Three weeks after the Battle of Earth.
Faint voices broke through the darkness.
"Liara, he is awake," said one. The last time I heard that voice I come back from the dead. Had she brought me back again?
Someone squeezed my hand. Warmth tingled through the fingertips.
"It's alright Shepard, I'm here, just go back sleep."
Moments later my eyes snapped open. It took a second for the world to come into focus. Liara hummed a song as she arranged a bouquet of flowers to my right.
"Good morning!" she said. She bent down and kissed my forehead. "You had us worried for a bit there. Miranda went to talk to the doctor on watch."
"Miranda? Why is she here?" an uncontrollable coughing fit wracked my chest. Liara pressed a cup of water to my lips. After a few gulps my throat cleared. "Where's she? And why are you calling her Miranda and not Ms. Lawson?"
Liara sat at the edge of the bed, "Well, when C-Sec found you they nearly gave up on you. It was touch and go in Huerta Memorial before they transferred you to Earth."
"Where on Earth are we?" I asked. Bright sunlight came through the large window, but I was no position to the see world beyond.
"They call this place Kent, I think. Kent, England. It's a prefab hospital, like most everything on Earth these days. When the evacuated the Citadel the transferred a lot people here, including the medical staff of Huerta Memorial," she said. Her hand now rested on my calf, her blue eyes locked on me.
"She knew more about what Cerberus did to you than anyone else. The doctors tell me that they had to replace most of the cybernetics. They kept you alive long enough but without the surgery they would fail and...." her voice trailed off. "I guess you're no longer a human super soldier, just an above average Marine," she said with a tiny freckled smile.
I pulled myself up on the bed, "Doesn't explain the change of name."
"We talked. A lot. She is a remarkable woman, Shepard. I owe her a lot," she said. She turned her head toward window.
"I owe her my life, twice over. Listen Liara, you have nothing about, okay?"
"Me? Worry? Of course not. I know you Shepard. I believed in you and you proved me right every single time. No woman can ask for anything more," she said, her eyes wet with tears. "I also had talk with dad; I mean Matriarch Aethyta, and your mother. It was a very long talk."
The moment she mentioned my mother, I knew something was up, "Let's here it."
The door open. Joker came in holding a styro foam box with EDI right behind him.
"Hey Captain, nice to see you're up. Here I brought you breakfast!" he shoved the box into my hands.
"I do not think that hamburgers are a proper breakfast menu item, Jeff," said EDI
"Come on, he saved the galaxy at least three times in the last three years. He deserves at least one burger. By the way, that's not vat grown. One hundred percent real cow!" he said with a wide smile. Liara made a face.
I bit into the burger and it burned my tongue in the process. But it was too good to pass up.
"What...this... about...Captain?" I asked him between mouthfuls. Liara rolled her eyes at my table manners.
"Oh, Liara didn't you tell you? You got promoted and you got your second Star of Terra. If it were up to me, they would give you at least two more but then they might go to your head or something, Captain. You probably will hang it along side your Nova Cluster, Palladium Star and Silver Dagger, you know for the kids," he said.
"Jeff!" said EDI.
"What? Wait you didn't," he said to Liara, then turned his head to me, "She didn't, oh...."
Liara shook her head.
"Tell me what?"
The doors opened again, Admiral Hackett came in. Joker and I snapped a salute.
"At ease gentlemen," he said. He pulled up a chair beside the bed, "How are you son?"
A memory flashed by my mind. I sat beside Anderson, watching the glittering arms of the Citadel as we waited for the Catalyst to activate. As we waited for death.
You did good son. You did good. I'm proud....
I felt hollow, empty. I should have died then and there. Miranda might have saved my life, but Anderson, well I owed him everything.
"Captain," said Hackett. His words snapped me back to the present. "I'm glad you're alright. Gave us quite a scare."
"I take it we won, right?" I asked.
"Here, yes. We turned the tide. The Catalyst stripped the Reapers of their kinetic barriers, which gave us a shot at them. And recapturing the Citadel means we have complete control of the relay network. For the time being, the rest of Reaper forces are stranded in whatever cluster they were in at the time of the shutdown. We evacuated the bulk of the people aboard the Citadel with the help of the Migrant fleet and set up shop in the Omega system. We figured that they might try to use the one relay not under Citadel control to escape, but so far they haven't managed to get through," he said. There was weight on each word he uttered. Each thought was a burden he carried with him. He shared the weight, but he could shed it. Something I knew too well.
"The fleet took heavy losses, even with the advantage of the Catalyst, each Reaper has the firepower of Dreadnought squadron. That and political ramifications of the Reaper attacks are making things difficult," he said.
"How so?" I asked.
"Most of the Asari military is still with us, with the revelation of what was in that temple, the Asari have fallen into low level civil war. Not much overt fighting, but considering what the Reapers did to Thessia, it certainly doesn't help. The STG launched a quite coup against the ruling Dalatrass. Mordin sacrifice on Tuchanka energized them," he said.
"What about the Reapers?"
"Most went to ground. They are using indoctrinated forces as meat shields. They even have former Cerberus operative built ships for them and then sent them on suicide runs against us. To tell you truth, even with the combine might of all the Citadel races this thing is going to take awhile. We are working hard to replicate the Crucible, using the Citadel as a weapons platform is too unwieldy and there always a risk that it might fall back into Reaper hands," he said.
"So we are doing to them what they have done to every species before us," I said. There was a satisfying irony to that, yet the fact that there were still billions under Reaper threat cut the satisfaction short.
"Indeed. My biggest problem is keeping the new coalition going. Almost every major race has had their home worlds decimated and each demands we liberate their first. Even with the Cerberus data on countering the husks, dealing with millions of indoctrinated units backed up by fleets of cruisers and the odd Reaper won't be easy," he said.
"I'll try to get back to my duties as soon possible, sir," I said.
"Glad to hear, but..." he glanced at Liara, "I'm afraid your duties have changed. You are symbol now, Shepard and we can't afford to lose you again," he said.
"Admiral, my place is on the front lines. I'm not about to let someone else take a bullet for me," I said.
Hackett put a hand on my shoulder, "You'll have to. You did the impossible, more than once. And it has cost us. Anderson is dead, and the Alliance leadership is in tatters. If we lose you, the coalition of Citadel races will fall apart and the Reapers might counter attack. We cornered them, and that makes them even more dangerous," he said. "Just take your time, Shepard. I'll have plenty for you do to do, soon enough."
Jeff snapped another salute as Hackett left. EDI pulled gently on Joker's elbow and they followed Hackett out.
"So the war is not over,"I said with a long sigh. I sank back into the bed.
All those lives lost and for what?
"You didn't think it was going to be that easy," she said. She took my hand and put it on her belly, "Besides, Hannah is going to need her father around for at least her first century or so."
"Now that is the silver lining I was hoping for," I said.
The silver lining that made it all worth it.