damalur: (Default)
no, use my SPACE name! ([personal profile] damalur) wrote2017-09-19 08:32 pm

Limit of the Flesh (15)



There were nights when she held solitary vigil on the ship, and on those nights she understood scale like no other person in the universe.

Shepard was not a woman who let panic rule her. Her prolonged exposure to stress was enough to cure her of the reflexive reactions most people had to danger, and training supplemented with physiological augmentation had curbed her instincts even further. In some ways, she was actually better suited to wartime than she was to peace.

That was one of her dearest secrets — that a distant, furious part of her had come alive at the threat of the Reapers, because fighting against them had been the first time Shepard had ever been pushed to her limits. Something shamefully primal had woken in her at sixteen and had never quite gone back to sleep; that part of Shepard, fueled by an immense resourcefulness that thrived on intense stimulation and an unquenched thirst that meant she pushed herself harder every year, had fallen in love not with the war but with fighting it.

But even that didn't scare her. On the rare occasions when her nerves woke beneath the layers of scar tissue that usually deadened her to sensation, the failing concerned her, but it never concerned her enough to excise it. The secret of that bloodthirst was all tied up with the infrared of her rage and the ultraviolet of her hope and the gamma radiation of her fear, and the summation of those parts was the force beneath her professionalism that drove her.

What did have the potential to haunt Shepard was the vastness outside the world of the ship. It threatened and comforted her by turns, sometimes overwhelming in its size, sometimes soothing in its abyssal indifference. There was no way to explain it to someone who had lived most of their life on a planet and whose only exposure to space was through popular vids. Two vessels flying in formation might be mere specks to each other on a visual display. Fleets spread across spheres that rivaled or surpassed the size of the Earth. And ships, even commercial and private ships, regularly flung themselves across distances that should take not years but generations to traverse…

She shifted in a crash seat designed for different proportions and ran a hand over the console in front of her. Above, the shifting spectrum of conventional FTL cast a weird light across the bridge. They'd reached the halfway mark on their flight to Suru, and the engines had started decelerating the Valkryie. Shepard sometimes imagined she could feel the shift, the mark when the ship stopped accelerating and started decelerating, but that was a fantasy — artificial gravity compensated for the change so easily that no flesh-and-blood being could detect it. There were ghost stories, though, about ships that accelerated infinitely to the end of the universe, or ships whose engines shut off in deep space and refused to stir again, or ships whose mass effect drives malfunctioned and left the crew exposed to relativistic effects like time dilation.

Humanity wasn't all that far out from their first contact with the stars; it hadn't happened in her lifetime, but it had in her mother's. Shepard had always thought that the turians had to be a relief after all the stories her race had once told each other about what lived beyond their world. The First Contact War had been a terrible misunderstanding, but the turians were members of a galactic community that spoke and moved and existed in ways that were sometimes foreign but were never beyond human comprehension. There had been no biological or political chasm too deep to bridge, no unreconcilable divide in motivation or ethics, no concepts at all that were mutually unintelligible; after a brief (a very brief) adjustment period, humans had found themselves part of a galaxy that was in many ways merely Earth drawn on a larger scale.

Some philosophers and scientists had questioned that — how, in all the vastness of the galaxy, did almost every sentient species end up with bipedal locomotion? With similar life-support needs? With common values like "love" and "duty" and "honor"? Was it solely the influence of the protheans? Or was it coincidence?

And then the answer to that question had come out of black space and reawakened humanity to their fear of the dark. It had changed them in ways they hadn't yet begun to discover. Shepard was still waiting to see what new world would be constructed out of the parts of the old. On some nights the uncertainty of what was coming bore down on her, and on others it didn't seem like it mattered much at all.

What did the universe even look like to a Reaper? Were they even truly conscious, or were they just profoundly sophisticated tools that carried out their programmed objectives with ruthless efficiency? If she had accepted the Catalyst's offer to integrate with the Reapers, what would she have become?

What had they felt as they hung in dark space, suspended for fifty-thousand years?

When they slept for all those long millennia, did they dream?

And then, the Rome to which all roads led: Were there any left?

It was what Shepard would've done — hold a small force in reserve — because no matter how assured you were of your victory, you always, always made contingency plans. On the other hand, the Reapers hadn't needed to be tactically sophisticated when they had such overwhelming advantages in technology and numbers. Teams of scientists were working around the clock to tear apart what remained of the Reapers and learn everything they could, and the galaxy had, perversely, never been more ready for a large-scale assault; the Treaty of Farixen had been repealed the day after the Council re-established itself on New Eden Prime. To what end, though? If the Reapers had held back some of their numbers — if the signal that spread from the Crucible through the mass relay lanes hadn't reached dark space —

No amount of dreadnaughts would save them if the Reapers attacked again in the next century. The magic bullet was gone, the Citadel was rubble, and any war fought against them would be little more than a delaying action, if that reserve did exist. In the end, no one would ever really know. And that didn't frighten Shepard; it didn't make her feel anything except a numb, horrified exhaustion at the thought of having to do it all over again. She wasn't sure she could do it. No: she was sure she couldn't.

She lacked even the energy to think up contingency plans. Every time she hit a mental wall, and against that wall her drive, her survival instincts, her protectiveness, her experience, her training, and her strategizing meant nothing. She would try to think about it and would instead find herself fantasizing about running away. It was possible — pick the right uninhabited planet, and two people with a well-supplied starship could comfortably live out the rest of their days without attracting any attention whatsoever.

The possibility made her leg ache, and she realized she'd drawn it up so she could knead the muscles in her thigh. Everything above her tibia was intact, but she sometimes had psychosomatic flashes that convinced her she'd lost everything from the hip down. Her fingers crawled to her ankle, which really was artificial; she had her heel propped on the peak of the crash seat's contouring, and since it was designed for someone far taller than she was, she'd gradually slid backwards until most of her body was curled in the bucket of the seat. For Shepard, who was always aware of the effect of her posture, the position felt almost unforgivably vulnerable.

Garrus was the one who'd named the ship, and for that reason she'd let him have the left-hand seat that she always subconsciously associated with the pilot. Back when he was a kid he'd taken two trimesters of comparative religion, and something must have stuck, because she'd caught him reading about everything from the batarian's Pillars of Strength to the asari's Athame Doctrine. He liked Earth's mythology, too; when he'd named the Valkyrie, he'd claimed it was fitting that the ship's namesakes were warrior-women who descended into battle from the skies with blood on their armor and light gleaming from their spears.

She'd never appreciated xenotheology as a field, but sometimes she wondered at the stories that had grown up around the Reapers. From legend to fact, all in the span of a lifetime; what else was waiting in the empty spaces between stars?

Alone, suspended in the dark, separated from vacuum only by the thin bubble of her ship's hull, Shepard watched the universe.

It was probable that the universe watched her back.

And that was the seventh day.

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