Chapter One

Her Own Personal Paradise

-

Shepard had been in Arizona too long. People were starting to recognise her in the street and that made her edgy. She had spent four tired, meandering years in the once-great State and it had taken less than a month to see everything that could be seen and sample the experiences it offered. On her sixteenth birthday, she wandered the familiar streets of Phoenix under the same old sky and the same old tired, lazy sun. At least the weather was good.

The girl was thin and rather slight. Her long hair was straight and boring and her face held no remarkable feature. Years of solitary travel across various megatropolises had left her voice flat and unspecific, and she deliberately dressed to avoid attention. Silently she walked through the white streets, looking at palm trees and tall, gleaming buildings she had already seen. It was pretty but no different to any of the other big cities she had known. Still it was nice to be there. The smog and overcrowding were much less apparent in the capital, and walls were adorned with enormous laserscreens showing extranet pages in startling high quality.

The real gem to be found in the big city, however, was the optimism. The colonies out in space had been enjoying more and more success in the last few years, and now they had finally found it in their hearts to send a little of it back home. As a result the developed cities on Earth were suddenly gifted with credits which were immediately used to filter the air and build laserscreens. The streets of Phoenix were a great deal brighter lately, and the good feeling was so infectious that some of the more hopeful citizens were even calling it a 'golden age'. As she wandered about, watching people pass by and listening to them talk, either to each other or to thin air with a tiny transmitter on their collar, Shepard enjoyed the optimism vicariously. People seemed to be dressed more nicely and there was, for some reason, not a scrap of litter to be seen on the ground. Evidently some of the colonial cash had gone to a street-cleaning programme.

When she started to get hungry Shepard considered heading home. It had been relaxing looking around Phoenix's streets and she had made a fun trip to the Space Museum, but city food was too expensive. When she reached the end of the street she crossed, turned and picked up the pace a little. Humming the jingle from the news reports on the big screens above, she figured out the quickest route back to the train station. It would only cost her a few minutes if she swung by the Navy training centre along the way.

The centre was a wide, prominent building whose wedge-shaped base protruded a little into the street as if announcing its splendour. Whenever she was visiting, the girl would make an effort to walk by the building and admire the attentive, busy soldiers inside. The interior of the building was a dark, serious blue, and everything from the lighting to the uniforms worn inside helped to create the mood. Shepard was fascinated by the Alliance Navy and envied the structured, heroic lives of those who served. Walking past and peering into the wide windows gave her a glimpse into the dream and let her wonder if it might be possible to join their ranks and see the stars herself one day. Probably not. She had been trying to escape the South for a year. Getting off the planet would not be an easy task.

--

Today when she passed the centre she was lucky enough to encounter something for the first time. On the street across the way, chatting with a tall man wearing a pretentious sunvisor, were two salarians. At first, Shepard almost didn't know what she was looking at. She had seen aliens on her visits to the capital in the past, but usually it was the pretty asari. Once she had seen a batarian, back when they were welcome on Earth, and very occasionally turians would dare to visit, but the sight of these thin, gangly creatures was something entirely new to her. They were a lot taller than they seemed on extranet screens, and a lot… shinier. They looked unreal, like life-sized plastic models of aliens to be used as a prop in an old-time movie. She found it hard to imagine that there weren't thin actors inside those bizarre costumes, putting on the silly voices and animating the black, glossy eyes from within. She stepped closer.

"Yes, it certainly has been," said the lighter-skinned alien. The way he pronounced the last word made it sound more like 'bin', and this made the young Shepard giggle. Luckily, the pair didn't hear.

"Well hey, I sure hope I see you guys again next month," the suited, sun-visored man gushed, brimming with the fake enthusiasm of the city-dweller. The serene aliens nodded and told him that he would see them on the day of their appointment.

At this point the darker salarian removed a triangular wallet from a fold in his rubbery, tight jacket. After a moment his long fingers produced a card of some kind and offered it to the man with a smile on the corners of his pencil-thin mouth. Having received this item, the human lost his enthusiasm, smiled again and turned away. The salarians struck-up a conversation of their own as they headed down the street, strolling slowly but covering a lot of distance with each stride. The dark-skinned one replaced the wallet but absently left it half-exposed in a back pocket. There weren't many people on this street and no-one but Shepard was looking at the strange visitors.

It was too much of an invitation to resist. Silently walking behind them, her head down, Shepard stepped up to the aliens and got close to their backs. Still involved in their conversation, they failed to detect her proximity, and certainly the dark creature did not notice the very slight friction of his wallet sliding from the jacket. She slowed her walking then headed straight for a side-street, not stopping to look behind her until she was alone. It was done.

Opening it up revealed not only the princely sum of fifty credits, but also all sorts of little cards and datachips offering glimpses into salarian culture. Shepard would have as much fun spending that money as she would poring over the information on the chips, learning about the curious, shiny people she had stolen from. For the moment, the money was more appealing; it was a lot more than she usually found in a lifted wallet. She wondered about how best to use it. This being her birthday, perhaps she should spend those credits on some real, fresh food and stay in Phoenix for another couple of hours. She quickly decided against this, feeling a little afraid that the lanky creatures might chase after her and knowing that even with this boon she had no money to waste. The experience of encountering the aliens and obtaining some interesting data would have to be enough of a present. Jogging now, she made for the train station.

Soon Shepard found herself in a populated street again and the running became conspicuous. Always fingering the credits in the pocket of her long, dark coat, she slowed her pace and crossed the road. Finally she found relief in the sight of the Alliance Union Station and breathed a little easier. She was used to taking wallets in daylight but the exotic nature of her victim and the fact that it had happened so near to her beloved training centre instilled a mixture of nerves and guilt. The feeling lessened gradually as she came closer to the station doors. Once she was inside, it left her. There were more pressing matters now. First, she had to find a way around the ticket scanner. She sure as hell wasn't paying.

Technological advances had left Union Station almost unmanned, but this didn't make it any easier to get a free ride. In fact, a few months ago it had become nearly impossible to avoid paying, thanks to the newly-installed, solid blue force wall. The access corridor used to have a simple metal stile, automatically operated but easy to climb over when no-one was looking. Same as all the smaller stations. Now there was no way to go over as the imposing blue wall completely filled the tunnel. Shepard had no idea how the thing worked, even what that damn blue stuff was, so she had no chance of bypassing it with her omni-tool. She hadn't even brought it with her today. Her only options, she figured, were to obtain someone else's ticket or to slip through behind another passenger.

It was a little busy for pick-pocketing and she hadn't forgotten the unexpected pang of guilt from robbing the salarian. Better to slip in behind another passenger this time.

A suitably aloof mark appeared soon, openly fumbling for his ticket card as he approached the unsightly blue force-field. He was large, wore a hat and seemed oblivious to anything going on around him, focused as he was on the search for his ticket. Shepard made a silent but deliberate move toward his back. People might see her, but they would probably think he was her father or something. As the large man finally located his ticket and started forward, the girl tucked herself quietly into his back and prepared to spring forward if necessary.

He stopped again and the field vanished with a satisfied 'bleep'. It would stay down for five seconds, but the man was stood still, fumbling around with his wallet again. Two seconds passed with him muttering and Shepard trying to edge to the side.

Another second. Why was he doing this now? Shepard assessed the situation quickly, knowing she had to make a decision. Either she could jump right past the idiot and risk him reporting her, or else she had to spend six of the fifty credits she'd found to actually buy a ticket. She hated that blue field. Not only would she be losing money, to pay for a card would be like letting the damn thing win.

She'd just run for it. There weren't enough security staff to find her before a train arrived. Abandoning stealth, she jumped to the side of the man and pushed forward.

The field reappeared just at the worst moment and effectively slammed into her nose. She fell back, steadied herself and retreated to avoid the confused sputterings of the fat man. Feeling her pained face with her left hand, Shepard found the salarian's wallet and headed for the automated ticket booths.

--

When the doors of the train closed behind her with a cosmetic hiss, Shepard was still angry and her nose still hurt. The end of it throbbed a little and made the irritation far worse. There were too many people in the carriage, and it was only by the strongest effort that she had secured her seat , squashed between a woman reading some sort of portable videoscreen and a young man who found it impossible to resist glancing over at Shepard and smiling to himself. She didn't know what his motives were, but she hated being looked at. The man was attractive and tastefully dressed, but had dyed his hair and small goatee dark blue. There were no moustache or sideburns to accompany the little beard and his fingers were adorned with small, silver rings. He seemed to scream for attention, and Shepard was annoyed that she had given some to him.

She should never have headed South. When she made the decision, she had no idea how quickly things got worse the closer you got to Mexico. Now that she had made her mistake and grown up, she had made a point of learning all about the planet's plight. Earth was unlike all the other settlements in that nobody was making any real effort to improve it. The air was dirty, the sea levels were rising and as if this wasn't enough, the planet's children had decided to dump tons of space ship debris into the immediate orbit. Anyone who was important was in outer space, colonising planets in the Exodus cluster and naming them after mythical utopias. Who would choose to stay on Earth when they could choose from Xanadu, Nirvana and Eden Prime? Only those who couldn't afford any better, or the few privileged groups who ran the Alliance governments and owned the big cities.

The differences between rich and poor were more distinct and unpleasant on Earth than any other planet in known space, making it the Alliance's humanitarian embarrassment. There were a few nation-states who still enjoyed luxury. Canada and Japan had prospered while large parts of Asia, Europe and the Middle East had ground to a halt. The United States were surviving, but the infection of poverty and urban decay was beginning to rise up from the ruins of Middle America. Arizona had been hit hard. Phoenix was clean and beautiful, but it was surrounded by a grimy, culturally-forsaken mass of cities on all sides. The coming 'golden age' the rich folks had talked about today would have to be pretty special if it were to save the Earth. The Alliance leadership would need a lot more money from the colonies.

With the exception of its small bright spots and empty, automated farmland, Earth was one big, ugly, red sand-addicted city. The discovery of the Prothean ruins on Mars had accelerated human development further than it could handle. Somewhere between fighting a war against an unknowable alien army, colonising a new system and revolutionising technology and medicine, the needs of Earth had just been left behind. And the people who didn't manage to rent an apartment in their nearest big city were suffering and bitter. Everyone knew this wouldn't last forever. In a couple of generations the Alliance would get a hold of itself and fix everything. But until then, Shepard would just have to think of a better way of getting past that goddamn force field.

When the flat, windowless train made its fifth stop, Shepard knew she was home. Having to shimmy past the creepy young man with the blue beard, who was still looking at her, she made her way out and found the sun was gone. Time had passed and the fading light was, as always, obscured by grey pollution, but the effect struck her anyway. She tied her old, black jacket closed and put her hands in her pockets, tightly secured around her own purse and the stolen wallet.

The ticket scanner in Glendale Linkway Station would have been easy to jump over, but since she had the ticket she figured she might as well use it. Once she was through she dropped the card to the ground for someone else to get a use out of. She wouldn't have any need to visit the capital for a while. Seeing the clear skies, the white pavements and of course the deep blue majesty of the training centre always refreshed her, but the only money to be made was in the occasional borrowed wallet. Besides, fifty credits would pay her power and fresh water meters for a while and she already had food. Better stay home for a while.

At this time of day the crowds were at their worst. Glendale was always stuffed with too many people, but when the evening began to dawn the roads would fill with cars and the streets would fill with those who could not afford transport. Most of the people, or at least their faces, were known to Shepard, though few recognised her small frame, shrouded by strands of hair and concealed between passers-by. It was hot under the thick, Southern air and surrounded by the writhing mess of bodies, but she was used to it.

In fact, she was sick of it. After she left her original home, when the orphanage grew too full to house twelve-year-olds, she had been sent to Illinois. The megatropolis there was better than she had been used to and she was lucky enough to have someone to look after her. It was good while it lasted, but it softened her up too much. When she found herself all alone again she had decided to travel. That was the stupidest, if not the worst, decision she had ever made. At the very least she should have gone North. Now it had been three years in the myriad identical slums surrounding Phoenix and she wanted dearly to get out and see something new. Even just slightly new would be nice.

But Glendale held one attraction that nowhere else had held for her since Illinois. A home. Not only a home, but a big one. It was warm enough and always had food and drink available for her. It was the largest, emptiest amount of space Shepard had encountered in the whole of Arizona, and only she knew it existed. It was heavenly.

As she drew away from Glendale's centre and made her way into what were laughingly called the suburbs, Shepard found the pain from her nose and the anger of being beaten by the force field diminishing. Soon she would be home, sat down, learning all about salarians and eating birthday cake. Most likely, she would have a little drink to wash it down with too.

She found her neighbourhood just as busy as everywhere else, and it took her some time to cross the road. Even then she had to run and ignore several car horns. Leaving the street, she slipped behind the side of the old abandoned supermarket. Its parking lot was filling up with traffic, as if they had all come to do some shopping. In fact they were merely taking advantage of the free spaces, as they had done every night. Parking on the streets themselves was dangerous and there were not nearly enough driveways to go around. The expansive lot outside the locked, bolted and steel-boarded Kost Mart market offered safety in numbers to those car owners who were quick enough to find a space.

Shepard would often wonder what the original name of the market had been. 'Kost Mart' was surely not a smart name for a retail outlet, and she could see that at least one letter had fallen from the large, plastic sign above the doors. Maybe it was 'Low Kost Mart?' Whatever it had been, it was Kost Mart now. One side of it faced the tall, grey, concrete wall of the neighbouring apartment block, and in the small gap between the buildings, Shepard found a rare spot where nobody could see her. Sighing a little with the relief of solitude, she began scaling the wall of the Mart. The concrete at her back helped give her something to lean against, but the chips in the bricks and the edges of the steel shutters on the market were here hand and footholds.

It did not take too much effort to reach the top level of the store as she was used to it now. When she did find it, she took only a moment to get her breath back before pulling aside a piece of corrugated iron to reveal her entry point. A broken window in the ceiling allowed her to jump down to a little utility room. From here she climbed back up on a ladder and repositioned the metal sheet covering her secret entrance.

Home at last. Time to relax.

After she had bathed and changed into her other set of clothes, Shepard found her way to the main hall of the supermarket and pushed a shopping cart into one of the aisles. Climbing into it and using a mop to propel herself, she spent a happy half-hour riding the rickety, noisy trolley around the market, achieving high speeds and quick turns and laughing throughout. She even managed to complete a full circuit of the hall in under three minutes, but unfortunately as she raced across the finish line she had designated, the cart smashed into a shelf.

The collision knocked cans of quick-dry soup all over the floor, breaking one or two open. The girl's joy faded in a moment and she spent the next while cleaning up the mess and carefully rearranging the cans. Shepard didn't like to see the Kost Mart in disarray. She was very lucky to have found a way into this marvellous place, so it was her duty to keep it clean.

Finally, as the evening drew on, the girl retired to the staff canteen, or 'the living room' as she preferred to call it. Here she had a comfy chair and an old computer screen which she used to view the extranet. An old television set was in the corner, which still picked up a weak signal from somewhere or other. At the centre of the table, set up and waiting since that morning, was her sweet sixteen birthday feast. A small coffee cake, packaged in cardboard and dry-wrap but the best specimen available in the whole building, lay next to a bottle of champagne and a pink mug. She beamed from ear to ear as she saw these treats. They were her favourites.

The cake was delicious, and she was hungry for it after the day in Phoenix and the exertions of her best-ever shopping cart race time. The wine was typically perfect and she savoured it. There were two shelves' worth of dried cakes on the shelves of Kost Mart's main hall, but not a lot of champagne. She had to ration it. Nonetheless, the cake and the bottle disappeared within a couple of hours, and she had to leave the room in order to retrieve a bottle of good gin.

The drinking continued as Shepard hooked up the salarian datachips to her omni-tool. To her disappointment, there was nothing to be seen but a few personal effects and details of some sort of business merger. The official letters bored her quickly and it would have been rude to read the personal notes. Muttering drunkenly to herself, she switched off the tool and detached it from her arm. She returned to the bottle in silence, lost in her fuzzy thoughts.

Although Shepard was having as good a time as she had experienced in years, the pathetic desperation of the occasion was not lost on her. She decided to quit the gin as these melancholy thoughts came to her. Any more of the stuff would only make her worse. After standing up, she decided to cheer herself up. Maybe back in Illinois her life would have been better. Maybe living as a Navy Cadet or making a living in Phoenix somehow would be fantastic. It was impossible not to wonder how her life would have progressed if her parents, whoever they were, had decided to keep her. But frankly, not one of these alternatives would have resulted in Shepard living in and owning her very own abandoned, near-impenetrable supermarket. That was a wonderful gift she had been given, and she was going to enjoy it.

The people who had left Earth now lived in 'Utopia' and 'Asgard' while most of the folks left behind were stuck with the megatropolises. As far as she knew, though, no-one but Shepard lived in their very own market, with a near-endless supply of dried food and chilled drinks. She was lucky in that she didn't have to farm a colony all day. She had found her own personal paradise, and she came home to it every night.

With a steadfast determination, the birthday girl marched from the canteen and slumped her alcohol-slowed body into another shopping cart. This one handled better than the last, and she aimed to beat her time. At around midnight she tumbled out of the cart and fell asleep on the floor of the frozen food aisle.