Most days, she sees the Commander in the mirror, which is how it should be. Commander means something. Commanders have ships, and loyalty, and a place amongst the elite, with power to affect real change. Commander is a title earned.
Occasionally she sees the Shepard that — that her friends must see. She may as well have been born with bagged eyes and paling skin, but it’s a rare moment that the whole image is enough to make her pause in the mirror, note the veins in her neck (have those always been so visible?), and consider that Chakwas may actually have a point. She resolves to get better sleep the following night. It’s a rolling promise: always the next night, or the one after.
She never sees a Spectre. As far as she’s concerned, she’s been fighting for galactic stability the minute she’d picked up her rifle and put her hand over her heart, swore to dedicate her life wherever Alliance directed her, and silently promised, wherever I’m needed the most. To some, perhaps it’s a commendation to aspire to; others, another title; fewer still, perhaps a leash.
On bad days, she sees the rat that never made it out of gang territory, the one still trapped back in the bowels of London. The one that still found herself flinching (I did not flinch — You did, and it’s perfectly natural, you can’t trust a copper) when a C-sec officer had approached her with determined purpose, towered over in the middle of the Citadel. In that first half-second of gut reaction, she’d felt nothing but distrust with a sudden, inherent urge to pacify: Minding my business, I’ll move along. That voice has always been harder to silence, the childlike uncertainty that for all her efforts she’d never really belong among people with real titles, and she’s learned that it rarely leads her astray when it warns about the corruption of politicians and bureaucratic, lawful maliciousness. Yet when she's honest with herself — as infrequently as that happens, these days — she knows it’s the voice of a terrified child, peeking around corners, forever wondering when the next meal or terror would catch her by surprise.
But days like this, when Vancouver is smoking flames and panic and she’s safe aboard the Normandy (without Anderson), watching that pale blue dot disappear into the inky black (without Anderson) she sees none of those things. When she retires to her cabin, she does so still brimming with surprising anger at her own ineffectiveness, burning with a poorly-kept urge to tear down everything in her path until the Reapers are past tense. With an hour before they reach Mars, she paces her cabin, and in her peripheral vision, catches her rough, furious reflection in the empty display case above her desk, and she sees a girl she hadn't in a dozen years. She stares back.
Days like this, she sees a Red again.
Liara is sorry for Earth. The council is sorry for Earth. Everyone is sorry. Nobody can help. No one mentions the batarian homeworld, no one addresses how they were offered no assistance, no one brings up that the Hegemony might no longer exist.
Garrus is sorry for Earth, too. As she’s sorry for Palaven, because from Menae, that bright orange glow the size of a pea, might as well have been the city she’d left two days ago.
But sympathy won’t end a war, so when Victus says, we bring in the krogan, Shepard grips her gun. Finally, a plan.
Sixteen skyscrapers are toppled in Tokyo within twenty-two hours. The Radio Kaikan she only recognizes because Kasumi had showed her once, a holo from her omnitool, as they’d looked out at the stars from the portside cabin and shared a bottle from the bar of an old Earth tequila. (“I’ll take you to Akihabara sometime — plenty to steal for me, plenty of mod stores for you. We deserve a vacation after this.”) Now the street is a mirage of colored glass on a pavement washed with blood, teenage body parts mixed with electronic toys and sparking wires scattered across the scene, and that's as far as Shepard gets into that article. She's seen worse. She just doesn't need to see any more.
To English speakers, they’re Reapers. The Japanese call them kaiju. To most of Latin America, los diablos. Some of the particularly faithful in the West are calling it Judgement. To most who have never left the planet, perhaps older veterans that have stewed, quietly, since the First Contact War — to them, they are simply more aliens, always to be categorized as something Other. They’re the voices swapping ancient doomsday predictions over radio talk shows every week — they told the rest of us that getting involved with those beasts was nothing but trouble, told us we never should’ve activated those relays, we should’ve kept damn well alone.
Shepard wonders, listening to the broadcast once, if the grousing has proven to be cathartic for the speakers, in any sense. She’d damn well hoped for the chance to give the same “I told you so” speech to the Council on more than one occasion — but then one week, the talk show doesn’t air. She fiddles with the dial for a month and is forced to accept that her connection is stable.
Next, she forces herself to stop thinking about being right in the past. The only right decisions that matter have to be ones still to come.
She still hears from Kaidan the most. She supposes Kaidan would have a lot to say about all of this.
You were always terrible at poker, Shepard, something that sounds like his voice speaks up when she ends her call with the salarian dalatrass. You can’t play both hands at once.
So she won’t. And Shepard comes clean, because Wrex and Eve deserve that much, and — two hours later, Mordin doesn’t come back down from the Shroud’s control room.
On a derelict ship orbiting empty space in the Gemini Sigma cluster, she’d left Julia’s body lying peacefully on the cot, before — hesitating, and then pulling the plug of a comatose man. You did the right thing, Commander, Kaidan had said then, tenderly, as if to a victim. Patient, kind-hearted Kaidan. She wants to believe he’d say the same thing now.
“Generals planetside are asking my advice on how to deal with Wrex,” Garrus tells her in the battery one evening. “Apparently his men are impertinent to any soldier wearing the Hierarchy emblem, and krogan forces still took down four Reapers on foot within Cipritine alone last week, led by Urdnot Clan’s private army. Is he expecting them to play nice while they wait for their turn on the sidelines?”
“Well,” Shepard says wryly from the door, “you’re an advisor. Advise them.”
“For Reapers, Shepard, not interspecies politics. Not as though I know more about Reapers than I do about the latter. You think if he gifted each clan leader a full shipment of ryncol, like a sort of welcome gift-basket, that might soothe some egos?”
She snorts, then leans back against the control panel, careful not to disrupt his work, and refuses to think about the fifty-seven emails marked “high importance” waiting for her upstairs.
Garrus spends as much time in the battery as he does in the war room now, coordinating with Victus and running turian warfare simulations, and — though she’d never admit to overhearing — habitually testing the connection to his father’s line. It remains stable, as always, three little green lights signifying the recipient’s account status, yet no one ever picks up. She wonders if he’s waiting for the day the lights drop down to zero.
She catches him the battery, the few times she allows herself time for small talk. It’s private here, and the lights are low, and though they never push the line of indecency anywhere outside her cabin, times like these are ones she takes just as seriously, clings to the moments of normalcy before leading them all back into the fray.
“How’re you holding up?” she asks now.
“Impatient,” he says, and it comes out so quickly she knows it must genuinely be the only thing occupying his mind. “Just how long is the Crucible going to take?”
“They’ve just finished the preliminary scans of the tech designs. They’re still confirming it’s not a Reaper trap in disguise.” At his unconvinced look, she adds, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”
He makes an odd, soft but high-pitched noise, almost trilling, in the back of his throat; she suspects she can’t hear the full pitch of it, but she’s come to understand the sound as an indicator of turian confusion.
“Means we need to be patient,” she says.
“I see,” he says, then pauses and shakes his head — a human gesture. She wonders who he picked it up from, then wonders if that’s a stupid question. “No, I don’t. What’s Rome?”
Rome wasn’t built in a day. It had, of course, taken the efforts of millions to culminate in a city that today had become more a symbol than a physical location; a setting whose reputation preceded itself; the result of thousands of years of everything from architectural feats to civilian ingenuity and political achievements, militaristic conquests to artistic glory.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, she realizes now but doesn’t say, but Pompeii had fallen in less than a single morning.
“Tell me truthfully, Shepard,” Garrus’s voice says from the other end of the console when she’s finished. He’s staring at his keys now, left hand grasping the edge of the board, and she can tell his mind has gone to similar places, even if he cannot fully grasp the cultural analogy. “We’re fighting a war fifty thousand years in the making. We’ll need more than numbers. We’ll need the impossible. I know you specialize in the impossible. And it’s not that — you know I trust you’ll see us through. But do you thi — ”
Shepard pushes off the panel and moves next to him, copying his position. She presses her arm against his and he tangles his three fingers within hers. He never does finish his question.
She’s the best one for the job, and the Alliance is relying on the tip of their spear — the woman that got her team through an army of geth, the one that survived death itself. Her crew relies on the leader that got through Saren, the Collectors, the suicide mission. If she didn’t know any better, she’d imagine some might hope, naively and perhaps admittedly so, that in such close proximity to the Hero of the Citadel, a bit of her luck might rub off on this mission as well — but everyone knows what happened at Akuze, and Alchera. Everybody knows what happened to Kaidan Alenko. And everyone will know what’s become of Mordin Solus and Thane Krios, soon enough.
She’s always needed elsewhere. She’s always needed everywhere.
The evening after the Citadel coup, EDI finds her in the women’s bathroom. The rest of the crew is ashore, assisting repairs.
“Shepard, you have been standing in this location for twenty-three minutes and fourteen seconds,” the AI informs her as a synthetic hand reaches to turn off the hot tap. Shepard blinks; the skin of her hands is a bright, garish pink. “The faucet has been running at 51 degrees Celsius for the past sixteen minutes and fifty-three seconds. Despite common belief, the average water temperature for decontaminating human skin with antibacterial soap — ”
Initiation night for the Reds. Just a few minutes a hot water. If you can’t hold through this, who’s t’say you won’t go blabbing when the filth comes poking around?
“Thanks, EDI,” Shepard says quietly. Her skin is starting to hurt now, but only just. “I was — lost in thought. You didn’t have to come back to the ship.”
“I am the ship, Shepard. I surmised that you would be more receptive to interference if someone were to provide physical assistance. Your Cerberus skin grafts will restore or replace any dead cells. I recommend a trip to Dr. Chakwas nonetheless. She will be able to provide poultices or creams to help with any pain.”
“...Right. I — right.”
A crewmember would have asked for more. Joker or Traynor or Garrus or Liara would insist on — talking about it. EDI leads her to the medbay, and Karin knows not to ask questions while she treats her hands with salve. EDI only stands silently at the door, waiting as only a machine could, until she’s ready to leave.
That same evening, she hears Thane Krios, twenty-nine hours deceased.
Keep your head above water, Siha.
Thane, who had prayed for her on his own deathbed. Who had left half a dozen vid calls while she was in lockup. Who had, in the entire time she’d known him, only asked for help once, to help another.
Shepard thinks of him often when she needs reminding that there is still good in the galaxy, and it is worth fighting for.
No longer , the Commander in her says practically. Look at what happens. It’s snuffed out like a candle. By people like me — people who make decisions that matter. Remember every soldier you laughed with before the shuttle dropped you off at the landing pad on Akuze.
Part of her wants to mourn a friend. Thane was a good man. Kind. He would have been a wonderful father to Kolyat. He deserved more time to prove it.
And yet the most overwhelming voice, the one that keeps her awake at night, keeps her blood boiling as she stares at the stars from her bed, is the anger. The old enemies: Reapers, the Illusive Man. The face of a new one, Kai Leng. Everything.
It’s not a new feeling, the hate. It was only upon graduating from boot camp that she began to recognize — hell, to respect the part of her that would always be furious at the universe, for — for everything. Furious at her parents, whomever they may be, for leaving, for her faulty genes, sometimes for having her in the first place if they’d known from the beginning she’d grow up where words like parents had been as foreign as the aliens of the Citadel. Furious at Cerberus, for everything they’ve done, everything they might have done, to come out on top while the rest of the universe burned. At Saren, who’d opened Pandora’s box and dumped the contents into her lap. Sometimes even at Anderson, for selecting her as his XO all those years ago. Someone else, she’d once thought fiercely. You should’ve set someone else down this path, Captain. Anyone else.
She’s made peace with the fact that she will never be at peace. That’s what being a soldier means. Ash knows, like Kaidan knew. Vega will learn.
That honorable core of a person that still hopes for peace; the last, raw, genuine inch of humanity that your worst enemy can’t scrub away. If hers hadn’t already been swallowed by the streets or that fucking nest of thresher maws or Cerberus’s scalpels — Shepard knows hers will be long gone soon enough.
Shepard hears Mordin’s voice only once, on Rannoch, when she locks the targeting laser onto the Reaper towering in the distance and thinks, maybe I could —
Going to be you, Shepard. Most probable outcome. Someone else might get it wrong.
The Reaper aims, but her hands are steady. It’s the largest gun she’s ever held to take down the largest foe she’s ever faced, and she’s in charge of every detail.
When the damn thing finally goes down, Harbinger’s voice fading as Rannoch’s sun meets its horizon, the cheers in her headpiece are deafening. She feels a muted sense of bitterness that she didn't get to pull the trigger that mattered.
Tali’Zorah vas Normandy takes off her mask.
“ila Rannoch,” she says. She sounds naked without the addition of the suit’s filters, yet there are odd, faint tones of an almost musical inflection that Shepard detects in her unmasked voice now instead. “It’s what we would say, of a person born on the home planet. It’s the title our children will hold, someday.”
This reminds her, wildly, of a lesson of archaic Italian she’d picked up at the Villa: da Milano, da Venezia. The city you are from. A universal custom, apparently; it’s in your very name.
Shepard wishes she could hold that appreciation for herself. She wishes it were as tangible as taking off a mask and breathing in Earth’s air to feel the difference, looking at her city with naked eyes and feel sorrow that it is being demolished. It is her city, London, really, no matter how she’s tried to distance herself from it since; it’s Anderson’s and Hackett’s and Samantha’s and hers, and it belongs to every human that’s fighting in this damn war, because the Reaper capital ships are gathering overhead Hyde Park and Cleopatra’s Needle and the Eye. And something big is surely coming that will unite the human race in universal solidarity in a way that it has never been seen or tested before — perhaps never would be again.
But here on the quarian homeworld, lost and refound, she can’t find it in herself to miss it at all.
Earth is hers, but she would never call it home. It would always simply be the place she was from.
And still, humanity finds a way to continue. Every week, she cleans out her spam. Repent and you will be greeted at the Holy Gates, If we prove our dedication to the Cause the New Gods will spare the Worthy, PLEASE HAVE YOU SEEN MY SON, MISSING AUGUST 8TH 11PM —
The latest update from Earth, by Emily Wong: The 2188 Olympics have been cancelled. 2192 TBD. Somehow it’s reading that headline in her inbox that makes her laugh for the first time in what feels like years.
The likelihood of prescheduled sporting events resuming their former arrangements within the next 15 Earth solar years is less than 1.0738 percent. We recommend refraining from sharing this calculation with fellow human organics, Shepard-Commander.
She doesn’t sleep that night.
Shepard had understood, when Garrus had gestured to Palaven, pointed out the fire that was once his home. She can relate when Liara mourns Thessia, buries herself in her work, refuses to speak to anyone, yet watches every feed with hunger in her eyes and collects every scrap of news and corrupted audio files that manage to make it off the planet. Shepard watches her pour over them through her meals and breaks, and has no doubts that she stops at the night shift.
Yet she can’t relate when both of them confess to her later, each privately: they wish they could go back. Not for revenge — though she recognizes shades of the same look in Garrus’s eyes that he’d worn when he used to speak of Sidonis — but out of some unshakable urge of sentimentality. The concept is as foreign to her as any other that comes from worlds that are made up of things like — things like homes, and families. But she’s used to feeling out of her element around personal anecdotes of domesticity, stories involving someone, anyone waiting back home. She understands why she doesn’t understand, and that had always been enough.
This lasts until she opens her inbox one morning to the news about the orphanage that fell to husks in Camberwell. And how the children had been trapped inside, left to Lord-only-knew-what fate — but she knows, and she turns off her terminal, and lets herself have two entire minutes thinking of nothing but the oldest voices. The Commander registers, somewhere in the back of her mind, that they’re growing smarter, targeting the young and the wounded. Lyd the orphan thinks that that might’ve been her, or her friends, but that’s the kind of unobjective sentiment that leads missions astray —
The thug in her wants payback for striking home territory.
The Forbidden City of Beijing becomes a silent graveyard of dragon’s teeth overnight. Husks have overtaken the Moscow Metro. Nobody’s had communication with any of the three Koreas in weeks.
Rome had fallen months ago.
When the Reapers targeted Vancouver, it had been a prologue. The home of Alliance HQ and the Villa in Rio de Janeiro were overrun with the beasts within hours. Communication towers toppled, aircrafts knocked aside by harvesters. Rio was the first Earth city to go black.
When a single Reaper toppled the Eiffel Tower, it had been humanity’s first real heartbreak of the war, with many to come. Its jaws circled the base entirely, squeezed so hard the spire cracked into three. The loss of Paris’s seventh arrondissement, captured via shaking camera footage, was splashed across headlines and news terminals for weeks. Shepard, safe in her cabin aboard the Normandy, sometimes avoids mealtimes to watch it on repeat, a dozen times over.
By the time they hit New York and Mumbai, it was clear their patterns were strategic. The Gateway of India and lower half of Times Square, four and a half blocks of the Broadway/Seventh junction, were soon a crater, Haji Ali Dargah and Grand Central to follow. The most recognized and populated areas, the largest casualty rates and panic guaranteed. It makes sense. It’s what she would have done.
When they began to strike London, it was expected, and they had been ready. Shepard knows those reports by heart: Admiral David Anderson presently commands a fifth of the planetside Alliance forces, accompanied by the British Army Reserve, His Majesty’s Royal Navy, and assisted forces from the French and American National Guards. It’s as much help as one can expect, under the circumstances. She’s doing the best she can for humanity by rounding up support to retake Earth, and the question in the mind of every human aboard the Normandy that nobody asks is when?. But with Udina gone, they need a level-headed, ruthless politician more than a dedicated soldier, so that’s what she’ll be.
Kaidan might say to her now, Make it all worth something, Shepard. Whatever happens, you remember everyone that’s been hurt in this war, and you end it for them.
Still. When they wipe her neighborhood clean off the map, it feels personal.
Cortez drops them hot in the heart of Westminster, and Shepard doesn’t think, That used to be a cathedral. She doesn’t think about the ruin that must surely be Buckingham Palace, or wonder if the tube station she’d slept in as a girl would be overrun with husks here as had been reported in Eastern Europe, or think about how she knows the difference between not thinking about it and Not Thinking About It, and this is definitely the latter.
Chrissake, Lyd. Pull your head out of your arse. Get back to work.
“Hostiles at ten, Shepard,” Garrus’s voice says over the line. She’d held onto brief daydreams, occasionally, about bringing him to Earth, showing him where she was from, but —
Chatika zooms off into the dark, illuminating corpses as they stumble their way over the embarkment. The drone lights up the ruins of the West Bank, and through the fog Shepard’s reminded too strongly of holos she had once seen of the ancient ruins of Herculaneum, Machu Picchu. Like viewing a vid in fast-forward, she envisions the future: intellects to come will inspect these stones and say, Once upon a time, people lived and breathed and died here. They will theorize about humanity's creation, their history, their destruction; a Pompeii that the next era will study, or equally likely, never discover at all.
Doomed or not, this is England, and as they join with Anderson at the Forward Operating Base, it begins to rain. Perhaps this is what people mean when they talk about the feeling of coming home.
It’s a slaughter. She thinks she might have just heard James’s final moments of terror behind her, but there’s no time; they must keep running.
But Garrus is hit, Tali’s suit is ruptured — she remembers an evac and a promise — and then she is hit —
Somewhere in between dying at the beam and bleeding out on the Citadel, she hears Anderson’s voice, just once, from the body crumpled beside her.
“You did good, child. I’m proud of you.”
Shepard feels the back of her eyes burn for the first time in years. It’s not real. It can’t be real. She’ll join him in just a minute more. But she knows he means it all the same.
As an orphan, she wants to share what it means, to be hearing words like this, directed at her for the first time in living memory; as a friend, she has a plea lodged in her throat: Don’t give up on me yet. See this through. Meet me and Kaylee on the other side.
But dead or alive, her commanding officer has spoken to her. She bleeds Alliance silver and blue, so she knows what to say.
“Thank you, sir.”
It isn’t light, or dark, or even that painful. Her medigel dispensers are exhausted, body too tired to attempt another resurrection, heart and soul too inclined to agree. A far cry from her first death, that chaotic, panicked, messy ordeal, those fifteen-point-three-seven seconds her helmet interface ticked out as she’d gasped and clawed and tumbled through Alchera’s atmosphere — but this is peaceful, almost. Like reaching the end of a very long book, a passing of the torch.
And then Hackett’s voice crackles through the comm, drags her back from death.
Soldiers don’t ask for a minute to catch their breath. Spectres do not ask for time off. N7s do not hesitate. If her goddamn heart is still beating, she’ll make it earn its last seconds alive.
“What… what do you need me to do?”
The first time the child who would become Commander Shepard had held a gun, she’d stood in the middle of the Reds’ base and thought, it’s lighter than I imagined. Fourteen. Too small for the raids, someone had said before shoving it at her, and she remembers now he had been ex-military, an Aberdeen born-and-raised officer dishonorably discharged from the First Contact War for slaughtering a surrendering turian scout party. But you learn how t'defend yourself. First lesson: You need t’know what the enemy’s blood looks like t’value your own.
Shepard has seen red, blue, purple blood splattered on every surface across the galaxy, yet she’s never once seen a Reaper bleed. She’s only ever seen them fall.
The second lesson, imparted from experience: Every species, organic and synthetic alike, is at its most dangerous when it is scared.
It therefore shouldn’t surprise her when she sees the Reapers’ final insult: the Catalyst is a dead girl.
“I control the Reapers,” it says in a tiny, familiar voice Shepard hasn’t heard in fourteen years, dressed as the last time she’d seen her, barefoot and stick-thin. A young girl — from the orphanage, the only child for which she had ever felt she might use a word like sister. The girl with whom she’d braved her own childhood, broke bread in the soup kitchens with, ran from the church, stole and begged on the streets with.
The girl who’d died in the London turf war of 2172, collateral damage of a story that had made the news as a one-inch block of text in The Daily Sun and driven Shepard into the ranks of the military. Fourteen years. How does the Catalyst know this girl?
“They are my solution.”
She can’t remember her name. Why can’t she remember her name?
Indoctrination, a voice says, and oh God, it sounds like Anderson’s. If she can’t tell her own ghosts from Harbinger, what has she led the galaxy to?
But in an instant —
The Catalyst has become the boy, that child from Vancouver, the one who’d escape through the vents back on that first day only to find escape on a doomed Kodiak. The child who hasn’t given her a night’s rest since. It continues —
“The created will always rebel against their creators. We found a way to stop that from happening. A way to restore order…”
She’s high, or hallucinating, or fucking dreaming, or already dead. This can’t be it. This can’t be the end of a war.
Come back alive, he had told her, and she’d tried. She’d tried so hard.
Shepard will die here, and the results of any decision that’s made on this stage, any choice that’ll ripple through the relays like an infecting virus are not any results that she will see. The universe’s cellular structure, its core programming, irrevocably and irrefutably twisted by a woman with more stubbornness than blood left to her name. They’re out of time. The rest of the galaxy will never know or have a say. What right has she to decide?
The only right that anyone could have: she is still alive.
For once, every old, familiar voice is in agreement.
Shepard grips her gun.