The Siege of Shanxi
Epilogue: Goodnight, and Joy be with you All.
"The saddest part of any meaningful tale is not the ending. An ending is never really an end at all, but a new beginning for the hero and their friends in the light of a rising morning with a future of peace and happiness ahead of them. No, the truly sad part in my view is when the hero buries his old master. It is not sad because of the death itself, or for our hero's tragic loss. It is sad because that old master was once the hero of his own story, a legend of another time when he too was young and strong. But his place of primacy had fallen to one with a stronger arm and straighter back, and his last duty is simply to be a bit-character before his end. Worst still, when the next story comes he might be lucky to be mentioned at all. Just a piece of history in an idle line of an idle paragraph. A new story must come, of course. But there will always be a little bit of sadness in the passing of the mantle."-Sablet Jhirx. 'Diary in Isolation' (published posthumously).
"There is no shame in the tears that fall when we reach the crossroads and must say farewell to the companions who go forward on a different path. In every tear there is memory, in every sob there is love. Yet take the new path you must, for rare are those who can live in the same state from cradle to the crypt. And though your grief may blind you at first, the new adventures on your path shall surely gain you new companions. And perhaps, one day, you shall see your friends again."-Councilor Indro Vorenus, 'Retirement speech in 2160'.
THE HALL OF JUSTICE
THE FIRST CITY OF PALAVEN
PRISONER DETENTION CENTRE
6TH MARCH 2160
The cell was a barren one. Then again, there was not much use in providing a few luxuries for those about to die.
A turian in a grey jumpsuit sat quietly in the cell, his head bowed contemplatively as he scanned a leather bound volume in his hands. The pages were well worn, torn and marked in several places. The turian had not shifted the page in well over an hour.
The cell barrier pulsed and faded as two guards escorted a figure in a well pressed blue uniform into the cell. The turian glanced upwards, pleased surprise creasing his features.
"Admiral Drescher, it is a pleasure to see you again."
Kastanie removed her peaked cap, tucking it under her left arm as she shook the turian's offered hand. "Admiral Xiliatus, the feeling is mutual."
"It's just Captain Xiliatus now. Fautan, to you." Fautan sat back on his bunk. "It's really little more than a courtesy. To be a captain, one must have a ship. And you know what happened to that particular item."
Kastanie tried to smile at the joke, but it was little more than an extended grimace. "I trust you know that my government lobbied furiously for your sentence to be commuted."
"So Deputy-Ambassador Sparatus told me. The sentiment is well appreciated. It is ironic that the wronged party in this affair is the one advocating most strenuously for lenience. On the opposite side of that argument are the asari, batarians, the salarians, the volus. Even the hanar think that my execution is not going far enough." Fautan actually laughed at the last one.
Kastanie sat down opposite him, her hands folded in her lap. "Why do they want you dead so badly?"
The turian gave an approximation of a shrug. "There are inescapable truths in this universe. Water is wet, you can't breathe in vacuum and every species lives in fear of what the Hierarchy could do if it slips the leash of civility the Council currently has around its neck. Jhirx was not some extremist, she was a highly respected member of the galactic community. Desolas Arterius was a hero to millions for his anti-slavery and anti-piracy campaigns. And I am a living, breathing symbol to the lower class of my species of how high one can rise by commitment and skill. Now Jhirx is exposed as a warmonger, Arterius as a madman, and I as a liar. I am the last of the conspirators to face justice. It has taken long enough."
There was an inexplicable ache in Kastanie's chest as she looked at him. When the SAR birds had pulled him out of the wreckage of his ship three years ago he had been clad in a scorched Hierarchy Navy uniform, a flame singed scarlet and silver jacket with a torn honour sash. Now, clad in a plain grey prison jumpsuit, there was a peace in his eyes that she had never seen in any of their sessions.
"You're about to die, Fautan." She whispered. "How can you be so calm?"
Fautan looked thoughtful for a moment, as if considering the question. Then he handed over the book in his hands. "Read the marked line at the bottom of the second page."
"The turian life is well spent if lived with honour." Drescher read. "Even if that honour is only embraced in the moment of death."
"That philosophy is what elevated our species from a bloodthirsty culture at each other's throats during the Unification Wars. We climbed up, always up, from the chaos and insanity that defined our race. Sometimes it was bloody, sometimes brutal, sometimes it seemed like the price we were paying for the unity of our species was worse than the costs if we simply let events play themselves out. But it would not have been honourable."
Kastanie stood, her eyes flashing. "There are times when you turians are simply incomprehensible. Always insisting on sacrificing what is reasonable so that honour may be preserved."
"And you humans are not the same?" Fautan's eyes gleamed with sudden reproachment. "I have studied your species well, I would like to think. Often have you given up on what is sane or logical for some cause or another. At times you have embraced honour like the strictest turian, at times you have tossed every ideal you held dear onto a fire in the name of progress. You either chain yourselves or shatter the bedrock of your own society based on a single charismatic leader and a few whispers in the wind."
Kastanie felt a smile rise to her lips. "Ever ready with anwer? Even now?"
"If I have my wits about me then I have not lost everything yet."
"Could you not leave? Go into exile? I am sure that something could be worked out."
"Admiral." Fautan held up his wrists. "Do you notice something?"
Drescher looked at him, half-puzzled. "You're not restrained?"
Fautan nodded. "Even my guards are merely escorts. I will walk to my place of execution under my own power and of my own volition. I have made no excuses for my crimes and failures. I go to offer my apologies to the spirits of my ancestors in person and make my amends to the spirits of those I have failed."
Kastanie bowed her head. "If that's the way it has to be."
"It does." He offered her his book. "You will have to learn our language, but I have always found much wisdom in these pages. I would be honoured if you would accept it. You may find it useful in understanding the turian mind."
She took the book in her hands. "I'm not sure if I will ever understand the turian mind. But I think I understand you."
Fautan offered her a smile. "Then that's enough for me."
The guards appeared at the entrance to the cell. The commander of the hastatim squad bowed his head. "Captain Xiliatus. It is time."
Kastanie and Fautan stood. She looked him the eyes one last time. "Are you ready?"
He looked at the hastatim then back to her. "I am content."
The view, as it turned out, was even better than he had hoped.
The food he was still waiting on, but the wine was beyond perfect. It still was nothing compared to the vista before him. Five arms, each one a capital city in its own right, stretching out into the purple clouds of the nebula like a mountain might reach into the clouds.
Jack Harper made a mental note to take a few snaps from the lookout position after he'd finished his meal. He'd have them done up as holoframes so that they'd be the first thing Eva would see if she ever…when she woke up from her coma.
He periodically checked his watch, a platinum Rolex rather than his practically indestructible X-Shock that had adorned his wrist since the early days of his military career. A ridiculous ostentation, but a quite necessary accompaniment to his thirty thousand dollar Brioni suit that had taken the place of his comfortable leather jacket. Testoni patent leathers fit snugly and comfortably around his feet, whilst Chopani sunglasses rested on the table. The part that had genuinely hurt was cutting his hair back. He had been working toward a top knot, or perhaps a wolftail, much to Eva and Mack's derision. His stylist had been very critical of anything other than a neatly combed ensemble with close shaved sides.
The figure that sat down in the second chair at the table had been expected, but Jack still looked at him with surprise. "Lieutenant Arterius? What a fortunate coincidence. You eat here often?"
The grim faced turian looked back at him with a little less than raging contempt. "To eat at Matriarch Hamilla's restaurant requires a little more than my salary as a Spectre."
"The saving of the galaxy doesn't pay much?"
"Not until I've built up a support network, which you already know and know well I'm sure."
Jack allowed a slight smile to grace his lips even as the asari waitress set down a plate of unidentified seafood along with another glass of wine in front of him. He flashed her a smile, one that deepened as she returned it with a sly flick of her eyes. Three years after first contact and humanity was still a hot ticket item for the asari. A boom which he'd been riding ever since he arrived on the Citadel.
Once she'd departed, with his room-number tucked under her arm next to her tip-reader, he turned his attention back to the turian. "I was a little surprised when the whispers in the wind said that you'd been made a Spectre. As I understand it you were on something of a blacklist with your own people."
"If you mean I danced around threats of execution and exile for a year until they decided to strip me of my commission, you are correct." Saren scowled. "Somewhat ironic, as that made me a far more attractive recruitment option for the Spectres than I was before."
"To your good fortune, then." Jack toasted him pleasantly. He wondered what the young turian's induction had been like. He seemed angrier than before, taller and far more muscular, but now with a rage burning beneath his previously icy exterior. "Though I must confess I'm at a loss for why you're choosing to interrupt my dinner."
"You seem to think you were subtle about extending your invitation." Saren replied coolly. "When the men watching my apartment walk straight to this restaurant and you're sitting inside enjoying a two hundred year old glass of wine? Well, I can take a hint as well as the next turian. I've been watching you as keenly as you've been watching me."
Saren leaned back in his chair. "You took an interesting path for a money-grubbing mercenary. As I understand it you've spent quite a bit of your wealth on a hostile takeover of your father's investment group. Repurposed its holdings into engine research and ship building and biotic tech research."
Jack smirked. "I'm surprised that's all you found out about. Cord-Hislop Aerospace and Binary Helix Ventures are just two of my new enterprises. I've also put a great deal of money into Hahne-Kedar and other new weapons tech companies."
Saren gave him a gesture of acknowledgement. "Diversification of one's holdings is an intelligent financial decision. It could also provide a generous investor with access to all the weapons, ships and biotic implants that he might need."
"If you're referring to my little security force, you needn't be worried. I'm not interested in raising an army just yet." Jack retrieved his knife and fork and hungrily tucked into the squid-like tendrils in front of him. "Armies and fleets are so loud and obvious."
Saren actually laughed. He gestured to Jack's entire ensemble, every ostentatious cuff-link and overpriced thread. "And you are the pinnacle of discretion, I'm sure."
"C-Sec isn't watching me. Nor is the STG." Jack didn't know for a definite fact that the Shadow Broker wasn't watching, so he refrained from mentioning him. "The only Spectre within the immediate vicinity is the Spectre that I wanted here in the first place."
"Wanted me for what?" Saren challenged. "The war is over. My brother is dead and my family's name is disgraced for all time. Even now they call me 'Spectre Saren' rather than 'Spectre Arterius'. Aren't you satisfied? You won."
"Humanity has won nothing." Jack's voice suddenly lost its light-hearted edge. "A few reparations for some property damage, a minor blood-price for our dead, a spectator seat in the game of galactic politics. My species seems to have deluded itself that we are suddenly a major power just because we won what, at the end of the day, was little more than a skirmish."
Saren seemed taken aback by his directness. "You're the first human to think so. Most of your species won't stop crowing about it."
"Fools believing every word of propaganda that Madalena Williams and Jon Grissom thought up over brandy and cigars. Those two know how narrowly we missed spiralling into an all out war with your species. A war which only the most pathetic human supremacist would believe we could have won. I am here on more important business than to have a measuring contest with you." Jack could see Saren's interest deepen with every word he said. What he had said was quite true, but more than that it was pandering directly to the turian's own beliefs.
"Then why are you here?"
"Because you and I are in the unique position of having seen our true enemy and being in a position to stop them." Jack leaned toward him. "We both know what we saw in that cave."
Saren didn't answer straight away. He drew in a breath, mandibles working in a slow rhythm as his eyes traced a path from Jack down to the table. "I saw my brother go mad, nothing more."
"Saren." Jack used his given name. It had the desired effect. "Had your brother, in all the years you had known him, ever exhibited any kind of mental illness? Hell, I had his psych profile smuggled to me just to double check. Everything your brother did was rooted in reality, he dealt with failures and setbacks with iron calm and ruthless determination. He never broke down over the possibility of defeat and he never would have tampered with a machine like that once he understood it!"
The turian didn't answer. His eyes travelled to the window, gazing out over the Citadel. "I understand you are passing your eyes off as cybernetic replacements made necessary by a war injury."
"They were caused by the machine. Just like the rest of the implants of all those things. You took a reduced burst of energy, but it touched you all the same."
He turned back. "What did you see?"
Jack gestured to the room around them. "The death of everyone in this room. The death of everyone in this building and on this level. The screaming obliteration of everyone on the Citadel and every single one of their friends, family, distant acquaintances and strangers they passed on the street. I saw the end of the world in high definition."
"And it didn't drive you mad?"
A laugh bubbled to Jack's lips. "Are you joking? It made me madder than the proverbial Hatter. I saw millions of people dying in agony as oncoming darkness swallowed us whole. That'd make any man quite insane. It doesn't change what I'm about to do."
"And what are you going to do?"
"Save the galaxy." Jack replied. "Me, and my allies."
"And who are your allies?"
"Well." Jack grinned. "I was hoping to start with you."
Saren looked at him. Not, as Jack would have expected, as if he'd grown a second head. Against Jack's expectations, Saren was hearing him out. The turian raised a hand and beckoned the waitress over.
"A glass of your finest vin'sha. And a menu, please. My friend here will pick up the tab." Saren turned back to Jack with new interest in his eyes.
"Say I believe the part about oncoming darkness. What can one human and one turian do to stop it?"
"I was hoping you'd ask." Jack finished his wine and retrieved a paper notepad from inside his jacket. "I've been putting together a little list, you see. Unique resources, people with the skill, intelligence and drive to greatly aid us in our task. Some of them I can easily convince. The others may need some convincing from you. One way or another, these are the people that I truly believe can help us."
"And what would you call this…group?"
Jack held up a finger. "An old idea occurred to me. Something Ben Hislop once told me about guard dogs and rivers of the damned. We'll wait for your wine, because it will likely take me quite some time to explain Greek mythology to you."
The hanging was mercifully quick.
Fautan had refused the customary hood. He had bowed respectfully to the three members of the Senate, the Council of Primarchs and the Admiralty in attendance and placed the noose around his own neck in the custom of a repentant traitor. His neck had broken at the end of the drop. He was dead before the jolt subsided.
It was, as far as Admiral Drescher understood it, a good death.
There was only one other person left in the room after the hastatim had placed his body inside a plain wooden casket. A familiar looking turian in the grey uniform of an army infantry officer was watching from the wings of the room. As the rest of the turians and Citadel observers filed out, he stepped forward and made his way down to the coffin at the base of the amphitheatre.
He was a young turian, barely more than twenty. Drescher stayed to watch him. There was something strange in his body language, the way he looked away from the other turians as they left. She finally saw it when he glanced up before laying a hand on the casket. His face was bare of any face paint or tattoos.
Something compelled her to step forward. She made her way down from where she'd been seated to where the coffin lay. "Excuse me?"
The young officer snapped up with a start. He saw her and offered a sharp salute. "Ma'am!"
"At ease." She returned the salute. "What's your name, soldier?"
He hesitated. "Takeera, ma'am. Lieutenant Ethtan Takeera. Forty Third Palaven Heavy Infantry."
Drescher glanced at the coffin. "Did you know Captain Xiliatus, Lieutenant?"
"No, ma'am. At least, not formally." The turian corrected himself. "I met him only once. He was invited to speak at a seminar for clanless personnel. He shared a few of his stories, of how it was possible for a…a bareface to rise as high as any other officer if he only devoted himself to his duty."
Takeera looked back down at the coffin. "He inspired me to try out for officer selection. He was the first clanless in over two centuries to command his own ship. All of us looked up to him, drew our inspiration from his example. And for all his loyal service…one mistake and they hung him like a dog."
He turned around, his shoulders trembling with emotion. "A few months ago they were singing his praises. Now none of them even bother to claim his body."
There were footsteps behind them. "That's not true, son."
Both Takeera and Drescher looked behind them. An elderly turian, stooped with age and leaning on a cane, was being helped along by two others. Behind them, almost two dozen other turians in red naval jackets stood waiting. Each one wore angry black stripes across their faces, a symbol of united mourning.
"Admiral Drescher." Quarter Admiral S'Fal Oraka inclined his head slightly. "I apologise for our interruption. I have come to claim the body of Fautan Xiliatus."
"What mockery is this?" Takeera pushed past Drescher, anger in his voice. "I will not let you throw his body in some unmarked grave!"
"Stand down, boy!" Another turian, this one in a navigator's uniform, grabbed his shoulder. "We've a greater claim to his body than any others."
"You." Drescher whispered. "You were one of the prisoners from the Fury."
The officer stood tall, his mandibles set proudly. "Yes, ma'am. Navigator Aeschylus of the Raptor's Fury. These are all of the crew I could locate on short notice. We served our Captain faithfully for many years. He gave many of us a second chance when we were all but outcasts ourselves. The Quarter-Admiral pulled all the favours he had left in order to let us have our Captain back."
"He was one of my sailors too." Oraka stated gruffly. "He rendered loyal service for many years. I will see him to his rest."
"If I may." Drescher stepped forward. "I would like to be there when you do."
Aeschylus nodded. "It would honour his spirit greatly."
THE FIELDS OF MAURUS
HEADQUARTERS OF 133RD LIGHT LEGION
It was an impressive sight, watching a full legion of thirty thousand turians break left and right and march off the assembly square in perfect unison, their formation neat and orderly, footsteps in synchronisation with the drum, uniforms crisply pressed and sunlight glimmering off shining armour.
It was slightly less than impressive watching perhaps fourteen thousand break left and right and march off in approximate synchronisation, uniforms more or less in shape and the armour looked at least in working order. All in all it was more than Talon General Septimus Oraka had been expecting, but less than he had hoped for.
It was to be expected. The 133rd Light Legion had never been a unit of high priority, not even during the height of the Krogan Rebellions when more than a third of the total turian population had been on active duty. After centuries of relative peace, not every legion was able to be maintained at full strength. And, considering Oraka's current situation within the army, he'd been lucky to get a legion at all. High General Penticus had made that abundantly clear.
As the last of the formed parade was dismissed, Oraka turned from the viewing platform and walked back into the legion headquarters. His staff officers walked quietly behind him. The cohorts had rehearsed the change of command ceremony for a week, but even that hadn't been enough to lick them into proper shape. There was a general air of embarrassment, as if they had somehow failed by not putting on a truly outstanding parade.
Little did they realise that Oraka couldn't have cared less how the change of command happened, as long as it happened. He'd waited long enough for it.
Soon enough his staff officers were assembled in his office, a spacious room dominated by a crisp edged desk done in black and silver. He took a seat as his officers crowded around him. "Be seated, all of you."
There were old faces and new in the room, a collection of officers cleared from the Seventh during the hearings and others just joining the group. Some of them he knew he could trust implicitly, others were clearly career failures that had been shoved on him, one or two were even more obviously plants from the Council of Primarchs to keep an eye on a potentially disloyal commander.
He folded his hands in front of him and turned his head from left to right as he chose his words. 'Light' legions had been a response to krogan asymmetrical warfare in the dying hours of the Rebellions. To hunt the krogan in the mountain ranges and tunnels to which they fled, smaller and more mobile units had been needed. A Light Legion was formed by taking the typical ten cohorts, roughly thirty thousand turians, and cutting it to six, around twenty thousand troops instead.
In addition, the two heavy armour cohorts, four heavy infantry cohorts, two light armour cohorts and two skirmisher cohorts had all been restructured to a single light armour cohort, a heavy infantry cohort and four cohorts of skirmishers instead. It would have been a potent force nonetheless, except for a few slight shortfalls with the 133rd.
"First of all, I'd like to thank all of you for being here." Septimus met their eyes one at a time. "I know for several of you, including Claw General Sertus and Colonel Senpral, early and honourable retirement was given as an option during the hearings. You chose to stay on instead, and for that you have my gratitude. Now, as we all know there are key manpower and material shortages within the legion. I want a full review of training, equipment and logistics capabilities on my desk in two days. We'll start working on rectifying them immediately. As you know, Wing General Gannicus is expecting us to reach full combat readiness within six months, so we'd better get started. Any questions?"
Senpral raised his arm. "It's about the shortage of armour, sir. As I stated earlier, there's a shortage of light tanks and APCs in the system at the moment, most of them are being requisitioned for the high priority units as soon as they come off the assembly line."
Septimus nodded. "I understand. I've been talking with Wing General Korvus of Research and Development. He's willing to give us a number of prototypes for field testing, and in exchange for proving the new models he'll get us as many refits as he can get his hands on. It won't be orthodox, but it will be better than nothing."
Another officer raised her hand. "Major Rikki, sir, Field Intelligence section. I'm a little worried about discipline issues as we begin training. I've already seen a dozen different red flags on more than a hundred different personnel ranging from insubordination, drug dealing and even leaking intelligence to the Shadow Broker or the STG."
"What kind of narcotics?" Septimus asked
"Mostly low level stuff. Party drugs like hallex and Mingen Two. I'm a little worried about the harder stuff becoming popular."
Septimus frowned. "Official doctrine states that as long as troops are clean and sober for duty it doesn't matter what they consume in off hours. It was never permitted in the Seventh, though."
He thought about it for a moment. "We'll compromise for now. Run some blood tests on anyone showing up to work sluggish or disoriented. Put anyone on Hallex or party drugs in for counselling and leave it at that. Anyone on harder stuff is to get a formal warning. We won't smother them, just encourage them to either get clean or stick to the lighter stuff for occasional use."
A few of the older Seventh personnel looked displeased with the decision. He'd have to bring them around to his ideas later on. "As for the intelligence leaks, the first one you catch gets a month in the stockade. The second one will be formally drummed out of the legion and exiled. Hang the third. Eventually the message will get through."
There was a round of satisfied nods. "Now, the insubordination is a more serious issue. It's clear we've been given a very troubled unit. Understrength, under-equipped, filled with malcontents and tough nuts. I'm not interested in trying to play nice on that front. We will whip them back into shape or they'll be shipped out. If I have to discharge two thousand troublemakers to inspire ten thousand good soldiers, I'll make that trade in a heartbeat."
Sertus looked perturbed. "You do realise that we only have six months to be combat ready, sir? Can't we apply for reinforcements?"
"Do you really think the general staff will give them to us?" Septimus sighed. "I like it no better than the rest of you, but in six months this Legion will be going into combat. These soldiers will either be ready to fight by then, or they won't. The burden is on us."
The staff looked down, feeling the weight in his words settle on their own shoulders. Septimus saw he had gotten his point across. "We'll pick this up again tomorrow. For now, get settled in with your new commands and sections. I'll be stopping in at your cohorts throughout the week to get to know names and faces. Dismissed."
He waited for them to leave before relaxing. He unbuttoned the top clasp of his jacket and leaned back in his chair before pulling open the top shelf of his drawer. There were a few loose items. A holopad, a sidearm, a set of throwing knives. At the bottom was the flask…and the frame.
He pulled the second item out first, but didn't look at it. Instead he took the flask. He knew what was inside. Half a litre of the best Iberan rum, his favourite brew. The flask was exquisitely shaped, the highly polished silver a product of the biotic crafters of Armali. A delicate inscription rested under the cap, the swirling script in High Thessian impossible to ignore before you drank.
He read the inscription with half closed eyes, remembering the day he had received it: My own heart, though I beg you to stay I know you shall not. I am but one of your two mistresses, and I fear Sacred Duty shall always claim you before me. The year we have spent together on the Citadel has been the happiest of my life, and I pray that it has brought you some measure of peace and joy as well. You may wonder why, after scolding you for your drinking, I have given you this gift. Well, you are clever enough to work it out for yourself, I am sure. Stay well, my beloved General. Come back to me soon.
Septimus turned his eyes back to the frame. In the holo, he was dressed in loose fitting civilian clothes, standing next to an asari in a blue and white gown beneath the shade of a blossoming tree on the Presidium. Sighing, he placed the flask back in the drawer and reached for the intercom.
"Corporal. Get me Captain Victus immediately. I have some ideas on reconnaissance doctrine that I wish to discuss with him."
The sun was setting over the mountains as they finally assembled. Each member of the funeral party carried a block of wood up the mountain trail, following the wake of the six turians bearing the coffin. It had taken the better half of the afternoon to climb the mountain, and it was nearly dark when they finished assembling the pyre.
Drescher stood at the back of the small crowd. Aeschylus stood at the front of it, a burning torch in his hands. Fautan's body rested atop the pyre, his arms folded across his chest. No one spoke a word, but all knelt as the last rays of light died in the sky. The navigator alone remained standing, his head erect against the sky. He lifted the torch higher.
"Night gathers on Palaven. As the sun has set on the day, so has the sun set on our captain. As the torch burns in the night, so does his spirit burn on after death."
He turned back. "The ancients have taught us that a turian's spirit is divided in his death. One part for his clan, one part for his ship, one part for his fleet and one part for the Hierarchy. Fautan Xiliatus had no clan. His fleet is disbanded. His Hierarchy has hung him as a traitor. And all that is left of his ship is us. And it is to us that his spirit belongs now in death, whole and undivided."
He turned back to the pyre. "Of the traitor Xiliatus, I know nothing. Only that all beings are fragile and frail in their own ways, and even the greatest of all of us stumble and fall. Of my friend, Fautan, the captain of the Raptor's Fury, I can say only this: that his spirit was the noblest I have ever known and our lives are the darker for his absence."
Aeschylus knelt, the fire passing from his torch and licking at the wood of the pyre. "In the fire we were forged, to the fire we return. Clear skies, Captain Xiliatus, and a fair wind to see you home."
Drescher joined in the softly murmured chorus as the flames consumed the body.
"Clear skies and a fair wind."
ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY
The girl ran up the hill, her arms flapping wildly. "Come on Grampa!"
"Ashley! Wait!" Joaquim sucked his breath in as he chased after her. He shook his head and muttered under his breath. "Where does she get so much energy?"
Though of course, he hadn't exactly kept in shape in the three years he'd spent in Training Command. The trim form he'd cut as the freshly minted commander of the Third had long disappeared under the combined force of both his wife and daughter-in-law's cooking and too much paperwork. Now he was struggling to keep up with his first granddaughter. In his defence, Ashley had had shot past toddler stage and into 'hyper-active death-seeking child' phase faster than anyone could have reasonably expected.
She was waiting for him when he got to the top, unruly brown hair flying everywhere, brown eyes flashing with excitement at getting to spend a whole day with him. While it did him good to see her irrepressible smile, there was something he needed to do.
"Ashley, don't run away from me like that again." He told her, his voice as stern as it ever got with her. "This isn't a place for playing. This is sacred place."
Ashley looked around, suddenly sober. "Like church?"
"Almost." Joaquim nodded. "The honoured dead rest here, free from the strife that claimed their lives. See them? Rows upon rows of brave men and women who fell in defence of their people."
Ashley clung to him suddenly. "Will they be mad at me for making a noise?"
Joaquim smiled. "I doubt it. But they deserve their rest, don't they? Now take my hand. I have something I want you to see."
They walked together, grandfather and granddaughter, past the rows of white stone. The fallen of over two hundred years of warfare lay here. Two world wars, the Second Civil War, a dozen brushfire conflicts, and the American veterans of the First Contact War. Some very important people had argued that they should have been buried on Shanxi as a symbol of their dedication to the planet. Williams had publically spat on the idea that, having laid down their lives for that God-forsaken chunk of rock, they should be forced to lie there till they turned to dust. It wasn't long after that those first stories openly decrying him as the inept coward who lost Shanxi had first appeared in the papers.
He would have paid the stories no mind if they hadn't hurt his son so much. Franklin visibly flinched whenever a new 'human interest' piece popped with some Shanxi 'veteran' openly deriding him in front of some solemnly nodding talk show host. What touched Joaquim more was the spirited essay that Chekova had written in his defence, or McDevitt trying to deck the first reporter who'd tried to get his side of 'the failure on Shanxi'. But it hurt Franklin to watch his father so publically humiliated, and it hurt Abigail as well. It had partly influenced the decision he'd arrived at today.
Joaquim turned as he arrived at the spot he was looking for. Inscribed into the stone was a simple description of who rested beneath it.
Matthias T. Pressly
Systems Alliance Marine Corps
There was a tremble in his legs, and Joaquim was obliged to kneel before his friend and mentor's grave. Ashley moved to his side. Her eyes were wide. "Grampa? What's wrong?"
He forced a smile. "Nothing, Ash. Could you go wait under that tree?"
She nodded, happy to be given a direction she could follow. Joaquim let his eyes trace back to the stone.
"I'm sorry I haven't come to visit lately, Matt." His left hand slowly reached out to touch the lines of his name. "Half the time I told myself I was too busy, the other half I was trying to find something to keep me too busy. Somehow, coming back here felt like coming to your office to get blasted over some mistake I made when I was a rookie lieutenant."
His eyes glanced around. "They gave you a good spot. Plenty of shade, surrounded by the rest of the Shanxi boys. You wouldn't have been able to find anything to grumble about."
Joaquim reconsidered that for a second. "Well, maybe you would. But you wouldn't have grumbled for long."
"I wanted to bring Ganju here as well, give you some company. But he wanted to go home, back to his family and mountains. He earned that. We all did. The right to go back home." He looked back over at Ashley, the three year old now sitting peacefully under the tree as her eyes traced a butterfly's path through the branches. "Except it's not home for me. Not anymore."
"I don't know why, but everything seems out of sync here now. Like Earth changed overnight and nobody noticed it but me. I don't understand. The food's the same, the coffee's the same, the flowers are the same. The salt feels the same in the spray of the waves. But it's all different. When I told Abby, she asked me if I'd remembered that something important had changed and it wasn't the flowers. It was me."
"I'm sorry I ever tried to force you into this job. Every decision is made above or below me. I'm mostly used to sign orders or officiate at parades. It's not soldier's work. It's barely even officer's work. I tried to get the Third together for some kind of reunion a few months ago. Got a handful on medical discharge. They were telling me that most of the survivors have been moved on to high-priority units to serve as NCOs or instructors. A handful were selected for OCS. Everyone's moving on, or trying to move on. Henkshaw surprised me. Not only did he survive, but he's getting married to one of the tank sergeants who lost both her arms."
His smile flickered. "I missed you most right then. You would have made some bad joke about a marriage between a drunk and a timid woman because one was legless and the other was 'armless. Everyone would cringe and pretend to be shocked, but they'd be laughing inside and so would you."
"It's time for me to move on as well. I'm not waiting around for a promotion that isn't coming, not when I still have a good arm and two brain cells left. There's a lot of jobs out in the colonies that need a good manager, someone who knows logistics. Say what you like about me, but I never lost a logistics battle. It'll be nice to do something with my hands instead of punch something. Build something up, not tear it down. I like to think you would have liked to do that as well."
"I don't know if I'll ever be able to come back to Earth. Shipping is expensive, and I'm not too hung up on seeing the old blue ball again anyway. Every story's gotta end sometime, and mine and Earth's is coming to a screeching halt."
Reaching into his pocket he pulled out a holo. The command team of the Third in full dress uniform at their first dining in night. Pressly was pouring half a bottle of wine on someone's jacket, whilst Gurung was scuffling with whoever was taking the picture. The rowdiness, drunkenness and camaraderie could be read straight off the picture. It was also in the past.
"It's sadder than I thought. Saying goodbye after all these years. Sometimes I consoled my self with the idea, the fantasy really, that the good times would never come to an end. But they do. And whether we like them or hate them, endings can't be ignored. If you're lucky, you can accept what lessons they teach and move on with your life." Joachim reached up to his collar and unbuttoned his insignia. "I've never been a man to wallow in the past, to try and insist on preserving something that was best left behind. Shanxi is past, the Third is past, and so are you."
He layed the two stars on the top of the gravestone. "I'll never forget any of you. Not for as long as I live. And I hope someday I can come and join you all…"
He looked over to Ashley, now standing up and running back toward him. "…but I've got a lot of living left to do before that day."
A/N: Yeah….jeez. I don't really know what to say now that I've reached the end. Let me start from the top and see if I can make something coherent out of this.
The story. Siege of Shanxi has come to mean something different to me depending on what year I'm writing it in. And that's been more than a few years. Started in 2011, finished in Feb 2017. In that time I've joined the Army Reserve, graduated university, joined the Regular Army, fallen in love and had my heart broken, and a dozen other experiences that reflected themselves in the chapters I was writing. And now it's done. Like a loyal dog, the next chapter of this fic has been waiting for me to come home from work and take it out to play for over five years. I don't know what comes next, personally. I might try my hand at the Mass Effect re-write I've been plotting or I might just abandon it and try and work on my own novel. I don't know, and that scares and excites me as a writer. But either way, this story is done and I'll never have to worry about it again. I can finally tick it complete and take it off my mind.
For those that have been with me from the start, the half dozen or so stalwarts that have stuck with this thing since the first chapter back in 2011 and are still here for the finale, this one is truly for you. You know who you are. My thanks to those who joined in the middle years when months would go by without an update but still showed up to read it every time another painfully slow release appeared in your inbox. And to the new readers who saw it appear in one update or another last year and decided to see what the overly long story with the average amount of reviews was about, thanks for joining us as we cross the finish line.
Truth be told the Mass Effect fandom was the only one I've ever really been part of. Maybe because the Mass Effect universe was the only one that ever gripped me enough to obsess over it to this extent. Sometimes I look back on the old days when I first joined just after ME2 came out, back when there were perhaps ten or twelve pages of work on this site, when the fanart was equally scarce in quantity but extremely high in quality. Back when the Bioware Social Network was where you went to discuss meta about the games or just share fan vids and memes. I was there for the shipping wars, during the Rise of the Talimancers. I witnessed the Garrus fangirls blot out the sun. The flamewars, the overused memes, the shitty G-mod fanart that spammed deviant art ad infinitum, the Self-Insert fics increase in quantity and take a nosedive in quality.
There are now 708 pages of fanfiction in the Mass Effect section on this site alone. And if even only ten percent of it is actually worth reading that's still a heck of a lot of writing and a hell of a lot of hours spent on something that will never be more than an unpaid hobby. All up, a single trilogy of games gave us over ten years of entertainment and inspiration. Maybe Andromeda will give us more and maybe it won't. But I feel strangely honoured to have been part of this crazed group of sci-fi nerds, and strangely happy to put down Siege of Shanxi, with all its highs and lows, completed upon this assorted pile of work.
In the grand scheme of things this story means nothing. There's nothing special in what I wrote, nothing terribly unique in the stories of these characters. It's no epic for the ages, no groundbreaking story to gush over. It meant something to me, though. So I bid it, and all of you, a very fond farewell.
Clear skies and fair winds.