Kaidan Alenko spared a brief glare for the metal bulkhead that had delivered a nasty static shock to his finger before leaving the crew quarters and heading toward the mess hall. His shift wasn't set to start for another hour, but after the events of the last twenty-four hours, there was too much on his mind for sleep to come easily. Regardless, his stomach loudly and insistently demanded attention. Shocks and a voracious appetite were part of his routine as a biotic, but the morning after the Eden Prime mission, both were particularly vociferous.
He was somewhat startled to find Commander Shepard standing in the mess, coffee cup in hand, staring intently at a datapad. The Normandy's new XO was only slightly shorter than himself, with a lean, well-toned frame that spoke both of years of military service and the high-running metabolism of a biotic. Her dark skin and high cheekbones lent her an exotic, if somewhat austere, appearance. The impression was augmented by her tight, short ponytail and the somber expression knitting her brows together.
"Commander," he said by way of greeting.
She glanced up. "Good morning, Lieutenant."
"Feeling better I hope, ma'am?" he ventured. He had done his best to take to heart her dismissal of any fault on his part for the incident with the prothean beacon, but there was still a sting in his chest when he thought about it. If I'd just stayed away from it...
"More or less," Shepard replied with a slight frown. "My choice of morning reading leaves something to be desired, though."
Kaidan raised his eyebrows questioningly.
"Preliminary sit-rep from Eden Prime," she continued, a hard edge in her voice. "Casualty reports, damage assessments. None of it pretty."
"Colonial investment's going to take a dive once word of the geth gets out..." he mused.
The commander regarded him with a speculative expression. "Seems likely."
Feeling pinned under that stare, Kaidan dug for something else to say. "I... don't suppose we got any additional intel on those... spikes, ma'am? And what they did to the civilians?"
"Not yet, no," she replied, frown deepening. "Whatever was done to those people is making identification of remains difficult. The brass moved in a reserve division from Second Fleet to boost security, but the colonists are nearly in a state of hysteria. They probably wouldn't feel safe if the whole fleet was stationed in-system."
Kaidan remembered clearly how horrifying the geth husks had been, lurching toward them with open mouths, grasping hands and empty eyes. He couldn't imagine what it would be like to confront them without the benefit of weapons and military training. And a cool-headed CO.
Shepard turned and put her empty coffee cup into a waiting receptacle in the wall of the mess behind her, where it would be whisked away to be cleaned automatically. "If you'll excuse me, Lieutenant," she said curtly.
"Ma'am." He snapped a quick salute, but she was already headed past the elevator toward the stairs to the main deck. As she had turned to go, Kaidan caught sight of the biotic amp jack nestled just under her hairline at the back of her neck. He felt the renewed prickle of curiosity that had plagued him since the mission.
He figured Shepard must be an L2 as well. Though he had no way of guessing when she'd gotten her implant, he knew she was only a couple of years younger than he. Anyway, the power levels she'd displayed on Eden Prime were more in line with his own than an L3. But where had she trained? Her physical mnemonic forms were all different than his. Plus, she seemed to have mastered a technique he was never able to himself- pulling the gravitational field into a vortex that caused damaging shearing forces within it. He'd seen it done before, but not as effectively.
As Kaidan navigated through the mess hall meal interface in search of breakfast, he worried about having possibly annoyed her with his comments, given what she'd touched on briefly in their short conversation yesterday. The attack on Mindoir had been all over the news vids years ago, but at the time he'd been so wrapped up in his own problems he'd barely noticed. An attack on a colony would hit pretty close to home for her...
The meal system coughed up a good-sized tray of steaming eggs, bacon and toast. The smell made his stomach growl expectantly. This automatic cooker unit was brand new, and faster than ones he'd used before. Still, it reconstituted meals from the same frozen or freeze-dried stuff as all the other ones, so he wasn't holding out for anything surprising. He absently took the tray and parked himself in one of the chairs at the single long table.
This whole mission had completely thrown him out of his usual groove. Being abruptly assigned to an experimental vessel under the command of the nearly legendary Captain Anderson was stunning enough, but then to wind up on the ground with an N7 commando and a turian Spectre chasing down a prothean artifact made him feel like everything he'd previously done was a vacation on Elysium.
He'd always been content to do his part, but he knew he was now suddenly on the forefront of something big. There was an undeniable thrill to it. And if I'd had the sense to stay away from the stupid beacon, we wouldn't have to go crawling back to the Council, and Shepard wouldn't have-
The sound of boots on the deck-plates approached from behind. He looked up to see Gunnery Chief Williams rounding the bulkhead from the crew area, in the midst of tying her brown hair back into a regulation bun. Of average height, Williams had a compact build and a generous mouth that seemed to carry a perpetual smirk of amusement. Contrary to Shepard's restrained demeanor, the chief seemed to inject a bit of cocky swagger into everything she did.
"Hey, LT. Up early too, huh?" she asked.
Kaidan let the truncation of his rank slide. He'd never been a stickler for formality, and the nickname neatly bridged proper protocol and friendly familiarity. She certainly wasn't the first marine to call him that.
"Morning, Chief," he said. "Yeah, busy day ahead."
"Those pods are going to take some getting used to," Williams drawled, stretching her arms over her head and rolling her shoulders. Kaidan focused pointedly on his breakfast; it was too early in the morning to play the 'should-I-look-or-not' game.
"Still dealing with that myself," he admitted. Though in truth, he didn't mind them too much. He was quickly coming to the realization that the communal sleeper pods represented the only true privacy on a ship as small as the Normandy. And once they were closed and the cover opaqued, there was something pleasantly isolating about the small, nearly soundproofed space. Wouldn't be a bad place to wait out the next migraine that rolls around, all things considered.
"This your first ship-board posting, sir?" Williams asked.
"No... I've done tours on a couple of patrol cruisers. Not a lot of space on those either, but at least you get your own bunk."
"Never thought I'd miss barracks," she smirked, peering skeptically at the food dispensing unit. "Oh well, at least these don't change." She made a selection, and the interface obligingly produced a foil-wrapped energy bar. She picked it up and dropped into a chair opposite him.
"I don't know how you can eat all that so early in the morning," the chief said, eyeballing his food and making a face.
"I more or less have to," he replied with a slight shrug.
She cocked her head to one side. "It's a biotic thing, right?"
Kaidan bit off a sigh. In the fifteen years since getting the implant, he had largely gotten used to the 'intro phase', and knew it was out of ignorance and not malign intentions. An old friend of his from one of his early postings had gone on at length about how they should institute a 'Biotics 101' session at boot camp, just to save the next generation of empowered people the hassle of explaining themselves to every new person they were posted with. At least I don't have to go through this with Commander Shepard.
"Yeah," he said, trying to keep his voice neutral. "Eden Prime was a workout."
Williams started to say something, then checked herself. "You get that a lot, don't you, sir?" she said instead.
"I was thinking of making flash cards," Kaidan said mildly. Putting down his fork, he mimed holding up a set of cards and leafing through them. "'Hi, I'm biotic.', 'Gravity is your friend', 'No, I can't read your mind.', 'My powers are fueled by the blood of virgins.'"
Williams laughed. Since their impromptu meeting on the battlefield yesterday, Kaidan still wasn't quite sure what to make of the chief. She'd shown herself to be a competent, adaptable fighter, but there had been a few times when she'd been downright abrasive. At least she has a sense of humor.
"Virgins have all the best blood, it's true," she demurred. "We didn't have any biotics in the 212... But there was one in my last posting. He was a complete jerk, thought he was God's gift to the unit."
Something in her voice reminded Kaidan that it would be anything but charitable to be too quick to judge someone who'd just lost a number of friends.
"I've met a few of those," he said ruefully. He would have thought that brain surgery and long, harsh training would be a humbling experience, but it seemed to give some people an excuse to treat everyone else like inferior specimens. Unfortunately, the stable, good-natured biotics weren't the ones who made the news.
Williams lapsed into contemplative silence as she ate her energy bar. Kaidan chased down the last bits of his breakfast, his thoughts drifting back to the commander. He wondered where she'd gotten that scar on her forearm... modern medical technology could get rid of such things fairly easily, the fact that it was still there meant it had been deliberatly left. Given what he knew of her service history, he had his suspicions as to what had caused it, but it wasn't the kind of thing one casually asked anyone, never mind one's CO.
Abruptly, Williams leaned forward slightly. "So what's Commander Shepard like?" she asked, fixing him with a conspiratorial expression.
Kaidan felt a small flash of irritation. "I've served under her for all of seventy-two hours more than you, Chief. I don't think that qualifies me as an expert."
"She's N7, though, right? Special forces?"
"I'm sure she puts her pants on one leg at a time like the rest of us," Kaidan said, keeping his expression bland. She gets static shocks all the time, like me.
"Remember that batarian slaver ring that was broken up last year in the Attican Beta cluster? The Alliance dressed it up like a big joint-operations thing, but scuttlebutt says that Commander Shepard and a strike team of N-ops did all of the dirty work..."
Just as the last few words came out of Williams' mouth, Commander Shepard herself appeared, coming down the stairs from the command deck. Kaidan froze, then moved to stand up. The chief's eyes widened in realization. Shepard approached, folding her arms and fixing the startled Gunnery Chief with her piercing gaze as Williams shot to her feet.
"I'm also twelve feet tall and breathe fire. Says so right in my file," the commander said evenly. Despite her stern expression, Kaidan thought he saw bemusement in Shepard's brown eyes.
"Glad you're on our side then, ma'am!" Williams said quickly, standing ramrod straight and sounding like she was addressing a fuming drill sergeant.
Shepard scrutinized the gunnery chief for a few heartbeats before a small smile quirked the side of her mouth.
"We're coming up on the Citadel relay if you two would like to see the view," the commander said finally. "Apparently the Destiny Ascension is in port." With that, she turned and headed back to the command deck.
"That's, uh, the big asari dreadnought, right?" Williams said when Shepard had gone, turning in Kaidan's direction.
"Biggest in the fleet," he said absently, still looking at the base of the stairs where the commander had vanished.
Whatever happens next, it won't be dull.