"ETA to the Perseus Veil, 30 minutes" Joker's voice announced through the ship, alerting all working stuff to prepare for the boarding of the Admirals.
Next to him on the co-pilot chair, the Commander hummed her acknowledgement to the announcement, unbothered by the deadline.
After the comm was closed and the ship was prepped to go, Joker threw a glance to his right where Shepard was comfortably reading a book. Like, a real paper one.
"Shouldn't you be getting ready to receive the Admirals?" He asked, eyes back to the layers of monitors in front of him.
"Shouldn't you be somewhere telling children that Santa Claus isn't real?" was her immediate rebuke.
"Har har har" the pilot replied, not amused. "Why are you even here? And what did you make of EDI?" He then questioned, side glaring at his commander.
"EDI's helping Traynor, and this is the quietest place on board when your mouth isn't moving" Shepard supplied, a finger slipping between the pages to mark her progress as she turned her head to face her pilot.
"Is there a rave party somewhere in the ship that I'm not aware of?" He offered sarcastically, provoking a grimace on Shepard's face.
"There is not. I just-" she sighed, leaving the sentence hanging in the air.
Looking at her face it was easy to see the stress etched in every line, and Joker felt a stab of guilt in the chest. He wasn't making things easy for her, was he? He owed Shepard a great deal, especially as of late, and there he was being an ungrateful ass to her.
"Hey, you know you can talk to me, right? I might be an asshole, but I know how to listen" Jeff pointed out, searching for her downcast eyes until hers met his under the SR-2 cap.
Green met green, and Val seemed to relax a bit; her muscles unclenching around her shoulders as she slumped on the leather chair.
"I know," she breathed "and thank you."
She paused for a second, most likely evaluating how to express what was swimming around in her mind.
"I don't want to be alone right now" she then said, startling him at the admission.
He knew Valery was more emotional than she let slip in front of other people, but to hear her say it that bluntly was something else.
"In that case, I'll let you bother me with your silent reading until we reach our destination" he stated, his chair turning back towards his command console.
He caught Shepard's little smile with the corner of his eye and satisfaction flooded him.
That was better.
"Let me get this straight: we are in the middle of a Reaper invasion, and you decide that is the perfect time to declare war to the Geth?" Shepard's words cut through the quiet humming of the War Room like a sword, making it pretty clear where she was standing on the subject.
She would have supported an attempt to retake Rannoch – possibly by mediating between the two races, now that she had a better understanding of what the Geth were and wanted – but they couldn't have chosen worse circumstances.
"We are attacking as a direct response to the Geth, who have shown signs of Reaper's improvements" Admiral Xen pointed out, her arms crossed behind her straight back. She was exuding an aura of satisfaction so strong, that Shepard felt herself almost choking on it.
"And now that dreadnought is tearing your Fleet apart, which leads us to the reason why you are on my ship" Val answered, her face blank and betraying nothing.
Raan nodded her helmeted head.
"We need your help Shepard; with that cannon still running, our Fleet won't stand a chance whether we decide to retreat, or go forward" the woman pleaded with her, her eyes shining with a sadness that the Commander knew damn well.
"Alright, I'll ready a team to hit the Dreadnought as soon as I can. You're free to use the Normandy as your operation center, in the mean time" Shepard finally conceded, her whole body steeling with a solid confidence and determination.
As long as the Geth possessed Reaper upgrades, they were part of her problem as well.
"Before you go Commander; our newest Admiral would like to join you" Shala'Raan intervened before she could rush out of the room, her three fingered hand typing away at her open omnitool. The door opened before Shepard could even speak, and in strolled Tali.
"Tali'Zorah vas Normandy reporting for duty, Commander" she said, stopping just short of the steps, at parade rest.
Shepard had to fight the grin that was threatening to spill on her lips, but she managed to keep her professional outlook intact.
"Good to have you back, Tali" she replied with a simple nod.
They'd have time to catch up and mellow down, but now they were on a pretty tight schedule.
"I'm ready to go when you need me, Shepard" Tali finally relaxed her stance, coming down the steps to grip her hand with Val's in a formal salute that held more that met the eye.
"Cargo bay in fifteen" Shepard simply said.
"I'll be there."
'There is only one docking tube available, Shepard. Please stand by' EDI announced through their helmets.
"It's too risky to go all at once, I'll go first and secure the port, then you can come too" Shepard said after acknowledging the message.
"Be careful Shepard, otherwise Doctor Michelle will steal Garrus away with chocolate, once you’re gone" Tali joked, and Val could swear she saw her wiggle her eyebrows at her behind her mask.
"Yeah well, lucky for me this turian's skull is thick, then" she replied, turning around to flash him a smirk he wouldn't be able to see so much as hear.
"I assure you there is nothing more than friendship between Dr. Michelle and I" Garrus explained, his sub-harmonics expressing his awkwardness for him.
"Not for lack of trying on the poor Doctor's part" Tali added in a half cough, making Shepard giggle.
"Maybe with should send her a lovely picture of us kissing, uh? Just to clear the air" Val suggested, and the sputtering sound that came from Garrus was all the reply she needed.
"How wicked" Tali laughed, but any further banter was interrupted by EDI announcing that the tube was ready to go.
"Okay then," Shepard said as the door slid open "I'll see you on the other side."
Walking on mag-boots wasn't exactly her favourite pastime, even less so when the surface you were supposed to walk on was falling to pieces.
As that particular thought crossed her mind, the tube broke exactly where she had been standing a moment before. In the second it took her to regain balance, horrible images of getting spaced flashed in front of her.
"Take a breath Shep, we got you. We are going to round you, EDI says there is a secondary port you can secure once inside" Joker's voice came through her comm, and her panic receded quickly, replaced with a sense of confidence and trust.
"Always here to humbly serve" the pilot replied smugly.
Her comms went silent once more, and Shepard focused on her task; more than once she had to go around fallen pieces, turning up side down in the tube.
She didn't know how many minutes had passed before Tali's voice echoed in her helmet.
"How's it going?" She asked.
"All good" she confirmed, taking a split second to admire the breathtaking silhouette of Rannoch. "Tali you should see this, it's beautiful" Shepard breathed, her eyes still drinking the beauty of the sight before her. It was weird how easily one could forget about the war, just standing there.
"Better than the vids?" The quarian asked eagerly.
"Better than the vids" she agreed with a smile.
'Not to rush you or anything Commander, but we are not exactly invisible out here, you know. They can just look out the windows and see us' Joker slightly unnerved voice cut in the conversation, and Shepard took it as her cue to get moving.
"Geth don't have windows. Structural weakness, remember?" Shepard chuckled as she quoted what Legion had said to her the last time.
"Oh yes, I bet their standing there saying: Those organics would never try the same thing twice" the pilot said in a mockingly grave voice, mimicking an hypothetical Geth.
Shepard chuckled and shook her head as she kept on walking.
The run on the dreadnought had turned from a quick hit and run to disable their cannons and shields, to a full scale battle to conquer every single position. Shepard was running low on patience and high on adrenaline by the time they found Legion mockingly tied on a cross made out of cables, and she wasted no time nor questions in freeing him. Everything seemed to be going in the right direction once the ship went totally offline, but then Admiral Garrel had decided that it was a good idea to fire on the dreadnought. With them still onboard.
That had warranted him a solid sucker punch, which made her feel only worse, really.
"I understand that this is a war and you need to protect your people, but the next time you put my team or I in danger, jeopardizing this alliance, I swear to god I'll throw you out the airlock" she deadpanned, channeling her best imitation of Javick's glare with the only two eyes out six that she had.
The Admiral seemed put off and on the verge of replying, but the unwavering force of her glare kept his mouth shut.
She went to leave the War Room, turning ever so slightly towards Admiral Xen when she saw her eyeing Legion with growing interest.
"Whatever you're thinking Admiral, it's no. Legion is part of my team, he's off limits." She commanded.
"Did I stutter, Admiral?" Shepard growled menacingly.
"You've made your point, Commander" Xen acquainted, her posture stiffening as she replied.
Shepard gave one last look at the people crowding the room, each of them with their eyes on her, waiting.
"Dismissed" she said curtly before she disappeared behind the door.
Shepard was only worse for wear when they finally landed on Rannoch for their final push. They had made a couple hit and runs the previous day, and both had left her with only a growing sense of emptiness. As she had already imagined, history had conveniently deleted relevant parts of the conflict between the Geth and the Quarians, mystifying a race that had only tried to defend itself against the unjustified slaughter that their creators had unleashed on them, fearing for their lives. That had only pushed further her need to broker peace between the two races. Screw what the council had to say about AIs. Next, they had dipped on the planet to rescue Admiral Koris and his ship, who had crashed planet side during their run of the dreadnought. The whole thing had been one bitter mess, the clear personification of what Garrus had once referred to as the ruthless calculus of war. His crew couldn't be rescued, but his survival meant the survival of the civilian's fleet.
All that was left now was shutting down the last Geth base that could broadcast the Reaper's codes, consequently cutting off the whole Geth fleet.
It was one hell of an infiltration, if it even could be called one, really.
The Geth noticed their arrival almost immediately, and the whole way inside was just one big slaughter, with Garrus and Shepard covering Tali with their snipers while she took care of the front line with Chatika.
But the seemingly infinite number of units in their path was ultimately irrelevant once it became clear what was the tech that was transmitting the signal.
It wasn't just some tech, it was a fucking Reaper.
"Go, go, go!" Shepard shouted at her team as Legion pulled over in a Geth transporter, urging them inside. Once they were quickly squished in, she jumped on the roof of the vehicle, grabbing a hold of the turret as they rushed away.
The chase was cut relatively short once an orbital shot caught the Reaper while it was priming, bringing the metallic beast on its knees. They had found the weak point they'd been looking for.
"Let's go, we can get back to the Normandy before it comes back on" Garrus voice pointed out in her ear, but Shepard had to disagree.
"No, pull over. This ends now" she announced, determination steeling her nerves. There was no place for doubts or anxiety, she had to act before it was too late.
"Shepard don't be crazy, you can’t face that thing on foot!" The turian yelled from the inside of the vehicle, and for a second she was concerned she'd be dragged inside.
"If we leave now, more forces will arrive here, the Geth remain under Reaper influence and the Quarians lose their fleet. We can't allow that" she said, and her word was finite.
A sigh told her she wouldn't hear further complaints.
"Just be careful, please" Garrus pleaded, his anxiety and fear obvious in his sub-harmonics.
"I will" she promised, and jumped off.
Legion stormed off with the them on board, leaving behind only dirt, Shepard, and a very pissed Reaper.
Valery took several deep breathes as she settled in front of the machine, targeting laser firmly clutched between her hands.
Now or never.
The Reaper got back up, its first shot aiming towards the sky, directed at the offenders that had dared hit it.
That time around had been easy to let the laser do its work, and the Reaper was hit a second time.
But then its attention switched to her.
The moment the priming chamber opened and started to charge, the world around Shepard seemed to slow, enabling her to aim, breath out, and shoot. The hit came seconds after from above, and the Reaper stumbled under its force.
The sequence repeated itself three times before the giant asshole was unable to stand and fight.
With a roll of her shoulders she jogged towards the edge of the dip, brining herself eyelevel with it.
S h e p a r d it drawled, the metallic voice echoing between the high cliffs.
Your fate has been signed. You will lose, the cycle will be completed-
"I just hear a load of bullshit. Go die" she cut it off, aiming the laser one more time.
She watched with a grim satisfaction as one last strike reduced the Reaper to nothing more than a fuming pile of junk.
“Shepard-Commander, we confirm that the Geth are no longer under the influence of the Old Machines. We are free” Legion’s voice almost startled her out of her reverie, and she turned to watch him approach with Tali on tow. A side glance revealed Garrus standing by himself by the vehicle, a deep scowl set on his mandibles.
‘You did it Shepard! The Geth stopped firing, they are completely vulnerable!’ came Admiral Garrel through the comms, his enthusiasm a little sickening, if understandable.
“Shepard-Commander, the Geth acted in defense only after the Creators attacked. Do we deserve death?” Legion intervened, catching her full attention.
“What are you suggesting?” she asked, more than ready to find a solution to the problem that was clearly coming to light.
“Our upgrades. With the Old Machine dead we could upload them to all Geth without sacrificing their independence” he said, and immediately Tali stepped forward.
“You want to upload the Reaper code? That would make the Geth as smart as when the Reaper was controlling them!” she argued.
“Yes, but with free will. Each geth unit would be a true intelligence; we would be alive and we could help you” Legion went on, urgency and awe overshadowing themselves in his metallic voice.
“Our Fleet is already attacking! Uploading the code would destroy us! Shepard, you can’t let that happen!” Tali countered, almost pleading her not to do such a thing.
Valery took a deep breath; she was at an impasse.
If she told Legion to upload the code, she would lose the Quarians – and Tali.
If she told the Quarians to attack and denied Legion to upload the code, than she’d lose the Geth – and Legion as well.
That was not going to happen.
She’d make it work.
She always did.
“Do you remember the question that caused the Creators to attack us, Tali’Zorah?” Legion’s question drew her out of her own head.
“Does this unit have a soul?” he asked.
The world stilled, and suddenly Shepard knew what she had to do.
“Legion, start uploading the code” she ordered, but immediately turned to Tali to stop her incoming pleading protests.
“EDI, patch me in to the whole Fleet”
‘You’re on, Shepard’ came the quick reply not even a second later.
Valery locked her eyes with Tali’s behind her helmet, pressed a finger to her ear, and started to talk.
“All ships, this is Commander Shepard. The Reaper is dead, stand down!” she spelled out, as loud and clear as she could.
In the mean time, in the background, Legion had started the upload.
“This is Tali’Zorah, Commander Shepard speaks with my authority” the young Admiral announced, joining in the conversation.
‘And mine as well’ Admiral Koris added in.
‘Negative! We can win this war now! Keep firing!’ Admiral Garrel disagreed.
If he didn’t listen it was going to be a problem.
“The Geth are about to come back at full strength, if you keep attacking they’ll wipe you out. This is ancient history, but I’m done saving your sorry asses. You can either stand down, or I’ll just seat here and watch them annihilate your fleet. The decision is yours. Keelah Se’Lai.”
The statement was met with a heavy silence, and Shepard held her breath for the longest of times before her comms chimed again.
‘All units – hold fire’ Garrel commanded, finally.
The smirk that pulled at her lips died soon enough, though.
“Error, copying code is insufficient. Direct personality dissemination required. Shepard-Commander, I must go to them. I- I’m sorry, it’s the only way” Legion said, a sadness unheard before tingeing his every word.
“Legion, the answer to your question was yes” Tali hurried to say, her voice breaking as well as realization quietly sank in.
“I know Tali, but thank you” he replied, seemingly totally at peace to what he was about to do.
Shepard watched in awe as yet another friend gave his life willingly for the greater good. This was different than sacrificing for the consensus, this was one completely sentient being, freely giving his life to grant that same freedom to every single one of the members of his race.
This was what an honorable death should have looked like.
But, alas, it was always more death.
When Legion’s lifeless body touched the ground, a whisper left Valery’s lips.