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Old Soldiers

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She was old enough, now, the little girl from Eden Prime, to call out to her mother; she ran barefoot over the wind-blistered grass of the Cornish bluffs, the soles rubbed red and raw from the cold. She couldn’t feel it. The salt spray clung to her hair and her clothes and her toys lay forgotten against the white chalk face of the cliff as she scrabbled back up towards her home.

There had been an explosion in the ocean a few days before. Nobody was sure what it was; even during the Reaper invasion, the quiet Cornish coast had been neglected until the final months of the siege, its residents unused to seeing husks scrambling up the seaside cliffs. It was a fracture in the idyllic seascape, but it was reality, and most of the survivors were merely glad it was over.

The people closest to the shore had been woken in the early hours of the morning by an inconceivably loud boom. It wasn’t long before a crowd amassed by the shoreline, armed with flashlights and lamps, the light of which was swallowed up by the ocean. The crash still echoed, but they could see nothing except the tumultuous disturbance of the water a few miles out to sea. The lighthouse up on the coast’s crest had been shattered by a Reaper’s beam, plunging the town into darkness. They could see nothing aside from the dancing white caps of the waves.

By the time the sun rose the next morning, however, it was easy to piece together what had happened. Dawn presented the silhouette of the Citadel tower stark against the ocean. It stood, blasted and broken, jutting like a crooked tooth out of the sea. By midmorning the coast was crawling with people, the cliffs lined with them, straining to get a look at the tower; mothers held their children and men openly wept, old soldiers truly realising that the war was over.

They had lived. They had won.

“Mama, quickly!

The little girl’s voice drifted along the wind towards her house’s faded green shutters; inside stood her mother, leaning over the sink with a cup of tea in a tin mug, shaking off the last of her morning sleepiness. Upon hearing her child calling above the moaning wind, however, he girl’s mother bristled, pushing past the door to stand on the front porch and looking out over the sea and the great broken tower. Her daughter ran towards her, white dress billowing.

Mama! There’s a person on the beach!”

The young woman blinked. “What?

With an insistent finger, the little girl pointed back from the way she’d come. “A person, mama! They’re on the beach, but I think they are still asleep.”

The waves boomed against the cliffs, and for a moment she thought she’d heard the child wrong.

“Show me. Quickly.”

She followed the little girl back down the bluffs, feet crammed into deck shoes and her sheepskin jacket pulled tightly closed against the harsh Cornish wind that tugged at her hair and flushed their cheeks pink. The girl hopped and skipped over the stones of the shore, little arms flung wide to maintain her balance, and her mother followed a few metres behind, eyes scanning the shoreline.

Here! Mama, look!” the girl cried as she set off at a sprint, hurtling towards a hulking black figure lying face-down amidst the lapping waves.

Oh my God.” The woman’s breath caught in her throat; stones clattered beneath her feet as she closed the distance between herself and her daughter, crouching down beside the beached figure with her heart pounding against her ribs. The more she looked, however, the more she noticed; the figure was dressed in heavy armour streaked with chipped red and white paint, head covered by a fractured helmet, the glass of which was smashed and welled with water. She motioned to her daughter. “Quickly, help me!”

As her daughter closed in beside her, the young woman managed to pull off the helmet and turn the figure onto its back.

She recognised the face immediately.

Suddenly, the soldier’s face cramped, her entire body shuddering and heaving as she rolled over onto her side and vomited up a lungful of seawater. Mother and daughter watched her carefully.

“You…” the young woman started, eyes riveted to the sickly, gaunt face and the glowing fissures in the skin.

The soldier couldn’t speak; her lungs were still waterlogged and it looked like she was in a great amount of pain. With her fists clenched tight she rolled over onto her elbows, coughing violently to loose the water from her throat, gasping for breath.

“Quickly, my love,” the young woman said to her daughter while still struggling to hold the drowned soldier up. The little girl looked frightened, her eyes wide and clear as they looked between her mother – by now sodden and looking positively panicked – and the half-dead soldier. “Go and fetch the sergeant from the post office. Tell him we have found Jane Shepard.”

The little girl nodded and, without a single word of argument, began up the cliff the way she came.

Chapter Text

Commander Jane Shepard was recovered from the Atlantic Ocean at 0948hrs and was immediately treated for water inhalation and major internal and external damage. Despite her brief period of consciousness upon being discovered, she quickly fell into a coma, and was transported by shuttle to London for medical treatment.

The shuttle was equipped with enough resources to keep her alive for the duration of the trip, but only just. Her body was failing rapidly, and her fall from orbit alongside the Citadel coupled with her almost drowning in the ocean made for a very difficult time keeping her heart beating and her organs from bleeding out. She had more fractures and broken bones than anyone could count at once, and the majority of the trip was spent assessing the extent of the damage. By the time they arrived in London and loaded Shepard’s broken body onto the gurney, things were looking bleak.

“We can’t be sure she’ll even survive the night,” one of the shuttle paramedics told the doctor escorting Shepard’s gurney. “It’s a miracle she’s made it this long, honestly.”

The other patients and staff were piqued by the commotion; they gathered in doorways or leaned from their beds to try and catch a glimpse of Shepard’s mangled body, which was being held together by her hardsuit. The hospital itself was overworked and understaffed, but the doctors stressed that all non-essential personnel were to assist in the effort to keep Shepard alive.

London was in ruins after the Reapers’ attack. Most of it had been pulverised into rubble, a mess of cement dust and blood and bodies, though there were still a number of buildings left relatively intact; after the decimation of multiple medical centres, the main restoration effort had been moved into a gutted comms building, which had not only improved fortifications and a superior location, but also an underground facility that provided protection against invading forces. At the height of the war it became the city’s primary hospital and was protected heavily by the Alliance in an effort to defend London’s last medical outpost. It provided the best medical care Europe had to offer, attracting efforts from all over the world.

It was Shepard’s last and only hope of surviving.

The moment she was brought into the operating theatre, Admiral Hackett was contacted. Communications were still spotty due to the destruction of the comm buoys, but the message got through eventually, and Hackett told them he was flying in immediately. When he asked after the Normandy, however, the staff looked at one another nervously.

“No sign of it, sir. Central command hasn’t heard anything from it, either.”

Hackett sighed, and there was a long pause. “Damn it.

Shepard was in theatre for over 72 hours.

The surgeons changed out in shifts lasting ten hours on average; the first 24 hours were spent carefully extracting Shepard from her suit, setting bones and stitching wounds with each piece of armour removed. It was a slow, arduous process, but the surgeons knew that one wrong move could shatter her apart. Their ears were constantly tracking the pulse of the heart monitor.

The second day was spent opening her up and fixing her organs. Most – if not all – of them were terribly bruised, and her body was flooded with internal bleeding. She was drained and stitched up, and the doctors used scanners and various other bits of tech to assess and repair whatever damage they could find. Bones were grafted back together, ribs were replaced, unsalvageable pieces sawn off and replaced with metal and plastic. The doctors were enthralled by the extent of her cybernetics; Cerberus had outfitted her with enough high-end tech to keep her alive through everything she’d been through, and without it, she most likely wouldn’t have made it.

Her left arm, however, was beyond repair. Her fall from orbit and the collateral energy from the Crucible had caused her omni-tool implants to explode, essentially shredding all her skin and muscle and shattering the bone into pieces so small they had to be extracted with tweezers. When the surgeons initially tried to remove her greaves, her forearm nearly detached from the joint, and they’d quickly realised her armour had melded to the mess of her arm.

“We need to amputate it,” the surgeon told her nurses, who nodded in silent assent. There was no question – nobody could save it. Shepard’s left arm was amputated swiftly above the elbow joint, the severed limb taken away to be studied extensively by the scientists who resided at the hospital, interested in seeing the damage a destroyed omni-tool could do. The wound was cauterised and dressed, and once Shepard was properly fixed up and sewn shut, the surgeons could finally breathe easy. Many of them almost collapsed with exhaustion.

“Incredible,” one of the asari doctors breathed; there were aliens on Earth, still, stranded by the Reaper invasion and now with no hopes of returning home until the relays were repaired. Those who had training in medicine had put aside all prejudices and applied to work at the human hospitals. “I was sure she was going to die right there on the table.”

“That’s Shepard for you,” her colleague replied with a dry laugh as he wiped the blood from his hands. “The bastard can pull through anything.”

After the surgery, Shepard was kept in intensive care. Her room was small, almost cell-like, and completely sterile to prevent her from getting any infections. She was fed oxygen and nutrients through a forest of plastic tubing, as well as a cocktail of drugs to help her body heal. Surveillance was tight, and the nurses came by to check her vitals often – first it was every hour, and then when she maintained her stability, every three hours. Her care was scrupulous; after all, nobody wanted to be in the firing line if Shepard died, especially not when Hackett found out.

Admiral Hackett arrived at the hospital one week after Shepard was recovered. He’d had surveys to do around the Local Cluster which had prevented him arriving sooner, as well as helping inspect the damaged relays. So, despite wanting to return to Earth immediately, his trip had been riddled with rendezvouses and unplanned stopovers, and when he finally arrived at the hospital he threatened to shoot somebody if he wasn’t taken to Shepard immediately. The staff, shocked by the Admiral saying something like that, took him to her right away.

“Her signs are stable,” the doctor told him as a chair was brought to the bedside for him. “We plan to move her to another ward once her wounds heal up.”

Looking up from Shepard, Hackett narrowed his eyes. “Keep her here as long as you can. I won’t risk her dying of sepsis, of all things.”

The doctor looked uncomfortable, then, shifting her weight from foot to foot. “As much as we care for Shepard’s wellbeing, sir, we have limited resources, and this is one of our only intensive care units. We don’t… we don’t want to keep her here if it isn’t absolutely necessary.”

Hackett clenched his jaw tightly. The doctor’s eyes followed the tense and release of the muscle, and she braced for him to override her decision – but he didn’t. He only nodded.

“Would you like some time?” the doctor asked quietly. Hackett nodded again.

Closing the door softly, the doctor left the room, leaving Hackett alone with Shepard’s comatose body. Her chest rose and fell with shallow breaths, the only sign she was alive aside from the rhythmic fogging of her oxygen mask.

Tired. Hackett was so… tired. Tired of the military, tired of war, tired of diplomacy. He longed for the days when he was young again, back when he’d had hope and a lust for adventure. He recalled the day he first met Jane Shepard; he’d seen himself in her, in her passion and her desire to get out there and do things . Her galactic wanderlust. She’d been little more than a teenager, back then, all gangly limbs and sinew, who resented her mother’s station and the expectation put on her; he remembered her like a vague dream, her laugh, the way her eyes shone. He missed it.

Now she lay perfectly still on her cot, just breathing, just living, barely holding onto the thin sliver of life the doctors had given her. He removed his hat, placing it on her bed and sighing, leaning forwards and taking her hand.

When Shepard was small, still a child clinging to the trouser leg of her mother’s dress blues, she always searched for the hands of others; mostly it was her mother’s or her father’s, but other times it was Anderson’s, and sometimes it was Hackett’s. As a child, Shepard had been frightened by Hackett; it was a very particular kind of fear, though, strongheaded and fiery, a fear she didn’t want to admit was there. It was a fear, Hackett quickly came to realise, that she was determined not to show. But despite that fear, whenever Shepard had been scared or unsure, she reached for the nearest hand – and sometimes it had been Hackett’s.

Those little, warm fingers had felt so foreign when she’d first held his hand. Hannah had been gone for weeks and Shepard’s father was on a critical operation beyond the mass relay; she was scared , but as Shepard always did, she refused to show it. Instead she grew angry and disconsolate and often plagued the bridge of the space station; Hackett, back then, visited the station often. He’d seen reactions like Shepard’s in his own men and recognised it immediately.

“You have to be strong,” he told her firmly, taking Shepard’s little shoulders and looking her dead in the eye. “They’ll be proud of you.”

He’d taken Shepard back to Earth to meet her parents when they returned, and Shepard had crept up onto the bridge and taken his hand. He squeezed her hand, and ever since then, she’d always squeezed back.

But now her hand lay dead and unresponsive.

“Jane,” he mumbled. “Hold on.”

Christ – she was a mess. One arm missing and all broken up; he’d never seen her defeated to this extent. Whenever she’d gotten cut up or beat down, she’d always get to her feet again. She always sucked it up and got on with it. Now, though, the only giveaway that she wasn’t dead was her breathing.

An absolute, overwhelming sadness bloomed in his chest; it crushed the breath from his lungs, and he realised quite suddenly that he was a hair’s breadth away from losing one of the most important people in his life. Little Jane Shepard, the girl he’d watched grow and flourish and make the Alliance great, was fighting off death. And for once there was nothing he could do about it.

The sadness began to rise. It clawed its way up through his chest, choking him, stamping down on his ability to breathe and making his sinuses sting.

Just like that, Steven Hackett, Admiral of the Fifth Fleet of the Systems’ Alliance, began to cry.

When staring in the face of death, Hackett knew, one is faced with all kinds of regrets. He’d seen people die countless times, and yet nothing had hit him like this. Nothing had ever made him hurt so deeply or so completely as seeing Shepard fighting for her life in the hospital, wired up to machines and medicines like some sort of puppet, relying on the doctors to keep her alive. If she was conscious she’d be mad. If she was conscious she’d be afraid.

Hackett used his free hand to stroke the few stray hairs back from Shepard’s face. The skin was all cut up and bruised, her face littered with stitches like little bugs. The cartilage of her nose was bruised, a deep gash running from her cheekbone to her forehead, slicing through a dark eyebrow. And yet it was still her , still Shepard, still familiar. “Jane… I’m sorry. I should’ve been there. I should’ve done more.”

He could imagine her laughing and poking fun at him for baring his heart. It seemed natural; again, she only lay there without responding. The silence became unnerving, broken by the sound of the monitors and the life support system.

“Hold on.”

Hackett stayed by Shepard’s bedside until whatever crisis was in store for him next decided to unfold. It came a few hours after he got there, a distress call from the other side of London that sent a courier running and forced him away from the hospital.

“How long until she wakes up?” he asked one of the head surgeons in charge of Shepard’s care.

“Can’t say. Her vitals are stable, but her body needs to heal. She’ll wake up on her own, but I don’t think she will for at least a couple of months.”

With a heavy sigh, Hackett placed his hat back on his head and shook the surgeon’s hand. “Take care of her, son.” The surgeon nodded firmly in response.

The months that followed were unbearably slow. The galaxy was making preparations to rebuild and make repairs to the mass relays; there were aliens stranded in all different systems, which had the ability to prove dangerous due to their different survival needs, something that merely added more stress to the already enormous burden on survivors.

Everything was quiet and sad, and yet it was also so full of hope and determination; the world was destroyed and brought together all at the same time, all the crumbling foundations held together by the strength of survivors’ dreams. Families were reunited and homes were re-erected. People began to heal and the hollow hopelessness of a lost war began to fade. The hospital’s resources remained steady now that all the major trauma victims had been dealt with; the body count was high, but they’d saved many more than anybody had expected. The hospital was constantly full with a steady trickle of injured patients, each bed on rotation and makeshift cots being set up in nearby buildings. The doctors were training civilians in basic medical practices to help ease the burden.

Shepard remained in her coma for a long while after she was made stable. Her wounds, bright with fresh blood, began to heal over and scab, leaving deep purple scars in their wake. The nurses scanned her each week to track the progress, and they watched her bones slowly knit back together and her organs recover themselves almost completely.

“Sir,” one of the nurses called to Shepard’s head surgeon, approaching him at a sprint down one of the hospital corridors. “Dr Bell! Sir, we’ve gotten a message you might want to see.”

Irritated, Bell turned around, flicking his fingers over his datapad. “Can it wait? There was a structural collapse near Kensington last night and I’m neck-deep in internal organ damage right now.”

The nurse shook her head vigorously. “Dr Bell, you really will want to see it.”

“Why? What’s so important about it?” Bell snapped.

“It’s from Miranda Lawson, sir.”