23 December 2580, Usarri/Rannoch
The Third Battle of Rannoch took place a few days later. It began with an assault by the valdarii forces that remained in the Tikkun system, heavily reinforced through a wormhole. Behind the first wave of the attack came a world-killer planetoid, aimed directly at Rannoch, the first time we had seen that tactic since the Battle of Earth. The Old Ones seemed desperate to smash the Synarchy once and for all, before the geth could apply their new hacking techniques on a grand scale.
They were too late.
The allied fleets flew out to engage the valdarii as far from Rannoch as possible. Those detachments which were manned by organic crews ran interference for the geth, who zoomed in to point-blank range at very high acceleration. This strategy proved very costly for the geth. They lost almost a hundred ships and many thousands of platforms, although most of the affected runtimes managed to upload back to the Consensus without serious harm.
Those geth who reached their targets found themselves able to break into Old One networks with almost contemptuous ease. The result was a complete rout of the enemy. Hundreds of ships, tens of thousands of valdarii crew, were liberated from Old One control. The fleet intercepted the planet-killer at a safe distance, took over control of its drives, and bent its trajectory well away from Rannoch.
The geth and quarians sent a simple message to the last of the Old Ones, as they fled pell-mell back through their wormhole: Do not return to space claimed by the Synarchy of Rannoch. You will be defeated.
To which Shepard made an addendum of his own: You had better consider making peace with the rest of the galaxy now. Otherwise we’re coming for you, and there’s no place in the universe you’ll be able to hide.
The Old Ones gave us no response.
With the immediate threat to Rannoch over, both Conclave and Consensus volunteered to send a substantial portion of the Synarchy’s armed forces back to Citadel Space. A large contingent of liberated valdarii, working with their new geth partners, also volunteered to join the cause. Already, the weirdly varied aliens got along very well with both quarians and geth. There was talk of them entering into some form of permanent alliance with the Synarchy, assuming the main body of their civilization could be freed from Old One control.
In both size and sheer diversity, our coalition began to resemble the one at the end of the Reaper War. It certainly required a similar degree of coordination.
Shepard rose to the challenge, acting as a go-between to help all parties cooperate effectively. He remained only a Rear Admiral in the Confederation Navy, and even that rank was only temporary in nature, but he possessed more than enough personal influence to make him the leader of our growing alliance.
Watching him, I was reminded more than ever of Steven Hackett. I remembered noticing the resemblance as far back as the war against Saren; not a physical likeness, more a matter of mind and personality. Shepard demonstrated the same pragmatic approach to very-high-level leadership.
Refuse to panic. Roll up your sleeves and get to work. Calmly solve the first problem, then the next, and then the next. Continue until finished, and then stand back to watch history while it changes.
It was a form of greatness not unique to humans, of course. I could think of any number of turians I had known, starting with Garrus Vakarian, who had taken a similar approach. Vara had her share of it as well, probably an inheritance from the turians in her own ancestry. I entertained a hope that my daughter would display the same larger-than-life quality.
Of course, the day after the Third Battle of Rannoch was significant for another reason. Back in Citadel Space, it was Election Day. On all the worlds of the Confederation, hundreds of billions of citizens were making their choices for the new Parliament. Which legislators they chose would have a powerful effect on the conduct of the war.
Early that day, I called the Citadel and spoke briefly to young Nerylla. She was frantically busy, of course, overseeing a last-minute series of campaign appearances for Matriarch Thekla. She seemed tired but cautiously confident. Polling data suggested that Thekla had enough votes to win. The question was whether she had enough to win decisively.
At the time, the Confederation Parliament was composed of nine hundred and sixty-five members. Matriarch Thekla needed to win at least four hundred and eighty-eight seats for her allies, if she was to form a government without having to assemble a coalition. Our assessment was that we didn’t have the time to indulge in prolonged negotiations, nor could we afford a government that might fall apart at any moment under stress.
There was a great deal of tension on Rannoch that day, as we received the election returns in bits and pieces over many hours. My own political instincts told me that we needed some constructive way to deal with that tension. Therefore, I did the obvious thing.
I threw a party.
Tekanta helped me rent a private hall in one of Usarri’s finest social establishments. I arranged for plenty of food and drink, the best live music that quarian culture could provide, and big displays with newsfeeds from Citadel Space for those who wanted to follow developments. As the evening wore on, and more of the allied force’s leaders found their way to us, the celebration grow almost riotous.
Young Aspasia was properly sober – she was in uniform, after all – but rather celebrity-struck.
“What was it like, working for Aria all those years?” she asked.
Ajavi Jarral, that cheerfully ruthless pirate admiral, gave her a sharp-edged smile. “Profitable.”
“Was that all? Surely there had to be more to it than that!”
“Young one, no matter what else you decide to do with your life, you have to make a profit somehow. At a minimum, you need a constant supply of air, water, and food. You must maintain the shelter you keep against a hostile universe. You must maintain a reserve, so that a bad day doesn’t kill you. You must have the means to defend yourself against others who would rob you. You must gather energy and resources for the benefit of your offspring. Profit.”
Jarral cocked her head and watched my daughter, with an expression I recognized immediately. I had to suppress the impulse to charge in and fend off the predator. I reminded myself that Aspasia was over two hundred years old, had plenty of sexual experience, and could make up her own mind about such things.
“Think about it, Aspasia,” the pirate continued. “Your own parents have certainly not been shy about making a profit. That’s how it is that you were raised, properly cared for, given the very best education, given a chance to succeed in the profession you chose. There’s nothing wrong with seeking profit. It’s the very essence of life.”
“There’s also serving others,” Aspasia said quietly. “I serve the Citadel Confederation. You served Aria.”
“Which still means that we have to have a surplus that can be devoted to such service.” Jarral eased a little closer to Aspasia, giving her voice a huskier tone, an intimate purr. “Aria was smart, strong, and ruthless . . . but she saw to it that the people in her pay, the people under her protection, had plenty of opportunity to make a profit of their own. She got better at that as the centuries passed, too. I have no regrets.”
Aspasia smiled, but it was a cool smile, and she eased ever so slightly away from Jarral. “Now you serve Talia.”
“I do. She’s some weird kind of cousin of yours, I suppose. The daughter of the construct-clone of your parents’ lover-and-soon-to-be-bondmate.”
“I like her.”
“Even though she abducted your mother?”
“No harm done in the long run, and I doubt she will make a habit of it. She seems to have all of Aria’s flair, and at least some of Shepard’s morals. Which is strange, since by all accounts the version of Shepard who was her father wasn’t very much like the one we all know.”
“True, he was always a selfish nothos, and far too easy to lead around by his genitalia. Still, he had plenty of courage and determination. He resembled the original model that far, at least.” Jarral became sober, visibly giving up the attempt to seduce my daughter. “Things will be different in Omega space now. I’m not sure what we’ll do, now that Omega itself is gone.”
“You’ll manage. Omega’s people are the most important thing. As long as they survive, you’ll be able to recover from anything.”
“Well.” The pirate brightened. “That’s what we asari do, isn’t it? We dance through life, tasting what we want, knowing that no matter how dark and long the night, it’s always followed by the light of morning.”
Asari: sixty-five percent in favor of Matriarch Thekla’s party. One hundred and thirteen seats.
I was conversing with several of the officers from Chandragupta when my daimon informed me of an incoming message. I excused myself and took the call in a quiet corner. To my surprise, a female salarian face took shape in the holographic image, huge black eyes peering at me from inside an embroidered hood.
“Dalatrass Valern. I’m pleased to see you.”
“You may not be, Dr. T’Soni, once I have told you what I must.” Valern leaned forward. “The election returns from Sur’Kesh do not appear favorable to your cause.”
I gave her a tight smile. “This isn’t a surprise, dalatrass. I know that you have been working behind the scenes to try to persuade your people to support the war against the valdarii. I also know that there is still a great deal of unease about Admiral Shepard and his Reaper technology. Especially as it continues to spread widely through the other Citadel species.”
“Yes. Most of my colleagues among the dalatrass have imposed bans on this technology in their territories. Most salarians are willing to support the defense of the Confederation against these Old Ones, but they are concerned that your alliance is opening the door to something far worse.”
“Are you being honest with me again, dalatrass?”
“Perhaps. I wish to forestall any misunderstandings once the election results are in. I have little doubt that Matriarch Thekla will be our next President. Valern will support her. If she needs to form a coalition to govern, we will assist, given only minor concessions.”
“What kind of concessions?” I inquired.
“Coordinated but separate military command,” said the dalatrass, “and an understanding that no salarians will be obligated to accept Admiral Shepard’s nanotechnology.”
I kept my diplomat’s face in place, giving nothing away. “I will certainly pass that along to the Matriarch.”
“Thank you, Doctor.” She smiled slightly. “Good fortune go with you.”
Salarians: thirty percent in favor of Matriarch Thekla’s party. Sixty-one seats.
I was on my way to find another glass of wine when I passed General Kyeriali. The turian officer from Illium stood with a rather striking quarian female on his arm, sipping Rannoch brandy and exchanging war stories with Shepard.
“Oh, this body hasn’t taken nearly the beating of my last two,” said Shepard. “Shot, burned, electrocuted, sliced open, sprains, torn muscles, and broken bones. Not to mention I got spaced the first time I died, and vaporized the second time. Compared to all that, having a krogan bite my hand off is a walk in the park.”
Kyeriali was an older turian of average height and build, rather weather-beaten and scarred, with bright blue face paint that matched his predator’s eyes. He wore an IDF uniform, neat and tidy, with general’s stripes on his sleeves and a remarkable array of medal ribbons on his breast. His mandibles went wide in a turian grin. “Shepard, any other man in the galaxy tried to tell a story like that, I’d laugh him to scorn. How is the arm doing, anyway?”
Shepard held the injured limb out for inspection. “It itches. I think my internal technology is getting ready to start forming a new hand on the stump.”
“Well, at least that’s not something I have to envy you for. I’ve lost a few bits and pieces over the years, but nothing I couldn’t live without, and turian medicine has gotten pretty good at cloned transplants.”
Kyeriali cocked his head at Shepard. “That’s right, Garrus Vakarian took quite a hit once while you and he were working together. Didn’t he start with a bunch of human prosthetics?”
“Actually, they were Cerberus prosthetics. Which did not please him in the slightest. Later, when he got back to Palaven, he took some turian reconstructive work. Kept the scars, though.”
“Well, we turians like scars. If everything still functions, it doesn’t matter if we look pretty.” Kyeriali glanced down at his companion, who turned her pearlescent eyes upon him and smiled back. “Besides, scars give you character. People take you more seriously with a few scars to show.”
“Must be a turian thing,” said Shepard. “Most humans wouldn’t agree.”
“I don’t know. Wasn’t there a human philosopher who said something like: Whatever doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger?”
“Sounds like respiratory distress, not a name. Anyway. Scars say, Here are a few things that didn’t kill me, so you had better not get in my way either.”
Shepard chuckled. “Now, that sounds like something a krogan would say.”
“Well, we turians and the krogan get along a lot better than we did when you were around the first time. A certain amount of mutual respect, after centuries of kicking each other’s asses. Not to mention both of us get along well with you humans. You may look soft and squishy, but you usually turn out to be damn tough when things get difficult. As you have personally demonstrated.” Kyeriali raised his glass of brandy. “Somehow, Shepard, I don’t think you’ll have to worry about whether the turians will come when President Valaridé calls.”
Turians: sixty-eight percent in favor of Matriarch Thekla’s party. One hundred and five seats.
When the music paused, Kamala caressed Keana’s face, gave Timo a brief but passionate kiss, and stepped away from the dance floor. I met her by the refreshments, where she gulped down half a mug of beer without taking a breath. Her hair was disheveled, a faint sheen of sweat was on her skin, and she appeared to be having a wonderful time.
“Dr. T’Soni!” She wiped foam off her upper lip and gave me a brilliant smile. “I’ve been meaning to thank you. This was a fantastic idea. We all needed a chance to blow off some steam.”
“You certainly seem to be doing that,” I observed. “Are things going well with you and my acolytes?”
She blinked in surprise, and then nodded enthusiastically. “You asari are always so direct about such things. Yes, we’re fine. I don’t think they’re planning to make a long-term thing of it, but that’s okay. I get it, they’re maidens.”
“Well. Some asari maidens do think in the long term when it comes to their love-relationships.” I chuckled. “In this case, though, I suspect you’re right. Keana and Timo are so passionate about one another that anyone else will have difficulty making a lasting impression. Although I would say that a Spectre of your accomplishments has a very good chance.”
“It’s odd. I’ve always known that I was bisexual, of course, but I never felt attracted to anyone who wasn’t human before. I suppose asari are a special case, you resemble us so closely in some ways.”
I chuckled, remembering Miranda Lawson. “Kamala, we seem to have that effect on many humans. Including women who could have sworn they were exclusively fixated on men.”
“The triad thing is a little more of a challenge.” She gave me a searching look. “If I may borrow some of that asari directness, how is it with you and Shepard?”
“Hmm. Shepard, Vara, and I are well-matched, and we love each other a great deal. The relationship isn’t always easy, of course.” I shrugged. “Nothing worth having ever is.”
“I envy you. Many humans – not just those of us who follow the Way – think of Shepard as one of the best of us. I can’t count the number of women I knew who were terribly infatuated with him, back on Mindoir.” She grinned, only a little embarrassed. “Including at least one teenaged desi girl, who was absolutely determined to become a Spectre just like him when she grew up.”
A sudden thought struck me. “Kamala, I know what makes a man like Shepard attractive to asari. What is it that humans find so admirable about him? His strength? His courage?”
“I suppose.” She became thoughtful, brushing some stray hair back from her face. “Courage is important. We humans can do terrible things when we’re afraid. We admire people who can be brave and stick to their principles, no matter how dreadful things become. Shepard has certainly done that, more than once. But I don’t think that’s the best thing about him.”
“What is it, then?”
“His compassion. For everyone. Even people he doesn’t like personally. Even his enemies.”
I nodded slowly. “Yes. We asari see that too.”
“It’s not something we humans are very good at.” Kamala laughed ruefully. “Which may be one reason why so many of our religious traditions make a big deal of it. It’s a lesson we keep having to re-learn, over and over for thousands of years.”
I reached out and gave her a quick embrace. “Well. I’d say there’s plenty of hope for humanity. Especially with men like Shepard to teach that lesson . . . and women like you.”
Humans: thirty-six percent in favor of Matriarch Thekla’s party. Forty-five seats.
I found Grunt standing with a half-dozen other krogan, swapping tall tales and swilling ryncol.
“You should have seen Shepard’s face,” he told his admirers. “Humans! They look so sad and guilty when they think one of their krantt is about to get killed. I played it up for him, gave him a good show of being all brave, but come on. A chance to smash a few dozen more rachni? How could I not?”
“So how did it go?” demanded one of the other krogan.
“Hah! It was fun. One of the few times in my life I’ve ever just cut loose. I blasted away until I was out of ammo, and then I picked up a piece of metal and started bashing them with that. Crushed a bunch of ‘em under my boots, picked at least one off my shoulders and took a bite out of it. Yech. Tasted terrible.” Grunt chuckled, like thunder in a barrel. “Okay, there was the one I tackled a little too close to the edge of a drop. Turned out to be at least twenty meters down. Good thing I landed on the rachni. Broke my fall. Broke the rachni, too.”
Deep, booming laughter.
“I managed to get away and climb back up to the Normandy shuttle. Just in time. The Battlemaster was about to get on board and leave. The moment he saw me, he came running. Then you should have seen his face again.”
“What was the matter this time?”
“Well, I was just covered in rachni blood, guts, puke, and other stuff I couldn’t even identify . . .”
“What the Warmaster isn’t mentioning is that he was also barely able to walk,” said Shepard, from behind me. “It must have been a ferocious battle. Although it couldn’t have taken too much out of him. You know the first thing he said to me?”
All the krogan peered at him expectantly.
Shepard pitched his voice husky and low, giving an uncannily accurate imitation of a bone-weary krogan. “Anybody got something to eat?”
After Grunt slapped Shepard on the back (not quite knocking him off his feet) and the laughter died down, the Warmaster raised his mug of ryncol high. “To the Battlemaster! Every krogan knows that Shepard will always lead us to the battles that are worth fighting!”
Krogan: ninety-six percent in favor of Matriarch Thekla’s party. Eighty-four seats.
By the time the polls closed on all the worlds of the major powers, our alliance still didn’t have quite enough votes to win a clear victory. Only the minor powers remained: the volus, the hanar, the elcor, the raloi, a few scattered colony worlds that had to use pre-modern methods for counting the vote.
The wait for the last few results seemed interminable. Vara and Shepard exchanged a series of grim jokes about obsolete balloting techniques, and all the ways those could go wrong. From Vara we heard about the horror of illegible scrawls on potsherds. Shepard tried to explain about some weirdly human thing called “hanging chads.”
Ironically, it was the last world any of us expected that put Matriarch Thekla over the top. Ravna, the single batarian world in the Citadel Confederation, elected four delegates to Parliament. Two of those seats went to members of the Matriarch’s party, giving her an absolute majority. In the end, she got five hundred and thirty-four delegates to work with, not a landslide victory, but enough to give her the support she needed to finish the war.
Shepard was the first to get the news, via flash traffic through Confederation flag-rank military channels. One moment, he was talking with Vara and General Kyeriali. The next, his expression suddenly became distant, and then he rose to his feet. He jumped up onto the nearest table, raising his hands to attract everyone’s attention and ask for silence. It didn’t take long for him to get it.
“I just got confirmation,” he said, his voice even and sober. “Enough of the vote has been tallied that the outcome is now ninety-nine point nine-five percent certain. Our alliance has won an absolute majority in the parliamentary elections. Matriarch Thekla will be sworn in as the fifty-fourth President of the Citadel Confederation within the next few hours.”
Throughout the hall, I could hear breath released in relief.
“Friends,” Shepard continued, “with our victory at this end of the galaxy, and the Confederation ready to go onto a full war footing at the other end, I believe we have entered this war’s final phase. I hope we will all be ready to depart for the Citadel tomorrow.”
Then the tension that had been building throughout the night finally released, in a storm of glad cheers. Shepard jumped down to accept embraces from me and Vara, and the congratulations of a hundred others from every species in the civilized galaxy.
Vara and I could tell that the party wouldn’t break up for hours. We exchanged a look and a flicker of thought, and decided to celebrate more privately and in our own way. After all, once the combined fleet set out for the Citadel, we might not have much leisure time until the war was over. Shepard would have even less.
We took him back to our private chambers, this human who had somehow become the center of our lives, and we made love to him with prolonged care and tenderness. By the time we were ready for the end, Vara and I were already thoroughly superimposed, one mind in two asari forms. We used words, and touch, and the familiar flex and pressure of our bodies, to bring him and ourselves to a pinnacle of delight.
In the end, I’m not even sure which of us took him into her body. It didn’t really matter. We both wallowed in the intimacy, we both soared high and fast on his passionate drive. We both shared the awe and terror and enchantment that was his mind.
Vara surprised me, she was so caught up in a storm of desire. I half expected her to attempt an imprint from him, or from both of us, but at the last moment she managed to remain pragmatic and responsible.
Time enough for that once this war is over, came a flicker of thought from her share of our conjoined mind. Although once we are at peace, Shepard, I want a daughter of yours too.
He projected pleased agreement, wordless since his attention was quite thoroughly taken up in other things.
Afterward Vara slept wrapped in his arms, drooling slightly on his chest, while I cradled his head against my breasts and idly ran my fingertips through his hair. My mind drifted in euphoria, considering the tiny life nestled inside me, wondering what kind of person she would be.
I’m guessing intense, determined, and fierce, Shepard said, surprising me.
I’m sorry, love, I didn’t realize I was projecting.
It’s okay. I wasn’t quite asleep anyway.
I examined his mind, and realized there was something different about it. Some tone or flavor I had almost never seen from him before.
Shepard. You’re happy.
I suppose I am. He chuckled slightly, careful not to wake Vara. Is it that strange?
I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen you simply relaxed and happy. Maybe for a few days after we defeated Saren, but never before or since. Not that I’m complaining.
Well. Not to sound overly dramatic, but I’ve had a deeply weird life, and it’s involved a lot of sacrifices. I’m looking forward to beating the Old Ones, handing my commission back to President Valaridé, retiring to Thessia with the women I love, and raising a pack of scary-brilliant asari kids. See what normality looks like for a change.
I caressed him once more, leaned down slightly to kiss his forehead. That plan certainly has my vote.
We settled down to sleep for the night. Neither of us dwelt on the unspoken caveats in Shepard’s wish. Winning was something we could be confident of, given our history. Surviving the victory? For that, we had less precedent.