The crew was uneasy around her, Lieutenant Commander Emilia Shepard could feel it, see it in the way they looked at her, hear it in the way whispers trailed after her like a shadow and cut off when she looked at the source. She couldn’t blame them. She’d appeared one day off a shuttle from the Skyllian Verge, dressed in civvies and carrying her equipment on her back, the last crew member to arrive before the ship’s maiden voyage. They knew who she was, and the smarter ones knew that both Captain Anderson and Commander Shepard being present meant they were likely to end up in the deep end at some point. Add in a Spectre and you had some thoroughly disquieted sailors.
Shepard just wished she knew what they were flying into. Shakedown cruise, her ass. No one brought Spectres along for test drives. She kept her unease to herself as best she could, and clamped down on the officers who voiced similar thoughts - not because they were wrong, but because they needed to show the crew a united front behind their captain, and it was the role of the executive officer to play bad cop.
She stood, shoulders squared and hands behind her back, staring at the captain’s readouts before her, feeling the thrum of the Normandy’s drive core beneath her feet, listening to the bustle of the crew around her. She’d known them for about 46 hours and they’d known each other for a couple of months at most, but they seemed to be working more or less seamlessly.
That had been one thing she’d had to get used to after she’d done SWCOT: how calm and mechanical the bridge of a warship was. There was a lot more shouting and profanity in the Marines. Vulgarity was a way to vent the stress that came with ground combat, to keep from going a little crazy.
The space around Arcturus Station was crowded with a glittering array of starships: the predatory forms of the Fifth Fleet’s warships’, yachts of the super-rich; and utilitarian Kowloon freighters and passenger shuttles. It was something Shepard had always liked about the station - going to one of the observation decks on one of the ‘wings’ and watching the different ships floating past in the deep dark of space. When she was a child, her mother had often taken her there, and spent hours explaining to her what the different ships were, and what they were for.
The downside of that crowd was that navigating through the shipping lanes took some time...and then there was the queue to wait to go through the Relay. But the time had to be taken, even if the pilot bitched about the ‘fastest ship in the Navy’ being stuck behind some lumbering freighter that flew like a glacier, since a ship’s thrusters could melt anything behind it to slag. And wouldn’t that be a sad end to a prototype warship?
“You are cleared for Relay approach, Normandy. Fair seas and fair winds. Arcturus Control out.”
She rested both hands on the railing on the captain’s podium (a turian thing, she had a feeling she might come to miss the traditional captain’s chair), a flicker of unease running through her and then extinguished. Anderson should’ve been taking the ship through this, as boring as waiting in a line was, but he was off doing God knew what with Nihlus. It wasn’t like Anderson to keep her in the dark, and she’d felt the turian’s eyes fix on her whenever they were in the same room, a sensation like nails running down a chalkboard.
She keyed the ship’s intercom. “All hands, this is the bridge. Secure your stations for Relay transit.”
In front of her, little lights flickered from green to orange to tell her that the crew was switching off sensors and cameras to prevent damage, and that the damage control parties had been stood to. Time to hope the shiny new, experimental, over-sized drive core didn’t explode and kill them all when they hit blueshift. Silent tension ratcheted up within the bridge; they were the space equivalent of the old test pilots, praying for the ship not to disintegrate around them.
“Commander, all stations secure,” Pressly, the ship’s navigator and second officer, told her from his own station.
“Helm, begin Relay approach.”
She felt eyes on her back and lifted her head from her displays to see the turian coming into the CIC, eyes that reminded of a large, dangerous cat scanning her, weighing her up, like every movement she made was being evaluated. Shepard prided herself on being close to unflappable, with confidence she’d earnt, but Spectre Nihlus put her teeth on edge. She couldn’t read him; couldn’t decide what he wanted from her, or whether she’d passed his evaluation.
Not that she particularly cared what he thought of her - the Council didn’t give a single fuck about the people who died in the Traverse or what atrocities the Hegemony committed, despite their supercops with a license to kill. In her experience, the very people who complained about the restrictions of laws and rules, were usually the kind of people that necessitated the rules in the first place. Even the close-knit N7 teams, stuck in the savage parts of the galaxy, had guidelines.
Still, not pissing off the Spectre was the best way to keep her rank, and Anderson had told her to behave, so she’d play nice.
She watched out of the corner of her eye as Nihlus walked into the cockpit, and after a moment she followed, though whether she was going to save Moreau and Alenko from Nihlus or stop the pilot from starting a war with the Citadel, she wasn’t sure.
Captain David Anderson adjusted the datapads on his brand new desk, in the Normandy’s captain’s cabin. It was the only private cabin aboard - unlike the Hastings class frigates that had cabins for the XO and Navigator as well. She was a small ship, every square inch packed with something practical like CO2 scrubbers or weapon systems or inertia dampeners - the only concessions to creature comforts were the recreation room and the gym down in the cargo bay. They said patrol frigates were heirs to the submarines of the old blue water navies, and this ship lived up to that with its cramped spaces and the racks and sleeping pods put in strange places.
A small ship, a cramped ship, a ship that NavComm wanted immediate reports on…
A fast ship. A damned fine ship. His ship. Even if he’d had to leave the deck to his X in order to start writing the first of many reports that would describe almost every moment of the Normandy’s shakedown cruise and first covert mission for the Admiralty board to dissect. Even if some would say that the Normandy, prototype or not, was a step down from his previous command, the cruiser Tokyo and her hundreds of crew.
“Here’s your coffee, sir,” A young man dressed in blue and black Navy fatigues said, setting a steaming cup in front of him. The boy was nineteen, barely a year into his Navy career, and a bit starstruck. He’d admirably restrained himself to only the occasional stammer when talking to Anderson. He had, however, managed to drop all of his datapads the first time he’d come face-to-face with Commander Shepard, but the captain had high hopes that Serviceman Third Class Hector Emerson would be eventually able to look at the XO’s face when reporting to her.
“Thank you, Emerson.” The first sip hit the spot, dark and bitter. The launching ceremony had been full of the worst kind of pomp, politicians and journalists everywhere, and it had left him with a sense of bone deep exhaustion.
“Sir, Spectre Nihlus wants to talk to you.” Emerson shifted from foot to foot. Wherever the turian Spectre went, a wave of unease rippled through the human crew. If it disturbed the man, Nihlus didn’t show it. If anything, Anderson thought that it amused him.
“Well, send him in then,” Anderson said, a touch sharply.
“Aye, sir!” Emerson practically sprung out the door. After a moment, the Spectre darkened the doorway.
“We need to speak to Shepard,” he said without preamble, green eyes inscrutable.
Anderson glanced at a stack of datapads on his desk. Personnel records. A good crew to go with a good ship. Marine Staff Lieutenant Kaidan Alenko, the type of hyper-competent, even-keeled company-grade officer every commander dreamed of having at their disposal. Sergeant Talitha Draven, thrice decorated for valour. Master Chief Monica Negulesco, the best Master Chief Anderson had had the pleasure of serving with. Lieutenant Greg Adams, who could keep a ship running with some duct tape and gum.
Lieutenant Commander Emilia Shepard.
Anderson nodded, grimacing slightly. “It’s time we let her in on it.”
“You know her far better than I do, Captain,” said Kryik. “How do you think she’ll react to her candidacy?”
He considered the question, sipping his coffee again. Emerson should be promoted just for his coffee-making.
When David Anderson had been a young man, he’d realised that to be a damned good officer he needed more than tactical acumen and a measure of raw badassery. Both of those things were required, of course, especially to gain the respect of that particular breed that was the Marine. But it also required people skills, even a touch of empathy. To know what made the people under his command tick, and when to give a sympathetic ear or a boot up the arse. Anderson had a carefully cultivated, well earned reputation as a hard arse, but he knew when to gentle his touch.
Some of Anderson’s coworkers in the Navy had been surprised when he’d decided on Shepard as his executive officer. She had so little naval experience, they’d argued, and she clearly preferred her special forces assignments. The general consensus was that the woman had only attended SWCOT because of ambition, and because an understanding of joint operations was required to get anywhere in the higher echelons of the Defence Force, or she’d done it to please her mother.
There was something more that Anderson had wanted in his XO, even before the Spectre candidacy had been discussed, more than Shepard’s competency and their mutual trust. Beyond even that they were alike - two special forces officers whose true home was the battlefield. She had that quality, that ability to read people and get the best out of them. Give it a week and she’d have the whole crew wrapped around her little finger.
“She’s ambitious,” Anderson said at last, setting his cup down, “and that can cut both ways. She might see the opportunity - and the challenge - being offered here. Or she might be royally pissed off.”
He was betting on the second reaction, personally, but he was keeping that to himself. Becoming a Spectre would mean Shepard would never be able to return to her beloved N7 teams in the Traverse.
Nihlus’ mandibles flared thoughtfully. “I’d like to speak to her for a moment, before you come in.”
Anderson considered this, and the worst case scenario of his Executive Officer throwing a highly decorated Citadel agent into a wall with her mind. “Alright. I’ll call her into the comms room.”
Shepard was not happy. Shepard was not happy at all. She stared at the Spectre with a carefully blank expression, her chest squeezed with a sense of impending doom. The impending doom of her naval career, specifically. Her eyes darted to Anderson in the hope that this was a joke, but the captain had his arms folded and he nodded at her in a vaguely paternal and encouraging manner. She realised, with a pit in her stomach, that not only did her mentor approve of her candidacy for the Spectres, he may well have had something to do with it in the first place.
“Humanity has been waiting for this for a long time…” Anderson’s impromptu speech told her that this was politics mixed up with the military, the sort of thing she’d gone to N School to get away from.
“Your actions during the Blitz showed not only great courage, but an impressive amount of individual skill and initiative. That’s why I put your name forward for the Spectres,” the turian explained. She blinked at him. She had never even heard of the man before the Normandy’s launch.
It was a great honour. It could be someone else’s great honour. Shepard was confident in her skills as a special forces officer, but she knew where her loyalties lay - and where her ambitions did. She wanted to be Special Operations Commander one day when she was too old to fight, so she could train and direct her people, the members of the insular and secretive First Special Operations Division, in their efforts to protect Alliance space. Gallivanting around as a Council special operative, playing assassin-cop, was not part of the plan.
“Respectfully, Spectre,” she said carefully, “I don’t believe I’m the right fit for the Spectres.”
Anderson looked put out by her reluctance, but she ignored him. There was a tendril of anger towards him beginning to unfurl in her stomach.
Nihlus looked at her intently. “I disagree. Elysium is proof of your skill and determination. You can get the job done.”
Elysium. It always came back to Elysium. The ghost of a battle trailing after her wherever she went. She was glad he hadn’t brought up Akuze. Small mercies. “I’m a Marine,” she said sharply, “not a police officer nor an assassin.”
Nihlus’ mandibles flared in what might have been amusement, “So N7s never ‘eliminate high value targets’?”
That’s different, she wanted to say. Battlefield kills of terrorists and enemy commanders. She’d killed or captured High Value Targets for an organisation she believed in, as one subset of her duties in the special forces. Special reconnaissance and direct action were still different to the mixture of intelligence and investigative work a Spectre did.
How could she do that for the Council? She didn’t believe in the Council. Time and time again they had refused to mediate or intervene in the undeclared war between the Alliance and Hegemony, the conflict in which so many of her brothers and sisters, first in the infantry and then in the Special Forces, had died. How often had Spectres intervened to save human colonies or civilians?
Shepard saw a great deal to admire in the governments and societies of other species, particularly the Hierarchy and the Republics, but she didn’t see the benefits of a body that separated species into those who had a say in galactic affairs and those who didn’t. She’d never agreed with Parliament’s single-minded focus on achieving a Council seat; the volus had invented the galactic economic system and still didn’t have a seat, which meant fairness had very little to do with the whole affair.
“This isn’t about you, Shepard,” Anderson said, almost gently. “Humanity needs this. We’re counting on you.”
She was being voluntold, then. She felt a sharp bite of helplessness in the face of the System that she hadn’t felt since she’d been a Lance Corporal and she’d been waylaid by a Sergeant Major and ordered, along with three other grunts, to paint rocks. Of all the endings to her Marine Corps-Navy career that she’d imagined, this hadn’t been one of them.
“You’ll be leading the Marine Detachment to retrieve the artifact for transport,” Anderson continued, as if she hadn’t protested. “Secure it and get it onto the ship ASAP. Nihlus will accompany you to observe the mission.”
“I’ll go get the Marines ready to jump,” she said shortly. “With your permission, sir.”
They were interrupted by the voice of the comms technician on duty, “Captain, it’s Lam. We just got a vid message from Eden Prime on the priority emergency channel. You’ll want to see this.”
Nothing was ever simple.
Space Warfare Command Officer Training (SWCOT): Modern warfare is more multi-dimensional than ever before and the modern admiral or general has the unenviable task of co-ordinating and understanding starships, aircraft, vehicles and infantry on the ground, in the air and in space.
Although the role of a Marine officer is very different to that of a naval officer, it became apparent in the aftermath of the First Contact war that ground forces officers needed to have a working knowledge of spacecraft and 'SWCOT' was the Alliance's answer. Officers are taught astro-navigation, ship-handling, how to operate naval equipment and how run bridge watches. By the end of the course, the individual is technically qualified to stand a watch as the Officer of the Deck – or person in charge of controlling a ship – aboard a corvette or frigate, though actual assignment to such duty is at the discretion of individual captains.
Advocates believe that SWCOT gives the Marine officer greater proficiency in shipboard duties, provides lateral movement between the Marine Corps and the Navy (as shown by Captain David Anderson, who chose to switch to the Navy in the Space Warfare or command track, instead of retiring after a long and illustrious Marine career) and helps integrate the services. Critics believe it circumvents the Navy's normal way of training and vetting Space Warfare Officers, potentially placing officers without the necessary experience in command of naval vessels, and that a course is no substitute for years of experience on the bridge.
Currently most graduates of SWCOT are Marine officers and Navy pilots. Carriers can only be commanded by a senior Naval Aviator who has completed the course, and it is difficult to reach general rank as a Marine without also doing so.