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Whatever Shape Your Burdens Take
By A.P. Stacey


Chapter IV : Battle hymn of the Migrant Fleet.

Considering the nature of the Normandy's upcoming mission, it was nothing less than sensible to guess and hardly surprising to discover that many obstacles and challenges were lying in wait ahead for the ship and its crew. The business of war carried with it the risk of losing everything for absolutely no gain; promising a clean victory only to those who sat on the sidelines, apart from the boots on the ground and the flag officers watching a safe distance away.

If those on the sidelines could somehow see into the SR-2, they might be surprised to learn that an obstacle to their mission had already reared its head scarcely an hour out from Franklin and the clandestine meeting between the Normandy and the majority of the Alliance's Fifth Fleet, under Admiral Steven Hackett.

"This is not a debate!" Shepard barked icily, a palm cutting the air to punctuate her point. Had it not been so totally inappropriate a smile might have crossed her features, born from the deep irony at how the conversation had moved from briefing to argument as surely in real-life as it had played out in Shepard's mind beforehand.

Home to billions of stars with a hundred opinions to each, the Milky Way was not short on sharing its viewpoints on any subject one could possibly pick. There was no end to those who freely shared – or shouted – their feelings and clamoured to be heard. An altogether rarer breed, however, were those with the strength of character and body to back up their opinions; rare individuals with the capability to do more than simply talk.

Miranda Lawson was one such individual. As much a work of science as a work of art and the mere randomness of genetics, she combined a towering intellect, a pale beauty and formidable strength with the unshakable self-belief of a woman who knew precisely how powerful she truly was. Boasting a lengthy litany of accomplishments which included, hardly as a footnote, bringing back a person lost to the living for over two years, the former Cerberus operative was hardly short of practical evidence to support the arrogance and single-mindedness on open display, now.

Folding her arms across her chest, Shepard's eyes passing over the three-dimensional wire rendering of the SR-2, as it hovered above the rail she leaned against. "You've had sixteen months to avoid answering the question but we're of time – you're out of time."

"Is that a threat?" Miranda clipped, eyes narrowing as she leaned over the rail on the opposite side as if deliberately placing the ship, albeit in graphical form, between them and their personal positions. "I hope you'll at least do me the honour of spacing me while I'm awake ..."

Shepard rolled her eyes. "We dropped Samara off on the Citadel barely a week after we destroyed the Collectors Facility. Mordin left for the STG a month later, then Jack for who-knows-where--"

"What's your point, Shepard?" The curvaceous woman interrupted with a frown, brushing a lock of jet-black hair back behind an ear.

Undeterred, the Spectre continued. "Tali went home to the Migrant Fleet almost a year ago, Grunt was back head butting clanmates next and we took Thane back to the Hanar on the burn out from Tuchanka.

"They all forged a path, somewhere away from here. Except you."

Miranda crinkled her nose, jaw setting slightly at the thought. Cold eyes fixed themselves on the Normandy's CO but found no flinch to break the contact. "Last I checked, Garrus and Jacob were still on-board."

"Jacob is a career soldier," Shepard retorted. "He spent the last year before you brought me back serving under your command and he's spent the last sixteen months after that serving under mine. I have no doubt that I could offer to take him anywhere in the galaxy and he'd stand down the chance; the Normandy is his home.

"Garrus is a patient … Turian. He's seen plenty of the galaxy and fought most of it while I was sleeping the long sleep. Everyone on-board is here because they want to be, or at least, they know where they want to be and think the Normandy will get them there, eventually. Why are you here?"

"The Reapers," Miranda shrugged simply. "It's the reason this ship even exists and it's the reason you're not still floating through space. I thought we shared that goal."

"We shared the goal but not the methods," Shepard sighed. "I've never been about the games you and the Illusive Man loved to play, Miranda. I knew what the threat was and I tried to deal with it and keep as many people alive as I possibly could. I've scoured the galaxy twice for the best and brightest, and I've tried to hold the line against whatever came to face me. Sometimes it wasn't enough ..."

Shepard swiftly banished thoughts of what it had felt like to die – and remember dying – to the back of her mind, forcing herself to focus on the task at hand. "It was never as simple as stopping the Reapers for you; sometimes it was about human supremacy and galaxy-spanning Machiavellian plots. Always lies and secrets and double-secrets. You took a step away from all of that when you refused to stand in the way of destroying the Collectors' base …

"You've spent your life trying to escape from other people's shadows and their attempts to define you. It started with your father and his "legacy" and it continued with the Illusive Man."

"Don't look at me as if I'm asking you to go outside without a helmet," The Spectre sighed. "Cerberus evaded the Alliance for years, like it had wings on its back. All of a sudden the net is closing in and everywhere it tries to fly, there's a frigate or dreadnought waiting? Your father underestimated you, Miranda, and he paid the price. The Illusive Man underestimated you and now he's paying the price. How long have you been airing Cerberus' dirty laundry?"

Miranda stepped back from the railing, brushing a hand through her hair and puffing out her cheeks as if weighing up the options ahead. "I have to admit, Shepard, I'm a little surprised … I would have thought you'd be pleased."

"I've got no time for Cerberus beyond using them to get closer to the Reapers, and even less time for the Illusive Man and his games," The Spectre admitted. "Maybe I just don't like the thought of you waging some kind of information war with a galaxy-spanning paramilitary group, right under my nose on my ship. All you're doing is repeating this same cycle. You get hurt and you set out to hurt someone else."

"I am not a child, Shepard," The former operative hissed. "I might not embrace Cerberus' ideals in the same way I did before I met you, but don't confuse my opposition to intervening in the Quarians' affairs with ignorance on my part."

Shepard shrugged her shoulders, "So stop feigning ignorance. You know as well as I do that if we're going to have any chance of frustrating the Reapers for a third time, we're going to need unification. We're going to need an alliance; we're going to need some sort of consensus. Stopping Saren, eliminating the Collectors – each step required more resources, more effort. Next time I don't think a single ship, no matter how shiny or powerful or any number of one-man-army-types, no matter how dangerous, will get the job done.

"A conflict between the quarians and the geth has the potential to destabilise half the galaxy. Without our intervention it might drag on for years, even decades. We've spent sixteen months trying to divine some glimpse of the Reapers' intentions and come up with nothing. We don't know what they're going to do or when they're going to do it, so we have to be ready. This war is the perfect ploy, whether deliberate or not, to distract us."

"Don't insult yourself or me by pretending you haven't already considered that," Shepard added. "Ultimately this is not open for debate. This is my ship and I'm taking it to the Migrant Fleet, where I will do whatever I can to bring this conflict to an end as quickly as possible one way, or another. What is open for debate, what hasn't been decided, is the role you'll play.

"You're an invaluable asset and a vital member of my time, Miranda. We've fought with our backs up against each other and the wall, and we've come away stronger for it. Regardless of that, however, I need to be able to trust you as my XO. I need to able to trust you with this ship, whenever I need to. You need to decide just how powerful your desire to dismantle Cerberus, to teach the Illusive Man a lesson, is."

The tension could well have been fashioned into weapons for the two women to fight their frustrations out, such was the weight of it. Miranda's eyes never left Shepard's, though they became unfocused as if her mind considered something other than what she could see. Moments stretched to minutes of silence and though it was awkward, Shepard savoured the rest it afforded her voice.

"If you'll excuse me Shepard," Miranda said finally. "I have to make one last transmission."

The Normandy's CO searched for the hint. "The last one? And then?"

Miranda did not bother to look back, as the pressure door sealing the Comm. Room retracted back into the wall with a whine. " … And then I have the CIC until 0200."

Running a hand across her face as if she could massage the tension away, Shepard slumped against the bulkhead and handed off her slight weight to the ship's superstructure. Always sure of how to replace a heatsink under fire, or perform a combat re-route on a locked door, the Spectre had found herself forced to undergo a crash-course in the subtleties of crew management. While the battlefield she was most experienced with was instantly recognisable, a very different one existed all around.

Consisting of dozens of personalities, composed of nominal allies instead of opponents, it constantly surprised and stretched her capacity to deal. A battlefield unique to the Normandy, constantly threatening to turn the ship's compartments and decks into metaphorical killing zones.

A more conventional battlefield of shells and rifles couldn't come quickly enough.

Annika's head rested against the pillow underneath for almost an hour before the same, terrible dreams visited her. They were always careful to change the terror they inflicted, so that each time she died under the foot of a Batarian warlord, or was ran through at the end of a Rachni's razor-sharp, chitinous claw, her heart believed it had beaten its last.

She would always jerk upwards to cough violently, gasping for air as if her lungs had believed their thankless task over and declined to draw a new breath. Damp red locks would stick to clammy, pale skin – tickling her cheeks and eyes. As ridiculous as all this was for someone who had survived that which was not survivable for any mortal life, namely death itself, her hands would always shake for a while after she woke.

Chest heaving with exertion, Shepard swung her legs over the edge of the bed and unsteadily climbed to her feet, which felt leaden and heavy. A dull ache radiated up her spine and spread out to annoy the small of her back, prickling tired muscles which longed for more than an hour of tussled, uneasy rest.

Making her weary way to the wash room and snatching a towel from the rack, She dabbed away the worst excess of the dampness from her pale skin, roughly pushing her hair free from her features and back behind the ears. Pulling the straps of her vest back up over the shoulders from where they had dropped, Shepard tugged her duty trousers up over her knees and waist – dropping down to the bed with a sigh afterwards.

While it could hardly provide a distraction for the seven-plus hours to go before she relieved Miranda in the CIC, her desktop terminal beeped furiously for attention. Levering herself up from the mattress, she struck the flat of her palm against the button mounted between the two enormous panes of glass providing a view into the fish tank dominating the wall. Despite being on a ship as advanced as the Normandy, there was no provision for automating the feeding of the fish which swam lazily in their star-crossing, miniature ocean.

Consequently, it required the SR-2's Commanding Officer to personally intervene every few hours.

Stooping over the desk half-a-level above the bed, Shepard opened the terminal inbox and a very short message from the ship's consciousness-of-sorts, EDI; a message without any actual message contained within.

Brow creasing with a frown, she backtracked and tapped her fingertip against the AI's generating plate mounted to the bulkhead. "EDI – what's this about?"

The tone seemed almost irritated, if such emotions could be experienced by something far closer to perfection than mere flesh-and-blood. "Without mainline access to "A" Deck I have no way of reaching you without emergency protocols; this seemed the most efficient method."

"Well obviously it's not an emergency," Shepard dead-panned, leaning her shoulder against the bulkhead. "What's up?"

"Someone is attempting to access sublight communications and transmit data to a nearby buoy without an identification code. They have taken steps to temporarily remove my ability to monitor the system or identify them by other means, however, they are unable to stop me isolating the communications system. I have prevented the transmission."

EDI's wireframe avatar rotated a few degrees. "What are your orders?"

The slightest knowing smile played across her lips, "I think I know who's doing the not-so-covert sending, and what they're trying to send. Let the transmission through but keep an eye out … Or a sensor. If it happens again, let me know. Unauthorised use of communications is a serious issue on a warship … That doesn't qualify under the emergency protocols to override my privacy lock?"

"I did not think it would be necessary to use the protocols," EDI replied matter-of-factly. "I calculated a very high probability that you would be awake. You do not sleep well."

Unable to deny the truth of it, as harsh as it sounded when spoken aloud, the Spectre managed the slightest shrug of her shoulders to no-one in particular. "Goodnight, EDI."

The avatar dissolved into the electronic nothingness from whence it came. "Logging you out, Shepard."

For as far as the eye could see, the Migrant Fleet seemed to compete with the stars themselves to fill the great nothingness between worlds; untold shining silver shapes moving silently together. Varying from tremendous metal spheres a hundred times bigger than the Normandy, sporting prows made up of sharp spires clustered together and reaching out from the circular equator, to sleek arrows with tapered bows as if designed to sail a sea between stars.

Countless more ships fell in-between; ponderous and bulky, quick and agile but all fulfilling some vital function for the good of the Migrant Fleet and the survival of the Quarian people on-board. Virtually all were alien in origin; Batarian, Turian, Salarian and a dozen more but some, a rare few in service for many centuries, were indigenous. Commissioned when the Quarians still called a world their home rather than a collection of metal shells, they had been retrofitted, repaired and re-worked over hundreds of years so that they barely resembled a time before the geth.

Still, they endured. Survival was good enough – it had been good enough.

Shepard felt the weight of the helmet in her hands, running a gauntleted finger down the red stripe broken by the reinforced window that allowed for vision when wearing. Folding the compact bench – little more than a ledge – out from the wall and setting herself down, she sucked in a lungful of air. No matter how often she donned the helmet, even in situations where the alternative would be to choke and die, the most ridiculous claustrophobia clawed at the depths of her mind.

She grimaced at the recollections which flashed through her consciousness. The helplessness at being thrown clear of the burning hulk of the SR-1; the frantic panic induced by the hissing of precious air being bled to the void; the blind fumbling in a desperate, vain attempt to find the break. The pain in her chest which spread to burn through her veins, as hyperventilating lungs transported carbon dioxide and worked, unwittingly, to poison her.

Shuddering groans and desperate sighs as the last few useful atoms of oxygen were consumed or lost to space. A few terrible moments of spasm brought on by delirium and asphyxiation and finally, blessedly, death.

Between her death and rebirth, Shepard had relied on a suit tank over an atmosphere more than once and yet, frustratingly and relentlessly, those same recollections always preceded the hard seal and the hiss of filtered, conditioned air. As if, somehow, her personality was so totally divided that the scars of her past were borne almost entirely by the subconscious alone.

An autonomic, instinctual under-brain which occasionally broke free of the restraints of sentience, offering terrifying reminders and horrific memories whenever faced with something it had no control over.

The decking shook beneath the Spectre's feet, a muffled series of thuds resounding throughout the cramped airlock. "We have achieved hard seal," EDI announced via the intercom. "Equalising pressure and temperature – Standby Shepard."

Drawing on duty to banish uncertainty for another time, she slipped the helmet over her head and brought it down offset against the front of the collar plate, twisting it back level with her face to form a seal. A green light illuminated somewhere in Shepard's field of vision, confirming pressurisation alongside the hiss and tickle of cool air blowing past her features.

Precious few humans could ever lay claim to stepping aboard the Migrant Fleet and certainly none could claim to have done so twice. With that small and fairly meaningless record assured, Shepard stepped through the retreating outer pressure door of the Normandy and into another world. Given the uniqueness of the Quarians as a matter of course, she found it impossible to identify any of the three standing opposite to meet her.

None of the three wore purple or blue, or a shawl, and indeed none seemed even female. A pang of disappointment poked at her gut – if only for the sake of familiarity, to say nothing of the bond of friendship, Shepard had hoped Tali would be amongst the first to greet her. Maybe later.

"Captain Shepard of the Normandy," One of the three quarians ventured, dipping his head in greeting. Although it took a moment to place the voice – recognition entirely without a face to help – Shepard recalled a name to put to the faceplate.

A small smile graced her lips, unseen through the helmet she wore. "Kal'Reegar? It's good to know you haven't gotten yourself killed yet."

The Quarian chuckled, shrugging his shoulders slightly as he stepped forward to meet Shepard's outstretched hand. "Captain at last?" He asked, shaking said hand with a firm grasp. "If saving the galaxy twice is only grounds for promotion to Captain, making Admiral in the Alliance must be a lot harder than just being comfortable sitting behind a desk all day."

"Free-Captain," Shepard corrected with a shake of her head. "I'm out here on my own, now – still just a plain-old Lieutenant Commander back home."

Kal laughed again, shaking his own head as if the lie he had just been told was so obviously a fraud as to be funny. "Whatever you say, Captain – I wonder what's really changed though. You were out here on your own before ..."

"Speaking of Admirals," Shepard offered weakly in an attempt to steer the conversation away from having to tell more half-truths and outright falsehoods. "Am I expected?"

A silence stretched between them, as if the Quarian were weighing up pressing the issue. "Admiral Han'Gerrel vas Neema is standing by to speak with you," He relented. Stretching a hand towards the airlock exit, he fell in shoulder-to-shoulder with the nominal "free-captain".

Thankful for the temporary silence, Shepard focused on something more important and closer-to-home. "How's Tali?"

"Lieutenant Zorah is continuing to impress," Kal replied almost in a deadpan. His focus remained directly ahead, failing to match Shepard's as her eyes turned to question the Quarian further. Nonchalantly tipping his faceplate around to look towards the human, he shrugged again. "Why so surprised, Captain? She's learned from the very best the galaxy can offer … Becoming a fine combat engineer in the very proudest traditions of the Flotilla."

Shepard nodded, "It sounds like there's an interesting story to be told there ..."

"One or two," Kal agreed, glancing back to exchange looks with the accompanying two quarians which were as impossible to decipher as anything else concerning their faces. "They're the Lieutenant's stories, however. I'll let her tell them."

She nodded hoping the reacting smile, which graced her lips for only a moment before composure clamped down upon it, went unseen. So many of Shepard's team had gone their separate ways so long ago, to so many different parts of the greater galaxy; it would be good to see Tali again, to find some comfort in the sight of a familiar face. A welcome and pleasant pause, before the great unpleasantness of war began in earnest.

There was a strong parallel between Admral Steven Hackett, commanding officer Alliance Fifth Fleet, and Admiral Han'Gerrel vas Neema. Both were time-served in the cauldron of combat across a dozen worlds and frontiers, equally experienced commanding nothing more than the pistol in their hands or commanding dozens of starships and thousands of lives alongside the fate of entire sectors.

There were differences, however. Hackett was a career-officer; choosing to give the useful years of his life to the betterment of Earth and her peoples and colonies. First Contact War aside the role of the Alliance had been mostly proactive rather than reactive, to explore and colonise rather than to simply defend. Flag Officers were more akin to their 18th Century counterparts, sailing bold new routes and marshalling unexplored lands for future exploitation and success.

Gerrel chose to give the useful years of his existence in service simply to ensure there would still be a Migrant Fleet when it came time to stand down, for him to peter out the twilight of his life aboard. To become an Admiral of the Flotilla was not to reach a new level of success but to reach a new level of responsibility. To take into their hands the very lives of an entire race, bound inside their metal hulls and adrift between the stars.

Still the parallels between Shepard's "former" commanding officer and the quarian sitting opposite made it easier to relate, easier to find common ground. She found a greater rapport between herself and Gerrel than would probably be found with any of the other members of the Migrant Fleet Admiralty.

"Captain Shepard of the Normandy," The Admiral greeted with a dip of his faceplate. "Please take a seat – I have been expecting you, although I do not think that will surprise you. I do not think what I have to say will surprise you, either.

"The last time you were here, aside from the unfortunate business of Lieutenant Zorah's trial, our fleet was fractured and divided. There was much dissent on exactly what the course of action for the Flotilla should be, in regard to the geth. I make no pretence or excuse for my position – I favoured reclaiming Rannoch for my people and the children to follow."

The Quarian locked his fingers together, "I was not fully supported in this. Your parting words were harsh on our ears, even inside these suits, but they were correct. The "political bull****" as you called it, had consumed the Admiralty Board and defined our every action. Some, like that suit-wetter Zaal'Koris, were only interested in talking. We've been "talking" for three hundred years and nothing has changed. When the geth learned to talk independently, our civilisation as we knew it ended. There is not much room for improvement on that front.

"Others like Daro'Xen, would be content to lock themselves in a laboratory and disassemble Geth until she died of old age. Mark my words Captain there is something deeply unsettling in her beliefs. I am a soldier first and foremost and as far as I am concerned, we are still at war with the geth but nonetheless, the object is to defeat the enemy and not indulge in what is tantamount to torture, if they were made of flesh and blood rather than metal.

"What you achieved in eliminating the Collectors threat passed well beyond the Omega-4 Relay, Captain. The aftershock of your victory rolled all the way to the Flotilla and its repercussions are the reason you are here, now."

The Admiral cocked his faceplate to the side, the silhouette of his eyes narrowing. "The revelation of the Collectors origins, where they had come from and now what they had been made to do, betrayed the true scale of the Reapers' threat not just to the Asari, Turians, Salarians or Humans, but the entire galaxy. We could no longer as a people sit on the fence and claim such affairs were the business of the Citadel species – we could not continue to float between worlds aimlessly.

"It became obvious that, eventually, the Migrant Fleet would have to fight. Such a scenario would simply finish the work the geth begun three hundred years ago if it were to happen in the near-future. We cannot go to war against the Reapers with families and children side-by-side with our soldiers. We need a home."

"There is no time to find another," Garrel sighed. "The Reapers will not give us years to carry out exhaustive soil sampling and xenobiological studies. Even if the Ancestors were to bless us with a perfect world to live upon, it would still take decades to effect a colonisation; to be caught around a fledgling home when the Reapers pour into the galaxy from wherever they hide is to seal our doom.

"Only one world will accept us instantly; only one world will welcome us like the long-lost children it had once raised over millions of years. If we are to go to war with you, Captain, and with the other races of the galaxy to protect our great civilisations and achievements, we must have a home to defend. It is impossible for one's home to be a weapon of war if we must then go to fight."

In only a few moments, the truth of the matter had finally been revealed to Shepard. The quarian desire to return to Rannoch, to drive out the geth and retake their home was not one borne solely from historical grudge and ill-feeling, as she had thought before. Instead the Migrant Fleet had come to recognise what the Citadel Council still refused to accept – the Reaper threat would call for a galaxy's resources. It could not be defeated through an ignorance of the truth.

For all other races, war was the continuance of politics by other means. For the quarians, however, it was to risk extinction. To bring the entirety of your civilisation to a fight was to risk the death of your wives, mothers, husbands, children and friends alongside your soldiers trained to fight and if necessary, die.

Deep down Shepard felt some great galactic clock ticking down to a final confrontation. The Reapers were beyond some dark shadow, plotting some terrible notion which for now would go unknown. Eventually however, they would strike decisively – now was not the time for subterfuge and stealth. Saren and Sovereign had attempted such and failed; the Collectors likewise and she suspected whatever it was the Reapers planned it would be without any pretence to secrecy.

There certainly did not seem to be the decades available for the Migrant Fleet to find a new home. Admiral Hackett's reasoning – that a prolonged conflict between the geth and the quarians would pull focus away from the real enemy, even perhaps offering them cover of war by which to strike at a dozen stellar civilisations, was plain to see.

"I understand the reasoning Admiral," She began slowly. "There's the issue of those that don't agree with you."

"Politics, Shepard!" Garrel enthused with a slap of his hand against the tabletop. "You don't always have to convince your opponents of the superiority of your position to win the day. It's enough to buy their silence and shout twice as loudly. Securing Daro's agreement was a matter, however distasteful on my part, of suggesting the scope of technological research that could be found on the battlefield, along with the chance to penetrate the Veil and see exactly what the Geth have been getting up to for the last three hundred years."

The Admiral shifting his weight on the stool, "Zaal'Koris became a lot less vocal in his opposition when the full data regarding your mission against the Collectors became available, and the full threat facing us became obvious. I expected his resolve to harden when he learned of your reprogramming of the "heretic" geth platforms – I assumed he would find this evidence of the possibility of appeasement. Instead Koris seemed to think this detracted from their sentience … The fool cannot even maintain the absurd logic of his own arguments.

"Four votes, two secured and one convinced to abstain. That left only Shala'Raan to convince. Something I utterly failed to do."

Shepard frowned, tilting her head questioningly. "Make no mistake, Captain," Garrel answered with a shake of his faceplate. "Raan is a rock upon which one could build a lighthouse – in twenty years of serving alongside her I have seen Shala make only one spur-of-the-moment decision; synchronising her suit with Tali's mother when she went into labour, unexpectedly early. Always looking for more data, more opinions – I cannot help but come across as an old warhawk spoiling to have my people killed in war when compared to her. I suspect Zaal'Koris comes across as a quarian who relies on his suit to provide a backbone.

"I did not convince Shala to go to war – it was Tali. Furthermore it was Tali who convinced her without speaking a single word in favour. Lieutenant Zorah has changed greatly since she first left the Flotilla on her Pilgrimage; assisting you in putting a stop to Saren and Sovereign, returning to the Fleet to undertake dangerous missions deep into geth territory and then unwaveringly, without hesitation following you through the Omega-4 Relay to put an end to the Collectors. Pledging service to the military and safety of the Fleet she had grown up before my very eyes."

Gerral shrugged, "Apparently she has grown up before Shala's eyes as well. War hardens you, Shepard – I do not need to tell another solider how it tires the soul and makes you long for the days when you did not know duty, honour and service as wrong as that would be. Tali is not as carefree and naïve as she once was all those years ago and while I think she is all the better for it, I suspect in Raan's eyes it is for the worst. She was very close to Tali's mother …

"Tali's mother was quite unlike her father – a dreamer rather than a soldier. She felt strongly for shielding our children from the reality of the hardship of the Migrant Fleet, even if it impacted negatively on the efficient running of the Flotilla. I recall Rael'Zorah had many arguments with here over it ..."

"I think seeing Tali growing up so quickly hurt Shala," The Admiral mused, shaking his faceplate as if to try and stay on topic. "She finds it difficult to accept that the future of the Flotilla's children might now be to face the harsh reality of the galaxy as soon as they can stand. If the Reapers appear before we were able to find a new home, those children would be taken to war to die.

"A combination of Tali's return to us after your victory and the nature of the Collectors, alongside what that meant for the future of the galaxy, was enough to persuade her that war in the here and now would put us in good stead for war later."

"Now you are up to date with our political bull****," The Admiral summarised. "The Admiralty Board has voted to reclaim Rannoch; three votes for, with one abstaining. The Migrant Fleet is going to war."

Gerral leaned forwards, tapping a finger against the desktop. "All that remains then is where you will fit into this. It can hardly have escaped your notice that the Migrant Fleet does not conduct battles for orbital superiority and carry out planetary invasions regularly; our military is a strictly rapid-reaction force designed for deployment behind enemy lines, reconnaissance and limited open warfare. We have a lot to learn before we push through the Veil and into geth space …

"Despite our shortcomings in these areas, I am assured our marines are hard-at-work devising new tactics and methods to make our forthcoming mission a success. For now, Captain, I would like you see just how useful these new tactics are. A single squad has completed this "field training" which if proven up to task, will be rolled out across all regiments immediately subject to my approval."

The Admiral climbed to his feet, "My approval will be conditional on your approval. Work with my Chief of Staff and conduct an exercise to put this new training through its paces. The Reapers might have forced our hand in retaking Rannoch sooner rather than later, or never at all, but I will not put my people at risk without confidence in their preparation being the best I can give them."

"Make them work hard," Gerral pressed. "They may be doing it for real soon enough. I will have my Chief of Staff contact you shortly."

Although her face was as impassive as any officer as experienced as she, Shepard could already feel the adrenaline stored deep inside releasing to burn through her veins. Even if the impacts were no more dangerous than blank rounds and injury came through accident rather than enemy fire, an exercise was given all the weight of a real battle when backed-up with the spectre of war. To be free of the monotony of paperwork and starship command, even if only for a while, appealed to martial instincts undimmed since the days of Officer Cadet Annika Shepard.

There was something altogether simpler, almost purer about fighting with soil crunching underneath your boots and a real, rocky ground to run over – even if she was a woman more at home when the stars were all around her, rather than simply above her head.

The business of war began well before the first broadsides were fired across the stars, or the first dropships screamed through the atmosphere to disgorge their troops. The business of invasion began with far more mundane means – namely logistics, ranging from how one might reach the war to how one intended to feed and clothe those that would fight and die in it.

The Commanding Officer of the Normandy was consequently not the only one with something to offer in the planning and execution of war. In the ship's armoury under the intrigued eyes of a number of quarians, Jacob ran through drills developed by the Alliance and Cerberus to expedite weapon reloading and cleaning under battlefield conditions. Elsewhere several visitors were tutored in the mathematical, time-consuming art of weapon calibrations by a dutiful Turian named Garrus Vakarian.

The SR-2's Executive Officer, Miranda Lawson, even indulged a quarian Captain in his numerous rapid-fire questions regarding compensating for spacial drift inherent to all interstellar coordinates reached via Mass Effect Relays. Perhaps less out of an altruistic need to help and more out of a need to demonstrate her superiority but helpful, nonetheless.

Engineer Donnelly was only too pleased to listen to the never-ending stream of compliments directed at the Tantalus-class Element Zero Core, taking credit wherever possible with a smile or a wink or a dubious anecdote regarding personally defeating a Collector in hand-to-hand combat.

In fact the only member of the Normandy not actively assisting in some way was the ship's Commanding Officer. Shepard pulled off her boots, dropping them to the deck of her cabin with a thud of rubber-against-metal. Falling back against the bed, she puffed her cheeks outwards and stared up at the ceiling bulkhead, not bothering to resist the yawn which spread her lips widely.

A two-tone bleep from the door intercom interrupted the rare silence. "Come in," Shepard called out, sitting up and brushing her hair back behind her ears. The cabin doors parted, trading utilitarian gun-metal grey for a familiar shawl with spirals of purple and pink. Shepard pushed herself up to standing as a faceplate-from-the-past stepped through the hatchway.

The Spectre closed the distance quickly, a smile spreading across her lips. "Lieutenant Tali'Zorah!" She began, getting no further before the quarian stepped forward and in one fluid movement, spread her arms and embraced the free-captain. Laying her own hands gently on the small of the other woman's back, Shepard enjoyed the warmth of the moment for what it was.

"Just Tali, Shepard," The quarian replied softly, becoming conscious of the fact she still held the woman opposite in her arms. Finally withdrawing and taking a step back, she tipped her faceplate upwards. "It is good to be home again. I am glad it is you the Alliance sent to help us."

"I haven't been with the Alliance for a long time," Shepard offered weakly, voice devoid of assuredness in the face of the half-truth. She gestured to the surrounding bulkheads with a single hand. "Free-Captain and all."

With great difficulty, she thought she caught sight of a knowing smile spreading across lips made hazy by the obfuscating faceplate. "Of course," Tali accepted with a dip of her head. "It doesn't matter why you're here – only that you're here."

Crossing her arms across her chest in what was fast becoming a standard response, Shepard cocked her head to the side, "You're the Admiral's Chief of Staff," She guessed. "I didn't make Lieutenant until I was a good few years older than you are … How long before I'm taking orders from you?"

"I don't have my own ship, yet," Tali teased, shrugging her shoulders. "I'll be Tali'Zorah vas Normandy for some time to come. I've been away too long, Shepard – it seems so much bigger than I remember."

"We had a few more voices back then to fill the silence," Shepard nodded wistfully, pursing her lips slightly. "But you're right; you've been away far too long. Would you like a tour of the SR-2, Lieutenant?"

Tali placed a single hand against her hip, faceplate cocked to the side as if trying to work out if the Captain was being serious. "I've probably seen more of this ship than you have, Shepard."

Pulling her boots up around the ankles and making short work of lacing them tightly, the CO offered the quarian a small smile. "Then you can take me on a tour of the ship – my ship."

"On the bounce, Lieutenant Tali'Zorah!" Shepard ordered with mock-seriousness. It was good to see a friendly faceplate again.

To Be Continued

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