damalur: (Default)
no, use my SPACE name! ([personal profile] damalur) wrote2017-02-11 11:33 pm

limit of the flesh (10)

10.

Eventually, finally, she started going through her inbox. She usually put the chore off until the later days of longer cruises, but her correspondence was starting to pile up to the point that it was untenable despite the limited AI she'd purchased to sort through the less important messages, which meant Shepard had to attend to the problem herself.

The Valkyrie was shaped like a 'V' that was flattened at the sides; at the very fore of the ship, just behind the snub nose, was the bridge, and behind that was the operations center with the communications hub and what Shepard still thought of as a war table. Aft of the operations center was the galley. The head, quarters, and the storage space they'd converted into a gym and rec area were snugged up against the Valkyrie's belly, beneath ops. To the very rear of the ship was the hold, with its armory and twin airlocks and whatever cargo they happened to be hauling.

She and Garrus both had workstations in ops, and it was there that she sat to read her messages. Garrus was banging around in the hold, doing god-knew-what. Part of her wanted to find him, but the urgency of that impulse also set her skin to crawling. She ignored him and thoughts of him and deleted another request from the Systems Alliance instead. "Commander, will you…" "Commander, would you…" "Commander, sources indicate…" "Commander, you are due…" Miraculously, there were even one or two addressed to her correct title: "Agent, the Council requests…" 'Commander' Shepard was what she'd been in soundbites from the war, and 'Commander' Shepard was probably what some politician with an agenda was going to carve on her headstone.

She deleted everything addressed to Commander Shepard that didn't contain necessary intel. Half the inbox emptied itself. What remained were a handful of receipts and operations messages that primarily concerned the ship or her equipment, a brief note from Solana Vakarian, a follow-up from Diana Allers, three priority bulletins from ST&R and one from the STG that had almost certainly been forwarded to Shepard against the wishes of the salarian government, a copy of the last shopping list she and Garrus had put together, and a letter from Ash.

Shepard deleted the shopping list, too. She opened the message from Allers ("...saw the article about you and Agent Vakarian in the Milky Way Weekly; let me know if you need any help spinning the situation…"), closed it, opened the message from her STG contact, skimmed it without absorbing any of the words, closed that, and finally opened the message from Williams.

It was brief, as most of her letters were; Ash was currently serving as the captain of the SR-2 Normandy, overlooking a number of special tasks but assigned primarily to monitoring and recovering Reaper technology. Joker was still at the ship's helm. It hurt something inside of Shepard — a deep, primitive ache that was not quite homesickness and not quite possessiveness and not quite professional envy — but with the hurt came the gladness of knowing that the Normandy was in good hands, that Williams was finally being given the respect she had earned, and that Shepard herself no longer had charge of that sleek, deadly warbird and all the hope and fear and gravity it carried with it.

Shepard,

(Occasionally, Ash started her letters with MA'AM, always in all caps like that, because she was a sarcastic P.O.S. who liked making her commanding officers lose composure and start sniggering. Only once had she addressed Shepard as 'Admiral,' and that had been to her face during Shepard's final tour of the Normandy. She'd dropped the ranks ever since.)

Just saw the notice from ST&R directing that all intel concerning the Quisling be forwarded to you and Vakarian. You two snapped that one up pretty quick. Good luck finding him; the guy's a snake, and sounds like he'll be just as hard to catch as one, too. I have EDI keeping her ear to the ground. She'll be in contact if she finds anything.

We've been working closely with the geth on our latest assignment — can't tell you any more, you know how it goes, but I've been thinking over some of the stuff you told me about Legion and about your experiences with the Collective. I'm never going to work as easily with synthetics as I do with real, flesh-and-blood people. Blame the Reapers if you want. (I do. For more than I should, probably.) That said, working this closely with them has definitely broadened my view of their usefulness and our our ability to build an alliance rather than just existing in a state of cycling detente. You're always forcing me to reexamine my assumptions. It's hell on the ego, ma'am.

The downside is that we have a couple of Alliance ghosts 'observing' us. One of them's a real nonhacker — we ended up in the middle of a situation yesterday, no shots fired, but she just about pissed her pants. God save all of us from oversight.

Sarah's good, thanks for asking. She keeps bugging me to take some leave to visit her, but I already burned through most of my hours helping Liara set up her new place. Wipe that smirk off your face, Skipper. Nothing to report on that front.

Tell Garrus I said hey and that he'd better be watching your back. Are you guys following the Balogh trial? Joker's taking bets on the outcome.

Gotta run. Talk to you soon.

Ash

THIS MESSAGE ORIGINATED FROM AN ALLIANCE MILITARY NETWORK. IT HAS BEEN CENSORED AT THE TRANSMISSION SOURCE FOR SECURITY PURPOSES. ANY REPLY MAY BE READ BY MILITARY AUTHORITIES.

"Anything interesting?" Garrus asked.

Shepard started. He was just inside the hatch, and a sudden fist of outrage bloomed in her chest at his appearance. Outrage at herself, for her poor situational awareness? Or at him, for making her feel comfortable enough to drop her guard? She wasn't sure, but being forced into further self-examination had never made her feel less angry before and sure as hell didn't now.

She set the anger aside. "Letter. From Williams."

"Yeah?" He walked over to her and leaned over her shoulder to peer at the screen. He always looked a little bare to her without his visor, but there was no reason for him to wear it aboard the ship — although he did, sometimes, maybe so he could listen to his music without Shepard giving him shit for his taste — and when he bent close to her, she was hit with the full force of his eyes even though he wasn't looking at her. They were stellar eyes, blueshift eyes, always falling towards her but never within reach… He smelled like sweat, old socks, and clean soap, and his throat and the line of his jaw were dangerously close and vulnerable. Shepard leaned away.

He shifted automatically to give her more space and kept reading. "The Balogh trial?" he said. "I'm surprised she would…" He glanced down at Shepard, who met his gaze with a hard stare of her own. Vulnerability was not a state with which Shepard was comfortable.

Victoria Balogh was the leader of a colonist militia that had mustered during the height of the war. The colony itself, Kurzon, had been… 'populous' was an understatement; it was a boom world. Residency applications had tripled in the past decade and quadrupled after Jormangund Technology opened a large munitions complex planetside with an orbital platform above for zero-g testing. Kurzon had also been in the direct and immediate path of the Reapers, and Balogh had read the writing on the wall; when the colony had fallen, she'd packed a spaceship full of essential personnel and then glassed the capital behind her using the Jormangund Orbital Platform's experimental high-energy canons.

Millions had died; and now Balogh was being brought to trial while the media played coy questions about kinder fates and war crimes.

"It's fine," Shepard said.

"It isn't," Garrus countered. "There's a hell of a lot of difference between what you did in the Bahak System and what Balogh did to her own people. You bought us time, Shepard — gave us a chance to fight. Balogh took that chance away."

"Did she?" said Shepard. "Did I? Destroying the Alpha Relay only bought us a couple of months." She laughed lowly, but her laughter was devoid of amusement. "And better dead than a husk. We've both said it."

"So what? Should we drag you back to Earth? Put you on trial?" Garrus said. "You did what needed to be done. War is utilitarian."

"That renders a thousand treaties governing sentient rights during wartime void," Shepard argued.

"Now you're just being stubborn. You can't draw a comparison between fighting the Reapers and fighting any other species, and — damn it, Shepard, I know you aren't arguing against consequentialism when I watched you win a war that the Council refused to acknowledge until it was an all-out invasion on the basis of your ability to make hard calls."

"Hard calls? You're going to lecture me about hard calls? Maybe they should put me on trial. They were going to before the invasion. People have been talking about it again. And it's not just Aratoht. I've done, the things I've — what I've wanted — " And then she heard herself, whining like a child, like someone who could indulge in regret, like war and survival hadn't been the work of her whole life.

"You didn't second-guess yourself like this during the war."

Shepard, furious again, snapped, "How would you know?"

It hung there between them — not her anger, or his, but rather her denial of the intimacy he thought he was allowed. She had the pleasure of watching him shut down in pieces; his mandibles and mouth pressed tight, his back straightened, and then, last of all, his eyes shuttered. The Vakarian adage: We repay in kind.

"Fine," he said. "Fine, Shepard. Consider it dropped." He whirled and started for the hatch, but as soon as he reached it, he turned around and stalked back to her. Shepard kept her face glassy, set, deliberate; she couldn't tell if it took her effort or not.

"But you know what, Shepard?" he said. "If they do come for you — if they take you and lock you up again for doing what no one else would? They'll have to step over my corpse to do it." And he turned and walked away.

Shepard, who was sick to death of being herself, sat there in his absence until she was empty; and then she went to the hold and took out her pistol and started her dry-firing exercises all over again.

And that was the second day.