offensive operations in the system will be designed to tie up the Reapers and discourage a reinforcement surge to Palaven. Once the word comes back through from Trebia, all forces in the region will commence a full retreat from Asgard."

A captain sitting on the other side of the auditorium raised her hand. "So, we're sacrificing Terra Nova, sir?" she said. "Giving up on the whole planet, just so the turians have a slightly better chance of success in their own territory?"

Hackett leaned a little forward, his hands gripping the edges of the lectern. "We will maintain combat operations in Asgard for as long as it takes to get our people to safety. We're not going to get everyone. But we can save a lot. But yes, for now, we are abandoning any attempt to liberate Terra Nova." He paused and glanced around the room, meeting the eyes of a lot of the officers in attendance. "You all know that the losses we are suffering are unsustainable. Our most advanced weaponry is only minimally effective against Reaper capital ships and we're facing a major resource deficit. The best minds in the galaxy are working to develop more effective ways to fight these things, but they need time. So, we will save lives and buy time. Time for our scientists to build us better guns and time for our allies to regain their footing so they can return the favor when we're ready to go back to Earth. None of us get to walk away from this clean. But we goddamn well will do our duty."

Admiral Hackett exhaled and resumed a straighter posture, switching the holo display yet again. Shepard had to rack his memory for a moment before recognizing the Euler System.

"While we are engaged at Terra Nova, Rear Admiral Navarro will take the Jon Grissom and Hawking battlegroups to Benning along with twelve freighters from the auxiliary fleet. Again, we'll be focused on rescue and resource recovery operations there, hitting the enemy where they're relatively soft. But we won't be sticking around for long this time. It's strictly hit-and-run with the goal of evacuating colonists and scooping up as much of the planet's grain stores as can be hauled away. We've got mouths to feed and a limited number of breadbasket colonies left. That makes this a priority mission."

Hackett scowled at the holographic imagery before him for several seconds before switching the system off. Shepard's gaze, along with everyone else in the room, remained glued to him while he stepped around to stand in front of the lectern, his hands clasped behind his back. When he spoke again, his voice was soft and hard all at the same time.

"I won't insult you by pretending this is something it's not. The enemy has us on our heels, so we are circling the wagons. For now. But this fight is not over. Not by a longshot. Nor are we going to make running from the Reapers a habit.

"This operation is the crucial first step toward regaining the initiative. Yes, the turians and krogan are getting the first crack at putting together a proper counteroffensive. But they cannot succeed without our help. So, we will get this job done. Simple as that." He drew in a breath and walked back around to stand behind the lectern, giving a curt nod to his aid standing behind him. "You should all find your orders in your secure accounts along with all the relevant intel attached."

There was a brief rustling of activity in the room as the assembled officers began scrolling through the material on their PDAs, reviewing their orders and deployment schedules. Shepard and Ashley gazed down at their own devices, searching for new priority messages, before exchanging a puzzled glance.

"Sir," Shepard said, raising a hand. "I don't see the Normandy assigned to any of the mission objectives."

"I have something else for you, Captain," Hackett said. "Hold tight and I'll get you what you need."

From there, Hackett turned over the briefing to Admiral Lindholm who relayed details around known Cerberus activities, then to Rear Admiral Navarro for additional details on the logistics involved in Operation Chimera. By the time the room had worked through thirty-five minutes of Q and A, Shepard found he'd just about reached his limit for feeling left in the dark. Beside him, Ashley was shifting in her seat impatiently.

After the last of the questions had been answered, the Admiral dismissed the others in attendance and signaled for Shepard and Ashley to remain behind. He shut down the wall displays, pocketed his datapad, and joined them near the front row.

"Captain, Lieutenant Commander, thank you for your patience," he said while the other attendees filed out. "I'd hoped to have an opportunity to meet with you ahead of the briefing, but scheduling wouldn't allow for it."

"Understood, sir," Shepard said. "But we are anxious to know where you'll be pointing the Normandy."

Hackett gave a thin-lipped smile and nodded. "A place I think that lands squarely in your wheelhouse, Captain," he said. "The Perseus Veil. Your mission is to transport Councilor Goyle along with two of her top negotiators from State to an emergency summit with leadership from the Quarian Migrant Fleet. Once you've cleared local Citadel space, I will personally transmit the precise coordinates for the rendezvous point."

Shepard opened his mouth then closed it before voicing his confusion. "The quarians, sir?"

"They're getting ready to poke the bear, Shepard. Intel has it that the quarians are prepping to launch a major offensive in the region, culminating with an all-out attempt to retake Rannoch."

"Good lord," Ashley said. "They're taking on the geth. Head-on? Are they fucking crazy? Uh, Sorry, sir," she quickly added.

Hackett gave her a subtle nod. "I took the initial report much the same, Lieutenant Commander. We've evaluated the situation in the region as thoroughly as we can with probes and our long-range surveillance arrays and don't see anything to suggest the quarians will be able to succeed. The geth presence immediately near Rannoch is more saturated than it's been in a decade."

"This is a pretty dramatic strategic departure for the quarians, sir," Shepard said. "They've kept their fleet intact and their people alive all this time by avoiding straight-up fights with other major powers. High stakes gambling is not in their nature. They must have reason to think the geth are vulnerable or they've discovered some sort of exploit to give them an advantage."

"That's the prevailing theory we're working with, Captain," Hackett said. "But as you know, our sources in the Migrant Fleet are almost nonexistent. We're dealing with a lot of unknowns. I also don't believe they fully grasp the scope of the Reaper threat. Even if by some miracle they succeed in retaking Rannoch, it'll only be a matter of time before the Reapers come knocking."

"Right," Ashley said. "And by then they'll have burned most of their powder on the geth. The Reapers will roll them in an afternoon."

Hackett nodded his agreement. "Fortunately, there are some rifts forming among their admiralty class and it seems not everyone's on board with this new approach. Admiral Shala'Raan vas Tonbay wants to open a dialogue with the Council and is working to bring her peers on the Admiralty Board to the table. But they're not going to be swayed by just anybody from the diplomatic corps. That's why Goyle is taking it on personally. It's on her to figure out a way to avoid conflict in the Tikkun System and, ideally, secure a new treaty between the quarian government and the Council.

"Councilor Goyle is running the show but she's going to be relying heavily on you to advise her on military aspects, Shepard," Hackett continued. "You and your crew have a real history with the quarians so there's nobody better suited to this mission."

"Understood, sir," Shepard said. "But is it fair to assume that bringing the quarians into the war is our ultimate goal?"

Hackett gave a wry, humorless smile. "You're not wrong, Captain. Goyle will initially be focused on preventing the Migrant Fleet from breaking itself against the geth but brokering a military alliance to assist us and the other Council races is a priority. As I understand it, she'll be taking with her a substantial package of concessions approved by the turian and salarian councilors, including a proposal for a full membership seat on the Council and priority assistance in settling a new, permanent colony world within Citadel space. Once the Reaper threat is dealt with, of course."

Shepard's eyes went a little wider and he blew out a breath. "That… That is something, Admiral."

"It is, Captain. But the grievances the Council has had with the quarians in the past predates humanity's arrival on the galactic political scene. And with the asari and salarians in tatters and after the whipping the turians have been taking, old grudges don't mean that much anymore."

"There's nothing like impending mutual extinction for getting everyone to play nice again, is there?" Ashley said with a smirk.

Hackett grunted his approval and looked at his officers in the eye. "Listen, there's no denying that we're betting heavily on the turians and krogan at Palaven," Hackett said. "If we fail there, it might be the beginning of the end for us all. But even with a victory, without quarrian ships and materials, liberating Earth might just be impossible. This isn't some milk run I'm giving the Normandy. You two know better than most the knife's edge we're balancing on here. We may have more Grissom-class ships in the construction slips, but it's still going to be months before they're ready to be crewed and fit for action. And no matter how many new recruits we manage to churn out through accelerated training programs, personnel shortages are going to be a massive problem for the foreseeable future. Quarian Fleet support goes a long way in helping alleviate those problems."

Shepard nodded slowly, holding the Admiral's gaze. "We'll get it done, sir."

"I know you will, Captain," Hackett said. "You have your orders and all the relevant intel is already in your secure accounts. Good hunting and Godspeed. Dismissed."

After Admiral Hackett and his personal aid left, Shepard and Ashley gathered themselves and made their way out into the common area.

"Tell me what you're thinking, XO," Shepard said as they once again fell in step, moving out into the crowded halls of Alliance Navy HQ.

"Oh boy, where do I begin?" Ashley said. "I mean, I'd say I'm surprised, but after all the madness we've seen the last few years that seems spectacularly naive." She blew out a breath. "The geth, though. I can't decide whether I'm terrified out of my mind or about to piss myself with excitement. Probably a little of both."

Shepard coughed out a laugh. "We're on the same page then."

"You want me to make a courtesy call to Goyle's office, let them know we're ready to roll out the red carpet and all that business?"

"No, that's on me," he said. "Stay focused on the ship. But I do want to speak to all the department heads before the day's through. Have them assembled on Normandy by sixteen hundred."

"Copy that," Ashley said. "And I'll get my things out of the XO's quarters and have it made up for Councilor Goyle."

Shepard nodded thoughtfully. "Appreciate that, Ashley."

"Not a problem. That compartment always felt wrong to me anyway. Just too damn big for the boat. One of the standard officer's berths suits me just fine. Anything else you need, sir?"

They paused at the intersection of two hallways, one leading toward the building's nearest exit, the other to another section of the admin facility.

"That's all for now. Let me know if you run into any issues. I'll be wrapping up what's left of my station business today, but I'll be available."

"Aye, aye, sir," Ashley said, snapping off a crisp salute before marching off down the hall to the right, back toward the express pedways leading to the naval docks."

Shepard watched briefly as she navigated the crowded hallway, disappearing amid the sea of uniformed personnel and plainclothes support staff, and then continued along on his own way toward his temporary office at the other side of the facility, running through everything in his head that they'd learned in the fleet briefing.

The geth and the quarians. That was interesting. Not necessarily where he'd hoped to be taking Normandy after their long layover, but Hackett wasn't wrong. Once the Alliance committed to a path back to the Solar System, they would need all the hulls they could cobble together. The sheer number of troop carriers and support ships alone that would be needed to make a difference on Earth would amount to the largest invasion fleet ever assembled.

Even if the turian counteroffensive at Palaven succeeded, it would come at a punishing cost. And with the loss of the asari fleet and the salarians still largely in recovery mode after their brief but bloody civil war, the coalition of forces the galaxy had aligned against the Reapers was only another major defeat or two from collapse. Peeling off a good portion of the Quarian Migrant Fleet could go a long way in propping the alliance up, at least for a little while.

As the admiral had said, it was up to Goyle to make that happen, but he felt the weight of the burden on his shoulders all the same.

For Ashley, he knew a mission involving the geth would always pick at the deep scars she carried. Her encounter with the geth all those years back on Eden Prime had been a defining moment in her career, and her life. But he didn't have any doubts about her ability to face those demons down. He'd already traveled that road with her. Whether or not he'd ever truly come clean with his new XO about her place in the Normandy's chain of command was another matter.

Despite what he'd told Ashley just an hour or so earlier, the truth rolled around his gut uncomfortably. They both knew it was the right call. Shepard and Miranda. He wanted her to stay close on Normandy, to keep everything as it had been since they'd found each other again. But the Citadel was still reeling and there were few people left alive who could make the kind of difference here Miranda could.

And then there was the other thing. He knew she couldn't find resolution with her father on the Normandy. She had to figure out how to deal with that last, lingering thread of an old life on her own. He wouldn't stand in her way, as much as he dreaded the outcome.

Ashley was capable and driven. He had total confidence in her abilities and felt no hesitation deploying with her, going back into battle with her.

She wasn't Miranda.

Shepard passed through another security checkpoint, jogged down a flight of stairs, and arrived at his temporarily assigned office alcove. He scanned his ID to unlock the door and threw his bulk into the contoured chair behind the desk.

What passed as his Citadel office wasn't much to look at. A workspace roughly three-by-three-meter square containing a small, generic desk with an integrated terminal, a marginally comfortable chair, and one large, multi-purpose wall screen. Currently, the display was set to an ultra-high-definition view of Presidium greenbelt, conjuring up a reasonably convincing illusion of a window. In reality, he was located deep within the superstructure of the admin facility, a dozen meters of metal and exotic composite alloys between him and the actual open-air of the Presidium gardens. But as someone who spent a good portion of his life inside of a small warship or cocooned within his own personal shell of advanced power-assisted battle armor, he'd long ago become adept at tolerating confined spaces.

There wasn't much in the way of personal effects in his little office. Just a few random items he'd brought over from the Normandy, and one small framed photo of him and Miranda together, her head resting on his chest, a subtle little smile playing across her lips, and the shimmering waters of a mountainside lake behind them.

He'd snapped the image with his Omni-tool during a brief, two-day holiday they'd spent together on Bekenstein a few weeks back. Two days alone at a remote cabin situated in a particularly breathtaking stretch of valley wilderness, hundreds of kilometers from the nearest major settlement.

He smiled, remembering the day they'd spent hiking through the rolling, untouched alien hills and picnicking in a lush meadow they'd discovered at the edge of the pristine lake depicted in the photo. It was the first time they'd spent personal time together in a setting like that. Out in the open world, beyond the borders of a major city or within the walls of a space station, free of the constant barrage of technology and reminders of the conflict that typically dominated their lives. After a few hours in their private little paradise, they'd decided they could probably remain there happily together for another decade or five.

He leaned back in his chair, daydreaming for a moment, and lightly banged the back of his head against the wall. He straightened up in his chair with a grimace and rubbed his head with one hand. Reality.

It was less than a full day's journey from the Citadel and through one of the local relays to Bekenstein. But, as it was, he might as well be a million light-years from their spot on the lake. He glanced at the clock on the wall and imagined where Miranda actually was at that moment, in her office over at State, the same place Kahlee had rushed off to an hour and a half earlier.

Don't let this war take that away from you, Shepard. Don't let her go.

He considered firing off a connection request to her private line but held back. What would he say? That he loved her? She knew that. That they should slip off the station right now, take a shuttle through a relay to an uncharted system and leave all this shit behind them? She'd roll her eyes and hang up on him.

He smiled.

Even now, after everything they'd been through together, he knew the other people in his life he counted as his closest friends didn't fully understand the bond he felt with Miranda or grasped the depth of the connection they shared. But that was fine. He didn't need anyone else to legitimize what he felt for her.

The suspicion that Garrus and Joker and the others who'd known him longest had initially felt toward her had been a hurdle to overcome, but nothing convincing enough to sway him. He probably should have felt just as wary of her as his friends had, knowing full well part of the Illusive Man's motive for placing them together in the first place. But he never did. At least never anything beyond the surface, nothing deep in his bones to signal an alarm.

Miranda was a stunningly beautiful woman. But if the attraction had only ever been physical, they'd have parted ways as soon as he'd split with Cerberus. Instead, they had found something together that only grew stronger after all the deception and bullshit was stripped away.

It was funny, not long before her, his own romantic history had been much the same as Ashley's experience. Brief affairs of convenience out on deployments or the occasional hookup while in port. But nothing that felt like more than what it was, sex and the need for companionship that went just a fraction beyond friendship. The intensity of his romance with Liara had been the exception, burning fierce while it lasted, but still not enough to survive the gulf created between them after he was blown out the wreck of his first Normandy.

Waking up to Miranda's voice in his ear was a touchstone element of his new life that felt like it was fused to every fiber of his being. Maybe it could have remained just that, the light pulling him from some past life and sending him moving again along a new path. But it didn't.

In truth, falling in love with Miranda had almost nothing to do with who'd he'd once been and everything to do with who he'd chosen to become. To those who had come to know him before the Collector warship had gutted the Normandy and sent him hurtling out into the void the difference between the two Shepard's was nearly impossible to perceive. Far too subtle to classify or anything an expert medical system scan could detect. But for him, it was that minute difference that felt like the key to an identity he'd been moving toward all his life. Both lives.

John Shepard had died. The Shepard who had come before. The man who woke up on that medical table deep within a remote Cerberus research station was something else.

He was a kind of revenant. But that terrible understanding no longer held any threat for him. He'd merely stepped through a doorway, leaving something unnecessary behind. Unfathomably, at the center of a horrifying war, he was at peace.

"Fuck it," he said out loud and reached to dial Miranda's desk when the alert tone from his console signaling a new priority message received stopped him.

He furrowed his brow, tapped a command to access the file and was met with a still image of Liara's face. It was a pre-recorded message, delivered through the courier drone process the Alliance had begun using to prop up the half-destroyed comm buoy network. The timestamp showed the drone had just made the hop from the Utopia system and transmitted its message as soon as it transitioned in through the local relay.

Liara had been on Eden Prime for nearly four weeks now, leading the hastily organized scientific and excavation team the Alliance managed to piece together. After Shepard had unwittingly activated the Prothean artifact in the Archives, she'd waited on the Citadel just long enough for the station to be secured and for Shiala to recover well enough from her various traumas to travel. They'd left for Eden Prime together, ahead of the rest of the scientific mission, to begin the preliminary site surveys, looking for signs of what Shepard and Shiala witnessed.

Shepard tapped the screen to begin the playback.

"We found something, Shepard," Liara said. "It's… it's just incredible. I'm sending you a preliminary report, but I need to set up a real-time QEC link with Doctor Cole's team as soon as possible. And Kahlee Sanders as well. Today, even. The team we have here with us just doesn't have the technical experience to deal with these cryogenic pods, at least not safely. And the other systems we're stumbling upon… Our team is mostly Archaeologists and Exobiologists, we need people experienced in dealing with exotic alien tech and…" She leaned a little back and took a deep, steadying breath. "I'm sorry, I'm rambling and getting far ahead of myself. It's just so unbelievable…"

She leaned in a little closer to the camera, her eyes ablaze with the kind of excitement he hadn't seen in her for a very long time. "We've found them, Shepard. Protheans. And they're alive."