Numbers

Part 4, Chapter 11 of Valkyrie

flashback: 0700 hours, two days after the explosion of the Viper Nebula’s Alpha Relay


“I don’t like this, Shepard,” Miranda said, folding her arms over her chest. “If you turn yourself in, it’s like you’re admitting that you did something wrong. And you didn’t do anything wrong.”

All around the comm room, the heads nodded and various voices made small noises of agreement. Although the situation was quite serious, Shepard smiled in response. She hadn’t expected this kind of reception. Instead, she had come to this meeting thinking that she would be regarded with fear and disgust. What she had just done back there in the Viper Nebula - sacrificing hundreds of thousands to save billions - it had been necessary.

It was still monstrous.

But the team of the SR2 knew the score. Shepard gazed around the room, feeling a fondness for these men and women - and aliens and synthetics - that surprised her. These people knew what the galaxy was up against; they knew the kind of sacrifices that had to be made in order to stop the Reapers. They hadn’t abandoned her, either, not even when she’d told them she had to do this mission alone. They’d been waiting for her call, and when she hailed them, they were ready to pick her up in the nick of time.

And they weren’t too happy to hear that she was about to go off on her own again - Miranda especially. The XO was currently voicing her disagreement with all her usual insubordinate candor.

“The best-case scenario is that they’ll simply put you under house arrest,” Miranda pointed out.. “And the worst-case scenario…” she broke off, brows drawn, mouth turned down in a frown.

“The worst case scenario is that they hang Shepard’s ass out as a flag of surrender for the batarians,” Zaeed finished for her. “And when they batarians get hold of that ass…”

“Yes, thank you,” Shepard cut in, glaring at the mercenary. “I’m well aware of what batarians do to prisoners. But,” she added, seeing Miranda’s worry reflected throughout the room, “it won’t come to that. I just spoke to Admiral Hackett. The Alliance won’t give me up without a fight.”

“And what if they lose that fight?” Garrus wanted to know. “Shepard, I don’t like this. You’re just one soldier, and the batarians are really pissed.”

“Yeah,” Joker put in from over the comm, causing everyone to look up at the ceiling. “This is Anderson all over again, Shepard. Survive the battle, get taken down by politics.”

“Anderson became a galactic councilor,” Shepard pointed out, speaking at the ceiling. “It worked out okay for him.”

“Yeah, only because you put him there,” Joker countered. “Besides, I’m not sure if you heard, but Anderson left the Council because of all their political bullshit.”

“Exactly,” Shepard nodded, looking back down at the people standing around the comm room table. “Anderson is the Alliance officer I’m supposed to rendezvous with. He isn’t going to hand me over to the Hegemony. Not if he has breath left in his body.”

“But he was your friend *before * you started working with Cerberus,” Garrus pointed out. “And didn’t you already ask him for help?”

Shepard didn’t really want to answer that question, but Joker stepped in and replied for her.

“Yeah,” Joker’s snort rattled the comm link, “If I remember right, he said ‘Sorry.’ They all said ‘sorry’: Anderson, the Council, hell - Alenko .”

Shepard winced involuntarily at the mention of that last name.

“Seriously, Shepard,” Joker went on. “The Alliance has done shit for us so far. All they’ve gone is get you tangled up in this mess with the batarians. So call me crazy, but I say we can’t trust them.”

“Let’s ask for asylum from the Hierarchy,” Garrus suggested before Shepard could reply. “I’ll talk to my father, see if he can help us out.”

Shepard had to wonder at that remark. She’d only heard Garrus mention his father once, and from what she could tell, the relationship was a cool one. What Garrus offered was generous indeed, but it still wasn’t going to work.

“I appreciate the gesture, Garrus,” Shepard told him, “But if the Hierarchy takes us in, we could end up with a diplomatic incident between the turians and the humans.”

And the last thing they needed right now was a fight between the two biggest fleets in Council space, not when they needed every ship in the galaxy at top fighting shape in order to take on the Reapers. But before Shepard could lead into that thought, Tali jumped in with a suggestion.

“We could join the Flotilla,” she offered. “After what you did for my people, they would welcome the Normandy gladly. The quarians are already wanderers. It would be easy to hide one more ship among thousands.”

“And if anyone found out about that arrangement, there’d be hell to pay,” Shepard told her.

“But we should find some place to lay low for a while,” Jacob urged. “There are a few abandoned Cerberus outposts that we could take shelter in. They ought to have stockpiles of supplies left. We could form a base of operations from there.”

“No way in hell I am hanging out in a Cerberus facility,” Jack said fiercely, glaring at him from across the table. “Abandoned or not.”

“Cerberus frequently monitors old facilities,” Mordin pointed out more reasonably. “Leaves behind skeleton crews, surveillance devices, even explosives. Not the wisest course of action.”

“Eh, yeah,” Shepard said, her ears perking up at the mention of surveillance devices. She felt a twinge of guilt that she still hadn’t told the crew about the camera in her head, but truthfully, that was a part of her decision to leave. So long as she was among them, there was always the danger that her graybox could be hacked. And if that happened, the Illusive Man could track down the entire team.

“Forming a base of operations isn’t a bad idea, though,” Garrus said, cocking his head to one side as he considered the idea. “Not in a Cerberus facility, of course, but there has to be somewhere we could bunker down.”

“Yeah,” Zaeed snorted, “Remind me, Archangel. How well did that work for you on Omega?”

Garrus shot the mercenary a dark look.

“Having our own territory is a good idea, though,” Jacob put in.

“We could find a virgin planet and conquer it for ourselves!” Grunt punched his fists together in barely restrained excitement.

“Right,” Garrus said sarcastically, “ that won’t get the attention of the galaxy: stomping all over some uninhabited garden world. All the unpopulated ones are monitored, you know.”

“Let them come,” Jack interrupted with a sneer. “We’ll take the lot of them.”

“Us and what army?” Miranda scowled at her.

“We could stay with Liara,” Garrus suggested. “Her base is hidden - and it’s a good place to gather intel.”

“Uhhh,” Joker put in from over the comm, “I don’t think so. It’s not like that place has a garage where we can park the Normandy. And just how long to do you think our kinetic barriers would survive in Hagalaz’s atmosphere?”

“Calculating frequency of electrical strikes and the wind velocity…” Mordin began.

“I do believe that Jeff was asking a rhetorical question, Professor Solus,” EDI put in politely.

“Oh, yes,” the salarian blinked. “Very well. Can calculate survival rates if needed.”

“So we don’t battle,” Kasumi said with a shrug, “and we don’t bunker down. We just keep one step ahead of everyone. It’s not so bad once you get used to it,” she added. “It can even be kind of fun. Running from port to port, stealing the supplies you need - or bartering for them,” she amended, noting Jacob’s disapproving frown.

“We’ve got the fastest ship in the galaxy,” Joker said over the comm. “Should be easy enough.”

“Turning pirate and looting,” Jack said, her blood-red lips twisted in a grin. “I like it.”

“Or we stay out of trouble and stay alive,” Miranda said, glaring at the tattooed woman.

Everyone at the table nodded at Miranda’s suggestion - all except for Grunt, who looked decidedly disappointed that he would not get to conquer a virgin planet.

“But trouble seems to find us ,” Shepard said, deciding this line of conversation had gone on long enough. It was one thing to let her crew exhaust the other possibilities, but now it was time to show them that only one course of action made any sense. But before she could do so, a low, guttural cough drew her attention to the other side of the room.

“Forgive me, Shepard, but I, for one, do not wish to live my final years in hiding,” Thane said politely. “I have little time left, and I would like to spend it with my son.”

“And I as well,” Samara said from her place beside Thane, “I have performed the mission as promised and my oath to Shepard is at an end. I have stayed with you all for a time out of respect and friendship. It has been pleasant to spend time in the company of people I can respect.” The asari paused for a moment and gave Thane a kindly smile. “But I, too, have other responsibilities, and I can no longer ignore the dictates of my Code.”

“Couldn’t you just swear to protect us all from Cerberus?” Tali wondered aloud. “Then your Code would dictate that you have to help us.”

Samara shook her head. “The Code is unclear in a case such as this. Normally, I would be under oath to apprehend Shepard and take her into custody so that she could answer for her actions…”

“Yeah, good luck with that,” Jack muttered.

“But I believe her actions were justified. Still, Shepard, however, has simplified the matter greatly by agreeing to turn herself in. She submits to Alliance regulations as I submit to my Code, and I must honor her wishes in this. As must we all.”

“And here we come to the heart of it,” Miranda murmured thoughtfully. “You still think of yourself as Alliance, don’t you, Shepard?”

“I do,” Shepard replied, just as quietly. “I always have.”

There was a long pause. Then Zaeed broke the solemn silence by snorting loudly.

“So that’s it then?” he asked. “Shepard blows up some guddamn batarians and the party is over?”

“But the Reapers are still out there, Shepard,” Garrus said, his plated brows drawing together. “Code or no code, regulations or no regulations, that’s our first concern.”

“Exactly, Garrus,” Shepard said, meeting his eyes, sure that all the worry and frustration of the past few years were plain on her face. “That’s exactly what I’m thinking about. We can’t do this alone.”

“Alone?” Miranda frowned. “You’re talking about ‘alone’ when you’re about to go off alone?”

“But we’re already alone, Miranda,” Shepard said. “We’re just one ship out here.”

“And this one ship has done more to stop the Reapers than all the fleets in the galaxy,” Garrus argued.

“Intel gathering, yeah,” Shepard said. “Slowing them down, yeah. But in a direct fight? Come on, Garrus. Think back to the Battle of the Citadel. It took the entire Fifth Fleet to take down one Reaper. There are *thousands * of Reapers on their way - hundreds of thousands, maybe. We need to mobilize the Alliance to fight them,” she gave a bitter laugh. “Hell, we need to mobilize the galaxy.”

“The Alliance knows this is coming,” Garrus pushed back. “So does the Council. They just don’t want to admit it. If they didn’t help you before, what makes you think they’ll help you now?” A murmur of agreement met Garrus’s words.

Shepard sighed and braced both her hands on the comm room table. She could see her team’s concern, but she also knew they were blinded by their distrust of the Alliance. They had only seen the human military’s bureaucratic, inefficient side. They had never seen the sight of Alliance ships flying in to save a helpless colony from the likes of batarian pirates. They had no loyalty to the Alliance. And they had no loyalty to Cerberus, either. They were really only loyal to her , Shepard thought. That brought her up short.

“I don’t know that they’ll help me,” she admitted. “But I have to be there to help them . Earth is the next stop for the Reapers. You know that. I have to be there. Even if all I can do is hold a gun… No,” she said, breaking off that line of thought. “I have to prod and annoy and do anything I can to get humanity to listen. And if the only way to do that is to appear before the Alliance defense council and face the music, then by God, I’ll do it.”

“And what about the rest of us, Shepard?” Miranda want to know.

“I’m not going to leave you high and dry,” Shepard assured her. “You signed on for a single mission, and all of you have stuck around through that and more. That means the world to me. So trust me when I say that nothing but the craziest situation could force me to leave you now. And this situation certainly counts as crazy.

“But this isn’t just about the batarians,” Shepard went on, “or even about Cerberus. There’s a big price on my head right now - you know that. In addition to the Hegemony and Cerberus, there’s also mercs and bounty hunters out searching for me. And if I don’t turn myself in, the Alliance is going to be after me, too. And you’d better believe that if the Alliance is after me, it won’t be long before they put pressure on the Council to send a Spectre agent to take me down.”

Suddenly, everyone looked a lot less confident. Hiding from the batarians, Cerberus, mercs, even the Alliance seemed easy enough. But everyone knew how dangerous Spectre agents could be. After all, they had been working with one for the past year.

“You’re the only allies I’ve got,” Shepard said. “But pretty soon that’s not going to be enough. Because…”

“The Reapers are coming?” Joker put in over the comm.

“You stole my punchline,” Shepard said, forcing a smile. “But yeah. Pretty much.” Fixing each person in the room with a pointed look, Shepard continued with the speech she’d rehearsed a couple of times in her head before coming down here.

“Look. We all knew this day was coming. Maybe not with an exploding relay thrown into the bargain, but we knew we couldn’t stay out here forever. We managed to take out the Collector base, to get some intel, to push back the invasion just a little longer. But we’ve been testing our luck for months now. Pretty soon it’s not going to be about getting ready, but about actually fighting the war we’ve been preparing for. And when that day comes, one ship isn’t going to cut it.

“I’m aware of the risks here - to you and to me. I know full well that if you go off on your own, you’ve got a much better chance of winding up dead. First rule of an op is always ‘stick together.’ But right now, we have to split up to cover more ground.”

“The last time we split up,” Garrus pointed out, “You nearly died at the hands of a bunch of indoctrinated Alliance soldiers.”

“And before that,” Kasumi added helpfully, “ I nearly died in a vent in the Collector base.”

Shepard held her hands up in concession of that point. “I admit that splitting up is risky,” she said. “But sometimes it’s the only option. Right now, it’s our only option. I’m sending myself on ahead to forge a path for the rest of us. I’m only leaving you all because I know that you can carry out what we started here - get other people on board. We need to make a team out of the entire galaxy in the same way that we made a team here, out of a bunch of mercenaries, soldiers, and scientists. Just remember, people: wherever you go, you’ll still be a part of my team. Always.”

There was a long pause in the room as everyone just stared at her. Too much? Shepard wondered to herself. Maybe that was a little too emotional and ‘hold-the-line’ like. But she did need to motivate these people to do the last thing that they wanted to do - which was leave her behind.

“Well, when you put it like that,” Joker’s voice broke the silence from over the comm. “Sign me up for Team Incarceration.”

“Fair enough,” Garrus said, with a characteristic chuckle disguised as a cough, “If you’re determined to go off and get yourself arrested, Shepard, I’ll head to Palaven. I’ll see what kind of support I can scare up from the Hierarchy. And if you need me to spring you from jail…”

“Thanks for the offer, Garrus,” Shepard said. “The support of the Hierarchy will be essential. I’ll pass on the jailbreak.”

“And I’ll get to work on persuading the quarians to help,” Tali said. “That may be a bit difficult to do though, considering some of the messages I’ve been receiving,” she added in a worried tone.

“Legion,” Shepard said, looking at the figure who had remained quiet in the corner. “You think you can get the geth on board?”

“Uncertain,” the synthetic replied. “Difficult to reach consensus at this distance from the Collective. We must to return to Rannoch to determine probability of support.”

Tali visibly stiffened at reference to the quarians’ lost homeworld, but said nothing.

“So that’s our marching orders, then?” Jacob asked. “Get ourselves to somewhere where we can gather supplies, people, intel, and try and get ready for the Reapers?”

“It’s a hell of a tall order, I know,” Shepard said, “but yeah. That’s your order.”

“We’ll do it, Commander,” Miranda said. Her voice still sounded uncertain, but she met Shepard’s eyes all the same.

“Thank you,” Shepard said to her, then turned to extend that thanks to the rest of the room. To the rest of the team, she added, “Liara T’Soni is working out a way to keep in touch with you all. If you find any useful intel, let her know about it. In the meantime, let me know where you want to go. We’ll make sure everyone is in safely in hiding before we meet up with the Alliance. Kasumi has excellent connections if you’re uncertain where to go or what to do. For those of you who have been long-time Cerberus,” she looked apologetically at Miranda and Jacob, “I realize this will be hardest of all. EDI can’t hack into Cerberus bank accounts anymore and it seems the Illusive Man isn’t interested in doling out severance pay.”

Zaeed scowled, while Garrus just shrugged.

“Good thing I’m used to living off of a vigilante’s salary,” the turian said.

“Yeah, well, it’s going to be awfully hard for folks to go into hiding without a bankroll,” Shepard pointed out.

“I can manage,” Kasumi offered helpfully.

“I can only imagine,” Jacob muttered.

“I’ll give you all a cut of the creds I’ve got left,” Shepard told them. “Liara managed to sell the last of our palladium and eezo claims around the galaxy, so that brought in a tidy sum. Ought to be enough to get you each started. It’s not what you were promised, but it’s something.”

“I still don’t like this,” Garrus said. “I mean I’ll do it, but I don’t like it.”

“I don’t like it either,” Shepard replied. She refrained from adding, But I there’re a lot of things I haven’t liked since I woke up from being in a coma for two years. Instead, she just said, “But we’re soldiers. We do what we have to.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Garrus said, saluting her. “Distance might separate us, but we’re still your team. We’ll be ready when you call.”

“Thanks Garrus,” Shepard said. Her nod was small, barely the inclination of her head, but the gesture held all the gratitude and respect that she couldn’t quite find the words for.

Then, following Garrus’s lead, every hand in the room went up in salute as well. Everyone stood at attention, even Legion, who looked around as if in curiosity, then held his metal hand to his lightbulb face in an approximation of the others. Even Jack saluted, with surprising military-like rigidity. The only person who did not join in was Zaeed, who stood scowling in the corner.

And for a moment there, Shepard almost expected to see Kaidan there, saluting with the others, a determined look in his eyes. It was that look that always made her feel as if any crazy plan of hers was actually possible. But now…

Now he was still missing from her team, just as he had been for months. And that made Shepard feel unbelievably lonely, even in this company of friends and allies.

Shepard shoved that thought aside and raised her hand to salute her team - the team that had actually stood by her all this while. Kaidan had made his bed with the Alliance, Shepard thought with a flash of anger, and now, he could damned well lie in it.

Calming herself down so that she could grace her team with one last smile, Shepard snapped her hand down to her side.

“Dismissed,” she said to her rag-tag band of mercenaries and friends. “It’s been an honor.”


present day, 1300 hours, Menae, 1st moon of Palaven

There was nothing quite like a battlefield promotion, Garrus thought as he watched General Victus accept that particular honor. Then again, there was nothing like a battlefield, period. And there was nothing, absolutely nothing, like fighting through a battlefield with Commander Shepard. The air still smelled like a seaside thunderstorm, and little waves of blue flickered through her hair.

“How long do you think he’s going to need to say goodbye?” Shepard asked in an undertone as Victus wandered away to talk to his men. “Because we need to get moving ASAP.”

“Don’t worry,” Garrus replied. “Turians aren’t exactly…I think the human word is ‘chatty.’ Then again,” he added in amusement, “Neither are Alliance soldiers. By the way, it’s good to see you again, Shepard.”

“Hey,” Shepard said with a shrug, “When you’re under fire, reunions get cut a little short.” She paused, then cast him a sideways glance and elbowed him in the ribs.

“Good to have you back, Garrus.”

Garrus acknowledged the belated, understated greeting with a nod. Shepard had never minced words, but today, in particular, she was all focus and barely-controlled tension. Given the rather dire circumstances, it made sense. But even so, Garrus sensed something more going on here, something that he couldn’t quite put his finger on.

“So were you out here looking for Shepard?” the other human, the one with the tattoos, asked. “‘Cause I gotta say, that was damn good timing, you showing up and all.” Garrus couldn’t quite remember this human’s name. He was sure Shepard had introduced him. But racing all across the battlefield to reach Victus had wiped that bit of information from Garrus’s mind. He could only recall that the man had one of those bland, flat-sounding human names, like you took a proper turian name and then squashed it underfoot.

“Good timing,” Garrus admitted. “But not exactly unexpected. Shepard and I are both drawn to chaos. Our paths were bound to cross again.”

“Still, it was lucky,” the tattooed human said. “Dunno if we woulda saved the king without your help.”

“Primarch,” Garrus corrected. “Not a king.”

“Still,” man replied. “It all reminds me of Henry the seventh.”

“Henry the seventh?” Shepard asked.

“The Battle of Bosworth Field,” the tattooed human said, waving at Victus, “Henry gets promoted and handed the crown, fresh from Richard’s head. Richard the Third, that is. You know. Now civil wounds are stopp’d, peace lives again… “ The man realized Shepard was staring at him with raised eyebrows. He shrugged, lifting his ceramic shoulder plates with the motion.

“What?” the guy said. “It’s in Shakespeare.”

“I didn’t know you were so into history, James,” Shepard replied. “Or literature.”

Ah, James , Garrus thought. Right. A name that sounded like oxygen hissing out of an airlock.

“Hey, I went to public school,” the human said defensively. “We read the Bard, same as everybody else.”

“Yeah, but *Richard * III ?” Shepard shook her head. “Not exactly standard fare. Most of us read *Romeo and Juliet * and that’s it. Maybe Hamlet during senior year.”

“Mr. Cordova made us read the entire Norton anthology,” James said with another massive shrug. “Said Shakespeare was one of the few writers that would be relevant forever.” As he spoke, the soldier shifted on his feet again and checked the sights on his rifle. Garrus noticed that the man was filled with a kind twitchy, nervous energy, which he was currently directing into making sure his guns were in working order. Garrus approved of that. When in doubt, clean the guns - it was a familiar turian military maxim.

“Well, I guess he was right about that,” Shepard said, turning back to watch Victus talking to his men. “So Garrus,” she said, turning back into business mode. “Do you have enough seniority to drag the Primarch away from his men? Because we need to get going.”

Garrus shook his head and chuckled. “I don’t know if anyone has enough seniority for that. But on a battlefield, seniority doesn’t count for too much, does it?”

“I guess not,” Shepard replied.

“Give him just a minute, Shepard,” Garrus advised. “He’s too much of a soldier to take very long. And his men need this.” Shepard made a face, but said nothing, so Garrus took that as evidence of her concession.

“I’ll go call the shuttle in,” James volunteered.

“Good idea,” Shepard said. “And hail Joker, too. See what that little power fluctuation was all about. I don’t want any surprises when we bring the turian leader on board.”

“Got it,” James nodded and ran off with all the grace of a krogan. Garrus watched him go, then turned his attention back to Shepard. Even in the dim light of a Menae twilight, she looked washed out, with dark circles under her eyes.

“You look like hell, Shepard,” Garrus said baldly.

“You don’t look so great yourself, Garrus,” she replied. “I can see you ignored Dr. Chakwas’s advice to get your face fixed up.”

“Someone once told me I couldn’t get much uglier,” Garrus said with a shrug. “Didn’t think it was worth the bother.”

“You know I was kidding,” Shepard said, gazing out at the landscape. The fact that she wasn’t rising to his jokes concerned Garrus more than even her tired features did. Garrus shifted his feet and clasped his hands behind his back in a military pose.

“So what’s the score, Shepard?” he asked, his gaze going up at once to the giant planet that hung in the sky above the moon. There were fires everywhere on Palaven. Garrus tried not to trace the outline of the continents, tried not to to let his mind identify those cities. But it was no use. That was Diolectus there, and Sulla there. His hometown of Cipritine was likely burning in daylight on the other side of the world. The proud turian race was going up in smoke before his very eyes.

“I think that’s the score right there,” Shepard said, motioning at the planet above.

“So the Alliance is asking us to stop fighting here to go fight on Earth,” Garrus said, unable to keep the bitterness out of his voice. “Even though they failed to believe you before, now they want our forces to go save your planet.”

“It’s not my planet,” Shepard said coldly. “I’m a colonist, Garrus. I grew up a billion miles away. So it’s not about that.” She drew in a deep breath and let it out. “Truth is, I don’t know if we’ll make our push at Earth or somewhere else. But right now, they’re targeting humanity first and hardest.”

“Hmpf,” Garrus snorted, letting that information sink in. It seemed that in that prediction, at least, the Illusive Man had been correct.

“You have a plan?” Garrus asked, still not looking away from his burning homeworld.

“Yes. No. Sort of,” Shepard sighed wearily. “Liara found plans for some Prothean device. A weapon, she thinks.”

Garrus let out a sigh of relief. “A gun,” he said. “Good.”

“No,” Shepard shook her head. “Well, maybe it’s a gun, but I’m not as certain.”

“And why’s that?”

“It just seems too…convenient,” Shepard said, still gazing off into the distance.

“We could use a little convenience about now, Shepard,” Garrus teased.

“Come on, Garrus,” Shepard said, giving him a sarcastic look that seemed much more like her usual self. “When has war ever been convenient?”

“True enough,” Garrus said.

“I just don’t like putting all our hope in a weapon that we don’t understand. You need to learn how the gun works before you fire it, you know?”

“Agreed,” Garrus nodded. “Turian recruits aren’t allowed to touch any weapon until they’re well-versed in its specs.”

“Same with the Alliance,” Shepard replied. “You should hear some of the drill sergeants go on. They’ll lecture you all day on the dangers of shooting from the hip. But Hackett, Anderson - they all want to fire this weapon blindly, without knowing what it even does . They seem to think we can’t win the war without it.”

Garrus waited for Shepard to go on. When she didn’t, he prompted:

“And you, Shepard? Do you think we can win this?”

“I…” Shepard let out a long breath. “I don’t know. There were so damn many of them on Earth.”

“How many?” Garrus asked.

“What?” Shepard started.

“How many Reapers?” Garrus repeated. “Because there really aren’t all that many here. Only three of the Sovereign-class Reapers that I can see. There’s a lot more ground forces, obviously. And they’re making Mauraders out of the fallen, which boosts their numbers and demoralizes our troops. But I figure they must be swarming Earth, since there aren’t that many Reapers ships here. They’re just doing a lot of damage.”

Shepard thought for a moment, nodding her head as if she was silently counting.

“I only saw three in Vancouver,” she said at last. “Or no, wait. There must have been some above the cloud cover. One more landed… And then there was the Destroyer-class Reaper that killed the boy…”

If Shepard looked tired before, she looked utterly drained now. Whatever memory she was facing, it seemed to suck her in, causing her to withdraw back into some vision of pain that Garrus could only guess at. Shepard’s eyes went glassy and unfocused, then she shook her head hard. The motion seemed to suddenly snap her back to the present. The bleakness in her eyes was replaced by the fierce light of determination.

“There couldn’t have been more than, what, seven?” she continued. “And that was in downtown Vancouver, right around Alliance headquarters. They only sent seven…” Shepard broke off, staring at the Reaper on the horizon, now with wonder rather than fear. “Only seven in the initial assault…”

“Anderson said something about there being so many of them,” she said. “But there weren’t, not really. I mean, a Reaper can do a lot of damage, and the ground forces were everywhere, but the actual Reaper ships…” She turned around and looked up at Garrus. “How come I didn’t think to count them? I just assumed there were hundreds of them.”

“Maybe because you were too busy fighting to stay alive?” Garrus suggested. “Or maybe because you’re not a sniper. I’m always counting. I need to know where everyone is so I don’t get flanked. You probably just don’t think about that because you’ve got the biotics to rely on.”

“No,” Shepard said. “It’s not that. It’s something more. The space around the Reapers: it shifts and ripples somehow. It’s the sound - it’s the air. I don’t know. But they distort things and they *feel * infinite. I didn’t even think to count them. But you’re right, Garrus,” she said, speaking more quickly now, with more enthusiasm, “They have a number. Once we have that number, we figure out how to subtract from it. One Reaper at a time.”

“We just have to hope our own forces don’t get whittled down faster,” Garrus told her. “Remember what happened when the Citadel fleet took down Sovereign?”

“I do,” Shepard said grimly. “We made a lot of mistakes then. But we learned that if we can get their shielding down, a fleet of our ships can take down one of theirs.”

“So we need to figure out how to take out their shielding and then force them one by one into a choke point,” Garrus said. He looked around skeptically. “Outer space doesn’t have a lot of choke points, Shepard.”

“Then I guess we’ll have to make one,” Shepard said absently.

“So hey,” James said, running up to interrupt their conversation. “Esteban’s on his way. Better get the turian king ready to go.”

“Primarch,” Garrus corrected.

“Esteban?” Shepard asked.

“Shuttle pilot,” James explained. “Dropped us off. Remember?”

“Oh,” Shepard said, looking a little sheepish. “I guess I didn’t catch the guy’s name. I thought he was named Steve or something.”

“He is * * named Steve,” James replied. “But I call him…”

“By a nickname,” Shepard interrupted. “Right. Okay, just do me a favor and translate next time. I still don’t know this crew very well.”

“That’s not like you, Shepard,” Garrus said. “Usually you know most everyone - even the guy who washes the dishes.”

“Yeah, well, we left in a hurry. Not much crew to speak of and as for the ground team…”

Shepard’s face fell suddenly, and Garrus guessed at once what that meant.

“You lost someone?” he asked.

“Yeah,” James said at the same time Shepard said “No,” with a fierceness that surprised everyone.

“Well, Blue isn’t dead,” James conceded. “Not yet, anyhow.”

The look Shepard shot the lieutenant was positively murderous.

“What?” he asked innocently.

“Liara looked fine to me,” Garrus said, confused.

“No,” James shook his head. “Aw, dammit. I knew I should have come up with a different nickname for the major.”

“Major?” Garrus repeated.

“Kaidan,” Shepard said curtly, not meeting anyone’s eyes. “It’s Kaidan.”

“Kaidan?” Garrus asked. “Kaidan Alenko?” Though really, Garrus thought, he didn’t know why he bothered. Who else could cause Shepard to look quite that concerned? And now, Garrus could finally read the set of Shepard’s mouth, the weariness in her eyes, the apparent distraction that bordered on desperation. She was worried. About Kaidan. In the middle of a battle that might well have spelled the end of the turian Hierarchy if she had failed.

Figured.

The thought instantly annoyed Garrus. Not because he still had feelings for Shepard, Garrus told himself. Shepard had never returned those feelings, for a start. And after all, just last week, he’d met a female turian who… Well, he was over it.

But the thought of Kaidan still made Garrus feel raw. The Alliance was filled with officious idiots who ignored the Reaper threat, but that kind of blindness was typical of military operations. Yet Kaidan had seen the threat firsthand. He’d known Shepard better than anyone. He’d been a friend to Garrus, too. But then then Kaidan had turned his back on both of them.

“We met up with Kaidan on Earth,” Shepard said tightly, the expressionless tone of her voice giving away more than her words. “He got injured on Mars. Got knocked… unconscious.” She bit out the last word and said nothing more.

“It must have been bad,” Garrus observed, gauging her reaction. “Kaidan doesn’t go down easily.” That was the only concession Garrus was willing to make in Kaidan’s favor right about now.

“It is bad,” Shepard said quietly.

Garrus looked down at her, his eyes narrowing. The worry on Shepard’s face was alarming him. If she got this upset when Kaidan was merely injured, how badly would she take it if he died?

“There’s Esteban,” James said pointing to the distance. If the other human was aware of the tension rolling off of his commanding officer, he didn’t show it. He seemed to be as bad at reading Shepard’s moods as most humans were with reading turian body language.

“I’ll go direct him in,” James said.

Garrus waited until the tattooed human was out of earshot, then said: “Shepard, about Kaidan. If he doesn’t make it…”

Garrus stopped himself before he could press any further. He didn’t know why he was forcing the issue, except that he needed to hear what she had to say. Because Kaidan had always been something of the light at the end of the tunnel for Shepard. He knew that. And if that light was snuffed out, Garrus needed to know that she’d keep going. If she got all the fleets in the galaxy together and then broke down because just one man had been hurt, what good would *that * do?

“You know how it’s going to be, don’t you?” Garrus said, his voice low. “It’s going to be ugly, Shepard. We may have to sacrifice millions to save billions….”

“And we may have to sacrifice friends to save total strangers,” Shepard finished for him, raising troubled eyes to meet his. “I know, Garrus. I’ve seen this kind of ruthless arithmetic before.”

“But have you lived it, Shepard?” Garrus pressed. “Have you sent your best man down into trenches, knowing he may never come back?”

“You’re talking about Omega, aren’t you?” Shepard asked softly. Garrus started at that. He’d forgotten that just as he saw through Shepard’s icy shell, the reverse was true of him, too. Most people just saw him as the scarred, tough-guy turian who hung out down in the forward battery calibrating the guns all the time. But Shepard knew him better than that.

“Eleven body bags, Shepard,” Garrus said, not meeting her eyes. “You saw them.”

“I did.” She let out a sigh, then added, “I hear you, Garrus. I’m worried about Kaidan, sure. I’m worried about Anderson, too, and all the SR2 crew. But I’ll keep fighting. Whomever we lose, I’ll keep fighting. I promise you that right now. Even if it’s…Kaidan.” She paused slightly at his name, almost as if she was touching it gently with her voice.

“Even if it’s you,” she added.

“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” Garrus snorted.

“I’m just saying,” Shepard said with a shrug. “But I have hope that you - and Kaidan - are tougher than that. Don’t worry. We’ll get through this forest together.”

“Forest?” Garrus blinked.

“Did I say forest?” Shepard asked, seeming to be genuinely confused. “I meant war. We’ll get through this war.” She looked at the Reaper in the distance, her voice taking on a wondering tone. “Look at them, Garrus. It’s bad, but this is all they can do. But we - humans, turians - all us little sapients - we haven’t even begun to fight. We haven’t even begun to tap into what we’re capable of. We can do more than this. We can be more.”

And for a moment, Garrus found himself just staring at Shepard. There it was - that conviction that had caused him to walk into hell a dozen times over just because she was sure they’d be coming out the other side with nothing more than a few scratches and some serious bragging rights.

“Or we die trying,” Garrus pointed out.

“True enough,” Shepard shrugged. “But if we do that, we’ll take as many of them with us as possible.”

Garrus nodded, once slowly, then again with more certainty. She had a point, he thought to himself. Turians were no strangers to stories of last stands and heroic deaths. And if so, in the off chance that she was right and they lived, he fully intended to be there to see it.

But instead of saying all of that, Garrus simply nodded into the dark twilight that surrounded Palaven’s moon and checked to see that his sniper rifle was stowed properly on his shoulder.

“Right behind you, Shepard,” Garrus said. “Just like…”

“Old times?” she finished for him.

“Exactly,” Garrus nodded. “Like old times.”


present day, 1400 hours, Huerta Memorial Hospital, ICU


Kaidan woke in a bed surrounded by whirring noise and a light so bright that it made him instantly wish for sleep again. The transition from oblivion to consciousness was so sudden, so stark, that it caught him gasping aloud, reaching at once for his biotic power.

“Don’t!” a voice sounded like an alarm in his ear. “You’ll hurt yourself again.”

Hurt , Kaidan thought dimly. He’d been hurt. He thought he’d died. He should have died. So many times, he should have died. But instead, he just kept surviving. Over and over again, he walked out of hell on his own two feet, while far worthier people were burned to ash.

Ash. Yeah, she was one of the people who’d burned. Then Shepard died, down in flames with the Normandy. Now Earth. Oh, God, Earth. Kaidan groaned and tried to clutch his head, but his arms were tangled in a mass of rubber tubes that connected him to a machine, to an IV, to another machine. He could only lay there, eyes dry and unfocused, staring at a too-bright ceiling.

Earth had burned. Earth was burning. People were dying, right now, and he was just *lying * here. The thought made him feel frantic. His father, his stepmother, all his students back in Rio, they were probably dead now, or would be soon. All those young soldiers in Vancouver, dead… God, he was getting so damned old .

Visions of Vancouver came back to him - people ripped apart by Husks, people shot down as they raced helplessly into the streets. The sheer number of dead - Kaidan could only imagine that kind of horror playing out everywhere, all over the megacities of Earth, all over the known worlds. Soon, the dead would fill the galaxy, every spacefaring planet a mass grave.

And then there would be silence, Kaidan thought numbly. And in that silence, the Reapers would plan for the next time.

It was that thought that horrified him most, that filled him with a sense of despair so overwhelming, Kaidan hardly knew what to do. It wasn’t enough that the Reapers were here now, that they were already beginning their systematic slaughter. The real terror was that this would happen again.

And the next time it happened, there might be no warning.

The next cycle wouldn’t have Shepard with her visions and her bull-headed determination to make people listen. They wouldn’t have her insight, her planning, they wouldn’t have the chance she’d provided.

But this cycle had a chance, Kaidan realized. He grabbed onto that thought as though it were a lifeline. Shepard was still alive, right? She must have survived. She’d screamed his name as he lost consciousness on Mars. And Hackett was alive, and maybe Anderson, too. And Kaidan himself was alive. He had lived to fight another day. He might as well make the best of it. As soon as he got out of this stupid hospital bed, anyhow.

Pushing despair aside, Kaidan turned to the salarian hovering at his elbow and tried to croak out the question.

“Where…?” he got that far before his question devolved in a fit of coughing.

“Where are you?” the salarian snapped, as if annoyed to be addressed. “Huerta Memorial Hospital. Who am I? Dr. Freylock, antique biotic systems expert.”

Kaidan blinked at that. He wouldn’t have called his implants antiques , exactly. More like vintage, if anything.

“How bad are your injuries?” Freylock went on, asking questions for Kaidan and then answering them with rapid-fire cynicism, “You nearly died. What happened? Your amp jack got slammed into your skull. When can you leave? Not until I say so, so lie still and don’t use your biotics.”

“And Shepard?” Kaidan asked, his voice raspy.

The salarian’s face dropped into an expression of anger so intense, it was as if Kaidan had insulted his family line for five generations back.

“What?” Kaidan asked. “Is she okay?”

“Oh yes,” Dr. Freylock snapped. His voice had the strange quality of sounding waterlogged, like all salarians did, and yet crisply starched all at the same time. “She’s still there. Haven’t been able to turn her off.”

“Turn her off?” Kaidan asked, utterly confused.

“Should be just about time for her,” the salarian went on. “She shows up every hour on the hour, you know. That’s why I’m trying to finish up here quickly.”

“Every hour?” Kaidan asked. Shepard had been visiting him every hour ? His heart lifted to hear it.

“And you’ve been out for over thirty hours,” the doctor added, his voice becoming ever more hard-edged. Well, hard-edged for a salarian, that is.

Kaidan just gaped at the alien in astonishment. Shepard had wasted thirty hours at his bedside? Kaidan wasn’t sure if he was more surprised by the depth of her care or at her complete and utter lack of judgement. Surely she had more important work right about now than to babysit him . But then again, Kaidan thought, maybe Shepard was running back and forth from the Council chambers to the hospital, and wasn’t being quite so frivolous as all that.

“Oh yes,” Freylock went on, irritably. “Every hour for thirty hours and I haven’t been able to go home and sleep in all that time. I had to get you stable, first. You’re lucky I have such steely nerves. Otherwise, Shepard’s interruptions might have caused me to slip while I was rooting around in your skull.”

And I’m also lucky you have such a cheerful disposition , Kaidan thought wryly, but of course, he didn’t say that. The doctor was scanning him with an omnitool on the one hand, but a scalpel lay on the table just beside the bed. Kaidan didn’t want to give the sleep-deprived salarian any reason to use the sharpened object.

“Wait,” Kaidan said, finally registering what the doctor had just said. “Shepard showed up during the surgery?”

“Oh yes,” Freylock snapped. “Couldn’t shut her off.”

Kaidan assumed that the doctor meant to say “shut her up,” but the translator was glitching. Still, that made no sense. Even as impulsive as Shepard was, she knew better than to interrupt a biotic specialist at work on a risky implant procedure. Kaidan said so to the salarian and got a death glare in response.

“If you didn’t want her here ,” Freylock told him, “then you shouldn’t have programmed her that way.”

“Programmed?” Kaidan asked. He made a face involuntarily, and the gesture hurt. There was some surgical tape on his eyebrow and it pulled as he frowned.

“Ow,” Kaidan said reaching for his eye, then, “Ow,” again as he pulled the tangle of tubes in his arms. “What do you mean, ‘program’ Shepard? She’s not…”

Kaidan was about to say that Shepard wasn’t some machine that could be turned on or off at whim. Even though he’d accused her of just that back on Mars, he didn’t quite believe it. He feared it, sure, but that was a far cry from having accepted it as true. But before Kaidan could say anything more, his omnitool chimed and the salarian doctor flinched.

“Oh no,” the alien groaned.

And then, there it was: shining in the air above Kaidan’s arm, complete with a chirpy voice that echoed throughout the room.

“Hello soldier!”

Kaidan just stared. A glowing, miniature VI of Shepard stood on his chest. Only the outfit it wore looked nothing like anything Kaidan had ever seen on Shepard. Instead of armor or even Alliance casuals, the thing was dressed in an asari stripper suit, complete with tiny high-heels. Kaidan’s mouth dropped open in a perfect circle of surprise.

“Shepard?”