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Whatever Shape Your Burdens Take
By A.P. Stacey


Chapter III : Admiral, this is an almost entirely new Enterprise.

Franklin could be one of any number of human holdings scattered across the greater Milky Way; pre-fabricated pressure domes, boxes and habitation modules painted a utilitarian, uninspiring grey and resting on support legs driven deep beneath the alien soil they squatted over. Compact – some might say claustrophobic – quarters, where the only way to find some solitude might be to don a pressure suit and venture out into an atmosphere of carbon dioxide, when there was any atmosphere at all to even find.

Unlike the majority of human holdings scattered across the greater Milky Way, Franklin was a pioneers village, a brave new home bristling with the armaments and protection of full civilisation. Buried deep beneath the mineral-rich rock, powerful inter-planetary missiles stood anchored inside armoured silos; capable of withstanding orbital bombardment from even cruiser-sized starships and acting as a potent warning to any vessels foolish enough to bring their mass accelerators to bare from above.

Carving smooth roads-of-sorts through the ragged, splintered landscape, launch runways led away from the mouths of reinforced hangars housing dozens of fast-response fighters. Armed with a variety of modular weapons, these craft provided the flexibility necessary to deter the near-endless threat of the roving bands of slavers, pirates and mercenaries pouring from the gaping wound that was the Terminus Systems.

High above the anti-ship missiles, their silos and the fighter screens a vast complex circled Franklin precisely as the colony circled its parent world, Watson. Reflecting the light from the system sun against an array of docking ports, replenishment bays and refuelling booms these logistical yards provided a welcome harbour to the starships of the Systems Alliance Navy too big to settle on solid rock below.

Even these intricate, shining metal trusses slipping slowly through the starry sky did not make Franklin unique. What separated this colony from its compatriots, instead, was the enormous crater plunging deep into the rock and spreading for kilometres in every direction – a painful gouge as if some great god had swept a handful of the world away. Radial cracks and deep fissures spread further beyond the crater's perimeter, forming canyons and valleys recorded on no map or survey.

Franklin had not been wounded by the broadside of a powerful starship hanging in orbit, for which the enormous Javelin defence missiles had been installed to protect against. Franklin had not been cut deeply by the immoral, random raid of a slaver or pirate force for which dozens of fighters had stood ready to turn away. Instead Franklin's three thousand plus colonists had been vaporised, if given the mercy of a quick death, or simply left to asphyxiate by the very weapons installed to make them safe.

The colony's infrastructure – its capacity to exist in a (reasonably) self-sufficient manner – had survived and with that, a vital bulwark against the wanton aggression of the lawless Terminus Systems had been retained. The garden world Watson, whose sole moon had scoured itself of all life, thus retained vital inter-planetary defences even if those defences had culled thousands of colonists at the hands of tampering Batarians.

The Normandy painted cobalt exhaust lines across the stars as it burned in-system, giving wide berth to outer worlds of ice and rock and long, lazy belts of asteroids and their fragments. Craning her neck over the top of Joker's headrest, eyes narrowing in concentration, Shepard did her best to pick out Franklin from the blackness of the surrounding space; palm held across the forehead to shield her gaze from the system's sun.

Joker's nimble fingers danced over the interface generated across his lap, tension etched across his features as he spared a glance at the avatar shimmering to the left. "EDI – what've you got?"

"The colony's defences, industrial centres and superstructure appear to be intact, however I am unable to locate meaningful signs of life on the surface. There is a geographical feature consistent with an impact crater centred over the residential complexes; tectonic damage extrapolation suggests it is consistent with a Javelin IPBM. Additionally I am detecting several vessels in orbit."

Shepard's gaze shifted to one of the auxiliary monitors, now displaying Franklin in more detail than she could ever hope to achieve with her own eyes. "I remember ..." She sighed, watching the Normandy's sensors illustrate the Javelin missile impact in a jarring red. "Can you identify the ships?"

"Standby," EDI responded coolly. Laying a hand against the pilot's seat in front, the commander managed at least to find the slightest, somewhat bizarre comfort. Despite dealing with the lives of countless billions in relation to the Reaper threat, including having to order some to surrender theirs so that others might live long enough to make the difference, her own personal sorrow for the colonists lost at the hands of their own defences had not diminished.

The decision she had ultimately taken was as painful now as it had been when first made all those months ago.

"I have isolated the vessels' transponder frequencies – they are Systems Alliance. I am attempting to identify the individual vessels."

"Thanks," Joker muttered, tugging at the peak of his cap. "There could be worse places to fly a ship with Cerberus' logo painted on the hull, I suppose."

Shepard said nothing, her thoughts elsewhere.

"Frigate, Dunkirk-class: SSV Sevastopol; Frigate, Dunkirk-class: SSV Somme; Frigate, Normandy-class : SSV Okinawa. Cruiser, Athens-class: SSV Edinburgh; Cruiser, Athens-class: SSV San Diego. Carrier, Invincible-class : SSV Alan Turing. Dreadnought, Kilimanjaro-class: SSV Orizaba."

Pursing his lips nervously as EDI finished reading out the analysis, Joker glanced over his shoulder, looking for the eyes of his commanding officer. "Commander – Permission to give in to my fear, turn the Normandy about and get the hell out of here?"

"Hold your course," Shepard ordered tersely, leaving no room for sarcasm let alone an argument. "Last I knew, the Orizaba was Fifth Fleet flagship--"

"We are receiving docking instructions for the Orizaba," EDI interrupted.

Shepard straightened her back, with an idea of exactly who was waiting for her a few kilometres away beginning to form. "Take us in Joker – best not to keep the Admiral waiting."

The SR-1 had been a joint collaboration between Human and Turian aerospace engineering, producing a starship which resembled the rest of the Alliance fleet only tenuously. Her hull boasted organic curves and a tapering silhouette, more suited to a vessel carved from some great block of impossibly lightweight marble than riveted and welded into existence. The first Normandy was not so much built from sheets of metal and support, as sculpted under an artist's eye. In the world – or between worlds – of precise mathematical concepts and unforgiving laws of physics which starships called home, the SR-1 somehow managed to be both functional and beautiful.

Due in no small part, undoubtedly, to the replacement of Turian expertise with "homegrown" Humanity the SR-2 drew a diluted lineage from the first Normandy. Curves were straightened, panel lines more prominent, and the porcelain-like appearance of fragility buried beneath Cerberus' armour plating. Nonetheless, the newest ship to carry the name Normandy still bared little resemblance to the Alliance Task Force it now passed through; even less so with the politically-charged livery painted against its glinting hull.

The Orizaba had no grand design philosophy to match the SR-2 beyond whatever design permitted the most powerful broadside to be brought to bare at once. Where the Normandy relied on the speed and manoeuvrability of a frigate, the Fifth Fleet flagship was ponderous to turn and lethargic to fly. She did not rely on stomach-churning aerobatics – her guns would track anything across the black; a salvo which found its mark from the dreadnought would surely cleave a ship like the Normandy in half.

Being slowly phased out of service for the newer Everest-class the SSV Orizaba had begun to show her age, the lines between the panels of the bulkheads running a bright silver where the paint had long since been rubbed away. Machinery ran a little louder than it might have done when first installed all those years before, while pressure doors were harder to shut as their dented metal runners dug into perished rubber seals.

Shepard pressed her palm against the bulkhead wall, feeling the dents of hands thrown out to steady struggling crewman during years of ship-to-ship combat gone by. She could feel the subtle bumps of paint spread a little too thickly in places, or the brush lines if she squeezed her eyes almost shut in concentration. The Orizaba was an old ship and she would probably not be much longer in commissioned service.

Nonetheless there was something refreshingly honest about the ship. It bore the scratches and bumps of its service proudly; each dent in the hull a testament to the strength of the spaceframe, which carried its fragile crew between the impossibly deadly void of space as they made their way from star to star. Unlike the incredible grandeur of the Asari-built Citadel flagship Destiny Ascension – as much a work of art as a weapon of war – or the Turian ethos, some of which could be found in both incarnations of the Normandy, the ships of the System Alliance fleets were unrefined.

They were mighty vehicles of total war; bristling with powerful weapons to lay waste to enemies and protected by thick slabs of armour which could turn aside even the most withering fire. Each bent weld, each dent and each scratch formed a litany of honour perhaps seen by other races as another example of Humanity's crudeness but, to Shepard at least, a reassuring reminder of home and where she had come from.

"I'm not used to being shown up in my own flagship," A gravely voice interrupted. Shepard spun on the spot, her hand snapping to her brow only a fraction of a second behind her eyes in finding the figure opposite. "Admiral Hackett," She greeted stiffly.

"At ease," He dismissed with a wave of his hand and a gesture to the simple metal table and chairs dominating the small room. More suited to storing spare parts than holding meetings, the chamber was completely unremarkable save the three-pane observation window which offered a dorsal view of the SR-2 below. "Coffee?"

Shepard nodded, pushing the metal mug in front of her towards the dented percolator held in the hands of the Admiral. Leaning against the tabletop, Hackett made short work of filling both cups and set the pot down with a muted clatter. "It's damned good to see you again, Shepard. How long's it been since we talked without the entire galaxy between us?"

The Admiral levered himself off the table, cup held in hands. "It wasn't a rhetorical question, Commander, but too long regardless. You've done some fine work for me – some damn fine work for the Alliance as a whole, so I'm sorry it took dying and then coming back to life before I got around to issuing you an invite."

Shepard resisted the urge to shift uncomfortably in her seat, finding absolutely no desire in even the mention of the Lazarus Project. "I see you made full Admiral – haven't you paid off the Orizaba yet?"

Hackett offered a small grin as he took a gulp of the noxious, black caffeine. "I can't find another chair I really like – besides, it's important I stay comfortable when I'm at my desk, signing all the paperwork that got me this extra star on my collar."

"She's a good ship, Shepard," He mused with a rap of his knuckles against the bulkhead. "She's getting a little long in the tooth, maybe, and the door to my cabin squeaks like there's more than one mouse living in the walls, but it's never let me or the Alliance down. Survived the battle of the Citadel, after all."

Glancing towards the commander, he dipped his head. "It might have happened eighteen months ago but for what it's worth, I'm sorry about the Normandy … The SR-1, that is. Damned fine ship and a damned fine crew both shot in the back by something they didn't even see coming."

Shepard didn't need the Admiral to remind her – from the first coruscating beam to the final breath her burning, choked lungs took in vain, she could no more forget the destruction of the first Normandy than she could find the words to express the darkness of the thoughts that sometimes took her. Thoughts which replaced meaningful sleep with lucid, waking dreams which one could not tell apart from the real world.

"A fine ship and a fine crew," She chorused in agreement.

Hackett's gaze returned to the window, and dipped down to the second Normandy held tightly in the docking clamps slightly aft. "I can't make my mind up about that ship, though.

"Don't get me wrong, Shepard, it's one impressive build. The paint on the main production run of the Normandy-class was hardly dry before this thing started raising eyebrows and turning heads. I've seen the technical readouts; those Thanix cannons put out the equivalent of a cruiser's broadside in firepower and those multi-facet barriers would be more at home on a Dreadnought. Asari, aren't they?"

The commander nodded, eliciting another grin from the Admiral. "Not surprised I know that much, huh? Cerberus isn't half as clever as it likes to think …"

"Something doesn't sit right with me about it," Hackett continued, returning his eyes to the ship moored to his own, below. "It feels perverted – it looks like one of ours, but it's not, is it? It wasn't designed and commissioned with the traditions of the Navy. The Normandy-class' specialisation is stealth but back any of her ships into a corner and she'll show you her teeth. This thing, outside … It's designed for sneaking.

"Not intelligence-gathering, not reconnaissance behind enemy lines, this thing embodies Cerberus perfectly. Slinking about in the shadows, without a shred of morality to be found unless it fits in with their ideological nonsense. Self-appointed guardians of humanity, Shepard … With the resources to build a ship like this and yet I don't remember them turning up at the Battle of the Citadel. Do you?"

Good men and women – like me and you – fought there. Saved the station, saved the Destiny Ascension and the Council. Some never came back, but I don't remember seeing any of our ships sporting orange flashes and black diamonds. Still, I didn't make Admiral by being naïve and the resources they gave you to face the Collectors were beyond what the Alliance could politically afford. They were a necessary evil ..."

Bringing the cool dregs swirling about the bottom of his mug up to his lips, Hackett turned away from the window. "An evil no longer necessary, however. The Collectors are gone and whatever the Reapers are planning, I suspect it'll have to be a damned bit more direct. We've no more use for their cloak-and-dagger nonsense; all things being equal that ship out there'll be the last reminder of the Illusive Man and his galactic games."

Shepard glanced at her own still-full mug, setting it back down on the tabletop now that it no longer warmed her pale hands. "Should I be worried, Admiral?"

"You're a big damn hero, Shepard," Hackett snorted as he perched himself on the edge of the table. "I didn't much like the idea of you running around the galaxy wearing a white diamond on your sleeve; I don't think anyone did. I also didn't much like the idea of you being dead, so having you fly that thing out there about the galaxy to give the Reapers another bloody nose was small recompense for them bringing you back. Hell I'd say it was deal of the century …

The Admiral set his mug down on the table. "I haven't asked you back here to be thrown in the brig, Shepard – I haven't asked you back to bust your ass back to Lieutenant and take your ship away to be pulled apart and tinkered with. As good as it was to see you again and as long overdue as it was, there's an ulterior motive and something you can help me with, once again."

Shepard almost breathed a sigh of relief at the revelation. A creeping worry had begun in the pit of her gut, using her spine to climb upwards towards the forefront of her mind. As Joker had only too frequently complained of, the Alliance had made a poor show of treating the Normandy's crew following the loss of the SR-1. "Councillor" Anderson aside, they'd offered virtually no support in making the most of a difficult situation regarding the Collectors; Shepard would not have been truly surprised if the SSV Orizaba had been the prison ship to carry her home in disgrace.

Part and parcel of a galaxy which became ever more complicated, ever more convoluted and difficult to find one's place in with every passing year.

"Saren is long dead and scatted to space and the Collectors are gone," Hackett continued. "The Reapers out there, up to something, but in the meantime they're quiet. There's the usual nonsense about – slavers and pirates in the Terminus Systems, those god-damn mercenaries claiming whole planets as their own personal fortresses but nothing of concern on the galactic scale."

The Admiral climbed to his feet, hands clasped behind his back. "That's about to change, Commander. Those tuxedo-wearing, so-called "secret agents" up in the SIS, attached to the Federal Security Services, have apparently stumbled upon some useful intel while seducing beautiful alien women and dining out every night on taxpayers' expense. This thing's been cooking away for longer than you or I or our parent's parents have been alive, but it's about to explode.

"It's the Quarians; looks like they've finally gotten tired of flying around the galaxy aimlessly. 'Suppose I can't really blame them in that – No matter how long I spend cooped up on Arcturus Station or on fleet service, I can always look forward to feeling grass between my toes and a blue sky over my head. I can't even imagine not having that opportunity ..."

Bringing his attention back to the matter at hand, Hackett refilled his mug with coffee long since cold. "Apparently the Migrant Fleet is preparing to attempt to retake their homeworld. A full and total military mobilisation."

Shepard felt her fists clench subconsciously as her mind instantly provided the most convenient frame of reference concerning the Quarians – Tali. Dealing with the unfortunate death of her father, and clearing the young woman's name and character before the Migrant Admiralty had given the commander a unique insight into Quarian society. An insight never before glimpsed not simply by a human, but arguably any other race.

That insight revealed a deep and painful split within the Migrant Fleet between those who favoured a peace of sorts with the Geth, and those who favoured war. Irrelevant of the viewpoints it was clear the Quarians as a species had grown tired of their melancholy voyage to nowhere, growing envious of a sky and soil to call their own instead of bulkhead and ship and preferring to have what was lost to them.

Still the Fleet had hardly been united in a desire for war. For such a decision to come to pass a serious change of heart must have occurred.

"Are we confident this intel is up to standard?"

Hackett grimaced. "As confident as I can be considering it's from someone whose responsibility ends the moment the **** hits the fan and someone has to do some actual fighting. The CIA, the SIS, the FSB and the rest of the boys clubs attached to the Federal Security Services are usually good for this stuff … Afterall, they've got to justify themselves somehow, right?"

Shepard pursed her lips, leaning back against the frame of the chair, "Why now? It's been centuries since the were forced out … Do we suspect any outside influence?"

"The Reapers?" He clarified, receiving a nod from the woman opposite. "I suppose it's possible, but I'm inclined to think this is just what it appears to be; a pot that's taken three hundred-plus years to come to the boil. I don't think anyone's really surprised by this …

"Which brings me, finally, to the reason why you're here Shepard. You know as well as I do that humanity's always been proactive in its galactic affairs. Elcor be damned, we're not ones to sit and wait for something to punch us in the face before we go out and do something about it; your first mission against Saren proved as much.

"Fast forward a few years to now and nothing's changed in our attitude. Unfortunately for us, specifically people like you and me who're supposed to keep the peace, we've lost our maverick-card. Before the Battle of the Citadel, as a species we enjoyed the dubious benefit of damned-if-we-do, damned-if-we-don't. We were free to take action, within reason, any way we saw fit."

The Admiral took a gulp of the stone-cold caffeine. "Now we're on the Council, that's changed. We've got pan-galactic affairs to consider from a position of supposed authority and we can't be unilaterally acting without consensus from the other senior members.

"I definitely don't have to tell you that the Council has zero interest in becoming involved in a Quarian-Geth conflict. They were the ones who kicked the Quarians off the Citadel and considering Council Fleets have spent the last sixteen months hunting Geth warbands, you can guess how they feel about them …

"Humanity has no such prejudice against the Quarians and it's a black-and-white choice as to which one we'd rather have tip the balance of the power against the other."

Shepard frowned, understanding beginning to dawn. "Isn't there hope for a peace? The discovery of the Geth loyal to Saren being distinct from the rest of their people offered a chance at some sort of détente with the Quarians."

"This Legion character," Hackett replied uncertainly. "You might be a big god damn hero Shepard, but tales – even if they're true – of an individual geth revealing the near-destruction of the Citadel at the wings of a vast Geth warfleet, under Sovereign, "wasn't really them" didn't find much accommodation with Alliance top brass. I can't say I blame them … If he was around to at least question, you might get somewhere. I don't think there's a ship in the fleet that'd sign up for a mission to comb the Terminus Systems looking for him though.

"Regardless, as a Council representative, humanity has a vested interest in securing an outcome to this war which best serves the wider Citadel races, as well as the Alliance. Being a Council representative we can't simply send in a fleet or two – we have to be seen to respect the concept of consensus. Alliance assets cannot be freely deployed."

Turning back to the window, the Admiral nodded towards the SR-2. "That's where you come in. There's not a human alive – or dead that we could bring back for that matter – who's had better relations with the Quarians. You carry a hell of a lot of weight with some of their admirals and their wider people. You've proven that you're about as fair and even-handed towards them as anyone in the galaxy could be who doesn't have to wear a bucket over their head full-time--"

"With the greatest of due respect Admiral," Shepard interrupted without waiting for her superior officer to make his next point. "I've led small teams on multiple missions, but I've never taken part in a planetary invasion like the one you seem to be suggesting is going to take place."

"Neither have the Quarians!" Hackett snapped. "If you think you're under-equipped for this, they're not going to last ten minutes. For Christ's sake, Shepard, they don't even have a standing army – just a Marine Corps trained for insertion behind enemy lines and reconnaissance. They need some god-damned experience and you've got more than enough to get the job done. I'm not asking you to win the war single-handedly, although don't get me wrong, that'd be great."

Shepard puffed her cheeks out, conflict waging a war of its own deep within her. On one hand what was proposed took her attention away from the Reapers – away from the larger question of the fate of the Galaxy. Her experience with Legion had further seemed to suggest a monumental misunderstanding of the Geth, a chance that conflict might not be the only useful tool in dealing with them.

Conversely sixteen months of monotony had eaten away at her, threatening to kill a woman who had already faced insurmountable odds twice and died for the cause in-between. The chance to feel her boots scuff rock and soil, to feel the kickback of a rifle in her hand and the adrenalin of battle accelerated her heart within the prison of her chest.

"This wouldn't be an Alliance operation, Shepard," Hackett added without any chance of misunderstanding the statement. "It most certainly won't be a Council-mandated operation. You'll be operating freelance, pretty much as you are now – a Free Captain. A promotion of sorts, if you like."

"You mean a mercenary," Shepard corrected with more distaste than she had intended to show to the Admiral.

Hackett's face was turned away, his expression unreadable. "I mean Free Captain. There's plenty of folk out there with their own ships who don't raid colonies, sell their souls to the highest bidder or take slaves. Sometimes space really is that boring. Maybe not every one of them is flying around in a state-of-the-art warship capable of cutting a Collectors' ship in half, but still …

"I'm still a Spectre ..." The commander pointed out. "What'll be the Council's take on that?"

The Admiral offered a shrug of his shoulders. "When's the last time the Council gave you a mission? Now we're on the Council itself, the Alliance top brass is kept fully informed of Spectre deployments and updates and I happen to know that beyond authorising your expenses, the Council hasn't given you anything to do since they reactivated your status. They've been pretty conspicuous in ignoring what you get up to … There's no reason to think that's about to change.

"Whether you agree with the war or not, it's coming, Shepard. A war that's going to plunge a good chunk of the galaxy into conflict at a critical time where we need to be free to watch for the greater threat. Even if the Reapers have nothing to do with stirring this up, it's of considerable use to them; while we're watching the Geth and the Quarians slug it out over a sun-blasted rock, we're not watching for them."

Crossing his arms over his chest, Hackett gave a pause. "A few prettyboys from the SIS were sent out to the Migrant Fleet this morning to … Make a few suggestions regarding what might be helpful to them. The Quarians should be expecting you in the next little while."

Shepard frowned, folding her own arms to mirror the Admiral. "You were that sure I'd go?"

Stepping towards the pressure door, Hackett's face tightened almost imperceptibly. "You're a soldier, Annika; a soldier who's been stuck without a war to fight for a long time … I might not have died for the cause before, like you, but I damned well know what it feels like to be without the kick of a gun in your hand and the crumple of shells burying themselves in the ground. If the Reapers had shown themselves by now, we wouldn't be having this conversation ..."

He sighed, "But they haven't so we do what we can. Whatever gets you through the day, right?"

Shepard nodded, abandoning her still-full mug to the tabletop and offering the Admiral a final salute. Hackett answered it stiffly, every bit as formally as any cadet graduating from the service academies to Ensign. "Get out there and sort this out, Shepard – this whole sorry nonsense is a distraction from the real threat. Don't get sidetracked."

"One more thing," He added, stepping through the doorway. "I don't doubt your crew will follow you – they followed you back from a near-certain death or a fate worse than it. Just be careful with those two senior operatives; Lawson especially. She wouldn't set foot on an Alliance ship if I could help it ..."

Glancing over his shoulder towards the window, he shrugged. "Your ship isn't Alliance and you're not setting off under my instruction or anyone else with stars on their collar, so who you chose to trust is your business. Just make sure she understands the score."

The creak of poorly-oiled metal sliding across bent grooves followed the Admiral's exit as the door slid shut, leaving Shepard alone with her thoughts and the surface of Franklin drifting into view below. Once home to three thousand colonists, there was nothing save metal, plastic and rubber left to offer an opinion.

If the colony itself had an opinion on the imminence of war, it declined to share it with Shepard.

Part 4

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