Newton's First Law states that an object in motion will remain in motion until acted upon by an outside force.
"Bottom of the Barrel"
Ambassador Donnel Udina was not a happy man. On most days, it was a character reference, but today he was decidedly and with effort an unhappy man. He sat in a comfortable chair facing his desk in the Alliance embassy on the Citadel, while Capt. David Anderson and Adm. Steven Hackett stood, giving the impression of restlessness.
As well they should be, he thought darkly. This was not a decision to be made lightly. Not that their votes counted for much, more like character references to be reported to the deciding factor than anything else. He would never admit it, but his vote probably counted less than theirs.
At the ambassador's desk sat a turian, armored head to toe, luminous eyes fixed on three holos arrayed before him, two women and a man.
"What about this Shepard?" Nihlus Kryik, turian Spectre, picked up the holo of the taller woman.
"What about Shepard?" Udina managed to make it sound like a credible 'what would you like to know' question, but did not quite succeed. He had never met Shepard—nor any of the soldiers on display—but he had heard enough about her.
She was an idealist, someone who belonged on the front lines. She was a career woman, a lifer, a dog of war the likes of which the Alliance liked to have: a real live hero. Anderson liked her, if like was the word, which did not bode well for Udina being able to exercise any sway over her.
"No family, they were killed by slavers on Mindoir. Enlisted at seventeen, lied about her age. No one was looking too closely." Hackett could not applaud the lying, but when a victim like that tried to enlist people were apt not to ask many questions. No one was the wiser until her age on record and her bones told two different stories.
Ah, the training accidents Ns got into. Still, she exhibited those three desired qualities for most of her career: adapt, improvise, overcome.
"Lt. Commander Shepard, Jalissa A.," Anderson spoke up, after exchanging glances with Hackett. Anderson was there after the Skyllian Blitz. He knew Shepard's current CO, and as such knew what Robbins was willing to say—all of it good. "She was there during the Skyllian Blitz, organized forces on the ground—mostly civilians—and held the enemy at bay until the Fleet could get there. She's the only reason Elysium is still standing."
Nihlus ceased examining the holo. "Does she remember doing it?"
"Not coherently. Bits and pieces." Anderson shrugged. Many people in those sorts of situations remembered fragments rather than the whole. However, what she did remember either filled in between or set up for the highlights other people remembered.
Any other answer and Nihlus would have questioned whether she was being entirely truthful. People who boldly proclaimed to remember everything in such a situation with clarity generally either filled in the blanks, or were being less than truthful.
"Who's this?" He pointed a talon at the man.
"Lt. Commander Sheffler, John D. He was on Akuze, his entire unit was killed," Hackett rattled off. He had looked into that one himself. "He's a survivor."
Udina shook his head slowly. Forced to choose between Shepard and Sheffler, he would have to pick Shepard. If anyone asked his opinion, they both had too much baggage, too much trauma.
Nihlus agreed with Udina about Sheffler vs. Shepard, but for different reasons. He was not worried about emotional baggage. He worried about Sheffler being a machine, sacrificing free will to serve a greater whole, paring down the possibility of getting someone killed. He was the type who relied on a self-recognized authority to govern his every action, to give him prescribed methodology.
Take that away, that commanding entity and what happened?
Shepard was a by-the-booker too, but nothing like Sheffler.
"That last one is Lt. Commander Rogers, Eva K.—recently promoted." The bottom of the barrel as far as Anderson was concerned. "They call her the Butcher of Torfan."
Nihlus did not withdraw his hand from Rogers' holo, but politely requested details. He was surprised to find, during his research before this meeting, that the events on Torfan were connected with the Skyllian Blitz on Elysium, even though the events occurred two years apart.
He did not want to be responsible for training someone who would end up like his own mentor. Too many Spectres like that and there were foreseeable problems. The human would have enough trouble being the black sheet…was it 'black sheet'?
It couldn't be 'black sheet'.
"Grew up on Earth, gang life, got out when she was eighteen. Powerful biotic, an L2." Hackett's assessment was clinically clean. Only because she got jobs done was the only this list. She was an 'ends justify the means' person. He privately believed her implants were not as stable as people believed.
Though she got the job done, as far as Hackett was concerned, Rogers was the bottom of the barrel.
Udina had not met her, only seen her censored file. Of the three, she was his pick—she was supposedly keen to advance, even if getting advancements was not easy. He could use that, he was a politician; if she scratched his back he could scratch hers, as the old saying went.
It would start that way, but by the end of the day she would be tickling his throat with her field knife if it benefitted her more than maintaining an alliance with him.
"What's your take on Shepard?" Nihlus inquired of the ambassador.
"We can't question her courage," Udina allowed with a grimace.
Nihlus returned his keen gaze to the holo. He could work with that. He did not expect her to choke under pressure, he would not have to deal with human L2 complications. Not quite the bottom of the barrel after all. At the outset he feared they would give him a toy soldier to train into something far beyond that soldier's scope.
Introduction Part 1 Edit
Captain David Anderson slouched in his office on Arcturus Station. Within a day or so his new crew would begin trickling in. Within a week or two he would know how well his picks would work. What he did not know left him in the dark, and nervous. Everyone involved knew Shepard was being screened for the Spectres. No, that was not right: she had already been screened.
This was her field test.
It was what the test would include worrying Anderson. He had no information, no destination, no standard operating procedure, no nothing. He had not been kept in the dark like this since…well, a long time ago. It worried him, for the sake of his crew. Sooner or later they would begin asking questions as to why their CO did not know anything.
Shepard would contain those; she had a gift for working with people. Captain Robbins certainly spoke highly of Shepard, and Shepard's progress over the years.
Captain Anderson began rifling the files on his desk again. Commander Shepard.
Lt. Moreau—hotshot pilot.
Chief Engineer Adams—excellent at whatever he was tasked to do.
Navigator Pressly—he and Shepard would have pounded some of the same dirt, metaphorically speaking.
Lt. Alenko—highly recommended by his last CO, unimpeachable service record, a biotic, already a proven asset on a ground team in a hot zone.
Dr. Chakwas—she would be able to keep anyone in line, even Shepard. He smiled grimly, remembering Shepard gimping about on a broken ankle, pretending she was not. Ah, the price you paid for being a living hero.
Doubtless Shepard would be the first to start asking questions. If CO recommendations were any indication, Moreau and Alenko would not be far behind. Which was a mixed blessing—people of intelligence were sometimes hard to find—but if it got out the officers were uneasy, or had no confidence in their Captain, it would affect the crew.
Anderson stopped this line of thought. It was hard, sometimes, to be married to one's career. He stacked the files and put them in his desk, locking them up safely. He should take good advice and take the night off.
Taking the night off meant getting out of the office—which took him back to the Normandy. She barely had the red tape off her. If a ship could give the impression of emotions, she would be raring to get out of the docking bay and into space. Or trouble, depending on how one looked at it.
Well, he could always tell the crew they were taking a 'walk around the block', testing engines, running diagnostics…that would eat up a little time until his superiors felt it necessary to take him out of the dark. As he looked around his half-lit office, contemplating calling it a day, another thought occurred to him.
Nihlus endorsed Shepard, but Anderson still worried. He didn't know Nihlus well, and could only pray Nihlus would not be a second edition of Saren.
"What do you think, Gunny?" Nirali Bhatia asked as she and Gunnery Chief Ashley Williams sat on a low hill overlooking the early stages of a Prothean dig site on Eden Prime.
Williams abandoned examining the perfectly clear atmosphere, which made the moon seem so bright. "I dunno. It's an egghead convention, Bhatia." She had not seen this many geek-nerds in one place since stumbling into a chess club's practice back in high school.
Nirali chuckled softly. Williams tended to be blunt, but it worked for her, inviting others to speak plainly.
"You haven't got too much longer have you?" Williams glanced over at Nirali's exquisite features, feeling a pang of mild envy. Narrow and angular, Nirali could have passed for a model if she was a little taller. Still, you couldn't find a nicer person.
"No," Nirali smiled, her dark lips pulling back from slightly crooked teeth. "Samesh is already looking for a place to set up shop—we're going to open a restaurant, he and I." She always smiled when she spoke, or thought, of her husband back on Earth.
Williams' gaze drifted down from the stars to the pools of golden light caused by the chem-torches illuminating the dig site. A confirmed lifer, Williams did not consider herself above the non-lifers. They paid their four years in the service of humanity. Not everyone was called to spend their life as a soldier, just like all people weren't called to preach, or practice medicine. It really did take all sorts.
Besides—it was good to know there were plenty of former soldiers keeping an eye on the various Alliance-held worlds. "You know, it always astounds me how many scientists and doctors smoke." Nirali noted, crinkling her nose at the scent of cheap cigarettes.
Williams snorted in agreement. Her own experience with cigarettes remained firmly in her mind—mostly because she had gagged, choked, turned green and decided it was not worth the effort to look cool. "I guess they need something to do—not everyone likes going to the gym to pump iron." She did not enjoy pumping iron either, but when it was all you had…
"So, Gunny, what do you think about all this?" Nirali waved at the dig site. They had not turned up anything yet.
"I dunno what to think, Bhatia," Williams shifted again, her weapon nearby as she, like a third of the 212, kept an eye on things. Watches were posted around the clock at this site, ever since the day before yesterday. Technically she was not on duty, but with the eggheads getting jumpy she did not like leaving the site unattended. Of course, she had to sleep, but it did not come easy. "But I don't like it." The situation conjured up memories of old sci-fi vids, where unsuspecting archaeologists—or spacers—got infected by weird spores or bacteria.
She did not believe any of that crap…but she could not help remembering it. It was just one of those things.
Introduction Part 2 Edit
Staff Lieutenant Kaidan Alenko sat in the terminal which would take him from the SSV Berlin to the VOQ. It would take a couple days for his stuff to catch up with him. Any civilian would have pegged him only the usual brand of beefy marine. He was glad of it, if the truth had to be told. Blending in was not as overrated as some people seemed to think.
Nor was he as calmly indifferent as one might think from his expression. He had enjoyed serving under Captain Darryl, but the prospect of serving on a frigate, zipping about the galaxy had the same sort of appeal as a motorcycle to a teenager. And the SSV Normandy sounded like a real piece of work. Partly because details were scantier than usual.
Richardson said nothing else, knowing the Lieutenant's habit of keeping to himself. The only time the man came out of his shell was when things started happening, or bullets started flying.
Captain David Anderson—a living hero. And he was captaining the ship—which left Alenko surprised and a little worried. He had met Anderson once, and been favorably impressed. The man was personable, but in a way that garnered respect without demanding it. A true leader of men.
Well, wherever Anderson went, things would not be dull. If half the stories were to believed he, Alenko, was in for the ride of his life. He honestly looked forward to it.
The transport slid up at that moment. Both marines got to their feet and boarded. The late hour meant an empty bus, allowing Richardson and Alenko their pick of seats. "Where to?" The driver asked as the two marines heaved their gear into the racks overhead, fastening the necessary straps to keep it from rolling out.
"TLF*." Richardson stifled a yawn.
"So you're really leaving?" Richardson had heard rumors, but due to Alenko's reserved attitudes, no one knew anything for sure.
"Yeah," Alenko shrugged. "You go where personnel sends you, right?"
Richardson subsided into silence as the transport started off.
Alenko rested his head against the window, watching the scenery zip past. It was not his first time on Arcturus. The station was a regular stopping point for the Berlin. Arcturus was big enough for him to forget he was in space and not in a big bubble on the ground somewhere. Despite the nature of the station, it still sported a vaulted roof here and there. The observation deck on the topmost level gave an unparalleled view of space on all sides, including looking up.
Closing his eyes, he decided it was too late to hit the racquetball court. Better to get a good night's sleep and report for duty a little early. Besides, he was curious about the Normandy. The tone of his orders was full of the usual objective declarations—but something about the wording put him in mind of a blind.
He loved puzzles, and this certainly was one.
Lt. Commander Jalissa Shepard had lived on Arcturus Station ever since her transfer to the SSV El Alamein. That was one mercy of her newest posting: she did not have to move out of her apartment to some other station, or worse a planetside posting. After Mindoir, Elysium, and so many years in space, Shepard did not like living groundside. With her ditty bag and weapons case, she was braced to tackle whatever the new posting threw at her.
It was ridiculous to expect anyone to know everything about Arcturus. She still had not explored several corners of it; there was no point. A marine usually focused on their duty station's docking bay, the NEX, the commissary, the MWR buildings, apartment, and emergency protocols.
Today, however, took her to a docking bay locked down with the most stringent security she ever saw in one place. She was amazed they did not conduct a full physical just to let her get in the door. Fingerprints were checked, retinas scanned, ID tags swiped, all tasks performed by tough-looking marines who were in no way green recruits. Whatever was in that docking bay was important.
Shepard knew it only as the SSV Normandy. She wordlessly let the guards go through her gear, making sure there was nothing there that should not be. What was she going to do? Run to the press first chance she got? Shepard regarded the press with the same distaste she might regard a varren coated in something disgusting. She would avoid it if possible.
"All right, ma'am," the guards saluted again, "you're clear to go." The head security officer scanned her ID tags, activating permanent clearance to the dock before handing them back to her.
Shepard dropped them about her neck, letting them vanish beneath her blue shirt. "Thank you," she returned the salute before striding through the doors.
The Normandy nearly took her breath away. It waited in its docking bay, a great bird of prey ready to be unleashed. Comparing her with the El Alamein was like comparing a prized hawk to a park pigeon, a noted prima ballerina to some marines whom she preferred not to name, who had no skill on a dance floor. The design was radically different from anything Shepard had ever seen—though not so much so as to be unrecognizable.
She could hardly believe she was to serve as the XO on this masterpiece of engineering. For the moment, at least, her reservations about the speediness, the hush-hush approach to reassigning her to this crew vanished.
She continued along the dock's walkway, towards to bow of the ship where the gangplank angled to the decontamination chamber. The paint on the Normandy was not even chipped yet, just like a toy straight out of the box. She stepped into the d-con chamber and caught the camera linking the ship to the outside world moving its lens. "Lt. Commander J. Shepard, reporting for duty."
"…Uh…just a minute, Commander—got to verify you."
"Boards are green…" Staff Lieutenant Kaidan Alenko frowned at the panels in the cockpit of the Normandy. The ship was solid, inside and out—he did not have the aesthetic appreciation for the vessel as others did. Still, it was a sturdy little ship. "Still." It was not as though they were out of the docking bay.
If Joker—flight Lieutenant Jeff Moreau refused to answer to anything else—asked him one more time…it was going to set off a migraine. Alenko just knew it. The pilot was bored, he had to be. He could only hope Joker proved half as good as he boasted; in the manner of all hotshot pilots, Alenko thought wearily. They all had big mouths, at least, those he knew.
"Green is good…" Joker's hands danced across the panels, eyes narrowed at the panels as if expecting trouble. "Green is very good…trust me." He ignored the irritation emanating from Alenko patiently. Once they got this baby out in deep space, Alenko would stop sulking. Alenko was fun to elbow in the ribs, he made grim stoic faces and made painfully prosaic issue-dodging answers.
Not exactly a cunning wit, but definitely fun to hassle.
Alenko closed his eyes, rolling them, unseen. If Joker was this paranoid while docked, what kind of neurotic would he be once they took the ship out into real space? "You know, this thing's not going to get scuffed while docked," Alenko pointed out, relaxing slightly in the padded copilot's chair. Not exactly a comfortable fit, it was designed for someone shorter, but at least it was padded.
"She, Alenko, the ship's always a she, you should know that…" Everyone who worked on a ship knew that—or should know. "People'll think you spent your life pounding dirt."
Alenko rolled his eyes again. What did Joker think a ground team did when not aboard ship?
"Besides, you can never be too careful…ah-ha, there she is…the rest of the brass." Joker pulled up an external security feed. "Captain Anderson?" Joker found the Captain's radio frequency, and activated it.
"Your XO is here." He fiddled with his console, zooming in as the XO lumbered along, listing to one side with the weight of the weapons case in one hand. Whatever firepower she had in there, it was heavy, and she was obviously not used to carrying it in a case.
What did he have in that thing? A bazooka?
A short pause before the Captain's gravelly voice came across the channel. "Good, I'll be up shortly."
Alenko squinted at the moving image while Joker spoke with the Captain. There was something oddly familiar about the XO from this distance. He could have sworn he'd seen her before…
"So…what do you think?" Joker panned back a bit, so they could see the soldier from cap to boot as she moved steadily along.
"You know what I think," Alenko shook his head, knowing what Joker was really asking. It wasn't a question Joker, or Alenko himself, ought to think on too hard. Not with regards to an executive officer, anyway. So, with all due respect to female marines he had come up with an acceptable answer to this uncomfortable question. "'Tonka tuff'."
Not 'built like a Mack', but 'Tonka tuff'. Alenko had no idea where his mother picked the saying up, only that it seemed to fit. He had a feeling yellow pint-sized construction vehicles came into the equation somewhere, but couldn't be sure.
Joker snorted at this answer. Alenko ought to be in intel somewhere. If he wasn't a biotic, he'd be behind a desk in some dingy basement playing charts and darts with big nerd glasses…
Joker's expression changed in an instant as the XO paused to heft her sea bag more securely onto her shoulder. "Aw crap…" Joker's jaw sagged slightly as the image sharpened again, revealing a narrow, angular face, a faint lopsided smirk, and vivid eyes, neither blue nor green. "That's…"
"No way…" Alenko watched the easily recognizable visage of Commander J. Shepard, the Hero of Elysium striding purposefully towards the Normandy. His stomach quavered uneasily—that could be the source of odd recognition. His stomach tensed again, though this time it had nothing to do with seeing another celebrity onboard.
Well, yes, it did. Captain Anderson, a hotshot crew…and now Shepard. And they were all supposed to take this ship—prototype or not—on a shakedown run? On a Sunday afternoon walk in the park? It didn't add up. Even for a unique ship like the Normandy. Was it just him, or was there too much talent, and too much brass on this boat? Reservations increased. Something boiled just beneath the surface where neither he, nor anyone else could see it.
He hoped it would not boil over, but with two combat-tested combat-proven N7s on this rig, he could not help thinking things would boil over. The crew would be the ones who got scalded.
That is her…" Joker glanced at Alenko then back to the display.
Stories about Shepard ranged from putting her at half-past crazy, to one of the best officers a soldier could hope to serve with, to being the most frigid bitch the Alliance ever recruited, depending on who you asked.
Batarians apparently had an extremely low opinion of her, and had probably invented brand new slurs in her honor—though that was only scuttlebutt, and therefore not to be taken too seriously.
The commlink to the outside world beeped. "Lt. Commander J. Shepard, reporting for duty. Requesting permission to come aboard." It was not a question. Her voice, husky from hauling the luggage around, came across clearly over the radio. She knew where to look for the security cameras, for she immediately faced it.
"…Uh…just a minute, Commander—got to verify you." Joker cued the appropriate measures. "Stuff blows up around some of these people…"
"Look like you're going to have to work, after all: you won't want to scuff the Normandy's finish."
Shepard stood near the helm, close enough to hear Joker and Alenko if they mumbled, far enough away so as not to seem like part of the group. "Two people in d-con, Commander," Alenko relayed, cuing the sequence.
"And one of them ain't one of ours," Joker noted.
Of all the Normandy's crew, only Shepard and Anderson knew about the Spectre. The secrecy currently shrouding the Spectre would not last long.
At least Anderson had informed Shepard of Nihlus' actual position before the turian's arrival. Of all the crew she certainly needed to know…even if he had not shared the 'why'.
She glanced at the backs of the lieutenants' heads. They were both astute, casting periodic glances at her since she came to hover near the airlock, anticipatory of Anderson's arrival with their turian guest.
She could handle a turian aboard ship, if the Captain wanted one there. She did not like a Spectre aboard ship, regardless of what the Captain wanted.
By dinnertime the whole crew would buzz with the news of a turian Spectre riding…what? Shotgun? Technically Nihlus had no authority to tell Anderson what to do on his own boat, but Spectres wielded enough unofficial power to…
The airlock's hiss silenced Shepard's private considerations. She snapped a salute as the ship's computer spoke. "Captain Anderson is on deck. Commander Shepard stands relieved."
"Captain." Shepard eyed the turian behind Anderson closely.
"At ease, Commander."
Shepard relaxed marginally as Anderson glanced around.
She had scrupulously obeyed his instructions to clear as many people off the bridge as possible. She went further by sending all nonessential personnel to take an afternoon off. He suspected she included 'too stubborn to want to argue with' as criteria for what constituted 'essential personnel'. "How's the crew?" he asked, without directing himself to the lieutenants discreetly listening in.
"I took the liberty of authorizing the crew a couple hours on station—head down to the NEX for more socks or whatnot." The reference to spacers' syndrome did not go unnoticed by any of the humans. "Most took it gladly, others..." she glanced at Alenko, who watched out of the corner of his eyes. Upon seeing his observation was noticed, he immediately flicked his attention where it belonged, "opted to stay behind."
Shepard prided herself on having shifted two-thirds of the crew out of the way so as to keep Nihlus' arrival quiet. "Excellent. This is Nihlus Kryik, he'll be joining us for the shakedown."
Nihlus, still standing silently beside Anderson, towered over the humans. He inclined his head, but his eyes did not leave Shepard. The slow wave of his mandibles gave him an air of thoughtfulness.
"Welcome aboard, Mr. Kryik. There's fresh coffee in the mess, Captain. It should still be hot."
"The additional supplies?" Obviously meaning the turian edibles. It didn't do to poison visitors, especially Spectres.
"All accounted for, tagged, and stowed. Requisitions took care of it before he left. Everything's in order; we can launch as soon as the crew gets back. Isn't that right, Joker?"
The turian continued watching her. Shepard did not overtly eye him back, but she, the Captain, and Nihlus all shared a moment of watching-without-watching. Shepard could not decide who Anderson was watching, Nihlus or herself. Maybe both.
"Absolutely ma'am, sirs." Joker waved as if to say he had it covered.
"Good," Anderson nodded. "Can I offer you coffee?" Everyone present knew the offer was simply a polite gesture.
"No, thank you, I never indulge," Nihlus responded blandly. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Commander. I saw the rundown of the Blitz. Well handled."
Something in the words made Shepard want to curl her lip in distaste. She did not, however, opting to fall back on established habit. "It was a team effort." It was also the truth, but not enough so to shift the laurels where they belonged.
"Indeed," Nihlus finally took his vivid eyes off Shepard. In the moment during which he peered over Joker and Alenko's shoulders—causing both men to tense—Shepard caught Anderson's eye.
Anderson mouthed humor him, but that was as far as the exchange went, barring Shepard's tiny nod of comprehension.
Humor him. Spectres were probably used to being humored. She would maintain her current course, then, pretending Nihlus was another uniform with brass on the collar. She long ago learned the trick of respecting the rank, not necessarily the person wearing it.
"This vessel is quite interesting. Very well constructed."
Shepard, not heeding the polite response from Anderson, wondered why neither Anderson nor Nihlus seemed in a hurry to get on with business. Things kept getting fishier and fishier. If things continued on this course, they might as well turn in their battleship credentials and stock up on nets and bait.
"You would not object to my taking a tour of your vessel?" Nihlus gave the Captain the turian equivalent of a smile. "Or as you're busy with last-minute, pre-departure tasks, perhaps you would prefer delegating the Commander?"
Shepard's eyes slid to the turian. That sounded like the kind of 'suggestion' a superior officer made to one of his underlings when outright orders would be inappropriate.
With Nihlus' back to them, Joker and Alenko shifted in their chairs to watch, obviously in agreement with Shepard's unspoken assessment.
"Certainly. Commander, make yourself available."
"Yes, sir." Nihlus was usurping the Captain's position, and she did not like it.
Nihlus took another moment to examine Shepard, in a fashion she found ominous. He radiated the classic 'I know something you don't know' aura
"I don't like him." Joker summed up the opinion floating in the cockpit. "Guy's spooky."
If only Joker knew.
"Pretty confident…" Alenko flayed his lip thoughtfully. Whatever game the turian was playing, the Captain was playing along. The Commander looked as though she was trying to, but without knowing exactly what the game was.
"Confident? No, I know confidence…" Shepard declared, more to herself than anyone else.
"What would you call it?" Joker asked casually.
Silence filled the communications room as Joker patched through the distress call. The soundless display of Eden Prime's largest urban-esque area was suddenly punctuated by gunfire.
"Down! Get down!" A woman shoved the camera towards the dirt. More gunfire and the general ambient noise of a battle in the background made Shepard go completely still.
Here it was, things were already spiraling out of control. Well, at least they were not terribly far out. The color drained out of her face, leaving her pale but in no danger of collapse.
Shepard looked more like a statue rather than living woman, bright eyes focused on the feed. Nihlus could not tell if the whitened pallor came from shock, fury, or something less definable. Whatever it was, it did not seem to have any impact except leeching her color. Good. Steel nerves went a long way in his line of business.
Shepard's fingernails bit into cold, clammy palms. This was not some Spectre trick testing her nerves. No, this was bad news in vivid color. It reminded her uncomfortably of another colony a long time ago…
Don't think about that. Bullets flying? Gung-ho marine? First in, last out? Come on, Shepard, pull it together. The sharp mental slap brought her back to herself. Nihlus' veiled subtleties of speech and implication had her jumpier than she thought.
On any other day, she would already have her ground team halfway ready to deploy. Her initial shock and mental discomfort dissolved like sugar in warm water.
So, who was stirring up trouble this time? She could easily identify the motive, Nihlus already hinted as much. A Prothean beacon was too much for some people to stay away from. Well, it was their bad day and the colony's lucky break. All the planetside garrison had to do was hold out a little longer.
Picture reappeared as the camera's owner was rolled over by one of the soldiers. "We are under attack!" the man bellowed, "taking heavy casualties..." the display flickered, interspersed with 'snow', "…repeat heavy casualties…" A scream made him duck.
Shepard's teeth ground together; so much for holding out until reinforcements arrived.
"We can't…-eed evac…They came out of nowhere! Anyone hearing this! We need…" The soldier's face became a picture of horror as he looked past the camera. The camera's display shifted as though having fallen, revealing stark shock on the faces of the clustered soldiers.
Whatever phantasm stood before them, out of sight for the shipside onlookers, seemed enough to freeze independent thought.
Someone jerked the camera upright, revealing…a ship? But no ship any of the viewers could identify. It's not batarian…Shepard was unsure whether to be glad of this or not. With batarians she knew what to expect…but it was also very easy, to fall into the pit of mindlessly hating them again.
The display fizzled and went dark. "That's it, sir," Joker relayed, his tone somber, "everything cuts out after that. No traffic at all. Completely dead…there's nothing…" Unease at his inability to pull in more feeds colored Joker's voice.
"Reverse and hold; I want another look at that ship." In all his years with the Alliance, Anderson never before saw anything like that behemoth. It was utterly massive and completely alien even among alien space vessels.
The ship…like some giant hand, or mechanical squid, filled the screen. Red lightning—or something visually similar—wreathed the monstrosity.
"You ever see a ship like that?" Shepard asked Nihlus, her voice as calm and flat as a placid lake. The hulk was not a ship the Normandy could hope to fight head-on, even with the element of surprise. Thank goodness they were virtually invisible just now.
"It's not…one of ours," obviously turian, "or one of yours. Nothing I've ever seen," Nihlus answered, just as blankly. What the hell was that thing?
"It's not batarian. Terminus Systems don't have anything that big…or that heavily armed." If what she saw were gun turrets, it would probably take half the Alliance fleet to take it down.
Nihlus nodded in mute agreement.
"Status report," Anderson snapped, eyes still fixed on the monstrosity backed by a reddened sky.
"Seventeen minutes out. No other Alliance ships in the area." No doubt Joker was combing scanners to make sure he knew when the inevitable question came up.
"This mission just got complicated," Anderson mumbled to himself. "Take us in, Joker, fast and quiet."
"Aye sir," Joker's communication channel severed. The crackle seemed to wake the two officers and the Spectre out of silent contemplation of the mechanical juggernaut.
"Well, looks like the bullets are about to start flying," Shepard announced. "I'm game."
She always was. She was also perfectly serious despite the lighthearted words. Her fingers caressed her omni-tool, as though gently waking a sleeping monster-companion anticipatory of mythic battle.
"A small strike team can move in quickly, without attracting the wrong sort of attention. It's our best chance for securing the beacon," Nihlus fell back on his mission's basic parameters. Recover the beacon, at all costs.
"Cause I doubt that is there for anything else…" Shepard crossed her arms before her chest, shaking her head slowly. "That is one big, ugly sucker. Let's not waste any time."
Any surprise that she had not mentioned survivors was kept silent. Shepard could see no better way to ensure survivors than to promptly remove the enemy's reason for hitting the colony. Or make that reason to expensive—in terms of men and material—for the enemy to continue the attack.
Then, only then, she could shift her focus.
"Grab your gear, Shepard. Tell Jenkins and Alenko to suit up," Anderson instructed.
She did not bat an eyelash at the lopsided composition of the team. Any team on this ship would take some breaking in. Two officers and one green E? Well, Alenko was a biotic, his presence made sense. "Aye sir," Shepard tore her eyes off the screen, her mind cranking up like giant turbines as she turned smartly and left the room.
The cargo bay on the Normandy did more than house cargo: it hosted the arms and armor for ground teams, it housed the requisitions station, and it served as the garage and diagnostics area for the M35 Mako. The master-at-arms would have had a duty station there, if the ship had a master-at-arms.
Everything requiring space went in the cargo bay. Shepard suspected sooner or later training weights would appear from some hidden storage bin.
Jenkins, Alenko, and Shepard sat on a bench facing their lockers, already wearing their underarmor—not to be confused with underwear. Underarmor was simply something to keep the mesh layer of armor from pinching or pulling, and generally somewhat slippery.
Underarmor was also never standard issue.
Shepard produced a pot of white powder, dabbing the contents carefully around her neck, working to keep it mostly on her skin, not on the mesh. "Corn starch," she offered it to the quizzical Jenkins, "Keeps armor from chafing your neck." Standard-issue stuff had a reputation for chafing about the collar. Shepard knew the starch would wear off, but marines had rituals before hitting dirt; this was one of hers.
Alenko had never heard of this and did not doubt the assertion. Nevertheless, he declined.
Jenkins accepted the powder readily, with the end result of having it sprinkled it all over his mesh.
Armor was tricky, hence why teams armored up together. First came underarmor, then the mesh suit which required someone else to zip up the back. Shepard struggled into the tight-fitting weave, standing up to tug it comfortably into place.
Her first time trying to wriggle into the suit still haunted her. She feared, at that point in her life, that Instructor Mike Yamada was going to kill her. On the day in question, she decided he would not: the armoring-up process would.
"I've got you." Alenko shoved his arms though the sleeves of his own mesh, shrugging it the rest of the way on as he rose. Carefully, he brushed aside any locks too short to catch in Shepard's regulation bun, before pulling her zipper up to her neck.
Women got touchy when you caught their hair in a zipper's teeth.
"Thanks." Shepard didn't need to gesture for Alenko to turn around so she could zip him up. She also took a moment to examine the plastic shield keeping his headjack* free of contaminants.
She would never say it aloud, but it reminded her of a child-proofed power outlet. Shepard motioned for Jenkins to stop fussing with his perfectly-fitted mesh and hurry up.
Alenko retrieved his amp in its plastic box. Unlike most standard-issue gear, a biotic's amp got more attention than a gun or armor. It had to if the biotic was to function properly. Amps were one place the Alliance couldn't afford to cut corners, or go with cheap contracts.
Removing the protective shield from the port near the base of his skull, he positioned the amp and slid it home. Momentary pressure behind his eyes, and the sensation of a current running through his teeth let him know it was connected and working. Both sensations diminished until he scarcely noticed them.
Before pulling the plating for his armor, he ran through the basic kinesthetic drills. The biotic equivalent of checking shield batteries, and ammunition blocks.
Shepard regarded the process with interest, though she couldn't think of a polite way to ask 'so what exactly can you do?'.
"Batteries." Shepard's outward calm seemed unshakable.
"Clear…" Alenko glanced at the indicator on the outer layer of his armor.
"Charged," Jenkins agreed, shrugging plates into place. The glamour of the situation wasn't lost on him. He worried for people he knew on Eden Prime, but it was him coming to the rescue—with the notorious Commander Shepard as well! What better time to make a homecoming?
Shepard began anchoring the smaller plates to the mesh. Some people—the ones who never wore it—thought armor was a one-piece affair. It looked like one piece (more or less), but in the interest of mobility and other practicalities it was not.
"Everyone got extra ammunition blocks?" She refused to take a mission without an extra block of ammunition, regardless of whether or not the block in her weapon was a fresh one.
"Extra blocks…?" Jenkins frowned his confusion.
The question surprised even Alenko. A person could rely on a single ammunition block for ages, and his block was nearly fresh. Carrying an extra was like wearing an extra torso plate—redundant.
"You run with me, you carry extra ammunition. It's better to never need it, and as long as you've got it you won't need it." She had run out of ammunition once and only once. She would not endure such an occurrence again.
Alenko, mildly surprised, dutifully fetched a second block.
Shepard smiled at the gaping Jenkins; it was like the smile of a lazy predator. "Humor me." With this statement, she continued pulling her armor on, checking the gravlocks in her boots before fastening a sheath with a knife about her right calf.
Standing up—and giving her shield indicator another check—Shepard hopped up and down a few times, settling the plates before hitching one or two so they fit more comfortably.
Alenko began plating up as well, kinesthetic drills finished. A quick glance at Shepard, checking her mobility before checking her weapons, left him with the impression that the Commander was officially in her element.
The only one who felt nervous and showed it was Jenkins, who redoubled his efforts to match the deceptively calm, business-as-usual attitudes projected by the officers.
Shepard charged her shotgun, trying to quell her own nerves. Deep, even breaths, she reminded herself, deep even breaths. She pulled on her helmet, but did not activate the environmental seals. Her omni-tool clicked as she locked it around her wrist. "Check your radios," Shepard relayed absently, shrugging on her web belt. "Normandy. Radio check, Shepard."
"Loud and clear, Commander. ETA three minutes."