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IIML: Beyond - Chapter 6: As You Were

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If It Meant Living: Beyond - Chapter 6
“As You Were”



Title: If It Meant Living: Beyond – Chapter 6: "As You Were"
Author: Graceyn
Game: Mass Effect Trilogy
Characters/pairing: femShep/Kaidan
Disclaimer: Bioware owns all rights to Mass Effect and its characters
Content Warning: Language, Sexual Themes



                                                                            “Life is for the living. Death is for the dead. Let life be like music. And death a note unsaid.”  – Langston Hughes




Normandy SR-3 CIC

“Shepard!”

She blinked, hard – and the familiar contours of the CIC were in front of her.

Kaidan stood on the perch; he spun around at the sound of her name, eyes shining in desperate relief at the sight of her. She started to smile –

– then the room spun wildly and her legs collapsed beneath her.

voices faded in and out

ceyn

akwas is on the w

blackness became dim, hazy shapes

ome oncan you hear me?”

She opened her eyes, blinking rapidly until his face came into focus. He smiled tenderly, but she could see the concern flashing in his eyes; his palm gently cupped her cheek while the other hand brushed strands of hair away from her face. “Hi.”

She grinned at him, albeit weakly. “Hi.”

EDI appeared in her field of vision, a bright smile on her face. “I have informed the crew of your return; they are quite pleased.”

She chuckled haltingly then planted her palms on the floor and pushed up to a sitting position, ignoring Kaidan’s protestations. “I’m okay, I just – ” her eyes suddenly flew to his “ – what day is it?”

“Thursday” He looked at her strangely as he settled for getting her to lean against the wall.

Her head shook roughly and there was an almost panicked insistence to her voice. “No, the date – the year!”

“July 24, 2194are you okay?”

She sagged against the wall in relief. “Goodjust checking.” She breathed in deeply then nodded. “Alright. I’m good. Getting up now.”

He eyed her suspiciously but offered his arm for support. She wobbled against him unsteadily for the briefest second before regaining her balance just as the stairwell door opened and Dr. Chakwas hurried out, followed by Liara.

“I’m fine.”

The assurance did absolutely nothing to stop Chakwas from hurrying over and beginning to run her Omni-tool slowly over Shepard’s body, beginning with her head.

“I’m fine, Karin – really. I was just dizzy for a minute.”

Chakwas clucked disapprovingly as her arm ran across Shepard’s midsection. “Dizziness could be caused by any number of – ”

Shepard huffed a weary laugh. “Oh, I know precisely whatallcaused it." Two mental invasions by very stubborn and not at all polite aliens, four wormhole traversals, a little time travel, some combat for good measure, and memories of the last eleven years taking a wicked kick to the head –  

Chakwas’ Omni-tool froze over her upper arm. “Shepard, have you been shot?”

“What?” She turned to look; the dark sleeve of her shirt was in fact soaked in bloodand now that she thought about it, it actually hurt like a bitch, too. Also, blood loss…

Kaidan frowned deeply. “These aliens tried to hurt you – ”

“No. It wasn’t like that.”

“Then how – ”

She touched his arm with her good hand. “Please. I’ll explain, I promise.”

Karin frowned just as deeply. “Shepard, we need to get you to the Med Lab.”

“I know; just one thing first.” Kasumi came bolting out of the stairwell, followed by a considerably more composed Litha. Shepard smiled briefly at the growing audience then took a deep breath and opened the general comm.

“This is Admiral Shepard. I apologize for my rather abrupt departure; it was acultural misunderstanding. However, I am happy to report that the resident aliens did not ask us here in order to kill us. I’ll have more to say in a bit, but for now, everyone take a deep breath and relax. Legion, bring us back down to Yellow Alert.”

“Acknowledged, Shepard-Admiral.”

She cut the comm and turned around just as the elevator door opened. James and Garrus stepped outfollowed by Ashley Williams.

Her eyes widened; what color she had regained drained from her face. Memories were one thing, but to see her standing there, flesh and blood and breathing and alive…

Ash…

Ashley rolled her eyes dramatically. “That was a nice trick you pulled there, Shepard; way to send the crew into hysteric fits” Her voice trailed off as her brow furrowed slightly. Shepard was staring at her in utter wonder and disbelief, like she’d just seen a…ghost.

Ashley’s voice was suddenly very soft, barely a whisper. “This is when it happened, isn’t it?”

Shepard nodded wordlessly.

A breath escaped Ashley’s lips; a slight, uncertain smile pulled at her lips. She had begun to think this day would never actually come. “WowI” Her eyes rose back up to meet Shepard’s. “Thank you…

Shepard closed the gap between them and grabbed her in a suffocating embrace, ignoring the sharp jab of pain in her arm. “It’s damn good to see you, Ash.”

She could hear Chakwas’ tongue clicking tersely behind her. “Shepard – Med Lab. I really must insist.”

She nodded. “I know, I know. Ash, Kaidan, come with us.” She looked around at the crowd that had gathered. “Everyone else, go, do things; chill out, have a drink.”

“But what happ– ”

She cut Liara, Garrus and Kasumi off. “Let’s meet in the Conference Room in an hour; I’ll share all the gory details then.”

***

Med Lab

Dr. Chakwas skillfully cut the sleeve of her already-ruined shirt off at the shoulder and slowly, gently peeled it away from the bloodied skin, then tossed it into the waste chute. She quickly cleaned the wound then studied it carefully. “It looks like the bullet went clean through the tissue and muscle; there should be no major damage.”

“Good.” Chakwas went over to the cabinet to prep the specialized Medi-gel compound; Shepard smiled at Ashley while Kaidan frowned at Shepard.

“Shepard, how did you get shot? You told everyone the aliens weren’t out to kill us, but

She kept gazing at Ashley, not even trying to wipe the huge smile off her face. “The aliens didn’t shoot me. Geth did.”

“Geth? Who, Legion?” He sounded exasperated; the last hour had not been fun and if he weren’t so damn happy to see her, he would have been.

Ashley’s lips pursed together as she made a vague effort to suppress a chuckle; her eyes sparkled.

Shepard’s voice was soft, both to ensure that Chakwas couldn’t hear her and because she was still a little afraid that this was a dream and if she spoke too loudly she would wake up. “I got shot on Virmire.”

Virm– ” Kaidan’s voice rose “ – Dr. Chakwas, you need to check Shepard’s head again; I think she might have a concussion.”

She raised her voice to match his. “I’m fine, Karin.”  

Ashley kept her voice low, but it was tinged with wonder. “Kai, I believe Shepard went back in time and saved my life today.”

Kaidan stared at the two of them with a look of such incredulity that they might as well have said the sky over Earth was green and they were all eggplants acting in a play for the entertainment of the Hanar. Finally he just whispered, “What?”

Shepard finally tore her gaze away from Ashley and looked over at him. “You know wormholes can be used for time travel.”

Theoretically, maybe, but – ”

Her eyebrows raised gamely. “Well, I can now experientially confirm it.”

His face scrunched up as he tried to figure out where to even start; his eyes narrowed at Ashley. “But you got back to the bomb site by yourself that day; you – ”

Ashley’s head shook slowly. “No. I didn’t.”

At that, coupled with the quiet, unequivocal confidence in both their voices, his eyes filled with amazement as he realized they were apparently telling the truth. His voice remained soft. “Why didn’t you say anything?”

Ashley rolled her eyes and smirked at him. “And end up in a padded room? I don’t think so.”

They were interrupted then by Chakwas’ return. She carefully ran a device over the entry and exit wounds that sealed the blood vessels within. Then she expertly applied multiple layers of Medi-gel – first to repair the muscles and connective tissue, then to seal the wound. “Come back in the morning and I’ll apply the skin grafts. You won’t even have a scar.”

Shepard smiled in appreciation. “Thank you, as always.”

Chakwas nodded perfunctorily. “It’s what I do.” Then she retreated to her desk to update the records, leaving them again with some measure of privacy.

Ashley looked back at Shepard; unabashed affection had been replaced by a slightly troubled expression. “So in your mind have I been…dead…for you the last eleven years? Because – ”

“Noyes.” Shepard ran a hand through her hair in slight frustration. “It’s likeI remember both versions of the past; but the memories are all jumbled up together. I assume – I hope – they will clear up in time.” She huffed a laugh. “I didn’t exactly have the chance to ask them a lot of questions about how this whole thing works.”

Ashley’s nose wrinkled. “That is so weird.”

Shepard impulsively reached over and grasped Ashley’s hands in hers. “The memories may be a chaotic mess right now, but I know one thing for certain: the world is a better place with you in it. Many people who otherwise would have died lived because of you. Thane lived, Mordin liv– ” her eyes widened suddenly “ – Thane’s on the ship, isn’t he?”

“Of course he is, he” A frown tugged at Ashley’s lips. “He wasdead for you before?”

She nodded. “He died during The War, to Kai Lengbecause you weren’t

At the sight of Ashley’s deeply furrowing brow, she squeezed her eyes shut briefly then grasped Kaidan’s hand as well and pulled them both close to her. “It doesn’t matter. The important thing is, you never should have died on Virmire. It wasn’t fair and it wasn’t right, and I am so very glad I was able to change it. You’ve made the world better, but you’ve also made my life – ” she glanced at Kaidan lovingly “ – our lives better, in a hundred small and at least a dozen really big ways.”

Ashley rolled her eyes as a slight blush rose in her cheeks. “Well, as long as I did that…” Then her eyes twinkled deviously. “Actually Shepard, I think I’m going to need a list of all the people who are alive when they otherwise would be dead; I play this right and my billet’s going to be sparkling clean for months…

Kaidan huffed a breath and shook his head in a measure of acceptance; his gaze focused on Shepard. She could practically see the wheels in his brain spinning around as he absorbed the concept, analyzed the science, considered the implications, and prepared a list of questions.

“Okay…okay. I can’t believe it, but I believe you.”

She grinned indulgently. Here it comes…

“But how were you able to do it? How did it work? What happened?”

***

Conference Room

Shepard walked through the open entryway of the conference room, her wound discretely bandaged and hidden under a fresh shirt. Ashley and Kaidan casually followed behind her; then Ashley continued on to plop down in a chair beside Andrew, while Kaidan went over to forage for snacks from one of the large bowls in the center of the table.

Almost no one was actually sitting at the conference table, and those that were weren’t sitting properly. Someone had brought beer and chips and the dextro- equivalents; Garrus, Kasumi, Andrew, Litha and James’ bottles were already nearly empty. It had apparently been decided that this was a party rather than a military briefing. The questions began immediately.

“Shepard, what were the aliens like? You got to meet them, right? Were they – ”

Liara was interrupted by Keenon; she frowned in surprise at him. “Admiral, did you really travel through a wormhole? On your own, without a ship? Was it – ”

Kasumi leaned forward over the table. “Did I hear you got shot? Cause that’s got to be a good story – ”

Miranda cleared her throat. “Shepard, we really should discuss implementing some longer-range locator protocols; much of the panic could have been avoided if we had been able to determine you were…where were you, exactly?”

Shepard leaned back against the glass at the end of the room, crossed her arms over her chest and one ankle over the other, and waited patiently for everyone to stop interrupting one another.

Her eyes traveled idly across the roomand stopped two-thirds of the way down the left side. Thane sat with his hands clasped lightly atop the tableas always? An affectionate grin pulled at her lips…I’ll be damned. He noticed her watching him and tilted his head questioningly. She just nodded almost imperceptibly and moved on. Later.

The din slowly died down as one-by-one they realized that she was just gazing out at the table, a bemused smile on her face.

“Alright. Yes, I traveled through a wormhole, just me and my skin. Can’t really recommend the experience, but it seems it won’t actually kill you. Yes, I met the aliens, a few of them anyway. No, I didn’t get shot – it turns out I cut myself in a rather rough tumble out of the wormhole.” She managed not to glance over at Karin, who had only agreed to keep quiet about the nature of her injury after repeated and emphatic assurances that it would not result in any future danger to the crew.

“There’s a lot to cover, so let’s get started – after someone tosses me a beer; because if anyone here needs one, god knows it’s me.” Timah reached deep into the bucket of ice and pulled the coldest one out, then tossed it to her in a perfect spiral above the table. She made a show of catching it like a wide receiver; though Mindoir had never heard of football, Kaidan had somewhat educated her on the sport over the years.

She popped the cap and made just as dramatic a show of guzzling down a third of it before wiping her mouth with the back of her hand and nodding. “The aliens call themselves ‘Escena.’ They – ”

EDI looked up. “That is a derivation of a Human ancient Latin word meaning, roughly, ‘ascended.’”

She smirked in amusement. “Then they probably dug up that word just for the occasion.”

Miranda frowned slightly. “How could they know Latin?”

She huffed a jaded laugh at that. “Turns out they know a lot of things about us. In any event, I’m not overly surprised they chose that term; that might even be what they actually call themselves. They areprofoundly arrogant, in a way that only a highly-developed, homogenous culture can be. That’s not to say that they’re rude or obnoxious, at least not intentionally; they are simply utterly certain of the rightness, of the absoluteness, of their way of doing things.”

She raised an eyebrow somewhat ruefully. “For instance, it didn’t occur to them that it might be impolite to open a wormhole on the CIC and pull me through it without asking first. To their way of thinking, they had sent us a message and we had come, so of course the person in charge would want to meet with them – simple as that.”

She chuckled to herself then stepped up and placed her palms on the table and leaned forward, ignoring the twinge in her arm. “Which makes it all the more interesting that they desperately need help, and seem to think we can give it to them.”

Miranda rolled her eyes and sighed. “Okay, Shepard – as if we weren’t interested enough already, we are now positively dying to know. Share. Please.

She grinned briefly at Miranda then pushed back off the table and began pacing slowly along the end of the room.

“The Escena are under attack. They have lost millions; maybe more. But the attacker is not a conventional enemy; it may not actually be malevolent, or even sentient for that matter. It – they – appear to not be biologic, organic or synthetic, but rather energy of some form. The Escena call them ‘Aduri’ – as EDI was about to point out, that roughly translates to ‘devour’ or ‘consume’ in ancient Latin, and from what I’ve been shown it’s an accurate name.”

The room grew noisy as everyone again started talking at once; this time she loudly cleared her throat to cut them off. “Guys, I’d love to answer your questions, but the simple fact is, I don’t know anything else. Given the nature of my departure from the Normandy, I was anxious to get back as quickly as possible; as such, our meeting was limited to establishing basic communicationand some rules of etiquette. In a couple of days a few of us are going to meet with them – with what appears to be their ruling Council – and hopefully find out a lot more about what’s going on.”

She ignored the disappointed looks and fallen faces as she finished off her beer and promptly caught another one from Timah. “But first, everyone on this ship is in desperate need of a change of scenery. The Escena have extended an invitation for us to visit any of their space stations and cities – and I think that tomorrow we will take them up on that.” She laughed lightly at the murmurs of approval and excitement that rippled around the table as the mood of the room immediately reversed course.

“Seriously, we’re going to get to visit their – ”

“But how will we talk to them – ”

“They’re not going to shoot at us, are they? Cause – ”

She raised a hand, imploring for silence. “To that end, there are a few things you all need to know about the Escena. They do ‘look’ more or less like us, at least with respect to the important body parts. But make no mistake, you will find themodd; and I say that fully cognizant that this ship has no less than eight different species serving on it. All eight will find them odd.”

She took a sip of her beer. “They appear to be extremely technologically advanced, and at least partially bio-synthetic. As we suspected, they communicate via a diffuse telepathicawareness. While they are distinct individuals, they are highly collective in nature and seem to be constantly aware of the thoughts of those around them.”

She paused, grimacing slightly. She had ignored the headache in all the excitement, but it was increasingly making itself known. “This is important for many reasons, but practically speaking, three reasons in particular – first, they are silent. They have mouths, I assume for eating, but they do not speak.”

James’ brow furrowed in confusion. “Then how the hell did you talk to them?”

“They are somehow able to interface with our tele-comm implants, effectively ‘inserting’ their words into our heads. I don’t know if it works the other way; it frankly didn’t occur to me to try. I spoke, they understood. EDI, Legion, Keiji, I can’t say if it’ll work for you, but everyone else should at least theoretically be able to communicate with them.”

“The second reason their method of communication matters is this – they have zero concept of privacy. Take my word for it, if there’s any information you don’t want them to know about you, take it off your Omni-tool before you visit.”

“The final reason it matters is this – they all already know we’re coming.”

***

Deck 3

Ashley grabbed four beers from the bar in the Starboard Lounge, cracking a joke with Steve and James before she left, then headed for their quarters. When she got there she tossed one to Andrew, who was relaxed on the couch reviewing a data file, set two on the small desk, then carried one with her and collapsed into his lap.

He grinned, shutting down the file and kissing her ear. “So that was quite a bit of excitement we had todayis it always like that on military ships? Five months of boredom, followed by a sudden, dramatic hour of nail-biting tension?”

She rolled her eyes as she opened her beer and took a sip. “Well, it's usually a few weeks of boredom punctuated by several well-predicted hours of moderate tensionunless you’re on Shepard’s ship, in which case all bets are off.”

He laughed casually and scooted her over to a more comfortable position against his shoulder. “I have to say, until this trip I’ve only known her socially, in very informal environments; but she really has quite thepresence, leadership-wise. I’ve never seen a group of eighty or so people go into such abject panic over the possibility of the loss of a single person.”

Ashley smiled somewhat strangely. “Yeah, she inspires devotion, no doubt about that” She twisted around slightly and cupped his cheek with her free hand, brushing his perpetually unruly dark blond hair out of his eyes then kissing him softly. “Listenthere’s something I want to tell you. I never mentioned it before because, well, it didn’t really matter.” She paused. “That’s not right; it mattered a lot, but it wasn’trelevant.”

His nose scrunched up to meet his brow as he gazed at her quizzically. “Madie, you aren’t usually at a loss for words when there’s something you want to say – what is it?”

She scowled at him and pushed his hand holding the beer away from him. “For the 4,756th time, don’t call me that.”

He grinned and pulled her closer. “You know you love it. It’s from your middle name, how could you not

“I don’t. It was imposed upon me by my parents and I still hold it against them. Only Sarah’s middle name is worse.”

A staring contest ensued, which she won when he finally sighed in exasperation, mostly so he could have his beer back. She relented, took a sip of hers, then scowled again in warning.

As I was saying…there’s something I want to tell you; but it’s just between usand Shepardand KaidanI think that’s all, for now anyway.”

He smiled indulgently and ran a hand through her thick, luxurious hair. “Okay.”

She bit her lower lip and looked away. “You remember how I had to confess to you that I almost died on Virmire and make you understand the reality of what that meant, before I would agree to marry you?”

His expression grew more serious. “Of course I doand if I hadn’t truly understood it then, you made me understand it at least half a dozen times during The War.”

She nodded in agreement and took a long, long swig of her beer, gathering up her courage. “The thing is, Virmire was actually a bit more complicated than that

***

Captain’s Quarters

Shepard moaned in visceral pleasure as the steaming-hot water washed away the grime of a pristine alien world and a wet, bloody past.

She turned her face up into the water, savoring the scalding heatand remembered a shower after Virmire, when her lavatory hadn’t been nearly so nice and the day had been much, much worse, when the pain of a singular loss that had happened because though she was supposed to be the best she hadn’t been good enough

– then suddenly the memory was mixing with that of a shower after Virmire, when her lavatory still hadn’t been this nice but she hadn’t cared because she was so fucking relieved that it had somehow worked out and though she hadn’t gotten Saren she was hot on his trail and her entire crew had miraculously come through with only somewhat-major injuries

She groaned and rubbed her temples wearily. Karin’s meds had taken the edge off her headache, but they could do nothing for the tangled mess that was currently her brain. She ran her fingers through her hair a final time then shut off the water and grabbed a towel, wincing too late as she had grabbed it with her injured arm.

She lightly toweled off then stepped out of the shower. Kaidan was immediately there; she smiled gratefully as he dabbed her wound dry then carefully, expertly re-bandaged it.

She couldn’t help but grin wickedly at him. “Are you bored with me already? I’m standing here, stark naked before you, and you’re fussing over my arm…

He bit his lower lip and swallowed a chuckle. “I amquite well awarethat you are standing stark naked before me. But you’ve had one helluva tough day” his hand that wasn’t tending to her arm rose to gently stroke her jawline “and any chance I get to actually take care of you, I’m going to jump at.” His eyes flickered briefly then returned to her arm.

“What was that?”

“What was what?” he murmured.

“That look.”

He smiled. “Unbridled love.”

“No, after that look. The flicker.”

He glanced up at her, an eyebrow raised. “The flicker?”

Her eyes widened in challenge. “Yes, the flicker. You have something on your mind, only you don’t want to bother me with it because you think I’ve endured enough today already, and that it’s fine because you’ll work through it.”

His hands paused on her arm as his chin dropped. Finally he huffed a laugh. “Is this what married life is like?”

“Probably.” She reached over with her good hand and grasped his chin, turning it toward her. “Tell me; I can handle it.”

He chuckled softly, but his expression was serious. He made sure her bandage was secure, then his eyes rose to meet hers. “So you remember a different reality than the one we have

She nodded slowly.

“But we were still together, right?”

She smiled then, understanding. Her hand drifted up, fingers running along his temple then into his hair. “Yes.”

She paused and glanced down at the floor. “The year or so after Cerberus brought me back washarder. We almost didn’t make it, more than once. Turns out Ash’s annoying meddling was pretty good for us” her eyes rose back up to meet his “but we found a way.”

He huffed a breath and pulled her close. “I can’t imagine

She kissed him softly then pulled back a little. “And know this – I never once, not for a single second, regretted saving you. I – ”

His head shook fervently. “I would never – ”

“I know you wouldn’t; but today has dug up a lot of old memories and emotions, and I wanted to say it. I wished I could have been fast enough, good enough, to save her too, and I’m damn happy I was able to go back and rectify that failing. I really, really am. But given the choice – and make no mistake, I did have to choose – I chose you, and I never, ever, would have chosen differently. Ever. There is no timeline where we won’t find each other; there can’t be.”

He smiled tenderly as he wiped away the tears she hadn’t even realized were trickling down her cheeks. “I know; I’m sorry I doubted, even for a minute. I would chase you across universes if I had to

She smirked teasingly. “You’re right, you shouldn’t have doubted. But I’ll forgive you, seeing as, contrary to appearances, you are only human.”

He nodded ruefully. “I am, I really, really amfor instance, I’m, um, beginning to notice that you’re stark naked save for a tiny bandage on your arm, and only the worst sort of human would ever be so selfish as to notice that after the day you’ve had

She grinned devilishly as she draped both arms over his shoulders. “Yes, I am…and I’m beginning to think that someone should really remind me why I – ” the rest of whatever she was going to say was lost in the soft press of his lips against hers.

***

Shepard bolted upright in the bed, eyes wide in terror. She was panting, short of breath as her head spun wildly around the room. “Kaidan! Ash…no…

At the sound of her voice Kaidan stirred from sleep; after a few seconds he propped up on an elbow. His voice was slurred with drowsiness. “What’s wrong?”

Her head swung over to him; her eyes widened even more when she saw him. “You’re alive” She collapsed into his arms, gasping for breath.

“Hey, heyit’s okayeverything’s okay” Her skin was damp and clammy; she had been sweating. He massaged her back soothingly, his voice calm and reassuring, while he tried to figure out what was going on.

After a few seconds she pulled back slightly and looked at him; this time her eyes were more clear and focused. “I’m sorry, II must have been dreaming

She made to pull away fully, but he didn’t let her. “Baby, that looked more like a nightmare; come here.” He settled back against the pillows and coaxed her down with him. She didn’t resist, snuggling against him and resting her head on his chest.

His hand ran slowly along the curves of her side as he felt the tension slowly leave her body. “What happened?” he asked gently.

He could feel her mouth work against his skin; finally she found the words. “I wasI was on Virmire. I had tried to rescue Ash too, and I ran back into the bomb site, and you wereyou were lying facedown in the water, and it was red, overrun with your blood, andand I turned around and Ash was standing there staring at me, only she was a corpse, and her flesh was hanging off her skull, and – ”

He squeezed her tight against him. “It’s alright. I’m alive, Ash is alive, you’re alive. We’re all okay.”

She nodded against his chest and brought a hand up to wipe tears away. “I know; II know. It’s just” She looked up at him; her eyes were so painfully sorrowful it broke his heart. “You’re alive in every past I remember; why would you be dead in my dreams?”

He smiled tenderly and pulled her even closer. “Maybe because you had to make a really difficult choice that day; and today you had to come face to face with that choice yet again. So it’s on your mind, that’s all. Nightmares are evil, demented creatures; they take our worst fears and twist them into something even scarier. But they’re just nightmares; they’re not real.”

She smiled against his lips. “You’re right; thank you.” Then she nestled into the crook of his shoulder, a leg and arm thrown over him. She murmured drowsily, “I love you” then fell asleep against him.

He ran a hand softly over her hair. “I love you more than you will ever know” He closed his eyes and, after a time, drifted off to sleep beneath her warmth.




July 25, 2194: Starboard Observation Lounge

They stood lined up in a row, noses pressed up close against the glass, as the Normandy slowed on approach to the station.

Before them as far as the eye could see stretched the heart of a space-faring civilization.

Directly in front of them was the central space station. It consisted of four rings; three rings interlocked with the fourth, which sat at the center.  Thicker and more substantial, it connected to a solid core within. Beneath the core thousands of brilliant clear crystals hung like icicles from an eave; they shone as bright as stars. Five concentric circles of the same crystal material wound symmetrically around the solid core.

The three outer rings were identical to one another. Thinner and wider, they each had a single band of crystals running along their rim; miniature versions of the central core hung in their interiors. The entire station was made of a dark, smooth, reflective metal. On the whole, it was a stunningly beautiful structure.

Above them in the distance were two moons of the planet below. Each of them was encircled entirely by an orbital ring. Slight more utilitarian in construction, modules were broken up periodically by cells of crystals.

To their far left was what could only be a wormhole transport station. Eight enormous rings hung suspended in an octagonal shape. Filling each ring was a rippling, translucent blue energy; it bore a striking resemblance to the entry points of the wormholes the Normandy created, though much larger in scope. The material and design of the rings themselves couldn’t be determined from this distance, but they were holding the wormholes open and, likely, powering them. Dozens of ships flew into them, disappearing with a flash; at the same time ships emerged, blinking into existence from nowhere.

Below the Normandy was the most populous planet in the Alpha System. Shepard knew instantly from the golden-blue hue of the atmosphere that she had been there the day before. It would be called a “garden world” back home; a mix of colorful continents and rich oceans coupled with swirling but non-threatening cloud patterns marked it as ideal for organic life.

Lights covered virtually the entire surface, but a hub-and-spoke pattern could be discerned; metropolitan centers spread out in ripples and linked with one another. Streaks of lights traversed the oceans, indicating some level of habitation there as well. In the center of each of the hubs, multiple spires jutted up through the clouds and into the atmosphere.

By far the largest, densest concentration of light was directly below them; at the center of it a circular latticework of the same dark metal rose through the atmosphere and into space until it connected with the bottom of the solid core of the station. A space elevator? It seemed likely.

James sighed as his head tilted a bit. “So, do you think we’ll be able to find a pizza joint for lunch?”

Shepard’s voice was soft and filled with awe, though the corner of her mouth did quirk up a bit. “We’ll ask around when we get there

Joker came over her comm. “Uh, Shepardany idea where I’m supposed to park?”

She rolled her eyes. “Not really, no. Just go slow, and maybe someone will tell us.”

“Alright; I’ll justease on in here

Proceed to the docking bay circle above the mid power ring; there are empty bays at 34 to 37 degrees.

“Um” Shepard frowned at the sudden, unfamiliar voice in her head. Well, she supposed she was the only one they knew. Can I send you to my pilot?

Of course.

Right. She “thought” of Joker’s tele-comm connection. A second later he squealed over her comm. “What the! Shepard, there’s some dude in my headokay, okay, never mind, I’m good. I’m good.”

She shook her head and laughed. “This is going to be one weird daycome on guys, let’s go watch the docking from the cockpit.”

***

Cockpit

Only as they drew close to the station did it become apparent just how massive in size it truly was. It quickly became the only object in the viewports. The Normandy was a mere speck as it entered an empty docking bay; if the docks extended around the entirety of the station, there would be thousands of them.

As they entered the bay, they passed through an almost imperceptible force-field. The bay was a large open hangar; there were no obvious docking clamps or other equipment to hold the ship. Joker looked over his shoulder, his eyes questioning. “Okay. How do I park?”

At that moment the Normandy was jostled just slightly – then was perfectly still. Joker leaned over and peeked down at the ground through the viewport. They weren’t on it. “Legion? Any chance you know what just happened?”

“We are being held in place by a magnetic field. I believe we are docked.”

Joker nodded sagely. “Alright. How do we get down? The Normandy didn’t come with stairs

As if on cue, a walkway began extending upward and out from the floor. A faint ‘clang’ could be heard as it settled against the airlock.

Joker’s lips smacked. “And I want a pony, and a beach vacation home, and a million creditsno? Damn. Last question – can we breathe here?”

Shepard shrugged. “I didn’t have any difficulty breathing down on the planetLegion?”

“The air composition is within breathable parameters.”

“Excellent.” Shepard could see a person approaching from the corner of the docking bay. “I’m guessing this is our welcoming party. Miranda, come with me; everybody else, hang here for a minute.”

The airlock opened a moment later, and she and Miranda walked carefully down the ramp to the waiting greeter. He – she? Shepard hadn’t yet determined if they were mono-gendered or not, and if not, how to tell the genders apart – wore a rich green one-piece outfit made of a subtle shimmering material. The Escena’s facial markings and head ornamentation, like the clothing, were more subtle than those she had met the day before. She had had the sense that they were tall, and that was certainly the case; this Escena stood some two and a half meters.

As soon as they reached the floor, the Escena’s chin dipped in greeting. You are The Shepard.

She frowned slightly. “Not ‘the’ Shepard; just Shepard.”

The Escena’s head tilted slightly. Very well. Welcome.

“Thank you. Is there anything we need to do? Forms to fill out?”

You are guests here; We know of your arrival. Come, enjoy Our offerings. The Hub of the Center is yours to experience.

“Okaysome of us are going to take a shuttle down to the planet. Can you tell me where the spaceport is located?”

A set of coordinates appeared in her mind. “Got it.” She motioned beside her. “This is Miranda. She’s going to be in charge of those visiting the station while I’m planetside. If there are any problems, you can contact her, yes?”

There was a pause, and Miranda smiled formally. “I understand. And if I need assistance, how can I reach you?”

It was in both their minds. I am Alnara-de~Bna-Managli. Call and I will answer.

Miranda frowned slightly. “How do Icall?”

Alnara blinked. A moment. Then she – ‘Alnara’ sounded like a woman’s name, and there was something indefinably feminine about her – extended her open palm; a small, discrete square metal object rested on it. Almost immediately a three-dimensional grid materialized above it; before their eyes a new object was constructed in the air above her palm. It was circular and smooth, with a slight depression in the center.

She handed the new object to Miranda. Activate this by pressing the center, then think my name. I will answer. She quickly manufactured a second one and handed it to Shepard.

“What is this, exactly?”

It is a gateway to Our Whole; you will not hear Us, but We will hear you.

Liara was going to have a field day with one of these Shepard smiled politely. “Could I have one more of those, by chance?” Alnara again extended her palm and a third object was constructed.

“Thank you, again. We’re going to return to our ship now and make preparations for our visit.”

Alnara merely dipped her chin, turned, and left.

Shepard raised an eyebrow at Miranda. “This is going to be one weird day.”

Miranda nodded slowly in agreement. “That it is.”
REVISED Ship Manifest: [link] (there have been a few changes ;) )
Dossiers: [link]
SR-3 Layout: [link]
Cover Art: [link]

Companion art pieces, of a sort - "Galactic Heroes: ANN Special Report" - Page 1: [link] / Page 2: [link] / Page 3: [link]
Also, "Vulnerability": [link]

***

Inspiration for the central space station: "Pinnacle Station" by GlennClovis: ([link]) and "T'Mara Endevous", also by GlennClovis: ([link]).

Inspiration for the lunar orbital rings: "Rings" by Elreviae: ([link]).

Inspiration for the wormhole transport station (x8): "Concept - Through The Gate" by Andr-Sar: ([link]).

Inspiration for the material composing the space station: "Halo" by JEHUTY-V2: ([link]).

Inspiration for the view of the planet from above: "Orbit - Redux" by ANTIFAN-REAL: ([link]), "Speed Painting - Above the Clouds", also by ANTIFAN-REAL: ([link]), "No Limits" by AlexGrayeser: ([link]), and "The Last Glow" by LordDoomhammer: ([link]).

***

First - Ch. 1 "Quantum Signals, Old Mysteries, and New Stars" -> [link]
Previous - Ch. 5 "Down the Rabbit Hole" -> [link]
Ch. 6 "As You Were" -> Viewing
Next - Ch. 7 "All That Glitters" -> [link]
***

"If It Meant Living" starts here, with "Chapter 1: Beginnings" -> [link]
And ends here, with "Chapter 72: The Cycle Ends" -> [link]

"Tales" starts here -> [link]
Comments9
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Rama-Kay's avatar
:iconifaintplz: Just... AWESOME!!!
GSJennsen's avatar
Thank ya :). Lots of personal character interaction here, cause a lot to take in! Ashley's unexpected return will continue to be explored, but...Go Team Milky Way!!
elreviae's avatar
Thanks a lot for credit and link !! :thanks: ;)
GSJennsen's avatar
Most welcome :) Thank you for making inspiring art!
Lakdav's avatar
This episode was mostly explanation and filler for the next one, but necessary. Such a change brought upon by the history manipulation should not be passed over hastily.

By the way, do you have an inspiration for the aliens as well? The...(checking name) ...escena? For appearance i mean. If not, i would love to make a full concept of them based on your ideas. But i will need the fullest explanation you can give. If you'd like, that is.
GSJennsen's avatar
I sent you a Note re this idea.
GSJennsen's avatar
You got it :). You don't just put everything in the last chapter out there then pretend like nothing happened. Hopefully enjoyable anyway!

I do not have a visual reference inspiration for the aliens, as a matter of fact (which is kind of funny, since I do for everything else). You're a very talented artist (sorry I never noticed before!); this is an awesome offer.

While I have an image in my head, beyond what I have written (and there are more descriptions in the next chapter) I don't have a detailed written reference - but I will work on one, something I should do in any event. Theoretically, I'll get it to you later next week? Anything you'd like to create would be appreciated :)
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