Prologue

Trent Shipyard, Terra Nova, Asgard System, Exodus Cluster

2172

Through the large, oval shaped window, one had to admit the curving contours of the SSV El Alamein were striking, particularly bathed as they were in the soft glow of the dock lights. Staff Commander David Anderson was certainly of that opinion, and the few moments he had taken to pause by the overlooking viewport were, in his mind at least, worth the risk of being a little late for his appointment.

Assuring himself that the man responsible for the day's events would not begrudge Anderson's decision to stop and appreciate the view, he nevertheless decided to imbue a little haste into his stride and continue walking. Choosing to take the stairs rather than wait for the lift, Anderson stepped out from the stairwell into the spacious dock, bracing himself against the sudden chill. The sheer size of the dock made any attempt to heat it futile, and beyond the wide entrance portal, the winter of Terra Nova's sub-polar region was setting in; the pale sun visible just over the Trent mountains cast streaks of weak, yellow light as it set, and thick grey clouds were already moving to claim the sky it was leaving. It was to be a cold night.

Anderson strode briskly to the jet bridge, returning the salute of the young armoured marine standing guard at the entrance and passing through into the ship itself, his destination. Usually, on a frigate of this class, Anderson would have been met by a sealed decontamination chamber and its VI operated systems, but for today the ship was open and Anderson was greeted not by the disembodied voice of a computer program, but by a young officer in dress uniform.

"Commander Anderson?" The junior officer asked, his eyes lighting up.

"That's me." Anderson affirmed in his deep baritone.

"You're right on time, sir. I'm to take you to the mess."

"Lead the way." Anderson smiled. The officer led the way down a set of stairs aft of the bridge and into the crew's mess. Anderson was immediately greeted by a smattering of applause from the assembled crewmen, lined up along the back wall of the mess. Before them stood two men, one of whom Anderson recognised as the El Alamein's captain Stefan Wagner, and to whom he snapped off a quick salute. As the captain returned the salute, the man to his left set down his glass on the table and walked over to Anderson.

"So this is my replacement," the man smiled, "It's a pleasure to meet you, son." That clarified the man as being Commander Thomas Portman, the current executive officer of the frigate, and the man whose retirement had left a position for Anderson to fill.

"Likewise, sir." Anderson gave a warm smile and clasped the older man's hand in a firm handshake.

"Shall we get on with this then, sir?" Portman turned back to Captain Wagner, with a knowing smile, "some of these younger officers look like they're itching for a damn drink and some shore leave."

Captain Wagner gave a gruff smile and looked across at Anderson.

"Commander, if you will?" He asked in a neutral voice, absent of even a trace of an accent. Anderson nodded, and stepped across to face the captain. He stood rigid at attention while the captain turned to the table and picked up a folded Systems Alliance flag. Anderson gave a slow salute, and Wagner handed him the flag with a stiff thrust of his arms, before delivering a drawn out salute himself. Anderson marched over to Commander Portman, who stood taller even than Anderson's rather large frame. The two men repeated the process, Portman struggling to contain a smile.

Anderson completed the salute, and Portman stood at attention for the final time. The lined officers broke into applause once again, and Captain Wagner strode up to his now former Executive Officer, shaking his hand.

"Congratulations Tom, I'm grateful for every moment of your service. I'm sure I'm not the only who'll tell you that you'll be sorely missed." Portman smiled again.

"I couldn't have asked for a better captain to serve under, skipper. It's been a pleasure." He responded. Anderson smiled to himself, despite the slight awkwardness he felt as a newcomer to this particular relationship. He knew that Portman had been XO of the El Alamein for as long as Wagner had been captain; six years of partnership was bound to have fostered a close friendship. Anderson felt no remorse for being the one to replace to Portman, however; he had known far too many marines that had not lived to see retirement.

"Right then, that's that." Wagner said simply, a hint of a sigh behind the words. "Crew," he barked at the assembled crewmen, "you are dismissed from active duty." A smile came to his face as he added a final sentiment, "Bring out the contraband!"

As if a switch had been thrown, the mess erupted into noise as the crew struck up conversations and produced quantities of alcohol far too copious to have simply been hidden stash. Captain Wagner chose that moment to introduce himself more informally to his new XO.

"David Anderson," he smiled, "I'm pleased to finally meet you; your file's been up on my terminal so much it may as well have been my screensaver. I have to confess, I'm looking forward to working with you; this ship has yet to benefit from having an N7 graduate on its crew."

Anderson gave his best attempt at a modest smile. The N7 label awarded him signified the highest level of proficiency in the System Alliance Marine Corps' Special Forces branch, a simple badge that marked him clearly as a graduate of an elite program. A sign of competence it may have been, but N7 soldiers were all too often treated as supermen by inexperienced commanders; portrayed as a team of invincible warriors able to solve any problem that may be thrown their way.

For his part, Anderson took the recognition in his stride. He would have been lying were he to deny that he enjoyed the respect shown him, but he also made a conscious effort not to slip into the arrogance that afflicted some of his fellow N7 graduates. He had seen the evidence that pride came before a fall, and none of those falls had been easy to watch.

"Thank you, sir." Anderson replied, "I'm looking forward to serving on the El Alamein. Wolf pack duty left me with all too few opportunities to ground pound; being back on a patrol frigate is going to be far more up my street." Wagner gave a mirthless chuckle, a remarkably odd sound from his stern face.

"It's not going to be an easy tour, Commander. I haven't had time to brief the crew yet, but we're bound for the far side of the Traverse."

"The far side meaning the batarians' side?" Anderson asked, concerned. The captain nodded gravely.

"Exactly. The official orders are pirate patrol and suppression. Read: counter-terrorism." Anderson grimaced; he was no stranger to combat on the fringes of Alliance space, but few of those memories were particularly happy ones. In recent years, the competitive rivalry that had sprung up between humanity and the batarian race had reached a dramatic peak. It was only a year ago that the batarian ambassador had stormed from the Citadel Tower declaring his people's secession, a move that had been prompted directly by human colonization efforts in the Skyllian Verge. And only another year before that had seen the rivalry nearly descend into all out conflict, after a brutal batarian slaver raid on the Alliance colony of Mindoir.

Anderson himself had been part of a frigate flotilla that was only hours from striking a batarian colony when the Council finally brokered a resolution to that particular flare up. Anderson had heard one could count the survivors from the raid on one's hands. To say that relations between the two races were tense was an understatement, even speaking optimistically. And nowhere was this clearer than on the borders of the Verge.

"Let's not dampen the mood, though." Wagner smiled again. "I think it would be best if you met the crew, particularly the marines who'll be under your command. Welcome to the El Alamein, Commander. Enjoy yourself while you can. We ship out in thirty six hours."

*****

By the time the El Alamein finally cleared the hangar and fired up its engines for a swift burn into space, amid the failing light of a late, wintry afternoon, Anderson was feeling fully human once more. The throbbing headache he had awoken with had served as a stiff reminder that he was not getting any younger, and with his advancing years came a drastically reduced capacity for alcohol. The hours before he had been called for duty had given him sufficient time to reflect on his decision, however, and he found that he did not regret his decision to make an attempt at getting to know the soldiers newly charged to him, despite the price he had paid that morning.

As marine detail commander, there had been little for him to do with regards to prepping the ship, other than a brief stint as a flashlight holder down in the engineering section while a control cable package for the drive core was replaced. Instead, Anderson had used the time to familiarise himself with the bridge. As the El Alamein tore past the strip mined surface of the planet Tyr on its way out of the system, Anderson finally allowed himself to take a seat in the centrally positioned Combat Information Centre. Looking up at the large holographically projected galaxy map that dominated the CIC, Anderson adjusted a loosened strap on his belt.

The Executive Officer of a frigate was an odd position in that uniform requirements were somewhat more relaxed than other officers. Given that his theoretical role was to be combat ready at a moment's notice, Anderson was permitted to perform his duties in fatigues rather than the full uniform worn by the captain or other bridge officers. At first, it had been odd having officers more junior than him looking smarter, but Anderson had rapidly adapted.

The fatigues were simple, a slim fitting blue t-shirt with faux camouflage print along the flanks, a pair of combat trousers in the same blue camo print, black combat boots and a black equipment harness around the waist and thighs. Both comfortable and practical, Anderson found them far more accommodating than the more rigid service coat and creased trousers worn by the other officers.

Of course, in a service born from an amalgamation of several varying nation state militaries, correct protocol was mired in a long list of regulations. In an effort to simplify things, the addition of a clause that put uniform at the discretion of the senior officer had been implemented. In reality, however, that often meant one did not know what uniform they should be wearing until they were told off by a superior for wearing the wrong one. Whether it was his N7 status or something in his attitude, Anderson was not sure, but he had yet to be reprimanded for his choice of fatigues.

"Anderson," Captain Wagner called from a slightly raised platform amid the consoles that encircled the galaxy map, "I need an ETA on hitting the mass relay."

"Aye, sir." Anderson replied, standing as he did so. He smiled to himself, he had fully expected to receive an order as soon as he sat down. As he made his way forward to the flight station, he passed Wagner resuming what looked like an intense discussion with the ship's navigator.

Lieutenant Lev Horowitz sat amid the heavy bank of control consoles and data readouts that formed the flight station. Where in a combat situation, the two seats that flanked his bulky, cushioned pilot's chair might be occupied by two junior support officers; in the basic 'milk run' flight they were performing now, they were free for Anderson's use. Sinking heavily into the rightmost chair, he took a moment to take in the fleeting glimpse of space the narrow viewport running along the side of the cockpit offered, before turning to the helmsman.

"Captain's asking for an ETA on the relay."

"Already?" Horowitz snorted, "The captain likes to be kept informed, but this is ridiculous even by his standards." The pilot keyed a few commands into a small blue lit terminal to his left. "I mean we haven't even cleared the Termination Shock yet." He added, referring to the point in space at which particles thrown out by the star's solar wind began to slow, essentially marking the boundary of a star system. "Well, tell him we're about four hours out, if I keep a steady burn."

"Got it," Anderson nodded and stood once again, leaving the pilot to his flying. Fleetingly, the commander wondered how seriously he should take Horowitz's remark. Captain Wagner had thrown himself whole-heartedly into the pre-flight preparations, but Anderson had assumed that was normal. Between Horowitz citing the simple demand as somewhat premature, and the notably heated debate between Wagner and the navigation officer that Anderson had heard earlier, perhaps there was something else afoot. Could Wagner have a more personal stake in the El Alamein's mandate? Or was there something Anderson was yet to be told? As he delivered the requested information, Anderson wondered if maybe the captain was just eager to return to the action, and to test out his new XO. Not for the first time, the commander felt his latest tour had the potential to be an interesting one.

*****

Ambassador Sang Gil-soo hurried across the gleaming white promenade that ran between the embassy buildings and the verdant parkland that occupied much of the Presidium. The political heart of the galactic capital was a marvel to behold, a pristine ecosystem artificially managed to near perfection surrounding a freshwater lake that ran through the centre of the Presidium ring. The artificial blue sky that hung above on the inside of the ring was nigh on impossible to distinguish from the real thing, as was the faint breeze that filtered throughout the level.

The Ward Arms that made up the majority of the massive Citadel space station may have resembled a dense city more than a deep space installation, but at least one could comprehend them as a physical construction. To Ambassador Sang's human eyes, the natural environment that had been created on the Citadel's central Presidium ring seemed a work beyond that of mortal hands, so convincing was the image it portrayed. But like so many other days before, and in the footsteps of countless diplomats, Ambassador Sang found that once again, he had too little time to stop and admire the masterpiece.

The Korean emigrant had not inherited an easy job; not that anyone had ever pretended it would be. As humanity's most senior liaison with the Citadel Council, the governing body that held ultimate responsibility for galactic law and policy, Ambassador Sang had the unenviable duty of representing the multitude desires of humans as a species on the galactic political stage. While this was a difficult task alone, the current ambassador for the Systems Alliance had ascended to his position at perhaps the worst possible time.

During his tenure, relations between humanity and the batarian race had swiftly declined. After a mere two decades of membership of Council space, humanity had managed to drive another species to what seemed to be the brink of all out conflict. Ambassador Sang knew that the blame could not rest solely with humanity, and he knew that the tension had started long before he became Ambassador, but the devastating raid by batarian slavers on the human colony of Mindoir, the subsequent backlash and the batarian secession from Council space had all occurred during his time in office.

Indeed, it was partly due to these perceived failings that Ambassador Sang now found himself with urgency in his steps and a rare smile on his face. Where diplomacy on his part had fallen short in the past, he had now been given a chance to make amends. Racing past the embassy receptionist, Sang practically flew into his office and fell heavily into his padded chair.

"Joanne? Can you forward the message please?" he asked immediately into his intercom. Efficient as ever, Sang's Aide Joanne Blake forwarded the video message through to Sang's terminal within seconds of the request.

By the time the message finished, the smile on Ambassador Sang's face was all the more pronounced. At last, perhaps he could herald in a resolution to this petty conflict. But he was a cautious man; he had not earned his position through impetuousness. He would have to proceed with care, but that merely accentuated the fact that he now had little time to waste.