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Whatever Shape Your Burdens Take
By A.P. Stacey
Chapter II : Treading Water
Shepard's head jerked to the side without warning, glassy eyes flashing open as her consciousness returned in a single, panicked moment rather than allowing her to gradually come to her senses. The metal bulkheads surrounding were alien, unfamiliar and the bed she laid upon didn't seem right under the arch of her tense back. It took several seconds for her memory to follow the rest of her mind back into the waking world, making the surroundings of the Normandy SR-2 familiar if not quite home.
A thin sheen of sweat shone across her forehead and chest, trapping the covers against her itchy skin. Pushing the duvet off the other side of the bed and to the decking, Shepard swung her legs over the edge and pressed her bare feet down against the warm metal of the floor. Brushing the tangled red locks which had flopped over her face during the course of the night back behind an ear, she puffed out her cheeks with a sigh.
Shepard did not need the clock atop the bedside desk to tell her it had only been an hour or so since she had climbed under the covers, though it nonetheless obliged with bright green numbers. Burying her face in her hands to massage the darkened circles framing each eye, the Spectre strained her ears for the sounds of shipboard life and anything out of the ordinary.
Almost the entire length of the frigate aft, the ship's Tantalus-class mass effect core surged with the barely-repressed energies of Element Zero; providing the power required to accelerate the SR-2 beyond lightspeed, split mighty starships in half with the Thanix Cannons or absorb and turn away the terrible destructive power of a Collectors' cutting beam courtesy of refractive-barriers.
Elsewhere an intelligence composed of networks and circuits, rather than neurons and cells, brought together the Normandy's schizophrenic nature; marrying Human, Turian and Asari technology together seamlessly. Between the drive core and EDI the Normandy's crew bustled and busied themselves with maintenance, diagnostics, exercises and wherever possible, relaxation the latter increasingly more often as the SR-2 found itself chasing Reaper shadows and half-truths for months on end.
Pulling the waistband of her trousers up and the vest of her duty fatigues down, Shepard levered herself up from the bed and stifled a yawn.
Free of any planetary atmosphere there was no true concept of night or day on a starship. There was only an arbitrary division between the two for the sake of it being far easier to run a ship accordingly, than train a crew and any number of internal body clocks to forget living under a sun and a sky for their entire lives previously.
Armoured shutters sat over viewports and windows to block out starlight, or the kaleidoscopic ribbons of colour which danced across the hull at faster-than-light speeds. Main lighting was limited to side lamps running in rows above and below, doing little more than providing enough light to see which way one was walking. Only a handful of the many dozens of stations operated, contributing the glare of their orange screens to the comfortable, very early morning darkness.
Shepard had grown up calling any number of starships home all of them Alliance save the very recent exception of the SR-2. From the cramped confines of planetary patrol ships, designed to safeguard a single system without even their own FTL capability and crewed permanently by four or less, to enormous armoured Dreadnoughts; home to thousands and bristling with weaponry capable of slagging other juggernaut-sized ships to molten metal, or laying waste to an entire world.
She had spent decades under the pretend-system of day and night, never sleeping poorly for it and so it could not be blamed for whatever it was that kept her awake and walking the halls of the ship at such an ungodly hour. Only two other crewmen both Ship-Lieutenants according to the paramilitary structure of Cerberus shared her wakefulness, cradling dented metal mugs filled with lukewarm coffee and doing their best to be interested in what their displays told them.
Shepard answered their salutes dutifully as she made her way through the CIC and the elongated "neck" corridor, which connected the ship's command centre to its navigational centre. Probably reluctantly yielding control of the helm to EDI, Flight Lieutenant Jeff "Joker" Moreau was elsewhere, snatching a few hours rest and inflicting his unique brand of sarcasm on whoever was unlucky enough to take the bunk beneath his.
Dropping herself onto the padded seat with a puff of disturbed faux-leather, Shepard leaned back against the headrest and reached a hand over the flight controls. Squeezing her eyes shut against the sudden brightness flooding into the cockpit as the armoured shutter opposite retracted, the commander settled on watching the multi-coloured tendrils of energy, shimmering and twisting in the Normandy's mass effect field, to pass the time.
An hour or maybe two later and feeling no more relaxed or ready to close her eyes, Shepard's attention moved from the coruscating display beyond the Normandy's hull to the blue segments forming up beneath a sphere of grid lines. "What's up, EDI? How's the ship?"
Performing a billion calculations a second at the same time as making a minor course correction and flushing the starboard-midship number four thruster tank, the Normandy's artificial intelligence found all of these tasks trivial compared to the complexity and resources demanded in holding a simple conversation with a living, breathing person.
"The ship is operating normally, Shepard," The AI answered almost instantly. "Can I help you with something?"
The commander shrugged her shoulders slightly. "Anything on Cerberus, yet? We destroyed a facility the Illusive Man was beyond desperate to get his hands on, and now we're flying around the galaxy in his ship his very expensive ship along with the best and brightest he had to offer. They've been keeping us waiting a little too long for my taste ..."
"I have made some progress on the information forwarded to me by Doctor T'Soni, however it is slow work the data is heavily encrypted and re-sequenced. It may take several weeks to translate all of the information enclosed."
"We've been chasing ghosts, stories and shadows for months now," Shepard sighed. "A few more weeks isn't going to bring down the sky. What've you got so far?"
"It is unlikely Cerberus will be able to turn their attention to the Normandy, or you, for some time. Over the last sixteen months the Systems Alliance has been engaged in a sustained political, covert and military operation to discover and expunge opposition paramilitary groups which might act to endanger the Alliance's new pan-galactic considerations."
Shepard frowned, absent-mindedly rubbing the back of her neck. "There's nothing new in that the Alliance went on a crusade of sorts to root out extremist groups a few months before I became a Spectre. They closed down One Earth, Fist of Humanity and a few others. They went after Cerberus, or at least what they thought was Cerberus, but there's no comparison between them and groups like One Earth. It's easy to track down a few nutjobs spamming networks with home-made manifestos and scrawling racist insults across bulkheads ...
" But chasing down a pan-galactic outfit, organised more like a military than a bunch of thugs with a few Assault Rifles, operating their own custom-built FTL-capable starships? With an ear, an eye and a hand on dozens of worlds? The Alliance didn't even get close."
Although she did not need to be reminded that a lot had changed since the simple days of Shepard. Annika, Commander (N7) United Systems Alliance, EDI was nothing if not exhaustive. "The Lazarus Project, responsible for reactivating you, the design and construction of the SR-2 as well as the cost of my development and the recruitment of the ship's crew demanded a great percentage of Cerberus' total resources.
"For the first time many Cerberus Cells were forced to co-operate directly with each other in order to fund these projects, increasing the level of inter-dependency and leaving the greater organisation more vulnerable to outside attention--"
"That was sixteen months ago," Shepard interrupted. "I doubt Cerberus has spent almost a year and a half sitting on its hands."
"There were two immediate consequences to Cerberus as a result of the events of sixteen months ago," EDI continued smoothly, incapable of being annoyed at the interruption. "For the majority of its existence, Cerberus operated as unobtrusively as possible going to great lengths to keep its members, projects and interests hidden. This subterfuge made it extremely difficult for outside forces, like the Alliance, to gain even a basic understanding of Cerberus' operations and procedures.
"The beginning of your mission changed this. A Cerberus-flagged warship, based on technology supposedly still treated as classified, operating openly through Citadel Space; even visiting The Citadel itself and carrying a council-appointed Spectre on-board. Before your mission began before you had even been resurrected Cerberus was, while considered undesirable, tolerated by the upper echelons of the Alliance."
An auxiliary screen flickered to life, casting an orange glow against Shepard's flesh as it scrolled with a thousand lines of text at speeds far beyond any mere human capability to read. "Some of the data transmitted by Doctor T'Soni suggests likely infiltration of various Alliance commands by Cerberus operatives, prior to your original battle against Saren and the Geth.
"The SR-2's existence and high-profile presence likely made any attempt by operatives, or sympathetic Flag Officers to mitigate Cerberus' impact on the Alliance untenable. Your decision to destroy the Collectors' facility not only denied the Illusive Man a return on his investment, in the form of the cost of the combined projects undertaken to reach it but also denied him his original investments in the form of the Normandy, her crew and you.
"Many Citadel Council member-races are less than united; the Krogan only being the most obvious example. The Council itself however was, until the ascension of Humanity, entirely composed of races with a single governing body and a populace whose loyalty was by and large secure. The Salarians, Asari and Turians control all aspects of their native military and political structure.
"When Humanity took a seat on the council, Cerberus became more than a "minor" problem to the Alliance. Anything which could be seen to present Mankind as less than united could become a political weapon, used to block human interests and goals."
Shepard nodded, doing her best to snatch whatever pieces of information she could glean from the auxiliary screen as it continued to scroll at impossible speeds. "Sounds familiar Admirals with dreadnought-sized egos and military brinkmanship."
"From what the data received from Doctor T'Soni suggests, the Alliance decided to move against Cerberus when news of the Normandy's successful transition of the Omega-4 Mass Effect Relay became common knowledge. As far as the Alliance was concerned, Cerberus ceased be a threat broadly comparable to the Blue Suns, Eclipse or the Blood Pack and became a direct challenge to the position of the Alliance as humanity's governing body and sole military power.
"Interestingly Doctor T'Soni found a significant amount of classified data relating to among other things, the SR-2 and Project Lazarus in the hands of the Alliance. Considering the reputation Cerberus has acquired in silent-running and information security, it is highly unlikely they could have secured this information from the Illusive Man by conventional intelligence-gathering means.
Shepard turned her head towards the blue, wire-mapped shapes making up EDI's avatar-of-sorts. "A mole? With access to Cerberus' most secret projects?"
"The Alliance begun Operation Unity the effort to destroy Cerberus as an effective pan-galactic organisation one month after the successful completion of your mission. While I cannot be certain, my best guess would be that the Alliance opted to delay the operation until the intentions of the SR-2, and you, could be ascertained. Since we have not had communication with any Alliance ships or installations, it is likely our intentions were leaked."
"Best guess?" Shepard repeated, eyebrow crooked in surprise. "You've been spending too much time around Joker."
For a personality of ones and zeroes, EDI sounded almost affronted. "Jeff encourages me to accept that sometimes I cannot have all the data necessary to reach a certain conclusion and that, sometimes, I must make a guess with the best facts at my disposal."
"I can't argue with that," The commander nodded, holding a palm up in mock surrender. "As for leaking our intentions Miranda?"
"While there are only two people on-board with any actual knowledge of Project Lazarus, Jacob does not have sufficient seniority to be considered a credible source of information. Miranda was project leader, as well as being the personal confidante of the Illusive Man. Her refusal to carry out his orders in overriding your attempt to destroy the Collectors facility, coupled with her general disillusionment with Cerberus, makes her the most likely candidate."
Shepard nodded, mulling the information over as she stifled a yawn and shifted in the pilot's chair. "Do you have anything more on Operation Unity?"
"I am still decrypting Doctor T'Soni's data," EDI reminded. "I cannot say more for sure, other than it is still on-going and Cerberus has been forced to "go to ground". That is why I do not believe they will be actively pursuing the Normandy with all of their focus, although that is no reason to be less cautious. The SR-2 represents a substantial investment on the part of the Illusive Man it is foolish to think he does not want it back, Shepard."
Nodding her head and finally, thankfully feeling the tug of sleep through weary bones and muscle, the commander levered herself up to standing. "Good night. Thanks for the heads-up and keep an eye out, EDI."
"Understood it is time for me to wake Jeff. Logging you out, Shepard."
Parting her lips, a frown creasing her forehead, the Spectre settled on a shrug of her shoulders and a sigh. She was never going to understand those two.
Predictably, the urge to sleep did not spend long with Shepard; gifting her a few choice dreams half-remembered, mumbled and even then quickly fading to nothing as she rolled out of bed, groggily. A few hours had passed, at least, in rest of a sort and if there had been grass underfoot and a sky overhead, the sun would just be climbing up to begin a new day. As it stood gun-metal grey bulkheads stood underneath, to the sides and above.
Even if there stood a window to glance out of, the stars would look precisely the same.
Cupping the small of her back as she rose from the bed, working out the kink of muscles which had not really been given a fair chance to relax in the night, Shepard pressed her fingertip against a wall-mounted pad opposite to summon EDI. Unlike the rest of the Normandy, where the ship's AI had full and automatic control and surveillance, the Commanding Officer's cabin was excluded from the system.
EDI's avatar sprang to life from the generating plate mounted nearby, at Shepard's invitation. "Assemble what's left of the team in the FTL-Comm. Room in ten minutes."
"Understood," The serene voice clipped before blinking out of existence.
Tugging the vest up and over her shoulders before dropping it haphazardly to the floor of the compact washroom, Shepard braced her arms against the sink and found the eyes of the reflection in the mirror ahead. A fingertip traced the scar which ran from just below her left ear, along the line of her jawbone, pressing against the darker flesh which stood out so obviously against the paleness surrounding.
Shrapnel from a fragmentation grenade had sliced the line into her face and tissue, towards the end of Operation Enduring Freedom a typical Alliance "Fly the flag" operation undertaken every year, without fail, to reassure Human Colonies closest to Batarian space they were not forgotten. Twenty four years old and no closer to succeeding, it had nonetheless been Shepard's conduct and gallantry during Enduring Freedom which had secured a promotion to Lieutenant Commander.
Not unlike some bizarre parody of a medal permanently attached to her chest, Shepard had carried the scar ever since.
Of course that scar had not graced her face for almost eighteen months it had been removed along with every other "imperfection", courtesy of the incredible technologies employed to bring her back from the dead. Her fingertip traced only soft, pliant skin without the hardened, rough scar tissue to disturb.
Dark circles hung underneath her eyes; mottled-brown marks of the chronic sleeplessness and listlessness which had shaken Shepard awake whenever a dream promised to begin, or made her legs restless and eager to stand whenever a moment of peace presented itself. The reflection which stared back was so very tired and gaunt.
The job of a solder was to fight, and fight well. It did not matter if he or she wore the rank of an enlistee or the bars of an Admiral, taking to battle to secure victory was all that mattered. Sometimes that battlefield was not two great armies clashing mounds of earth exploded high into the sky to blot out the sun, entire mountains splintering to razor-sharp fragments of rock the size of battle tanks under the mass accelerator fire of orbiting Dreadnoughts.
Men and women dying in their dozens or hundreds or thousands to capture a building, a street, a city or an entire world. Many more dying from behind the windowpanes of aircraft or starships, without ever seeing the face of the enemy who killed them.
Sometimes the battlefield was one of information plying the roads between the stars, looking for informed worlds and their knowledgeable residents. Tracking your enemy while building the army required to bring the fight to them, conscious of being the first to strike and the first to strike hard.
Shepard had never failed in this. A distinguished career as an officer had merely been the introduction; tracking Saren over a half-dozen worlds, painstakingly piecing together the true enormity of the Reaper threat. Facing down the the rogue Spectre's Geth, while assembling the greatest operatives one could hope to find in the galaxy.
Sending some of them to die, like Kaiden, so the greater good might prevail. Allowing for the survival of a species long-thought utterly extinct, a species famed for terrorising galactic civilisation to the point of requiring the Krogan to be deployed as some enormous interstellar army. As the Asari had confirmed on Ilium the Rachni prospered on some distant world, orbiting some forgotten star.
What part they might still have to play, Shepard could not say.
Overcoming something as impossibly final as death to lead the fight against the Reapers a second time. Assembling a new team, going beyond the role of soldier in gifting each the peace and focus necessary to give their all. Some gave everything that could be given life itself and Shepard hoped they kept that peace with them, wherever it was they were taken to.
Death aside, they passed into the unreachable centre of the galaxy to strike a hammer blow against the personal agents of the coming galactic apocalypse. A second unlikely victory in the face of overwhelming odds.
Shepard had failed as a soldier for sixteen long months; unable to find the battlefield whether it be conventional or information-based. Burning a trail that criss-crossed the Milky Way brought no clues to the next specific threat, months spent without firing in much more anger than to ward off the occasional foolish pirate or cleave his ship in half if such a ward went unheeded.
Hours spent doing paperwork as if, ridiculously, she had become desk-bound overnight filing for the expenses available to her as a Spectre, necessary to maintain a ship and crew through their fruitless search.
The crew of the Normandy would never openly doubt their Commanding Officer their eyes were strong with respect and appreciation, not least for still being alive to express it. Professional to the absolute and with painful, personal experience of precisely what was at stake, not a single one of them doubted that the commander had a plan.
Shepard had no plan. Sixteen months had been spent trying to form one, sixteen months wasted trying to discover their opponent's. The Spectre might as well order Joker to head for the rim and fly out into the void between the galaxies, for lack of any appreciable idea or hunch. She had been reduced to hoping, rather than knowing; hoping that if they flew for long enough the Reapers would spontaneously reveal what they intended next.
Wherever Harbinger and his ilk floated, they were keeping stubbornly quiet.
Pressing a pale forehead against the tiles as the shower head spat to life, Shepard emptied her lungs in a long sigh. She was a solider a capable one, perhaps even a good one. Her job was to fight.
Closing her eyes as red hair soaked through, settling over her features, the commander could truly admit to herself and absolutely no-one else that for the first time she was lost.
What was there for a soldier to do, if there was no fight left to find?
"Commander!" Jacob barked with a sharp salute, almost before the actuators pulling apart both halves of the door to the Comm. chamber had begun their work. Nodding by way of return Shepard cast her eyes around the precious few seats still filled, occasionally locking eyes with those she had hand-picked to achieve the impossible, but more often meeting nothing but an empty space.
Resting against the oak-fashioned railing, arms folded across her chest and expression utterly unreadable, Miranda simply dipped her chin by way of hello. From the opposite end slouched in a seat, Garrus waved a claw informally while Joker swung around in his, tapping a beat against the edge of the chair.
The reactions were different, with some hidden and others not so well. For all his desire to bring justice and fairness to the greater galaxy, Garrus understood the importance of patience. So while he undoubtedly chafed under the boredom of weapon calibration tests, the Turian was content to wait out the barren spell, so to speak.
Jacob was a man of duty and Shepard did not doubt that if she simply held the Normandy still, waiting out the saturation of the CO2 scrubbers and the last drops of Element Zero from the drive core, he would be satisfied enough to stand by her side. A reliable man and a good soldier, he was content to follow his Commanding Officer and her plan.
Whatever plan that might, or might not, be.
As for Miranda, it was impossible to tell what she might choose for breakfast let alone anything as deep as personal motivations. Originally nothing more than a mouthpiece for Cerberus propaganda and the will of the Illusive Man, she had taken an embryonic step towards total self-sufficiency and individuality sixteen months ago, by baulking at her former leader's attempt at countermanding Shepard's orders.
What was clear however, was that the striking young woman was not at her happiest with the lull in their battle against the Reapers. Shepard supposed there was only so long one could sit in an office and satisfy oneself with the duties of XO, pretending to devote energies to crew rosters and ship's business while the ultimate threat to galactic civilisation hung out in the blackness between galaxies, doing gods-knew-what.
Sheperd could see that each of them remained out of a sense of loyalty, an obligation on their part to continue this endless search for the information that would only then allow them to risk everything for a third time. For the remnants of the team to leave to find their own paths would be no shame or slur; each one had contributed to buying the Milky Way a little breathing room from the repeat threat of its complete scouring.
Shepard suppressed the urge to sigh. Others had found new opportunities the ship's excitable Salarian, Doctor-Singer-Scientist Mordin, had been unable to turn down an invitation to re-join the STG from the very highest levels of the Salarian government, even then only accepting after seeking the commander's approval.
The ship's unofficial engineering virtuoso, Tali, had returned to the Migrant Fleet to find a little well-deserved familiarity and safety amongst her people, following the exhausting attack on the Collectors. She had been perhaps the least well-equipped or experienced to face such hardship such pain and loss and suffering. Yet with tremendous spirit the young Quarian had emerged with not simply confidence, having already earned that against Saren and his Geth but the strength of character some members of her own Admiralty did not possess.
It was not the role of a Commanding Officer to frustrate and hold back his charges merely to keep him or herself relevant. Those gathered around her and the crew of the Normandy themselves were treading water; existing but neither living nor dead, spending their months flying through the blackness between the stars with nothing to show for the fuel they burned.
It was a charade to be ended.
"It's been sixteen months ..." Shepard begun, getting no further than four words before the ship's Artificial Intelligence, EDI, appeared courtesy of her avatar on the front of the oak railing. "I am sorry to interrupt Shepard, but we are receiving an incoming transmission. It is Alliance."
Frustrated by months of dead-ends and circular whispers, the collective interest of the chamber piqued by several orders of magnitude, Shepard being amongst them and in no mood to prolong the suspense. "Put it through."
"It is not a communication," EDI clarified. "It is a set of coordinates."
Joker climbed to his feet, the playful smile across his face replaced by the seriousness of duty. "Commander?" He asked, tipping the brim of his cap towards the door leading eventually to the cockpit.
Shepard nodded, excusing the Lieutenant. "Where do the coordinates lead?"
"Skepsis System, Sigurd's Cradle--"
"Franklin Colony," The commander interrupted, her gut beginning to twist as memories of the attempt to prevent Batarian radicals from destroying the Alliance colony with its own Javelin defence missiles flooded back. "I remember. Best possible speed, EDI."
The charade would have to continue, for now.
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