DISCLAIMER – I do not own Mass Effect franchise, the story, or any of its characters. All rights go to Bioware.
FOREWORD / FAIR WARNING:
This story is an AU focused on divergence on crucial points: Eden Prime, Feros, Noveria – all of those will be there, but their course and outcome will be different from canon. The AU aspects will become more and more pronounced until it creates a whole new divergent line at the end of the ME1 story. The main cause for this divergence is my imagining of how things would have happened, and how would the events be changed if Commander Shepard had worn a helm-mounted recording device through all his missions– such as any decent special ops soldier already has in this day and age in the early 21st century. That, and the Council actually being smart and competent leaders, rather than idiotic posers throwing childish insults like they do in the games.
And finally, I have made this story feature two Commanders – male and female – and it focuses a lot on their already-existing relationship, with neither of them having specific combat class, and having a complex background. It might appear that I have placed more focus on Male Shepard (mainly because I felt a bit uncertain in my abilities to write good true female characters), but this story's ultimate goal will be to put a heavy accent on both of my Shepards.
I have focused a bit on tech and world-building, and a LOT on characters and their interactions, with plenty of combat thrown in between. A lot of details have been altered for the sake of accuracy of the chain of events. A lot of tech details had been tweaked for the sake of tech accuracy (trust me, I'm an engineer). Also a fair warning on that part: this story will feature a bit more tech stuff than what is average for other ME stories on this site, but I stand firm by it, and will not change that aspect of this story.
At the moment of this first chapter being posted, I have about 70-80k words written, and I wish to keep that buffer, so I'll be posting new chapters as I advance. Right now, my goal with this story stretches as far as the end of Mass Effect 1.
Chapter posted on 14.11.2016.
Tags: Action, Sci-fi, Adventure, Friendship building, Love.
Rated M – for mature and adult themes.
Chapter 1 – The N7 Dossier
The room was silent, save for the shuffling of the datapads across the desk. The ambassador scrutinized the faces of the few men and a couple of women that were displayed on the translucent screens as he scanned their service data. He finally took a deep breath, and spoke:
"This is a difficult choice, Hackett," he said. "The way I see it, all of them have top-of-the-line scores: fit, able, served under distinguished officers… I don't understand why you say we shouldn't pick any of them!"
"I assure you, Ambassador, a better candidate exists," spoke the man in admiral's dress blues, his gravelly voice calm and steady, almost tired.
Ambassador raised a datapad, shaking it for emphasis.
"A better candidate than this?" he asked disbelievingly. "With a better service record than McNeal? The man took part in over a dozen covert operations, and he actually led operation Firegate. Besides, there is nothing that would put a spec of dirt on his record. This kind of man would be a perfect example of what humanity has to offer."
"No he wouldn't, and we both know it," the admiral retorted calmly. "Those few men and women you have there are all there because of political moves. I can understand that the Systems Alliance wants to look good for the sake of diplomacy, but Spectre ranks are not the place for poster boys. It will only make us look stupid. We need someone significantly more… deliberate."
Ambassador sighed just as the doors opened with a gentle hiss. The two men turned to look at the third invitee to the meeting.
"Glad you made it in time, Captain," spoke the admiral.
"Likewise, Admiral," the black man spoke, then looked at the ambassador and greeted him with a nod. "Ambassador Udina."
"Anderson," the ambassador greeted him back. "I understand that you're bringing us the seventh candidate.
"I do," the man said, as he sat down and produced a new datapad.
Udina picked up the pad and read the name out loud.
"Marcus Shepard," he said, then frowned. "Why does that name sound so familiar?"
"I'd be surprised if it didn't; he was on the news feeds more than once," Anderson responded.
Udina looked at him with a raised eyebrow, then looked back at the picture of the man on the datapad. Hard blue eyes and a stern piercing gaze challenged him back. Then, he remembered.
"The Butcher of Torfan," he spoke gravely.
"One of his nicknames, yes," Anderson spoke after a pause.
Udina dropped the datapad, leaning back into his seat and looking around the room, releasing a heavy sigh.
"I was a deputy ambassador back then. I don't need to tell you of the political shitstorm that I had to deal with when that thing happened."
Hackett spoke up, his voice steely:
"Don't pretend that what Shepard did on Torfan wasn't a major boon for the future diplomatic engagements, Ambassador. Yes, you had to clean up a shitstorm – as you so eloquently put it – for a few months, but you cannot deny that this infamousness was what made your job a lot easier in the long run. When was the last time anyone tried to strong-arm the Systems Alliance? We showed them that we can get the job done, no matter the cost. And it was all thanks to one man."
"Don't think I'm not aware of that, Admiral," Udina spoke with a resigned tone. "The thought that haunts me is what kind of shitstorms – and I do mean plural – will follow if this man is pushed for a Spectre candidacy, and is successful."
"I'm afraid it might be out of our hands, Ambassador," Anderson spoke, then tapped Shepard's datapad. "You see, the reason why Shepard was added so late was because a turian Spectre named Nihlus Kryik wanted to carefully examine Shepard's record first. When he was done, he put in no uncertain terms that he was giving his endorsement for Marcus Shepard being the best candidate."
Udina recoiled in surprise.
"A turian put his name forth?" he asked disbelievingly. "How come I didn't know that?"
Anderson waved his hand in the negative. "The final word came only two hours ago. I flew over here immediately after."
Udina looked down at Shepard's file in stunned silence before he sighed.
"Well, if a Spectre wants him, then it would look bad for us to deny him… Well, what can you tell me about Shepard? If I'm going to advocate his candidacy to the Council, I need to know what to expect; that's what this meeting is all about, after all… So, don't spare the details! I've gone through the first few rows of data – I see he's Earthborn, but… no record of his family."
Anderson shook his head. "Doesn't have one. He was an orphan; raised himself on the streets of the Southwest Megalopolis – L.A., mostly."
"Well, his life must've been just peachy," Udina commented dryly.
Anderson snorted mirthlessly. "You could say that," he said. "It's all the more tragic since Marcus is a biotic – an exceptionally skilled one – and while we're certain he was exposed to eezo while he was in his mother's womb, we still have no idea how or where it could have happened."
"No idea on who the woman was?" Udina asked.
"Hmm… So, he lived on the streets," Udina remarked.
"Sort of," Anderson nodded. "The social care system did a bad job – bad foster parents, poor family, negligent – that sort of thing. He was officially in their care, but he would spend days with his gang – pickpocketing, theft, fighting with other gangs… usually against guys bigger and stronger than him. He learned to take care of himself."
Udina frowned at the data he read.
"That… doesn't make any sense," he said and pointed at the datapad. "Says here his elementary and high school average grades were not that bad. His average was 9.15. I'd expect him to be a dropout."
"Many would," Anderson said. "But Marcus has an IQ of 169. The school was like a vacation to him."
That brought Udina's attention. "A hundred and sixty-nine?! That's beyond impressive, if I may say so! How could a boy like that be left among the street gangs?"
Anderson spread his hands helplessly.
"Like I said – bad system. Nothing anyone could have done about it then. But the point is that we're not dealing with a mere grunt, Ambassador; we have ourselves a man that knows exactly when and how to strike."
"I'll say. So, what changed? Something must've happened to steer him away from a life of a hoodlum."
"Something did happen. When he was fifteen, his gang found itself smack in the middle of L.A. Terror of '69, when religious terrorists besieged the city. He fought that hell for three days to survive. That particular thing was the turning point."
"Jesus," Udina muttered, then spoke after a few moments of silence. "He used guns, didn't he? That is what you're trying to say between the lines."
"Speaking candidly? Yes, he did use guns. You can't hold it against him, Ambassador; he was just a kid trying to survive the utter chaos."
"No, I understand that, but I need to know two things: first off – for a kid that used guns, has he grown into a stable man? And two – is this is buried deep enough? Can it come back to bite us?"
Hackett spoke, leaning forward against the desk and lacing his fingers:
"As for the first question, I can vouch for that. Not because of some personal experience, but because our psychologists, the experts, are the ones that cleared him. And they do not allow mishaps. Not in this line of work."
Anderson picked up from there:
"As for the second question – there is nothing to bury, Ambassador. He was never arrested. The L.A. Terror was an utter chaos, and the law enforcement and military had bigger priorities than chasing kids down. They didn't so much as sniff his way. No, this story comes from Marcus himself. There was a moment early in his active career when the circumstances were such that they demanded for him to come clean to me of all people, and so he did. The fact that he truly lived there at the time, that he was in the gang, and that I could see it in him – that he had that air about him says enough. The fact that he hid these facts as a means to leave them behind him is not something I'd hold against any man."
"I see," Udina said as he looked down at the datapad, then frowned. "It says here he left Earth a couple of weeks later on his own. Where did he get the money?"
"He was a petty thief, Ambassador," Anderson half smiled. "He did save a bit of his loot."
"Hmm. Makes sense," Udina conceded. "What planet did he go to?"
Anderson spoke after a pause, "Mindoir."
Udina smacked his palm against the tabletop.
"Out of the frying pan and into the fire!" he said.
Anderson just nodded gravely and continued:
"Before he went there, he did tests for finishing high school early, and he emancipated himself; he was legally an adult at the moment he landed on Mindoir. The colonies have looser age regulations, so he took a job at the spaceport. Worked as a grease monkey, tinkering with ship maintenance, mechanics, electronics – you name it, he did it… Until the batarians came."
"Obviously… And how did that turn out?"
"Killed a dozen slavers."
"Where did he get the gun this time?" Udina asked grimly.
"From the batarians themselves. He ambushed the first one with his biotics and finished him off with the batarian's own combat knife. Once he got his hands on a rifle, he went on a killing spree. His claim at the time was that he was pissed about how trouble always seemed to find him and the people he cared about. He had a girlfriend there on Mindoir, you see."
"A noble cause, but still sounds like a major temper issue to me," said Udina.
"On the contrary," Hackett took the opportunity to speak. "Shepard is incredibly calm under duress. Sure, he has a lot of anger in himself, but I assure you that it stems from his strong sense of justice. However, I have never seen him lose his temper. Not once. And once you hear the rest of the story, you'll understand why it's so important."
"Unlike other Mindoir survivor kids, Shepard was legally emancipated at the time, so instead of going to the foster care system, he just went back to work. But here's the thing: that girlfriend I mentioned that he had on Mindoir? He took her with him."
Udina frowned. "Why is that so important?"
"Because Shepard has charisma unlike few other people I've known," Anderson replied. "He leads. He influences. He actually influenced that girl to become emancipated herself – a feat she did with no problem – and then he took her with him so they could work together on that freighter. Maybe it sounds romantic, but that's not the reason I'm saying this, but because he essentially took care of another human even back then, and he did it successfully. Marcus is not just a cold-blooded killer, Ambassador. He is a leader and a provider."
"Fair enough," Udina acquiesced. "Go on."
"The two of them had spent the next two years drifting about the Exodus Cluster as crew aboard a space freighter. After he turned eighteen, he enlisted together with her, and after basic both of them applied for the N7 training straight off the bat."
"Hmm, interesting," Udina said with raised eyebrows. "That's a lofty goal. The way I hear it, most are happy to even be considered for the N1, and I know that there are a lot of rumors that are actually meant to put the fright into potential N7 applicants – to weed out those of weak spirit."
"Yet, he did it nonetheless," Anderson replied. "It was obvious in Shepard's case that he was one of the best that we had. When he got to the N7 training, he broke almost every record for every track and aptitude test that were placed before him. He graduated at the top of his class, got his officer's insignia, and was sent off to active duty. What followed was typical for an N7 – operations throughout the Skyllian Verge, the Traverse and the Terminus; raids against pirates, assassinations, rescue operations…"
"Yes, I see his record is significant," Udina mused out loud. "Ah yes, here we are. Elysium, 2176."
"Yes, can you imagine it?" Anderson laughed mirthlessly. "His first real and extended shore leave in a while, and it so happens that he finds himself in the middle of the Skyllian Blitz. So, there he was, almost alone and in civilian clothing, fending off wave after wave of batarian, krogan, and even turian slavers."
"The Hero of the Skyllian Blitz," Udina spoke solemnly. "The Lion of Elysium. The newscasts loved him! To fight off all of those slavers… No wonder that that kind of man would survive a thresher maw on Akuze a year later," he said, tapping the paragraph in question with his finger.
"Haaahhh… that was one damn clusterfuck alright," Anderson rumbled, shaking his head.
"What's the story behind that again?" Udina asked. "The colony went dark, and marines were sent to investigate?"
"Yes. He was attached to that marine company," Anderson said. "The thresher maw attacked them almost as soon as they had established forward base. Shuttles weren't near. The thresher maw went after everyone. Shepard tried to draw the beast toward him as the marines retreated toward the LZ, but that was our first encounter with the species; we didn't know that it would be drawn to tremors in the ground. As the marines ran, the thresher maw followed the pounding of their feet and ignored the single man that was trying to shoot it. It didn't notice Shepard until it killed all of the marines. He used his biotics to dodge thresher acid spikes and kept launching concussive shots from his rifle at it as he retreated. He managed to drive it off, but in the end, he was the sole survivor."
"He must have had a great desire to live," Udina commented. "Still, losing that many men must've left some psychological scars, no?"
"His psyche eval was in the clear," Hackett said. "Psychologists were sure that this event would not have left many emotional problems other than a basic shellshock; Shepard went through that one on the spot, otherwise he wouldn't have lived. It's never easy to see people get brutally killed, but as an N7, Shepard was just a temporary add-on to the unit. He didn't have enough time to establish deeper connections with other men, so their deaths didn't strike him as hard as one would think. He wouldn't have any emotional scars from that."
"Then how do you explain what happened on Torfan?" Udina prodded.
"Torfan was a completely different situation," Anderson tried to clarify. "Let's get something clear first: Shepard did a number of missions before the retaliation for the Blitz was underway, all of them successful, so the problem was not with him. The problem that happened was a very situational occurrence to that point in time. See, Shepard had a wholly separate special-ops mission on Torfan with a small squad of his own. They accomplished their mission, but the end objective had placed them within earshot of the 107th marine company that was under Major Daryl Kyle."
Hackett picked up from there:
"Turned out that Kyle was a very bad choice for the mission he was supposed to do," he said. "The man didn't have it in him. Before the day was done, the man had a nervous breakdown, and then-Lieutenant Shepard had taken initiative and took over the leadership of the 107th. There was no other choice, really; other platoon leaders were either dead or woefully under-qualified."
"Unfortunately, he was an N7," Anderson said, "which means that leading anything larger than a platoon was not meant to be part of their skillset – thirty or forty men tops if the conditions are right – yet, there he was, having a crash course in leading over a hundred and fifty men through hell."
"Says here he got most of them killed," Udina spoke sourly.
"That's because he expected them to fight like an N7 would," Hackett said. "He learned the hard way that not everyone's cut out for it, but the good thing is that he did learn it, no matter how grim that sounds; few officers ever get that kind of education. Because of Torfan, I'd be more comfortable in placing men under Shepard's command than any other men of commander-equivalent rank out there."
"And he got the job done!" Anderson added. "He knew the score: it was to either lose most of his men or lose all of his men. All things considered, I think he performed admirably; few men would have been able to."
"Yes, but that doesn't justify what he did after he broke through into the enemy fortress," Udina said heatedly. "Killing surrendering batarians? Executing them in cold blood? Is that the kind of person we want protecting the Galaxy?!"
Anderson slapped the desk angrily.
"You know as well as anyone of what would have happened if we just captured those slavers, Ambassador," he said. "They would have walked sooner or later, one way or the other, and they would have immediately returned to pillaging human settlements! Shepard made sure that they wouldn't ever again. You ask me whether he's the kind of person we want to protect the Galaxy? Well, that's the only kind of person that can protect the Galaxy – the one that has the foresight and stomach to do what needs to be done!"
Udina huffed air through his nose in annoyance but remained silent. He spoke softly:
"I understand fully what you're saying, Anderson, and the implications of it, but I don't like it."
Hackett leaned forward, cupping his fist.
"You're afraid of the political backlash, aren't you," he said knowingly.
Udina didn't say anything. Hackett nodded in understanding, nonetheless.
"Then, let me remind you how it was depicted in the media, Ambassador: "Hero of the Skyllian Blitz exerts righteous vengeance" – those are the exact words they used. Humans all over the Galaxy didn't view him as a monster; they viewed him as a dispenser of justice."
"Ruthless he may be, but he's a hero in the eyes of humanity," Anderson added. "Humanity needs a hero, and Shepard's the best we've got."
"I can understand that you are worried about political backfiring and media storm that might cover this, Ambassador," Hackett said. "But you must remember that the media can make the worst of crimes seem heroic, while the most selfless deeds to appear as monstrous. It falls to someone like you to make sure it happens in the way it benefits the Systems Alliance."
Udina sighed heavily.
"Maybe," he said. "But can you blame me for wanting to make my job easier?"
"No, Ambassador, I cannot blame you; but 'easy job' is a kind of luxury that men like us have forfeited once we took the jobs we have now."
"Yes, I suppose you're right, Admiral… as always," Udina added with a mock grunginess, then turned to Anderson. "Shepard's posted on your ship, Anderson, isn't he? As an Executive Officer?"
"No," Anderson waved off. "That particular person you're talking about is Commander Jaina Shepard. She's Marcus's wife."
"Really?!" Udina exclaimed in bewilderment, then looked at Marcus's record under the label of 'marital status' and raised his eyebrows. "I had no idea he was married!"
"Few people do," Anderson said, then smirked. "Remember that girlfriend of his from Mindoir? The one that enlisted with him?" He then wordlessly pointed his finger to the datapad Udina held, looking smug.
"That's her?" Udina asked with his eyebrows trying to reach his hairline. "Then… why is the fact of his marital status marked as "class 3" of being classified?!"
"Jaina Shepard was purposefully omitted from a lot of reports that included Marcus because she's an N7 as well," Anderson said, then turned somber. "Keeping those kinds of soldiers in the shadows is an important thing. Their anonymity is a weapon. We couldn't keep Marcus out of the media after Elysium, but we managed to hide her. She was with him on that shore leave on Elysium in 2176, you know."
"Really?" Udina repeated once more.
"Of course," Anderson replied in a 'naturally' way. "It was their marital spring break. It was both of them that day on the ramparts, defending the colonists, side-by-side. Jaina was there with Marcus from the very start of it all. From the ashes of Mindoir, living and working together on that civilian freighter, and then enlisted together with him. Something like that goes far deeper than mere flair, if I may say so."
"I see," Udina commented somberly, looking down at the picture of the N7 agent for a few silent moments. "I need to know if this will be a problem for his candidacy, though."
"No," Hackett said. "Spectres have spouses; it's a perfectly natural thing. Nihlus Kryik knows this, and he had in fact deliberated whether it should be Marcus Shepard or Jaina Shepard to be his recommendation. As far as I'm concerned, it would have been fine either way; but for whatever reason, he chose Marcus."
Udina took a final glance at the record, then nodded, and said:
"I'll make the call."
The other two men nodded.
"Before we're finished, though, there's the question of the new vessel," Udina pointed out, leaning forward.
Hackett nodded. "The SSV Normandy – Stealth Recon One."
"I know that the fact of its construction was somewhat non-classified," Udina said. "But everything else was very much on a need to know basis. With that ship now ready to leave the shipyard in mere days, I wonder if it'd be possible for you to declassify some information about it."
Hackett nodded. "I think the basics would be safe."
Anderson nodded to that, and activated his omni-tool, bringing up the sleek, aircraft-styled frigate to view.
"The Normandy," Anderson declared. "155 meters long, 60 meters wide at its engine nacelles, and 29 meters tall from its lowest point up to the tip of its comm/sensor array."
"Not as big as our standard frigates," Udina commented skeptically.
"Yet, its eezo core is the size of a cruiser," Anderson pointed out. "That means its barriers are just as powerful, and it makes its main gun also far more powerful than an average frigate's, despite the being a bit shorter in length."
"Fair enough… what about its internal layout?"
"Four decks," Anderson replied, highlighting the sections on the projection. "Topmost is the command deck; that's where the helm, the systems operations, and the CIC are. They take up the forward half of the upper deck. The rear part of the deck holds the dual purpose comm and debriefing room, and behind that is the VI core.
"Next is the crew deck, one deck below. The front section contains crew quarters at the front-most part, arrayed on either side of the length of the central hallway. The crew "rooms" hold four bunks and lockers each, and nothing else. They are small in that regard, true, but the Normandy doesn't have a big total crew complement, so it's very manageable. Aft of the crew bunking section are the showers – one for each of the genders.
"After this, the section flares into general crew deck. This is where the larger captain's quarters to the port side and the medical bay with the adjacent lab to the starboard are, taking space just aft of the showers. As for the med bay lab, we suspect that it won't have much practical use, but it was incorporated nonetheless because of certain STG experiences we've picked up in that regard. We'll just have to see how it goes.
"As for the crew general area that follows, that section functions as a mess hall on the starboard side, and crew relaxation area at the port side – each of these sides elongated due to the ship's design, obviously. Aft of this area there are two small observation rooms on either side of the deck – just a small relaxation area, nothing more.
"Further back from the observation rooms is a large service elevator that connects with the lower two decks, and a twin set of stairs after that connect the crew deck with the CIC. Behind this section is a space to the rearmost of the ship, where the majority of ship's fuel is stored at.
"The third deck is the combat deck. This is where the majority of the Normandy's weapons are serviced at."
"What are we talking about here?" Udina asked. "I know it has a main gun…?"
"Yes, the main gun runs the length of this deck, straight down the middle of it. It is also where one set of missile launcher tubes is located at. The Normandy has a total of sixteen missile launcher tubes. There are four on each side of its central body, pointing outwards and angled slightly forward – there – and there are additional four launcher tubes on each of its wings, pointing directly forwards. "
"That's a lot of launchers," Udina commented. "And I find it strange that all are made to point forward. If I'm not mistaken, Alamo class has only a total of twelve – eight forward and four pointed backward. Strange that the Normandy doesn't have any launchers pointing backward for defense."
Anderson raised his hand and shook his head in the negative.
"The Normandy is meant to be an assault ship, Ambassador," he said. "That's the whole point of being stealth. That's the reason why it doesn't have any secondary guns or broadsides like the Alamo does – it was never meant to exchange fire in prolonged bouts. And, as a stealth assault ship, its job is to sneak in and concentrate all of its firepower to one decisive strike with as many gun rounds and missiles it can."
"Hmm… makes sense," Udina admitted. "I assume it's javelin missiles that it's designed to launch?"
"Javelin Mk-2," Anderson said, nodding. "The same type like the ones on the fighter-bombers. It also has several Wasp Barrage Missile honeycombs – a set of small air-to-surface bombardment missiles packed like a honeycomb inside a disposable javelin-sized tube. This is for those scenarios when the ship needs to perform any kind of suppressive bombardment actions."
"Yes, I've seen those missiles in action," Udina commented. "Very destructive against infantry and AFV clusters. Hmm… and what about its defenses?"
"Like I said, its kinetic barriers are on par with those of a cruiser due to its eezo core size," Anderson continued. "Its armor is pretty much standard – no new secret formulae there – just a standard double layer of frigate plating. It has eight GARDIAN laser turrets, though – four along the front of its wings, and additional four at the rear of its central body."
"Alright, so what about the fourth deck?" Udina prompted.
Anderson highlighted the lowest area of the ship.
"The fourth is the smallest deck," he said. "This is where cargo bay and engineering are. As for the cargo bay, it also serves as a garage for two Mako IFVs, although it can fit four in an emergency. The cargo bay also has weapons armory, a heavy fabricator unit that serves the needs of the engineering, as well as a few smaller fabricators – meant for crafting and repairing weapons and armor. Now, to the rear of this is the engineering that houses the reactor, the eezo core, and the signature Internal Emission Sink system."
"The principle had been explained to me before," Udina said, nodding. "But where is the heat being stored?"
"Right here, in these sections," Anderson said, highlighting sections inside hull plating and along engine nacelles. "The IES system has enough capacity to run silently for three hours with all its systems – sublight engines and barriers, and so forth – running at full power before it needs to vent heat. After that, the stored heat will start to fill the crew areas, becoming unbearable within minutes, and deadly in less than twenty. If at a drift, though, its engines silent, the Normandy can stalk a system for days.
"And also, it is this core that makes the Normandy the fastest ship out there. While other warships can traverse twelve to fifteen light years per day depending on their weight class, the Normandy can traverse twenty."
"Impressive. I was never in the army, but even I can understand the benefits of a silent kill."
"That is correct," Hackett spoke up, leaning forward. "If this ship proves successful in what we intend it to do, more and more ships like that will be seen. This will herald a new age of warfare."
"Let's just hope that the Gods of War are on our side when it comes," Anderson said somberly.