“Kaidan!” Shepard cried. The lieutenant slumped against the bomb, his eyes falling shut.
Oh, please God , she silently prayed, don’t let him die. Not after I had to give up Ashley to save him.
Using her biotics to aid her muscles, she lifted Kaidan onto her shoulder.
“Shepard!” Garrus gasped with astonishment beside her. “How did you…?”
“Get onto the ship!” she screamed. The Normandy’s cargo bay was right behind them. Without waiting for the aliens, she ran – actually ran – with Kaidan on her shoulder up the ramp and into the hold. Garrus and Wrex followed close behind. Tali and Adams stood at each side of the entrance. The moment that everyone was on board, the engineers shut the door.
“Joker!” Shepard shouted. “Get us the hell out of here! Doctor Chakwas, get ready for a patient!”
“Aye, aye,” Joker’s voice crackled over the comm just as Chakwas’ voice came in to say, “What happened?”
Shepard didn’t even stop moving as she ran to the elevator and slammed the button with her free hand. Garrus shouted at her as the door closed: “Shepard! What are you…?”
Then the door slid shut and everything was silent.
That was even worse. Here in the metal cube, Shepard could feel Kaidan hanging heavily on her shoulder, his biotic hum so low she thought she might be loosing him. She felt a pitch in the ship, indicating that they were pulling away from the base.
Ashley , she thought. Kaidan .
She couldn’t think much beyond that. Her mind just kept repeating the two names over and over. And yet, here she was with the one she had chosen.
*Ashley. * Shepard briefly squeezed her eyes shut. There was no time for tears. Not now.
Forgive me , she thought, not quite sure whom she was asking forgiveness from.
The elevator ride had never seemed so long as it did then. The moment the doors opened, she stumbled out, nearly running over the very surprised Doctors Chakwas and T’Soni.
“My God,” Chakwas breathed, looking over the bleeding lieutenant and the glowing commander in amazement.
“Get a bed ready,” Shepard snapped. “I think he’s been hit several times. Might have sustained damage to an artery. His energy is low.”
“Bring him here,” Doctor Chakwas said. She ushered Shepard into the med bay, where the commander gently laid the lieutenant down on a cot. As doctor Chakwas grabbed a pack of medigel, a pair of scissors and a pair of tongs, Shepard gingerly removed Kaidan’s helmet. His face was pale and a line of blood had dried on his lip. Shepard felt her heart ache at the sight of him like this.
There was a sudden lurch as the ship shuddered to one side.
“What the hell was that?” Shepard snapped, using her comm.
“The bomb,” came Joker’s reply. “It went off. That’s… We lost Williams.”
The ship seemed to go quiet. Shepard found she couldn’t say anything at all. She looked up into Liara’s face. The asari’s eyes were shining with tears.
“Commander…” she began.
“Joker,” Shepard said coldly. “Get us out of here. Get us back to the Citadel and ready a comm link to the Council for me. Ground teams and senior crew, we’re going to have a debriefing in a half hour. Get yourselves cleaned up.”
Shepard suddenly realized that she hadn’t said enough. She was going to have to talk about it, even if she was not quite ready to. She sucked in a deep breath, then spoke with icy precision to the comm:
“Listen up, everyone. Gunnery Chief Ashley Williams is…dead.”
She tool a breath to steady herself and went on.
“Saren left me – left *us * – with a hellish choice down there. We managed to destroy his base. But in the process, we got split up. Ashley didn’t get to the ship in time. Lieutenant Alenko survived, but he’s hanging by a thread. Whatever you believe in…” she paused, remembering Ashley’s own strong faith. “Whatever you believe in, pray or meditate or send word. Ask it, or Him, or Her, to be good to our friend Ashley on the other side. And ask that Kaidan be spared today.”
She realized belatedly that she had just used Kaidan’s first name in front of the entire crew. She also realized she didn’t care. She had spoken of Ashley familiarly, too. Under the circumstances, it seemed right. Both of them had become so close to her.
And she had to choose.
She switched off the comm link and looked down at Kaidan.
“Is he going to be okay?” she asked, only barely retraining herself from brushing a hand over his face.
“He’ll be fine,” Doctor Chakwas assured her. “He’s lost a lot of blood, but mostly he taxed his biotics to the limit. He’s utterly exhausted. I could give him a stimulant to wake him up…”
“No,” Shepard said, shaking her head. “Let him rest.” She continued to stare down at him.
“Forgive me,” she murmured, not even realizing she’d said it.
“I’m sure she does,” Liara said, her voice low and steady. Shepard looked up at her. “Chief Williams would forgive you, commander. You know she would.”
“Yeah,” Shepard said, standing and swallowing back the tears rising in her throat. “She would, wouldn’t she? She was always a bigger softie than she let on. I’m going to the comm room, I need to send a message to the Council.”
“Commander,” Doctor Chakwas said, “You need to be seen to as well. You…”
“I’m fine,” Shepard snapped. “And I don’t have time to stop right now. I’ll be alright,” she said when the doctor looked doubtful. “I have a Council to go yell at for crappy intel – again.”
Shepard rested her hands on the rail of the comm room as the three holographs flickered away.
“Shepard?” a voice spoke behind her, sounding worried.
“Yeah, Garrus?” she asked, not turning. She knew the voices of her crew so well now, she thought to herself. She could probably place them by the sound of their footfalls alone.
“Yeah, I’m…” she turned to face him. The turian looked worried, and Shepard had never seen that heavily plated face look quite that upset before. “I’m fine. About ready to take out a certain member of your species, but otherwise fine.”
“Saren, you mean?” Garrus asked.
“I was more thinking that damn turian councilor. But yeah, Saren first.” She cocked her head. “Are you alright, Garrus?”
“I…” Garrus’ mandibles flared, his face seeming to frown. “I’ve never lost someone under my command, before, Shepard. I don’t know how to say this…”
“You don’t have to,” she replied, cutting him off. “What is there to say, anyhow?”
“You did the right thing,” Garrus said, decisively.
“Did I?” She laughed bitterly and shook her head. “I don’t think there’s a ‘right’ here, Garrus, but thanks for the vote of confidence.”
“We’ll get him, Shepard,” Garrus said.
The door to the comm room opened as Shepard replied, “Yeah, we will. We’ll get Saren’s head on a spike for what he did to Ashley today.”
“Bloodthirsty much, commander?” a soft voice rasped.
Shepard looked up in astonishment to see Kaidan standing in the doorway –leaning on it for support, actually. He gazed at her with weary eyes.
“Kaidan,” she breathed. She only just stopped herself from crossing the room to hold him.
“Alenko,” Garrus said, turning and giving the lieutenant a relieved look that Shepard took for a smile. “I’m glad we didn’t lose you, too.”
“No, you didn’t,” Kaidan said thoughtfully, stumbling to his seat. “Please tell me I dreamed it,” he said, collapsing into the chair. “Please let me that we didn’t leave Ash.” He looked at the empty seat next to his with a haunted expression.
“Saren’s a bastard,” Garrus spat out. “He’ll pay for costing us a life.”
“It won’t bring her back,” Kaidan said softly. Then he winced and grabbed his side.
“You okay?” Shepard asked, taking a step towards him.
“I’m fine,” he told her. He then glared up at her. “That bomb would have gone off, commander.”
“Not a risk I could take,” she told him flatly.
“Remember how easy it was to disarm that pirate’s bomb?” Garrus asked.
“That was a second-rate tech job…”
“And the geth have the processing power of hundreds of computer programs,” Garrus shot back. “If they had finished you off like they were about to…”
“I had it, damn it!” Kaidan snapped. “They wouldn’t have stopped the bomb. You didn’t need to come back for me.”
“Yes,” Shepard said quietly. “I did.”
Kaidan looked up at her and their gazed locked. For a moment, no one said anything.
“You were impressive down there, Shepard,” Wrex broke the silence as he strode into the room, followed by Tali and Liara. His tone sounded almost admiring. “You were as cold as Tuntau ice.”
“I was ,” Shepard snapped, glaring at him. “But I don’t take any of this lightly, and if you suggest that this mess of a mission is something to be proud of, then I will personally shred you where you stand with a warp field, Wrex, and finish what we started down there on Virmire.”
Shepard’s voice had risen to a near shout and echoed through the comm room. The krogan said nothing, but nodded in what could only be called admiration. Everyone else blanched. Even Tali, behind her mask, seemed to be nervous.
“No one questions your decision, commander,” Presley said. He had just walked in and stood beside Ashley’s old seat. “You saved our lieutenant and stopped that genetic lab. Ashley was an unfortunate casualty of a necessary mission.”
Shepard glared at him, her icy manner seeming to freeze everyone in the room. “This is beyond right and wrong, Presley.”
“This is true,” Liara nodded, her worried eyes searching Shepard’s face. “An asari matriarch once said that when a virtuous person is forced to choose between two terrible outcomes, it does not mean the person has become evil for having to choose one of them. When there is no morally correct option, there is no moral blame.”
“That’s cold comfort under the circumstances,” Shepard said, her voice steely.
“But why me, commander?” Kaidan said, breaking into that icy tension with his soft voice.
Shepard considered him for a moment, then said, “I could give you a list of reasons, lieutenant. But the long and the short of it is that I simply couldn’t leave you behind.” She paused, then added, “You know why.”
“So Ashley died because of me?” Kaidan’s eyes grew even more haunted. “Because of us.”
Shepard stiffened. The crew hadn’t seemed to react to that. They hadn’t even seemed to breathe. Had they known all along? she wondered.
“Ashley died because of Saren,” Shepard said coldly. “And we will avenge her.”
Kaidan looked at her for a long moment, then quietly said, “Yes, ma’am.”
Shepard rubbed her eyes as she left the comm room
After discussing William’s death, Shepard had turned the focus of the meeting quickly to the other matter at hand: Saren, apparently, was not the real threat. His strange ship, Sovereign, had actually spoken to her via some communications panel she’d found in Saren’s base. The ship claimed to be a Reaper – and he – or rather, *it * – was planning on wiping out all life in the galaxy.
She frowned. As if a rogue Spectre hadn’t been bad enough. Now they were about to get wiped out by giant flying machine monsters.
She sighed. Why wasn’t life ever easy? Then again, the not-easy stuff had sort of been her job description since she had lost the easy life as a child.
Shepard made her way past the many crew stations to the helm. As she passed, she noticed that people gave her varying versions of sympathitic looks. She ignored them, until she reached Joker.
“God, commander,” he said without preamble, turning in his chair to look up at her. “How did you do that? How could you make that choice?”
“It wasn’t easy,” she said flatly. She was getting tired of saying it. It really should go without saying.
“I can’t even imagine,” Joker shook his head. “Alenko’s like a brother to me. But Ash – I liked Ash. I just… How did you choose?”
“I chose what military protocol would call for,” she replied.
Joker stared at her.
“Damn, commander, when I met you, I thought you were cold as ice. I guess I was right.”
“You were,” she snapped, glaring at him. “I have to be.”
“Yeah,” Joker said, looking up at her with a frown. “Yeah, I guess I can see that.”
“There is no good choice, Joker,” Shepard said, willing him to drop the subject before she broke down and screamed - or worse, started crying. “Any word from the Citadel?”
“Yeah. Udina’s got us an interview with the Council and they’ve readied the fleet.”
“Thank God,” Shepard said, “That’s the first bit of good news I’ve heard all day.”
“What is it?” she paused as she turned to go.
“Go check on Alenko. If I know him, he’s gonna feel like shit about this.”
“I will,” she nodded. “You’re a good friend to him, Joker. You know that?”
“Yeah, yeah, don’t spread it around.”