"Joker, do you have any idea where we are?"
"No, Chief, no idea. I just pilot the ship."
Ashley grunted. "Joker, you know what I mean. Are we still in the Horse Head Nebula? I thought we were headed for Feros? Why have we stopped?"
"Well", Joker turned slightly to face the small party gathered behind him. "I'll ask you two questions and hopefully you'll be smart enough to figure it out for yourselves. The first is, what other planets of interest are in the Horse Head Nebula? And the second is, what day is today? Now beat it, having half the crew hovering behind me is giving me the creeps."
Ashley sighed as she and Tali moved down the Normandy's corridors toward the mess.
"What did he mean, Chief Williams? What does today's date have to do with anything?"
"I really don't know Tali. I'm trying to figure it out." Williams hadn't cared too much for the quarian when she first came aboard, but Tali's curiosity and ability to read people was starting to win the chief over. "You're sure the commander was acting strange?"
Tali nodded. "Fairly certain of it. She was quiet after the briefing on Noveria."
"The commander's always quiet." Ashley countered.
"This was different. She seemed..." The quarian hesitated as they reached the mess hall, "...almost sad."
"Well, the commander has enough to worry about; she's probably just..." Ashley trailed off as they sat down.
"What? What is it? You look as though you have seen a..." Tali paused for the right word.
"A ghost." Ashley provided. "That's the expression. 'Look like you've seen a ghost'." Ashley swallowed hard. "Today is the thirteenth anniversary of the batarian raid on Mindoir. And Mindoir's in the Horse Head Nebula. I feel like such an idiot. I should have realized this sooner."
Tali tilted her head slightly. "Mindoir?"
"That's the planet Commander Shepard grew up on...She must have gone to...pay her respects."
Tali stiffened slightly. "I see. I suppose then, that we do not need to go after her?"
Ashley shook her head. "No. No, probably best to let her be..." Both the women sat in slightly stunned silence, only broken by the sound of the med bay's doors sliding open.
Lieutenant Alenko stepped out and, noticing the two at the table, walked over to join them. "You two ok? You look a little shaken, Williams."
Tali roused herself from her thoughts. "I...I should be going, Lieutenant. I think Engineer Adams needs me to help run some tests..." She stood and excused herself, hurrying off to the lower level of the ship. Alenko sat down across from Ashley. "So...what's going on? You two are acting like you got caught with your hand in the cookie jar."
Ashley sighed. "We've stopped off, and the commander hadn't mentioned anything about it. So Tali and I went to ask Joker what was up and he wouldn't really tell us. Just said we needed to think about today's date...and what planets were in the nebula." Alenko's brow furrowed, thinking. "I'll save you the trouble, Lieutenant. We're on Mindoir. I'm just glad I figured this out before she came back. I've already shoved my foot in my mouth about her family situation once."
Alenko gave her a puzzled look. "How so?"
"She came by once to talk to me about some tactical ideas and I was finishing up some vids that my sisters had sent me, my sisters were making silly school girl comments and I said something stupid like 'Family, you've gotta love them...' The commander didn't even blink but I still felt like a prize moron." She frowned. "Well, now that you know too, I guess I should go make sure things are in order for Feros..." Ashley stood up. "Lieutenant." Alenko nodded. "Chief."
Jane Shepard stepped off the Normandy and onto familiar soil. She inhaled deeply, taking in the scents of Mindoir. Every time I come back, it always smells the same. You'd never think it'd been razed to the ground...She shook her head to clear her thoughts and headed east for the small settlement near where they had landed.
In the thirteen years since the slaver raid, Mindoir had been rebuilt, but its main town still remained stubbornly small. The farmers in the outlying areas saw no sense in living in town; if everyone moved into one central area, who would tend the crops? Machines? There was also the unspoken thought that living in a town just made it that much easier...for raiders. Hopefully there would never be a 'next time', but they felt safer when they were spread further. Jane Shepard moved quickly down the main road, Joker was expecting her back fairly soon. She had said this wouldn't take long. She turned right, took a left and found herself standing in front of the town's small flower shop. She was greeted as soon as she crossed the threshold.
"Oh, Commander Shepard! I was a little worried you might not make it this year; you are later than usual. It is good to see you again!" Jane smiled at the wrinkled flower vendor. Maria had supplied her with flowers for her parents every year; she was really the only person on Mindoir that Shepard knew.
"I wouldn't miss today, Maria. Not for anything. But yes, my current assignment has me a little pressed for time. Do you have my usuals?"
"Of course, my dear, of course! Here you are, two sunflowers. Twenty credits."
Jane handed the older woman a small stack of credits. "Keep the change, Maria. Thanks for remembering." Jane took the sunflowers off the counter and began her small trek to the memorial. Sunflowers. Two. Every year. I wonder if Dad approves. She smiled to herself. He always thought Mom fussed too much over her flowers.
The monument stood much as it always had, a slightly foreboding piece of granite on the outskirts of town. The area was almost entirely deserted, but there was evidence of others paying their respects earlier in the day; the ground around the structure was littered with bouquets. Shepard ran her hand over the inscription "However painful the past, we live and plan for the future. In memory of the victims and survivors of the batarian raid, may they find peace." She walked slowly around the memorial until she found the names she was seeking. Jonathan and Laura Shepard. She knelt, leaning the sunflowers up against the granite. "Hi, Mom and Dad. It's been another year." She spoke softly. "Things are pretty crazy in the outside world. I don't have much time to stay, but I did at least want to say hi. I still miss you...now more than ever, it seems." Jane drifted off into silence, letting her memories play in her mind.
"Oh nonsense, sweetheart, you'll be fine. You've never had issues with the level exams, why would this one be any different?"
A very young Jane Shepard frowned up at her mother. "Because I missed the last two weeks of school! Because I fell out of that stupid tree! What if my brain doesn't work right anymore?!"
Her mother laughed, blue eyes dancing. "Jane, you'll do just fine. Remember last year? You caught that virus before the second semester and you passed with flying colors. This year won't be any different."
Jane scowled. "You promise?"
Her mother leaned down and brushed several strands of long black hair away from Jane's face. "I promise. Now. Didn't you have somewhere to be? Weren't you and Ana going to go to the..."
"Library!" her child interjected. "I almost forgot! Thanks, Mom! I'll be back soon."
Laura Shepard watched, amused, as her daughter scrambled out the front door of their house, her hair waving behind her. At twelve the poor girl was little more than knees and elbows, but Laura could already see the woman she would become. Jet-black hair and crystal blue eyes; Jonathan is going to have trouble on his hands when she's sixteen.
Jane sighed as she stared out the window from her bed in the local hospital. At fourteen, she was getting very tired of her frequent, and often prolonged, visits to this place. Granted, this time it wasn't her fault. She wasn't sick, she hadn't fallen out of any trees...She was just unfortunate enough to be standing under an eezo powered freighter when one of it's engines suffered a catastrophic failure. Half the colony had been exposed, she was just one of many. It still irked her. Her parents were worried again, the doctors wouldn't leave her alone; how was she feeling? Had she noticed any changes in her mood? Her reflexes? Any headaches? She wanted to scream. She was perfectly fine, couldn't she just go home? What was all the fuss about? She turned as the doors to her room slid open. She smiled when she saw it was her mother.
"Hey Mom! Any idea when we're going to get out of here?" Her smile faded when her mother didn't respond. Jane paused. Her mom looked...frazzled. Her red hair, usually neatly pulled back in a bun, was loose, and errant strands stuck out in odd directions. "Mom?"
Her mother glanced over at her. "Hi, Jane. I think we'll be leaving soon. But..." Her mom hesitated and bit her lip. "Some men are going to come by and ask you a few questions."
Jane scowled. "More doctors? I thought everyone in this place had already seen me. I'm healthy, can't we just go?!"
Mrs. Shepard sighed as she sat down next to her daughter. "I know you're impatient, Jane, and I can't say that I blame you, but these men aren't doctors. They're...well, they're with a corporation that investigates element zero exposer. They want to know if you feel any different after...after what happened."
Jane raised an eyebrow. "But can't they just talk to the doctors? I mean, can't they tell them I'm normal?"
"I don't think so, sweetie. They want to talk to everyone personally."
Jane nodded. "Well alright. I'll try to be patient."
Her mom smiled. "That's my girl." Laura watched as her daughter's expression became thoughtful. "Something bothering you, kiddo?"
"This place is depressing."
Her daughter's bluntness took her a little off-guard. "Why do you feel that way?"
"Well. It's not like I've ever had any terrible experiences here but...Mom, people die here. Don't you think that's a little sad?"
Jane. Always the little thinker. "Well, yes, it is, but people also get well here. Doesn't that help?"
Jane sighed. "I suppose so. I dunno...it's just. It's not home."
Laura Shepard smiled slightly. "Why don't you try and rest? I could sing, if you think that would help."
Jane leaned back against her pillows. She was kind of sleepy. "That'd be nice..."
"Words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup/they slither while they pass, they slip away across the universe..."
The gentlemen in suits came by that afternoon; they explained that sometimes when people are exposed to element zero they develop unique talents. They wanted to know if Jane ever had anything different happen to her, if she ever noticed that she could...do things with her mind. After they left, her parents explained that people with element zero talents were called biotics. That biotics had to be trained by other people on some far-off station so they could control their skills. It would be very important to tell someone if she ever thought she might be a biotic. A few days after returning from the hospital, Jane's eyes changed color. They were violet now, and hard to miss. Her mother nearly panicked, her father said that as long as Jane was healthy, it didn't matter. A year later, Jane started noticing she could move things by reaching out towards them. Very, very small motions, but they were moving nonetheless. "Being a biotic means you have to go off world, for training." Jane never mentioned it to anyone. She prayed that this frightening skill would just go away. A year later, it didn't matter. A year later, her world was in ashes.
Nothing's gonna change my world...Nothing's gonna change my world...
"Uh, Lieutenant? Think you could come up here?" Joker's voice crackled across Kaidan's comm.
"Sure, Joker. I'll be there in a sec." Kaidan turned off his omnitool. Whatever was wrong with the console in the mess hall would have to wait.
"Ok, Joker, what's up?" Kaidan stood behind the pilot.
"Uh...it's the commander. She told me she'd be back in twenty and...not that I want to, you know, interrupt anything, but it's almost been an hour."
Kaidan hesitated. "And you want me to go find her?"
Joker bristled a bit "Well, you're her second in command! I'd do it, but these damn legs of mine don't make for easy travel."
"Calm down Joker, it's fine. I'll go find her, it's just not like you to be concerned."
Joker frowned. "Well, you know...the whole dead parents thing...I can't imagine it's easy...And I don't really know anyone else on this ship to send. Williams' seems like a nice girl, but she'd probably say something...stupid. Just get her back here so we can go back to kicking ass and taking names, ok?"
Kaidan grinned at Joker's assessment of their recent missions. "Will do, Joker. Will do."
Kaidan Alenko wandered, slightly lost, through the small town east of where the Normandy had landed. There weren't many people out on the streets, and the few that were didn't seem willing to give directions to a stranger. He stopped on a corner and tried to get his bearings.
"You must be looking for Commander Shepard."
He started, then noticed the old woman standing outside the flower shop across the street. "Um...yeah...How did you know that?"
The small figure laughed. "You're wearing the uniform. You must be looking for her."
Kaidan gave her a half grin. "So I am. Any idea where I can find her, Mrs...?"
"Call me Maria. She's probably still at the memorial. Take this street all the way down, then turn right. You can't miss it."
Kaidan nodded and turned to go. "Thanks, Maria. I appreciate it."
Maria smiled and called after him. "You're very welcome young man. Take good care of her."
Kaidan froze and turned, puzzled, but the older woman had already retreated back into her shop. He shook his head. I'm sure she didn't mean anything by it.
He found the memorial right where Maria said it would be, and he could see Commander Shepard sitting beside the stone, her head bowed, sunflowers laid out before her. She looked so much more fragile now, kneeling before this reminder of her past. How she had become the Commander he knew with her past full of death and loss, he couldn't understand. But he wanted to; he wanted to understand how she still could be so warm with the crew, how she had so much patience with the Council. Superior officer, Alenko. Protocol. He sighed. He stood, watching her for a few moments. Now I know why Joker didn't want to just call her over the comm. And now that I'm here, I don't want to interrupt her either. What was he supposed to say? Hey, sorry to interrupt your visit to your family's grave...All he really wanted to do was put an arm around her shoulder and ask if she was ok, did she want to talk about anything? She'd think he was nuts. He steeled himself and took a few steps toward her, stopping when he heard singing on the wind.
"Nothing's gonna change my world...nothing's gonna change my world..."
It wasn't a song he recognized, but the tune sounded slow and sad. He took a deep breath.
She turned, startled. "Kaidan...Lieutenant. I wasn't expecting you. I...did Joker send you?" Her voice was slightly shaky.
Alenko nodded. "I'm very sorry to interrupt, ma'am, but Joker was concerned that you'd been gone longer than anticipated."
Jane sighed, glancing at the sky. "Yes, of course. I'm sorry...I just...lost track of time." She trailed off, her tone distant.
"I don't think anyone begrudges you an extra twenty minutes, but Joker asked me to find you so we could get back to, and I quote, 'kicking ass and taking names'." He held his breath, hoping Joker's comment could lighten the mood a little. Shepard looked up at him and smiled. Alenko felt his pulse quicken slightly. I don't think she has any idea how beautiful she is.
"Well, if that's the case, then I certainly don't want to keep Joker waiting. Lieutenant? Can you give me a hand up? I think my legs are slightly asleep." Shepard looked away from him, embarrassed.
"Sure, Commander." He stepped towards her and extended his hand.
I really hope he doesn't notice how much I'm shaking, Jane prayed silently as she placed her hand in his. In one swift motion Alenko pulled her to her feet. She hadn't realized how much force he'd used and teetered slightly, almost falling against him. He reached out to steady her, looking concerned.
"Are you ok, Commander?" She looked up into his face and felt her cheeks flush. "I..." You are his commanding officer! Who cares how handsome he is, GET A GRIP.
"I'm fine, Lieutenant. Thank you." Her tone was slightly cool, and Alenko dropped his arms to his sides, worried he'd offended her.
She straightened herself and brushed her uniform off. "We had better get back to the ship."