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Ascension (10/?)

 

Pavane for the Lost


They had been alone in Pontar Sul's office for two hours now. He had said something about visiting the med-techs who did such things as Asari genetic testing with this new information about her cousin and, presumably, had gone to visit them himself rather than babysit her through the paperwork. Though the lawyer's presence wasn't strictly necessary - the paperwork was little more than glorified name-filling and blank-signing, which could have easily been passed off to any of a number of accountants, law students, or secretaries if any of them had the proper clearance to know more than her rank and serial number as was her own. She could've merely given the datapads to Chambers and make her yeoman actually do the job she'd been assigned, for once, instead of psychoanalysing her every move and using her illicitly obtained knowledge for nefarious purposes.

The fact of the matter however, was that the commander wanted to stay. In fact, stupidly enough, she had to stay, because the idea of going anywhere else, somewhere two people might pass the time more casually, seemed so incredibly difficult as to prove insurmountable. Even the idea of something so simple as one of the Citadel's numerous cafés made her feel slightly nauseous (though that could've been because she hadn't eaten or slept since the other side of the Omega 4 Relay, and not because of the people or reporters or anything else that might be waiting out there to bestow upon her honours she did not want nor deserve). No, the simple fact of the matter was that, here, in this office, she didn't have to say anything to Kaidan. All she had to do was sit at fill out mind-numbing forms about income taxes and inheritance codicils and something that might've been either a change of address or a cunning way to try to figure out where the Lazarus Station had been located before it had been destroyed. Elsewhere, in one of those places where people waited, there was the potential for small talk, and she'd no idea what she could say.

She could tell him she'd asked about him. That it had been one of the first things she'd done when she'd awoken. That Anderson refused to tell her his posting. That the moment she'd found out he was on Horizon, she'd been prepared to drop everything to head for the Shadow Sea even before she knew the Collectors were heading that way. That, like it or not, his two years had been barely two months when she'd seen him again and the last memory she had of him the last before ordering him to head the evac while she got Joker was of a stolen moment the night before that was so clear and perfect in her mind-

But that was the wrong thing to do. She couldn't just waltz right back into his life and expect things to be the same as they were. It would be selfish of her to try. Foolish, even.

It was probably foolish of her to even put herself in this position at all, where all these things could just swirl around inside her, making her feel and think and do like she'd not since, well, not since Maman was alive and around to tell her to stop being a fool and do her homework. What is broken is broken. What is past is past. Dwelling on either got her nowhere.

Though it did help her through two otherwise very dull datapads of forms. The first had been taxes – which, in the natural fashion of government, seemed to be the most pressing – and the second had been full of legalize that she was sure her translator (surgically inserted into her inner ear, she remembered with a frown, rather than subdermally, as was standard in the Navy, or built into her bio-amp, though that certainly wasn't the standard L3 model she'd gotten on Elysium either) had been malfunctioning, even though the forms were, obviously, written, and in perfectly standard French to boot. There were two more, though what else they could possibly want from her, she'd not the slightest idea.

Shepherd hesitated after setting down the second datapad and, giving into temptation, turned towards the door on pretence of stretching. Kaidan was doing something – she couldn't guess what – on his omni-tool, and she felt a twinge of guilt at having kept him when he needed to be elsewhere, as he, obviously, seemed to be. No matter what he said about not wanting a ship of his own, he was too responsible not to take care of the one he had. They'd probably have given him one years ago if not for his biotics. "Problems on the Passchendaele?"

"Hmm? What?" he asked distractedly, looking up quickly before turning just as as quickly back to the holo-screen, as if he'd forgotten for a moment where he was and what he was supposed to be doing outside of, well, whatever he was dealing with. "No. Just trying to find some information on this Aniela E'ste. For a woman who claims to be a 'simple' merchant of 'exotic' foods, she has some interesting security software running on her data. At least one proxy server, and most of these protocols look custom-made... Someone really wanted to keep themselves hidden."

"That'd make sense if she knew Océane."

He let the omni-tool blink out as he turned in his chair towards her, wearing that look she knew so well, the one so full of open curiosity that had made telling him anything personal, anything that actually meant anything so easy; she found herself answering his questions before he could even ask them.

"Margot Neela was the persona Océane created for herself after she escaped. She was always paranoid about her father finding her and dragging her back to Mindoir, even after the raid, and could do anything with an omni-tool. I remember-" she started, feeling the start of a smile form before she caught herself, remembering her cousin trying to show her something on a newly purchased omni-tool. It'd been three months since the raid had taken nearly everyone on Mindoir – only the few hundred people who lived on L'île, the lozenge-shaped island at the mouth of the Amman Nai, almost thirty miles south of Lumière Sainte and its spaceport; the handful families on the outlying farms, the ones on the vignobles up in the hills, who only came into town occasionally, to sell the grapes that made the dark and complex Pinot Noir that was Mindoir's most renowned export; and Shepherd herself had been left from a colony of almost five thousand – and less than two weeks since she'd run away from the orphanage they'd sent her to on Elysium, the only human colony in the Verge to have such a thing. She'd gotten a message from a woman claiming to be Océane Nageena Shepherd, her oldest cousin, the one who was always hanging around the spaceport and playing with the merchants' forbidden tech, and who disappeared about the time Helene turned ten, never to be mentioned again. Maman had said she'd run away, but she'd never thought her mother had meant Océane had managed to get off planet. Her whole world had been Mindoir, and, though she'd hardly known her cousin, though she'd no way of knowing if the sender of the message was her cousin at all, she'd left the orphanage and made the two hundred mile trip to the Alliance garrison on hope alone...

But the past was past. Océane was dead. Whatever she might've had with Kaidan was gone. She'd have to satisfy herself with memories on her own time. Still, she was surprised out of her good sense a moment later when he commented, "I thought Mindoir was one of those neo-Luddite colonies that smashed their ships after they landed and refused anything much more sophisticated than an old clockwork watch to be brought onto their planet."

"Close: they fear tech for religious reasons, not practical. Blasphémateur, her own father called her. That and hérétique."

"That explains a lot then."

"Does it?" That surprised her almost as much as the fact he knew even that much about her childhood home. Mindoir was only notable for two reasons: the raid and red wine. Since neither told anyone anything about the colony itself, he had to have looked for the information specifically; she far from knew how to feel about that.

"My last post, before Horizon, was on Cambacérès. That, and I've seen you; any time we came across anything more complicated than a food dispenser, you'd start calling for me or Garrus-"

"In my defence, I never saw anything more complicated than a food dispenser until after the raid. I mean, we'd ground-cars and refrigeration-units and basic farm equipment, but nothing that could do any 'thinking' on its own. It's the thing that makes the L'Onzième Gourou different from traditional Sikhism, which sprung up when they found the Prothean ruins on Mars." There were a number of sects from every major Earth religion which had felt the same way – the New Anabaptists and Khawarij Restorationists, for instance– and several that had gone the exact opposite, believing the Protheans had "seeded" intelligent life throughout the galaxy. "My grandparents were among the radicals that moved to the compound on Hellas Planitia and, eventually, to Mindoir when the government broke the compound up.

"Océane's father, my uncle, was the most radical of them – and charismatic; I think that's a large part of the reason my parents went with them, that and the fact I don't think they liked the idea of the Alliance at all – and still had ties to other communities like ours. So, when she ran away, she changed her name, dyed her hair this absolutely awful shade of blonde, and was such a good engineer that, if anyone suspected she wasn't who she claimed to be, they didn't care."

"That good, huh?"

"I know she was working on the Ascension Project in some capacity before she died and they only took the best – it was during the Blitz," she explained, looking away before she could see the concern running across his features deepen and picking up the third datapad. It had fallen into sleep-mode and the inverted-V symbol of the Alliance military now glowed in dark blue light on its screen, an image of earth slowly rotating between the two prongs. Shepherd had never been to Earth. Her two eldest brothers had been born there, but she'd never set foot on it. She'd gone as far as Luna on assignment, but one thing or another had always kept her from going.

Océane had this idea that humanity had left Earth too soon, and that was why there had been a First Contact War in the first place; that, if it had been another generation or two before they'd found the Prothean ruins so that humanity could have gotten used to being an extra-planetary species before expanding outside the home system, maybe things would've been different. A better different. She tapped the image as North America came into view and it quickly dissolved into a new series of forms, asking her name and service number and for attached electronic copies of her discharge papers.

Her cousin had talked about retiring, briefly, before she was killed. Océane had been the reason Shepherd had been on the planet when Elanos Haliat and his band of pirates and slavers attacked; she'd been going to visit her cousin, who had been insisting for months she take leave and visit. They were going to meet up at a dive on the outskirts of Fort Chaffee, out in one of the far suburbs that surrounded the sprawling garrison. She had said it was important, but Shepherd didn't know why her cousin had felt that way. For Océane, it could've meant anything, and there'd been at least two similar incidences during the six years between her enlistment and her cousin's death: one had been an attempt to set her up with a young physicist or psychologist or something like shortly after Océane had joined the Ascension Project (the man had turned out to be married with his wife and two kids living in Michigan until the school year had finished, though her cousin had claimed not to know this detail at the time); the other had been an simple endeavour to get her visit.

But the past was the past was the past. Whatever Océane's reason for wanting to see her, the bar they were to meet at had been close to a large, grassy park that several Batarians had chosen to land their shuttlecraft on. The buildings that had ringed it quickly became the attackers' base of operations and, though many contained soldiers, few carried their weapons off-duty on peaceful, bucolic, and heavily-garrisoned Elysium; of the few hundred people who'd been caught up in the initial onslaught, on the outskirts of the city that surrounded the base, a hauntingly small number had survived. None of the bar's patrons had been among that number.

She could still remember making her way to the bar, a tiny little place called The Bolt Hole that catered to young servicemen and their families. She'd not bothered changing out of uniform – even then, she'd owned little besides her uniform – and, with her shotgun clearly visible at her side, she'd looked like she was still on-duty as she made her way though the suburbs. Maybe that was why, when she realized what was happening and started to give orders, they listened to her, though the silver bars on her chest were still shiny and new...

She didn't like to remember the Blitz. Now she found herself remembering all too often it and everything else she'd been forced to live through, almost as if Cerberus, when rebuilding her, had succeeded too well in restoring the connections between her synapses – she'd read once that the connections to unused memories faded away, and those had certainly been unused, Before – so that everything felt as fresh and real as it once had. Unable to avoid looking back, it made the most recent memories – the ones that made up most of her military career – seem all the paler, filled with all-too-similar ships on all-too-similar missions with nearly indistinguishable crew-mates against faceless enemies. Until the Normandy – until, if she was honest with herself, she met Kaidan, - the only thing she'd had going for herself was her career. Granted, it was a rather spectacular career as far as jobs went, everyone said so, but there was nothing more. She didn't know what else it was she could've wanted: all desire for a 'normal' life had left her after the raid, although even then she'd felt this overwhelming urge of uncertain origin to do something with her life. Like she was meant for something more, something better, than working her parents' farm for the rest of her life. The Alliance had been the whole of her life after she'd left that farm.

And now, by the looks of it, they wanted her back, regardless of whatever the Council decided. "I think I'll need your help with this one."

"Power buttons haven't changed all that much in two years."

She could hear the smile in his voice and, hearing his chair scrape a little as he stood, gave him a look as she handed him the datapad. "Ha, ha, Kaidan. Make fun of the colonial rube why don't you?"

Far from penitently, "My apologize, ma'am."

The smile she'd been fighting failed. A chill ran through her – the stupid cooling systems, she told herself, nothing more. "You outrank me now soldier."

"They made you an O-5 when you died..." the smile he wore as he took the chair beside hers and scanned the form on the screen was wooden, "...and force of habit, I suppose."

O-5.

Staff Commander.

Posthumous promotion.

"Oh."

Because what else was there to say?

She watched Kaidan fiddle with the controls. "You didn't know?"

"It never came up... What else did I miss?"

"They gave you another Star of Terra." She could remember the ceremony on Arcturus Station, two months after the Blitz, a week before she was to start the N7 Academy. She'd worn it to so many funerals in the intervening time that she'd been half certain that the colour had was fading from her dress blues, and the thought that Océane would have said that exact thing had she been there had been enough to start her down a path that would've ended in a crying jag if she hadn't lost that ability after the raid. L'Onzième Gourou taught 'no one dies; no one comes or goes,' and that she might meet her beloved dead again one day, in another life; she'd learned enough of other religions to know that they all promised later meetings in some form or another. All she'd learned from death was that, whatever the future might bring, in this life, it was nothing but an emptiness that could never, ever be filled. She'd been dead for two years and still felt the emptiness where she should've been. "A group of Hanar protested at your funeral: claimed you 'got what you deserved' for disturbing Prothean ruins." Perhaps, if she'd been a better Sikh, she could've dealt with her own death better. But she didn't remember anything her atma might've experienced in a new life, or a white light, or anything of her death other than the panic she couldn't keep at bay as she struggled to breathe before waking up in the operating suite of Lazarus Station. Panic threatened set in at the merest memory of that fall, and had to count her breaths – un, deux, trois, quatre, cinq – to convince herself that she still could. That was another thing that came too easily After: fear. "Pittsburgh won both Super Bowls..." That caused her to smile.

"Football, Kaidan?"

"There are some things you can't help hearing. Unfortunately, that is one of them. And I don't know if it was your problem, but I've put this," he gestured with the datapad, "into Basic. You're re-enlisting, I take it?"

If she was smart, she'd stay retired. She hated the politics, she could hardly stand long stretches in space before needing to be groundside (even if only on a mission), and she'd already given them one life. She'd saved sentient life twice now; that surely earned her enough karma to let her rest on her laurels for a long while. Yes, the Reapers were coming, but, as soon as she got the Council to agree to do something about them, she could step back and let someone else save the galaxy. Someone who didn't have Prothean visions in her head and enough tech in her body to make her feel like the cybermechanoid Caretaker who'd given his life to break the cycle that had taken his life and those every being to come before.

She hadn't thought about it. The form was just there, an assumption on the part of Pontar Sul or whomever had sent her his way. It was the natural thing to do now, just as it had seemed eleven – no, no, she must remember, thirteen years ago. She'd been brought back from the dead to fight; she might as well fight for the Alliance.

No one, after all, had ever claimed smarts to be one of Shepherd's faults.

The Widow Overture: Sognando