Arcturus Station.

A bastion of humanity's will to power, floating almost arrogantly in the depths of the void. Some viewed it as a weak copy of the far more mighty Citadel, others saw it as merely a prudent defensive station that had grown over time.

What no one debated is that it had become a place where the government of the Systems Alliance did a great deal of gentle diplomacy. The galaxy was at peace, economies were booming, and the dark threat of intergalactic war everyone feared had never materialized. Prepared for a hostile galaxy, humanity had instead found other beings mostly focused on prosperity and growth.

That still left a need for deft politicking, of course – one filled by the endless small conference rooms around the girth of the mighty station. One of these rooms, proclaimed by it's heavy wooden portals and the richly detailed brass plate to one side reading 'SA Council Relations Board', was perhaps the penultimate place where certain decisions regarding humanity's interactions with aliens were made. Here, humanity had come to a deal involving the Treaty of Farixen. Here, they'd hashed out a formal cessation of hostilities with the Turian Hierarchy, some eight weeks after the end of the First Contact War.

And here was where humanity took its first steps towards what it's leaders hoped would be, one day, a seat on the Council itself.

The room was rather small, given it's importance, and plainly decorated. The walls were steel-paneled, the floor carpeted in plain blue. The long meeting table was flat black armaplast, inlaid with the Alliance symbol in white. Marring its mundane surface were a collection of file folders and data pads, the very oldest and newest in documentation.

The air was tainted by cigar smoke, rising in lazy whorls before being snatched away by the air filters, the expensive Eden Prime tobacco bringing a teasing, sweet scent to the otherwise dry air. Three men and one woman sat in the room, but one of the men was unimportant, merely a recorder of events, faded blond hair shorn in buzz cut, framing a square, empty face. His uniform was crisp as he began transcribing the latest words into a new pad.

One of other men in the room sat almost stiffly, the woman at his side poised and elegant, while the other man had a far stiffer posture. They were glancing over various reports, dispatches, and data-pads as a long block of text scrolled across the haptic screen on the wall.

A puff of cigar smoke threaded into the air, followed by a mellifluous voice. "And that is what has transpired thus far. In return for our kind cooperation with our cutesy alien playmates, the best that Branson and Kyle were able to dicker from them was the Spectre, banking reform, and the economic package."

The man dumped his ashes. "I trust you alll understand the requirement for discretion in what we've discussed so far? There are, and always will be, elements like the squints, who would love to throw a monkey wrench into our plan to trade our discovery to the spikes and blues for a Spectre and a few more ships."

The woman next to the man gave a grimace of distaste. "Is such derogatory language necessary? I know we are not on the best of terms with the Turians...but in the larger scale of things, the First Contact War was hardly a war. Hostilities stopped within months, and yet thirty years later we still hate them?"

The man across the table gave a shallow smile. His frame was large, fading from muscle with age. Old, harsh red scars marred the craggy strength of his profile, the lantern jaw, the hard blue eyes, the firm, almost dour set to his mouth. His uniform was ablaze across the chest with ribbons, each one a testament to courage, valor, and skill. Four stripes of pure gold perched on either shoulder, symbols of both power and duty. His voice was a grating, slate drawl, like the crunch of gravel.

"Senator Adkins, Minister Shepard. I think if High Admiral Dragunov were here, he would say the same thing I will : our interactions with the turians have been as cordial as we can make them – the design of the Normandy frigate class proves that. As does one of their own asking for a Spectre recommendation." He sighed. "Rather than argue over slang terms we should focus on picking a candidate that represents Humanity in the best possible light."

Adkins nodded. "Very well, Grand Admiral Hackett. Problem is... we've reviewed most of these candidates already. The Alliance hasn't been to war in a very long time, and while most of them look good on paper, none of them has the kind of chops a Spectre would need. They're going to pair up whoever we send with Saren Arterius … he's a cold-blooded sonofabitch, we send him a weakling and we may as well not even bother."

Minster Han Shi Shepard smiled frostily. "I assume you are including my daughters in this statement? Both Sara and Hannah have demonstrated a great deal of potential in combating piracy along the rim."

Adkins sighed. "I know that, madam minister. But let's be honest – if we send either daughter of our prime minister into this, it's going to look political. The spik... sorry. The turians, that is, do not handle politics well, which is why the volus broke away from them three centuries ago. I merely think it is more prudent to send a hardened warrior to this task than...well..."

Minister Shepard's Asiatic features sharpened in cold dislike. "Than a PR flack, is that it?"

Hackett coughed. "There is one other person who might fit the requirements we didn't consider, in particular because he's not known for his … ah, social graces. But if the Senator is right about who they will be sending to assess – "

Adkins coughed. "It's not just Saren. It's his damned batarian sidekick Balak, too."

Hackett continued, unperturbed. "- then it does make sense we need to send someone who won't be intimidated and send the wrong message. Given, as the senator pointed out, our paucity of veterans, that leaves us only one choice."

He tapped the screen, and the haptic display shifted, to the ice-cold features of a man in his late forties, perhaps Reddish blond hair cut in a precise Marine fashion, barely frosted with gray at the temples. Cool dark eyes, a rugged jaw, and thin, bloodless lips were the center point of his almost blocky head.

Adkins put down his cigar. "Are you out of your mind? You want to send him?"

Minister Shepard's face twisted into displeasure. "If this is some form of joke, Grand Admiral, it is in exceedingly poor taste."

Hackett gave a thin smile. "No joke. Tradius Ahern is the only other person we can be sure who will get the job done other than Kai Allard Leng, and Colonel Leng is needed to oversee Operation Orthrus with Mr. Harper. His participation in the Liberation of Shanxi and the Nine Hour War with the batarians, as well as his long anti-pirate history, he has got the most experience of any of our line officers."

Adkins leaned back, puffing thoughtfully on the cigar. "He's ruthless. His assualt on Elysium got a lot of civilians killed – he won't be popular with the colonies."

Minister Shepard folded her arms. "He's also an uncultured boor who has displayed a number of troubling tendencies towards violence and cynicism. We send him, and we are sending a message."

The comm-link in the room, silent until now, illuminated, a rich bass voice interjecting. "And with all due respect, I think it is exactly the message we should send. This is a bright time for humanity, and we may be friends with everyone except the yahg, but that doesn't mean we can send a message that we are weak." A pause, then the voice continued. "Additionally, it doesn't hurt that he is rough around the edges – they still think humans are a bunch of backwater rubes anyway. Ahern's smarter than he sounds."

Hackett gave a nod. "Exactly. Seeing that Ambassador Saracino agrees with me, I would suggest we go ahead and make the call. The other candidates simply aren't going to be able to measure up to war veterans like Saren and Balak."

Adkins sighed. "You make the call, I'm not listening to him rant for forty five minutes because we interrupted his vacation."


Captain Tradius Ahern reclined on the wooden deck chair, his muscular physique bare except for swim trunks and sunshades to shield his eyes. The surf boomed hollowly along the shoreline of black sand, and the sounds of children shrieking and laughing was a pleasant counterpoint to the jazz ensemble music coming from his omni-tool, sitting next to his drink on the little table by his side.

His partner and long-time friend, Rachel Florez, reclined on an identical chair a few feet away, dressed in an extremely skimpy bikini that didn't do much to hide her own muscular frame or feminine curves. She was flipping idly through the padd in her hands, her own drink – some fruity thing in a complicated glass – now little more than melting ice.

They'd both just gone done doing twelve weeks of deep-cover intercept work in the Dark Traverse, the ugly outskirts of Alliance space dominated mostly by the Volus-Vorcha combine – pirates, slavers, drug running assholes and, worst of all, fucking mad scientists. On the plus side, the experiments they found were all being done on animals.

On the minus side – they were researching a new drug designed to heighten asari sexual pleasure while blunting or even destroying biotic capability. If that crap hit the market the Asari Republic would have been in big trouble. Thankfully, the AIS – and more importantly, Ahern and Florez – had smashed the drug ring and its headquarters after their painstaking infiltration lead them right to the source.

Six weeks of rest and relaxation sounded very good to Ahern indeed. His on-again, off-again relationship with his partner was in its off-again phase – it was sloppy, unprofessional, dangerous and against regulations, but it was also fantastic sex. The only problem was that Ahern and Florez clashed in so many ways that once the stress and familiarity faded the relationship fell apart.

He clucked to himself – he knew it was a completely stupid fucking thing to bang his own partner. Then again, it was completely fucking stupid for him to even be in the military any more. He was almost fifty years old now – old enough he should be flying a desk, not running about with kids half his age – but the Alliance still needed him, and if he quit they'd partner Rachel with some lunkhead who'd just get her killed.

And she wouldn't retire. Stubborn bitch.

He lifted his drink, sipping the fine scotch slowly, trying to clear his thoughts. He needed to relax. He would worry about other shit in six weeks, when they reported back on duty – until then, he was going to get drunk, eat real food instead of goddamned survival rations, probably start a bar fight with a krogan, and make passes at every human woman and asari he saw.

He figured three days of that would have Rachel clawing his clothes off to stake her claim again.

She looked at him, frowning. "I can hear your stupid, churning away in your head, Tradius. What are you thinking about?"

He gestured with his free hand to a giant krogan in the distance, probably someone's private security off-duty, drinking at one of the open air bars, his red crest and face marked by heavy scars. "Thinking about picking a fight with that krogan over there."

Florez glanced at the alien, then at Ahern, then shrugged, leaning back and returning to her reading. "If you want to spent your vacation pissing into a catheter and on bone regeneration machines, be my guest. I won't get involved if he tears your stupid ass in half like a ketchup packet, though."

Ahern grunted. He was drunk, and that made him feel good. He was about to get up when his omni-tool glowed with an incoming call...and then flashed the red and white of an emergency signal.

"Fuck. Me."

Florez checked her own omni, and seeing it not lit up, snickered viciously. "Maybe later. You better answer that for now."

Ahern shot her a vile glare, before snatching the thing up and slotting it. "Ahern here. I'm on goddamned leave."

The hard, gritty voice of the Grand Admiral cut through his anger. "Not any longer, Captain. Report to Arcturus in three days – something has come up and you are needed.""

He ground his teeth. "Admiral, with all due fucking respect – in this case, none, you ancient ass – I've just spent three fucking months dealing with goddamned vorcha, making shitty deals with volus, in the ass end of nowhere without a single goddamned decent meal. I've been on leave NINE fucking hours and you are already recalling me?"

Hackett's voice sounded almost sad. "I wouldn't have if I had a choice, Tradius. If this turns out the way I think it will, I can promise you – in writing, approved by BuPers – three to six months without active duty – training, mostly, on Earth or at Arcturus. No deployments."

Florez sat bolt upright at that, mouthing to him 'TAKE IT YOU FOOL'.

Ahern coughed. "That...sounds pretty implausible. Sir. What in fuck do you need me for?"

Hackett's voice grew quieter. "You've been tapped to be Humanity's first Spectre. Now get your ass to Arcturus. The SCV Tokyo will be in orbit tomorrow morning – get on it. If there's a delay, you're authorized to use any other methods of transport to get here as soon as possible. Don't dawdle, Tradius. Hackett out."

The link went dead, and Ahern stared at the omni-tool stupidly for a few seconds, until he sighed and leaned back against the deck chair. "Well...fuck."

Florez shrugged. "Congratulations. Wonder why they picked you and not some pretty boy like Leng or Anderson."

Ahern shrugged back, closing his eyes. "Never gave a shit. Won't start now. I'm going to enjoy the rest of the day and see what they have to offer, and if I don't like it I'll fucking retire." He sighed. "Going to suck – I can't remember the last time I went into battle without you at my six."

She snorted and leaned back as well. "Who the fuck says I'm letting you go alone?"