Flight Lieutenant Jeff "Joker" Moreau

The young man walked with great difficulty even with leg braces and the most modern of crutches. With every slow step his foot dragged behind for a moment before he could bring it ahead and set it down properly. Unlike other people, Joker had to think about every step, every movement of his leg. If not, his bones would snap like twigs.

He made his way, one foot at a time, off of the shuttle that had just landed at Arcturus, the capitol of the Systems Alliance. Joker was very cognizant of the short stares that he was getting from people in the crowded space port. He imagined them wondering how a poor crippled boy could be wearing such a sharp Alliance Navy uniform. Yeah, despite it being the latter part of the 22nd Century, there was still a lot of prejudice and misconception about the physically disabled. He saw one man narrow his eyes at him, obviously wondering about Joker's abilities as an officer. Moreau just looked him dead in the eye with a flare of his nostrils and the man looked away. Joker laughed inside and took a moment to straighten his shiny silver wings that sat just above his chest pocket. He wanted everyone to see those wings and the years of pain and dedication that it took to earn them. Joker had beaten out 1200 pilot candidates just to sit in a training cockpit and then had beaten out 1500 pilots to stand here at this place at this time.

He looked back at the man who was already receding into the crowd. "Yeah, keep on walking," he said under his breath. "You don't want to tangle with Joker."

Despite his bravado, Joker was now tiring from his efforts to get to his new ship. Every step strained his arms, legs, and feet and he had a light sheen of perspiration coating his face. He blew out a long breath and wiped his forehead with the back of his sleeve.

"Need some help?" a woman said as she passed by.

"Can you fly?"

The woman looked confused. "Uhh, no. What does that have to do with anything?"

Joker made a smirk. "Well, if you can't fly, I don't need your help." No one helped him get to this point and no one need help him the rest of the way. He had a big chip on his shoulder about that.

Her eyes widened in shock and insult. "Fine, whatever," she said as she turned and walked away.

"All right, see yah." He made a big smirk, thinking he had made some kind of point as he scratched at the scraggly beard he'd been growing out for more than a week. He had a feeling that Captain Anderson might not like the facial hair, but it was within regulation…just barely. And besides, the captain wanted him to fly, not look like he was ready for the Navy Ball.

Having rested sufficiently, Joker continued to hobble through the bustling spaceport until he came to the tram that would take him to Alliance Navy Personnel Command. He pulled himself along and into the tram just before the doors hissed closed. His legs were aching by this time and he took a seat next to a navy commander, all decked out in his Sunday best. Joker could tell that the man was looking him over, wondering about his leg braces and his crutches. How could a crippled boy possibly wear the same uniform? He snorted and caught the man staring. "S'up?" he said with a bump of his eyebrows. He invited a confrontation by this gross breach of protocol, but the man merely looked away, embarrassed.

The tram came to a stop and Joker grunted to stand and pull himself out the door. Now in Alliance Fleet territory, there were only uniforms and civilian contractors here. Everyone in the area worked for "the man." A marine checked his ID and pointed the way to the personnel section. Shuffling into the chilly office, he leaned against the counter.

"Joker's here," he told the receptionist, a young woman sporting a Crewman 2nd Class pip. Ah, another bright shiny recruit to further the dream of humanity. Chicks always dug the hobbling on crutches routine.

She looked up and scanned his face and then his rank. "I'm sorry, sir?"

He looked shocked. "What? You don't know Joker…the most amazing pilot in the Alliance Navy? The man capable of landing a ship on a dime in a meteor storm? The very-" He suddenly felt a presence behind him. He didn't know how, but he could feel eyes boring into the back of his head. He gulped hard.

Joker pinched up his face and looked at the receptionist. "He's behind me, right?"

The woman narrowed one eye at him and then stood up ramrod straight. "Captain on deck!"

Flight Officer Jeff Moreau sighed. "Awww shit. I can't catch a break." He turned around and it wasn't pretty. Captain David Anderson, hero a hundred times over and icon in the Alliance Navy looked immensely displeased. He had that tight lipped, tight jaw look that could've set Joker on fire. Joker tried to stand at attention, but one of his crutches fell out and clattered on the deck. "Smooth move, Moreau," he mumbled.

Anderson merely snorted and shook his head. "I'm paying you to fly, Joker, not to make a fool of yourself."

"Right, captain. Sorry."

"When you're finished inprocessing report your ass to the Normandy at Slip 37. Commander Pressly will log you aboard. You can stow your gear in the crew quarters."

Joker scanned the captain's face for a sign of mirth…a grin, a twinkle in his eye, anything, but all he got from the man was hard and cold, spit and polish. "Aye, sir!"

This was going to be a long shakedown cruise.

Staff Lieutenant Kaidan Alenko

The pain meds were just beginning to take the edge off of the migraine. With his eyes closed tightly, he rubbed his temples with both hands to sooth the throbbing. There were days he just wanted to rip that L2 implant out. Well, he was one of the lucky ones – the implant gave him considerable biotic strength, but for some of the other L2's…it was best not to think about them. Being a biotic was certainly a double-edged sword. On the one hand, biotics were a very new thing to the Human Race and there was quite a lot of superstition and even fear regarding these "mind powers." Some people honestly believed that biotics could read or control minds, which was simply not the case. Rather, it gave the user telekinesis or the ability to throw things around or even…snap a neck. Right now though, Kaiden Alenko would have much rather have been a regular Joe.

"Are you okay, lieutenant?" he heard someone ask. Through the migraine, it seemed like whoever it was speaking to him, they were in a washing machine. Alenko couldn't even tell if it was male or female.

"Ugh." He only vaguely recalled sitting down in the Normandy's crew mess and drinking some water before the headache came on. It was all a big blur since he inprocessed – forms, ID cards, security passes, and more forms. The Normandy was state of the art and thus major clearances were needed. After all of the bureaucracy was finally over he could feel that familiar dull throbbing coming on. He now felt a friendly hand on his back and took a deep breath to focus. "Sorry, it's my implant. Happens from time to time." He looked up to see a handsome gray-haired woman.

"Ah, you must be an L2. I'm Doctor Chakwas," the woman said. Alenko knew her accent to be English, but couldn't quite place the regional dialect. Manchester, perhaps?

"Nice to meet you, doctor," he said slowly. The red haze in his vision was just starting to fade and he could now see that her white uniform was neatly pressed and she presented a most professional appearance. "I'm Lieutenant Alenko, Kaidan Alenko."

Doctor Chakwas tugged gently on his arm. "Well, lieutenant, why don't you follow me? We'll get you back ship shape in no time. I have just the thing."

Alenko had nothing better to do at the moment, but he felt guilty just for feeling like crap when he could see the rest of the crew rushing around like ants, preparing the ship for departure. He was the squad leader after all and should be responsible for checking his marines in. He tried to shake his head, but it just made the pain worse.

"I won't take no for an answer, lieutenant," the doctor insisted in her kindly way. She ushered him to the starboard hatch on the mess deck and it opened with a hiss. "Come, have a seat."

Kaiden sat on one of the beds and found it to be nice and soft. A welcome surprise as he had expected one of those typical navy bunks that were full of rocks. Before he could speak, Doctor Chakwas pressed a white patch onto his neck. "What's that?"

"It's similar to Medigel, but affects the Central Nervous System. It keeps all of those neurons from firing off pain signals. You'll begin to feel some relief about-"

"Ahhhhh," he sighed. It was like a vise grip had been removed from his head. "Wow, thanks doctor."

She rubbed his back in a motherly way, full of warmth and caring. "You're welcome," she said. Then, her expression became serious. "I can't give you too many of these though. Long-term suppression of your pain receptors is not a good thing. Sometimes, you'll have to endure the headache."

"Not a problem. I've lived this long with the migraines. Thanks again. I should get back to my marines."

The doctor's hand kept him from rising. "Not so fast, lieutenant. Just rest for a few minutes. No one will die if you're not there this instant. Besides, I could use the company."

Despite his reluctance to stay, Alenko couldn't refuse. The doctor had this old world charm about her that he found that he liked. "Fair enough. How'd you know I was an L2?" The L2 implant had a huge variation in results, some biotics had incredible power, but some could barely vibrate a glass of water.

"The symptoms fit. The L3's are more stable. We're you born after the Singapore incident?"

He nodded. The doctor knew her biotics. "I was," he said and he could see that she knew what he went through at Jump Zero. Well, maybe not the whole story. That, he kept locked away inside a little compartment in his biotic mind. Suddenly, he felt like changing the subject. "So, what do you think about our CO?"

"Firm, but fair. He's definitely the one to get us through any scrapes if we run into one."

Kaiden liked to do his research and had read up on Captain David Anderson. "He's got a list of commendations a kilometer long. I think we're in good hands." He did have a very positive feeling about everyone on the Normandy that he'd met or read about so far. "Who's the XO? Scuttlebutt says it's Mario Farrare from N7."

The doctor shook her head. "No…definitely not. Farrare's a showboat anyway."

Kaiden was surprised at her negative reaction. He'd never met Farrare, but the man won battles. What more could a marine want? Uurah. "Who is it then?"

"We'll get Claire Shepard from N7."

"Shepard?" he asked, searching his brain for intell on the woman. He knew he'd heard the name before. Then, an image of a smiling woman on the vids came to him. "Oh yes…Star of Terra from the Skyllian Blitz. I know her…well, I've seen her on dozens of news clips and vids. I think she was even on a game show once or twice."

The doctor seemed pleased with the selection of XO. "Despite the media hype, she is a tough cookie. I met her a few years ago, after the Blitz and she was always down on herself…never good enough, never fast enough. Daddy issues," she said knowingly. "Poppycock. Her career stands proudly against any officer in the fleet."

"You have a lot of respect for her."

"My son joined because of her. You know, she was always at the schools, talking to kids, telling them about the bright future of humanity among the stars."

"I look forward to working for her then."

The door hissed open and a bearded young man dragged himself in using crutches. Kaiden noticed his pilot wings. "You must be our helmsman," he said. Strangely, Alenko didn't care a lick that the man was disabled. He'd seen enough bigotry and injustice at BaAt or Biotic Acclimation and Temperance Training.

The man immediately brightened as if he were expected. He spread his hands with a wry smile. "Hey everyone, Joker's here." The doctor seemed unimpressed.

Kaiden had no idea what he was talking about. "Uh, okay. If you say so." He could already tell this Joker seemed to have an awfully high opinion of himself.

Joker merely snorted and sat on the next bed. With some effort, he swung his legs up using his hands for help. "Perfect landing," he said, mostly to himself.

Doctor Chakwas patted Kaiden on the back. "Sorry, lieutenant. We'll pick up again later."

Alenko hopped down. "Not a problem, doctor. I have to get back to work anyway. It's been a pleasure." He walked past Joker and gave a head nod and received a cocky eyebrow bump in return. As he walked out the door, he realized that he hadn't thought about BaAT in some time…and a sweet girl named Rahna. Kaiden let out a long sigh just as a baby-faced marine came up to him.

"Corporal Richard Jenkins reporting for duty, sir!" The boy was all piss and vinegar, standing at attention like a good marine.

"At ease, corporal. You got your bunk assignment yet?"

"Uurah, sir. I just saw the quartermaster on the lower deck too. I got my weapons and armor and I'm totally squared away, sir."

Kaiden knew that he'd better get down there too. Quartermasters could be odd beasts, sometimes very accommodating, sometimes very finicky. If he didn't hurry, he might get stuck with one of those crappy Lancer I assault rifles. Some marines joked that it was better to throw rocks than have one of those. "Good to go, corporal. We'll hold a squad briefing at 1600. I'll see you then." He kind of wished that Jenkins would wander away at this point, but the boy held fast.

"Sir," he said with a sense of wonder. "The quartermaster gave me one of those Lancer I assault rifles. He said he'd saved it just for me."

Kaiden almost laughed out loud, but he didn't want to shake the boy's confidence. "We'll see if we can get you some mods for the weapon. I better get down there now and take a look. Dismissed, corporal."

Jenkins stood there for just a second before he realized that Alenko didn't want to talk to him anymore. "Uh, roger that, sir. See you at 1600." He started to walk away, appearing to hope that Kaiden would continue the conversation, but when it didn't happen, he scurried off.

Kaiden chuckled to himself. Jenkins was a good kid, but damn was he green.

Elysium – 2176

On the "Good-Bad" scale, this was very bad. The smoke shroud had blown away, leaving Lieutenant Shepard and her small band of frightened guards completely exposed. She stared down the barrels of the guns on two turrets of the last drop ship – one dorsal and one port side. She could see a man, with a look of glee training the guns on her group. A cold sense of fear began to creep into her belly and she would only have a moment to decide their fate.

This is going to suck.

It was time to harness that fear. With a maniacal yell, she bolted at the ship, leaving her comrades behind. "Run!" she ordered as she flung an incendiary grenade up at the ship. Best to save the guards with a distraction. Men behind her scattered for cover and the sphere detonated on the port turret. White hot phosphorus sprayed over the metal, which soon glowed orange and began to melt. The turret collapsed in on itself, its guns warping into twisted shapes.

Shepard darted to the side just as the dorsal turret opened up, its deep barking reports telling her that this was a high caliber weapon. In addition, a pirate leaned out of the egress hatch and began drawing a bead on her. She tried to zigzag between the stream of metal being shot at her, but a round flashed off of her shields. Only potshots from her posse were keeping the sniper at bay. Shepard took a step forward to try and get off a shot, but two explosive shells detonated nearby, throwing up dirt and grass and bits of wood. She covered her eyes for a moment and rolled away, bringing her assault rifle up. The sniper was shifting his weapon to follow her, but Shepard was faster. The reticule in the optics of her Tsunami rifle instantly lined up with her eye and she pressed the trigger. A short, controlled burst liquefied his chest and he tumbled from the door.

Two more explosions rattled her teeth as debris flew into her face. Blocking with one hand, Shepard fell to one knee. Despite her nearly inhuman constitution she was tired. The battle had raged for more than two uninterrupted hours and she had run the equivalent of several kilometers under fire. As she pushed herself to move, she could hear the warbling drone of approaching ships.

Crap, I can't catch a break.

Shepard chanced a look to gain situational awareness of the new situation and was surprised to see Alliance attack UAV's closing rapidly. The unmanned aerial vehicles were all part of the defense grid. That old warhorse, Warshowski, had actually made it. The lead UAV popped off a missile that streaked into the drop ship and shredded the dorsal turret. The two flanking drones strafed pirates in the open and their jerking, twisting forms were perforated by high caliber rounds. This was the chance she was waiting for.

The lieutenant darted up the ramp to the drop ship and hurled a Mark XIV grenade through the hatch. The fusion device detonated two seconds later and horrific screams echoed out the opening. Shepard peeked around the corner and saw several pirates literally melting from the intense blast of radiation. It wasn't pretty. They were no threat now and she leapt past them toward what she knew to be the command center of the ship. She saw movement up ahead and saw a pirate raising a weapon and knew she had to act fast. In the blink of an eye, she raised the muzzle and pressed the trigger, spitting out a burst of metal that mushroomed on impact with the man's head. Once past the skull, the rounds fragmented, scattering metal in all directions to bounce around like pinballs. Such was the technology of modern firearms.

The man pitched backward in a red mist to fall heavily on the deck and Shepard flung another grenade down the corridor. Once it left her hand, stabilizing fins popped out of the housing and it sailed like a Frisbee into a gathering cluster of pirates. As the grenade landed in their midst, one man tried to pick it up while the others attempted to flee. Unfortunately for them it exploded into a mist of cryo condensate, spraying freezing particles over them. The one man shrieked as his arm shattered like glass. Others now stood frozen in place like statues. With a feral growl, Shepard charged into them, firing quick bursts to finish them off.

She leapt through the door into the command center and into a hail of fire. Rounds pinged off of the bulkhead and other sensitive electronics, sending a shower of sparks over her. Her shields flashed several times before she slid behind cover. Without bothering to look, she stuck her rifle up over the table and fired blindly, hoping for a lucky hit or just to keep their heads down. In her military studies, Shepard had read about her ancestor, who was a Ranger in Vietnam. Apparently, he never actually saw any of his kills such was the ferocity of battle. She could empathize with him now.

Shepard was in a vulnerable position, pinned down by multiple opponents. A flanking maneuver was sure to come soon if these clowns had any tactical skill. Maybe this could work to her advantage. She slapped a proximity mine onto the table and quickly crawled away. As she reached another table she heard men assaulting her former position. She had to smile.

The explosion ripped through the command center, showering the room with flaming debris. Bodies were flung into the air like rag dolls. Whatever came next, this drop ship had suffered so much damage it wasn't going far. This was for honor and revenge now. Shepard popped up and drew a bead on a stunned batarian and dropped him with a press of the trigger. For a moment it looked like the room was empty, but something grabbed the foregrip of her weapon and tore it from her hands. She hadn't seen the krogan crouched down on the other side of the table.

The massive lizard flung her weapon away like a toy and tried to slam its fist into her. On instinct, she sidestepped and drew her pistol. From the hip, she just tilted the weapon up and sent armor piercing rounds into its belly. This only seemed to piss it off though and it backhanded her across the cheek. For a moment, Shepard saw stars. She had forgotten about the raw fury of a krogan and how redundant organs made them a bitch to kill. The armored beast ripped a piece of a fallen support strut from the ceiling and drew it back overhead. Shepard rolled into a crouching position – her timing had to be perfect.

As the metal beam came down, Shepard slid out of the way and drew her dagger in one motion. She knew the krogan's hide was tough and almost invulnerable, so there was only one target to hit. As the beam smashed onto the deck, she thrust the point of the weapon into its eye. The dagger sunk all the way in up to the hilts and the lizard froze, making a ghastly gurgling noise. It jerked around for a moment more before crashing to the ground. Shepard put her back to the wall in exhaustion and then sank to her knees.

"Hey lazy," she heard a voice say. "You just going to sit around all day?"

She laughed. "Screw you, Warshowski. About time you and the cavalry got here," she said as soldiers filed through the enemy ship, rounding up pirates. "You owe me a drink."

He squatted down in front of her and wiped soot off of her forehead. "I came prepared," he said as he handed her a lukewarm can of beer. "It's all I have. Sorry."

"Hmm, Bud Light…," she said with mock disappointment, but it was the best damn beer she'd ever had and she drained it in one long gulp.

Lieutenant Commander Claire Shepard

She awoke with a start, her muscles tense and ready for a fight. Licking her lips, she looked around, almost expecting to see pirates and batarians swarming around her. The poor man sitting in the next seat looked a bit worried, even frightened. "Sorry, bad dream."

"Apparently. Are you okay?"

"Yes, it happens from time to time."

"Care to talk about it?"

"I was in a battle long ago," she said somewhat evasively and adjusted the hem on her skirt. She hadn't talked about it much in the past. The media had pretty much said it all – historical videos had picked the whole action apart, second by second, and there were plenty of made for TV movies about the Skyllian Blitz.

He narrowed his eyes and recognition seemed to take hold. "Why you're…from Elysium."

"Yep, that's me."

He extended his hand. "I'm Ron Kim. It's an honor to meet you, commander." She shook it with a smile. She thought him reasonably handsome and well dressed began to get some ideas in her head just because she was bored and anxious. However, the announcement came through the cabin telling them that landing was imminent. They listened for a minute before the man continued. "So, what brings you to Arcturus, commander?"

"Call me Claire. I'm taking a position as the XO of a frigate."

"Sounds interesting Claire. Care to discuss it further over a drink?"

It was just what she was hoping he'd say. She was starting to feel edgy again and he might be just what she needed for an hour or two. She'd just about given up trying to rationalize her behavior. "Why, I'd love to."

The landing was smooth and they disembarked without delay and made their way to the space port bar. Like all space port bars it had gaudy neon signs and overpriced drinks. This one had a tropical motif. She slung her purse onto the table and he pulled out the seat for her. "What's your poison?" he asked.

"Surprise me."

A virtual intelligence or VI took their order and rousted up a Mai Tai for each of them. Ron took his glass and raised it. "To your new posting, Claire."

"Thank you. So, what brings you to Arcturus?"

"I'm a rep for Binary Helix and I'm here to negotiate a contract with the Alliance for genetic enhancements."

She had to smile. "Really? Well, I'm your best product then."

He looked confused at first, but then understood. "Yes, I recall seeing a show on your enhancements. I must say that our work perfected all of your attributes," he said, outlining her face with both of his hands. "You look even better in person."

Yep, he'd do. She slid her hand over his. Arcturus had a lot of cheap hotels. She was about to stand up and pull him along when something gnawed at her. Somewhere, deep down, Claire Shepard realized that she'd been given a second chance…a second lease on life and dignity. Captain Anderson had chosen her to help him lead the crew of the Normandy and to uphold the highest traditions of the Navy. She recalled her time at the Academy and the ideals of duty, honor, Alliance. Setting the example was a must. There were other ways to take the edge off…alone. "Thank you, Ron. I must admit a part of me wants to spend more time with you, but duty calls. I appreciate the drink. Perhaps we'll meet again some time."

He looked visibly disappointed, but smiled in a gentlemanly way. "Of course. I wish you good fortune in your posting, Claire. Here's my card if you ever wish to talk."

She felt immensely relieved and pushed back from the table. She put the card in her purse. "Take care, Ron. I may take you up on that." With a last smile, she turned and walked away towards the personnel center.

When she was out of sight, Ron took out his hip phone and hit the speed dial to Cerberus. "It's me. She'll be signing onto the Normandy shortly."

Captain David Anderson

Captain Anderson had just finished putting the final touches on arranging his quarters. Rank did have its privileges. As befitting a high-ranking naval officer, he had put up some paintings of famous warships and military leaders. As a Londoner, he particularly liked the reproduction of the Battle of Trafalgar by Turner. A brass plaque on the frame of the painting said that England Expects Every Man To Do His Duty. This was an ideal that Anderson lived and breathed. As he stood, admiring the detail of the HMS Victory in the artwork, the chime on his door sounded.

"Come in."

The hatch opened and a tall, thin turian entered and made a respectful bow. "Captain Anderson, I am Nihlus Kryik, the Council's representative on this mission," he said in the peculiar turian tone of voice and it gave the captain a familiar cold prickly in his gut.

So, the SPECTRE had finally arrived. He was tall for a turian with white face paint as befitting his clan. His confident stance and spit shined armor spoke to his experience and dedication. The captain thought about extending his hand, but he was not overly familiar with turian customs. Instead, he returned Nihlus' gesture thinking it the safest bet. "Welcome aboard. I've set up special quarters for you."

Nihlus made a wave of his three-fingered hand. "Not necessary, captain. I prefer to bunk with the crew. I need no special favors."

"Very well. I'll have Chief Guiterrez set you up with a bunk and a ration card. I had the cook stock the galley with turian food though."

"That's very kind of you," Nihlus said with a curt nod. Human food imparted no nutritional value for turians and, in some cases, could make them very ill. "Shall we get down to business, captain?"

Anderson took a seat at his desk and offered one to the SPECTRE. "Please."

Again, Nihlus waved him off. "Thank you, no. I prefer to stand. When does she arrive?"

The captain quickly checked the manifest. "Our log says that she just cleared the personnel section. Shall we go meet her?"


Together, they walked up to the Combat Information Center or CIC. The Navigator, Colin Pressly, took note of their approach. "Captain on deck!" Anderson could see Pressly eyeing the turian and knew just what the man was thinking.

"As you were," the captain said in passing. "We shove off for Earth in two hours, commander. Is she ready?"

"All systems are green, sir," Pressly announced as he bounced on his heels nervously. The Navigator was a good officer if a bit jumpy. Sometimes, he could be wound a little too tight.

"Outstanding. Carry on." Anderson was glad for the report. He really wanted to impress the SPECTRE and thus the Council. The smoothness of this mission would greatly enhance goodwill towards the Alliance. They pressed on toward the forward hatch past systems technicians manning the consoles just aft of the Bridge. Well, it was actually more of a cockpit due to the turian design – the Commanding Officer would stand even further aft back in the CIC. This would take some getting use to. At the hatch he saw Joker sitting in the pilot's seat, running diagnostics. The pilot was a great kid – he just needed to knock that chip off of his shoulder. "Joker, open the hatch."

As the hatch hissed upward, Corporal Jenkins scurried up to meet them. "Sorry, sir." Jenkins was supposed to be there to help greet Lieutenant Commander Shepard. It was naval tradition.

Anderson accepted the apology. There was no need to get upset over this small faux pas…as long as it didn't become a pattern with the young marine. He snapped his fingers and Jenkins came to attention and blew a small whistle in a low, then high, then low note. Claire Shepard stepped through the opening, dressed in a sharply pressed, royal blue uniform befitting her rank. The silver N7 badge was perfectly pinned above her left breast and her golden cuff braids and epaulettes were neatly arranged. The commander was taller than he expected, having only seen her in vids and through a commlink. In fact, they stood eye to eye. Now, she seemed much different than before, much more serious in bearing and she was already making a good impression on the captain. An officer's appearance spoke volumes about their professionalism.

Shepard walked smartly up to him and clicked her heels. "Lieutenant Commander Claire Shepard reporting for duty. Permission to come aboard, captain." She gave him a sharp salute, which he returned in kind.

"Permission granted. Welcome aboard, commander."

Shepard took a symbolic step across the threshold. She gave a curious glance towards Nihlus and he already knew what she was thinking. "Walk with me, commander. We have much to discuss with Nihlus. He's the Council's SPECTRE overseeing the Normandy's stealth system testing."

"Very good, sir."

He could see the wheels turning in her head and he was worried that she wouldn't buy the cover story for the mission. Right now, it was 'need to know' and she didn't need to know for the moment. There would be time to talk about it later. As they began to walk aft to his office, he noticed Nihlus observing the commander quite closely – it looked like the evaluation had begun. Hopefully, this time things would go more smoothly, but he wasn't holding his breath. Would Shepard end up like him, left shafted and bitter by the Council? He had learned the hard way to keep one suspicious eye open at anything the Council did for humanity. However, Anderson was an officer, sworn to uphold the ideals of the Alliance and he would do everything in his power to deliver the first human SPECTRE regardless of his personal feelings.

As they walked by the CIC, he could see Shepard taking in her surroundings and carefully examining the various instruments and consoles. Like Nihlus, he, too, was studying his XO. She walked with a powerful grace born of relentless physical training and she held her head high with the confidence of a leader. She was someone the men would follow. They went down a deck and into the captain's stateroom. Anderson took his seat behind the desk and offered one to Shepard and Nihlus, who declined again.

"Commander," said the turian abruptly, "your service record is impressive. I've read the reports on your action at Elysium."

Her cheeks went a little red. "Thank you, Nihlus. I was just doing my duty."

"Now even the classified documents only tell part of the story. I know that you almost single-handedly defeated a battalion of pirates and three drop ships, but what I don't know is what went on inside your head."

Anderson saw her raise an eyebrow. He could almost read her mind and knew she was thinking that 'what the hell does this have to do with stealth systems.' Shepard took a breath. "Well, I won't lie – I was scared and pissed off. Yeah, those pirates really pissed me off."

Nihlus seemed to think on her answer. "I am very intrigued by your race's approach to warfare. We turians can be cold-hearted soldiers, nearly impervious to fear," he said, but not in a condescending way. "However, we do not display the type of initiative that you did in that assault. I was particularly interested in the ferocity and tactical flexibility that you used."

"Speed and violence of action," she said plainly.

"Pardon me?"

"It's the tactical doctrine of the N7's – hit hard, hit fast, hit often. And, above all, don't let your enemy recover. By maintaining the initiative we stay inside of his decision loop and can dictate the terms of battle."

Anderson had to smile. She knew her stuff. It caught him a little by surprise that a woman so beautiful could be so violent and that he had to think of her as a special forces operator and not just a woman.

Nihlus pondered again before speaking. "How did your training impact on the action?"

"After twenty-one weeks of hell in N7 Selection," she began, looking Anderson square in the eye, "I can swim underwater for twenty minutes and I can put a three-round burst in a man's head at 100 meters. Everything that I did on Elysium was a result of that training." She knew that the captain was also an N7 and that there was a certain camaraderie and profound respect for members of that elite community. Anderson gave her an almost imperceptible nod.

Nihlus appeared to like the answer. "What is your philosophy on having to kill in the line of duty?"

"I have none. I kill the enemies of the Alliance whenever and wherever needed. I am but a tool of Parliament when all other tools for peace fail."

"Very good, commander. That's all I have for now. I'll let you get settled and then we'll talk more."

Anderson was glad that this was wrapping up. He still had a lot of things to do and needed to get to them before they got underway. As he rose, Shepard popped up at attention and he waved her off. "Dismissed, commander." As she turned to go, he added, "Commander, I understand that you're a student of history. I think we'll get along nicely."

"I am and thank you, sir."

As he watched them depart, David Anderson sat back down and fully appreciated the wisdom of Admiral Steven Hackett. They had made the right choice.

Staff Lieutenant Kaidan Alenko

There were a billion and one things to do before they shoved off and the taskings were coming in fast and furious. He knew that the captain liked a tight ship and that everything from deck plates to boots needed to be spit shined. They would be going to Earth to do a dog and pony show for the brass and every centimeter of the Normandy was going to be polished. It was a matter of pride.

"Put your backs into it, boys," Alenko told his marines as they ran buffers over the deck in the landing bay. He himself rubbed metal polish into the bulkheads near the M35 Mako armored fighting vehicle. The smell of chemicals was heavy in the air. "Jenkins, I want to see myself in that deck plate." Kaidan wasn't usually a hard ass. In fact, he considered himself more of the sensitive, thoughtful type, but for the next hour, he was a marine and the squad leader for that matter. Everything that happened on this deck was his responsibility and he wouldn't let the captain down. "We need a sense of urgency, people!"

As he dipped his rag into a can of polish he saw someone coming off of the lift. It took him a moment to figure it out. Why'd she have to come down here at a time like this?

"Attention on deck!"

The marines dropped everything and bolted up for the XO. She waved her hand. "As you were. I didn't mean to interrupt."

The rest of the squad resumed working, leaving Kaiden to deal with the XO. "Ma'am, with all due respect, we're not inspection ready yet."

"Relax, lieutenant, I'm not here to inspect anything. I'm here to help. Hand me a rag and a can of polish and give me section of bulkhead."

Kaiden was taken aback for a second and narrowed one eye. "Are you…serious, ma'am?"

"As a heart attack."

He tentatively handed her a rag. "You can set up next to me. We could use all the help we can get."

"It's been a while since I polished bulkheads, so you're going to have to be patient with me."

Suddenly, he felt a little mischievous. "You could scrub the latrine instead, ma'am." Oh, why did he just say that? What a dumb thing to say to your new XO.

She took it in stride. "Nah, I leave that for the privates and corporals. Rank does have some privileges."

Kaiden breathed a sigh of relief. "You know, commander, I think I'm going to like working with you. You actually have a sense of humor."