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Encroachment

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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.”

“Granted, XO-”

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.


CODEX ENTRY:

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.

Chapter Text

“I’ve never seen this many eggheads in one place before,” Serviceman First Class Nirali Bhatia observed, glancing up from her omnitool. Her platoon sergeant made a noise of agreement, never looking up from where she was fiddling with the sights on her rifle. The Marines had settled into positions around the archaeological digsite, a full company of the 2/12th Marine Battalion having marched out from Camp Kumar, near the city of Constant. They’d been patrolling and sleeping under the stars for the last few days, while the scientists transformed this lonely, remote area into a hive of excited activity.

“Don’t get me wrong,” the corpsman added a few moments later, shutting off her omnitool, “Eden Prime is beautiful, but I’m about ready to go home.”

The two of them were sitting by one of the tall, broad-leaved trees common to this part of Eden Prime. The roots made digging foxholes on these ridges and hills difficult, so the lieutenant hadn’t bothered to tell the platoon to do so. Staff Sergeant Ashley Williams disagreed pretty strongly and said just that - and had gotten a caustic reminder of who was in charge, Williams. She’d turned away, anger locking up her jaw and stalked off. She was grimly waiting for a dressing down by the First Sergeant.

But all of that wasn’t Bhatia’s fault.

“You’ve got like three months left before you go on terminal leave, right?” Ashley asked, putting down her rifle. Terminal leave, when Bhatia would take the remaining leave the military owed her before she was officially discharged. Ash had always thought it pretty fitting that leaving the military was referred to as ‘separation’, because sometimes it felt a bit like a marriage. Nirali was getting to the point that the time spent away from her husband was getting too much for her. She’d done her four years and was ready to get on with her life. Ash knew the Marine Corps was sunk deep into her bones, but she could understand why Bhatia was ready for her posting to be over with.

Nirali smiled. “Yes. Samesh has been planning our holiday. We’re going to visit our families in Gujarat, then go on holiday in South America. I’ve always wanted to visit there.”

The corpsman’s voice was tender whenever she said her husband’s name. Sometimes, at night lying in her bunk and listening to Bhatia playing Samesh’s message to herself to help her sleep, Ashley wondered what it was like to love and be loved like that.

“I’ll ask my ma for some recommendations of places to go in Brazil,” she offered. She saw herself as human first, colonist second and Brazilian-American third, but her mother was another case.

Bhatia’s reply was interrupted by another Marine throwing herself onto the ground with the dull clack of ceramic plates, pulling off her helmet. Sergeant Penny Neal ran a hand through her short brown hair that was just this side of regulation. That was Penny in a nutshell - she made a terrible garrison Marine. She only took shore postings because it was Alliance policy, and as soon as the allotted time was up she’d be back in the fight. Or busted down to Corporal for pissing off the wrong person. Whichever came first. But she’d been a great help to Ash’s attempts to turn a green platoon into a unit capable of getting through a Traverse deployment alive. She tried not to think about how all these green Privates and Penny would be gone in a month or two, and she’d still be stuck on this damned rock.

“Williams, Bhatia,” Sergeant Neal said, pulling her canteen out and taking a few gulps, “Can’t fuckin’ wait until the delivery guys show up and we can stop babysitting.”

“You know the Navy,” Ashley said dryly, taking a moment to appreciate a droplet of water sliding down Penny’s sharp jawline, “they like to take their time.”

Penny caught Ash’s eye and flushed a little beneath her gaze. A smirk curved her lips. Their mutual attraction had lingered between them from the time they’d met, acknowledged but not spoken. Ashley didn’t believe in dating within her platoon and her First Sergeant was just waiting for reasons to write her up. But that didn’t mean they couldn’t have a bit of fun with it sometimes.

“Hey!” Bhatia complained, and the moment between them snapped.

Ash patted her on the shoulder, “Not you, Nirali. You’re basically a Marine.”

“Go Navy!” Nirali gave a lackluster attempt at a fist pump. Williams grinned at her.

“Williams!” She sprung to her feet and faced Second Lieutenant Matthews. He scowled at her darkly. His drill instructor routine might have had more of impact on her if he hadn’t been barely twenty-two, and if the more experienced Marines in the platoon didn’t look to her before they carried out his orders. He seemed to hold her personally responsible for his inability to gain the respect of his Marines, all the while throwing his weight around and trying to browbeat Traverse veterans.

“Yessir?”

“Get the platoon up and moving. The captain wants us to do a patrol of the surrounding area.”

“Aye, sir.” She pulled Neal to her feet by her webbing, “C'mon, you heard the lieutenant!”


Eight years into his career as a Marine officer and Kaidan Alenko found the process of suiting up to be almost a ritual, or a meditation. He’d swapped his fatigues for a slim underarmour suit, the main purpose of which was to prevent chafing and to link up to the various monitoring and medical systems of his armour. Over that went the ‘soft’ part of the whole thing - two layers of ballistic weave sandwiching a layer of ‘liquid armour’, or non-Newtonian fluid. The harder the liquid was struck, the more resistance it would put up. Finally he strapped on the hard pieces - rigid plates of ceramic over his chest, back, sides, shoulders and thighs - and pulled his helmet on. The suit computer booted, running diagnostics of all systems, his modified HUD popping up on his visor.

All green. Alenko nodded in satisfaction.

Next, he slipped his arms through the straps of his chest rig, the load bearing system in which he stored his bits of gear, and started loading up the pockets and pouches. Two smoke grenades, three ECM disk grenades, nine heatsinks, two spare power cells and a few protein bars.

Across the table from him Lieutenant Commander Shepard was also packing her webbing. Like him, she’d squirreled away some snacks and glucose tablets. Unlike him, she added three frag grenades, a combat knife and a bayonet. That was unusual. A lot of grunts weren’t overly familiar with the bayonet and fewer took one with them on missions.

“What’s that for, ma’am?” Private Alan Fredricks nodded towards the bayonet. Alenko was a bit concerned for Fredricks and Corporal Jenkins; they were both good Marines but new to the 103rd Marine Division and eager to prove themselves. He’d heard that Shepard had dressed down Jenkins for his over-eagerness, but the young NCO was still chomping at the bit for ‘real action’, though the eagerness was now combined with anxiety about Eden Prime. To put it simply, the Corporal was on edge and jittery, which in turn made his fireteam nervous.

Kaidan resolved to keep the young Marine close to him during the mission.

Shepard magnetized her shotgun to her lower back and said shortly, “Just in case. Comes in handy sometimes.”

Sergeant Draven, better known as ‘Gung ho Draven’ to distinguish her from her wife, Petty Officer Third Class Rosamund Draven in Engineering, spoke up: “Ma’am, sir, do we have any idea on the enemy?”

“Negative,” replied Kaidan, “We’re going to be the first in, so our secondary objective is to get as much intel on the enemy as possible, while the Normandy provides support for the garrison.”

Shepard’s tone was firm, “Listen, Marines, we’re going in blind. I want everyone to be switched on and smart about this. We might not know the enemy yet, but this is an act of war against the Systems Alliance. We’re going to get in, get this beacon and find out who was stupid enough to attack us.” Suddenly there was something hard and tense in her face, her eyes glittering like hard, black diamonds. “And then we’re going to fucking kill them.”

“Oorah!” The war cry boomed through the Normandy’s cargo bay.


Ashley had bitten her tongue. Her mouth tasted of rust. The air smelt of smoke, the sky was bloody and split by streams of gunfire. She burned. Hatred, pain, fatigue, the type of fury that made you want to scream with it, but she had to keep her breath for running. Feet pounding against the dirt, darting from cover to cover, gunfire stitching the earth behind her, her pursuers chattering in electronic screeches.

She had to keep moving. Her side was wet with blood and tissue; Penny had been standing beside her when she’d been bisected by enemy fire, her life splattered across Ashley’s armour. She hadn’t made a noise as she’d died. One moment she was alive and fighting and keeping her squad together, the next she was dead. Nirali had tried to go to her but Ash had told her to keep moving, there was nothing to do. She could deal with Bhatia calling her a bitch for leaving their friend in the grass and dirt, if it meant she lived.

But she hadn't. She hadn't.

Williams ducked behind a log, hearing the thud of rounds hitting her new cover. Her hands were mechanical on her rifle. She raised it, snapped off several bursts at the nearest geth, drilling it right in the flashlight. Changed targets, fired again; a geth platform staggered and fell, its chest resembling a cheese grater. She was out of grenades, but she still had ammunition. The fury that bubbled in her chest, tasted metallic in her mouth, hazed her vision in red, demanded some sort of recompense for her friends, even if she was the only one who would know about it.

The lieutenant had been amongst the first to die. Williams had taken command, mind racing, tactical plans spinning together in her head, with how she would get her platoon out of this mess and falling back towards the rest of her battalion. Instead, fire had rained upon them from every angle and every plea for reinforcements or air strikes or artillery over the radio had been answered by static. And the Marines had died, one by one. The ones who lived long enough had ended up on those spikes.

Her rifle beeped at her. She tugged free her sidearm and popped off one, two, three shots, knocking a drone out of the air. She grunted as her shields took the brunt of a replying barrage from one of the machines and flickered blue around her. They failed as she threw herself down, feeling like she’d been punched in the side. One of the ceramic plates was blackened, grazed by a bullet, but the armour had held. These rounds, these weapons, she’d never seen anything like them. They cut military spec shields to shreds in seconds.

That was how Nirali had died. Screaming, as those rounds had ripped through shield and armour both and into her abdomen. Ashley had dragged her to cover and pulled out a tube of medigel, but she was gone even as she’d tried to stop the bleeding.

Williams slid another heatsink home and raised her rifle. Do not go gentle into that good night.

She was alone. She was the last. All she could taste was blood.


The Marines of the Normandy advanced, a wave of gunfire and black hardsuits charging through collapsed Prothean stonework and past the still corpses of Marines and civilians alike. Some of the bodies were burnt beyond recognition or pockmarked with bullet wounds and every time Shepard passed one, she got angrier. The geth showed no fear, retreating in good order under the onslaught, even when Gung Ho Draven took down the sniper providing the enemy with cover fire with a precisely launched grenade that blew bits of metal everywhere.

They were machines. They couldn’t feel fear or rage.

But anger and fear could be a driving force, something Shepard knew intimately. It drove the Marines now, ever violently forward. Shepard could feel the shared, grim determination to get to the beacon and achieve the objective of this mission - for Jenkins, so very young and now so very dead, cut down in a hail of geth gunfire.

Shepard was a maelstrom of biotics and shotgun blasts, ripping geth out of cover where they were riddled by bullets or torn apart when Alenko hit them with an opposing biotic field. She left her rifle on her back, taking shots at any geth platform that was in range of her shotgun instead. Beside her the Marine officer was the deceptively tranquil eye of the storm, as he flung an enemy into stone or tossed out an ECM grenade that fried shields and weapons. Only rarely did he raise and fire his rifle.

She’d been concerned that he would see her taking command of the ground mission as a slight - XOs on corvettes and frigates did sometimes lead ground teams, but only if no Marine NCOs or officers were aboard - but she was beginning to realise that the thought to be offended probably hadn’t even crossed his mind.

She raised a hand, tendrils of blue whipping around her arm and caught a drone that had been focusing fire on PFC Bitar. Staff Sergeant Williams, the stray garrison Marine, stood and fired. The woman was a crack shot: almost every round found its target. The drone crumpled like a tin can and without pausing the sergeant switched targets, suppressing another geth platform.

Fearless or not, the synthetics were steadily overrun by the black-clad Marines, with Fredricks snarling as he put three rounds through the optics of the last enemy.

The digsite was empty.

“It was here,” insisted Williams, “The geth must have moved it.”

“Likely,” Shepard agreed. The force the Normandy Marines had carved through was nowhere near the strength required to destroy a full company of infantry Marines, which made sense if the geth had taken their prize already. These ones would have been left to harry the remaining Marines, prevent them from regrouping and counter-attacking.

“What now?” Lance Corporal Ki-tae asked, frustration flavouring his voice.

“To fly it outta here, you’d have to take it to the spaceport - can’t even get a shuttle in here,” Williams supplied.

“That’s where Nihlus said he was headed, Commander,” Alenko said, coming to stand near her. “Has he reported in since then?”

Shepard shook her head. “ He hasn’t. It’s worth checking it out.”

“Nihlus?” Williams asked quizzically.

“Spectre,” Shepard said shortly, not wanting the distraction of explaining, putting her shotgun away and getting out her rifle. “How do we get to the spaceport?”

“It’s past the scientists’ camp. I’ll show you.”

“Move out,” Shepard ordered. “Stay sharp and keep your eyes open. We can’t rely on our scanners.”


Captain David Anderson stood on the podium in the CIC of his ship, staring down at the holographic representation of the battlefield far below. Blinking icons denoted friendly positions and enemy forces; the remaining infantry of the 12th Frontier Regiment had fallen back to positions defending the city in an attempt to save as many civilians as possible and were under sustained attack from what appeared to be a reinforced geth regiment with armoured support.

Anderson had ordered the Normandy’s reconnaissance drones launched and her extensive sensors turned on the enemy, hoping to glean whatever intel they could. Anything they could learn would save Marine lives once the relief force arrived. What he saw perplexed him; the enemy force was large enough that it had routed the 2/12th battalion and pinned the 1/12th and 3/12th battalions in their current positions, but it wouldn’t be enough to hold Constant once the Seventh Marine Expeditionary Brigade landed with a full flotilla of Alliance warships backing them up. This wasn’t an invasion - this was an incursion. But why? The geth hadn’t been seen outside the Perseus Veil since they’d driven their creators into exile centuries ago, and they’d certainly never interacted with humanity before.

And then there was the dreadnought. It was a black, gleaming, hulking thing that reminded him of a cuttlefish perched near Constant’s spaceport, the likes of which Anderson had never seen before. No Alliance dreadnought was that large and no Alliance dreadnought could land on a planet with Eden Prime’s gravity. It was beyond even the most dire of Alliance Strategic Command’s thought exercises regarding the geth.

He knew that monstrosity would swat the Normandy like a fly if they got too close, but it hadn’t moved to pursue the frigate or give support to the geth forces assaulting the city. Still, he’d ordered the ship to maintain enough distance and altitude that they could make a run for it if the dreadnought decided it wanted stealth frigate for lunch.

“Netcall, this is Normandy. On station and ready for call for fire, over.” He said into his comm.

The regiment’s Naval Gunfire Liaison Officer sounded visibly relieved over the net. “Normandy, this is Warhorse. Fire mission, target number Alpha Zulu 2451, over.”

Anderson repeated back the warning order, then ordered Joker to line the ship up and the gunnery officer to input the firing solution.

“Infantry platoon in the open, danger close south 1500 metres, one round, over.”

“Fire,” Anderson ordered over the comm line between the bridge and the gunnery officer, down in the bowels of the ship.

The whole ship shivered as the main cannon roared, the sound echoing through the hallways and compartments inside her. A mass accelerator round was hurled through the clouds and smoke and into the middle of a platoon of synthetics advancing on a tenuously held position. The explosion threw up rock, dirt, smoke and bits of geth, leaving a deep crater and cheering Marines.

“Gunnery, shift target, grid reference.” He glanced at the tacnet and listed the numbers. “Main gun.” The ship realigned in a clever little sideways slip that Joker was no doubt pleased with himself about. “Fire!”

The Normandy again shuddered as her main weapon discharged, the shell this time impacting on top of an Armature that had been tearing into one of the 3/12th’s platoons. They were taking intermittent anti-ship fire, but the state of the art shields and defensive GARDIAN lasers had negated it admirably so far.

“How long until the 15th ESG is on station?” he asked Lowe. The Fifteenth Expeditionary Strike Group consisted of the 7th Marine Expeditionary Brigade, the MEB’s troopship, two cruisers, two ground support frigates and enough drop ships to land all of the brigade’s 14,500 Marines and sailors. Once they landed, the battle would change very, very quickly.

If that dreadnought didn’t tear the strike group to pieces first.

“One and a half hours, sir. The Everest is also enroute.”

Hackett, that wily old bastard, was coming himself? And bringing his dreadnought too? The geth might as well say their prayers now. If geth could even believe in anything, that was.

“Sir!” It was Serviceman Second Class Lei Chou, on one of the sensor stations, “The enemy dreadnought is moving!”

“Joker, you have the conn.” Anderson said sharply. “Prepare to take evasive maneuvers.”

However the strange, squidlike dreadnought seemed to disregard them. Instead, it rose into the sky and then into space, leaving the battlefield behind and leaving the geth forces with no way of retreat. Anderson had the sensor technicians track it until it hit the nearest Relay, even as the ship continued to strike at enemy positions with its cannon and torpedoes.

“Well, at least it won’t oppose the MEB landing,” said Lieutenant Commander Pressly.

Anderson grunted. “No, but now we have a huge fucking enemy dreadnought wandering around our space and no way to find it.”

Joker brought the ship around to head back towards a Marine platoon's location, and he did his best to stuff his worries about the dreadnought into a drawer called 'later' in his head. Distractions right now were worse than useless.

“Heat load?” he barked as the ship fired again, shaking beneath his feet. Heat load was the one greatest limitation of a warship - she could only fight for so long until she cooked her crew , in naval parlance, into fried calamari. He’d been checking the ship sensors and readings more regularly than he would’ve had he still been commanding the Tokyo. The Normandy was still supposed to be doing her space trials, not dodging anti ship fire and blasting enemy platoons into craters.

The one good thing about this mess was that he could probably try and pass the battle off as the Normandy passing all of her stress tests and then some. But knowing the type of protocol obsessed officer that constituted Naval Command, it was more likely he’d get reprimanded for taking a untested ship into combat. NavComm had always had a thing for boxing the ears of those they thought were straying too close to maverick status. Special Forces units gave them regular aneurysms. Too many beards.

“Still in the green, sir,” Navigator Pressly reported. Anderson had ordered the stealth system disengaged for more operational time, trading the IES’ defence of sensor invisibility for duration. The geth had AA but what the GARDIAN systems missed, Flight Lieutenant Moreau danced the Normandy free of. Some people thought that Joker shouldn’t even be in the military, but Anderson didn’t doubt his ship would have a hole or two in it by now if not for the insubordinate bastard.

“Sir, we’ve got incoming geth fighters!” Reported Lieutenant Nina Rodriquez. “Three of ‘em, they’re coming in fast.”

Three silvery, insectoid fighters had broken off from bombing the city and swept towards the Normandy, gaining altitude. Joker flung the ship into a steep ascent, pulling up and out of her holding pattern above the battlefield. The inertia dampener and artificial gravity had both been turned down and Anderson was rapidly made glad of the fact he’d strapped himself into his restraints as a datapad flew off a workstation, past his face, and bounced down the near vertical command deck. He took a moment to make a note for himself to yell at Serviceman Farro after the battle for failing to secure his work station, before the ship jerked hard to starboard, twisting and plummeting towards the surface with the fighters and two anti-ship proton torpedos in swift pursuit.

“Come on, baby,” he heard his pilot say softly over the commlink and the Normandy pulled up sharply, throwing the captain against his restraints. The torpedoes slammed into a grassy hill in a plume of smoke and dirt. The Normandy whirled with the grace of a ballet dancer, spinning to face her pursuers. She fired once, twice. The first torpedo cracked a fighter into a dozen pieces that fell, burning, to the dirt. The second winged another fighter, tearing off its right thruster and sending the geth aircraft into a death spin that ended with it slamming into rock.

The third fighter was unable to pull up quickly enough and the Normandy split it in half with a bright blue GARDIAN laser.

Rubbing at his sore collarbone, Anderson said, “Joker, get us back into our firing station. And good flying, Lieutenant.”

“That’s why you keep me around, Captain,” Joker drawled and eased into a turn, making the ship do a smug, saucy little wiggle as he did.


Shepard glared at the beacon as if her gaze could cause it to shut off its security field and box itself up for transport. It was a glare that had made the knees of grizzled veterans knock together, but unfortunately it had no effect on inanimate objects. Far too many people had died for this thing and now, as a final insult, it was preventing easy removal. She turned to contact the ship as Fredricks and ‘Jaz’ Teke carried Jenkins and Dubyanski dragged Nihlus in a bodybag onto the spaceport platform. Gung Ho Draven was busy herding the various civilians they’d found scattered in various hiding places during their advance - and keeping said civilians away from Williams who looked as if she wanted to punch a few dockworkers in the face.

It was best not to leave civilians lying around in a war zone. They’d get into all sorts of trouble and no doubt someone would blame her for it. She just hoped they would be able to handball them off to someone else very soon, because if she had to listen to that scientist ranting about death and destruction for too long she’d probably get a migraine, knowing her luck.

She glanced past Williams and-

Alenko was in trouble.

Several thoughts ran through her head in rapid-fire: he’s trying to get free, he’s trapped, why isn’t he calling out, my Marine, I’m not losing another one- But the action that followed was without thought, as if her body had seized control and propelled her forward, shouldering past Williams, sprinting towards him. She grabbed Alenko around the waist and heaved, gene-modded muscles screaming as she fought his solid, muscular weight and the mass effect field wrapped around him.

Gravity and momentum took over and Alenko went tumbling, sprawling at Williams’ feet.

And then all her muscles locked as something dragged and lifted her helplessly towards the beacon. There were voices calling her name, but it was dull and distant over the stab of fear deep into her gut and the rushing in her ears. A terrible vice clamped around her head, squeezing, squeezing. It was like claws tearing into her skull, ripping her mind open. She tried to scream but her mouth wouldn’t open.

Agony. Agony. Despair.

Memories, impressions, foreign impulses buried themselves into her mind, alien and forceful.

-a dozen cities cracked open and burning. Metal claws from the sky, from the stars, ripping whole worlds into pieces.

The vise around her head tightened, tightened. She knew it would kill her, had to, would crush her skull and pulp the brain inside.

Metal like a disease, metal knitting with flesh, invading it, making it unholy. Screaming that became screeches, metallic and cold. Organic pieces scattered on streets. Help us. HELP US-

Then there was release, or perhaps an explosion, her ears ringing and her eyes unseeing, and Emilia Shepard fled into blissful darkness.


CODEX ENTRY:

Colonial Militia: It is an unfortunate fact that life in the colonies is often more dangerous than life in a developed country on Earth. Wildlife and pirates are both hazards to the intrepid colonist seeking a new home, and the Systems Alliance Defence Force is often stretched thin defending the Alliance's large and sparsely populated borders.

As part of an attempt to increase colonial defences and recruit colonists into their own defence, the Alliance Parliament legislated for the creation of colonial militias, under the auspice of the 'Colonial Guards'. These militias, while receiving some training and funding support from the SADF, vary widely in quality and size. Some are rather haphazard about standards, others such as Mindoir have mandatory service for able bodied adults and a well oiled training system run by Alliance veterans.

Many militias use Alliance surplus or cheap weaponry, such M96 Mattock and M8 Avenger assault rifles, Grizzly IFVs and old shuttles. Militias are prohibited from fielding navies of their own, however several large colonies such as Elysium, Terra Nova and Benning have bought retired corvettes and cutters from the Alliance for customs and patrols.

In peacetime, militias remain under the control of their colonial government, train once a month and assist with search and rescue efforts as required. During wartime, however, the Systems Alliance government may call militia troops to active duty as auxiliaries. So far the only time this has occurred was when the Elysium Defence Force was put under Alliance command during the Skyllian Blitz.

Chapter Text

Anderson stood in front of the remains of the Prothean beacon, the shattered base still smelling faintly of smoke. The Marines had dragged it aboard and then carried the bodies of Richard Jenkins and Nihlus Kryik aboard, gently sealing them into flat, silver body transfer cases and carrying them into the freezer. Draven and Alenko had then draped Jenkin’s case with the Alliance flag and fastened it in place. That flag wouldn’t leave the body until his funeral, when it would be folded and given to the young Marine’s mother.

If his mother was still alive.

Shit. This mission had become a helluva mess. No artifact, a dead Spectre, a dead Marine. The Defence Department and the Council would want answers and they wouldn’t like what he’d have to say. That no one had seen the geth coming, that sometimes missions went to shit just because of dumb luck, that it wasn’t the Alliance’s fault Nihlus had charged off on his own, that Shepard and her team had prevented a lot of dead Marines and civilians by getting to that nuke.

Alenko and Williams had carried his XO to the medical bay, where she was still unconscious. He’d only visited briefly, despite the cold, hard stone of concern in his gut. He was the captain and the ship needed him. He’d distracted himself with the orders that had to be given: transmitting all reports and recon data to Hackett’s flagship, running more orbital strikes on enemy positions. Now Hackett’s task group was in system, so he’d ordered Joker to extricate the ship from the battlespace and enter orbit, where he’d spent several hours in vid conferences with various superiors, all of whom were in various states of panic.

You better wake up, Junior, he’d thought grimly, touching her still shoulder for a moment. If she didn’t, he’d have to tell her mother.

Captain Hannah Shepard - Shepard Senior - was one of the toughest people Anderson had ever met, even if she appeared to have an emotional range that went from ‘mildly irritated and wondering why you were bothering her’ to ‘about to kick someone out an airlock’. In the twenty years Anderson had known her, he’d seen her cry twice. Once when Sergeant Isabel Shepard had been pulled out of a burning tank on Shanxi in pieces. And once, when she’d been quietly informed that her daughter had been on Akuze and that she was gravely wounded. The first time she’d wiped her eyes, bared her teeth and gotten back in her fighter jet, determined to rain vengeance upon the Hierarchy Army, a task she had gone about with admirable efficiency. The second time she had simply sobbed, and everyone besides Anderson in the room had been shocked to realise that she was, in fact, not actually a human-shaped piece of steel.

David gave the beacon one last glare and headed back up to Deck 2, sharing the elevator with Lance Corporal Nick Ki-tae and Serviceman Third Class Robert Falawa. They were both just boys, Falawa nineteen and Ki-tae twenty-one. When the elevator door opened, they murmured a dispirited, “Sir.”

He watched them go. The gloom of Jenkins’ death and Shepard’s condition hung heavily over the crew, like a physical thing, pressing down on your shoulders. Jenkins had been a good kid. Bit overeager. Bit like a puppy in uniform. Needed to learn better bearing as a NCO. But enthusiastic, bombastic, with a talent for drawing people out of their shells. He’d somehow talked Alenko, reserved and controlled as the man was, into biotically flinging him across the cargo bay. Anderson could still remember the horrified look on Alenko’s face when Jenkins hit a crate, the abject horror of a man about to get defenestrated by an angry naval doctor. But then the Corporal had gotten up, yelling about how awesome it was and the biotic officer had had to tactically retreat before another Marine demanded to be thrown.

Anderson withdrew to his cabin and sat down to start writing the first of many reports to his superiors.


Ashley felt numb, like her emotions had switched off to avoid overload and blowing out the fuses in her brain. She was one of those unluckiest of Marines, the type that other Marines quietly avoided for fear that the bad luck was contagious.

Sole survivor. What the fuck.

She’d known Marines who’d been killed in action - it was part of being in the Corps. The Alliance wasn’t at war, technically, but combat deployments were common and regular, so at some point the name of a friend or acquaintance would end up on the casualty lists or the scrolling line at the bottom of the evening news. But this… It was like her mind couldn’t comprehend the knowledge. Not really. Six hundred gone. No. Five hundred and ninety-nine Marines gone. The 2/12th obliterated in a few hours.

What could she say to her family, to her ma? She had a feeling that if she spoke to her mother that the ice coating her insides would crack and she’d cry in the middle of the mess hall in front of all these strangers who hated that she wasn’t Richard Jenkins, or something embarrassing like that. So instead of a vidcall she pulled up her email and mechanically typed out a message. She told her mother that she was okay and off Eden Prime, that she couldn’t call at the moment but she would as soon as she could, and not to worry. She knew Mariana Williams would worry anyway. She’d already lost a husband to the military.

Someone sat down next to her and Ash looked up, closing her emails. Staff Lieutenant Alenko looked like he’d had as much sleep as she had in the past twenty-four hours - none. There were deep bags under his warm brown eyes. If she’d met him in a bar somewhere, she might’ve thought he was the kinda guy, with his immaculate hair and measured way of speaking, that her mother would love her to bring home.

He’d spent much of the time since the two of them had carried the Normandy’s comatose executive officer aboard either talking to his dispirited Marines or hovering near the medbay. There was a painful hint of guilt tucked into the downturn of his mouth.

“Sir?” she said uncertainly.

“Just wanted to see how you were doing.” Alenko said. “And we’ll have a few things to go over, with your assignment to the Normandy.”

“Yessir.” Her gut churned a little. She was desperate to be a part of the Marine Detachment, boots on the ground, get some goddamn payback. But she knew how this went. Alenko would look at her missing qualifications, her history of colonial garrison postings and at her last name, and he’d assign her to the armoury or maintenance or security. If she was lucky. It was still ship duty. She did her best to remember that.

“Since you’ll be taking over as platoon sergeant, we’ll need to-”

“What?” she burst out.

Alenko blinked. “You’ll…be the platoon sergeant? Is there a problem with that?”

A bloom of something dangerously close to hope filled her chest. “No sir. Sorry.”

He paused for a moment and then seemed to shrug internally, and continued. “I could put Sergeant Draven up to it, if you’re not comfortable, but she’s better as a squad or team leader, and I was impressed with how you helped organise my Marines during the battle.” She’d been expecting to get pulled up for taking charge of Jenkins’ team. “You’ll take over the armoury and supervise Mako maintenance - this is a small crew, so everyone has multiple responsibilities.”

“No problem with doing that,” Ashley said, and meant it.

He smiled. “Good to hear, Sergeant. You’re missing some qualifications, but don’t worry too much about it. The Captain and I both want you aboard, so if we need to do some creative paperwork, we’ll get it done.”

She thought she should investigate that further, ask what ‘creative paperwork’ meant. Instead she nodded slowly, “Alright, LT.”

“Welcome aboard, Williams.”


Shepard’s head throbbed more than the worst hangover she’d ever had - and she’d had some impressive hangovers in the past. Special Forces liked to party, and rank was no defence against a grizzled Senior Chief who looked like he’d been around since the Hundred Year’s War pressing whiskey into your hand. Her head felt stuffed full of cotton wool, thoughts slow and stuttering in between sharp jabs of pain, and there were no fond memories to blunt the discomfort. She’d spent as long as she could justify in the dark med bay, hiding from the noise and light in the crew quarters, but now the ship was headed into dock and that meant she needed her Executive Officer. Scrambled brains or not.

Anderson had ordered that dress uniforms be worn, so after taking more painkillers and drinking a quick cup of coffee courtesy of a very guilty Alenko, she headed for the tiny cabin she shared with Navigator Pressly. In most ships the captain, executive officer and navigator had their own cabins, but the Normandy was small enough that only Anderson did. She didn’t mind. A bunk was practically luxury after all the time she’d spent sleeping under vehicles, in holes or in hammocks.

Putting on the dress uniform was muscle memory by now, left over from those long months stuck on Arcturus Station as the Alliance’s decorative war hero. White, pressed pants. White pressed shirt. White pressed jacket. She fastened the buttons up to her chin, wincing as the scar tissue laid over her left shoulder stretched. Next was the ribbon bar, a splash of colour across her chest. Anderson was going to look like a Christmas tree with all the medals he had, or perhaps a Hegemony general. She slid open the drawer and looked down at the Star of Terra she kept there, the pale blue ribbon and the glint of bronze. She fastened it around her neck, but not before she brushed her fingers across the coil of dogtags she kept beside the medal box.

For six years she’d done her best to be worth what so many Marines had sacrificed. She could only keep trying.

She gave herself one last look in the mirror, fastening on her dress sword, making sure everything was in place. She’d argued with Anderson again - twice. She wasn’t used to disagreeing with him so often, and it made her feel as if the ground beneath her feet was unsteady. The first argument had been rather matter of course and she’d accepted her captain’s judgment. The assignment of Staff Sergeant Williams concerned her; she agreed with Alenko’s assessment of the NCO’s skills, but she knew all too well what it was like to be the last one left and she’d spent a couple of months in hospital after Akuze. Williams was being thrown back into the fray without time for counseling or debriefing. Anderson thought that being amongst Marines would help and that Alenko would keep an eye on her; Shepard hoped he was right.

The second argument though…

There was a rock of apprehension in her stomach. She was about to go before the Citadel Council and accuse one of their top agents of treason based on a few bad dreams and the words of a smuggler. She wanted to ask for an investigation, for the justice due to Eden Prime, but Anderson was thrusters full speed ahead on this one, and his eyes glittered with something hard when he said the name ‘Saren’.

Shepard shook her concerns off. She had her duty, whether she liked it or not.

She left her cabin, dodging crew members and trying not to catch the sword on anything. Anderson had ordered Alenko and Williams to go to the hearing with her, and they were waiting, in the somber dark blue of Marine dress blues, medals catching the light. Williams’ medal rack was surprisingly bare, bereft of even the Space Service Ribbon. She really needed to finish reading the Marine’s dossier; that didn’t match up with what Shepard had seen of her on Eden Prime. Some Marines preferred garrison postings over expeditionary units or shipboard postings to stay close to their families - but Williams was unmarried and had no children.

But that was a conundrum for later.

“You two,” she said briskly. “With me.”

“Aye ma’am,” murmured Alenko, and the two Marine slotted in to stand on either side of her, like it was natural. She fixed her eyes forward, ignoring the stares from the crew that touched on the star gleaming at her throat, and led Alenko and Williams up onto the bridge.


CODEX ENTRY:

Systems Alliance Marine Corps Enlisted Ranks And Their Roles:

Private (Pvt): entry rank for most enlisted. No rank insignia. Performs their MVC with no leadership role.

Private First Class (PFC): Entry rank for individuals who have met certain requirements. Promotion occurs automatically after six months service.

Lance Corporal (LCpl): The last automatic promotion for a Marine, which can typically be earned after a year’s service with a good service record. A Lance Corporal is generally expected to begin mentoring Privates and PFCs and begin developing their own leadership skills.

Corporal (Cpl): Corporals are the most junior NCO (non-commissioned officer) rank. They’re experienced Marines and act as mentors to junior servicemen. As leaders they are still very inexperienced, and they work closely with more senior NCOs to develop those skills. Corporals usually lead fireteams of 3-4 Marines.

Sergeant (Sgt): Sergeants are more seasoned NCOs. They continue developing their leadership skills, and traditionally lead squads of three fireteams. They also act as secondary enlisted advisers for junior officers.

Staff Sergeant (SSgt): Staff Sergeants are the most junior of Senior NCOs (SNCO). They are very experienced NCOs and leaders, and are responsible for the professional development of junior NCOs. They typically occupy a position of Platoon Sergeant, working as the senior enlisted adviser for the Platoon Leader.

Gunnery Sergeant (GySgt): Gunnery Sergeants are very experienced Marines, experts in their vocational specialty. They are traditionally known as drill instructors for the Marine Recruits, but can also occupy any billets requiring vast amounts of experience. Typical such positions are Weapons Platoon Sergeant, Company Operations Chief, or Armored Unit Section Leaders.

In their annual performance evaluations, called "fitness reports", eligible Gunnery Sergeants indicate whether they wish to be considered for promotion to Master Sergeant or First Sergeant, and thus whether they enter the promotional track for Master Gunnery Sergeant or Sergeant Major. Once promoted, the promotional track is usually permanent, with lateral movement between the two programs very uncommon.

Master Sergeant (MSgt): Master Sergeants are technical experts in their vocational specialty similarly to Gunnery Sergeants, but possess even more experience. Typical position for a Master Sergeant is Weapons Company Operations Chief, but a Regimental Assistant Operations Chief is also a common billet.

First Sergeant (1Sgt): First Sergeants occupy the same paygrade slot as Master Sergeants, but their responsibilities are different. Almost all First Sergeants act as Company Sergeants, responsible for handling the leadership and professional development of their Marines and NCOs. As Company Sergeant, they also manage pay issues, supervise administrative issues, manage the promotable soldiers within the company, and are the first step in disciplinary actions.

Master Gunnery Sergeant (MGySgt): Master Gunnery Sergeants are responsible for providing military leadership, technical acumen, and mastery of their MVC. They typically serve in military staff as Section Chiefs at the battalion level or higher echelon. One of the major differences between Master Gunnery Sergeant and Sergeant Major grades is that Master Gunnery Sergeants retain their MVC, while Sergeants Major are given a new MVC to reflect their general command focus.

Sergeant Major (SgtMaj): Sergeant Majors serve as the senior enlisted Marine in the units of battalion, squadron or higher echelon. They act as the unit commander's senior enlisted advisor and handle matters of discipline and morale among the enlisted marines. A special billet for this rank is the ‘Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps’, the highest ranking enlisted Marine in the entire Corps, who is the Commandant’s enlisted advisor.

Chapter Text

The group walked out of the Citadel Tower in dejected silence. Kaidan tugged his jacket straight - Marine dress blues might look good, but he’d always found the collar irritating to the sensitive skin around his implant jack.

“I can’t believe that they didn’t even pretend to listen to your testimony.” Anderson was fuming, expression dark.

Shepard paused. “…I can. But they didn’t consider Powell’s testimony at all.”

“A smuggler.” Udina said caustically and Kaidan winced as Shepard’s eyebrow, the one with the scar through the middle of it, raised in response to his tone. “You didn’t exactly find a particularly credible witness, Shepard. A smuggler, who hid behind crates while his coworkers and the garrison died!”

“Hiding behind crates during a gunfight is an understandable reaction by a man without combat training,” Shepard said mildly. “Perhaps not the bravest reaction, but understandable. And it doesn’t make him a liar.”

“The Council thinks we’re spinning this to get rid of their golden boy because of his political views, and to save your candidacy, Shepard,” Udina continued sharply.

“Ma’am, sirs,” Kaidan broke in. “If I may?” He looked at Shepard and when she nodded, he kept talking. “The way I see it, we need concrete evidence the Council can’t see as just - politicking. Saren is, or was, based off the Citadel, there’s surely something incriminating on the station. That C-Sec officer - Garrus Vakarian? - he said he was close to something before the Council shut down his investigation.”

“If you can call ten hours an investigation,” muttered Williams.

“Right. He might be able to point us in the right direction. In the very least, he’s actually a detective, and none of us have any police work training or experience.” A special forces officer and two infantry Marines weren’t exactly the people Kaidan would’ve picked for an investigation. But, as his instructors in the Officer Training Corps would say, adapt and overcome.

Shepard nodded. “I agree, Lieutenant. But we’re out of our AO here - C-Sec have shut him down and I doubt Pallin will be happy to have us tramping around in his neck of the woods.”

Udina scratched his chin. “I might be able to help you there. There’s a C-Sec officer, human. He’s been a good source for me in the past. Harkin’s his name-”

“Harkin?” Anderson grumbled. “The drunk?”

“Yes. The drunk. He can point you in the direction of Vakarian at the very least.”

“Harkin is an asshole, but I’m sure you can get him to open up, Commander.” Anderson smiled so pleasantly that Alenko felt a sinking feeling in his gut that told him he might be about to be part of something illegal.

“I am very good with people, sir.”

“That you are, Lieutenant Commander.”


The street was narrow and above Shepard’s head hummed the occasional skycar. Everything was grey and blue - the dim light, the floor, the walls. She wondered idly if this part of Tayseri Ward had been deliberately set up to broadcast that ‘going to a dive bar’ feel.

“Can’t say I’ve ever gone to a strip club on Marine Corps business before,” Alenko said mildly. Above them the crude sign for Chora’s Den flashed suggestively. Shepard had, occasionally, but mostly to collect errant Marines causing problems. She’d often enjoyed that; the odd barfight was good for the soul.

“Yeah,” said Sergeant Williams. “Not a habit of mine either.”

Shepard’s lip twitched. “Just remember what we’re here for. Harkin. Not fights. Not the view.

“Aye aye ma’am!” said Alenko smartly. They’d changed out of their dress uniforms for this - the Alliance wouldn’t look kindly on two officers and a senior NCO visiting a strip club in Class As. No sir. She suspected, casual jeans and jacket notwithstanding, they’d all be pegged as military the moment they walked in. But military personnel weren’t exactly uncommon in bars like this, and enough Alliance cruisers stopped by the Citadel that they wouldn’t stand out.

Williams opened her mouth to respond, then -

CRACK-

Shepard wore a ‘clip on’ kinetic barrier emitter, something her ex-wife had always thought was a sign of paranoia. She officially won that old argument as her shield flared around her, bright and blue. Then Williams’ muscular form smacked into her, driving the air from her lungs in a huff, even as Alenko’s sharp, “Down!” echoed through the narrow corridor. Shepard’s shoulder hit the metal floor, hard, and a flare of pain burst across her skin.

The Marine rolled off her, pulling a concealed pistol from her jacket in a fluid motion. Shepard followed suit, switching the safety off on the slim little gun, and rolled to her feet, keeping her head below the edge of the waist high metal wall Williams had dragged her behind. The pistol was a peashooter compared to the military grade weapons she was used to, but it was something - and both she and Alenko were amped.

Alenko was on her other side, firing a few shots off in the direction the gunfire had come from with a look of calm concentration on his face. Another shot cracked overhead as he ducked, pitting the wall behind them.

“Four of them, ma’am!” called Alenko crisply. “Military grade pistols, one has a rifle.”

Another few bullets crackled overhead. Shepard wanted to know how these people had a damned rifle on the Wards - and why she didn’t. ‘You’re not allowed a grenade launcher on the Citadel, Commander’, her ass. Williams fired a few times, eyes sharp and focused. Shepard raised her head, locating the four men firing on them, crouched behind an advertisement, ignoring a bullet that pinged off her shields. All turians.

One of Williams’ bullets punched into the ad pillar and it fuzzed into a cacophony of blurred words and static. Shepard crouched back down as the four of them focused on her, shots hammering into her shields in quick, successive flares of blue.

As she did, a disk clattered to the floor between Shepard and her Marine lieutenant.

“Grenade!” she shouted and instinctively raised her hands, blue fire twisting into a barrier in front of her.

The grenade exploded. Shards of metal burst across the alleyway, razor sharp, embedding themselves in the wall and ceiling - but deflecting off Shepard’s barrier and away from her and Williams behind her.

“I’m alright!” Alenko called, his corona wrapped around him as well. She allowed herself a moment of relief.

“Fuck these guys!” Williams slammed a new heatsink into her pistol, eyes flashing.

Alenko seemed to agree because he reached out in a sharp mnemonic and one of the turians screamed as he was Lifted into the air. His voice cut off abruptly when Shepard flung out a hand and the Warp detonated Alenko’s field in a crackle of energy. The wave of dark energy rippled out, tearing into the other assassins. The one turian still on his feet continued to fire at them in a display of either profound courage or profound stupidity. His fire ended when Williams shot him in the face, blood splattering the Citadel wall, blue against grey.

Shepard threw herself out of cover, pistol raised and blood thrumming, corona wrapped around her. One of the assassins was still alive, his legs twisted and ruined from the force of the biotic explosion.

“We have medigel,” she told him. “We’ll give you first aid and call an ambulance, but you need to tell me who sent you.”

The turian’s yellow eyes were oddly empty of pain or fear. He raised his hand and and the gun in it - aiming at her chest -

Bang.

His chest exploded even as she was moving in a mnemonic. Williams was beside her, eyes hard, pistol raised. Alenko let his flare die away and Shepard swallowed down the energy she’d been about to unleash. Damn, Williams was quick.

Shepard looked down at the corpse. “He had to have known he didn’t have a chance of killing all of us.”

“I don’t think he cared about anything but killing you, ma’am,” Alenko said softly beside her.


Doctor Chloe Michel was the first human Tali had seen up close. Humans were both strange and familiar - dull eyes, flat teeth and strange legs but with hair. She watched her cautiously, skittishly; a mixture of shock at being shot and sharp-edged grief still thrumming through her. She’d known that the Pilgrimage could be dangerous, but she’d never imagined this: pursued across multiple clusters by a murderous turian and the bite of humiliation as authority after authority looked at her with sharp derision and muttered slurs.

Tali flinched as the doctor touched her side and Michel withdrew until she relaxed. They were in the clinic’s cleanroom and the human was dressed in what she called a ‘bunny suit’. She’d explained that there was a small community of quarians who’d chosen not to return to the Flotilla on the Ward, and most of them came to her. She didn’t understand that - the Fleet was crowded and the weight of her father’s name followed her everywhere, but at least no one called her a suit rat or shot at her.

Doctor Michel continued to carefully stitch up the wound with a steady hand and focus in her eyes. “You were very lucky. I believe your suit and shields took most of the kinetic force. Otherwise…”

Tali would be dead. She shivered.

The human hesitated. “Are you sure you don’t want me to call C-Sec?”

“No police,” she snapped, pulling away. She thought of Chellick. If he’d listened to me, Keenah would still be alive. No. She was done with trusting C-Sec. They’d probably just arrest her for not having left the station.

“Okay, okay…” Michel said soothingly. “No police.” She began putting on a wound dressing efficiently. “There may be another option, yes? The information you have - you could sell it to the Shadow Broker, and he could protect you. Even mercenaries and gangsters are afraid of the Shadow Broker. One of his men, Fist, owns a club near here. If you go there, he could set up a deal.”

She’d wanted to take the recording to the Alliance or the Council. She’d wanted to do the right thing. But Keenah was dead and she was out of options.

Tali tilted her head towards Doctor Chloe Michel. “Where do I find this Fist?”


The docking bay had emptied in under a minute when Shepard had stormed in true ‘Angry XO’ fashion and ordered everyone but the Marines out. Now she looked around at those Marines, perched on boxes and crates in their combat gear, and at the two new additions to her force. Someone on Arcturus was going to have a heart attack. That, or order her assassination.

The Marines had given Urdnot Wrex, who was sitting in a corner with his arms crossed, plenty of space, and the two closest to him watched the krogan as much as they watched Shepard. The C-Sec officer, on the other hand, had stayed near her and she couldn’t help but think of him as a kid. Vakarian had a certain mix of competency and impatience - the shot on the gangster holding Doctor Michel had been clinical, close to perfect, but it hadn’t left her any option but violence. She’d spent the majority of her adult life shooting at people or stabbing them or throwing them across rooms with her mind, but sometimes killing wasn’t the answer. She liked Vakarian, but he needed some work.

…Not that his professional development as a soldier was her responsibility. She couldn’t just steal a turian from C-Sec, no matter how good he was at shooting.

She stripped off her second favourite hoodie, avoiding the blood splatters now staining the sleeves, and folded it over her arm. “Draven, report.”

The sergeant had been in Marine Recon Unit 8 previously, and remained the Normandy’s recon specialist; Shepard enjoyed having someone else to talk to about the fuckery that was deep reconnaissance and long range patrols. Gung Ho was dressed in jeans and a jacket rather than a uniform, though she had a pistol tucked away somewhere. “Place is locked down, X, locked down good. Looked like they had a sentry drone out too - I’d say they’re expecting us. Couldn’t get inside, obviously, but I reckon all the neighborhood gangsters are inside with their favourite peashooters.”

“He thinks he can stop Marines with a few armed bouncers?” asked Williams incredulously.

Draven shrugged. “In my experience, Sarn’t, people like that think they’re tough shit. Forget there’s people like us who’ve got bigger guns.”

“Shooting up the Wards will bring C-Sec down on us,” Alenko said practically. “But we need that intel. Saving the girl would be a nice cherry on top.”

Shepard was pleased to know that Alenko wasn’t a by-the-books-at-all-costs officer; she could work with unyielding integrity, but not a lack of imagination.

“Thoughts?” she asked him calmly, folding her arms.

His brown eyes met hers. “I don’t think we have any other option than an assault, Commander.”

“If they want a fight, let’s give ‘em one,” Williams murmured.

Shepard nodded and then looked at the assembled fighters. “The objective here is to get to Fist then to Tali’Zorah. Everything else is secondary. We move fast, hit hard and get the fuck out.” A pause. “And hopefully get back to the Alliance embassy before C-Sec cottons on. Trackin’?”

She waited for a chorus of ‘aye aye’s from the Marines, a ‘yes Commander’ from Vakarian and a grudging nod from the krogan before she moved on.

“Feel free to defend yourselves and apply flashbangs liberally, but if you shoot any bystanders or God forbid a C-Sec officer, I will personally throw you out the airlock,” she said matter-of-factly. She waited until all the enlisted Marines nodded before she waved a lazy hand. “Alright, bring the sky vans around, and let’s get to it.”

Shepard looked up as Wrex stomped over to her; she wasn’t sure if that was a sign of pique or just his way of walking; she’d be the first to admit she knew less about krogan than perhaps she should. One red eye fixed her. “No stomach for ‘collateral’, Shepard?”

She met his gaze steadily. “We do things my way, Wrex, and you get Fist. We had a deal.”

He studied her for a long moment before he nodded, turned, and lumbered towards where Jaz had parked one of the vans and two Marines were loading in what looked like a rocket launcher. She reached for her rifle and followed.


You know what you have to do. The voice in her head was a mix of David Anderson and Hannah Shepard, and Emilia knew that voice was right. She did know what she had to do, regardless of how distasteful she found it. People were relying on her, and all her desire to go stick her head in the proverbial sand couldn’t stand up to that - even if the course of action collating in her head involved the politics she’d tried to avoid.

Shepard had been standing before the Council, along with Udina, Anderson, Williams and Alenko, for long enough that her legs were starting to get a bit sore, on top of the bruises and scrapes from the fighting she’d been in. The good news was that with Tali’s video evidence presented to them, the Council agreed that Saren was responsible for the incursion and near nuclear bombing of Eden Prime. The bad news was that they didn’t seem to care much for doing anything about him.

The argument had waxed and waned. The Council would strip Saren of his status and freeze both his and Benezia T’Soni’s assets within Council space. They would send the Alliance some support. But they would not send a fleet into the Traverse and Terminus to root him out, and they wouldn’t supply troops or ships to the Alliance’s war effort.

They wanted to do as little as possible, hope that the geth wore themselves out fighting the Alliance so none of the other governments had to lose their own people - and risk public dissatisfaction as casualties mounted and civilians were asked to make sacrifices. Udina knew it too. Shepard could almost taste his fear in the air, his terror of another Eden Prime, one where no one disarmed the bomb. Worse, his arguments sounded both unreasonable and desperate, and she could see how easily they ignored his demands.

“A Fleet can’t track down a single man,” Councillor Valern said dismissively.

“The Citadel Fleet could secure the area, stop the geth from attacking any more of our colonies.” Udina almost pleaded, his voice edged with something close to desperation.

“Or it could trigger a war with the Terminus Systems,” Sparatus said, mandibles flickering. “We won’t be dragged into a galactic war over a few dozen human colonies.”

A few dozen colonies? Anger lanced through her, sharp and hot. She couldn’t understand how someone could so easily dismiss millions of lives. She hoped she never did understand.

But she bit down on her anger, swallowed the scalding heat of it. If the Council refused to help, and the Alliance was too over extended to fully secure its own borders , then there was only one solution left when it came to the problem of Saren Arterius.

“You don’t need to send a fleet, Councillors,” Shepard said, voice even. “You only need to send me.”

“The Commander’s right,” Councillor Tevos said readily and Emilia had the sinking feeling the asari had been planning this all along. “She has the background and skills required to stop Saren, without the involvement of our armies or fleets. If Shepard is empowered to act and we give the Alliance the agreed economic and logistic support, the situation should be able to be resolved without further escalation.”

“No!” Sparatus burst out, mandibles flaring. “Humanity is not ready for the responsibility that comes with Spectres!”

Humanity…or me?

“You don’t have to deploy troops to the Traverse, the Alliance gets their human Spectre, everyone’s happy,” she replied. Everyone but one Lieutenant Commander Emilia Shepard…and Captain Hannah Shepard who was likely to hunt her, Anderson and Udina down when she found out.

The Councillors exchanged glances. First Tevos, then Valern and finally, a grudging Sparatus nodded.

“Lieutenant Commander Emilia Shepard…step forward.”

Shepard met her mentor’s dark eyes for a moment as Anderson nodded, breathed in, breathed out, then took that one step forward.


Shepard’s calm persisted through her investiture, their first run in with Samesh Bhatia and their conversation with the clerk, until they’d spoken to the widower a second time, and he’d rushed off to begin the preparations to take his wife’s body home to India and their families. Once he was out of sight, however, the XO swore savagely in a lightning crack of Spanish and clenched both fists like she was looking for someone to punch square in the face.

Alenko looked troubled, leaning against a railing, staring out over the Presidium. For her part, Ashley had a certain cold calm of her own. Part of her kept expecting Nirali to walk through the door and crack a joke about Marines being jarheads. Part of her had been unable to look at Samesh for long. Every time she had, she’d remembered Nirali sobbing and her own hands turning red with the effort of keeping her life inside her body - and failing.

She’d failed. But there’d been no blame in Samesh’s eyes, only a deep, deep sadness that hurt to look at. He’d said ‘Thank you’ and ‘she always spoke highly of you, Sergeant Williams, as her leader and as her friend.’

“That…couldn’t have been legal?” Alenko asked.

“No.” Said Shepard, visibly reining in her temper. Her voice turned wry. “Which is why he won’t report me for assault.”

Ashley smirked a little at the memory of the terror in the slimy little bastard’s eyes when Shepard had trapped him in a corner, gotten in his space with a clenched jaw and fiery eyes, only the more terrifying for the cool, measured tone of her voice. Stop stealing corpses. A man like that couldn’t understand the bond between Marine and corpsman, sharing the same foxhole, knowing that if you took a bullet Doc would be there even if it meant they took a bullet too. Serviceman First Class Nirali Bhatia had saved the life of more than one Marine, and Ashley found it fitting that Marines had ensured that she got home, even if it was in a box.

She thought Shepard had seen the same thing, because she’d insisted that a Marine detail be fetched from the garrison immediately, to watch over Nirali’s body at the morgue, then accompany her home.

“I’m glad we could help Mr Bhatia,” Alenko said as Ash joined him at the railing. His eyes moved over the deep, still lake. “Man…big place.”

She couldn’t help herself. “That your professional opinion, sir?”

She tensed as soon as the words left her mouth. Sassing her boss already? Great job, Ash. But Alenko just flushed a little and laughed, and the three of them sunk into a calm silence. It was…comfortable. Maybe it would change when the two officers realised whose granddaughter she was, but for the first time since she’d enlisted, she let herself hope that it wouldn’t.

“They’ve built themselves quite the lake,” she thought aloud. “Think anyone’s ever drowned in it?”

Shepard laughed, startled. It was the first time Ash had seen her smile, and it transformed her face from stern into something softer. Something with a hint of gentleness and surprising youth. “You two really are something. C’mon, we’ve got work to do, let’s get back to the ship.”

“Aye aye.” Ash agreed, straightening and checking the jacket of the uniform she’d borrowed from Sergeant Draven was straight before following the XO towards where the group of aliens were waiting for them. Her fingers brushed the hilt of Lance Corporal Ki-tae’s sword and thought about her great-grandmother’s sword left behind on Eden Prime, and when her grandfather had given it to her. Her grandfather, with his sad, bitter eyes, always running but never quite escaping Shanxi.

She was going to help Lieutenant Commander Shepard nail Saren to the wall and then they’d all see what a Williams was worth.


CODEX ENTRY:

Systems Alliance Marine Corps Officer Ranks And Their Roles:

Second Lieutenant(2LT): 2nd Lieutenant is the normal entry-level rank for most commissioned officers. They typically lead platoon-sized units (16 to 44 Marines). They are junior officers, learning leadership skills on the job. They work closely with senior NCOs, who work as their advisors. A Marine officer can be commissioned one of three ways: through the Officer Training Corps (OTC) program in a civilian university, through the Systems Alliance Naval Academy (SANA) or via Officer Candidate School (OCS), the last of which commissions previously enlisted Marines, or ‘Mustangs’.

First Lieutenant(1LT): The difference between the two Lieutenant ranks is slight, primarily being experience and having higher pay. The purpose of this division is to separate the junior officers found unqualified from the commissioned service. It is not uncommon to see officers moved to positions requiring more experience after promotion to First Lieutenant. For example, these positions can include leading a specialty platoon, or assignment as the executive officer for a company-sized unit (70–250 Marines).

Staff Lieutenant (SLT): Staff Lieutenants generally commands company-sized units. When given such a command, they bear the title company commander. Staff Lieutenants also instruct at service schools and combat training centers and are often staff officers at the battalion level.

Major(Maj): Majors are typically assigned as specialized executive or operations officers for battalion-sized units of 300 to 1,200 soldiers. They may also command certain companies that traditionally are commanded by more experienced officers such as Special Forces or Airmobile units.

Lieutenant Colonel(LtCol): Lieutenant Colonels typically commands a battalion-sized unit (300 to 1,200 soldiers/Marines). A lieutenant colonel may also serve as a brigade, regiment, or task force executive officer, or principal staff officer.

Colonel (Col): A colonel typically commands regiment-sized units (4,000 to 6,000 Marines), such as the Regimental Combat Team commander in a Marine Expeditionary Brigade, or the commander of a Marine Expeditionary Unit. Colonels are also found as the chief of staff at divisional level.

Brigadier (Brig): Brigadiers generally command Marine Expeditionary or Frontier Brigades (around 14 500 Marines in a task force incorporating infantry, an aircraft group with transport and close air support aircraft and a logistics regiment) or work as high level staff officers.

Major General(MajGen): Major Generals typically serve as division commanders (large units of 10 000 to 20 000 Marines), training center commanders, task force commanders, deputy commanding generals, or senior directors on military staffs.

Lieutenant General(LtGen): Lieutenant General typically commands a corps-sized unit (20,000 to 45,000 soldiers), called ‘Forces’ by Marines. Additionally, lieutenant generals of all services serve as high-level staff officers at various major command headquarters, often as the heads of their departments.

General (Gen): Generals command major areas of responsibility and hold the highest of military positions in the Alliance Military, along with Navy Admirals.

Chapter Text

Joker worked his way through the pre-departure checklists, fingers playing over holos and eyes scanning displays. The Normandy hummed around him, sweet as a song. Pressly was on deck, slowly pacing between work stations on the bridge; glancing over Sub-Lieutenant Rodriguez’s shoulder one moment, demanding a report from SM1 Ferreira the next. Joker didn’t mind Pressly. Late to his commission, the Navigator seemed to regard the CIC as his lawn and everyone else (except the Captain and XO) as childish interlopers, but he was good at his job and didn’t try to micromanage Joker’s flying. That was an unfortunately rare trait in the Navy’s officer corps.

Petty Officer First Class Dhairya Saxena, the ship’s quartermaster and Ops Chief, was staring waspishly at the navigation console in between bouts of pacing. He liked to work out his courses with Pressly long before the captain asked for them, but their orders had been vague and lacked a destination.

“You’re going to wear out the floor,” Joker commented dryly as he waggled the ailerons.

Saxena gave him a cold look, before subsiding back into tapping the console.

“Wonder how it’ll work,” he mused, running a diagnostic on the starboard aft maneuvering thruster which was just a few seconds more sluggish than the portside thruster, “with our XO being a Spectre.”

Joker, like most of the crew, had watched the ceremony on the large HV in the mess hall. Shepard had accepted the new title with the same blank ‘I am a Marine war hero’ expression Joker had seen from the vids and interviews. It was an honour for humanity, etc, etc, but he couldn’t help but wonder how it would affect his beloved ship. A captain was the closest thing to God on a warship, and an XO who could overrule or ignore orders without consequence could hardly be Anderson’s back up dancer.

“I heard that Pressly will be the XO,” said Ensign Caroline Grenado, voice low to avoid the notice of said officer, her eyes roving over a datapad full of checklists. Grenado was a fresh-faced twenty-two year old, a lanky, enthusiastic kid who, for all her youth, had already worked on not just the Normandy project, but the Fearless corvette project as well. Joker didn’t like anyone but him at the Normandy’s helm - she was the kinda girl you wanted people to keep their hands off - but Grenado took his jokes and her nickname of ‘Frag’ (due to the closeness of her name to ‘grenade’) with an easy good humour that made it hard to dislike her.

“Yeah,” Saxena said. “I heard that too, and that Shepard has to resign. Bit bullshit if you ask me.”

“Parliament wants that Council seat real bad,” said Serviceman Third Class Helen Lowe, sipping a cup of shitty mess hall coffee. “All ready to bend over, like.”

“You know,” said Saxena contemplatively, “It’s times like these that I’m surprised to remember you got into law school, Serviceman Lowe.”

Lowe flushed and busied herself at her station. Joker asked for Grenado to read him the next item in the checklist.

The airlock cycled open and Joker turned his head to the tread of boots on metal. Alenko and Williams both looked worse for wear: Alenko had dried blood on his forehead and Williams’ sleeve was torn. The other Marines trickled in in twos and threes, mouths clamped firmly shut. Something had happened ashore, beyond Shepard getting a fancy new designation, but the Marines weren’t talking. And everyone knew Marines were terrible gossips.

The whole bridge froze for several long seconds when not one, not two, but three aliens walked onto the ship after the two Marines. A turian in blue, carrying a weapons case. A huge, scarred krogan the sailors instinctively edged away from. A quarian in purple, who lingered close to Alenko. A little awkwardly, the lieutenant cleared his throat and said, “If you’ll follow me, I’ll get you all settled in.”

Williams stopped by Joker’s chair and watched the strangers follow Alenko below decks with a suspicious glint to her brown eyes. This close, Joker could see that there was a spot of blood on her sleeve.

“We starting a space circus or something?” he asked.

She smiled sharply at him. “Just need a volus.”

He commented, “Looks like you lot had fun.”

Williams absent-mindedly fiddled with her askew bun. “Oh yeah. Firefight in a strip club.”

He stared at her, eyes narrowed. After he’d irritably told her not to call him ‘sir’ ever again, he’d found she was just as sharp-tongued as he was and gave as good as she got. “You’re fucking with me.”

She smirked, a flash of white teeth. “Nah. I shit you not, Joker, we shot the fuck outta Chora’s Den. It’ll probably be on the news. ‘Uppity humans destroy venerable gentleman’s club’.”

He laughed. “The Citadel Defence Fleet is gonna riot.”

“Let’s just say,” Ashley said with a hint of smugness, “we’re not CSec’s favourite people right now.”

“Hey Sergeant!” Frag leaned over. “Care to share what the NCO grapevine has dug up on what’s going on with the X?”

Williams grimaced, good humour fading. “Yeah. They’re fucking the captain over, ma’am.”

There was a dismayed silence before Saxena spoke, voice hard, “That can’t be right.”

There was a flicker of dislike in Williams’ eyes before the Marine shrugged carelessly, jacket pulling across what was clearly a concealed sidearm. “Think what you want, Sax. I’ll catch you squids later, I’m gonna go get cleaned up and check on the kids.”

Williams, like the Master Chief, had that NCO peculiarity of talking about her enlisted as ‘the kids’, even though the Staff Sergeant couldn’t be more than twenty-seven herself.

“Alright, see ya.” Joker waved lazily.

Ten minutes later it was clear Staff Sergeant Williams had been correct. Shepard walked onto the bridge, jaw set, wearing the three gold bars of a full Commander on her epaulettes and a gold command star on her left pocket. She stopped beside Joker’s chair, arms crossed. The rest of the bridge crew did their best to look very busy.

“Congrats on the promotion, Commander,” he said mildly.

Her eyes were as dark as her expression. “Be nice if it didn’t feel like I was stealing Anderson’s ship.”

He shrugged, finding himself more earnest than he would like. He had a reputation to uphold after all. “Yeah, it sucks about what happened to Anderson, ma’am, but this crew is behind you a hundred percent.”

She regarded him, features indecipherable. “Thank you, Flight Lieutenant.”

He shrugged, uncomfortable. “Would you like to address the crew?”

She nodded. When he keyed the mic for 1MC, Shepard fixed her eyes on a point past him, as if focusing on their quarry. She spoke of doing their part, of doing David Anderson and the Alliance proud. She spoke of hunting Saren wherever he went, of protecting the people they’d all sworn to defend. Her voice filled the CIC with implacable resolve.

Joker found himself close to inspired once his new CO finished her speech. She knew how to get the blood pumping. “Nice speech, Commander.”

She looked past him, through the viewport. “Fancy speeches won’t catch Saren. Pressly!”

Navigator Pressly seemed to materialise at her side. “Aye ma’am?”

“Get us out of here and set for a jump to the Macedon Relay in the Artemis Tau cluster and organize a meeting of senior officers at 20:00. You have the deck.”

“Aye…captain.”

Dark eyes surveyed the bridge. “Carry on.”


The human ship was so quiet. Tali’s skin prickled uncomfortably under her suit and she had to resist the urge to go check that the drive core was still functioning. She didn’t think the humans would like that. She’d felt their eyes on her as Lieutenant Alenko had led her to the medbay. Wary eyes.

The human doctor - Chakwas, she’d introduced herself as - hummed to herself as the medical scanner ran over Tali’s form. She had a mixture of brisk professionalism and gentle motherliness that was relaxing to be around, even when she was looking at the function of Tali’s internal organs.

“You’re doing well,” Chakwas said, patting Tali on the arm. “No fever to speak of, and the wound itself is rather minor; Doctor Michel did a good job with her initial treatment. A few days and I’ll be happy to take you off restricted duties.”

It had become quickly apparent that even Shepard’s authority was exceeded by Doctor Chakwas when it came to medical issues. When she’d calmly and firmly ruled Tali out of accompanying Shepard on the next mission, the Spectre hadn’t even blinked - let alone argued. That at least was familiar. When she’d been alive, Tali’s mother had been one of the few that could override Admiral Rael’Zorah on anything.

“Thank you, Doctor,” she murmured. “Hopefully I can help Shepard soon.”

Chakwas looked grave. “Don’t be too eager to run back into battle, Tali. War is no cakewalk.”

Cakewalk? What did that even mean? She thought about the day, the terror that had pounded through her, then the shock of relief when the human soldiers - no, they wanted to be called Marines - had unexpectedly come to her aid. She thought of how it had felt, when her shotgun bucked in her hands and a man had fallen to the ground missing part of his chest. She’d killed somebody today. She’d lost a friend yesterday.

“I want to help,” she replied, twisting her hands together, trying to articulate that she knew that more fighting would be as difficult or worse, but she needed to be useful anyway. “I want to-”

Repay the Commander? Prove herself to the rambunctious Marines who eyed her with attitudes that ranged from suspicion to condescending protectiveness?

Chakwas sighed and turned the scanner off. “I’m sorry - I’m sure that you’re very capable and know what you’re getting into. I’m just very used to Marines and their need to get back into it as quickly as they can, and damn the consequences to themselves.” She smiled sadly. “Like one of our Marines, Jenkins, who was killed on Eden Prime.”

“I’m sorry,” Tali said quietly. “The mercenaries - Saren’s mercenaries - they killed my friend. Keenah.”

“Then those are two more deaths Saren must answer for,” Chakwas said, brisk again. “Now, the Commander asked the mess to stock up on dextro nutripaste, so if you’re hungry you can go there to get food.”

“I am feeling a bit hungry, thank you,” she said, carefully getting to her feet.

There were a handful of humans clustered around one of the tables in the mess hall, some mugs and what looked like actual paper cards in between them. There was a pause in conversation as she emerged from the medbay, but then the sailors returned to their card shuffling and soft banter.

There was a young man behind the mess hall counter with an expression of utter and complete apathy on his face. His nametape read ‘Greico’ but she still had no idea how to read Alliance ranks. The Marines were relatively simple but the human Navy had so many different badges she wasn’t sure which one meant what.

“You’re Tali right?” he asked, as if quarians walked onto Alliance frigates all the time.

“Yes?”

“Right, so I have like, some nutripaste tubes and stuff for you.” He put one in front of her. “They have dextro stickers on them, so, like, don’t eat the ones without the stickers ‘cause you might die and shit.”

“…Thanks, I think.”

“Whatever.” Greico said disinterestedly. She grabbed the tube and looked around for a spot to sit. One of the sailors sitting at the card game craned his head at her, brown eyes narrowing.

“Hey! Tali, right? Come sit with us.”

Feeling a twinge of anxiety, Tali slide into the empty seat. The man who’d called her over smiled reassuringly at her, though his eyes didn’t seem to know where to rest on her faceplate. “I’m Petty Officer First Class Mikhail Vorobyov, the engineering chief petty officer. But you can call me Mikhail.”

“Or just what we call ‘im.,” a woman across from them said, blue eyes fixed on her cards. “’Hellraiser’.”

“Hellraiser?”

“It’s ironic,” Mikhail said, in a long-suffering tone. “Because they think I never have fun.”

“Boss,” said another sailor, a woman with dark brown hair and a square face. “Doing work in your spare time is what we call being boring and time for an intervention because someone needs a life outside of the Navy, AJ Squared Away.”

Mikhail rolled his eyes. “Since these louts have forgotten their manners: this is Petty Officer Third Class Rosamund Draven, but we all call her ‘Rosie’ or just ‘Squid Draven’.” He pointed at the woman with blue eyes. “And that’s Serviceman First Class Mackenzie Hudson, better known as ‘Glowstick’.”

“…Glowstick?” Tali asked. There was nothing about Hudson that reminded her of a glowstick.

She sighed. “I’m the supervisor for the nuclear reactor workshop. Nukes, glowsticks? The Navy’s full of comedians.”

“Hey, know how to play Skyllian Five?” Mikhail asked. She shook her head and he shrugged. “Ah well. We’ve not really been playing that much, just trying to think out a problem we’re having.”

“Except Rosie has been no help,” Glowstick grumbled.

Draven waved a hand. “Listen, I’m just the damage control chief. Call me when it’s on fire or putting a hole in the hull.” She paused thoughtfully. “Though, if your nuke compartment is on fire, I’m probably screwed, in which case I demand you name your first born after me and also drag away my wife before she has one of her dumb arse heroic bouts.”

Hudson snorted. “Yeah, that’s cute. I’ll stop your six foot supersoldier Marine wife.”

Tali wasn’t used to this after the months she’d been on pilgrimage - the normalcy of their conversation, the way they hadn’t called her a suitrat or watched their credit chits. “There’s something wrong with the nuclear reactor?”

Mikhail sipped his coffee, nonchalant. “Oh, don’t worry. Hudson here just feels the power draw is excessive when cruising.”

“It is.” Glowstick grumbled. “Adams agrees with me. I just don’t understand it! All my calcs say we should be well under 25% when we’re not manning weapons, but we’re still at 30%.”

Tali twisted her hands together, before she couldn’t help but speak up. “Have you…checked the drive core intake? If your calculations are running off a normal frigate’s power consumption, they might be wrong. The drive core is bigger, yes? So your systems may be running it at normal thresholds for a larger vessel because that’s the normal power requirements for a drive core of that size - this is a prototype after all.”

There was a pause before Mikhail chuckled. “That might well be it. I can’t believe neither of us thought to check that.”

Hudson gave Tali a wry grin before her gaze turned contemplative. “I’ll need to check - but if our software is running it at a cruiser’s threshold, we might be able to shave off a fair few percentage points. We don’t need that sort of power in drive if the IES isn’t active…”

Tali felt a flicker of excitement run through her. This was what she knew. She leaned forward. “In the Flotilla, sometimes we’ve had to adjust power draw for maximum efficiency. You could try….”


When Anderson had taken out the hastily found Command Badge to pin onto her uniform, Shepard had told him that she wasn’t ready to command the Normandy, and she hadn’t been lying. Mixed in with her unease over her new Spectre status and her rage that politicians were screwing over one of the finest officers she knew was a potent bubbling of anxiety she hadn’t felt since the first time she’d taken a platoon of Marines into battle as a butterbar. She’d gone to SWCOT, she knew she made a decent X, but commanding a bridge was still like wearing an ill-fitting jacket; in her bones she was still a Marine officer, meant for boots in the muck and a rifle in her hands.

Shepard, for the first time in some years, was unsure of herself. She hated feeling that way. And if she fucked up as the CO of the ship, she’d lose her crew’s respect or even worse, get some of them killed or hurt.

Anderson had looked at her with those steady brown eyes, pinned on her new rank and star that signified his loss of command, and said, “You’ve a job to do, Commander. You can complain about it, or you can do it.”

Now she looked at the assembled senior officers in the ship’s briefing room, her jaw set. They all looked at her attentively, a picture of professionalism in Navy blue. However, she didn’t doubt that many of them were upset by Anderson being relieved, with whom many of them had previously served with, and replaced with a jarhead who barely knew a frigate from a corvette.

She’d already addressed the crew as a whole, so it was time to move onto practical issues. Speeches wouldn’t convince the department heads of her ability to command the Normandy anymore than it would convince the Buffer, who was hovering near the door like a particularly angry cloud. Only actions - the right ones - would do that.

“Arcturus has put us on indefinite detached duty under Special Tactics and Reconnaissance, so our mission reports will go to Fifth Fleet directly or to the Council depending on the mission. Our home port is also being shifted from Arcturus to the Citadel for now,” she said. “I know it’s unusual, but the Normandy is experimental technology and we’ll likely be seeing a great deal more combat - so if any issues pop up, I want to know about it straight away.” Adams nodded in agreement. “For personnel issues, I want you to feel more free than usual to kick things up to the Buffer and to me; Pressly is overworked as it is.”

And personnel was at least something Shepard knew she was good at - there were many things Pressly was proficient in that she wasn’t, which meant she was going to have to delegate. A round of nods followed her words. Shepard focused on one of the officers. Lieutenant Gema Wulandri, the Combat Systems Officer, a twenty-eight year old Indonesian who’d spent her entire career in the gunnery track and knew the Normandy’s weapons systems inside and out. “How’re our ammunitions stores looking?”

Wulandri leaned back in her chair. “I got some help from Alliance Tower,” The main Alliance base on the Citadel, Shepard recalled, though it was nowhere near the size of some of the larger fleet depots, let alone Arcturus, “And they had some spare Javelin racks, so I went ahead and got the Tower folk to help us get them on.”

The Normandy’s primary armament consisted of the experimental Javelin torpedoes, which involved bolting disposable racks to the ship’s hull. Shepard understood the thinking by the Alliance’s shipbuilders - the Normandy’s small hull size and the room taken up by the over-sized drive core meant her built in weapons systems were limited, and the Javelin torpedoes vastly improved her bite, if only at relatively short range. But the downside was that they needed to be replaced after being fired, whereas a built in torpedo tube could simply feed from the ship’s magazine - and Eden Prime had used a large portion of the ammunition Normandy had loaded at Arcturus.

“The magazine for our MAC and four torpedo tubes is at 100% and I’ve tested the GARDIAN arrays. I’ve no real concerns from my department to report, ma’am. All weapons systems operated according to specifications during the battle,” Wulandri continued. After a pause she smiled, a little mischievously. “I’d avoid the Gettysburg’s skipper though, ma’am. I think we stole his Javelins.”

“Noted,” Shepard said with a chuckle. “Adams, anything to report from Engineering?”

Adams shook his head. “We’re still learning the ship, so I’m not completely satisfied with our efficiency, but nothing that really concerns me. The IES system worked very well.”

Arcturus would be pleased to hear that.

“Alenko, is the MARDET good to go? I know they were pretty shaken about Jenkins.” Alenko had been shaken. She’d wondered if he’d not lost Marines before - but she knew, better than anyone, that one loss didn’t necessarily inoculate you against the next.

“...Yes ma’am, they were. The Buffer and I are keeping an eye on them, but I think they’re good to go. Williams is settling in well as platoon sergeant - fighting alongside her a few times has helped that, and I’ve got Lance Corporal Waaberi as acting team leader of Bravo. If the Division wants to send us reinforcements, I’d prefer a PFC or another Lance Corporal and to promote Waaberi. A corporal replacement would likely do more harm than good at this stage.”

She nodded in acknowledgement. “I’ll keep that in mind, Lieutenant. Anyone else have any questions or concerns I need to know about?”

“Ma’am…” Pressly began carefully. “What are we to expect with the aliens aboard? Restrictions?”

She’d been expecting that question. She’d half thought it would be Negulesco to ask it, but the Buffer had sensibilities. She might disagree with Shepard, but she’d never do so in public.

“Vakarian is a trained sniper, and more importantly, he’s familiar with investigative procedure and Citadel law.” Shepard was neither a cop nor overly familiar with the Council’s laws outside of how they impacted Alliance military operations. “Tali has a greater knowledge of the geth than anyone in our entire military - and she managed to extract undamaged data from a platform. So we’re going to need their expertise in those areas. Arcturus has agreed to put them on the ship’s roll as contractors or attaches. So, no restrictions.”

“But ma’am-” Pressly began.

She stared at him steadily. “They’re part of the crew, XO.”

Pressly’s mouth twisted but he nodded. “What about the krogan?”

Wrex,” she stressed his name. “Has agreed to stay in the cargo hold, so long as we keep the crew from unnecessarily bothering him. There’s some bunks down there anyway.” Like the submarines she was the heir of, the Normandy had bunks and sleeping pods stashed wherever they could fit - down near engineering, near the mess hall, hidden away near the cargo hold itself. She wasn’t sure Wrex would actually fit on an Alliance rack but she guessed they’d just have to push some mattresses together for him or something.

“Understood, ma’am,” Pressly said stiffly.

“Actually, Commander,” Adams broke in. “The quarian, Tali? She’s been asking my engineers questions, about the ship.”

Pressly looked furious. Shepard resisted the urge to rub her forehead. She hadn’t expected it to be Tali who caused problems with the Alliance crew. The kid had more of a backbone than she gave herself credit for, but she was still rather uncertain and shaken up by her ordeal. “I’ll talk to her, get her to back off.”

“Oh no, Commander,” Adams said hastily. “It’s not a problem. She’s damned smart - hell, give her a couple of months and she might know the Normandy’s engines better than I do! With your permission, I would like to let her help out in engineering when she has the time.”

“That’s highly irregular,” Pressly grumbled, scowling when his friend gave him a pleasant, mildly amused smile.

“I trust your judgement, Adams. Permission granted.”

“Thank you, Commander.”

“Pressly,” she continued, deciding to ignore her XO’s anger for now - for all that the man might have a few prejudices, she trusted him to do his job. “I need you to plot a search pattern. Prothean ruins can’t be that prevalent in this cluster, and I don’t want to waste anymore time searching for T’Soni than absolutely necessary.”

“Aye aye, ma’am. I’ll get on it ASAP.”

She stood. “Very well. Dismissed.”

Chairs scraped as the ship’s department heads got up and filed out the door, leaving their new commanding officer staring at the stack of datapads filled with paperwork waiting for her.


CODEX ENTRY

Marine Frontier Task Forces: The Systems Alliance Marine Corps utilises two types of task forces - combined units formed for specific tasks or missions. One of these is the Frontier Task Force, designed to protect the colonies. The Frontier Task Force is formed of four ‘elements’: a Command Element, including the Task Force’s command staff and a military police unit, a Ground Combat Element, either infantry or combined arms, a naval Aviation unit and a Combat Logistics Element, including intelligence and communications specialists.

Unlike the more mobile Expeditionary Task Forces, a Frontier Task Force often doesn’t have a planetary assault squadron and often does include more air and ship defence units. In addition, their modularity means that a company or battalion can be deployed independently to cover less populated settlements or planets that don’t warrant or can’t support an entire task force - or if the commander wishes to forward deploy listening posts or combat outposts for intel gathering purposes.

Frontier Forces (the largest task force type) will as a rule have the same number as the Marine Division formings its Ground Combat Element, and include the 2nd Frontier Force (containing the 2nd Marine Division as its Combat Ground Element) on Eden Prime, the 10th Frontier Force (containing the 10th Marine Division) in the Traverse and the 34th Frontier Force on Elysium.

Chapter Text

“Ever dropped in a Mako before?” Commander Shepard asked as seven human Marines, a turian detective-slash-sniper, and a krogan battlemaster crammed themselves into the interior of the Mako Infantry Fighting Vehicle. Designed to fit a squad of Alliance Marines or soldiers, it wasn’t exactly the most comfortable vehicle - but at least the Commander had decided that Wrex’s bulk meant trying to squeeze in another Marine wasn’t going to work. The Marines being left behind looked like children who’d been told they couldn’t have candy. They reminded Garrus of the Hierarchy’s naval infantry with their eagerness to get into the fight. Shepard had, with a hint of amusement, assured them that they were the strike team’s back up and would be allowed to jump in to help if things went south.

“No, Commander, I haven’t,” he replied, trying to work out the harness. He’d been in the Army as military police, before he’d applied to join C-Sec, but that had mostly involved checking IDs at the gates of military bases and wrangling soldiers who’d gotten too drunk and decided to start brawls. Every soldier in the Hierarchy Army did combat exercises, but the MPs hadn’t done vehicle drops - not like the Hierarchy’s Mobile Infantry.

“You’re in for a treat then,” Shepard said serenely, and Garrus wasn’t sure whether to be reassured or worried - especially when Sergeant Williams grinned fiercely, fingers fiddling with her rifle.

Lieutenant Alenko reached across and quickly showed him how to do the restraint up properly. He liked the steady, dark haired man. He was certainly the friendliest of the Marine Detachment, unlike the small one he’d attempted to talk to before they’d all loaded into the vehicle. That Marine - ‘Chou’ her nametape said - had given him a glare sharp as a talon knife and crammed herself in the opposite corner of cargo bay.

Joker’s voice boomed through the Mako’s cramped interior. “Five mikes out from Drop Zone Alpha.”

“Alright,” Shepard’s face was hidden behind her visor but Garrus could almost feel her eyes on him. “Just one last quick once over. We’ve reports of geth activity on Therum; not confirmed in our AO, but we should assume they’re here. Draven and Chou will drop in at LZ Alpha and set up a position on top of the ridges, marked as ‘Position Foxtrot’ on your maps. Their callsign will be ‘Skybird’, and Chou will put up the recon drone so we can get eyes on the dig site. We’ll insert via Mako drop at LZ Bravo, about ten kilometres from the dig site. We’ll drive to the dig site, secure Doctor T’Soni and any other University personnel, then call the Normandy in for pick up. Any questions?”

“No, Commander,” Garrus murmured and there was silence from the Mako’s other occupants. Inside the vehicle, it was hard to gauge time or movement. There was only Joker’s voice to mark how long had passed.

“Skybird is on the ground. Five minutes to LZ Bravo.”

Garrus’ mandibles were tight with a flicker of tension. He had to do well during this mission - prove to the Spectre that she’d done the right thing bringing him along and choosing him for her strike team. Prove Chou and the crewmen like her wrong. Saren was a stain on the honour of the entire turian species - there needed to be a turian helping put it right.

“One minute!” called Lance Corporal Ki-tae. Around the troop compartment the humans tugged on their harnesses to check they were fastened, and after a moment, Garrus followed suit. Alenko gave him a thumbs up.

“Go, go, go!” The ship’s loadmaster called over the radio and the Mako rumbled to life and surged forward - and into thin air. Garrus clenched his teeth as the bottom of his stomach dropped, and a few moments later he was thrown against his restraints as the IFV’s thrusters kicked in and slowed the vehicle’s fall down. The landing was almost gentle.

“Beats walking,” Alenko said nonchalantly as Shepard spoke over the comm to the recon team. The first part of the drive was quiet - a bit boring, even - until the recon team alerted them that there were geth units in their way. Shepard seemed to be in something of a hurry and decided against dismounting to fight them. Instead, the driver and gunner played a sort of ‘peekaboo’ with the armatures - ducking behind ridges and folds of the terrain to hide the Mako’s body from the slow moving projectiles and faster AT rockets, then popping back up to fire the main gun until the geth were piles of scrap metal.

“Lance, this is Skybird, over.” The voice of the Marine the humans called ‘Gung Ho’ buzzed through the comm about ten minutes into the drive slash battle.

“Go ahead, Skybird.”

“Be advised, there is a compound ahead of you and there appears to be several anti-tank guns guarding it. Transmitting data now, over.”

Shepard brought up the imaging on her omnitool. Wrex, who’d been stonily silent for most of the trip, leaned forward. “Only a fool punches a nathak in the face. We should sneak around and pull its tail.”

“I have no idea what a nathak is,” Shepard said contemplatively, “But I agree. Here’s what we’ll do…”

Thank the Spirits for reconnaissance, Garrus thought when Ki-tae gunned for a small gap hewn in the rock, the Mako shuddering as a salvo of rockets detonated behind it, before slamming the brakes so the strike team could pile out of the vehicle. He pulled a grenade out of his webbing, pressed a button on the flattened cylinder and popped around the corner of the narrow ravine long enough to fling it at the turret. He backpedaled quickly, as a rocket shot past his shoulder and detonated at his back, close enough to feel a swell of heat.

The Mako rumbled forward and the cannon roared deafeningly. There was no response from the turret.

“Press forward!” Shepard called to them, assault rifle in hand. They surged forward, either side of the Mako. Garrus raised his rifle, shooting in the general direction of the enemy juggernaut platform, glad that he’d managed to wrangle some disruptor ammo off Williams before the mission. His mandibles flared in satisfaction as its shields fell and one of his rounds punched a hole in its shoulder, even as he pressed himself behind an outcrop of rock to avoid return fire. There was a sharp crack and when Garrus poked his head up again, the juggernaut was down, a fist sized hole in its centre of mass from Williams’ sniper rifle.

“Keep pushing!”

Between the Mako’s machinegun and the ground team, the firefight was fierce and savage - but short. It was only minutes until Garrus found himself standing above a pile of dented and holed metal that had been a geth trooper, rifle warm in his talons and adrenaline thudding through him. Shepard sauntered out of one of the buildings, shotgun braced against her shoulder as the gate towards their objective groaned its way open, Wrex following her.

“Not bad,” Wrex told her. She chuckled.

“Nice grenade throw on the turret, Vakarian,” she told him as she passed and he felt himself puff up a little at the praise. “Alright everyone, good job, mount up and let’s get moving.”


The geth had come in the night. Liara had been asleep in her cot after a long day of careful, painstaking excavation. The only ones awake had been the handful of bored Alliance Marines the human government had assigned the expedition as guards. They had been the first to die, cut down by a maelstrom of gunfire by the time she’d fully woken and staggered out into a nightmare of screams and blood on volcanic rock.

The huge krogan battlemaster stepped over the body of poor Sergeant Keenan, laughing in a deep rumble at odds with the unnatural stillness of the geth. Doctor Yates screamed shrilly at the violence - right up until the krogan lowered his shotgun and shot her.

“You brute,” Liara managed, backing away.

He chuckled. “Don’t worry, Doctor T’Soni. Mummy just wants to have a chat.”

Goddess…no. Professor T’Maras had gently broken the news that the Republics had issued a warrant for her mother’s arrest, on suspicion of helping the rogue Saren attack a human colony, but Liara hadn’t quite believed it. Goddess, it’s true. What have you done, mother?

He stepped towards her.

She shook her head frantically. “I want nothing to do with her or Saren! Leave me alone!”

“Listen, there’s two ways this can go,” he said, almost friendly. “The easy way, or the hard way. Dear mum wants you alive…but she said nothing about bruises or a few broken bones. What’s it going to be?”

“Don’t touch me!” She flung a hand out, terror and anger beating through her, and biotics ripped free, tossing the krogan and three geth platforms into the wall.

“You’ll pay for that, T’Soni!” the battlemaster shouted after her as she fled further into the ruins, jumping off the catwalk and catching herself with her biotics. Goddess, they just killed them! No. No, she couldn’t let them catch her. She wasn’t going to be a part of her mother’s insanity. There had to be somewhere to hide down here!

Her heart thudded so loudly it was all she could hear as she scrambled down the rocky passage ways, scraping her fingertips against rough rock walls. But where? Maybe - yes, the cells! Just yesterday, she and Yates had been discussing whether this structure was a prison based on the cells with barrier and restraint generators. If she could get to the one they’d fully excavated, she could bring up the barrier!

She pushed herself forward, choking back sobs of fear and gasps of exertion. She dared not stop or look backwards. She could hear the heavy tread of krogan feet, the brute’s shouts. “You useless fucking flashlights! She’s an archaeologist, not a commando! Find her!”

Geth beyond the Veil? It was impossible, unheard of! But there was no time to think about that. She clambered down the scaffolding that had collapsed at some point during the fighting, feet hitting the sterile white tiles of the excavated cell.

“There!”

A flash of terror stabbed through her, and she flailed at control panel as geth appeared at the top of scaffolding. She gasped in relief as a blue barrier sprung up between her and her pursuers - and then in shock as something grabbed at her, energy wrapping around her limbs and immobilizing her. She struggled fruitlessly against the hold, breathing quick and hard - she must’ve hit something wrong, and with her arms trapped she couldn’t use a mnemonic and biotically trigger the control pillar.

The krogan approached the barrier, eyes murderous as he stared at her predicament. He struck the barrier a few times experimentally with the butt of his shotgun before he growled in frustration. “Find a way past it!” He snapped at the geth before his eyes fixed on her. “You’re either really smart or really dumb, T’Soni. But either way, we’ll get to you.”

With an evil sounding chuckle, he left her there, helpless. Alone, Liara felt hot tears trickle down her face. Goddess, what was she going to do?


“How bad’s the damage?”

Garrus looked up at Shepard from where he was kneeling to peer under the chassis of the Mako. It was hot enough outside of the IFV that Garrus felt uncomfortable, but the humans seemed to be struggling - both Alenko and Williams had sought what shade they could in the Mako’s shadow. Wrex had lumbered off, unconcerned by the heat.

“It looks like we must’ve taken some splash in the last fight with an armature, Commander.”

“Can we fix it?” she questioned, bending to have a look at the damage herself.

“The onboard fabricator should be able to do the trick,” Williams supplied.

“Alenko, how far are we from the objective?”

The Lieutenant came over, bringing up the map on his omnitool. Droplets of what appeared to be water speckled his cheeks and forehead beneath his clear visor. “Three hundred metres, ma’am. The only route to the site is through some pretty impassable terrain - we’d never get the Mako in there anyway.”

“Ambush central,” Williams muttered, peering over Alenko’s shoulder.

“Alright, we’ll go the rest of the way on foot. Williams, when we hit the chokepoint, I want you to set up an overwatch position and prioritize taking out enemy snipers and machineguns. We can’t afford to get pinned down. Vakarian, I want you to stay here with Dubyansky and Ki-tae to fix the Mako. Once it’s repaired, go and pick up Skybird.”

I don’t want to stay with the car. He wanted to get in there, scrap some more geth! But Shepard was the Commander and while they chafed sometimes, Garrus understood orders. “Yes, Commander.”

He watched Shepard, Alenko, Williams, and Wrex leave with a hint of regret before he laid down in the filmy dust to have another look at the axle. With Dubyansky still at the controls of the turret to defend against anymore geth, Lance Corporal Ki-tae wearily dragged himself over to sit next to him. The axle was twisted and melted almost right through.

“If we cut here and here,” he said, pointing with one talon, “we should be able to replace the damaged portion without taking the wheels off.”

Ki-tae frowned underneath his visor. “That degrades the strength of the whole axle though, right?”

“Sure, but it’ll get us through the day. We can do a full replacement back on the Normandy, Nick,” Garrus replied. Ki-tae had been adamant that he call him that.

After a moment the boy shrugged. “Alright, you’re the combat engineer.”

“If you take that side, I’ll take this side.”

“I’ll grab the blocks.”


Liara wasn’t sure how long she’d been trapped by the Prothean stasis field when she heard the gunfire. For a moment she felt a spark of hope in her chest that all that had been said was a lie - her mother hadn’t done anything terrible, wouldn’t hurt her, had sent her commandos to rescue her and would take her home to Thessia, call her Little Wing again. But it wasn’t commandos who carefully climbed down the broken scaffolding; it was three humans dressed in black hardsuits, one with a red stripe down one arm, and another krogan.

The human with the red stripe approached the barrier, rapping her knuckles against the solidity of it.

“Hello? Can you hear me out there? I’m trapped, I need help!”

“Doctor Liara T’Soni?” the human asked.

“Yes!”

The human stood there, staring, for a good few moments. Her face was hidden but Liara could feel her cheeks burn at the way she seemed to radiate incredulity. “How the fuck did a doctor of archeology get trapped in a bubble?”

“Well - I was trying to - I must’ve hit something I shouldn’t have - you must get me out, please!” There was an embarrassing edge of hysteria to her voice she couldn’t get rid of. The appearance of this black clad figure had given her the first taste of hope she’d felt in the eternity since the geth had come.

“Nevermind,” the human said. “I’m Commander Shepard, commanding officer of the Alliance warship Normandy. We’ll find a way to get you out and I promise you, we’ll protect you from the geth - but you must come with us. I need information on your mother.”

Her mother? Of course. It always came back to her mother. Liara nodded frantically.

“Don’t worry. I’ll find a way to get you out,” Shepard said, and her voice was so measured, so calm, that Liara believed her.

“Wait, there’s more geth and a krogan here. They’ve been trying to find a way past the barrier.”

“We’ll take care of them,” one of the other humans said, a certain sharp-edged glee to her voice. Was she looking forward to fighting that horrible krogan?

“Be right back,” Commander Shepard said, almost cheerily and then she was pulling herself back up the scaffolding. There was nothing to do but wait, despite the gunfire and explosions - and there were a lot of them. Anala back home said humans were often brutish, impatient and violent. Yates and the other humans Liara had met while working on Therum hadn’t been like that at all, but she was beginning to wonder if these ones were. But they were her only hope of not getting bundled off by the geth, so she closed her eyes and prayed they would be victorious.

She still jumped when she heard Shepard’s voice behind her. “How did you-”

“Blew a hole in the floor,” she said matter-of-factly.

“Oh.”

“Mining laser,” she added helpfully.

“…Of course.”

Liara nearly fell when the field shut off, banging her knee against the sterile white tiles. Shepard took a step forward. “Are you okay?”

“Just a bit…stiff, I think, thank you.”

The human steadied her with a gentle hand and pulled a bottle of sorts from the straps and pockets covering her armour and held it out to her. That first gulp of water tasted better than anything Liara had ever tasted before, and she barely restrained herself from drinking it all. With unsteady hands, she screwed the lid back on and handed it back.

“Can you walk?” Shepard asked, lowering her hand. Liara couldn’t see all of her face as light broke on her visor, just a scar on her chin, vivid white against copper skin, and her mouth.

“I…yes, I think I can.”

“It shouldn’t be far,” said one of the other humans - the man - encouragingly. The other female human had her arms crossed. She seemed disapproving, but Liara wasn’t sure what she’d done.

“The Alliance military is investigating my mother?” Liara asked as they got onto the elevator.

“Your mother is helping Saren,” the female soldier said, her voice sharp. “Attacked Eden Prime. Killed a shitton of people. So you better think fast about the last time you talked to her, Miss Prothean Expert.”

Liara recoiled from the anger. “I - I haven’t spoken to my mother in years! I don’t know anything about that! I would never - “

Shepard touched the soldier’s shoulder and she subsided. “I’m a Council Spectre,” she said ‘Spectre’ distastefully. “I’ve been tasked with tracking down Saren - and your mother. We were hoping you might have some information on her whereabouts or motives.”

“I’m sorry, Commander - “ The elevator bucked and rumbled beneath their feet and Liara would’ve fallen if the Spectre hadn’t caught her arm and steadied her. Goddess, this was embarrassing.

“It’s alright. Let’s focus on getting out of here.” She raised a hand to her ear. “Vakarian, this is Shepard. Have you picked up Skybird, over?”

“Affirmative, Commander.”

“Alright, get yourselves to the LZ now and get the Mako loaded as soon as the ship arrives, over.”

“Understood, over.”

“Shepard out.” She tilted her head. “Normandy, this is Lance Actual. Get the ship to the LZ on the double! I have a feeling we’re about to witness a volcanic episode, over.” There was a squawk of indignation over the comm link and Liara could see Shepard grinning as she ended the second call. Liara wasn’t entirely sure what was funny. Shepard turned back to them, still smiling. “When we get up top, double time it. I don’t feel like taking a swim in lava this afternoon.”


Over all, Commander Emilia Shepard felt that the mission on Therum had gone rather to plan, something the N7 were not accustomed to. Sure, they’d set off a volcanic eruption and had to run for their lives, but they’d secured Benezia’s daughter and their only casualty had been an axle. Joker wasn’t happy about the whole ‘landing in lava’ thing and she’d have to check with Adams to make sure the fried sensors were just hyperbole and not something she’d have to get fixed, but she let him have his little vent session before she’d cloistered the ground team, minus Ki-tae who was helping Fredricks finish repairing the Mako, and Liara T’Soni in the briefing room.

T’soni was not quite Emilia had been expecting of a Matriarch’s daughter. She was clearly shy, a little awkward and had mumbled a bit about her inexperience with humans. Not exactly spy material or ‘Mummy’s little genocidal helper’. Appearances could be deceiving, but Shepard’s gut feeling was that T’Soni was being honest. The initial med scans Alenko had done had shown the effects of two days without food or water.

And her theories about the Protheans matched up with the beacon’s ‘message’. Maybe it hadn’t knocked a few screws loose in her head after all. The whole concept of the Reapers still struck her as mildly unbelievable; she’d seen plenty of horrific things, but they all came down to sentient cruelty and greed, not monsters hiding in dark space. But Saren and Benezia believed in them and that this Conduit would bring them back. And if T’Soni was right that this Conduit was connected to the Protheans’ disappearance and the nightmares stuffed in her head…well, it made the Reapers more likely than she was comfortable with.

“Alright. Thank you for the information, Doctor. You should get checked out by Doctor Chakwas. We’re setting a course back to the Citadel.” Shepard needed to check some leads from the Spectre info network. “So sit back and enjoy the cruise. I think we’re done here.” She stood, cracking her neck.

“Wait, Commander?” T’Soni burst out. “Saren might try to have me killed or kidnapped again. I’d feel safer on your ship - and my knowledge of the Protheans might be useful later on.”

Shepard looked at her steadily. “This is a warship in the middle of a conflict. I can’t guarantee your safety.”

“I don’t think anyone can guarantee my safety, Commander,” she said quietly.

After a moment Shepard nodded. “Alright. Alenko, take Doctor T’Soni here to the medbay, get Chakwas to check her out. She’s had a rough day. Williams, I’d like to speak to you for a moment, rest of you dismissed.”

Williams waited attentively while the rest of the team filed out, hands loosely clasped behind her back. Shepard came closer and said in a low, even voice, “I believe her, but it wouldn’t hurt to keep an eye on her if she starts wandering the ship.”

“Aye ma’am,” the Marine agreed, whiskey brown eyes narrowed slightly.

“And Sergeant?”

“Yeah?” Williams looked at her and Shepard was suddenly and inappropriately aware that they were close enough that she could feel the warmth of the younger Marine’s arm close to her side.

She cleared her throat, taking a step back. “Be nice about it. She’s under our protection - and she’s not her mother. She’s not to blame for Eden Prime. No one should be condemned for the sins of the father.”

Williams flinched as if prodded and then nodded. “Understood ma’am.”

“That was all. Dismissed, Sergeant.”

“Ma’am.”

When the Marine was gone, Shepard breathed in and bravely faced the FTL communicator, glaring at it as if she knew it was about to tell her she had latrine duty for a month. She spared a longing thought for the brisk, evenhanded debriefs with Colonel Hoang, and pressed the button that would connect her to the Council.


CODEX ENTRY

The Principles of Attacking:
Excerpt from the Systems Alliance ‘Marine Warfighting Manual: Infantry Company Operations (MWM 2.1.1)

REMEMBER: Fire without manoeuvre is indecisive. Manoeuvre without fire is FATAL.

In other words, sitting back and firing at the enemy will only accomplish so much; a Marine should remain aggressive and decisive to win the battle. Simply rushing an enemy, however, will most likely result in dead Marines and little else.

Reconnaissance: know as much about your enemy as you can before attacking. Isolation: cut off the enemy from avenues of reinforcement or escape. It may be difficult to fully isolate a target but it must be done to the best of the element's ability.
Emplace heavier weapons where they can cover likely retreat paths. If artillery is available, consider plotting these paths as secondary targets.
Consider leaving a 'gap' to convince the enemy they can escape. They may break and attempt to flee, only to run into previously emplaced friendly weapons.
Preparation: the use of support fires to 'soften' or attrit an enemy force before conducting an assault. This can be done via artillery or mortar fire, naval fire and close air support.
When possible, preparatory fires should be maintained during the assault element's movement and shift just prior to the element's arrival at the element, to maximise shock and confusion and give the enemy little time to recover and react to the assault element. This may be the difference between a successful assault and the enemy recovering and opening a still vulnerable assault element.
Surprise: in certain situations it will be more important to attack with surprise than spend the time to prepare a target. Surprise, combined with violence and speed of action can be a force multiplier that can outweigh the the effects of preparation. Whether to use preparatory fire or attack with surprise is the decision of the element leader, such as the platoon commander.

Flexibility: remember 'no plan survives first contact with the enemy'. The situation may develop in many unexpected ways. This requires the Marine leader to respond with initiative and adaptiveness. Do not get overly attached to your plans.

Chapter Text

Lieutenant Kaidan Alenko hadn’t slept and, staring at himself in the mirror of the men’s showers, he looked like it. There were deep, dark shadows under his eyes and he found himself moving gingerly, just in case moving his head too quickly would bring back the skull-crushing pain that had led to him spending the night curled up in the medbay. Even the soft hum of the ship made his stomach protest.

What he wanted to do was go back to his sleeper pod, curl up in soft darkness and spend a few hours shielded from the galaxy. What he did was splash water on his face and shave. When he left the head Williams was waiting at one of the mess tables with her laptop, two cups of coffee and two trays of food. When he sat across from her, she slid him one of the cups and the tray piled high with food.

“Thanks,” he said, picking up his fork.

“You look like shit, LT,” she said bluntly, stabbing one of her sausages. “One of those nights?”

“Yeah. Migraine.” They both had those nights. He had his migraines and the occasional smoke-drenched dream of Eden Prime. She wandered the corridors of the ship, like ghosts were trailing after her. Sometimes they would drink coffee together and play cards, or she’d steal his paperwork so he could lie in agony without heaping worry on top of it. They were developing a strong, honest command dynamic. Even a friendship.

She pushed an egg around the tray. “I can handle things this morning if you need some rest.”

“I’m good,” he said in between mouthfuls of bacon. “How’s Fredricks?”

“I’ve confined him to quarters. He’s got a nice bruise, but I don’t think he’s hurt other than his pride. Buffer wants to mast him.” A captain’s mast, a nonjudicial proceeding before Commander Shepard herself. PFC Fredericks was probably terrified, with that sword hanging over him.

“Got a list of extra duties yet?”

She smirked. “You bet I do, sir.”

After about ten minutes of discussion about what their training schedule looked like, Williams excused herself to go attend to the armoury. Kaidan flicked through the detachment calendar. The ship’s limited space constrained what type of training could be done - there certainly wasn’t room for a range, but there was some exercise equipment for the Marines to keep themselves in a condition to fight and he could schedule ‘book learning’. They’d complain about it, but if an infantry unit wasn’t complaining about something he’d be worried.

The door to the medbay hissed open and T’Soni crept out warily. Kaidan felt a pang of sympathy even as he noted Serviceman Second Class Adamczyk watching her keenly. Adamczyk - a course and mission planner in the CIC - and his buddy Serviceman Second Class Dreyer in the mess kitchen both took stereotypes about asari too literally. They seemed to think they had a chance with her and weren’t afraid to discuss it. Alenko was in no mood to be witness to Adamczyk’s fumbling attempts at flirtation anymore than he was in the mood for a civilian contractor to feel harassed by Alliance servicemen.

“Doctor T’Soni?” he called, inviting her to sit in the seat Ashley had just vacated. She sat across from him almost gingerly, with a tray of the same breakfast and a cup of orange juice - not black coffee like he and Williams had been drinking.

“Hello Lieutenant,” she said, eyeing the bacon curiously.

“Call me Kaidan,” he said, polishing off his eggs.

“Then I must insist you call me Liara,” she replied, taking a sip from her cup. “This is good.”

“We’ll run out of the good stuff soon, unfortunately,” He began digging into a sausage. “Milk and fresh food are usually the first to go. Then it’s onto the powdered stuff.”

She looked mystified. “You drink milk?”

He blinked. “Uh. Yeah. Cow’s milk usually. I take it asari don’t?”

“Not once we’re weaned from our mothers.”

“Huh.” Kaidan nodded to Corporal Dubyansky as he passed with Ki-tae and Chou. The big Russian’s eyes were hard when they fell on the asari across from him.

“The crew - particularly your soldiers - don’t trust me,” Liara observed.

Kaidan winced a little, rubbing his hand along his newly-shaven chin. “My guys are infantry. They don’t even like other Marines half the time.”

“They have a very strong sense of the in-group,” Liara said slowly. Of course a scientist would frame it that way. “I suppose that is to be expected - it is often seen among warrior social groups.”

It didn’t help that, for all that she had been polite, some of the Marines had picked up on their Staff Sergeant’s suspicion of Benezia’s daughter. He couldn’t fault how Williams had acted since her chat with Shepard, but the wariness remained and he couldn’t completely blame her. T’Soni was a name bound up in Eden Prime and the massacre of the 2/12, however gentle the doctor was. “Commander Shepard has vouched for you. Give them time and they’ll get used to having you aboard.”

Performance in combat was the quickest way to earn a Marine’s trust - which was why Garrus Vakarian had found himself accepted by a band of the Marines. Tali’Zorah’s skill as an engineer and ease with shipboard life had endeared her to the naval crew as well. But Kaidan wasn’t going to throw an archaeologist into battle just so his subordinates could overcome their prejudices and/or suspicions. It wasn’t even entirely because she was an asari and their enemy’s daughter - some of it was just the grunt’s suspicion of a civilian outsider.

He shrugged, mopping up some yolk with the end of a sausage. “A lot of humans are still learning to separate our violent entry into galactic affairs from the individuals they meet.”

“What about you?” she asked quietly, before taking a tentative bite out of a sausage.

“People are people, no matter their species,” he said simply. Sometimes when Kaidan closed his eyes he could still hear the snap of Vyrnnus’ neck. “There’s good and bad in everyone. It’s our actions that decide what kind of people we are. You’ve chosen to help us - that’s what matters to me.”

“Thank you…Kaidan.”


Shepard woke with the sheets tangled around her bare legs, sweat beading on her face and her head buzzing. She groaned into the silence of her dark cabin, running a hand through her tangled hair. The alarm clock beside her bunk blinked 0327 at her.

“Fucking Protheans,” she muttered at the blank metal above her head, digging her fingers into her skull as if she could force out the dreams that had twisted behind her eyes all night. She had enough ghosts rattling around in there without the Protheans getting in on the action. After a few more moments staring at the ceiling, teeth gritted, she flicked the lights on, pulled on her PT shirts to go with the loose Navy shirt she wore to sleep, and grabbed her uniform. She wasn’t going to get back to sleep before her 0430 alarm sounded and years of military service had trained her so she couldn’t sleep past 0500 anyway. At least the showers would be empty before the rush after Reveille and breakfast.

After showering and dressing she looked something closer to an officer of the Alliance Navy, and it was time for the first coffee of the day - and to get started on the mountain of paperwork a warship ran on. It was practically tradition for a captain to pass on a lot of the paperwork to their Executive Officer, but Shepard was very aware Pressly was shouldering a great deal of work already. It wouldn’t do to run poor Charles into the ground at the start of their cruise.

At 0545 the chief steward, PO2 Kanu Medra, came to her cabin with a tray piled with no less than five eggs, three sausages and several rashers of bacon, ahead of the breakfast rush in the mess.

“Petty Officer,” Shepard said seriously, “I think you’re my favourite person on this ship right now.”

The broad Indian man smiled widely. “I’ll not tell the Buffer that, ma’am. It wouldn’t do to make the captain wait in line in the mess, and I know you and Lieutenant Alenko need plenty of sustenance.”

“You have my sympathies for having to keep two dextros and four biotics fed,” she said dryly.

“Part of the job ma’am, though I’ll admit to having to change my projections, particularly where Mr Wrex is concerned.”

She cracked a sympathetic smile and chatted with the steward for a few minutes, drawing out of him that he had a horde of children at home on Arcturus before he had to return to his duties. Once the door sealed behind him she dug voraciously into the meal. Milk and eggs were amongst the first things a warship ran out of and the powdered versions just weren’t the same, so she always tried to enjoy the supplies while they lasted.

At 0700 there was another knock at the door, followed by young Serviceman Emerson carrying another steaming cup of coffee, which he set on her desk.

“I, uh,” he stammered.

Shepard raised an eyebrow and waited.

Emerson swallowed and began again. “I’ve sorted your emails in order of priority, ma’am. There’s nothing urgent, but uh, the Buffer would like to meet with you today.”

“Very good, Serviceman. Has Williams’ transfer paperwork gone through with PersCom yet?” She took a sip from the cup and was pleasantly surprised. Anderson had always appreciated Emerson’s coffee, but he liked his black and strong. Shepard was unashamed that she liked a dash of milk and sugar in her bean juice, and somehow Emerson had picked up on that. Her estimate of his observation skills went up a notch.

“Uh..no, ma’am.” He looked at his feet when she frowned. “PersCom knocked it back. I took it to the Buffer and Lieutenant Alenko - to make sure I made no mistakes, but they both said it looked fine to them. I believe that’s one of the things the Master Chief wants to talk to you about.”

Of course PersCom was making her life harder. Sometimes she wondered if they went to a school specifically to learn how to lose paperwork and send people to the wrong unit. “Alright. Was there anything else?”

“No ma’am.”

The emails were all rather mundane. Arcturus had approved her request to add T’Soni as a civilian contractor, with a reasonable salary, and she reminded herself to buy Admiral Hackett a bottle of Fernet in thanks. A request had arrived from the Bureau of Ships for status reports on the Normandy. A brief, curt email from her mother struck her with a bolt of anxiety, Captain Hannah Shepard’s words balanced between pride at her promotion and wariness. I’ve heard Spectres are generally expected to resign from their previous occupations, is this true?

She had an excuse to avoid that question when Master Chief Petty Officer Monica Negulesco entered her office, the tall Romanian folding herself into the chair opposite Shepard. They exchanged pleasantries - Shepard carefully avoiding the topic of Negulesco’s husband and children. It was a sore spot, and not any of her business until the Buffer made it.

“The crew has had few discipline issues thus far ma’am, but there was an incident yesterday. Damage Controlman Laflamme and Private First Class Fredricks have had few clashes of personality, and they came to blows yesterday. Sergeant Williams ended it very quickly, and both she and Petty Officer Draven have kept them both separated, but I believe they need to be Masted.”

“I agree. They need to save it for the geth. Do you have a recommendation?”

Negulesco nodded. “Considering their exemplary previous service and lack of previous offences, I’d recommend they both receive 45/45.”

45 days restriction, where they wouldn’t be permitted to go on shore leave, and 45 days of extra duties. She had a feeling Williams would find it amusing to think up strange things for Fredricks to do. “Alright. Considering that they physically struck each other, however, I’m going to add a suspended bust for six months on top of it.”

The Buffer nodded in acceptance. “Hopefully they can keep their noses clean for that long.”

“On the topic of Williams, Serviceman Emerson informed me that PersCom knocked back her transfer paperwork. Last we spoke, I was led to believe it wouldn’t be a problem.”

Negulesco scowled. “They’re trying to give her orders to fucking Demeter, ma’am.”

“That’s not going to happen,” Shepard said flatly. Williams was an exemplary NCO and sniper. Sending her to Demeter, a planet on which a B list celebrity visiting was the highlight of the year, was not only deeply unjust, it was a waste.

The Buffer’s eyes glittered. “At the moment, the only consequence is that she’s not getting her deployment allowance, but they’ve also stopped paying her the allowances for colonial service - all she’s getting is base pay.”

Shepard rubbed her forehead, a flash of anger burning through her stomach. “At least she’s deployed and doesn’t have much in the way of expenses.”

“Not for her personally, ma’am, but she supports her mother and a sister still in high school. I think she’s a bit anxious about their financial situation.”

“Alright,” Shepard sighed, “We’ll try again and if they don’t process it I’ll have to find the time to call PersCom and knock some sense into them. I’ll talk to Williams, make sure she knows her command is backing her.”

“Aye, ma’am.” Negulesco’s green eyes were approving and Shepard allowed herself a flicker of relief. She needed the Buffer’s support more than anyone else on the ship, and so far the older woman’s demeanour had been coolly professional. Waiting for the vindication of Shepard’s promotion - or for her to fail. Shepard couldn’t really blame her; her promotion had been politics rather than earned. It would take a bit more to break through the petty officer’s reserve, but the first few cracks were there.

Shepard leaned back into her chair and listened as the Buffer moved onto the next item of business.


Ashley had always found gun maintenance soothing. She could disassemble a standard issue Hahne Kedar M7 Lancer assault rifle with a blindfold on. Every piece had its place and she meditated with every stroke of the cleaning cloth. The thrum of the Marine kennel, as the loading bay had become known, surrounded her like a blanket of noise. The nickname had been bestowed by an annoyed petty officer due to the old Marine nickname Devil Dogs, and the Marines had predictable loved it. An enterprising Lance Corporal Waaberi had already found a sign on which she’d painted ‘Devil Dog Kennel’, a snarling bulldog and the grinning skull of the 103rd MARDIV, and hung it near the elevator.

It was a little niche the Marines had carved out for themselves, a little bit of Corps in the midst of all that Navy. It was her place. Finally, Ashley had a deployment where her skills were being utilised, where she was allowed to lead like a detachment sergeant should. When Fredricks had fucked up, Alenko hadn’t undermined her authority by intervening. He’d just stood by and watched while she handled it. This was where Staff Sergeant Ashley Williams was meant to be.

And every time she thought that, let a feeling of belonging sink into her, it was followed by a sharp-edged stab of guilt and grief. Why was she alive and in the best billet she’d ever had when Nirali Bhatia and Penny Neal and hell, John Michaels were all in the ground? She’d resented Michaels. She’d hated him sometimes. But he hadn’t deserved to die like that and his parents hadn’t deserved to get a knock on the door and a closed casket to bury.

The cloth was balled up in her fist as she stared at the rifle. The old meditation wasn’t working anymore.

Behind her, she heard laughter and scuffling as Lance Corporal David Hodgins and Lance Corporal Jaz Teke playfully shoved and elbowed each other in an impromptu spar.

“Uh…Staff Sarn’t?” PFC Fredricks winced as she turned to look at him standing at perfect parade rest. Clearly, his ears were still ringing from the dressing-down she’d given him. A bruise splashed lurid purples and reds across his jaw. At least he’d come out on top in the fight - a Marine getting bested by a grease monkey would’ve embarrassed all of them.

“Yes PFC?”

“I was hoping that well, that you’d give permission for Vakarian to help me an’ Nick with the Mako. We’re still down that mechanic, and he really knows his shit, Sarn’t.”

Fredricks wasn’t wrong. The Mako mechanic, along with the Staff Sergeant originally destined for Ashley’s billet, had been waiting on Eden Prime to get picked up when the Normandy swung past. Instead, both mechanic and Staff Sergeant had died in the Battle of Constant. The Normandy had solved one problem by taking her along, but PersCom was still trying to find a mechanic for them.

“Alright. But if anything gets broken or mis-calibrated, I’ll keelhaul you both. In space.” She narrowed her eyes at him, impressing on him that she was completely and utterly serious.

“Aye aye, Staff Sergeant!”

“Dismissed, PFC.” When the younger Marine had scampered off, she turned her attention back to the rifle and began reassembling it, piece by piece.

“Captain on deck!” Waaberi, who was fiddling with her armour close to the entry to the Kennel, called out, her voice cutting through the rise and fall of a dozen voices. The Marines stopped what they were doing and came to attention as Commander Shepard entered the bay. There was always a shiver of tension when a naval officer came in that door, but that didn’t hold when it was the skipper. Shepard might wear a Navy uniform now, but she was still a Marine in the ways that mattered; she was the best of the Corps, even. There wasn’t a Marine here who hadn’t heard the story of Second Lieutenant Emilia Shepard, Dragon Platoon and the Battle of Illyria. Young Marines were practically grown on stories like Daly at Belleau Wood, Ahern on Shanxi, and Shepard on Elysium.

“As you were, Marines.” Another senior officer might have had the Marines looking over their shoulders, wary as a mouse in the shadow of a hawk, but Shepard regularly did rounds of the ship, speaking to the most junior members of her crew, and so they’d become accustomed to their commanding officer appearing at random. She’d never had a CO who made a point of speaking to her regularly, but Shepard approached her now, as she had on all the other times she’d toured the ship.

“Williams,” Shepard said, leaning against the bench. Her dark brown eyes flickered over the rifle laid out there and the black grease on Ashley’s hands.

“Skipper.” She said easily. A flash of pleased surprise darted across the Commander’s face at the nickname.

“How’s it?”

She shrugged. “You know. Cleaning guns. My youngest sister messaged me.” She was glad Shepard had come down after she’d listened to Sara’s message. She was going to be down a sister when she went home because she was going to kill her. Of course Sara had to comment on the attractiveness of her superior officers, and of course Waaberi had heard and laughed long enough for Ashley to consider throwing her out the airlock. “Surprised to see you down here, ma’am.”

Shepard raised a scarred eyebrow. “And why is that?”

Ashley slid the last piece of the HK-M7 home. “Scuttlebutt says you’re sweet on T’Soni. Thought you might be up there, y’know?”

Her voice was sharper than intended.

The Commander’s eyes widened, “Liara? What? No.”

Ashley wiped her hands off on a rag. “You do talk to her a fair bit, skipper.”

“I talk to everyone,” Shepard said dryly. Suddenly, horrified understanding blossomed across her face. “Please don’t tell me…”

Ashley couldn’t help it. She burst out laughing at the other woman’s expression. She managed a nod. “’Fraid so, ma’am. The grapevine has about three different theories.”

Shepard’s eyes rolled towards the ceiling as if beseeching. “Sweet baby Jesus, doesn’t anyone realise this is a warship and not the set of a soap opera?”

That set her off again. She had to brace herself against the bench, her ribs aching from laughing so hard. After a few moments, she recovered and straightened, still grinning. Shepard stared at her, almost petulant.

“I’m glad this amuses you so much, Staff Sergeant.” But there was a glitter in the Commander’s dark eyes that hinted that she saw the funny side too.

“Sorry, ma’am. But what else are the crew supposed to do besides gossip about your love life?”

“Well, it’s more interesting than what’s actually going on in my personal life,” Shepard’s voice was desert-dry. After a moment the Commander tilted her head, a strand of black hair falling across her cheekbone, dragging Ashley’s eyes along with it. “You have a sister?”

“Three. I’m the oldest. We’ve always been close.” She shrugged, “With my dad on deployments all the time, I had to help mum raise them.”

“Your dad served in the Fleet?”

“Yeah. Navy. He loved space time - took any crap assignment that got him a fleet berth.” When she’d been younger, and bitter about his absences and the responsibility it had foisted onto her, she’d thought he’d loved the Navy too much. Walking the cool blue-hued corridors of the Normandy, she felt close to him - and to understanding why he’d loved the fleet so much. “Worked his ass off, but never made it above Serviceman First Class. He was real proud when I made sergeant.”

“I can imagine,” Shepard’s voice was almost gentle before a flicker of amusement crossed her features. “Your sisters still talk to you after you helped raise them?”

Ash shrugged. “Things were tense with me and Sarah for a while.” Dad dead, mum mourning, Sarah lashing out at the most acceptable target. “Then we bonded…”

It was almost too easy to talk to Shepard. She had a way of looking at you, with those dark, inscrutable eyes, and with a word here or a question there, getting you to spill the whole story of how you’d reconnected with your little sister via letting her do her own beating up of her would be rapist ex-boyfriend.

“It was probably for the best she handled it,” Ash said contemplatively. “I probably would’ve broken him in half. Us Williams girls do things in our own time. Not before, not after.”

“Your father was deployed?”

“Yeah. He loved space, but he didn’t think it was the place to raise a family, y’know? Real ground under your feet and all. ‘I cannot rest from travel: I will drink Life to the lees: All times I have enjoy'd Greatly, have suffer'd greatly, both with those That loved me, and alone, on shore.’” She recited the words her father had spoken to her so many times, soft despite the roughness of his Southern drawl.

“’For always roaming with a hungry heart Much have I seen and known.’” Shepard said, a small smile on her face. “Ulysses. You have a sensitive side after all, Sergeant.”

Ashley narrowed her eyes at her. “No spreading that around…ma’am.”

Shepard’s mouth curled in a smirk. “Aye aye.”

“It was…my dad’s favourite poem. He used to take a recording of me reciting it every time he deployed. Badgered me to email him a version even after I enlisted.”

“That’s sweet,” Shepard said. “Does he still like it?”

“I hope so,” Ash said, with a pang of grief that still hurt, like stretching a still healing torn muscle. “I read it to his grave every time I go home. He died a few years back, in the Geneva accident.”

There was a genuine sympathy in the Commander’s voice. “I’m sorry, Williams.”

She shrugged uncomfortably. “He’s still watching over me, I’m sure of it.”

Michaels, when he’d found out she was a practising Catholic, had found it funny. A symptom of her backward nature. Shepard just smiled, told her that it wasn’t her job to tell her what to believe - and that she herself was a lapsed Catholic.

“I did come down here for a reason - not just the chat,” she said, brushing the hair out of her face. “Buffer came to me about your pay issues. I’m afraid Personnel Command has knocked your papers back. They’re trying to transfer you to Demeter.”

Ashley would’ve preferred to be shot. She stared at Shepard mutely, leaden dread weighing her limbs and heart. Those dark eyes turned sharp and fierce and Shepard grabbed her shoulder. Her fingertips seemed to burn, even through Ashley’s uniform shirt.

“It’s not going to happen, Sergeant.” Her voice was granite with determination. “I won’t let it.”

Ashley’s tongue seemed heavy in her mouth. “Thank you, ma’am.”

Shepard dropped her hand and Ashley felt cold all of a sudden. “Don’t thank me. I’m not doing you a favour - I’m doing myself one by keeping a damned good platoon sergeant and sniper.”

“I…yes, ma’am.”

Shepard glanced at the clock above the armoury. “I should go; I’ve taken up enough of your time, Sergeant.”

“Aye, ma’am. Thanks for the chat.” It hadn’t quite sunk in yet; the feeling of a chain of command that was with her, instead of trying to drag her down, like a lead ball chained to her ankle in the middle of a five klick battalion run.

When Shepard was gone, Gung Ho Draven, the tall African-American sergeant, arrived at the armoury carrying her weapons case. “Yo, Sarn’t, just gonna clean my shit if that’s all good with you?”

“I’m not going to stop you,” Williams moved over to give the other NCO room as she started to look over her M5 sidearm. God, she loved this pistol. She almost wanted to get into some real CQB action, just for an excuse to use it. The two of them fell into companionable silence as she carefully cleared the pistol and then began to remove the slide.


CODEX ENTRY

The Systems Alliance Navy Fleets: The Systems Alliance Navy currently operates eight numbered fleets of 120-200 vessels each. Some form part of regional commands and are responsible for defensive pickets, patrols and conducting anti-piracy operations in their area, other fleets are expeditionary - rapid reaction forces meant to undertake offensive actions or reinforce the regional fleets. Numbered fleets are usually commanded by vice or full admirals.

First Fleet: The ‘Home Fleet’ is based out of Arcturus Station and protects both the capital and the Arcturus Prime Relay - functionally, the First Fleet protects Earth. It can also dispatch battlegroups and task forces across much of Alliance space. The flagship of the First Fleet is the SSV Kilimanjaro DN4 and it also includes the heavy carrier Zheng He CA9 and Sun Tzu CA3 and light carriers Ibn Al-Haytham LCA1, William Marshal LCA14 and Galileo LCA12. The First Fleet is currently commanded by Admiral Alazne Egues.

Second Fleet: The Fleet that, under the command of the legendary Admiral Kastanie Drescher, defeated the Hierarchy Navy’s 33rd Far Fleet. The Second Fleet’s home is the planet of Elysium and it contains a disproportionate proportion of Elysian servicemen; the Elysium Defence Force often sends its officers on voluntary tours with the fleet to gain experience. Along with the Third Marine Expeditionary Force, the Second Fleet provides the strategic reaction force for much of the frontier of Alliance space. The newly built SSV Elbrus DN2 is the flagship of this fleet, and its carriers are Mahatma Gandhi CA2, Sun Yat Sen CA11, Omar Mukhtar LCA5 and Al-Kindi LCA13. The Second Fleet is commanded by Admiral Frederick Duus and is nicknamed ‘the Victors’ or ‘Drescher’s Cavalry’.

Third Fleet: The Third Fleet is an expeditionary fleet stationed in the Caleston Rift to defend against or launch attacks against the western Terminus systems. Some of the fleet’s assets were implicated in the Torfan massacre, though few charges were laid and none of the senior officers involved were removed. The flagship of the Third Fleet is the SSV Fuji DN3, and its carriers are Horatio Nelson CA6, Stephen Hawking CA7, Boudicca LCA2 and Achilles LCA15. The current commanding officer of the Third Fleet is Admiral Nitesh Singh.

Fourth Fleet: The Fourth Fleet is based at the Caleston Rift to protect the Alliance’s ally in Caleston and protect against aggression from the Hegemony. The Fourth Fleet is often nicknamed ‘the Nomad Fleet’ due to JOC’s habit of moving the fleet around as the Alliance’s defensive needs change. The flagship of the Fourth Fleet is the is the SSV Isaac Newton CA4 and its light carriers are Sejong LCA4, Ashoka LCA9 and Dwight D Eisenhower LCA17. The current commanding officer is Admiral Shen Mei.

Fifth Fleet: The Fifth Fleet is the Alliance’s premier expeditionary fleet and strategic strike force. When the SSV Orizaba is complete, the Fifth Fleet will be the first to have two dreadnoughts. The Fifth Fleet has taken part in numerous anti-piracy campaigns and shows of force, and is now tasked with responding to the geth threat. The flagship is currently the SSV Everest DN1, and the fleet contains the carriers Marie Curie CA8, Joan of Arc CA14, Toyotomi Hideyoshi LCA3, John Monash LCA10 and Timur LCA16. The current commanding officer is Admiral Steven Hackett.

Sixth Fleet: The Sixth Fleet is part of ‘EXCOM’ (Exodus Command) and is responsible for the defence of the Exodus Cluster, including Eden Prime and Elysium, and surrounding minor colonies. The Battle of Constant has led to something of an inquest into the fleet’s failure to stop the geth attack on Eden Prime. It has, however, been raised by advocates of the force that the Sixth has often been underfunded and has far less capital ships than the other fleets due to the belief that Exodus was safe from attack. The flagship of the Sixth Fleet is the heavy carrier SSV Hongwu CA5 and also contains the light carriers Alexander LCA8 and Grace O’Malley LCA11. The current commander of the Sixth Fleet is Vice Admiral Oliver Capel.

Seventh Fleet: The Seventh Fleet is based out of Czarnobog Fleet Depot, and is responsible for defending the Alliance’s ‘western’ borders and policing a large sector of space. As a result the Seventh has a very high proportion of scout frigates and light cruisers. The Seventh Fleet’s flagship is the SSV Shastra DN5, and the fleet also contains the carriers Albert Einstein CA1, Charles De Gaulle CA12 and Prem Tinsulanonda LCA6.

Eighth Fleet: Nicknamed ‘the Wardens of the Verge’, the Eighth Fleet is part of VERGECOM, responsible for patrolling and picketing the notoriously unstable Traverse border. The fleet has the highest operational tempo in the Navy, with a resulting chronic shortage of manpower and ship, and often insufficient time for maintenance. It’s not unknown for Eighth ships to have to do repairs while underway that should be done in a drydock; some of its servicemen joke that ‘do more with less’ is the motto of the fleet. A deployment with this fleet can make or break a young officer’s career. With the advent of the war with the geth, the fleet has had to add ‘warfighting’ to its long list of responsibilities and its admiral’s demands for more ships have become more strident. The flagship of the Eighth Fleet is the SSV Tai Shan DN6, and the fleet includes the carriers Benjamin Davis CA10, Robert Oppenheimer CA13 and Casimir LCA7. The current commanding officer is Admiral Janice Holloway.

Chapter Text

"Captain to the bridge, captain to the bridge." the 1MC boomed, severing Shepard's conversation with Lieutenant Adams . She didn't bother ending the conversation. She merely cut off mid-sentence, turned, and pushed her way out of Engineering and into the elevator, tapping her fingers impatiently against her thigh. Did they have to install the galaxy's slowest elevator on her ship?

A captain was never ordered on her own ship. If they needed to ask her something, she would be 'requested' on the bridge. But if it was an emergency…

The elevator chimed open and she surged past the knot of sailors waiting to go down to deck three. Her boots clicked against metal as she took the stairs two at a time. It wasn't an enemy contact - if it was, Pressly would've called General Quarters already and she wouldn't be the only one running.

The door to the CIC hummed open and Shepard immediately stepped past the Marine guard, looking for her Executive Officer, calling, “I have the deck. What’s going on?”

Pressly, uniform neat and pressed as always, came to meet her. “Ma'am, sorry to interrupt your rounds, but we got a distress call I think you should hear." He glanced at the comms tech tucked into the corner of the CIC. "Play it for the Commander, serviceman."

She leaned forward as the sailor obeyed and a desperate voice filled the dark-hued deck, every one of the bridge crew silent. "Mayday, mayday, mayday! This is the MSV Majesty! We are under attack by pirates; we are an unarmed cargo freighter and our shields are failing! Mayday!"

She rocked back on her heels, biting down on a familiar flare of anger. "Alright, have we got the location and pulled the registry on the Majesty?"

"Aye ma'am, I've added the location given to our systems," Quartermaster Saxena said, his eyes narrowed.

“Working on the registry, ma’am,” said Intelligence Specialist First Class Angelos Kokinos. Shepard was good with people, with working them out, but the softly-spoken Kokinos was something of a grey man - someone who usually faded into the background. He didn’t have a spouse back home and he seemed to have few close ties with other members of the crew.

She turned her eyes to the CIC map, frowning. “Is there anyone closer?”

“Negative, ma’am,” Pressly said sourly, “Eighth Fleet’s responsible for this sector but their closest ship, the Paris, is about five hours behind us.”

"And we're about...twenty-two hours out, from what I can see," she said, nodding to the map.

“Twenty.” Cut in Joker over the commline between CIC and the helm.

Shepard smiled despite herself. "Alright, give me a heading for the Majesty's last known location, put us up to Condition Two and get me a line to the Eighth Fleet. Joker, you have the conn. Get us there quick and quiet."

“Aye aye, Commander.”

“I’ve got the registry, ma’am,” Kokinos handed her a datapad onto which he’d loaded the freighter’s info.

“MSV Majesty.” She quoted. “Registered in the Alliance and owned by Exodus Intergalactic Shipping. Last lodged trip was from Shanxi to Noveria. Six crew, Captain is a Willem Kennedy, Navy reservist but spent his whole life in merchant shipping.”

“Noveria? Better watch out for freaky science experiments on that ship, ma’am,” Joker quipped. “I’d say zombies, but the geth beat them to it.”

“Where’s the Eighth Fleet?” asked Sub-Lieutenant Raymond Tanaka. There was always something stilted about the way Tanaka stood and spoke. He vaguely reminded Shepard of an awkward high school student who’d gotten lost and found himself in the Navy. But the kid could do some magic with paperwork, which was why he’d been tapped as the XO’s assistant for the Normandy. “They’re supposed to have system pickets and patrols to combat pirates, right? And now with the geth, you’d think they’d want their frigates out scanning for their movements.”

Shepard and Pressly exchanged grimaces before she answered. “After Eden Prime, all the senators from the colonies are in an uproar. People are scared their colony will be next, so the government is making the admiralty pull a lot of ships for colonial defence pickets. The Eighth has had to pull a lot of patrols and the Admiral can’t weaken her rapid reaction forces in case one of her remaining patrols does run into geth or a colony is attacked.”

Tanaka shook his head, consternation written over his fine features. “But they need those patrols, ma’am. That's the only way we can find the geth - they could be slipping through the holes in our frontier if the Eighth Fleet isn’t out there looking! If we sit on the colonies we’ll never know where the next punch is coming from. It’s stupid to think that defensive strategy will do better.”

“It’s politics,” she told him, “We know that - but the guy on his farm on Tiptree doesn’t. All he cares about is if his place is going to be the next one on fire. So he’s yapping at his representative and his representative wants to get re-elected, so she goes and yells in Parliament loud enough that the government rides the admiralty’s arse into reassigning their ships from actual warfighting duties.”

Pressly’s voice dripped with disgust. “Politics should stay outta it. We have a war to win.”

Shepard hid a wry smile. Her promotion, her command, her Spectre status - all politics; and she agreed with him. It’d be nice to feel like she’d earnt all of this, rather than being the human equivalent of a thrown bone.

"There are rumours that the Fifth Fleet will be moving up to help the Eighth or they might reinforce the Wardens from the Home Fleet," Pressly's eyes took on a certain questioning gleam as he looked at his commander.

She shrugged. "Nothing concrete yet. Unfortunately, JOC doesn't invite me to their deliberations."

Pressly took the gentle push back for what it was and smiled at her wryly. For all of his faults, she'd realised she quite liked her Executive Officer and hoped that with time, his sharp edges would blunt.

“Alright, once we’re an hour out, put the ship to general quarters. I want to drop in and go straight to stealth so we can get eyes on, in case the Majesty’s attackers are still in the area. If they’re a bit big for us to take a bite out of them, we’ll collect recon and wait for the Paris to show up.”

“Ma’am, I’ve got a line to VERGECOM open,” Called Serviceman Third Class Barret.

“Good. I’ll take it in the briefing room. XO, you have the deck.”


"General Quarters, General Quarters! All hands man your action stations. The flow of traffic is up and forward on the starboard side, down and aft on the port. Set material condition Zebra throughout the ship. This is not a drill. General Quarters, General Quarters!"

“Yeah, I think we fuckin’ get it, Bitchin’ Betty.” Lance Corporal Hodgins muttered, sparing a moment to glare at the nearest 1MC speaker as the VI announcement was followed by a shrill alarm tone. The initial rush of the Navy servicemen rushing to their posts had faded and now the armoury was full of Marines (plus three aliens) armouring up. Doing up her own chest piece, Ashley spared a moment to hope the GQ alarm wouldn’t provoke one of the LT’s headaches. She glanced over at him as she holstered her sidearm. His face was creased but she wasn’t sure if that was pain or just him worrying about the hostages.

The Normandy had slid out of FTL into the Strenuus System and engaged stealth soon after. They’d located the Majesty pretty quickly - or what was left of her: a shattered hulk of scored metal drifting in the black of space. And a trail of radiation from whatever vessel had attacked her, leading to the planet of Xawin. The Majesty’s flight log indicated she’d been boarded, so the Commander was operating on the conclusion that the crew had been imprisoned by the pirates and were likely destined for a slave market.

That’s not going to happen, Ashley thought grimly, locking the ammo block into her M7 with purpose.

“Gather round,” Alenko ordered and the black-clad Marines, the quarian, and the turian did so. Wrex remained leaning against a crate, huge arms crossed and red eyes inscrutable. Ashley admitted to herself that he’d intimidated her to begin with, but she was starting to get used to the abrasive bastard. She often found herself alone in the armoury with him, and while he still insisted on maintaining his own weapons, they’d started talking shop sometimes.

“Okay, so passive scans have picked up a base on the surface of Xawin and a vessel that fits the profile of the ship that attacked the Majesty. The Commander believes the crew are in that base but wants eyes on - and an assault force if things go south. We’ll be dropping in two teams. Williams will lead the sniper team including Waaberi and Vakarian and the rest of you will come with me. We’ll drop here and here and…”

There was a lot of kit for this mission, and Ash had the distinct feeling that infiltrating on foot was going to suck at times. The surface of Xawin was a balmy -131 degrees Celsius, so the recon team members were in their bulky cold weather hardsuits, with skis strapped to their backs, and HALCD attachments clicked into place. Vakarian and Williams carried their assault rifles, sidearms, sniper rifles, and rangefinders. Waaberi had the bulky M560-B IMAW ‘Cobra’ launcher magnetised to her back and three extra rounds for it amongst her webbing.

She spared a moment to be grateful that they’d all done mountain warfare training in the past so they didn’t have to walk instead of ski.

They’d just all finished triple checking everyone’s jump-packs (no one wanted to be the guy who got splattered on the ground) when Commander Shepard entered the room. She stopped in front of the scout team, brown eyes dark enough to almost be black examining each of them in turn.

“No heroics from any of you. Put your own safety first - if you get swamped there’s no guarantee the Normandy or the assault team will get to you in time. Safety first.”

“On pain of safety briefings,” Ashley agreed.

Shepard half-smiled. “Very good.”

“How come you’re not coming with, ma’am?” asked Waaberi, the younger woman’s voice distorted by her faceplate’s vocaliser.

“I’m needed on the bridge,” Shepard replied, “And I have full faith in Lieutenant Alenko and Sergeant Williams.”

Ash straightened, pleased, “Thank you, ma’am.”

The Commander gave her another one of those almost smiles. “No need to thank me. Good luck, you three, and good hunting.”

As Shepard moved on towards the assault team, Ash noticed Waaberi looking at her, head tilted and eyes glittering mischievously beneath her visor. She glared at her. “What?”

“Nothing,” the Lance Corporal almost sang, turning away.

Annoyed, and not entirely sure why, she whirled around and set off to find the loadmaster.

Fifteen minutes later, they were standing on the open ramp as the Normandy shuddered its way through Xawin’s atmosphere, biting air dashing itself against Ash’s faceplate, metal trembling beneath her feet. She felt a bit edgy, a bit excited, the first surges of adrenaline flooding through her.

“Jump, jump, jump!” bawled the loadmaster and Ashley ran, trusting Waaberi and Vakarian would follow and launched herself off the edge. Gravity caught her and she plummeted toward Xawin’s surface. All she could hear was her own fast breathing inside her helmet and the roar of the wind outside of it, ice smacking into her hardsuit as fell.

Six thousand and ninety-six metres, her HUD displayed. In the cloud cover, she couldn’t see where she was going, could barely see anything of Vakarian or Waaberi except where hands were holding onto her to stay in formation, falling faster and faster with only the HUD to guide her.

After reaching terminal velocity, it took only minutes to hit the ground, but they were minutes that always seemed to stretch out like a rubber band. She never thought about her pack failing. She did think about the pirates and their guns, waiting below. She wanted them dead and the sailors safe. She wanted all scum like them out of the Alliance and the colonies safe, so she’d never have to see another one burn and never again have to wonder if Sirona would have a turn as the latest tragedy.

At two hundred metres she gritted her teeth as the thruster modules on her armour kicked in and g forces clawed at her. But she slowed, even as the three of them released each other. They were through the clouds now and she could see glittering white of Xawin beneath them, rising to meet her.

They landed in a puff of snow thrown up around them, cascading over armour and visors, an impact she felt in her ankles and knees. Ashley found herself sunk in a drift to the mid-thigh. Vakarian had floundered to his spurs. Grimacing, she pulled herself up out of the hole caused by her landing and brushed snow off her visor and helped Waaberi up - Vakarian was already grabbing his skis off his back.

They were alone and very small, armour painted pale enough they faded into the background - or that was the theory, anyway. The wind had whipped the environment around them into muted, curled shapes, something like a dream.

She brought up her map on her HUD and was pleased to see they were pretty much on target. Ashley signaled for the other two to follow her and Garrus gave her an awkward thumbs up. She shook off the strangeness of it, digging her boots into the mechanism of the skis. That was just turians, the Commander had said, they liked to know where they fit. Even ones who said they were bad at being turians, like Garrus Vakarian.

They skied silently through a silent, blurred landscape before making it to the frozen ridge Alenko, Williams, and Shepard had decided on in the plan for the mission. The skis had skins on them that meant you could slide forward but not backward, so working their way up was less difficult than it could’ve been. Near the top they removed the skis, putting them back on their backs, and threw themselves into the snow to crawl the rest of the way. They were nearly there when Vakarian paused.

“You okay?” she called.

His voice was wry, “Turians and snow don’t get along.”

Concern prickled at her, “Is your suit working okay?”

The suits they were using today were fitted with heating tech to survive the deep cold that could kill them in less than an hour. It was still cold, the kinda cold that settled in your bones, but the suits were supposed to keep them defrosted enough they wouldn’t bite it. Ashley dug her knees into the soft snow, crystals collecting in the joints of her armour, and grabbed him by the webbing, pulling him the rest of the way with the help of gene-modded muscle.

They settled into position after Garrus had assured her he was just cold, not about to drop dead, hardsuits mottled in greys and whites, half buried in a snow drift, peeking over the top of the ridgeline, muscles still aching from the arduous climb. She pulled out the sniper rifle, the scope integrating with her visor HUD. She swept the sight across the terrain below them as Vakarian set up his rangefinder beside her. Waaberi lounged in the snow, the Cobra laid out beside her.

A field of rock and yet more white stretched below them, and beyond that, the raised lump of the pirate camp. There was a sole prefabricated building, a large ugly thing that could've been on a dozen worlds. There were some just like it on Sirona. Wire ran around it in a haphazard oval, the entrances sandbagged, with a few watchtowers looming black. A battered looking frigate rested beside the base, dull brown and snub-nosed, its ramp down. Looked like an old batarian model, with a few scrapes torn through its armour. More than enough to rip through a freighter like the Majesty, but a new warship would eat her for lunch.

Garrus made a noise, looking through the scope, “Seeing some AT and snipers in those towers.”

“Tag it,” Ash replied and the markers began to spring up on the Normandy tacnet, minimized on her HUD.

“Looks like some turrets as well,” he added.

“Alliance models,” she said flatly, glaring down at the squat guns. “Stolen or knock-offs.” She marked them as well.

Alenko’s voice buzzed in her ear, “Saber to Little Birdie, how copy?”

“Loud and clear, over.” She replied, snow crunching beneath her as she shifted, her breathing amplified inside her helmet.

“We’re in position. Continue visual reconnaissance and wait for further instructions, over.”

“Roger that, Saber.”

They settled in to wait.


The Normandy lurked in space, a dark predator shrouded in the deep black. Shepard stood on the bridge, hands behind her back as she focused on the plot.

Man, she really wished the ship had a captain's chair.

After dropping off the Marine teams, Joker had pulled the ship back out of atmosphere, still in stealth, and hid her behind some debris in orbit.

“Big Brother, all objectives sighted. The hostiles have taken them off their vessel and into the base. Looks like the ship is taking off, over.”

“Roger that, Little Birdie. Keep an eye on them, over.” she glanced over at Lieutenant Wulandri, who was acting as her tactical actions officer. Normally, it would be the ship's Navigator’s role in combat, but Pressly was XO and therefore the officer of the deck. It left Wulandri’s young assistant in charge of Gunnery down on Deck Two. “Give me a course of action, Wulandri.”

Wulandri cleared her throat. “The signature looks like an old Tazarl class frigate, Hegemony built.”

“Of course,” Pressly growled under his breath. Plenty of decommissioned Hegemonic Navy vessels just happened to end up in the hands of pirates.

“She looks like a grandma, but she's got more punch than we might like. Triple three hundred metre mass accelerator cannons and decent armour. But getting those guns in meant the Hegemony sacrificed on a few things; namely, she has no torpedo tubes whatsoever and her GARDIAN batteries last about as long as my ex-husband.”

Shepard hid her smile. “And we have a ton of torpedos.”

“Exactly, ma’am. I say we wait until she's leaving atmo, get in behind her and fire a full barrage of torpedoes.”

“We've got lift off.” Reported one of the sensor techs.

“Keep us in stealth until the last moment,” she ordered. The decided course of action had its downsides - those mass accelerators had a good chance of ripping through the Normandy’s shields and armour, and staying in stealth this long after running 11 light years had built up a considerable amount of heat. If the first volley or two of torpedos didn't destroy the pirate vessel, they might have to make a run for it. And that would leave the ground team in a bad place, with no way of getting off Xawin if their presence was discovered.

“There she is,” murmured Wulandri as the blinking indicator of the enemy frigate rose from orbit.

Joker brought the Normandy in carefully, setting in behind her. Ugly thing that ship, all blunt planes and square corners. She'd look prettier as debris.

This, at least, was familiar. Hunting pirates was the bread and butter of the Alliance Navy and Marine Corps. Surrender or death were the only options available to those Alliance ships caught, and Shepard had every intention of enforcing that.

“Tactical, lock target, torpedo launchers one through six.”

“Target locked, torpedo launchers one through six.”

“Disengage stealth systems.” The Normandy dropped out of stealth barely twenty kilometres behind the pirate ship - but there wasn't time for her to react. “Fire!”

Six pairs of torpedoes sprang from the Normandy, eating up the space between the two vessels. GARDIAN beams sprung from the pirate ship as it hastily attempted to reverse course, manoeuvring thrusters burning brightly in the dark. The lasers cut through the first barrage and they exploded harmlessly, far from her hull.

“Lock torpedo launchers seven through twelve.”

“Locked.”

“Fire!”

Another twelve torpedoes leapt free. The enemy frigate in its haste to return fire had presented its port side to them. Shepard smiled hungrily; all the better - a bigger target.

The first eight torpedoes died, slashed into harmlessness by the frigate’s GARDIAN batteries. Then they faltered. A torpedo slipped through and then another and another

Explosions carved their way through the pirate ship's armour. She began to list, her port manoeuvring and main thrusters reduced to slag, gaps in her hull bleeding air.

“Lock midships, main gun,” Shepard said. But she waited as the enemy vessel slowly spun, sheets and spars of metal breaking off her and floating free.

“They're abandoning ship, ma’am. I'm reading life pod launches,” Pressly reported.

“Launch recovery drones,” she ordered. The drones, all thrusters and grasping arms, would grab the life pods and drag them aboard. “Have a security detachment waiting to take them into custody. Full seals and magboots - if any of them try to resist, space them.”

There was a pause before her XO nodded. “Aye, ma’am.”

“Comms, set up a broadcast to the pirate base.”

“It's open, ma’am.”

Shepard spoke, voice cold and resolute. “This is the Alliance warship Normandy to pirate base on Xawin. You have attacked a ship flying the colours of the Systems Alliance. This is a crime that permits me to use lethal force against you. And I will do exactly that if you do not immediately lay down your arms and surrender.”

There was a long pause before her tech spoke. “Ma’am, they're transmitting a video connection.”

“Accept.”

The holographic interface before her buzzed and swirled into the form of a batarian, a scar running down one side of his face, across one eye socket. A glass eye stared blindly out of it. When a batarian lost an eye, they had to undertake a pilgrimage to the temples on their homeworld to ‘reunify the soul’ and craft a ceremonial replacement. Cybernetic eyes were anathema, a lie to the gods that rested on the pillars of strength. “I am Captain Amorak Lihask. I would know the name of the human who has murdered my brother and my employees.”

She smiled without humour. “Vengeance, not murder. It's Commander Shepard - and you will surrender to me or I'll bomb your little base to dust.”

Lihask bared his needle-like teeth. “I have something valuable to you, human.”

She raised one scarred eyebrow, “Really?”

The video feed panned, showing the dirty interior of a room, littered with Tupari bottles and old food wrappers. Lined up against the wall, blindfolded and with their hands cuffed, were six human men and women, four in overalls and two in the white uniform of the merchant navy. The crew of the Majesty. “Tell the commander you want to live, animals.

Fury rose in her at that word. The one rescued slaves whimpered. The one they'd shouted at her and her Marines during the Blitz. She fought it down. The hostages needed her to be calm, in control.

“P-please,” one of them, a young woman barely over twenty, gasped. There were tears on her cheeks. “Please.”

The camera panned back to the pirate chief.

“Alright,” Shepard said, keeping a hint of boredom in her voice, like the hostages meant little to her. “Let's talk.”


ODEX ENTRY:

Systems Alliance Navy Officer Ranks and their roles:

Ensign (En): Ensign is the normal entry-level rank for most commissioned officers. Depending upon their MVC, Ensigns may go directly to a warship after being commissioned to serve as a division officer, or he or she may serve up one to two years of specialty training before reporting to a combat unit. If on a warship, Ensigns engage in extensive on-the-job training, receiving training and mentoring from senior officers and enlisted alike.

Sub-Lieutenant (SbLT): The difference between Ensign and Sub-Lieutenant is slight, primarily being experience and having higher pay. The purpose of this division is to separate the junior officers found unqualified from the commissioned service. It is not uncommon to see officers moved to positions requiring more experience after promotion to Sub-Lieutenant. Like Ensigns, Sub-Lieutenants serve as Division Officers.

Lieutenant (Lt): Lieutenants usually serve as Division Officers aboard Navy ships, commanding groups of sailors and petty officers. They are also commonly found as Department Assistants, taking on some of the administrative and leadership duties assigned to them by the Department Head. On small commands such as frigates, destroyers or corvettes, Lieutenants can serve as department heads, or even the executive officer.

Lieutenant Commander (LtCdr): Lieutenant Commanders typically serve as mid-ranking officers in the Alliance Navy. Their most typical billet is a department head, which has them lead several Division Officers. LTCDRs are also often found as executive officers aboard frigates and other similar size commands. They may also be assigned to command corvettes, the smallest vessels in the Navy. They are often referred to as just ‘Commander’.

Commander (Cdr): Commander is the first senior commissioned officer rank in the Alliance Navy, and is equivalent to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the Alliance Marine Corps. Commanders often serve as the captain of a small Navy vessel, such as a frigate, or a destroyer. Commanders may also lead squadrons of aircraft,command a squadron of corvettes, or serve on the staff of a senior officer aboard a large Naval vessel.

Captain (Capt): Captain is a senior commissioned officer's rank in the Alliance Navy, and is equivalent to a Colonel of Marines. Navy captains can hold a variety of high-level leadership positions, such as commanding large vessels, navy schools, air wings, space stations, or groundside bases. Captains have a great deal of autonomy in commanding their vessels, and those who prove their leadership and dedication over several years of service may be rewarded by receiving command of a larger and more important vessel or installation.

Commodore (Cdre): traditionally the title of any officer assigned to command more than one ship at a time, a Commodore is a one star flag officer and commands a small flotilla or squadron of small Navy ships, a naval facility, a group of air wings or serve on a fleet staff. By tradition in the Alliance Navy, when an officer is selected or appointed to flag rank, all current Navy flag officers write the selectee a letter congratulating him or her for attaining flag officer status.

Rear Admiral (RAdm): a two star rank, Rear Admirals generally command a larger flotilla or squadron of naval vessels, an important naval facility or a group of air wings. They may also fill in positions on the staff of a senior officer.

Vice Admiral (VAdm): a three star rank, Vice Admirals generally lead important installations or large task forces, such as a carrier or dreadnought strike group. They may also command a smaller fleet or be the executive officer of a full sized fleet.

Admiral (ADM): Admiral commands a numbered Navy fleet during an operation or war, upwards of a hundred warships and auxiliary vessels.

Fleet Admiral (FAD): A Fleet Admiral typically has over 30 years of Naval experience, and commands all operations taking place within their area of operations. They can also hold one of the positions reserved for the rank, such as Chief of Navy or Chief of the Defence Force. They are among highest ranking members of the Alliance Military.

Chapter Text

“I’m no ideologue, Commander,” the pirate Lihask said so pleasantly he set Shepard’s teeth on edge. “I’m sure we can come to an agreement.”

The Commander folded her arms. “Your surrender means you and all of yours live.”

His top eyes rolled. “You want these hostages alive and I don’t wish to live the rest of my life in an Alliance prison getting beaten for having too many eyes. I want a shuttle.”

Shepard shrugged. “This is a patrol frigate, ‘Captain’. We don’t carry shuttles.”

Then get one.” He bared his sharp teeth again.

“What type of shuttle do you want?” She asked blandly. “We have Kodiaks and Vespers nearby. Vespers are bigger than Kodiaks but unarmed. Neither will be big enough for your entire gang.”

Lihask’s head tilted right, but Shepard kept her face still, not giving away that she understood the insult. N7s studied the common batarian languages in detail - body language and the flicking and movement of the eyes was as important as words. “I know how your negotiation techniques work, human. You will draw this out with questions in the hope I will get tired and capitulate. No games. Get me a shuttle, whatever is closest.”

“I will need to speak with my superiors,” she replied evenly and closed the connection. She turned to Pressly, “Have we retrieved all of the escape pods?”

“Aye, ma’am. Most of them went along quietly - one did try to have a go of it, but Chief Rahman taught him the error of his ways.” Pressly paused, discomfited, “The Chief also, uh, communicated that your orders are to space them if they attempt to break out. He said the prisoners quietened down after that.”

Shepard simply nodded. “How far away is the Paris?”

“Two hours, ma’am.”

“Get me a line to her captain in the comm room.” An hour later, after a long conversation with Captain Hamish Lou, Shepard returned to the bridge, a certain grim pleasure in the line of her mouth. When Communications Technician Lam had reconnected the call to the pirate base, she gathered all the very real disgust she felt and directed it towards the fuzzy holo of Lihask. “Another Alliance ship is on the way - with your shuttle.”

Good,” he said, staring at her with all four eyes. Her hands itched and she clenched them into fists. “Send it down and then you can have your people.”

“I don’t think that’ll work,” Shepard said dryly.

Lihask flashed his needle teeth at her, “Don’t play games with me, Commander!”

Her mouth curled. “I’m not getting an Alliance pilot captured by you lot. Two shuttles. The second pilot and the hostages will get on one and you take the other. We’ll send them down after the hostages are brought up top and outside the wire and not sooner.”

“Unacceptable,” he snarled.

She raised her chin. “That’s the offer, Lihask. I’m not sending those shuttles until my sensors show those hostages are alive, and I’m not sending them to your base so you can seize both and take my pilots. You have an hour to decide. Lam, cut the connection.”

The holo fuzzed and died. The Commander walked over to the coffee machine squirreled away in the corner and began to make herself a cup. Her movements were sharp, jaw hard.

“How’s the ground team going?” She asked Pressly, who she’d put in charge of monitoring the situation down there while she negotiated with Lihask - and with Captain Lou.

“They’re a bit cold and bored, but doing well,” he reported, “Alenko says the pirates seem to have holed up in their base - no patrols or recon drones that he’s seen. Williams has reported the same.” He paused, shaking his head. “Amateurs.”

Shepard just took another sip from her cup.

Forty-five minutes later, Lihask called the Normandy again. Shepard arranged her features in a suitably bland expression as he tilted his head to the right and crossed his arms. “We will bring them outside the compound to meet your shuttles…but I will not have your ships intervening. You will wait on the other side of the system until the exchange has taken place.”

‘Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake,’ Napolean Bonaparte had once said. Words to live by. So Shepard made a point of arguing just long enough before she agreed to that demand.

“The Paris has arrived in system. They’re hailing us,” Lam reported.

When Shepard nodded, a holo of the other ship’s captain popped up in front of her captain’s podium. “He’s taken the bait, sir. Once your shuttles are in the air, we’ll need to move both our vessels to the other side of the system.”

Lou’s eyes had a hint of stress tucked into the creased corners. “I hope this works out as you plan, Commander. We’re launching two Kodiaks now. Their callsigns are Eagle One and Two - I’ll have them report to you.”

She hoped it worked out too. Her plan wasn’t exactly ‘by the book’, but the book and its insistence on ‘never negotiating with terrorists!!!’ wasn’t particularly helpful if she wanted to get the Majesty’s crew out alive. But if this all went wrong, that book would be thrown at her - not at Lou, who had, by agreeing to allow her to continue negotiating, foisted all responsibility onto her shoulders. And they both knew it.

He’d done so on the basis that she was a Spectre - and she had a feeling that this wouldn’t be the first time a situation like this would happen. She couldn’t say ‘sir, yes sir’ and wash her hands of the whole thing anymore, no matter how much her ingrained instinct to follow the chain of command screamed at her.

But Shepard was okay with the weight; she wasn’t going to get those hostages killed if she could avoid it, just because of a high-minded policy written by some old demagogue on Arcturus, safe behind their desk. If she calculated wrong, she’d meet the consequences with her head held high.

“Thank you, sir.”

“Paris out.” Lou’s holo faded away.

“Shuttles have launched and are in position, ma’am,” Pressly reported.

“Very good. Joker, take us away from the planet on bearing 124. Half ahead - no reason to build up any more heat than necessary.” As it was, the CIC was getting decidedly toasty. Beads of sweat had formed on her XO’s forehead.

“Bringing us out of orbit.”


Garrus Vakarian was cold.

It was the sort of cold that got under your plates, dug icy tendrils into your very bones. He shuffled uncomfortably in the snowdrift he and the two humans were practically buried in, reminded of his mountain warfare training on Thracia, frozen mudball that it was. He didn’t understand how any turian could bear living in these sorts of temperatures.

Lance Corporal Waaberi was lounging on her back, looking like she should be on a beach rather than a snowy ridgeline. A beach, Garrus thought wistfully, he’d love to have a gunfight on a beach. For all her affected laziness, Waaberi was watching their backs, while he and Williams stared down the pirates.

He stared at a sentry through his scope. The sentry had only moved when they’d swapped, forty-five minutes ago. “Why no patrols?”

“Might just be dumb,” Waaberi offered. “A smart guy woulda given it up like three hours ago.”

“Scared the skipper will drop a twenty kilo slug on their heads if they move, maybe,” Williams mused, brushing off some ice that had crusted her visor.

Garrus opened his mouth to reply when he saw a flutter of movement out the corner of his eye. He swept the sight towards it. Far below, a haphazard group was making its way out of the wire surrounding the pirate base. There were at least eight persons armed with assault rifles - batarians and turians if he had to guess - shepherding six humans with their hands cuffed. A hiss of disgust forced its way out of his mandibles. The hostages were only wearing thermal clothing, not proper climate controlled cold climate suits.

Williams had seen it too. “Eagle One, we have eyes on the packages. Be advised, I don’t think they have too long before they freeze - no suits, over.”

“Copy that, Little Birdie. We’re on our way, over.”

“Don’t worry,” the sergeant said over the radio, checking her rifle over, “We’ve got your back. Little Birdie out.”

Garrus carefully tracked the little group as it meandered out from the base, reticle hovering over the chest of one of the batarians. Scum. Slavers and pirates, fit only to be killed or thrown into a work camp. His trigger talon practically itched. The whut-whut-whut sound of the Kodiak shuttles was heard long before they appeared through the clouds, echoing across the frozen plain. They were bright and blue against the sheer white of Xawin, thrusters flaring as they came into land. The pilots had been carefully instructed on where to land so that the bulk of their spacecraft didn’t block the sniper team’s view and so that they were easily reached by Alenko’s team, carefully hidden in a nearby gorge.

He could almost feel the tension starting to ratchet up inside the humans either side of him.

“Little Birdie, Lance, patching you in so you can hear my communications with the enemy.” On the other claw, Commander Shepard sounded calm, as if she was making herself a cup of that coffee all the humans were addicted to. “You don’t have the permissions to transmit, but I want you to know what's going on, over.”

“Roger that,” Williams replied, “Shuttles are landing now, over.”

Garrus has been carefully studying the manuals Commander Shepard had given him on Alliance protocols, but he was still glad it wasn’t him handling the radios. Humans got very agitated if you said ‘repeat’ instead of ‘say again’ when you didn’t understand a transmission. Williams had very seriously told him (complete with hand gestures): “‘Repeat’ equals BOOM!”

In the Hierarchy Army, if you wanted to fire artillery again, you said that - 'fire again'. It was little things like that, that made Garrus feel a bit off balance fighting alongside the humans, previous military service or not.

As agreed upon, the pirates sent across one hostage at a time. Each one was made to halt where the four Marines on the shuttle could see their hands, scanned, and then pulled into the Kodiak and bundled up in survival blankets. Garrus approved of the caution. Pirates, especially those contracted by the Hegemony government, were known to boobytrap slaves and bodies. He sometimes thought the Alliance needed hastatim - to put fear into them so they stopped using such tactics.

But human honour was not turian honour, so he didn't say that to the humans either side of him.

There were only two hostages left. He settled in the snow, reticle hovering above a pirate's head. The second to last one stumbled over to the Marines, hands shaking so violently with cold that he could see it through his sight. A Marine searched him and then helped him aboard the Kodiak.

"I have a counter-offer for you, Commander," the pirate captain sounded disgustingly smug. "I'm not taking chances with your Navy pursuing me when all I have is one of your shitty shuttles."

"Don't be stupid, Lihask," Shepard replied, voice like sharpening steel.

"I'm not going to die today!" the batarian shouted and Williams swore beside him. Through his scope, a feeling of helplessness scraping his insides, Garrus watched as Lihask began dragging the final hostage towards Eagle Two. Far below, the Paris' Marines were shouting - but they were outnumbered and they couldn't fire without fear of hitting the human man. "Captain Kennedy will take a bit of a trip with us. Maybe if dear brother Garoth can come up with a ransom - he's a businessman, you know! - he'll get to see Willem again."

Willem Kennedy was fighting, flailing at his assailant with ineffectual fists. It was the desperation of a man faced with death or slavery. Garrus stared, finger balanced on the trigger.

"Damnit!" Williams hissed beside him, "I can't get a shot!"

They heard the shot, all the way up on the ridge. It echoed across the plain, a single retort. Garrus' mandibles tightened. Blood welled and pooled, staining Willem Kennedy's abdomen a deep red. The pirate who had been holding him pushed him away and he toppled into the snow like a discarded puppet.

One of the other batarians smacked the killer on the back of the helmet and they gestured angrily at each other. There was a moment of frozen shock by the Alliance troops.

Then Williams growled into her commlink, "Hostage down!"

She fired, and the killer's head snapped back, faceplate blown open. Garrus followed suit instinctively, his round ripping the chest of another pirate open. The turian scrabbled at his chest for a moment, before stilling.

The others panicked and ran for Eagle Two. One even dropped his rifle. After a momentary pause, the door gunner of Eagle One opened fire, scything across the surviving six. Two fell, cut down, but four managed to get into the shuttle and slam the door behind them, the Kodiak's shields sparking but deflecting the heavy machine gun's fire.

By now, Eagle One was taking fire from the base. Shepard's voice crackled inside his helmet. "Eagle One, get out of there. Lance is moving in, they'll secure Kennedy, over."

Garrus lifted himself up enough to look at Lance Corporal Waaberi, "Waaberi! Can you hit the shuttle with your launcher?"

"Probably," she said, picking it up and setting it against her shoulder.

"I'll spot you!" He said.

"Negative on that!" Staff Sergeant Williams said, "Alenko is moving in and they've got AT in the base towers. Destroy the towers first."

"LIhask will get away!" He growled. "We can't let him!"

"That's an order!" Williams’ voice was harsh, unyielding. "Get the fucking towers down, Waaberi!"

"Uh...yes, Staff Sarn't!" Waaberi peered through the sights of her IMAW. "Firing!"

A rocket burst out of the launcher, a blue flash across the valley before it dashed itself against one of the towers in a bloom of fire, shrapnel and shattered ice. There wasn't much left except twisted metal when the explosion faded.

Williams helped the other Marine reload while Garrus watched Eagle Two and Amarok Lihask soar up into the sky. Further and further away from retaliation.

"Firing!" Again the young Lance Corporal fired her launcher and again, a tower was reduced to rubble.

Garrus Vakarian watched as the rogue Kodiak rose and rose, and his talons tightened on his rifle. It was Doctor Saleon all over again! Didn't Williams understand that he'd just do this sort of thing again?


“Hostage down!”

Ashley’s voice echoed in Kaidan's helmet. Squished into the vehicle commander's seat inside the Mako, he reached forward and tapped Lance Corporal Ki-tae on the shoulder, "Get us in there!"

"There's a lot of AT out there, sir," Dubyansky told him, a hint of doubt in the junior NCO's voice.

"Williams and Waaberi will take care of it," Alenko said firmly. They'd discussed it before the mission - their priorities. People before revenge. Kaidan was glad to see that Shepard cared about the right thing and not just vengeance. It gave him hope that their mission would be completed with as much integrity as possible, considering that they were hunting down a rogue Spectre to avenge Eden Prime.

"Aye aye, sir," Nick murmured and the Mako lept forward, shaking off the covering of ice and snow it had collected, like some great beast rising from slumber. They'd been hiding in a crevice below the ridgeline the sniper team was sitting on top of, bored enough that Nick Ki-tae and Dubyansky had started swapping very unlikely stories about their last shore leave.

Draven had rolled her eyes when Fredricks had joined in, talking about the asari Consort on the Citadel. "Yeah fucking right, you saw the Consort, PFC."

"What's so great about some asari anyway?" Hodgins had asked, "Just go to a club, man. There's usually some Maiden curious enough to give a Marine a go."

"That's just racist. You’re projecting human morals onto asari."

"Bite me, Mohamed."

"She's not just some asari!"

"There's a waiting list for years, PFC. You telling me you got ahead of generals and politicos? Gimme a break."

"You're an arsehole, Sarn't."

"Yeah, I get that a lot."

Now the Marines were deadly silent, doing one last check over of their weapons as the IFV raced forward, churning up snow beneath its wheels. It was a bit strange - he'd gotten used to having the big krogan and Commander Shepard on missions, unusual for SAMC ops or not.

"Looks like Waaberi fucked them towers up," Ki-tae reported.

"Focus on machine guns and snipers. Fire at will."

"Roger." The Mako shook as the young Marine fired the main gun. Alenko grimaced, glad for the sound dampening of his helmet. Ki-tae swept the machine gun in the direction of the enemy base.

Dubyansky slammed on the brakes and Alenko was thrown against his restraints. He reached up and unbuckled himself, heading for the door and hitting the lever to open it when Dubyansky called over his shoulder, "APC safe!"

"Dismount, let's go!" He said to the Marines and he was the first down the ramp. He spotted the five still forms prone in the bloodied snow and headed for the one not in armour, stepping over one of the dead pirates, who was missing a portion of his chest from a sniper round, the corpsman on his heels.

Willem Kennedy groaned when Alenko and Ling bent over him. "Draven! Give me some covering fire while we treat!"

"Aye, sir!" The Sergeant replied with alacrity and he heard gunfire shortly after, as the Marines formed a loose skirmish line, firing their rifles and machine guns in the direction of the enemy. He ignored all of it - his men, the return fire, the boom of the IFV's main gun.

Keeping Captain Kennedy alive was what mattered. Gut shots were nasty and there was a lot of blood pooling in the snow and staining Kennedy's clothing. He brought out a packet of medigel and deployed it over the entry wound while Ling took his vital signs, pausing only to give the man a reassuring squeeze on the shoulder.

"My name is Lieutenant Kaidan Alenko. Can you hear me?"

"Yes," Willem managed.

"We're gonna get you out of here, okay? We have a medbay on our ship and a very good doctor. You just need to hold on for me."

"Okay," The man said, tears in his eyes. "Fuckin' hurts."

"I know. We have to roll you onto your side, okay? It's gonna hurt, but it'll keep your airway open and I need to check you for other injuries."

Willem gritted his teeth and groaned as Kaidan and Ling carefully rolled him onto his side together and applied medigel to the ugly looking exit wound. Alenko worked with weapons every day of his life but it was never comfortable to see what a modern gun could do to an unarmoured civilian.

"We're coming back as quickly as possible," Shepard said over the comm, "What's Kennedy's status, over?"

"He needs Chakwas sooner rather than later, over."

"Roger that. I'll patch you through to her now, over."

Kaidan was grateful for that as he hid a grimace at his vital signs that Ling had taken, his scanner uploading them to both of their suits. The first aider program he'd installed into his suit and linked to his omnitool blinked warnings at him. Hypotension. Tachycardia.

He listened to Chakwas' calming crisp voice as she talked them through what to do for the poor bastard. There wasn't a great deal he could do on the surface of Xawin for an abdominal injury, only watch as Ling went through the motions, the young man's eyes intent under his visor.

"Shit!" Teke's yell made his head jerk up. Above them, pieces of flaming metal fell from the clouds, twisting and smoking. "The fuck is that?"

"One of the shuttles," Draven said flatly. Then there was a slap of ceramic on ceramic as the sergeant smacked Teke's helmet. "Eyes on the enemy! Jesus, you think you're a sightseer?"

"Hey," Kaidan said lowly, grabbing Kennedy's shoulder gently, and when he didn’t reply, Ling pressed his knuckles to his sternum and rubbed. The man made a soft noise of pain, eyes fluttering, but didn’t speak. "Chakwas, he's slipping out of consciousness."

Alenko watched over the unconscious captain, occasionally having to shield his form with his own body and a quickly summoned barrier when the return fire from the gunfight got too close for comfort. The Normandy arrived ten minutes later, casting a dark shadow over the valley, and came down to land as close to them as was possible without risking a squashed Marine - or a fried one. The snow sizzled and melted when it came into contact with her hull.

The ramp thudded down. Ling deployed his portable stretcher that he carried in his gear and together they carefully rolled the limp sailor onto it before lifting him up and running towards the ship. Chakwas and her assistant met them in the cargo hold and took the stretcher from them.

"Ling," the doctor said to the corpsman, all business, "I'll need you. Get out of your armour and scrub in."

"Aye, ma'am." Ling began pulling off bits of webbing and gear hastily as the medical team moved to the elevator. Kaidan helped as best he could until the corpsman was free of his battle gear. Ignoring the fact that he was in his boxers and tank top, the young serviceman sprinted to the elevator to follow Chakwas up.

In the distance, he heard an earth-shattering boom that seemed to go on and on and on. He realised that it was the sound of the main gun of a cruiser hitting a terrestrial target. The Paris must've arrived over Xawin and rained fury down on the pirate base. There would be no more prisoner-taking today.

The other Marines were coming up the ramp now and fixing the Mako back into place. Alenko pulled off his helmet.

"He gonna be okay?"

He turned to look at Williams, who must've skied down from the ridgeline. She'd already deposited her weapons on the armoury bench, ready to be dried and cleaned. She left puddles wherever she stood, as the ice and snow coating every facet of her armour and arms melted in the warm, pleasant temperatures of the ship.

He shrugged, "I hope so, but I don't know. They got him from point blank range into the abdomen and I think they hit his liver."

"Jeez." Williams shook her head. "Fuckin' pirates."

"Did you see the Kodiak explode?" He asked, "Do we know if the hostages got away safe?"

"Oh yeah, they're safe on the Paris." Williams smiled and there was a hint of savage pleasure to it. “Eagle Two is dust.”


Commander Shepard stood on the bridge of her warship and felt a complex cocktail of emotion whirl in her stomach. Pressing the button that had detonated the drive core of the Kodiak carrying Amorak Lihask had been easy - the crew of the Paris had done a remarkable job sabotaging the shuttle in such little time. She doubted there was anything larger than her forearm left of the aircraft or of the people onboard it.

Easy. Deaths meted out methodically. Nothing like killing someone up close and personal with a shotgun, when you were either quicker than your opponent or dead. Shepard wasn't certain she liked the difference, the detachment from your own actions, but she knew she'd have to adapt to it. She was the Normandy's captain and it was very likely she'd kill from her bridge again.

"All crew aboard and accounted for, ma'am," Pressly reported.

"Very good. Get us off this rock."

The Normandy lifted into the air and rose up into the sky, leaving the burning wreckage of the pirate bay behind her. As they were, Captain Lou hailed her again.

"You owe me a shuttle, Shepard." But the officer was smiling.

"Sorry, sir. Perhaps try 'a Spectre did it' on the form?"

He chuckled. "I'll let you know if that works out. And give my compliments to your sniper. My gunnery officer is very impressed - we hit the target on the first shot."

"I'll pass it on to her."

His stern face folded into something like concern. "I heard Captain Kennedy is in a serious condition."

"Aye, sir. My doctor says it's going to be close on whether he makes it."

Lou shook his head. "Unfortunate, but not your fault, Commander. These things happen when it comes to scum likes these pirates."

Shepard bit down on a flare of irritation. She'd fought in the Traverse her whole life - before and during the Blitz and the corresponding crusade. As a twenty-one-year-old Second Lieutenant - little more than a kid - she'd had to make calls like this. It was the Marine Corps that shouldered most of the burden of the horrific things slavers and pirates did - booby traps and monofilament wires and slaves implanted with control chips so you had no choice but to open fire. Sometimes there was no good answer, no option that let you come out with all your people alive and your honour intact.

But Lou was trying to be nice - out of relief, perhaps, but he was trying. She nodded, "Yessir. Thank you for your assistance."

"Anytime. Paris out."

The holo faded. She rubbed her face. Pressly approached, grim, to tell her that Captain Willem Kennedy had died on Doctor Chakwas' operating table.

"Helm, change course to Arcturus," she said quietly. There was no point rushing to the nearest Alliance hospital if Willem was dead, "X, you have the deck."

She needed a shower.


CODEX ENTRY:

Systems Alliance Navy Enlisted Ranks And Their Roles:

Serviceman Third Class (SvM3): Servicemen 3rd Class are the deckhands of the Navy, assigned a rating or job according to their training and specialty, without leadership responsibility. Addressed as Serviceman, Hand, or just Rating. Eg. Gunner’s Mate.

Serviceman Second Class (SvM2): Experienced Serviceman, having similar responsibilities as SvM3, but receiving an upgrade in paygrade as a result of experience and skill. SvM2 sometimes act as the Senior Serviceman among SvM3, but this position is only temporary. SvM2 have no authority over SvM3 unless given the Senior position by a superior. SvM2s are addressed as Senior Rating if holding the Senior billet or Serviceman. Eg. Senior Gunner’s Mate.

Serviceman First Class (SvM1): Servicemen 1st Class are the most senior among rank and file sailors, and typically function as the Leading Serviceman or his assistant. If not given a leadership position, SvM1 have similar responsibilities as other Ratings. SvM1s have authority over junior SvMs within their specialty, and authority over all junior SvMs if given a leadership billet. They are addressed as Senior Rating if holding an assistant’s billet, Lead Hand if given the Leading billet, and Serviceman/Rating otherwise.

Petty Officer Third Class (PO3): The PO3 is the most junior of the Petty Officer ranks, equivalent to a corporal in the Marines, and the first non-automatic promotion. Instead, promotion to PO3 is contingent on performance reviews by superiors and passing technical tests relating to their rating. In large divisions, a PO3 might run a workshop in a division and assist the division’s leading petty officer. In smaller divisions, a PO3 may be the senior enlisted advisor for the Division officer. They are addressed as Petty Officer or Rating Third Class. Ex. Fire Controlman Third Class.

Petty Officer Second Class (PO2): The PO2 is a more experienced leader and a technical leader. The PO2 may lead a smaller division or be the leading petty officer of a large division. Addressed as Petty Officer, Rating Second Class or Leading Petty Officer if in the lead billet. Ex. Gunner’s Mate Second Class.

Petty Officer First Class (PO1): The PO1 is equivalent to a Staff Sergeant in the Marines and is a very experienced serviceman. They are expected to help develop junior petty officers and servicemen, and are usually lead a division or are the department assistant in smaller departments. Addressed as Rating First Class or Leading Petty Officer. Ex Leading Damage Controlman.

Chief Petty Officer (CPO): The first ‘chief’ petty officer. Navy chief petty officers serve a dual role as both technical experts and as leaders, with the emphasis being more on leadership as they progress through the CPO paygrades. A recognized collateral duty for all Chiefs is the training of newly-commissioned junior officers and they wear the same service uniform as the Alliance commissioned officers. If their ship is big enough, Chiefs also have areas called ‘Goat Lockers’ where junior enlisted or even commissioned officers aren’t allowed unless specifically invited - even the captain of the vessel will usually request permission to enter. CPOs usually hold the billets of large division or small department chief, advising the division or department officer. Chief Petty Officers are addressed as Chief Rating or Chief. Ex Chief Gunner’s Mate.

Senior Chief Petty Officer (SCPO): Like their name implies, Senior Chiefs are senior Chiefs. They have more general leadership experience than CPOs, and thus take on advanced leadership duties. They usually hold the billets of department chief, but sometimes can be found as the Command Senior Chief on small vessels such as cutters, corvettes and occasionally frigates.

Master Chief Petty Officer (MCPO): Master chief petty officers are generally considered to be the technical experts in their fields. They serve in space and ashore in commands of all sizes. Many master chiefs choose to enter the command master chief petty officer program and if selected, a master chief receives additional leadership training and is assigned as the command master chief (CMDCM) of a vessel or facility. The command master chief is the senior enlisted person at a command and as such works as a liaison between the commanding officer and the enlisted ranks as well as advising the CO.

In this capacity, the CMDCM assists the commanding officer in issues of quality of life, discipline, training, and morale. The CMDCM insignia has a silver star in lieu of the enlisted rating between the arc and the top chevron. More experienced MCPOs occupy the highest enlisted positions like Force Command Master Chief and Fleet Command Master Chief, advising admirals. A master chief in the command billet is often referred to as ‘Buffer’.

The most senior serviceman in the Navy is the unique position of Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy, who is the enlisted spokesperson and advisor to the highest echelons of the brass. Although an enlisted rank, the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy is given the courtesies and precedent of a Vice Admiral, similar to how the Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps is given the protocol equivalency of a Lieutenant General.

Chapter Text

"Uh…Sergeant Williams?” Garrus folded his arms, coming to stand in the armoury. There was grease on his talons from Mako maintenance. He’d have to remember to wash it off.

Williams looked up from her bench, an ammo block in her hands, scored from the shaver of an assault rifle. With everything wet from the snow, they’d all had to dry off and clean their gear thoroughly while the Normandy transited to Arcturus Station. Williams hadn’t left the armoury except to eat - she’d insisted on checking over all of the gear to make sure everything was in order.

“Hey Vakarian,” she said, putting the block down. “What’s up?”

He suspected Williams hadn’t been particularly happy to have him and Wrex aboard to begin with. She’d watched them both carefully. But he’d realised that she was something he could understand - a rifleman who distrusted anyone who wasn’t. And Garrus had proven himself in battle.

“I’d like to apologize.” His mandibles flared. She raised an eyebrow.

“What for?”

“For arguing with you on Xawin. I should’ve trusted you and Shepard.”

Williams regarded him for a moment before she shrugged. “I get it. I wanted to nail the sonofabitch as well. Watching him fly off was a real kick in the teeth, but we had to get Alenko to Kennedy and destroy that base.”

He flicked his mandibles in understanding. “I hate pirates.”

“Me too,” she said dryly before her expression turned contemplative. “It felt weird, y’know? Calling in that orbital strike. I read out some numbers and next thing fifty people are dead.”

“It was on them, Williams. They didn’t have to fight us. We just ended it. Just like Chora’s Den.” Chora’s Den had been a highly efficient slaughter, twelve Marines, Garrus and Wrex slicing through the gangsters with barely a pause, ending with Wrex blasting Fist in the face with his shotgun. Alenko had been shocked, horrified, even with blood splattered on his chest and arms from the bouncers the lieutenant had killed in their way in. Shepard hadn’t been. He remembered that clearly. She’d been expecting it. She’d made a deal with the krogan and paid it with Fist’s blood.

Garrus wasn’t quite sure what to make of Commander Shepard yet. She’d verbally sliced him to pieces over the shot he’d made in Doctor Michel’s clinic and during their first conversation onboard the Normandy. But yesterday she’d threatened to space twenty captured pirates and she’d killed Lihask by blowing his shuttle up. The streak of ruthlessness fit his idea of a Spectre, but she bound herself in so many rules!

“Yeah, I guess.” Williams sighed, sliding the ammo block free of another assault rifle. “Just gotta get my head around it.”

He nodded. “I understand.”

The human tilted her head. “You’re alright, Vakarian.”

“Uh…thanks.”

“But,” she said, frowning, “don’t try that shit in the field again. Shepard needs to know she can rely on you.”

“I know,” Garrus said very seriously, “I don’t want to let her down.”

Whatever she was about to say was cut off when the 1MC crackled with Lieutenant Commander Pressly’s voice.

“All hands, be advised we are on final approach to Arcturus Station. Overnight shore leave for red and white watches has been authorised on Arcturus. All personnel authorised for leave are ordered to assemble in the docking bay for liberty brief.”

Fredericks groaned audibly from the other side of the bay. “Can we go back in time and beat the ass of whoever made up liberty briefings?”

“PFC Fredericks,” Williams said pleasantly, “you are the very reason liberty briefs exist.”

The younger Marine flushed as the laughter filled the Kennel.

“What about you, Wrex?” Garrus asked the krogan, who was fiddling with a shotgun in the corner.

Those red eyes turned in his direction. “Arcturus is full of annoying pyjacks. Jumpy, annoying pyjacks. I have better things to do.”

“That’s racist,” one of the Marines whispered. Wrex just closed his eyes, settling against a crate. Apparently, it was nap time.

“Vakarian, you should come drink with us,” offered Dubyansky. “We’re gonna play vidgames, then go party later.”

He took it as it was meant to be - acceptance. “I’d like that.”

“What’re you two up to, Sergeants?” Waaberi asked Williams and Gung Ho, all the while stuffing her overnight bag eagerly.

“I’m gettin’ laid,” Draven grinned. Fredericks, Hodgins, and Jaz wolf-whistled.

“I’m very happy for you, Sergeant,” Williams said dryly, “I’ll get you a cake. As for me, I got roped into shopping with the Nerds.”

“Yeah, Rosie said somethin’ about that.” Gung Ho leaned against the wall, arms crossed. “LT, Tali, Glowstick, and Hellraiser, right?”

“Yup. They promised me alcohol,” Williams was suddenly serious, staring at each Marine in turn. “Just don’t be shitbirds on shore leave, okay? I don’t want to explain that to the Buffer or the XO. Remember the three Hs.”

“Don’t end up in the headlines, don’t end up in handcuffs, don’t end up in hospital,” the eleven Marines chorused as one.

Williams smiled pleasantly at them, “And if you fuck that up, I’ll make your life a living hell.”

“Aye aye, Staff Sergeant!”

“Now, get outta here.”

Twenty minutes later, two-thirds of the ship’s company, excluding the Commander and the watch team that had to guard the ship in port, was assembled in the docking terminus, packed in shoulder to shoulder. It was strange to see all of the humans out of uniform.

The Command Master Chief paced slowly in front of the formation, scowling at everyone like they’d kicked her puppy. She reminded Garrus vividly of the Kentarch in his Army unit. He wondered sometimes if there was a school all NCOs went to, regardless of species, where they learned ‘how to make a soldier cry with just your expression’ and ‘how to yell bizarre insults at the speed of light’.

“Alright, listen up shipmates!” She said, crossing her arms, “Now, I know you’ve all heard this briefing ten million goddamn times, but I have to give it anyway because invariably one of you will be a fuck up and apparently the ‘my sailor is a dumbass’ defence won’t cut it with the brass.”

She cleared her throat and launched into it, like a machinegun firing words instead of bullets, “If you tap it, wrap it or whatever the fuck the equivalent may be - ya’ll got pamphlets. That includes aliens if you’re gonna be boldly going like you’re in the goddamn Star Fleet! If you come back here high as a fucking kite, because you bumped unprotected uglies with a drell, I will throw you in the brig!”

What was ‘Star Fleet’? He resolved to Plex it. After Negulesco was done shouting.

“Don’t start fights, just finish them. And if someone jumps one of your shipmates, you better be in there beside them because no one on this ship gets their arse beat alone! If you get into trouble, call me or Sergeant Williams and we’ll get you out of it. Do not add or subtract from the population of Arcturus Station! If you do have to kill someone, make sure you follow proper escalation of force.”

Garrus had to swallow down a chuckle.

“If you end up in the drunk tank and I have to fish you out at three am, I will wait until you are hung over to ask Flight Lieutenant Moreau to serenade you over the 1MC.” She glared at them with feeling. “Ship’s company! Dismissed!”


Lieutenant Commander Charles Pressly watched his commanding officer as she stood on the captain’s podium and guided her ship through the mess that was Arcturus Station space. She wasn’t her mother - whose ship handling skills were known to be exemplary, as shown by when she’d precision jumped the heavy cruiser Rio De Janeiro to within metres of an escaping pirate vessel, triggering its FTL safeties. Faced with the Janeiro’s forty broadside cannons, the pirates had surrendered.

No, Commander Shepard was not Captain Shepard. But few people were. There were rumours that the close to complete dreadnought Orizaba would be Shepard Senior’s.

Pressly imagined what it would be like to be a dreadnought captain. Thousands of crew, prestige, a weapon of mass destruction under your feet. He’d never be a dreadnought captain - but he could have a cruiser one day.

He daydreamed about that - maybe one of those sleek new Beijing heavy cruisers - as the Normandy nosed into port. Home. For real, not just play-pretend like their new homeport assignment of the Citadel. It wasn’t right - more alien interference in the operating of an Alliance warship. The Council seemed to have forgotten whose colours the Normandy wore and who’d paid for her construction.

“Pressly?” Shepard had stepped down from the podium. She was a good fourteen years younger than him - the same age as his youngest sister-in-law.

“Yes, ma’am?”

Shepard looked a bit on edge. “I have a few things to do at NavComm and I’d like you to come with me.”

“Of course, ma’am.”

She frowned, staring past him and the bulkhead behind him, at something he couldn’t see. She wore that expression a lot more these days, since whatever that beacon had done to her brain. Pressly didn’t know about monsters from dark space and visions, but he believed Shepard. There’d been rumours after Akuze, of course there had been, but Shepard wasn’t crazy. If Illyria and Akuze couldn’t break her, no alien beacon could do it.

Pressly waited patiently until she shook herself out of wherever she’d gone. Her dark brown eyes refocused on him, apologetic but he kept his gaze enquiring, as if he hadn’t noticed her space out. “Doctor T’Soni will be coming with us. Hackett wants to talk to her.”

He swallowed down the urge to grimace.

When the Normandy was docked and Shepard handed the deck off to Lieutenant Rodriguez, who’d pulled the short straw of looking after the ship while she was in dock, Pressly joined Commander Shepard and Doctor T’Soni, dressed in his dress whites. He hated the whites. They seemed to attract any liquid capable of causing stains.

T’Soni kept sneaking glances at the younger officer. Charles thought that was probably to be expected - Shepard was a very striking young woman, especially in uniform. Especially with the gleaming bronze star at her throat, collecting both light and eyes.

As they waited for their taxi to arrive, a constant stream of crew members passed them, raucous and excited. He spared a thought for whatever bars they were headed to tonight.

The sky taxi pulled up and they all got in. He keyed in the address for Naval Command and the ‘car lifted off gently, humming as it joined the streams of traffic that bracketed the station. Arcturus Station was a lot smaller than the Citadel and it was usually better to take the mass transit monorails, but Shepard had insisted on the skycar. Pressly supposed that the assassination attempt on the Citadel had her on edge.

Liara T’Soni was peering out the window at the traffic and the crowds of humans, many of them in uniform or in business suits. “This is where you live, Commander?”

“Yes, when I’m not on deployment,” Shepard said absentmindedly, hands folded over a briefcase in her lap, “I have an apartment here. Your family lives here, don’t they Pressly?”

“Yes, ma’am. Well, my wife and daughter do. My son just started university in the UNAS,” He smiled proudly. Ryan wasn’t going into the Navy like his dad and grandfather, but he was a smart kid. Going to make robots and drones.

The skycar touched down outside of the compound that contained NavComm - no public taxi was getting inside the beating heart of the Systems Alliance Naval Service. The entrance was guarded by two Marines in combat armour with assault rifles, accompanied by a peacekeeping drone armed with a taser and a defence drone, armed with a machinegun. Arcturus security had always been tight and war had only heightened the paranoia. One of the Marines carefully scanned and examined their Department of Defence IDs despite their awed glances at Shepard’s Star of Terra. They took their time staring suspiciously at the asari’s, but eventually allowed them through.

Navy Command was a collection of two to four storey buildings, white and steel, separated by soft lawns of grass and gardens of Terran plants. In front of the main building stood the pillar of Eternal Flame, steadily burning.

GREATER LOVE NO MAN HATH THAN THIS read the inscription, stark and lonely, and Pressly took a moment to stare at the flickering flames.

Shepard paused as well, face inscrutable, before she led the way into the building, tossing over her shoulder, “I want to check in at Personnel Command first, see if our requests have been approved yet, then I’d like you to oversee our replenishment while Doctor T’Soni and I meet with the Admiral.”

“Of course, Commander.”

“Afterwards, I was thinking we could have dinner, with the other senior officers. You can invite your family.”

“I’ll let Mary know.”

They stepped into the Navy Personnel Command and Marine Corps Manpower Branch office on Arcturus and Shepard approached the Marine sergeant behind the desk, “Excuse me, Sergeant. I’ve been having some problems with my Marine Detachment staffing requests, and I’m hoping it’s managed to be fixed by now.”

“Uh...sorry, ma’am. Request number and your command?”

“SSV Normandy, reference number 45-6732,” Shepard supplied and they waited as the Sergeant painstaking picked at the keys to enter it. Even with all the jokes about jarheads, you’d think a SAMC POG would be able to type. Pressly’s eyes settled on a propaganda poster. Join the Marine Corps, see the galaxy sort of shit. Not like there was anyone to recruit in this office - everyone had already signed off a sizable portion of their life to the Navy or Marine Corps.

The sergeant looked relieved as he looked at his screen, “It’s sorted ma’am. I’ve got orders here for a Lance Corporal Jassem Shamom to be your ground vehicle mechanic, and Staff Sergeant Jan Hendrickson to be your MARDET NCO.”

Shepard stared at him. Pressly resisted the urge to facepalm. With some despair he thought, Perscom, why are you like this?

Realising that he’d made a misstep, the sergeant started to sweat under the gaze of an angry N7 officer and swallowed, “Uh…ma’am?”

“That,” Shepard said very patiently, “Is not what I asked for. I’ll take the mechanic, but I don’t need a staff sergeant. I have one! I just need PersCom to stop trying to send her to Demeter and finish her paperwork so she gets paid.”

The sergeant stammered and blushed bright red. Pressly felt a bit sorry for him.

“Commander Shepard. Who let you out of the Traverse? Don’t you have batarians to cut the throats of?” The man who’d entered the room was tall and trim, his dress blues neat and crisp - and lacking a combat action ribbon. His name badge read ‘Cheston’ and he had the silver oak leaves of a Lieutenant Colonel at his throat.

Shepard’s eyes sharpened and the room dropped a few degrees in temperature, “If you’ve not noticed, there’s a war on. And I don’t cut their throats.” She mimed grabbing a shoulder and stabbing down. “Have to stab, not slash. Easier to get through the armour, and batarians have a big artery there.”

There was something wrong with N7s. He gave poor T’Soni, who looked a little shocked, a comforting pat on the shoulder, like he would his daughter. It didn’t seem right to him that Liara was more than twice his age.

Colonel Cheston’s expression was black, “Why are you harassing my Marines, Shepard?”

“Your office has fucked up my transfers,” Shepard said flatly, “I need it to be unfucked so I can get back to shooting geth. I’ll take Shamom, but I need my actual staff sergeant’s paperwork completed.”

Cheston sneered, an expression that ruined his handsome face, “You want a Williams?”

Oh, Pressly thought. Oh. Charles had often thought about the last time he’d see his father. Colonel Pressly had told him that Shanxi was a quiet place, maybe he ought to bring his new girlfriend out. General Williams was good to work for. Put his men first.

“Congratulations,” Shepard was saying, “You know her last name. And yes. I do. I was told I’d get what I needed for my mission to hunt down the bastard responsible for Eden Prime.”

“I thought you were supposed to be killing Saren, not surrendering,” Cheston said, an ugly tone of amusement in his voice.

Pressly opened his mouth. This pen-pusher was insulting his captain and ship! However unfortunate her ancestors were, Williams was part of the Normandy. But Shepard gently touched his arm and he subsided, before she turned on Cheston.

“You know what Ashley Williams did a couple of days ago? She landed a direct hit on an enemy base with the main gun of a cruiser. No corrections or anything. Now, I know you’re a paper pusher and your battles consist of getting the coffee dispenser to work, but that’s fucking incredible. Colonel, if you haven’t noticed, there’s a war happening. That means we need our best killers out there doing just that, not stuck guarding gates on the colony equivalent of Ohio. Now, will you let all of us get on with our jobs, or am I going to have to make your life very uncomfortable when I go see Admiral Hackett?” She bit off the threat and it hung between them, the whole room still and cold with the clashing anger of two senior officers.

“I’ll sort it out,” Cheston said stiffly.

“Thank you,” Shepard said, completely insincere, and Pressly suppressed a grin.


“Commander Shepard and Doctor T’Soni to see Admiral Hackett,” Shepard announced to one of the Admiral’s aide-de-camps, Lieutenant Priya Singh. There were some who thought Singh hadn’t earnt her position as Hackett’s flag lieutenant. Shepard knew, from bitter experience, that children of officers as successful as Priya’s father, Admiral Nitesh Singh, were often held to ridiculous standards and their achievements derided as nepotism.

But the younger Singh was by all accounts very trustworthy and intelligent. Hackett wouldn’t have chosen her otherwise.

“I will let him know you’ve arrived, ma’am,” Singh said.

“Admiral on deck!”

Shepard drew herself up and saluted as Hackett, commander of the Fifth Fleet - the tip of the Alliance Navy’s spear - emerged from his office. He was the sort of man you thought might be made of living steel - hair allowed to go silver, blue eyes like knives. Whenever he looked at her, Shepard felt as if he was seeing right to the heart of her.

He returned the salute and shook Liara’s hand firmly.

“With me, Commander,” Hackett said firmly and walked off, expecting her to fall in with him, his other aides - Lieutenant Commander Yun and Commander Frankston.

She followed, drawing the doctor with her.

Shepard had worked with Admiral Hackett before - when he was Vice Admiral Hackett, Commander Special Operations - Skyllian Verge and she was Ghost Actual, commander of Taskforce 5. The personnel of VERGECOM hadn’t called her ‘the Hero of the Blitz’ or ‘Sole Survivor’; to them she’d been Hackett’s Hatchet. That’d been alright with her - as her ex-wife had pointed out in their divorce proceedings, she’d gone out there to run away from those two years of her life.

She should email Rita, see how her new command was treating her and if she’d noticed anything unusual in her patrols. She’d likely be irritated that Shepard had waltzed into something that Rita had had to spend fifteen years earning, but she’d answer. Commander Rita McCormick was far too nice for her own good. That should’ve been the warning sign that they wouldn’t work out.

Rita was going to make someone with a functioning sense of priorities very happy one day.

“You know the Executor and Udina are still riding my ass about you shooting up that damned strip club, Shepard,” Hackett grumbled as they walked through the narrow, metallic hallways of NavCom. “Sop smiling, it’s not funny.”

“Of course not, sir.” She arranged her face into a suitably grave expression. They’d worked closely, Hackett and Shepard, but there weren’t any lovey-dovey feelings. She suspected Anderson saw her as his protege first and subordinate second, but to Hackett she was a tool. A useful one, one to be looked after and kept in good condition, but a tool.

“How many gangsters did you kill? Twenty-five?”

“Thirty-one, sir.” She was glad that she’d talked down the two warehouse workers, but she felt little to no guilt over the others. Anyone with sense would’ve known going up against a full squad of 103rd Marines plus a krogan and a turian was a bad idea.

“Thirty-one gangsters,” Hackett said contemplatively as he led her into a large briefing room, “We should send the Executor a cleaning bill.”

There was a sound from Commander Frankston that sounded dangerously close to a laugh.

Hackett turned to her, abruptly all business, as his aides began setting up the room for the meeting. “Have you finished your proposal?”

“Yessir.”

“You’ll have to work hard to convince the others,” Hackett warned, “Our plan will get Marines and servicemen killed, no way around it.”

Shepard winced. The thought of going up and speaking before three admirals and two generals and asking them to get their men killed was a harsh one. But that was the harsh math of war. The same equations that had led to her stand in the ruins of outer Illyria and the deaths of six Marines. Six of her friends.

“I know that, sir.”

“We’re both putting our reputations on the line here,” Hackett said, steel eyes examining her carefully, “We need this offensive to go ahead. Stick to the geth.”

“I’m not crazy, sir,” she said quietly.

“I know, Shepard. But look at it from our perspective. We can’t make strategic decisions involving hundreds of ships, hundreds of thousands or even millions of personnel based on your visions.”

She nodded, “I understand that, sir. But the Reaper theory does match both what I saw from the beacon and the extinction patterns of the Protheans. If the Reapers do exist, can we afford to ignore them?” He watched her, face not revealing what he thought. She forged on, “I need to find Saren before he finds this Conduit. It might be a weapon, who knows, but if he wants it we need to stop him. I have one ship to find one man in the entirety of the Traverse.”

Like looking for a needle in a very large haystack with one hand.

“What do you want exactly, Commander?”

Other officers were filtering in, both Navy white and Marine cobalt. She was running out of time before the meeting started or someone more high-ranking than her took the admiral’s attention.

“Sir, I believe we need a task force to investigate this hypothesis.”

“Admiral,” Liara began uncertainly, obviously off-kilter amongst all these uniforms. Shepard felt a hint of sympathy - it mustn't be easy to be thrown into the centre of an alien military, “My hypothesis on the extinction of the Protheans does fit this, but not only that - there is evidence that other species have also disappeared very suddenly at the apex of their history, within centuries.” She dug out a datapad and held it out to the admiral, “This had my hypothesis and current evidence, including my old papers.”

Hackett took it and quickly passed it to Yun, who’d appeared at his shoulder like a summoned genie. Yun quickly put it into a briefcase and locked it.

Shepard continued, “I would also ask for your help, sir. Ships, to go to known Prothean sites, to look for evidence of Saren’s interest or mentions of the Conduit.”

Hackett sighed, stroking his chin and the wiry silver hair there, “I won’t lie to you, Shepard, things are tense. We’re ramping up production of warship hulls but it’s taking time and Parliament’s running scared. When we pull these ships for offensive operations against the geth, we’ll have less strength to deal with any trouble from the batarians and everyone knows they’d love to take a bite of us if they think they can get away with it. We’re fighting a two-front war with only material support from the Citadel.”

“I know, sir.” She kept her voice even. Hackett would only respond to reason - emotional entreaties or temper tantrums wouldn’t move him an inch. “But I don’t see what choice we have. If we don’t take offensive action, Saren has the initiative, and if we don’t start looking more in earnest, he could get what he wants without me coming within a dozen light years of the bastard.”

“You were supposed to be a weapon against the Hegemony,” Hackett grumbled before he nodded. “Alright, Shepard, I’ll see about setting up a task force, and I’ll find you some ships.”

“Thank you, sir. You won’t regret it.”

Hackett’s icy eyes fixed her in place, “We’ll see. You should congratulate your mother, by the way.”

“Sir?”

“I stole her back from Home Fleet. She’s the commodore of the 50th Scout now - just finished writing her congratulation letter.”

Shepard smiled, a little wryly. “I’m surprised she didn’t refuse it.”

“She was being wasted as the exec on Kilimanjaro,” Hackett said, watching as more officers entered the meeting room. “I did have to promise her she’d still get the Orizaba when she’s launched. Threw in a division of cruisers to match her one star too.” Another admiral was approaching. “Excuse me, Commander.”

“Thank you for your time, sir.” Shepard turned to go find her seat for the meeting, gesturing for Liara to follow her. “This way,” she murmured to the asari. “Just avoid Admiral Mikhailovich. He’s trying to pin me down so he can do an inspection of the Normandy…”


CODEX ENTRY

Arcturus Station:

Arcturus Station is Stanford-Torus-type space station with a diameter of 5 kilometers, at the L5 of the gas giant Themis and the capital of the Systems Alliance. Inaugurated in 2156, construction began in 2151 and concluded 11 years later, with materials supplied by near-by metal-rich asteroids, many of which housed or still house transient populations of miners and freighter workers.

Originally designed as the headquarters for the Alliance’s exploration and colonisation efforts, the station was expanded mid-construction in scope after the First Contact War, when it was chosen to be the site of the Alliance Parliament and government departments. The project wasn’t without its detractors; some believed the Alliance should be headquartered on Earth, others on a colony world, others thought the cost extravagant. In the end, those who supported the station won out, seeing it as a symbol of an independent Alliance - one that served humanity as a whole and not just the ambitions of the old Earth states. It remains an impressive feat of engineering and one of the larger space stations in Citadel Space.

Arcturus Station remains strategically important to Alliance defence considerations - it is located at the nexus of several mass relays, allowing ships there to respond across much of Alliance space and the only way to access the Sol System is through that nexus, making it an ideal choke point for the home world’s defence. The station contains the headquarters of the Systems Alliance Defence Force, its component services, Joint Operations Command and Special Operations Command. It’s also home to the various government apparatus including the Colonial Affairs Administration, and shipyards for the manufacture of warships and civilian vessels alike. Currently under construction in Arcturus drydocks are the Orizaba DN7 and Aconcagua DN8, dreadnoughts scheduled to be completed in early 2184 and early 2185 respectively, and the carriers Elizabeth CA15 and Kastanie Drescher CA16.

Arcturus’ population fluctuates rapidly, with military and government personnel coming and going. Two fleets, the First and Fifth, and three Marine Expeditionary Forces, the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth, are based out of Arcturus Station. Many politicians choose to live on the planets they represent or on nearby Benning, only living on-station for part of the year.

Known residents:

Prime Minister Amul Shastri
Commandant Sayaka Nakano
Admiral Steven Hackett

Chapter Text

Tali woke up thinking she was going to die. Her head pounded like someone was taking a hammer to the side of her head, and her stomach twisted and roiled.

"Keelah," she whimpered, pressing a hand against her visor. What was the point of toxin filters?

...well, to be fair it seemed she'd deliberately ingested the toxins in this case. She pried her eyes open and tried to remember where she was and what had happened. She was curled up into a tight ball of misery on a couch. Of course. It was the Dravens' couch and she could see a blurry someone else sprawled on the soft carpet of the Dravens’ loungeroom.

She was never ever ever going to a bar with humans again. The shopping trip with the humans who'd invited her along had been fun, even if she and Alenko had argued for exactly twenty minutes about omnitools until Ashley had gotten bored and demanded that her bribe of alcohol be paid. So Alenko and Hellraiser had bought a round of beer and when they’d all finished, Ash had turned to her, eyes suspiciously bright and asked her if she wanted to come to 'the club' with her and the other enlisted Marines. Oh, and Vakarian too.

That sounds like fun, she'd said. Keelah why. It had been fun. Ash had even found some Drossix Blue and a straw for her. Alcohol had always been seen as an extravagance on the Flotilla, so she'd said yes because wasn’t the point of the Pilgrimage to get out the galaxy and experience things? She'd even enjoyed the ‘buzz’ as the humans had called it after a bottle or two. She'd danced with Ashley and that kind, young Marine with the bright yellow-white hair, Alexei. He’d helped her find her way around the ship in her first days aboard.

Then a very drunk human man had come up to their group and Tali had felt the easy fun drain out of the evening. She hadn't quite understood the social context - aliens! - but one of the Normandy Marines had quietly explained that this man and his friends were also Marines but from a different division. She still wasn’t entirely sure why that was a big deal.

But the man had said something to Williams, something about cowardice and turians and her family name, and Amina Waaberi had promptly punched him. It'd quickly turned into a confused mess of fists and flailing while Tali unashamedly hid behind Ashley, the tall human dealing out blows with surprising finesse for someone who’d had as many shots as she had. When someone had shouted ‘the masters-at-arms are coming!’ the fistfight had dissolved into a panicked scramble to get out of the club.

Tali distinctly remembered being carried part of the way by Alexei as they ran out the back door and climbed over fences and gardens to get away.

The last things she remembered was Gung Ho's wry expression as she helped them all inside, and Ashley saying very seriously and emotionally that she'd 'throw down' for any of them before curling up on the floor.

"You alive?" Someone with an accent described to her as 'Australian' was poking Tali in the shoulder. She grumbled at them, taking a swipe at their hand. Go away, Rosie. "Yep, alive."

Footsteps retreated and with a displeased whimper, Tali curled up tighter, wishing for the black nothing of sleep to return.

Unfortunately, it wasn't to be.

A loud, persistent beeping erupted next to her head and she jerked away, scrabbling at the source - her omnitool.

"Crash sail, crash sail, crash sail," the omnitool chirped, heedless to her pain, "All personnel are to return to the ship immediately. Department hands are to account for personnel and report manned status to XO."

"Why the fuck did I join the Marine Corps?" Ashley wondered blearily from where she was lying on the floor. After a moment, the human woman staggered to her feet and grabbed Tali's shoulder. "Sorry, Tali, hangovers are shit, but the Normandy's sailing."

"I thought we weren't leaving until this afternoon," Tali managed, trying to unfold herself without too much pain.

"Something must've come up. I'll get the others." Williams moved off and Tali soon heard the cacophony of the sergeant waking up her Marines - curses and at least one 'five more minutes, sarn't'.

“Does that happen often?” Tali asked when Ashley and Gung Ho had shepherded everyone into the mass transit. The former had a very impressive bruise across one cheek - all purples and reds.

Amina grinned at her as the mass transit carriage rattled its way towards the docks, “Bar fights are a fundamental part of the Alliance Marine Corps experience. You’re welcome.”


 


"Commander."

Kaidan Alenko remembered the first time he'd seen Commander Shepard on this very space station. She'd been dressed in jeans and a battered bomber jacket, a plain sea bag across her shoulders and a steaming cup of coffee in her hand, barely weeks before the Normandy left on her maiden voyage. She'd looked like a civilian, complete with out-of-regs haircut, if you didn't look at the way she held herself, the scars on her lip and chin, and cutting through her eyebrow, and Fredricks had acted on that assumption.

He'd told her that this was a restricted area, no place for a civvie, all polite arrogance with a rifle across his chest. She raised one eyebrow at him in that way she had and fished out her ID chit. He had to restrain a chuckle, remembering the horror that had crossed the Marine's face when the VI had cheerily chirped: 'Welcome aboard, XO Shepard.'

Now, she rubbed at her face, the bags under her eyes. "We've received a distress call from the colony Feros. There's geth there, and there was a sighting of that big dreadnought, so we're heading there as fast as Adams and Joker can get us."

"Roger that, ma'am. I'll make sure my guys are ready."

"Mm," Shepard said. It wasn't like her to be so vacant-eyed and he was relieved when the sharpness returned to her gaze. "Sorry, Alenko. Just thinking."

"About what?" he probed carefully.

"The offensive is going ahead," her voice was hard and grim. They stood together on the docks, watching the crew trickle onto the ship in ones and twos and threes. "Fifth Fleet and 4th MEB are spear-pointing it, but they'll be using task-forces from the Third and First as well."

"They're taking the geth threat seriously, then. That's good, right?"

"Yeah. They're not taking the Reaper hypothesis as seriously, but I can hardly blame Hackett for that. I can barely believe it myself."

"I believe you, ma'am," he said quietly.

She gave him one of her rare, warming smiles. "Thank you." It faded. "A lot of good Alliance Marines and sailors are going to die in this offensive."

"We train for war, but it doesn't make it easier to deal with when it actually happens."

"No."

"I still think about Jenkins," he admitted. Some nights when he closed his eyes, it was all he saw. Jenkins, his shields crackling and shorting out, then he fell straight down like a dropped sack of potatoes, his face still slack with surprise when Kaidan closed his eyes.

"I remember every Marine killed under my command. It's the price of what we do, the bars on our shoulders. All we can do is do our best," Shepard was tense beside him. He could see in the tendons of her arms, the set of her jaw, the shutters over her eyes. He couldn't imagine it really. Six Marines on Elysium, fifty on Akuze. Alenko honestly didn't know if he could've coped with it.

"I'll try," he said at last. He wanted to say something to her, give her some comfort, but everyone knew not to mention Akuze to Shepard. Part of him was glad to know that Shepard did still worry about those under her command, that Akuze hadn't battered the caring out of her.

She nodded firmly. "I know you will, Lieutenant. Your Marines respect you."

Messed up kid that he'd been, a young Kaidan Alenko could never have imagined this - comradery, twelve Marines that respected him, a CO who listened to him. Purpose.

"Thank you, ma'am."

"I should get on deck. Report to Pressly once all your Marines are accounted for."

"Aye aye."

Ten minutes later, almost all of his Marines came off one of the monorail carriages along with Tali. They all looked rather worse for wear and his platoon sergeant had a very impressive shiner. Ashley ushered the Marines and one alien towards the ship before approaching him, completely and utterly shameless.

"Good morning, LT," she said, saluting.

He returned it, "How'd you get the bruise?"

"Fell, sir."

His lips twitched despite himself. "And it has nothing to do with First Sergeant Hancock's email to me this morning, alleging my Marines were in an altercation with his?"

"No sir."

"And if the Top were to call you into his office to ask about it?"

"I wouldn't admit to shit, sir. I don't care what the First Sergeant says, he doesn't have any camera footage."


The knife was thirty-five centimetres long, dull black beneath the lights of the cargo bay, broad-bladed with a sturdy spear point. It was sharp enough to cut the tiny, smooth scales of an asari with the slightest of pressure and strong enough to pierce the thick hide of a krogan or the plates of a turian.

Urdnot Wrex knew it was perfectly sharp, but he inspected it anyway, turning it over in his hands. It was funny to watch the human Marines edge away when he got the knife out, anyway. No human could fight with this weapon. Wrex had had it for ten years and killed with it on six different planets.

He imagined jamming it underneath Saren's chin. Now that was going to be a good fight. Shepard was a battlemaster - even a warlord, the first he'd seen in the human species. She had gone to speak to her leaders the day before; that was the strange thing about humans. They followed their 'chain of command' even when it meant following someone unworthy, like that Udina. If Shepard were a krogan, she would challenge that weasel for chiefdom, defeat him, and many warriors would flock to follow their better. And the clan would be stronger for it.

Humans were not the only ones who acted like this - Wrex had seen it in many species over the centuries since he'd left Tuchanka. Aliens. Respect was earnt.

But, it wasn't as if there were any warlords worth following on Tuchanka anymore. Everything had become a facsimile of strength and ritual as the krogan tore themselves to pieces. All of it, meaningless.

The elevator hummed and opened, and out crept the young asari, Liara T'Soni, towards the armoury. She was avoiding the warrior Williams quite studiously, considering they were on the same tiny warship.

"T'Soni," Wrex rumbled, stepping forward. She jumped, spinning to face him.

"Oh - good morning, Wrex."

"What are you doing?"

Her chin raised. Good. There was some backbone there, after all. "My personal firearm is stored down here. I was checking on it."

He turned his head to stare at her with one gleaming crimson eye. "Really. You can fire a gun?"

She flushed a deeper blue. "I have basic commando training. My mo - Benezia insisted."

"Prove it," he said.

"W-what?"

"You think the geth will stand around while you examine Prothean ruins, T'Soni? No. They're going to make your battlemaster fight for every artifact, every site. If you cannot fight, you will be a liability and I’m not going to babysit you."

"Shepard said-"

"Shepard isn't here," he said, towering over her. "Show me."

He drew his corona up around him. She took a step back, but her own biotics flared in self-defence.

"I don't think-"

Wrex chuckled. "Don't worry, T'Soni. I'm not going to hurt you." Much.

Bruises at most. Shepard would be upset if anything else happened to the blue. He threw out a shockwave towards her and nodded in approval when she battered it aside with her own barrier. He tossed another field at her centre of mass, pure kinetic energy and she blocked that too.

T'Soni was stronger than she looked, at least biotically. He felt a flare of interest at the matching of strength.

"Hit back," he ordered. Her hesitation was clear, but after a moment she stepped forward and whipped a ball of crushing energy towards his face. He blocked it, absorbed it stoically. He'd honed his biotics over centuries, long before this Maiden's parents so much as glanced at each other.

"What's going on here?"

Wrex turned his head. Shepard's dark-haired lieutenant was standing in the open elevator, biotics crackling around him as he looked between the mercenary and the archaeologist.

"Don't get in a twist, Alenko," he said shortly, "Just seeing what the doctor here can do."

"It's okay, Kaidan," Liara's voice was soft and the tension gradually bled out of the Marine until his corona faded.

Wrex fixed her in his gaze again. "You're stronger than he is. You'd be even stronger if you were tempered in battle."

"She's a civilian!" protested Alenko.

"You think Saren cares about your distinctions?" Wrex asked, bored, not entirely sure why he was bothering. "Or these Reapers? Those who refuse to defend themselves will still die by the blade."

The asari flexed a hand, sparks of blue dancing along her fingers, expression thoughtful. He turned his back on both of them and returned to his corner and his knife where he'd left it - jammed into one of the crates there.

It was hours later when Shepard came to find him, smelling of gun oil and sharp soap. She crossed her arms. "Wrex."

"Shepard."

"Liara asked to come on the next mission to Feros. Alenko said you might've had something to do with it."

He narrowed his eyes at her. "If she wants to fight and earn a place in your krannt, that is her decision."

Shepard shook her head. "Sure."

“Heard there’s geth."

"Yeah. We've got about fifteen hours of FTL before we land. I was planning on bringing you along - it's CQB on steroids down there. Could use your muscle." Shepard smiled faintly. The expression tugged at the white scars on her face.

"Good. I was starting to think you'd forgotten about me down here," he showed a hint of teeth.

She was unmoved. "Xawin was Alliance business. I only brought Garrus because I'm low on snipers. This is geth - and a sighting of Saren. Exactly what you signed on for."

He chuckled. "I could get used to scrapping geth. I looked up your battles, you know. Before I decided to come with you."

A wariness crept into her gaze. "Oh?"

"What is it they call you? 'The Lion of Elysium'? What is a lion?"

She grimaced. "It's a stupid nickname. A lion is an animal on Earth; a predator used as a symbol a lot. I've tried to stop them using it for years and yet, they keep calling me that."

"Why shy away from your own accomplishments? Victories are the only reason battlemasters are followed. They called my grandfather the Nathak, and he never shied from it."

Shepard shrugged, turned away. "Chalk it up to a human thing. Be ready to go when we reach Feros."


Ashley couldn't sleep. She spent a good couple of hours tossing and turning in the pod before she gave it up and decided that if sleep wasn't happening, at least the weights room would be empty. The burn was a good way to exhaust the body and quieten the mind.

Alone, she selected some hand weights and started going through her routine. There wasn't a lot of time to stay in shape on an active warship, particularly with the restricted space, but it was more important than ever that she did. Getting winded from the weight of her guns and armour would just be embarrassing.

“Williams.”

Ashley snapped upright, nearly dropping her weights. Commander Shepard was in the doorway, dressed in a clinging tank top and PT shorts, wisps of hair curling out of her bun. Ash resolutely fixed her eyes on the officer’s face. “Evening, ma’am.”

"At ease," Shepard said with a hint of a smile on her lips. Williams relaxed, but despite herself, her eyes were drawn to Shepard’s shoulder - to the blotches of raised white skin at odds with the smooth copper of the rest of her. When she forced her eyes away, a wry expression had settled across the Commander's face. "Not pretty, I know."

Ashley wasn't quite sure how to respond. Telling your commanding officer that she was an attractive woman and that her scars made her more striking, not less, seemed like a bad idea. She settled on, “You’ve been through some shit, ma’am. Just shows what you’ve survived.” Eager to change the subject, she added, “Were you after some weights?”

Shepard shook her head. Her expression was suddenly appraising and Ashley shifted under the weight of her gaze. “I read your file, Sergeant.”

Ash stiffened, fingers tightening around the weights still in her hands. She avoided looking at the skipper by putting them away, "Okay."

Shepard continued as if she hadn't noticed Ashley's sudden withdrawal. "Your ITB scores show you have the highest unarmed proficiency out of the Marine detachment. Black belt, first degree, yes? The only one who matches you is Lance Corporal Hodgins, and Hodgins is far too prone to unprofessional behaviour."

Ash blinked. "You want to spar, ma'am?"

"Yes," Shepard nodded, "It's not an order, but I find it's a good way to keep on your toes and get out your frustrations."

"By wailing on a subordinate, ma'am?"

Shepard drew herself up, "N7s do not 'wail'. Or 'flail'."

"Uh huh. No biotics."

"That'd be cheating," Shepard said lightly, redoing her hair.

"Everyone knows N7s cheat, skipper."

Shepard chuckled as they walked towards the sparring mat. "That mouth is going to get in you trouble one day, Williams."

There was a moment in which Shepard appeared to realise how that had come out and reddened. Ashley just smirked. "So they say, skipper. You gonna be trouble?"

Shepard off-balance was kind of delightful, actually. She was always so controlled, so unruffled. "I-"

Ashley threw a punch at her solar plexus, only for Shepard's forearm to slap into hers, knocking the blow off course. She was fast. Ash was probably gonna get her ass kicked - Shepard was, after all, a N7 commando and biotic Vanguard. But her pride would never let her go down without a fight.

"And you said I was the cheat," Shepard chuckled, a fading bloom of colour across her cheeks.

"Hey, you can't tell me N7s fight fair." She danced away from one of Shepard's testing strikes.

"On the battlefield, if you're fighting fair, you're fighting wrong," Shepard said, moving to close in. Ashley threw a few punches to keep her further out, use her own height advantage. "But this is just a friendly sparring match, right?"

"Uh huh," Ash drawled out before trying a knife-hand strike aimed at Shepard's ribs, only to wince as her wrist was seized in an iron grip. Shepard stepped close and all of a sudden she was on the soft mat. Fell for a goddamn throw! Damnit.

She bounced back to her feet, determined. She managed to get one good hit in that had Shepard wincing and jumping back.

"I won't lie," Shepard said suddenly, "I was concerned about having you on my ship."

"Because of my grandfather?" She bit off the angry words before she could help herself.

Shepard frowned, shaking her head. "Your last name is a shitty reason to blacklist you. It would be even if you were a fuck up - but you’re not."

"You've known for a while." It wasn't a question. They exchanged a few more blows. They were pulling them - no one wanted a trip to the medbay - but Ash knew she was going to have some more bruises in the morning to match her face. She decided against doing a vidcall with her mother in the next couple of days. The Marine Corps beats me up, ma!

"I was waiting for you to feel comfortable telling me," Shepard said softly, at odds with the strike to Ash's solar plexus that had her gasping for breath. The skipper stepped back, waiting for her to recover.

And now she felt like a bit of a shit. "Ah...sorry, Commander."

Shepard smiled at her. "Don't be. I can understand why you'd be worried. You've been unfairly kept from the fleet postings you deserve and from OCS. Twice."

Ash winced. "Yeah."

"None of that reflects on you. You’re not just a good Marine, Williams, you’re a great one. I was worried that maybe you were being knocked back because you were selling your gear on the sly or you were an alcoholic or you broke the Prime Minister's favourite vase. Realising it was your damned name was a relief. Being Joachim Williams’ granddaughter isn’t anything to be ashamed of.”

“That’s the first time an officer has ever said that to me,” Ash said softly, looking at the floor, the developing bruise on her wrist.

"My mother was on Shanxi, you know. She was a fighter pilot back then - flying the old Falcons. She got shot down, flying CAS missions during the fighting. She was found by your grandfather's Marines and fought beside them with just her shitty SMG. They had the airfields and air superiority by then - there was nowhere else for her to go while the noose tightened on Petal City." They weren't even really sparring anymore, just looking at each other in the dim lighting of the exercise room. "When she got home, she was all skin and bones."

"Pop's people were starving," Ashley said stubbornly, "They couldn't even look for supplies because they were surrounded and the turians were bombing the shit outta them."

"He held out for as long as he could and then he surrendered because he put his troops first. He saved a lot of lives, both Alliance and civilian.”

“He’s always been a hero to me, ma’am.”

“Good." Shepard said firmly and Ash felt something twist and release in her chest, leaving only relief and fierce pride behind. "The Alliance needs to live up to what it could be - and it can’t do that if we shirk organisational responsibility and keep putting the weight of Shanxi on your shoulders. If a good officer like your grandfather surrenders, it’s the Alliance’s fault. They got cocky, thinking we were the only ones out there and their relief force was too far away to help him.”

“I…yes, ma’am.”

“I would’ve done what he did. Your great-grandmother and grandfather threw their lot in with the Alliance when it was a glorified space agency, you and your father served when it turned its back on you. You deserve better. That’s what you’ll always get from me, Williams. What you deserve and what you earn - nothing more, nothing less.” Shepard's eyes seemed to burn into her.

"That's more than the Alliance has ever given me before," Ashley admitted, "I'm glad for the chance. I won't let you down."

"Don't worry about me - don't let yourself down."

"Ma'am," Ash wondered cautiously, unable to let go of that last bit of fear when it came to officers, "If it wasn't my family, why were you worried about having me onboard?"

There was a long stretch of silence between them, fragile, Shepard's face dappled with shadows.

"I know what it feels like to lose a platoon."

A stab of grief transfixed her, still sharp-edged. Ash swallowed. She'd read about Akuze. Fifty Marines melted and torn to pieces by three thresher maws. A single survivor, who'd carried the body of her platoon sergeant for fifteen kilometres.

Shepard was looking through her. "I hated the galaxy, I hated myself. I don't want that for you."

Ash couldn't find words for a long minute. "I'm here, doing this - for them. Because Saren...Saren fucking killed them. And I can help."

Shepard smiled a ghost of a smile. "I know you can. I just want to know that if things are too much, that you have someone onboard you can talk to. I know the last thing I wanted was some officer insisting I spill my heart out. But if you can't talk to me because I'm your boss, I'd like to know you can talk to someone else."

"And if I do want to come to you?" Ash said slowly.

"Open door policy, remember?”

"I'll keep it in mind, skipper."

"Good." Shepard rubbed a hand through her thick curls.

Ash shrugged off the awkwardness suddenly springing up between them. "Rematch?

“You’re on.”


 

CODEX ENTRY

Marine Martial Arts: Marine Martial Arts, also sometimes called 'Marine hand-to-hand', is a hybrid combat system combining elements of unarmed and close quarters combat techniques. Distilled from centuries of human martial experience, the system has been influenced by a great many other systems, including wrestling, fencing, savate, kung fu, Krav Maga and jujutsu.

Marines are taught punches, upper and lower body strikes, chokes, throws, joint locks, knife and bayonet fighting techniques, to utilize weapons of opportunity, unarmed restraints, fighting using rifles as bludgeons and ground fighting on a variety of species. Advanced fighters may also use techniques to fighting unarm against an opponent with a gun or knife. Marine hand to hand focuses on differing levels of lethality depending on the compliance level of the opponent; but in life or death situations, it is known for its brutal counter attacks and focus on aggression and violence of action. A variant is taught to biotic Vanguards, who are expected to fight in close quarters more often than the average Marine.

Marine Martial Arts use a belt system, with tan being the lowest and black (2nd degree) being the highest. Black belt (2nd degree) masters train the instructors that teach martial arts to recruits.

 

Chapter Text

"What do we know about this planet, ma'am?" It was Alenko who was the first to speak up once Shepard had pulled together the group in the briefing room - her Marine officer and sergeant, her XO, her Buffer, Liara, Garrus, Tali, and Wrex. It was all hands on deck for this one.

Shepard watched the holographic orb representing Feros spin above her wrist, projected by her omnitool. From this perspective, Feros was a green jewel, gleaming. Most planets were beautiful from a distance. "Pilot colony established in 2178 by ExoGeni Corporation. It's under charter for the next fifteen years so ExoGeni can explore - and exploit - the extensive Prothean ruins. Urban Prothean ruins cover a good two-thirds of the surface, so ground transport will be difficult and we're looking at combat inside the old Prothean arcologies - and pretty hard limits on what support the Normandy can give us."

Liara nodded emphatically. "Too much firepower may compromise the ruins - they're in excellent condition considering their age, but they have gone many thousands of years without maintenance."

“And what about the geth?" asked Williams, ever practical.

"We're not certain of their strength at this point. They destroyed the single system defence corvette protecting Feros and attacked both the ExoGeni headquarters and the main colony. The colony is still transmitting distress calls, so at least someone is alive in there, but the status of the headquarters is unknown."

"So the main focus of their attack had to have been the headquarters," Garrus mused.

"Exactly. The current plan is to land at the docks near the main colony, ascertain the situation there, then use the Mako to cross to and assault the ExoGeni facility. If Saren was here and focusing on them, there has to be a reason." A light blinked above her hand, picking out a single pair of skyscrapers in a sea of ruins.

"ExoGeni might not be happy about that," Alenko pointed out.

She frowned. "I don't really care about what ExoGeni thinks. This is a matter of national security; their profits and secrets are hardly important. If any of their personnel are alive, they will co-operate or they'll end up in handcuffs. Don't let them push you or your Marines around."

"Roger that."

"Any other questions?" Shepard asked.

"Status of the corvette crew?" That was Alenko again.

Shepard's lips pressed into a thin line. "She went down with all hands."

"Damn," Ashley murmured. There was a moment of hard, grim silence. Shepard didn't pray these days, but she spared a moment for the fifteen crew of the SSV Integrity. She hoped it had been quick and that the Navy wouldn't drag their feet sending another ship to recover their remains.

When no more questions were forthcoming, Shepard cleared her throat. "Alright. Everyone get geared up. I want Alpha Team under Draven left to defend the ship since we have a live situation with geth here, the rest of us will push into Zhu's Hope."

"Roger that, skipper."

Sometimes Shepard missed her N7 team. Not just because she loved them with all the ferocity you loved ten other people with whom you lived in the strange isolation of Tier One covert ops - which she did - but she also missed all the intel gathering they'd done before each of their raids. She'd worked with imaging and HUMINT so good she'd known what brand of cigars one of the pirate warlords in the outer Traverse preferred while directing his raiding fleets from his mansion. He'd been smoking one when Lead Hand Chen Sieh had put a bullet in his head from 1.5 km away.

On the Normandy, it often felt like she was fumbling in the dark, with only half the story.

They armoured up and stepped out onto the docks, Alenko and Shepard leading the way, and Williams lurking behind them like she didn’t quite trust her officers to look after themselves without her there.

Which was good, because almost as soon as they met David Al Talaqani, the colonist sent to fetch them, the corridor behind him was boiling with geth. Alenko grabbed the civilian, shielding him with his own body and biotics. Shots smacked into Shepard's chest, her shields burning and sparking.

When in doubt, attack. She drew biotics around her, humming and shouted her intention to Williams.

Charge.

She's never been quite able to explain how it felt. One moment she was standing beside Alenko, the next she slammed into the group of three geth, throwing them back in a burst of dark energy. She brought up her shotgun in a smooth motion, under the nearest geth's flashlight and pulled the trigger, leaving only a sparking stump where its ‘head’ had been. Whirling, she threw a punch at the rocket-bearing geth, fist surrounded with a heavy field that punched right through its chest and into vulnerable wiring and conduits, white fluid breaking across her black armour.

Shit. The last geth had recovered from being thrown back and her shields, already abused, began to sputter, her HUD helpfully telling her kinetic barrier at ten percent. Please replace battery.

She was bringing her shotgun - and barrier - up when the geth whined a mechanical dying sound and toppled, two holes the size of her hands punched through its centre of mass. Panting, blood electric in her veins from adrenaline - god that was always a rush - Shepard looked over her shoulder, even as her Marines surged forward, setting up security just beyond her.

Williams lowered her rifle. Always watching out for her, it seemed.

It was…comforting, strangely enough, rather than stifling or patronising. Shepard was well aware of her own lethality and skills, but a Vanguard on the battlefield was someone balancing on a knife’s edge. If she made a single mistake in the complex choreography of close quarters combat, missed a biotic movement or a shotgun blast, she would be dead. Williams was a second chance - a shot in the right place at the right time.

Shepard pulled out a new shield battery and slotted it into place, tucking the depleted one into the pocket she reserved for spent batteries. Williams walked over, frowning beneath her visor.

"I hate it when you do that...ma'am."

Shepard smirked at her, still buzzing from the fight, before she turned to Alenko, crouching over Al Talaqani. "Alenko, how's he looking?"

"I think he might have a concussion," he replied, peering into the man's eyes.

"Send him aboard, then. We need to keep moving. Draven, set up a position here to defend the airlock. No geth is scratching my ship."

"This is the worst place for a colony I have ever seen and I grew up on Sirona," Ashley muttered when they emerged onto the roof of the ancient skyscraper, on which the colony of Zhu's Hope had been transplanted like some kind of growth, spliced into the old Prothean water conduits and hydroponics. The settlement itself was just what appeared to be a dismembered Kowloon freighter, surrounded with make-shift fortifications.

"You a colony kid, Sarn't?" asked Alenko.

"Yessir. But if this was my colony? I'd be looking for a way to get the hell outta dodge."

Shepard was inclined to agree. But: "Opinions...to ourselves, Marines."

"Aye aye."

They were greeted by two exhausted civilians carrying ancient Mattock rifles, eyes jumping all over the place, fingers close to triggers.

"Where's David?" A woman demanded. She was wearing an old, battered hardsuit that looked at least two cycles out of date.

Fuck me, Shepard thought, they're defending against geth with outdated gear and small arms? Where's ExoGeni's security forces?

"There was a geth attack near the dock," she said calmly, soothingly, "I took him aboard my ship so my doctor could have a look at him. I'm sure as soon as she's done, he'll be back."

"...Right. You're the Alliance right?"

Shepard exchanged glances with Ashley. Yes, that's generally what that symbol on our armour means.

"Commander Shepard, Alliance Navy. This is Lieutenant Kaidan Alenko and Staff Sergeant Ashley Williams, Alliance Marines. Who's in charge here?"

"Fai Dan. He's on the other side of the colony."

"Thanks."

They were about halfway through the colony when a shout rose up. "Geth!"

Shepard repressed a sigh. "Let's expedite."

Then she began to run.


bysitting duty! Garrus sighed, perched on a crate overlooking the colony of Zhu's Hope. He'd argued with Shepard - he was as good a marksman as Williams! And he was a combat engineer with his own tech grenades loaded for destroying or interfering with the geth.

But Shepard had waited for him to run out of arguments patiently, and then told him that was exactly why he was staying with Alenko. She was taking Tali for tech support and Williams and Wrex for their CQB skills. He was to stay with Alenko to help if the geth tried another attack.

Alenko had kept the Marines together, as a 'reaction force', so that if the geth showed up, they could easily react to an attack from any direction, then began helping fortify the settlement further, lifting crates and scrap metal with his biotics, each movement slow and deliberate. Garrus was pretty sure the lieutenant was stronger than he often let show. He'd crushed a geth when they'd been counter-attacking through the tunnels earlier. Just turned its 'chest' - and central processing unit - into a crumpled mess of metal.

Alenko jogged back towards them, composed despite the exertions, and Garrus gestured for him to come over.

"Don't you think this colony is weird?" he asked, low enough that the nearest colonist, fixated on the panel she was fiddling with, couldn't hear.

Alenko looked around thoughtfully. "They've been through a lot. They're not soldiers.”

"Yet they haven't asked us to take over the defences. They're not panicking. They refuse to answer any questions or enquiries, except to tell us to talk to Fai Dan."

"What do you think is going on?"

Garrus looked away, flicking his mandibles thoughtfully. "They're hiding something, Lieutenant."

Alenko frowned. “What do they have to hide? We’re here to help them.”

“Remember them smugglers on Eden Prime?” Asked Lance Corporal Hodgins idly, inspecting his pistol. "Maybe they're up to something illegal and they don't want the Alliance to know."

"Yeah, but those civvies came clean with us during the attack. Worrying about the Big Government getting on you for smuggling seems pretty secondary to the geth."

"Yeah, only after they stole the 2/12th's grenades," muttered Hodgins bitterly. Those smugglers hadn't been very popular with the Marines, not after they'd had to fight their way past the burnt remains of their comrades, not after they'd had to kill husks the geth had created out of their siblings in arms. A few of them had ranted about it to Garrus, told him how an entire battalion had been smashed to bits by the geth incursion. Maybe those few cases of grenades and pistols wouldn’t have made a difference, but it couldn’t have hurt.

There was a low, pained groan, cutting raggedly through their conversation. Alenko bounded to his feet, ever the helpful medic, Garrus following suit, his talons falling to his rifle - just in case. Shepard had told him to help the human officer, and he took his duties very seriously, including keeping the officer safe from any duplicity.

Zhu's Hope's leader, Fai Dan, was hunched over, gripping his skull.

"Sir, are you alright?" Alenko asked, taking a step forward, a crinkle forming between his eyebrows.


"Stay back," Fai Dan moaned, pressing his hands against his temples. His eyes were those of a wounded animal. "You...have to go - can't stop it. Don't want to hurt you. Please go."

"What? Sir, I can help - "

"GO!" He screamed it and then his hand was trembling its way towards the pistol on his belt.

"Shit - Lieutenant, we should - " Garrus wasn't sure what to do. His instincts saw the gun and thought threat. His instincts wanted to shoot, to protect himself and his squadmates. But something wasn't right here.

There was a flash of blue and Fai Dan was knocked over, handgun skittering away from his hands along the floor.

Alenko, still glowing, grabbed Garrus' shoulder. "We're leaving. Back to the ship!"

"The fuck?" Hodgins was still gaping and Garrus bodily shoved him to get him moving. Lance Corporal Amina Waaberi had shown why she was acting team leader for Bravo Team - she'd already recovered from her shock and was hauling the corpsman, Ling, with her.

"Defend yourselves if you need to," Alenko shouted as they began to run, "but don't kill! These are civilians!"

"Fuckin' nutcases, maybe!" Hodgins retorted.

Arcelia Martinez - Garrus remembered her, because she was the only one of the colonists who'd struck him as a soldier - careened around a corner and towards him. It didn't make sense, he had time to think, Martinez was ex-Army, a mercenary for ExoGeni's security forces, but the way she came from him was mindless.

Her assault rifle rose. He seized the muzzle and forced it up, the retort loud beside his helmet, then slammed his elbow into her unprotected jaw. She dropped heavily to the ground in a pile of ceramic armour and he winced. But he couldn’t stop to check that he hadn’t broken her jaw, he just had to step over her prone form and keep moving.

Alenko was on the radio, speaking in between raising barriers between their group and bullets or lashing out with blunted biotic force. "Draven! The colonists have become hostile! Get inside the ship and tell Pressly to initiate lockdown. No, I don't know why. Just do it!"

A gaggle of colonists charged them and Alenko hissed, shoving outward with his hands, knocking them over like a bunch of beanbags being tossed about.

"Go, I'll cover you," he said, pointing at the doorway leading to the docks. Garrus was starting to see the merit of how humans didn't segregate their biotics from their normal units. He swung around, ready to help the lieutenant if it came to it, as Waaberi, Ling, and Hodgins fled into the corridors, but he seemed to have it well in hand, pushing back any of the colonists who got too close.

"Vakarian, move," Alenko said, a firm, commanding tone in his voice, more so than Garrus had heard from the quiet officer before, blue light sparking across his fingertips. It was the sort of tone that didn't so much as demand obedience, as it did expect it.

"Yessir," he said reflexively and moved, glad to hear the Marine's booted footsteps following him after a moment. They sprinted through the dusty corridors in grim silence, tossing glances over their shoulders for pursuit. Garrus knew what he'd do if forced to choose between his own life or one of the human's and a colonist, but he really didn't want to have to make that decision.

The way they'd been acting...the warning in Fai Dan's voice - none of this was natural.

A burst of relief filled him when they rounded the corner and saw the bulk of the Normandy in dock. The colonists wouldn't be able to break into the frigate once she was locked down and it'd take much, much more than the small arms they had to damage her - more than anti-vehicle weapons, even.

Draven had already pulled her team into the ship, so Alenko simply shepherded them straight to the airlock.

"We're coming in," he said over his comm. "Seal the door after us. Don't wait for decon to finish."

"Jesus fuck," Hodgins murmured, pulling off his helmet.

"I've never seen anything like that," Garrus shook his head, feeling the dregs of his fight or flight response starting to fade away.

Alenko took off his own helmet, sweat beaded on his face. "Me neither."

The lieutenant took an energy bar out of one of his many pockets, but his hands were shaking from exhaustion too much to tear it open. Without a word, Waaberi took it from him, ripped it open and handed it back, the man immediately taking a bite out of it. Garrus imagined that the amount of biotics he'd used, with barely a moment to rest in between each effort, had been exhausting - but Alenko hadn't shown it until they were all safe.

The decontamination cycle finished and they all trooped into the CIC, Garrus stowing his rifle away. That's when they heard it. A thumping from behind them, metal ringing.

"They're hitting the hull," one of the sensor technicians whispered. Over her shoulder, Garrus watched the external camera feeds, watched as a group of colonists banged on the ship's armoured hull and airlock fruitlessly. One even unloaded his assault rifle at the ship in frustration, but he might as well have thrown rocks; the ship's kinetic barriers barely even registered the hit.

"It's okay -" he read the woman's nametape "- ET Korrapati." That's what the humans called their electronics technicians. "They can't get through the ship's hull with small arms or even anti-tank weapons. You'd need a dedicated anti-ship weapon for that, and Feros has none."

"It's creepy," she said. Garrus still didn't quite get human indicators of age beyond the broadest of strokes - wrinkled skin and lightened hair - but he had a feeling if Korrapati was a turian, she would've just graduated from boot.

"Unnatural," he agreed. "Don't worry. The Commander will find out what's wrong with them."

"Even if we can't contact her?" Korrapati asked quietly.

"It's just geth jamming. Once she's destroyed the geth, Joker or Lam will let her know what's going on and I'm sure she'll find a solution."

Some of the anxiety had drained out of Korrapati, so he gave her a friendly pat on the shoulder, glad his reassurances had worked. Shepard had told him that morale and the mindset of the team were as important as having ammunition.

Halfway to Alenko, he stuttered to a stop, a thought striking him with the force of a punch.

Alenko frowned, pausing with a bottle of bright orange liquid halfway to his mouth. "Is something wrong, Vakarian?"

"Lieutenant," he said slowly. "What happened with that colonist we brought aboard when we landed?"

Alenko's eyes widened. "Shit."

It was the first time Garrus had heard the man swear, but there was no time to think about that. The two men ran for the stairs down to Deck Two, shoving sailors out of the way.

"Security alert-"


The Mako rumbled over the old, crumbling skyway, pushing its way past the debris of the previous battle - hasty defensive positions, a burning M-29 Grizzly in ExoGeni corporate colours, the odd geth unit. Shepard hunched across from Wrex in one of the troop seats, rifle in her lap, trying very hard not to think about the skyway giving way beneath the weight of the IFV.

Getting crushed to death by debris was not high on her list of ways she’d like to go.

The interior of the Mako seemed tiny when you stuffed four humans, an asari, a quarian, and a krogan into it. An assault force of just her, Williams, Tali, and Wrex - and Liara she supposed, but Liara wasn’t battle tested yet - wasn’t as large as she would have liked, but she was unwilling to leave the Normandy and Zhu’s Hope unprotected. So she’d put the other Marine team and Garrus under Alenko’s charge and put him to the task of keeping the colonists safe. There was also Dubyansky and Ki-tae, but she would have to leave them to guard the Mako.

It was a bit of a pity. She liked working with Alenko.

“Shepard?” Tali asked from where she was manning the Mako’s ECM suite. “I’m picking up some comm chatter.”

“Turn it up,” she ordered.

“There’s some kind of rover out there…”

“Rover!” Dubyansky sounded horribly offended. “This is an Infantry Fighting Vehicle with 155mm of fuck you on the top!”

Shepard suppressed a smile. “Where’s that coming from?”

“Just...right there, Commander.”

“Driver, stop.”

The Mako rumbled to a halt and Shepard led Williams, Tali, Liara, and Wrex out of the vehicle, leaving the other two with the IFV. They were in what looked like a weight station, if she had to guess, debris piled up, the ceiling oppressively cracked. It seemed strange, to think of Protheans and things as mundane as heavy vehicle safety inspections. Guess Protheans put their boots on one at a time just like us.

"Signal is coming from in there, Commander," Tali murmured quietly to her, vocaliser blinking on her helmet.

"Williams, take point," she ordered.

"Aye," the Marine said, pulling out her shotgun. "Shoot any flashlights. Do I get ten points for shooting the big ones?"

"Sure. But it's -15 for civilians, so watch your fire."

"Yeah, I think 'not shooting the people you're supposed to be protecting' came up in basic training."

"All I remember from basic is Ellison calling me a maggot," Shepard admitted, "and the mud. All that mud, everywhere. It was very traumatising for a baby spacer."

They hugged the wall, rubble crunching underfoot, Shepard following Ashley, with Liara in between her and Wrex bringing up their six. The first mission with the krogan, she'd never have dreamt of putting the krogan on her six, but he'd had plenty of opportunities to kill her at this point - when she was unarmed, even.

Williams whirled around a corner, gun raised, then dropped the muzzle to the floor. "Skipper, looks like we found ExoGeni."

Shepard followed - to find four guards in armour wearing the green and white logo of ExoGeni still with their rifles raised behind makeshift barricades.

"Do we look like geth to you?" she said flatly, gesturing to the Alliance symbol on her armour.

"That one does!" one of the guards shouted back, pointing his rifle at Tali. Williams immediately stepped in front of her.

"That's a quarian, you dumbfuck," the Marine said severely.

“Let them in! It’s the Army!”

Marine Corps,” she corrected, offended, before she could contain herself.

The surviving highest-ranking ExoGeni representative was an odious scumbag and Shepard stayed only long enough to get what intel she could pry out of Jeong and Baynham - and long enough to receive an entreaty from the latter to look for her missing daughter - before she ushered her team back to the Mako, Jeong's insistence on not disturbing corporate property soldier still ringing in her head.

She settled back into her seat and hummed thoughtfully. "Tali, could you hack Exogeni's files?"

"I thought you said we were only going after the geth?" Liara said beside her, blinking big blue eyes.

"I lied," Shepard said succinctly.

"I think so, Commander,” Tali fiffled with her omnitool.

"Chakwas, Alenko, and I declared martial law after we saw the shape the colony is in," she explained, "so we have every right to look around if the enemy is in there."

Under the Alliance's Emergency Act, three military officers - two of different branches and a specially trained and experienced Crisis Response Officer - in agreement could declare a state of emergency on a colony, empowering the military to make strategic decisions regardless of whose toes needed to be stepped on and requisition civilian and corporate property to the defence of the colony - and on large ones, subordinate the colonial militia to Alliance command. Feros had no official civilian government, not yet, just a corporate one, so she'd felt even less compelled not to.

"Even if that was not so," Liara pointed out, "you are a Spectre."

"Yeah..." It was like unlearning muscle memory. The urge to introduce herself as 'Alliance Navy' instead of 'Council Spectre'. The instinctive adherence to rules she'd lived her life around - bent before, yes, but she'd always understood there were consequences. Spectres had always made her uncomfortable - the idea that they might run into one on a mission and find their missions divergent. That a Spectre could kill one of her N7s and justice would be as likely as the Hegemon and Prime Minister sitting down to lunch to discuss biotiball.

"You think ExoGeni is hiding something, ma'am?" Ashley's voice pulled her free of her thoughts.

"Jeong is very eager to keep us away from his corporation's secrets. It might just be an inability to realise we don't care about which corporation makes the most money, but if they're up to something, I'd prefer to know about it. And the geth - Saren personally - attacked Feros. I think ExoGeni has or had something he wanted. Maybe he's already taken it, but we need to find out what brought Saren here."

"And smash some geth while we're at it." Wrex ran a hand over his shotgun, clearly eager to get to that part.


Liara was breathing hard, feeling exhaustion sink deep into her, down to the bone. The geth had not wanted to give up the HQ anymore than the krogan had, fighting fiercely to hold their ground. Their own team had moved quickly, Shepard setting a frenetic, aggressive pace, having Liara slam the geth with biotics before Wrex, Sergeant Williams, and Shepard cleaned up with shotguns and the odd Shockwave. A few times they had run into fights Shepard had been unwilling to throw them into, and they pulled back into the warren of corridors, drawing the geth and krogan into ambushes.

Now, she leaned against a wall, staring at the krogan bleeding on the ground, as Tali tried to work out how to use the faulty shutters to cut through the geth ship's claws. It had been easy, with the geth, not to think of it as killing. But the krogan had knocked Commander Shepard to the ground with his charge after she'd dispatched two geth, and Liara had reacted. She'd thrown him free of the Commander, then followed it up with a warp and Wrex had shot him twice to make sure. She tried to avoid looking at the marks the warp field had left on the body.

She looked up at footsteps. Sergeant Williams, face hidden by her polarised visor. She jerked a thumb towards the body. "First time?"

"Yes," Liara admitted, looking at her feet.

"It gets easier."

Liara wasn't sure that it should. Williams passed something to her. A bottle containing a bright orange liquid.

"You look tired," the Marine said gruffly. "We've still got plenty of fighting to go - and that Thorian thing. You should drink this."

She pulled the cap off and took a sip. The liquid was very sweet and syrupy, clinging to her tongue, and she made a face. Williams huffed a laugh.

"What is this?"

"Specially formulated energy drink for troops and biotics - tastes like shit, but it works. I carry some extra, in case Alenko or Shepard use all their supply up. Finish it, you'll feel better.” Williams paused. “I think. Your biology should close enough to ours that it’ll do the trick."

There was an almighty screech and she jumped as the shutters smashed down and crunched through the metal of the geth dropship's claws and the ship fell, power conduit tearing and sparking.

"Fuck yeah! Good one, Tali!" Williams called to the the quarian.

Then their comms came to life as the geth barriers and jamming fields died with the enemy ship. Joker's voice, taut and thin. "Normandy to Lance, Normandy to Lance, answer your damned phone, Commander-"

"Lance copes, Normandy. Sitrep."

"The colonists went nuts! They attacked the squad in Zhu's Hope, but Alenko pulled them and Draven back into the ship. They're outside - we can hear them banging on the hull."

"Hang tight, we'll sort the situation out. Do not fire any weapons at them unless they're somehow getting onto the ship."

"Sure, we'll just...stay here."

Shepard turned to them, eyes gleaming with a cold light. "Let's get moving. I need to have a chat with Doctor Lizbeth."


CODEX ENTRY

Department of Colonial Affairs: a large department of the Systems Alliance government, the Department of Colonial Affairs (DoCA)’s mission statement is to oversee the expansion of humanity into space. Established very early on in the Alliance's existence, the Department oversees the planning of new colonies, provides expertise to initiatives, ensures all the legal hoops are jumped through so the colony is a full member of the Systems Alliance and provides assistance and resources during colonial development.

DoCA includes experts of all stripes: environmental scientists, lawyers, architects, city planners, agricultural scientists, geologists, astronomists, planetary climate scientists, biologists, military attaches and sociologists. The Department also includes a Colonial Bureau of Investigation, a law enforcement agency charged with ensuring the laws and regulations relating to colonisation are followed and that colonists are not being exploited by the corporations that often fund new ventures.

Not all colonies are founded under the banner of the department, but these colonies risk not having full Alliance membership (and thus military support) and missing out on government funding.

DoCA is also charged with helping each new colony construct its own new planetary government within Alliance law and with constructing new electorates, so each colony is represented in the Alliance parliament.

In emergency situations, the Department works closely with the military, the Systems Alliance Emergency Management Agency (SAEMA), aid organisations and individual colonial governments to assist those affected and limit damage to both property and people.

Historically, governments who have attempted to influence or defund Colonial Affairs have faced sustained and fierce opposition from the public. The current Minister of Colonial Affairs is Idir Tabaamrant of the Galactic Labor Party.

Chapter Text

Goddamnit, Lizbeth.

 

This was why you secured civilians on the battlefield, Shepard reminded herself as she met Jeong's wide brown eyes steadily, ignoring the pistol muzzle in her face, ignoring the ExoGeni thugs behind him, pointing their rifles at her people. You secured them so they didn't blow your cover and run to their mothers.

 

That wasn't entirely fair - Lizbeth had a functioning moral compass, which was apparently rare enough in ExoGeni, and your mother being threatened was enough for most people to lose their cool - but frustration burnt in her chest, underneath practiced calm.

 

More than the gun being waved in her face, Jeong had put her crew in danger. She didn’t want to think about what would’ve happened if she hadn’t left Alenko - calm, even-keeled, biotic Alenko - in charge.

 

The man in front of her had no idea what danger he was in. Even if he pulled the trigger on her, Williams or Wrex would kill him. It'd turn into a slaughter, with all these scientists and workers caught in the middle.

 

No time. Jeong had made a mistake. He should've pulled the trigger the moment he pointed a gun at her. Instead, he'd hesitated, grandstanded, in the hope that they would blink first. She almost pitied him.

 

The moment stretched like cheap plastic, then snapped as she made her decision.

 

Shepard was a Marine, a N7, a killer, and she didn't hesitate. She pulled her pistol free, raised it and pulled the trigger in a single flow of movement like the gun was part of her body, part of her arm. Distantly, and not for the first time, she thanked the drill instructor at ITB that had forced an eighteen-year-old Vanguard to practice and practice and practice point shooting.

 

The bang echoed through the tiny room, drawing gasps and screams that she barely registered through her focus. She lowered her M5 and Jeong slumped to the ground, missing part of his chest, blood pooling on the dusty floor.


She whirled to face the ExoGeni security guards, flaring in preparation to throw them against the wall before they could open fire. But Ashley and Wrex had already cornered them, assault rifles raised.

 

"Wanna be next?" Williams asked, aiming right at the nearest one's head.

 

"Please do," Wrex chuckled darkly, "I have some ammunition left."


The four of them clearly decided they'd prefer to live and dropped their guns before raising their hands. She ignored them since they were no longer a threat and stepped forward, kicking Jeong's pistol away from his hand. She didn’t bother with the medscanner once she got a good look at him.


Dead as a doornail, not that she'd expected otherwise. The M5 Phalanx had been developed to put down krogan and armoured targets alike. An unarmoured human…Jeong’s torso had been shredded like tissue paper.


"First the geth, now we're shooting each other?" Julia Baynham whispered, rubbing her face.


"First rule of not dying like a fuckin' idiot," Williams said sharply, "don't point guns at a Marine."


"But what will we do now?" she asked, wrapping an arm around her daughter. "If ExoGeni pulls funding..."

 

"They won't," Shepard said, voice flat. "Not after I give Colonial Affairs all the files and vid footage I have."

 

"We still have to get to the Thorian," Tali pointed out, "and find out what the geth wanted with it."


"The colonists won't let you near it," Lizbeth said very softly, staring at her feet. "The Thorian controls them now. They'll die first."


"If that's what it takes," Wrex rumbled, with harsh, pragmatic philosophy in his voice.


"We can't just kill them all!" Liara said, with surprising ferocity.


"It's not like we brought rubber bullets," Williams muttered regretfully, still eyeing the security guys suspiciously.


"There has to be another way," Lizbeth exchanged glances with her mother.

 

"Maybe there is..."


Fifteen minutes later and some modified gas grenades later, they were back in the Mako and moving again, the only exciting moment during the drive being when Dubyansky used the Mako to ram an Armature off the side of the skyway. A man after her own heart, the Corporal.


"Remember," Shepard said, "gas grenades first, flashbangs and fists second. I don't want anyone - colonist or us - getting shot. Liara and I will try to keep a barrier up for added protection, but we need to move fast and avoid getting pinned down."


They all got out of the IFV only -

 

"Contact?" Tali's voice was questioning.


Frowning, Shepard turned, shotgun raised. "It's either a contact or not - what the fuck."


She could only describe the thing as a twisted mockery of a human, a corpse creature with a skull-like face and dark pits where eyes should be, with skin of pallid green. It roared and lept at the quarian with claws instead of hands.


Shepard fired. Half the thing's face sloughed off, dribbling goo, but it kept coming with that guttural sound reverberating from what was left of its horrific, grinning mouth. She pushed in front of Tali and lashed out with a Shockwave. The creature was thrown back and into the edge of the garage wall - and more or less splattered.


Shepard wrinkled her nose. She wasn't wearing a faceplate so she could smell the resulting mess, and it was worse than the swamps of Yamm under the midday sun - and that was saying something.


"More zombies," Williams' voice was that of a woman who had seen far too many zombies lately. "Plant zombies. Ma'am...I think we're in a horror movie."

 

Shepard nodded very solemnly. "This means Wrex or I will be the first to die. The authority figure or the krogan is always the first to die."


"Yeah, I'll just hide behind Liara."


"Uh...what?" The asari looked between them. She was sweet and shy enough to be the surviving protagonist of a horror vid. Though none of the ones Shepard had seen had protagonists capable of crushing geth with their mind.


"Human horror vids. Don't worry about it. Stack up." They stacked up on the door behind Wrex. "Just remember, shoot the zombies, don't shoot the humans."


Wrex didn't deign to respond. He just keyed the door open and rushed forward, a bullet sparking blue off his shields.


Sub-Lieutenant Dariush Sherazi's panicked breaths filled the dead silence of the mess hall. Kaidan tried his best to breathe through the stabbing pain burrowing into his skull, flecking the edges of his eyesight with tracers. He locked his gaze on Sherazi - and on David Al Talaqani, standing behind the naval nurse, with one arm around the Persian's chest and the other holding a scalpel to the man's throat.


He'd overdone it. He'd used his biotics sparingly during the initial fighting and the counter-attack to drive off the geth, knowing he could split the burden of biotic support with Wrex and Shepard. But when the colonists had flipped, that hadn't been an option. It'd just been him, and four people he was responsible for getting out alive. He'd felt the migraine coming on, but he'd thought it'd be fine, that he could just go lie down and hate the galaxy for a bit, secure in the knowledge that Garrus, Ling, Hodgins, and Waaberi were safe.


But now David was holding a knife to the throat of an Alliance officer.


"Put it down," he said through gritted teeth.


"Don't want to...hurt anyone," the man said jerkily, "can't...think..."


Alenko breathed in deep, through the pain, and executed a crisp mnemonic. David and Dariush both were suddenly frozen in place by a stasis field, coated by biotic power.


"Someone needs to get the scalpel," Kaidan through clenched teeth.


"Got it!" It wasn't a Master-At-Arms or a Marine who darted forward, past the line Kaidan had instructed Vakarian and Bravo Team set up - it was the young Yeoman, Hector Emerson. Carefully, Kaidan opened a small hole in the field, and Emerson pried the scalpel out of Al Talaqani's hand, cautiously avoiding the vulnerable skin of Sherazi's neck.


"Okay, when I drop the stasis, Hodgins I want you to restrain Al Talaqani. Emerson, can you pull Sherazi away from him?" Kaidan asked, a metallic taste in his mouth.


"Got it, LT," Hodgins said, stepping right up to the field.


"Yessir," Emerson's bright blue eyes didn't move from Shezari's face.


"Dropping the field." The stasis field flickered and faded away, releasing the two men.


Hodgins roughly pulled David away from the Sub-Lieutenant, handcuffing him quickly before he could resist. Even restrained and overpowered by a gene-modded, fit space Marine, the colonist kept fighting - against the flex cuffs binding his wrists, and against Hodgins' grip on his shoulder and arm.


"Stop that!" the Lance Corporal growled, smacking him in the back of the head.


"Hodgins," Kaidan said sharply, and the Marine gave him a scowl but contented himself with restraining the man. "Put him in the brig. At least one guard watching him at all times - and I don't want anyone putting a mark on him. I don't think all this was his idea."


"Aye aye, sir." Hodgins began hauling Al Talaqani away, ignoring his attempts to resist or strike at the Marine's armoured face and chest. After a moment, Waaberi trotted after him.

 

Sub-Lieutenant Sherazi was sitting on the floor, one hand pressed to the red mark on his neck, shaking. Yeoman Emerson had his hand on his shoulder, face creased with concern. Kaidan had an infantry Marine's nonchalance about danger, but Sherazi was a naval nursing corps officer, not a Marine. He gave the other man a comforting smile, and he and Emerson helped the nurse to one of the mess hall's benches.


"You okay?" Emerson asked, and after a moment added, "...Sir."


"He nearly killed me," Sherazi said, disbelievingly, "I...didn't even see it coming."


Kaidan sighed, pressing a hand to his temple like he could force the pain away. "I'm sorry, I should've had a Marine stand guard on him."

 

Sherazi shook his head. "It's alright, sir. No way any of us could've guessed Zhu's Hope would turn on us like this. I've never seen anything like it."


"Neither have I," Doctor Chakwas, crisp as always, arrived, kitbag in hand. She gently pulled Sherazi's hand away from his neck and checked the scratch. "You'll be okay, Dariush. I'm very sorry this happened."


"I was just taking obs," he said quietly, "And he just - attacked me."


Alenko wanted to be deaf and blind. Listening to the conversation was like sitting still while someone drove knives through his ears and into his brain.


Chakwas touched his arm. "How is your BSL, Lieutenant?"


"Suit says it's fine now," he said thickly.


"Go lie down and take your medication. I'm sure Sergeant Draven can handle anything further."


"...yes ma'am," Kaidan mumbled and stumbled to his feet and found the medbay blissfully empty and dark. The thought of going down to the armoury to put away his gear was too much, so he simply shucked his gear in as near to a neat pile as he could manage, careful to make sure the safeties were engaged and the ammo blocks pulled out of his guns. Dressed in just the tight-fitting body sleeve the Marines wore under their hardsuits, he swallowed the pills and collapsed into one of the beds.


All he could do was wait. Wait for the medication to maybe work or more likely, wait until the migraine finally passed on its own.


Ashley breathed hard, bruised ribs pressing into her mesh with every pant. They'd gotten through the colonists quickly enough using the grenades - and a few flashbangs. Every time she struck a colonist, she'd prayed they'd be okay, that she hadn't killed or severely injured them - but it was a chance at life, unlike a bullet to centre mass from a military grade mass accelerator.


Then they'd descended into the tunnels beneath the remains of the Borealis and shit had gone straight to hell. She hadn't felt like laughing since Shepard's quip about needing bigger guns, a good half hour before.


"I hate this planet!" she shouted, blowing the head off one of the plant zombies. Couldn't they go back to the days of just shooting batarians and pirates? How many varieties of zombie did one galaxy need?


Shepard focused on severing another one of those (gross) bulging nodes holding the Thorian up within the carcass of the old Prothean tower. Ash, Shepard, and Wrex had been taking point as usual, with Liara and Tali providing biotic and tech support, and Ashley had to admit to herself that she was starting to feel a bit battered after the firefight with the geth, colonists, and now plant zombies.


"Williams," Shepard said, after the Thorian's scream had faded, "protect Tali."


They moved forward, practically wading through a horde of the plant-things and the occasional asari-plant-zombie-that-could-talk. Shepard had said to protect Tali (and to be honest, she'd have done so anyway - she liked the kid, and a single suit breach could be fatal), so when one of the zombies sliced at her with its claws, she stepped sideways - and into the blow.


She gritted her teeth against the burn of pain across her bicep and used her other hand to pull out her combat knife and jam it into the creature's face, again and again, until it fell, head well and truly mush. She spared a wry thought for hey, got that knife kill finally before more of them were on her. She shot the next one, and the next one.


They were fighting in narrow ledges and corridors and stairs, with no way of retreat until the Thorian was dealt with, and now the creatures were attacking from behind as well. Shepard resorted to having Ashley take up their six, while she and Wrex charged their way forward.


God, the smell. Because Ash definitely needed nausea to go along with the bruises and exhaustion.


Fuck Feros. Fuck Exogeni. Fuck the Thorian. She punctuated each thought with a blast from her shotgun. When the heat sink hit capacity, there was no time to reload, so she just used it as a bludgeon, smashing the creepy little shits with the stock. It felt...wrong. No give of flesh or bone beneath the metal. Just plant material and sludge.


They were all covered in it. Disgusting, vile liquid either from bludgeoning the plant zombies to death or from when they threw up on them. Ash was never eating again, at this point.


The first sign of another of the asari thralls was the distorting air as biotics twisted gravity. The second sign was when Ash felt herself get picked up and flung across the corridor, armour and all. She hit the wall hard, seeing stars when her helmeted head bounced off concrete and slid to the floor, reaching for a shotgun that wasn't there. A hazy, sickly green figure rose above her, glowing blue.


She had time to think huh, not exactly how I would've picked this ending, then the asari-thing stumbled, courtesy of a shotgun blast (Tali, by the shout of “bosh'tet!”), her fingers found her Phalanx, and she pointed and fired. The thrall's hand was blown off mid-way down the forearm by the round, falling to the floor in a mass of kelp-like matter.


C'mon! Garrus will never let me live it down if I keep missing. Some sniper, Williams. She readjusted and fired again, blasting a hole in the thing’s chest, but then a field of dark energy struck the thrall and it was flung right off the edge of the cavern.


Liara T'Soni peered at her. "Sergeant?"


She couldn't help the laughter. "Holy shit. You just fuckin...shoved her off..."


The asari looked concerned, "Are you...alright?"


"Yeah, yeah," she bit down on the cry of pain that wanted to escape, and forced herself to her feet, blinking as her head spun, "Thanks for the assist."


"Good to go, Williams?" asked Shepard, a hint of sympathy in her dark, focused eyes.


"Aye skipper. Let's get this fucker already." She found her shotgun on the other side of the corridor and slotted a new heatsink into place. "I gotta beat Wrex on points."


"You're welcome to try, pyjack."


"I'll show you, you old dinosaur. Youth over old age."


"It's called experience, Williams."


"Williams," Shepard said dryly, "stop antagonising the krogan and let's go."


She tossed the skipper a haphazard salute. "Ma'am, yes, ma'am."


 

Shepard tilted her head, looking at Shiala. She wasn’t sure she liked the idea of a stranger poking around in her head, but if it turned the nightmare into some kind of message…


"We're letting asari who've popped out of trees and rambled about mind-controlling dreadnoughts into your head, ma'am?" Williams was steady on her feet for someone who was almost definitely concussed, and she was glaring steadily at the asari, hands lingering near her gun.


Unfortunately, the Marine's willingness to shoot Shiala wasn't going to get Shepard the Cipher.


"I'm not very fond of the idea either," she said slowly, "but I need to - understand the vision if it can lead me to the Conduit."


"Might also scramble your brains," Ashley muttered. The Marine was afraid for her, Shepard realised.


"Maybe," she shrugged, with a half-smile and turned back to the asari, gaze sharpening. "Alright."


Shiala stepped closer to her and her eyes were a clear green and very sad. Shepard tried to imagine seeing your own hands do terrible things, unable to stop them. A few months ago, she would have scoffed at the thought of mind control. Now, she tried to regulate her breathing and not flinch away.


Shiala murmured soft things, siari things that Shepard didn't quite believe but tolerated.


Mission first. Before her life, before the lives of the crew, before even the sanctity of her own mind. She imagined it must be easier, with an asari you trusted and loved, but Shepard could feel nothing but vulnerable, against something she didn't understand and couldn't combat.


"Embrace Eternity!"


Her skull began to pound from the inside out, as if it was being forced open, to widen beyond human limits. Information surrounded her, suffocated her, was forced inside her until a shard of her own thoughts feared that Emilia Shepard might cease to be, overwhelmed by everything burning into the circuits of her brain.


I am Emilia Shepard.I am a Marine, I am a N7, I have served the Alliance since I turned eighteen. I have a mother, a kind stepfather, a brother, I am-


Tvad Amasek is a Lawbringer, and a Lawbringer can have no mercy in his heart lest he blocks out justice. The history of the Prothean Empire is survival - survival against the tempest of their homeworld, survival against each other and survival against the scourge of machines. To fulfill the cosmic imperative, they must preserve the strength of the whole, and this means destroying weakness wherever it appears like the cancer it is.


Tvad knows this, has lived this for two hundred years, across a dozen worlds, many just like this one. He walks the skyways, feeling the pistol bump against his thigh, and above him, rain drops against the city-shield and is deflected.


He will spill blood tonight, for the Empire. He is an instrument of righteousness and his hand will not falter.


Human. Human, she can feel the tatters of what that means, just brushing her fingers, she has to hold onto  - human -


Amiviri is this place. She was born here when the Empire was strong and healthy and the only concerns of a warrior were the imposition of peace and unity. But that was very long ago before the Empire fractured like brittle stone, and a warrior's duty became vengeance.


Once, she had thought she would see the Empire victorious as it always had been. Then death had come for her brothers and sisters in arms, one by one, defeat by defeat. She had held the killing knife to the throats of two of them, held their cooling bodies against her.


And now the enemy is coming for the planet she belongs to. Sometimes, a warrior must stand. Some of her lineage still lives, and so she has sent them with the sanctuary ships, seeking the last worlds of their people. Her brother had pleaded with her, begged that she come with them, live.


But sometimes, a warrior must stand. A brother must obey the head of his lineage, for all that he had played with her in the shadows of the towers that now burn.


A warrior must stand.


Kiliii'saro has not obeyed. He is the last of their battle kin, and he says he will not leave while she still lives. The densorin have such long, thin faces and not enough eyes, and once she would have been repulsed by him. That was very long ago. Sometimes she finds herself wishing to lay her hand upon his face, read the essence of him, the soul of him.


There is no point to the things he wants. She tells him so. He tells her, gently, sadly, that she is Prothean to the end and to a fault. Sometimes she feels that, after all these years, he can read her without a touch.


It doesn't matter. The city burns. Her wounds bleed onto the floor of her childhood home. Soon, very soon.


A great black ship hangs above.


I am-


Shepard gasped and choked on the breath. She was lying on the floor, with someone's arm around her shoulders and their hand on her stomach, holding her up. Her head hurt as if the bones of it had all been cracked and tears burned in her eyes, her chest aching with loss.


A thousand lifetimes had passed. Vengeance, the ghosts murmured, insisted. She understood very suddenly that she would never be able to shrug the Cipher off or ignore the deep imprint it had left. She had experienced the essence of the Protheans that had lived and died here, and the fury of a dead race had seeped into her very bones.

 

"Skipper?" Williams was looking down on her, whiskey brown eyes sharp with fear, and the grip on her tightened.


"I - fuck," she groaned, grabbing her head and finding only helmet.


:"You fell," Liara explained, kneeling. "Sergeant Williams caught you."


"Thanks," she said, voice rusty.


"I'm sorry if you suffered," said Shiala, sorrowfully, "but it was the only way. The ancestral memories of the Protheans are part of you now."

 

"What did you see?" asked Liara, eagerness tempered by concern.

 

"I'm...not sure. Something. It's still...confused." Her head lolled back as she fought against unconsciousness. The back of her helmet met Williams' armour and she realised that their position possibly wasn't...professional. "I need to get up."

 

Williams helped her to her feet, and when Shepard stumbled, steadied her.


"Let's get you back to the ship," she murmured, and Shepard gave a weak thumb's up, and allowed the younger Marine to drape Shepard's arm across her shoulders for support.


"And what of me?" asked Shiala seriously.

 

Shepard waved a hand, nearly smacking poor Tali in the face, "If the colonists will have you, go for it...I don't fuckin'...execute people. That’s against the UCMJ and shit. I should go."


Ashley hurt. Her head throbbed and her vision swam, and she was pretty sure something was busted in her shoulder or bicep from that creeper smacking her in the arm. But none of that was important - she was on her feet, and she needed to get her Commander back to the ship safely.

 

Because frankly, she didn't think Shepard was going to be able to do it on her own. She was sagging into Ash's side, close to dead weight. Her bloodshot eyes jumped around, unable to focus.

 

"What did she do to you?" she worried, adjusting her grip on the officer (despite the slime on both of them). She shot Shiala a venomous, suspicious look.

 

"Not her fault, not really," Shepard mumbled, taking a woozy step forward. "Protheans, fucking around in my head. Let's just...go."


The climb back up the stairs seemed to take an eternity. Shepard was heavy against her side, silent with the effort of movement. The colonists were clumped together in a dispirited crowd when they emerged, practically radiating guilt.


Arcelia Silva Martinez, the ex-Army soldier, turned corporate rent-a-cop, approached. She'd lost her rifle in the struggle and her face was a riot of bruises. "I'm...so sorry. I was trying to fight it, but every thought of my own was excruciating."


Shepard stared at Martinez woozily. Williams realised that the officer was focusing all her energy on staying conscious and upright, which left Ash in charge by default. Wrex didn't care, Tali and Liara were too shy to take the lead, and she was at least ranking Alliance.


"It's alright," she said through the ringing in her ears. The whole descent into the Thorian's pit was a jumbled mess in her head, hazy. Probably the concussion. "We need to get back to the ship. We can sort everything out in the morning."


"Scientists," Shepard murmured, a reminder.

 

"..Right." She keyed her comm. "Baynham, Zhu's Hope's secure."

 

She waved off further self-recrimination and gratitude from the colonists or any more questions, promising tomorrow, tomorrow.

 

Ash fixed her mind on that one goal: getting to the Normandy without falling over or letting her Commanding Officer fall. She'd never been more grateful to hear Bitchin' Betty say, "Stand by, shore party. Decontamination in progress."

 

They gingerly stripped out of their corroded and dented hardsuits and Ashley told them all to just shove it in a biohazard bag for now. She had the grim expectation that all the gear the four of them had used during the fight against the Thorian was well and truly ruined. Half the plates looked cracked and when she inspected her knife, the blade looked wrong, patches gone brittle.

 

She liked that knife.

 

"How are you feeling?" Shepard asked quietly after they'd staggered past a concerned Pressly.

 

Ashley contemplated that - the sharp pain in her head, the swollen, lurid red of her bicep on an arm that wouldn't fully extend now, the amount of gear she was going to have to write reports about losing and replace.

 

"Like I don't get paid enough to get covered in zombie guts."

 

Shepard half-smiled as Ashley helped her down the stairs. "So, I should try to limit the giant, talking plants?"

 

"It'd be appreciated. A pay rise would be great too."


"Sure," Shepard said dryly, "I'll get right on the comm to the Commandant."


Chakwas came to meet them, eyeing both of them critically. "Injuries?"


"Prothean bullshit for me," Shepard said, wiping at her face. "Williams hit her head and got struck a few times. Might want to monitor all of us for fume inhalation."


While Chakwas attached neurological monitors to Shepard, the nurse sat Williams down on one of the beds. When Sherazi was finally done with his assessment she was allowed to go grab a shower and then lie down on a bed in the medbay.


Sleep came quickly, warm and dark.


CODEX ENTRY


Human Colonisation:

(Excerpt from ‘A New Atlas: The Evolution of the Systems Alliance’ by Professor Alice Gao)

 

When Maria Petrovsky became the first Prime Minister of the Systems Alliance in 2160, she became the head of a newborn ‘super-nation,’ still struggling to define itself in the face of a suspicious Citadel Council and a sometimes outright hostile Earth. Petrovsky was a combination of idealism and political ruthlessness; a former Russian Federation diplomat who had ‘jumped ships,’ and she deeply believed a strong Alliance was integral to humanity’s survival on the galactic stage. She was integral, as part of the so-called ‘Blue Conspiracy’ alongside such figures as Admiral Kastanie Drescher and Han Ling, to securing a range of powers for the Alliance, powers that perhaps exceeded what Earth nations had intended to give, by utilising the widespread fear of alien invasion post-First Contact War.


The new Prime Minister was preoccupied with nation-building, ensuring the independence of the Alliance and overcoming what she saw as the greatest threat to its future survival - a lack of extrasolar colonies. The Alliance was at a disadvantage as it attempted to establish itself on the galactic stage, as the human population and industrial base were concentrated on Earth. This was in stark contrast to the other players on the galactic scene, who had had centuries to build up their colonies into economic centres.


Petrovsky was deeply concerned by the idea of being hemmed in between the Hierarchy and the Hegemony, commenting to other members of the newly formed United Conservative Party that the Alliance must ‘expand or die.’


Her solution to the long-term ‘entrapment theory’ was the New Futures Initiative; a second, more aggressive colonisation wave into the theoretically unclaimed space of the Traverse, in particular, the Verge. This included tax breaks for colonisation companies and corporations, ad campaigns encouraging migration, assistance in setting up colonisation drives and charters by prospective colonists and generous funding. The aim was to secure multiple garden and resource-rich planets en masse, rather than waiting for colonies to be well established before moving on.


This fell under one of the first acts of the new government: the Colonisation and Colonial Administration Act. If a world wished for the protection of the Alliance Defence Force, they had to play by its rules, which restricted the establishment of corporate governments and corporate ownership of planets. Some colonists and companies would find these restrictions abhorrent and formed ‘wildcat’ colonies in the outer Traverse and Terminus systems, but Petrovsky was unconcerned.

 

This effort resulted, in the decade between Petrovsky’s election and 2175, in the establishment of twenty colonies.

 

The effects of this were numerous. It’s likely that it did ensure the economic success of the Alliance into the future. However, the military was stretched to the breaking point and many colonies were left without adequate defences, as the budget struggled to build orbital defence platforms, anti-ship turrets and shielding for all the planets that required them. While the Army and Colonial Defence Forces did establish units on new colonies, the equipment for these units was often outdated and lacking.


In addition, it deeply angered the batarian Hegemony, which had been exploring and settling the Traverse itself. Batarians and humans require similar liveability conditions, meaning they were competing for the same garden worlds, a finite resource.


In 2171, the Citadel Council decided against the Hegemony in its challenge of the Alliance’s colonization in the Skyllian Verge, and in protest, the Hegemony closed its embassy and withdrew from the Citadel Treaty Organisation. While the Alliance was pleased with the outcome, the decision ensured that these two species, both of which were considered potential threats by sectors of turian and asari government, and who had both fought Council governments, would become increasingly embroiled in a bitter dispute over colonisation. This tension would eventually lead to the bloody Traverse Conflict.  

Chapter Text

The group clustered in the Normandy's comm-slash-briefing room looked ragged around the edges. Alenko had dark shadows under his eyes that told her he'd been battling one of his migraines. Liara had a look that Shepard had seen on the faces of too many young Marines after their first battles, and not for the first time she questioned her decision to bring the archaeologist along - ‘she volunteered’ did little to soothe her conscience. Williams was covered in bruises and unsteady on her feet as if the asari planet clone had slammed her sense of balance right out of her; Shepard had only fetched her from the medbay by promising Chakwas to return her as soon as the briefing was over.

But they'd succeeded in their mission, and no one had died or even been seriously wounded. That was a win, in Shepard's book.

They went over the mission with a fine-toothed comb; what went well, what went wrong. Shepard admitted that she should have taken a larger team, and ordered David secured. Alenko wished he'd had thought about David as well, and posted a guard on him before he attacked Sub-Lieutenant Sherazi, but Shepard did point out to him he'd done a good job getting everyone out of Zhu's Hope with no casualties.

When they'd finished reviewing the mission and Shepard had signed off on the post action report to be sent to both the Alliance and the Citadel, Liara stood up before they could all be dismissed.

“With your permission, Commander, I would like to try something. You have the vision, but it is confused and locked away in your mind, even with the Cipher. I could help you put them together.” T’Soni was frank. “I could join my consciousness to yours. Hopefully, my knowledge of the Protheans can clarify your vision.”

Shepard scratched her chin. Her last experience with an asari fiddling with Prothean gibberish in her head had nearly caused her to pass out - Williams had needed to half carry her back to the ship. But if it meant she could think clearly again, if it meant that the visions cleared into something coherent...

“It’s worth a shot.”

Liara stood in front of her, chin raised slightly in defiance of her own nervousness. Was she really that intimidating? Shepard had done her best to be kind and gentle, but she'd be the first to admit that she didn't interact with civilians very often, didn't understand them, and her way of dealing with green Marines probably wasn't the best way to make Liara feel comfortable.

In the corner of her eye, Williams was leaning forward, brown eyes intent, as if she thought she might have to stop Shepard from falling again. Shepard hoped not; an officer's dignity could only survive being carried around like a fainting Bekenstein socialite so many times.

She focused her gaze on Liara, shoulders tight.

"Relax, Commander," Liara closed her eyes, and when she opened them again, they were deep, deep black, and the room was fading away. "Embrace Eternity!"

-a dozen cities cracked open and burning. Metal claws from the sky, from the stars, ripping whole worlds into pieces.

Metal like a disease, metal knitting with flesh, invading it, making it unholy. Screaming that became screeches, metallic and cold. Organic pieces scattered on streets. Help us. HELP US-

-Blood on the soil, the ground cracked open, the tanks melting, figures in black armour melting, melting!

C’mon Sarn’t we’re gonna make it, stay with me, god stay-

Shepard jerked away and found her breathing ragged and harsh. She gritted her teeth and focused on where she was. The cool metal flooring beneath her feet, the feel of the tough material of her fatigue pants when she ran her thumb across the side of her leg, the crick in her neck from waking up wrong. Liara was caught up in her theories being right, and Shepard tried to refocus on the asari’s voice.

Should’ve known that would happen.

She was a little grateful when Williams called, “Alright, get to the point! What did you see?”

"The beacon on Eden Prime must've been badly damaged," Liara said regretfully. "Part of the vision is missing."

"So it was a waste of time," Ashley said sharply, her eyes darting between them, narrowed.

"Not entirely," Shepard admitted, "I can hear myself think now."

Williams' expression gentled.

"If we can find another beacon, I can fill in the gaps-" Liara's hand flew to her forehead, and she grimaced. "I am sorry, Commander. The Joining...the visions...are exhausting."

"Williams, get yourself and Doctor T'Soni to the medbay. You should both rest."

The Staff Sergeant frowned. "But what about helping Zhu's Hope?"

"You have a concussion," Shepard said archly. "I'm sure Lieutenant Alenko can survive one day without his platoon sergeant."

Williams shot Alenko a mock dubious look, and he chuckled.

"Alright," she grumbled, "but if either of you get your fool asses shot off..."

"We'll be sure to give you an opportunity to say 'I told you so,'" Shepard replied dryly. "Now, shoo."


Zhu's Hope stunk, according to the grumbling Marines around Tali, as they trooped back into its perimeter, stepping over the bodies Shepard's team had left behind - the sludge-like plant zombies still sitting under the sun and bloating. Tali was glad for the air filter in her helmet, so she didn't have to smell it. The colonists murmured apologies at any Normandy crewman who came near them and still eyed the ExoGeni staff with suspicion (those Shepard hadn't arrested at least - all of the security personnel and the scientists on the Thorian project excepting Lizbeth Baynham were in the ship's brig). But they'd already elected Arcelia Silva Martinez and Julia Baynham as their new leader and spokesperson, respectively, and were visibly more hopeful, like a blanket of fear and despair had been ripped away.

The Marines, Garrus, and Tali assembled in a loose semi-circle beside the freighter to listen to Lieutenant Alenko.

There was a long list of things to do before the colony was stable, but Wrex hadn’t come with them. The big krogan had remained on the ship, doing something with his guns and ignoring the rest of them. He only really listened to Shepard, and it didn’t seem that convincing him to help was high on her priorities.

"Alright guys," said Kaidan in his calm, soft-spoken way. Every Marine's eyes focused on him. "The Commander wants us to help Zhu's Hope get back on their feet. There's some Marines from the 40th Frontier on their way to take over, but they won't be here until this evening. I've spoken to Ms Martinez about what they need; their biggest issues are that the water system isn't working, the power is down, varren are blocking access to hydroponics, and we have indications that geth are still present in the tunnels.

He looked around at them. "So, I'm splitting us into two teams. Jaz, Nick, Fredricks, Hodgins, Tali, Vakarian, you're with me. We'll clear out the geth, fix the water system and see if we can't retrieve the power cells. The rest of you are on guard duty and fixing the colony up - I want two guards on the brig at all times and the rest of you working on the settlement. Rotate the guards every couple of hours - and no talking to the ExoGeni prisoners. They've already tried to bribe the Chief Masters-At-Arms. We need the remains dealt with before they cause disease. Fai Dan and Ethan Jeong are already bagged, so just move them into the freezer."

"Does it ever freak you out that we store bodies in our freezer?" Jaz asked Nick. "Like, where our food comes from?"

Tali blanched beneath her visor. That didn't seem sanitary! Why didn’t they just cremate them quickly, like the Migrant Fleet did?

"Where else we gonna put 'em?" Nick Ki-tae shrugged. "They're in the cases anyway."

"Fuckin' freaky, man. I hate going in there when we’ve got stiffs."

"Just burn the...zombies, out on the skyway," Kaidan continued. There were groans from several of the Marines put on the colony detail. He ignored them. "Once you've dealt with the bodies, help the colonists with repairs. Ling, you'll be helping Chakwas and Sherazi do a medical examination of all of the survivors. Any questions?"

Ling raised his hand, and Kaidan nodded. "Sir, won't Command want one of the plant...zombie things for study?"

"They do. One has already been bagged for them and taken aboard."

Fredricks raised a hand. Kaidan eyed him. "Yes, PFC?"

"Sir, does that mean we have a zombie in our freezer?"

Alenko's sigh was audible from where Tali was standing. "The remains are being stored in the freezer, yes."

"Shit man," Jaz said, nudging Fredricks, "one minute you'll be getting a snack and next minute -"

"It's dead, Marines," Alenko said, with the tone of the long-suffering.

"Yeah, but sir, that's what they always say," Fredricks said. "Then someone will be alone getting a juice from the freezer and then BAM!" He hit his palm with a fist for emphasis, ceramic clacking. "Their brain gets eaten!"

"Why would they eat your brain?" Tali asked, thoroughly confused. The ‘plant zombies’ as Williams had dubbed them had simply tried to claw them all to death the day before.

"Because," Jaz said patiently, as if to a child, "that's what zombies do!"

Kaidan held up a hand. "That's enough. Does anyone have a question that isn't stupid?"

Silence.

"Alright, let's get moving."

Tali followed Kaidan as they left the colony, the Marines that were coming with them forming a column. Lance Corporal Jaz Teke took point with his light machine-gun, still occasionally muttering to himself about zombies.

"There's still geth down here, so everyone stay on their toes," Alenko said crisply. "Tali, stay close to me."

"S'all good, sir," Hodgins said idly, from where he stood at Teke's shoulder, sweeping his LMG to cover another doorway. "You got our backs with your space magic, yeah?"

"That's not an excuse to be sloppy," Kaidan said sharply.

"Yeah, Hodgins, aren't you supposed to be a hotshot at this shit?"

"Fuck off Jaz."

"No, fuck you!"

"Focus!" Alenko said, voice like a slap.

"Aye sir, sorry sir."

"Contact!" A flash of movement ahead, and Jaz dove to his stomach, opening fire with his LMG. The shots were painfully loud in the tight confines of the tunnel, making Tali's ears ring, especially once Hodgins also started firing his LMG. She turned her auditory emulators down, fumbling for an ECM grenade before she switched on an Overload program and flung it at the nearest geth - one of the big Destroyers already bearing down on them.

Its shields flickered and died under the burst of electricity, and a second later the Destroyer fell, entire torso riddled with bullets as Jaz and Nick both focused their fire on it.

She threw another disk grenade, focusing on bringing down the geth's shields while the Marines followed up with gunfire - and a lot of it. Alenko barely fired his own rifle, focusing on directing his Marines and occasionally flinging one of the geth platforms into the air with his biotics, where it would be smashed to bits by the others.

Then the gunfire faded, and the geth were more or less piles of scrap metal.

Hodgins laughed, picking himself up from where he'd been lying half behind a support column, and folded the LMG's bipod back up along its barrel. "Fuck yeah. That's what I call superior firepower."

"Casrep," Alenko ordered. When no one spoke up, Tali saw him smile behind his visor. "Load a new heatsink and let's keep moving."

"Sir, you're worse than my mother," Jaz muttered, pulling the lever on his machine-gun to eject a glowing, cherry-red heatsink. "You gonna remind me to replace my shield batteries too?"

Nick chuckled, "Right, because it's not like you got your ass literally shot in our pre-deployment sims."

"Why are we friends again?"

"A mystery for the ages, like how Fredricks even got into the 103rd in the first place."

"Stop picking on Fredricks, Nick," Hodgins called, "it's not his fault he's a fuck-up!"

"Control your urges to make pithy comments for five minutes and find me the water system valves," Alenko said mildly.

"Looks like one here, sir, looks busted though," Jaz reported.

"Tali?"

"On it!" She brought up her omnitool and came over to where Jaz was standing. She turned to the valve controls and began scanning it. She found his presence - armed, alert, staring out into the tunnels so she couldn't be snuck up on - reassuring. She'd initially found the Marines intimidating. They were loud, insular, often crass. They'd often been dubious of her combat skills.

Now though...

She was going to miss them when it was time to go home.

Tali flash-fabricated a new circuit board, carefully pried out the old one (which had a ragged split right down the centre, as if hurriedly struck with a fist) and slotted the board into place. A silver-grey holo window popped up, prompting for a password. She entered the numbers Arcelia had given them and hit the button to end maintenance procedures and re-open the valve.

Below, she heard the rush of incoming water, flooding into the pipes with a victorious roar.


 

Shepard entered the comm room and faced the FTL transmitter, pulling her uniform straight idly. Her thoughts felt like they were sloshing around her too small skull, pressing at the seams of her mind. At least melding with Liara seemed to have quietened the constant screeching of the Cipher and the beacon visions, though she wasn’t sure if she should broach the topic of what else Liara had seen.

It wasn’t the young asari’s fault. It was Shepard’s own brain that had decided to mix up and blend the nightmares. But she’d never wanted anyone else to hear the screams that still sometimes rattled through her.

Feel the deep leaden weight of failure, as a Marine and an officer she carried with her wherever she went.

Shepard shook herself. The lives the Cipher had deposited into her skull were as familiar as something you’d only half-forgotten, but the important part was that they were a step closer to this ‘Conduit’ that Saren was so obsessed with.

“Comms Tech Lam. I need a long range FTL link to the SSV Vancouver. For the attention of Commodore Hannah Shepard, Flotilla Commander. Priority 2.”

Best not to clog up the Priority 1 channels for emergencies, but it was still urgent. Knowing her mother, a low priority message would be ignored as a personal call.

“Connecting now, ma’am.”

There was a buzz as the FTL communicator reached for the nearest comm buoy, the screen blinking [CONNECTING] at her. A few moments later, it resolved into the dim steel interior of the Vancouver’s flag CIC and a woman in naval fatigues. Black curls shot through with grey, steady brown eyes - like an old sea captain’s, she’d heard it put before. A single star glinting on each shoulder. A bloom of warm affection spread beneath Emilia’s ribs.

“Commander, 50th Scout Flotilla speaking - “ Hannah Shepard broke off, a small smile spreading across her stern face as mother and daughter looked at each other for the first time in months.

“Ma’am,” Shepard Junior said smartly.

“I don’t have time for a personal call,” Hannah said with a hint of genuine apology in her voice. “I’m on the clock.”

A commodore always was, but Shepard simply nodded. “I understand. So am I. This is work related.”

Hannah raised a single eyebrow, “Oh?”

“I’m currently on the colony of Feros. I’ve driven the geth off from the main settlement, but I’m concerned that there might still be geth forces present on the planet. In addition, I’ve discovered evidence ExoGeni was violating several laws in regards to the colonies and their head rep on the planet tried to have them purged-”

Hannah held up a hand and her daughter stopped.

“Purged? As in ‘kill them all’?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“What did you do with this rep?”

“I killed him,” she said bluntly.

Commodore Shepard blinked,. “Frontier justice, Junior?”

“Self-defence,” she said mildly.

“Of course,” Hannah said dryly. A flicker of something like amusement crossed her face. “Continue.”

“So geth, ExoGeni being genocidal,” she ticked Zhu’s Hope’s problems off on her fingers. “They’ve also got some problems with essential infrastructure. I’ve detailed Marines to fix their power and water needs, but their hydroponics systems have been damaged, and I don’t have the expertise or parts to fix it.”

Hannah nodded, eyes sharp. “And what do you want from me, Commander? That’s why you called me, yes?”

Emilia smiled, just a little. “Your flotilla is the closest, ma’am. I was hoping you’d be able to run some patrols past Feros so a shipping company will feel secure enough to fly in the supplies they need. I also request that one of your scout frigates do a full scan of the planet for geth remnants and bump it up to the local QRF if there are so that a task force can be dispatched.”

“That’s a lot of assets for, what, three hundred people?” Shepard Senior pointed out. “Why not just evacuate?”

Commander Shepard took a breath. Her mother loved her as much as she despised nepotism. She would have to be convinced with cold rationality, like any other officer. “Beyond any duty to the colonists here on Feros, I can’t evacuate that many people with the Normandy, meaning we’d need to dedicate a lot of assets anyway. In addition, the Attican Beta is a strategic choke-point - against the batarians and geth both. A foothold here only benefits us.”

Hannah said nothing for a long moment before she sighed and lifted her eyes to Emilia’s. “Alright, I’ll have the Kokoda do a sweep and see if I can establish some patrols or a picket in the cluster. Do you need a garrison?”

“Negative, ma’am,” Shepard replied, hiding her relief, “General Lou of the 40th Frontier has already agreed to garrison Feros with a full platoon.”

“ExoGeni is going to scream bloody murder about the military violating their rights,” Hannah mused.

“They’ll scream louder once the BCI get rolling,” Shepard said grimly.

“That’ll be a pleasure to watch. Anything else?”

“Nothing further, ma’am.”

“Very well. And...Emilia?” Hannah’s face gentled, the mother shining through the Commodore. “Congratulations on the promotion; I’m proud of you. Look after yourself out there.”

Emilia ducked her head, smiling. “Thanks...mum. Congratulations to you as well, on the star. I’ll do my best. Normandy out.”

Best to close the connection before they both got too emotional and ruined Commodore Shepard’s hardass reputation in front of her flag staff.

She had just brought up her omnitool to look at her to do list when the 1MC hummed with Pressly’s voice: “Ma’am, XO. Scanners have picked up something; a ship just dropped out of FTL in system.”

Shepard shut down the window she’d just brought up and wheeled towards the door. “Any ID on her?”

“Looks like an armed merchantman, Commander. MSV Anaconda. Registered to ExoGeni.”

“Fucking ExoGeni,” she hissed venomously, brushing past the Marine guards and onto the bridge. “Helm, get us in the air and put us on an intercept course.”

You’re not fucking with this colony anymore. Not if I have to blow you out of the fuckin’ sky.


The bridge of the armed merchantman Anaconda was grim and silent. Captain Daniel Reilly had to force himself to remain outwardly calm and in his chair, rather than pacing the tiny bridge. Geth! The attack on Eden Prime had transfixed the entire Alliance, and now so did the nightly reports on the fighting as Hackett launched the first probing strikes of his offensive - accompanied by the morbid counter of how many had been killed that day. Reilly had stopped watching the news and relied on the Company’s own analysis of danger zones after the first special in which reporters solemnly showed footage of caskets arriving home.

Likely to give yourself a meltdown with that sort of exploitative showcasing of grief.

It was all enough that Reilly was glad he’d been a company man his entire space-faring career. Friends of his who'd gotten into the business via the Merchant Marine Academy and the Reserves had been called up by a Navy hungry for personnel and materiel in their dozens.


No, sleek and beautiful as the naval ships were with their massive guns, Reilly had no intentions of dying for half his current salary. Plenty of dumb patriotic types to do that for him.

“Skipper,” his pilot, Serena Ippolito (only recently poached from one of the space liner corps) spoke up, “looks like that Navy frigate Mr Jeong mentioned is still hanging around. She’s coming out of orbit.”

At the mention of Jeong, Reilly grimaced. Nasty business, the orders he’d relayed from the ExoGeni higher-ups. Nasty indeed. But necessary. The Thorian needed to be preserved, and the company protected - the geth were a cover story served up on a silver plate. The assayers the Anaconda was carrying would make sure everything was in order.

The Navy would likely just blow the thing up. Soldiers only seemed to have one use for aliens - target practice.

“Huh.”

He was pulled out of his thoughts by Ippolito’s curious utterance. He shot her a questioning look.

“It’s just, skipper, well this frigate doesn’t fit the signature of a Hastings frigate.”

A sliver of anxiety crawled up into his throat. “It’s definitely Alliance?”

“Her IFF and codes say so,” Ippolito confirmed. “She doesn't look anything like the geth signatures we downloaded before we left port, Captain.”

“Weapons are manned anyway, boss,” his first mate, Marcus, was more confident than he had right to be. The Anaconda had chased off a few pirates - corvettes and jury-rigged raiders looking for easy prey - but a real warship would rip through her civilian shielding and vulnerable hull with contemptuous ease.

"Alright," Daniel said, "keep us on course."

Ippolito kept the Anaconda steady, eating up the thousands of kilometres between the outer system and Feros. The warship was just as quickly coming towards them, and Reilly watched her blinking light on the plot - and the signature the ladar system had put together. His pilot was right - she didn't look like a Hastings.

Running the routes Reilly and the Anaconda did, he'd seen a fair few Alliance warships in his time. Mostly frigates and light cruisers, on solo patrols, far from civilisation, but if he was lucky, sometimes they'd be part of a convoy accompanied by a division of destroyers. That only happened in the red sectors though, where piracy was rife. Feros was a backwater, with little to attract traffic and less to attract pirates.

If this frigate wasn't a Hastings, it had to be one of the new frigate class, the type the Alliance was all hush-hush about. His cousin worked for the Bureau of Ships, and he'd refused to talk about it, even when Reilly had plied him with his favourite beer. Last Daniel had heard though, the new prototype had just been launched.

What had brought a prototype frigate to Feros? He had some respect for the crew of that ship - if that was what this ship was. He wouldn't want to be the one taking a prototype, full of bugs and kinks that needed working out, into a fight with the geth.

"We're being hailed," Ippolito observed.

"Anaconda, this is Systems Alliance warship Normandy." Whoever was on the frigate's comm sounded like she had a stick up her ass. "Break off your approach. This is now a restricted space zone, over."

Reilly exchanged incredulous looks with Marcus. Restricted space? This colony was under corporate charter for the foreseeable future. He shook his head and keyed the comm. Navy types. Always had to act like hardasses.

"Normandy, Anaconda. With all due respect, Feros is an ExoGeni colony, and this is an ExoGeni ship. We have a right to land, and our assayers need to assess the damage, over."

"Anaconda, Normandy. Under the Emergency Act, Feros is currently under martial law, due to the geth presence and the inability of ExoGeni to co-operate. Break off your approach, over."

"Inability to-" Daniel scowled and hit the radio again. Fucking thugs thinking they could just tramp all over the Company's property. "Normandy, Anaconda. ExoGeni is going to have to insist that we be permitted access to our property, over."

"Anaconda, Normandy. I'm not fond of repeating myself. I have given you a lawful direction twice. You will heave to, or I will be forced to fire upon you. Over."

Daniel Reilly glared at that little blinking light with feeling. Picking a fight with the Navy wasn’t an option. "Do it, Serena."

The Anaconda slowed and came to a stop, drifting in the void. Reilly crossed his arms and looked at Marcus. "Send a message to the bosses. Let them know the Navy is up our asses about this. Maybe they can squeeze the admirals to call this bitch off."

"Got it, boss."

"And someone get me a cup of joe," he said irritably.

Some ten minutes later, as the Normandy circled closer, like a lazy shark in no hurry to eat its lunch, another man entered the Anaconda's tight bridge. Daniel wasn't usually fond of having his passengers on the bridge - got too crowded and dirt thumpers got in the way of operating his ship - but he thought he might make an exception this time.

John Hyung gave him the creeps, to be honest. The lead assayer had worked for the Company as long as Reilly had, if in a very different role, and he had flat, colourless eyes. Dead eyes. Sometimes Daniel wondered that if to do all that dirty work you had to slice off a bit of your soul each time.

"What's the holdup, Captain?" At least Hyung was always polite and respected Reilly's expertise.

Daniel pointed out the flicker of the frigate. "Navy's being a pain in the ass, Mr Hyung. They're refusing to allow us to land."

Hyung extended an elegant hand toward the comm, but stopped short of touching it. "May I?"

"Be my guest," Reilly mumbled. One of the new kids still learning the ropes came back with a steaming cup of black coffee and he wrapped blunt fingers around it, ignoring the burn.

Hyung opened the channel. "Normandy, Anaconda. I need to speak to Mr Ethan Jeong, the head of the colony on Feros, over."

A pause, and when Normandy spoke, there was a distinct hint of cool amusement. "Anaconda, Normandy. I'm afraid that's not possible. Ethan Jeong is dead, over."

Reilly rocked back in his chair at that, nearly spilling his joe.

"Normandy, Anaconda. We were led to believe Mr Jeong survived the geth attack, over," Hyung continued smoothly.

"Anaconda, Normandy. That he did. He didn't, however, survive pointing guns at Alliance personnel. Maybe you should add that to your next corporate training day - 'Don't threaten Marines.' It'll go nicely with 'don't use civilians as test subjects when fucking around with a giant, sentient plant and then try to have them all killed to cover it up.' Over."

"Shit," said Hyung.


 

CODEX ENTRY

X4-3 Weapons Module:

The X4-3 Weapons Module is a system manufactured by Kwon Shipbuilding for the Athabasca line of freighters. The modular design of the Athabasca freighter men's different capabilities can be installed - tanks for transporting liquids, cargo holds, labs, survey equipment, and even weapons.

The X4-3 Module consists of six forty metre mass accelerator turrets, a magazine for ammunition and, as civilian ships lack a warship’s systems and advanced VI, a dedicated fire control system. Due to power draw and the size of the module, the X4-3 can’t be fitted to a Kowloon class freighter, the Athabasca’s smaller cousin. The module is generally only installed by wealthier companies operating in the Traverse and other unstable regions, due to not only expense of the module itself and ammunition, but also due to tight regulations of ship armaments in Citadel space, the need for sailors experienced in the use of fire control systems, and the loss of cargo space.

The Alliance government permits ships traveling through so-called orange or red sectors to carry small arms and shipboard weapons for self-defence, though the design of civilian ships limits those to modules such as the X4-3 and the occasional GARDIAN defensive cluster.

Chapter Text

"ExoGeni is very upset by your behaviour on Feros," Udina said sharply over the FTL communicator, expression flickering in orange. "Threatening to blow up their ship, killing Ethan Jeong..."

"I followed Alliance protocol in both of those incidents," Shepard's voice was mild. She stood with her shoulders square, but that was simply instinct at this point, and her arms were crossed. If Udina were military, he would understand the insult that she wasn't standing at ease, but the man was ignorant on the minutiae of the military and didn't care so long as he got what he wanted out of people like Shepard.

"Do you understand what it would do to the Alliance colonisation drives if ExoGeni pulls their support?" Udina's voice was harsh.

"Pulls their support?" Shepard's eyebrow shot up. "They're looking at an inquiry."

"The outcome is the same," he snapped. "We lose traction and funding in the Traverse. ExoGeni doesn't just fund Feros, but three other early stage colonies."

"They were experimenting on their colonists," Shepard said flatly, "I don't think the Alliance should trust them with those colonies. If they didn't want consequences, they shouldn't have committed the crime."

"Damn it, Shepard." Udina pinched his nose between his thumb and forefinger. "Take the prisoners and evidence to Czarnobog Station. BCI and NCIS agents will be waiting; they'll figure out which individuals are responsible for the mess on Feros. Do you understand, Commander?"

Oh, she understood. The whole thing would be pinned on a handful of individuals - on Jeong perhaps, who could no longer defend himself - and ExoGeni's management would wring their hands and act very contrite all the while believing themselves exempt for the law.

At least Feros was safe. She'd carefully inflamed the righteous fury of the young lieutenant who'd taken over, and so long as he was there, his integrity and anger meant ExoGeni couldn't land on the planet.

"Yes, Ambassador. I'll set a course ASAP."

Udina nodded curtly and logged out. Shepard stared at the screen for a few long seconds, before she walked out into the CIC. She stopped to give the order to Pressly before walking over to SvM3 Marianne Baumer's station, one of the ship's intelligence analysts. Baumer was very intelligent, but she was young and tended to be overawed in her commander's presence.

She was less likely to ask questions of Shepard than Leading Intelligence Analyst Kokinos.

"Baumer, do you have the file on Feros? I need to check a few details before we reach Czarnobog."

"Yes, ma'am. I'll just put it on a secure datapad for you...there."

She took the datapad straight to her cabin and connected it to her laptop. Shepard took a moment to fully consider what she was about to do; Alliance officer and Spectre wrestling with each other inside her skull.

I can't let this be buried. Udina would say this was how the game was played; ExoGeni needed the Alliance and the Alliance relied on ExoGeni for a part of its colonisation efforts, and that was worth sweeping a few 'indiscretions' under the rug. The public got a few scientists to chew up, ExoGeni got a rap on the knuckles, the politicians kept their campaign donations, and the Alliance kept its early stage colonies funded without tax money.

If the price of the game was innocent lives, then the game was wrong.

Shepard made two copies of the Feros files. One went onto a secure OSD. The other was loaded into a secure communications 'cloud' used by the investigative unit at Future Content Corporation.

Att: Emily Wong

This one’s a big one.

-E. S

She paused a moment, then hit send.


 

Four days after the Thorian's destruction and three days after handing the colony's protection over to a butterbar from the 40th Marine Division (Frontier), the Normandy eased into dock at Czarnobog Fleet Depot, a boxy grey space station that was home to the Seventh Fleet.

Staff Sergeant Ashley Williams waited on the CIC deck at ease, hands clasped behind her back and feet apart. She and Alenko had been ordered to the bridge, but Pressly had told them to wait, and so they did, like two statues in Marine fatigues side-by-side. She liked being around Alenko - she’d call him a damned fine officer on duty and a friend off.

Truth be told, it was kind of interesting to see the Navy bridge team working. She spent most of their transits on the crew deck. They were like clockwork or a finely oiled mechanism, rolling along with barely a hitch. Shepard, up on the captain's podium, barely had to orchestrate.

It was very different to the profanity-laced world of the Marine.

"Welcome to Czarnobog Fleet Depot," Joker said over his line to the bridge, "also known as the station where even the apocalypse would be behind schedule. You may think we got normal priority docking clearance, but that was, in fact, 'expedited.'"

Williams, who had spent a very boring rotation as part of the Marine garrison on ‘the Bog’, had to agree. Her only real job had been getting her Marines out of lock up every weekend, like clockwork. Turned out that when you stuck an infantry unit on a place as thoroughly boring and bureaucratic as Czarnobog, they would create their own entertainment.

There was a distant thump as the docking apparatus locked into place.

"Docking tube secured, ma'am," reported Pressly.

"Very good," Shepard said crisply, stepping off the podium. "You have the deck, XO."

"Aye, ma'am."

“Williams, Alenko, with me.” Shepard was looking at her omnitool, frowning slightly, when they fell into step with her. “You both got your sidearms?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Good.” Shepard grimaced. “Hackett wants me to have a protective detail from now on. So you two are it for today."

"Makes sense, with the whole assassination attempt," Kaidan said reasonably.

Shepard shot him a look. "That's what the Admiral said."

He just smiled.

They walked into the airlock, waiting with weary resignation for the ship VI to finish its decontamination procedures. Ashley double checked her weapons were secure and in some cases hidden - her M5 on her hip, the smaller concealed pistol in an ankle holster, the knife in her boot and the knife at the back of her belt, under her uniform jacket.

When she finished, Alenko was staring at her. She shot him a quizzical look: "What?"

"...you know we're not assaulting Czarnobog, right?"

"I like to be prepared," she said defensively.

Shepard grinned. "Every woman should have a knife. Or three, in Williams' case."

Ash rolled her eyes. "First you ask me to bodyguard you for the day, then you mock my weapons..."

"I prefer 'affectionately tease,'" Shepard replied as the outer airlock door cycled open, turning to say over her shoulder, with that half-smile tugging at the corner of her mouth. "I like a woman who's well-prepared."

Ash couldn't help the small smile that rose on her lips.

A veritable crowd was waiting for them and the smile turned into a grimace. At least there were no reporters - no one from Westerlund News was getting on a 'Bog dock without forms signed in triplicate. Looked like predominately squids - and suits from NCIS and BCI. Great.

"Follow my lead, and we'll get through," Shepard said as seriously as if they were about to charge some geth.

About five steps later they were accosted by the NCIS and BCI agents, who paused their quiet bristling at each other in order to flash their badges. "Commander Shepard. The ExoGeni prisoners - "

"Are aboard," Shepard interrupted smoothly. "My executive officer, Commander Pressly, can facilitate the transfer, along with the physical evidence."

The NCIS agent, a stout man whose badge read Donnelly, stared intently at Ashley's name tape. So intently, she had the absurd urge to cover it with her hand. "We'll need to talk to Staff Sergeant Williams."

Shepard gave him one of her looks - raised eyebrow, mouth slightly curled. "I'm afraid that's not possible, Agent Donnelly. Sergeant Williams is part of my protective detail today and we will be departing as soon as the exchange and refuelling are complete."

"She's a witness-"

"To Ethan Jeong's death, yes," Shepard smiled without humour. "You have the written statements?"

"Yes, but-"

"That will have to do," she said severely as if inconvenienced. "If you'll excuse me, I have mission vital tasks to complete before we sail."

Ashley followed in Shepard's wake, hiding her smirk until they were free of the crowd.

"What exactly are we doing, Commander?" asked Kaidan quizzically.

"We've got some presents from R&D waiting, replacements for the gear we lost and some new toys," Shepard replied, smacking the button to the elevator down from the docks and into the heart of the station.

"Couldn't I have picked that up as armoury chief?" asked Ashley innocently.

"...yes."

Ashley smirked, stepping into the elevator. "You just wanted to get off the ship and away from the suits."

"I can neither confirm nor deny that, Staff Sergeant," Shepard said lightly. It was good, to see her smiling, loosening up. Forgetting to keep up the stoic vid hero exterior.

"Well, if we're wasting time, I know a great burger place we could grab a bite at," Ashley said, leaning against the wall of the rattling elevator.

"Mission vital burgers," Kaidan agreed solemnly.

"Real beef, sometimes," Ash added.

"Definitely mission vital. My morale is mission vital, right?"

"Sure, ma'am," Kaidan agreed, "can't have our CO going on strike."

Ashley followed Shepard down one of the grey corridors, past the hull number etched on the otherwise blank wall. She'd hated it here, watching the Seventh Fleet Marine Force guys drink it up and telling war stories before they trooped back onto their cruisers and frigates and carriers, and she remained behind. Her CO at the time had told her that this was the closest she'd ever get to fleet service and to be glad they even let her on the ‘Bog.

You were wrong, motherfucker.

The station armoury was on the Marine base within the Fleet Depot, and Ashley remained close to Shepard's side as they walked through, telling herself that she was scanning the crowd for potential threats to her commander, not for people she'd known when she was stationed here. She had nothing to say to any of them. At least on Eden Prime her platoon had respected her as their sergeant. The unit here had picked on the company commander's apathy towards her and acted accordingly.

"You alright?" Kaidan asked, a furrow between his eyebrows.

"Yessir, just..."

"Flashbacks to garrison duty?" asked Shepard sympathetically.

"Something like that, ma'am."

They showed their ID chits to the armoury guards, anonymous behind their polarised visors and passed inside.

Shit. The tall, broad man behind the counter was very familiar. Gunnery Sergeant Kyle Dalaet had been her platoon sergeant aboard the 'Bog and he'd seemed to take particular joy in ignoring his duty to back up his squad leader in front of the enlisted Marines. Her jaw clenched hard.

"I have a pickup, for the SSV Normandy," Commander Shepard said, handing over a datapad.

Dalaet scanned it with a certain bored laziness to every movement, not even looking up. "Bay 34, ma'am. Here's your equipment manifest, I just need your armoury sergeant to sign for it."

Ashley extended a hand and his eyes jerked to her face, blinking in surprise.

"Fuckin' hell, Williams," his voice was ugly with nasty amusement, "who the fuck let you on a frigate?"

"I did," Shepard crossed her arms - drawing attention to the blood stripe down her right arm, and the bars on her shoulders. "Is there a problem with that, Gunnery Sergeant?"

Dalaet's sneer didn't quite fade, but he had the sense not to push his luck with a senior officer and an N7 at that. "No ma'am. The Staff Sergeant and I are just...ol' buddies, ma'am."

Ashley snatched the datapad from his hands and quickly signed with one implanted fingertip, before handing it back, expressionless.

"Need directions?" He smirked.

"I think I remember," she said flatly, turned on her heel and led the two officers deeper into the armoury. Her previous good mood evaporated like dew under a hot sun. Of arseholism.

There were three boxes waiting for them, nondescript, with [PROPERTY OF THE SYSTEMS ALLIANCE MARINE CORPS] stenciled on their sides and an anti-grav trolley that they could all be loaded on and easily pulled along.

"You check the manifest, Kaidan and I will load them," Shepard said easily, unbuttoning her uniform jacket. There was a pistol tight to her side, and a 'clip on' shield generator on her belt.

Ashley stared at her until she raised an eyebrow in question. "My...superior officers...are going to do manual labour? While I check a list? My world is upside down, ma'am."

Shepard shrugged, uniform shirt pulling across her shoulders and biceps. "Maybe I have a sudden nostalgia for life as a Lance Corporal. Stacking boxes, painting rocks..."

“What, no push-ups?” Ash scanned her ID into the lock of the first crate and the lid popped open. “I got smoked a lot as a Lance.”

“Why am I not surprised?” Kaidan mused, and she shot him a wounded look.

The box was full of rifles empty of their ammo blocks, but she narrowed her eyes at them. “These aren’t M7s.”

“Nope,” Shepard said, popping the word, before she pulled one of the rifles free of its rack, turning the deadly-looking black weapon over in her hands. "Say hello to the M9 Valkyrie assault rifle, courtesy of Hahne Kedar Shadow Works and Army Research, Development and Engineering Command. Much more stopping power, select fire - auto, single shot, two round burst, fairly accurate on the single and burst modes according to the tests."

She handed the rifle to Ashley, who weighed it in her hands. "Bit heavier."

Shepard nodded. "Clip size is about half, too. Anyway, you know they've been trying to replace the Lancer for a while - this is one of the competitors and I've heard good things from some of my N7 buddies. So I managed to talk some friends into sending us some to field test. They've passed quality testing, so I was thinking we test 'em out, see whether we like 'em."

Ashley grinned, holding the rifle in a firing position, muzzle pointed at the floor, to test the ergonomics. "...We're weapons testers now? Awesome."

"Means paperwork," Shepard warned as Ashley passed the Valkyrie off to Kaidan so he could feel, "but yeah. I got some mod kits and the maintenance manuals thrown in too, so you can tweak yours if you want. I always want dual sights on mine, can't understand why they always give us rifles with shitty as fuck iron sights..."

Ashley counted off the rifles and marked them on the manifest before moving onto the next crate. "Replacement hardsuits...Four."

"We have the shield capacitor replacement kits?" Shepard asked. "They've really sped up rolling out the next gen capacitors."

"Yeah, wish we'd had them on Eden Prime," Ashley said softly.

A long stretch of silence passed between them, filled with the shadows of Eden Prime’s dead, before she cleared her throat. "Let's get these checked off and back to the ship, and we can go grab that morale-boosting burger..."


 

Liara startled at the knock on the door. She was fond of the little lab she'd been assigned aboard the Normandy. It was quiet, out of the way. She could focus on her research without interruption, unlike the other parts of the ship which were always full of people coming and going.

She saw some irony in the fact that it was an asari, someone supposed to be more communal than humans, who found herself in one of the few places that were truly private aboard the Normandy. Who needed that privacy.

"Come in."

She was expecting Doctor Chakwas, who was kindly insistent on dragging her out on a regular basis for food and tea, but it was Commander Shepard in the doorway, light glinting off the star pinned to the pocket of her uniform jacket.

"Do you have a moment?" Shepard's body language was painfully stiff. Liara was suddenly and horribly certain she'd done something to upset her.

"Of course," she said, looking down at her hands.

Shepard sat down on one of the chairs, crossing her feet at the ankles. "I wanted to let you know that the investigation into Saren's financial holdings has come up with a corporation your mother also has significant shares in."

"Oh."

Shepard's expression gentled. "Do you know anything about Binary Helix?"

Liara shook her head. "I'm sorry. I wasn't involved in any of my mother's business dealings. What I know about Binary Helix is likely less than you do - a corporation that works in genetic modification and biotechnology."

"I thought so, but it was worth asking." There was a pause as if Shepard was unsure of what to say. "I should apologise."

"For what, Commander?" Liara asked.

Shepard grimaced. "My mind mixed up some of my own, less pleasant memories with the beacon images. I'm sorry you had to experience that."

The memories had been fractured, confused, but the flashes Liara had seen had been full of death, and she'd felt Shepard's bone-deep grief and the stab of dread burrowing into her insides. She shivered despite herself. The last image had been Shepard kneeling in the sand and dust, arm and shoulder burning and bubbling, a dead weight across her shoulders, a shuttle in Alliance blue hovering above and a howl locked behind clenched teeth.

"That was Akuze, wasn't it?"

Shepard looked at her, eyes flat and emotionless.

Liara hurried to explain herself. "I'm sorry, I looked you up on the extranet - I wanted to know what kind of person I was working for when I first came aboard.” I wanted to know you. “There were many mentions of Elysium - and Akuze."

Shepard sighed, suddenly looking tired. "It's alright, Liara. My history is well known, at least in the Alliance military and the colonies. Not so much on Earth but most of Earth tends to pay attention only to itself."

Liara didn't quite understand that - or the mild, half-amused, half-bitter tone Shepard used. There was some political distance between the Systems Alliance and humanity's homeworld that was, well, alien to her. Thessia was part of the Republics and her people took part in the Grand Forum as they did in their local ecclesia. The Primarch of Palaven was part of the Hierarchy Assembly. But in many ways, Earth was not part of the Systems Alliance.

"I should have asked you," she murmured, looking at her hands.

"It's okay," Shepard repeated. "It's not your fault. Just...I would ask that you not share anything you saw besides the beacon, with the crew."

"Of course, Commander."

"I'd also like you and Tali to train a bit with Sergeant Williams. I know your biotics and martial arts skills are excellent, but she can teach you our tactics, our comms protocols, our hand signals, how to use some of our weapons," Shepard said. "That is if you still wish to come on my field missions."

Liara lifted her chin resolutely. She wasn't even quite sure why it was so important to her - a desire to fix her mother's mistakes, maybe, or the chance to see Shepard's incredible ability to interface with Prothean technology and keep her mind, but it was. "Yes. I don't believe Sergeant Williams likes me, however."

Shepard smiled, a little wryly. "Perhaps not. But she'll teach you - and teach you well - because I asked her too."

Sergeant Williams had her moments of brusque kindness, but she was often crass, unsophisticated and straightforward to the point of rudeness. Liara opened her mouth, and then Shepard's expression turned earnest. Her eyes were a deep, deep brown, dark enough that she'd thought at first that they were black, with flecks of a lighter hue around the pupil.

"Give her a chance." The entreaty was confident. "I think you two might surprise each other."

After a moment Liara sighed. "Very well, Commander."

"Thank you." Shepard was pleased. "I have to get back to my duties, but I was hoping you might join myself and the others for dinner tonight. We've loaded new supplies from Czarnobog, so it should be a good one."

Liara usually ate in her lab, or with Doctor Chakwas, but it was difficult to say no, with Shepard's dark eyes meeting hers. After a moment she nodded.


 

“I would remind you, Commander,” Chakwas said very gravely, “that bribery is unfitting of an officer and a gentlewoman.”

Shepard gave her a winsome smile, and after a moment the doctor sighed and took the bottle of Serrice Ice Brandy from her hands, tucking it under one arm.

“I warn you, if any of the Marines - or our aliens for that matter! - get hurt, my revenge will be swift and great.”

“I would expect nothing less, Doctor.”

"One day," Chakwas said to herself as the Commander made her escape from the medbay with her CMO successfully bribed, "Marines will find a method of entertainment that isn't punching each other."

"Of course," said Sub-Lieutenant Sherazi from his desk, "and Elanos Haliat will call us up to say he's very sorry for the Blitz and he's a social worker now."

Whatever Chakwas was going to say in response was cut off by the 1MC ordering all Marines not on CIC guard duty to report to the vehicle bay, and requesting the presence of Liara T'Soni, Garrus Vakarian, and Tali'Zorah. Chakwas shook her head. Commander Shepard worked fast.

Shepard smiled pleasantly at the collected ground team. Some of them looked a bit worried at her expression. The crates and knick-knacks that were often stacked or scattered around the Kennel had been pushed to the sides (Lieutenant Tucks was going to cry when he realised that his system of colour coding and alphabetising had been thoroughly destroyed) by Williams and Fredricks, both of whom might be the two people more excited about this than she was. She was currently standing on the sparring mats she'd had dragged in here and a tarp had been put over the armoury. Didn't want to get any blood on their brand new toys.

Maybe that was the reason for the worried faces.

Ah well. The Marines at least would cheer up soon.

A fair few of the sailors had drifted down as well and were perched in the corners of the room on crates or sitting on the floor. They just needed popcorn and they were set. Turned out this didn't just interest Marines.

She did, however, suspect that half of them were here in hopes of seeing shirtless Marines and the other half were hoping she'd spar Alenko with biotics involved.

Lieutenant Alenko stood at her side at ease, his shoulders squared and his hands clasped behind his back. He was practically begging to be put on a recruitment poster with his upright posture, perfect hair and solemn expression. She hadn't discounted biotic sparring, but it had to be done very carefully - use a wrong field to counter and you had an explosion, a dead crewmate, and a manslaughter charge. She was only a fan of the first item on that list.

That was why she'd been unimpressed with Wrex's little stunt before Feros - but Liara didn't seem to hold any grudges, and in truth, she should've expected that two biotics who were much older than her would understand restraint.

There was more to Urdnot Wrex than the simplistic worldview he showed the Normandy's crew.

"Corporal Dubyansky," she said, voice snapping through the murmur of conversation.

"Aye ma'am!" The blond Marine stepped forward, dressed in his PT shorts and a tight t-shirt that had MARINES blazoned across the front. He was getting admiring looks from several of the sailors.

Shepard almost reconsidered the whole thing - fraternisation was so much paperwork. She cleared her throat. "What are the advantages of the turian in hand to hand combat?"

"Height and reach, ma'am," Dubyanksky replied. There was a cough from Garrus which Shepard ignored studiously. "Most turians are considerably taller than the average human. In addition, they have natural weapons in the forms of their talons." Here, Garrus turned around to show everyone his hands, wiggling his talons, to the sailors' amusement. Smartass. "Ahem, and their carapace makes it more difficult to get in disabling or killing blows."

"Disadvantages."

"High centre of gravity, ma'am. Relatively thin neck. Waists are slim and contain vital organs - and are not as well protected by the carapace as the chest."

"Very good. How would you go about killing a turian in hand to hand, Corporal?"

"Uh -" Dubyansky shot Garrus an awkward glance "- distract via breaking a spur, if possible. Sweep or throw to get them on the ground. The knife to the throat or waist."

Garrus' mandibles tightened visibly, the turian equivalent of a wince. She nodded. "A turian with a knife in their waist might not die straight away but they're unlikely to get back up."

Shepard drew the knife from the scabbard clipped to her belt and held it up so everyone could see the black carbon blade. "You should all know the Marine Corps' standard issue combat knife, I hope."

"Used most often to open MREs and play stupid knife games that keep Navy doctors employed," supplied Williams.

"And kill zombies," Gung Ho added.

"But not before you open your MREs because gross," Amina agreed.

Shepard ignored the Marines. "Before the First Contact War, the SAMC used the good ol' ka-bar. Afterwards, a new fighting knife design was put into production with a spear point rather than a clip point, sacrificing some of the cutting 'belly' for a stronger stabbing point." She slid the knife back into the sheath. "Hodgins, Vakarian, c'mere."

They obeyed, both men eyeing her. She beamed at them, then tossed a rubber training knife at the Corporal. "Care to give us a demonstration?"

"Aye ma'am," Hodgins said, green eyes narrowing as he shifted the training knife into a saber hold. They circled each other for a handful of seconds before the Marine shifted into movement, aiming a thrust at Garrus' waist.

They traded probing attacks for a few seconds, before Garrus trapped Hodgins' knife against his side with one hand and brought the other one - hand open, claws extended (if blunted by the gloves he habitually wore) - down on the Marine's neck.

"Dead," Shepard observed. "He just sliced your carotid artery open."

Garrus released the human man who took a few steps back, scowling. He was pissed off at himself - and so he should be. Garrus was a cop, used to the restraint techniques C-Sec used and a naturally talented fighter, but Hodgins was a N5, a Raider - and a Marine Martial Arts instructor qualified brown belt.

He needed to do better. But he didn't need his commander to point that out.

"Again."

This time, Hodgins was more focused. Shepard suspected that he'd dismissed Garrus as Just A Cop. Garrus was a MP turned police officer, but that wasn't the whole story. Shepard had his personnel file from the Hierarchy Army and C-Sec, and he'd been selected for special training for those shortlisted to become turian Spectres, which had polished his talents further.

The issue was Vakarian's attitude, not his talent.

They were getting frustrated, both used to overcoming their opponents with little effort, and Shepard hid a smile. It was unlikely that Hodgins could be convinced out of his attitude - he'd decided he was going to be a front lines Marine and so he could be handled but not changed. But Garrus...

Well, it didn't hurt to try.

Garrus tried to get another 'kill' blow in, only for his arm to be seized and for Hodgins to hip throw him to the ground, using his own height and weight against him. The Marine was then on him, stabbing viciously with the rubber knife multiple times until Shepard announced Garrus was dead.

She gestured for them to return to their spots, Hodgins wiping his forehead, a thoughtful look on Garrus' face.

She turned to face another Marine. "PFC Mohamed, advantages and disadvantages an asari has in close quarters combat."

"Skin is tougher than ours," he supplied. "The back of the head is very sensitive. Most are biotics though, and they can have hundreds of years of experience."

"How do you fight biotics?" she asked him, stepping closer to him, head tilted.

"Disorientating techniques, ma'am." Shortly after PFC Akmed Mohamed had finished his N5, he'd been on a mission in the Traverse in which the Raiders had tangled with Eclipse. Mohamed had responded admirably to being charged by a Vanguard; when she was almost on top of him, he'd dropped a flash bang and then thrown himself to the floor. The flashbang had rung him like a bell, but it'd also fatally disorientated the asari and the rest of his team had blown her to hell.

"Such as?" she prompted.

"Flashbangs, strikes to the aural channel, eyes, pressure points, solar plexus," he answered, standing almost painfully straight. Mohamed had become withdrawn, cold, since his friend Jenkins had died. Shepard resolved to get Williams to keep an eye on him.

Shepard nodded. "Alright, so I'm splitting you Marines into two teams. One team will be with me, doing advanced bayonet and knife drills - yes, we will be carrying bayonets from now on because zombies - and one will be with Lieutenant Alenko to practice anti-biotic fighting. He'll teach you to fall so you don't hurt yourself; you'll be trying out those fighting techniques and testing the new hardening modules in your armour.

"Liara, Tali," she turned to the two of them, gentling her tone, "you'll be with Williams. I know she's been teaching you knife-fighting, Tali, and you've got self-defence training, Liara, but she can give you training in the hand to hand weapons we use."

There were nods all around. The first Marines clustered around her, fixing practice bayonets to their rifles. She heard giggling as Chou was lifted by Kaidan's biotics and his half-exasperated, half-amused. "This is combat training, Lance Corporal."

"We gonna show the geth the fear of cold, hard steel," Jaz whispered to Nick, and both of them giggled.

Like teenagers, she thought, fond despite herself. They were both only 20 and 21, and she'd been worse when she was that age. God, sometimes she wondered how her platoon sergeant had restrained himself from throwing Private First Class Shepard out the airlock.

"Yes, we are, Lance Corporal Teke," she said sweetly. "In fact, I'm going to make sure you get to take point when we bayonet charge armatures. Pretend I'm said armature and show me what you can do."

Jaz levelled his bayonet at her neck height and charged, yelling something like a battle cry out of a terrible medieval battle vid.

She side-stepped and tapped him almost gently as he passed her. He went sprawling, rifle bouncing along the hard metal floor of the hold.

"...ow."


 

CODEX ENTRY

Warship Classifications:

Corvettes: the smallest class of commissioned warship, the corvette is lightly armoured and armed and is primarily used for patrol and escort missions in low-risk areas, often enforcing a nation's spacefaring laws, such as intercepting Helium skimmers and drug smugglers. They have also been known to be used as special forces insertion vehicles due to their small signature and agility. However, a corvette is more or less useless in fleet-to-fleet combat due to its relatively paper-thin armour and small guns, beyond some utility at mine laying or sweeping.

Frigates: larger than corvettes, frigates are a magnitude more powerful than corvettes, built with often larger drive cores for improved sped and maneuverability. Frigates are often seen as successors to the old submarines - flying alone for months on end. Unlike destroyers, frigates usually operate alone or in small divisions, as they conduct long-range patrols, raid the enemy and scout ahead of other fleet formations. In large space battles, they are often formed into wolf packs to hunt fighters and use their speed and maneuverability to finish off wounded ships.

Destroyers: the jack of all trades, destroyers are dedicated escort craft, somewhat smaller than cruiser but larger than a frigate, with heavy weaponry for its size and a large amount of GARDIAN point defence clusters. They do, however, lack a frigate's independence, and tend to be seen working as part of a squadron or division escorting a larger warship, such as a carrier or a dreadnought. In battle, destroyers screen the fleet's main battle line from fighters and torpedos and engage other enemy ships at medium and short ranges.

Cruisers: large and heavily armed enough to look after themselves, fast enough to run from most dreadnoughts and expendable enough not to require escorts, the cruiser is the 'poor, bloody infantry' of the Navy. Light cruisers often patrol independently and suppress piracy in border regions, heavy cruisers are usually the heaviest ships seen outside of major wars, leading frigates or destroyers in small ship to ship engagements. In major fleet battles, heavy cruiser squadrons are often part of the main battle line and light cruisers hold the flanks, preventing enemy vessels from flanking the broadsides of heavier ships.

Battlecruisers: the poor man's dreadnought, the battlecruiser is often fielded by medium-sized star nations who don't have the money or manpower to build and maintain full sized dreadnoughts. The battlecruiser is as fast as a cruiser with weaponry close to a dreadnought's. While very successful against smaller ships, the battlecruiser's lighter armour has often seen them easily destroyed by heavier dreadnoughts. No Citadel Council major power currently fields battlecruisers, though the Alliance has a proposed 'Illyria-class battlecruiser' concept meant to be paired with assault carriers.

Escort/Light Carriers: smaller than the capital full-sized carriers, the Alliance builds their light carriers off the same hulls as their heavy cruisers. Carrying a single wing of aircraft, the light carrier is used to add fighter power to fleet formations not warranting the use of a capital ship, or as the ship of a Marine unit, carrying the Marines, their equipment, their vehicles and their aircraft into battle - in the latter role they are often called 'Planetary Assault Vessels' by the SAN and 'Assault Ships' by the Hierarchy Navy.

Carriers: the size of dreadnoughts, the carrier is a primarily human vessel carrying up to three carrier air wings of subcraft. Due to their last of substantial anti-ship arms and low maneuverability, carriers are always escorted by other ships. Some have been used by the Alliance to carry their large Marine Expeditionary Brigades as well as fighters and interceptors. A carrier can only be commanded by a former naval aviator who has commanded a cruiser or similar tonnage vessel before.

Dreadnoughts: Simply massive vessels, bristling with weaponry and covered in thick, heavy ship armour. Dreadnoughts are classified by their guns (any ship with a gun of 800 metres or above is considered a dreadnought by the Treaty of Farixen) and are often a kilometre in length. The ultimate arbiter of space combat, the dreadnought is a ship killer, able to bombard smaller vessels from beyond the range of their own weaponry and soak up return fire. Contrary to popular myth, dreadnoughts are not slow - due to square/cube law, a dreadnought's reactor, drive core and thrusters are substantially larger in comparison to her size than a cruiser's. However, they are less than maneuverable and too sharp turns in some environments risk tearing the ship in half. Dreadnoughts are always escorted and generally attempt to stay out of knife-fight range.