W/N - Thanks for the support on Coming Aboard. I appreciate the input and please say hi. Let's take a look at something a little different and spooky and then introduce Ashley. What happens behind the scenes and who are the Shepards? The CODEX at the bottom, like in the game, explains terminology that may be unfamiliar or technical.

Other malarkey - stuck in crazy training. On my day off, I thought I'd proof this and post so I can feel normal.

Earth – 2300Z – Langley, Virginia

Systems Alliance Intelligence Branch Headquarters

Admiral John M. Shepard – Director of Systems Alliance Intelligence

The Director of SAI was a practical man. After all, his practicality gained him this most elevated post. He looked out towards the Potomac River from his office to admire the evening sky. Reds and purples mixed together in the palette of dusk for a most impressive display of nature. There could be times when he could afford himself these small pleasures. After all, he had worked so hard to keep these pleasures safe for humanity. Many sacrifices had to be made.

In a good year, he might see his wife, Hannah, for three months between his position and her posting on the SSV Kilimanjaro, where she was the XO of the dreadnaught. If all went well, she might one day be Chief of Naval Operations. And his daughter, Claire…. He tried to give her everything within his immense power, but all she did was resent him for it. It made no sense to his logical and practical mind. He grudgingly admitted to himself that she had been successful in her own right, but would never have gotten this far without his assistance.

After all, the Shepard family had a long genealogy and a lot of power. Every member had to uphold the honor of the clan. The admiral was proud when his daughter fought such a heroic action at Elysium and he pulled many stings to get her into the limelight. A Shepard had served in government or the military during nearly every major conflict involving the United States or the United Kingdom in the last 800 years. He was immensely proud of his heritage and insisted that the family do nothing to dishonor it.

"What are you looking at, Mister Director?" asked a man sitting in a seat in front of the desk.

Director Shepard turned away from the gathering dark to look at the man. He was always fascinated by the man's perfectly symmetrical face and his impeccable sense of fashion. The man might be a bit old for his daughter, but their physical perfection would complement each other. Perhaps such an accomplished man would be what she needed and that she would stop running around like an alley cat. "I was just thinking," he said. "Nothing important."

"Then, do we have an agreement?"

As an Intelligence Officer, Shepard never liked the direct approach. He much preferred the cat and mouse game prior to any conclusion. "Do you remember how we defeated the turians at Shanxi?"

The silver-gray haired man raised an eyebrow as if he knew where the game was heading and that his question would not be answered before the game was played. He sighed, resigned to Shepard's will. "It was proper intelligence gathering before any engagement, if I recall."

Shepard nodded emphatically. "Preparation of the battlespace is all important. The grunts like Grissom and Anderson would never have achieved victory without adequate intelligence. Long-range SIGINT drones exploited turian sensors and communications and we were able to decipher their language and command structure before the first shot was fired in the liberation."

"Masterful."

"Deceptive sensor images and jamming degraded their combat capability followed by swift special ops strikes to specific vulnerabilities. Their ability to respond to our full-spectrum assault on Shanxi became nonexistent. It was all about synergy. Synergy is important. We have to work together to further the goals of the Alliance. You understand, don't you?" Shepard knew all of the buzz words of the business and didn't mind throwing them around to gain the upper hand with a civilian.

The man smiled, revealing his perfect teeth. "I understand perfectly, Mister Director. My…organization will be at your disposal." No more needed to be said.

John Shepard strode around his desk and stood, one alpha male to another, and extended his hand. The man before him headed up a paramilitary organization that flew beneath the radar of any government oversight. Such a group would likely prove valuable as a conduit of intelligence throughout Alliance space. In turn, SAI would filter funds and weapons for the group to operate. As they shook hands, John knew in his heart that he didn't entirely trust the man even if he did consider him to be a suitable son in law. Should Cerberus ever go rogue, Admiral Shepard had ways to correct that – tactical courses of action or COA's were the options that every good leader should have in his back pocket. Nothing bad could ever come back to dishonor his office…or his family.

"Good evening, Mister Director." The man smiled as he withdrew and they both knew that nothing incriminating had ever been said. They could have been dealing for mangoes and the man's organization could just be mowing Shepard's lawn. The Director loved the subterfuge that went with his job.

"And good evening to you, sir," Shepard said with a wide smile that vanished the moment the man left the room. He activated the auditory jammers to seal all sound in the room. Option Two would need to be locked in before he could feel comfortable for the night. He activated a link to the London Branch Headquarters of SAI, where he figured that it would be close to midnight there. He tapped a key on the video phone. "Go secure TS."

A screen appeared with a handsome, gray-haired woman in a sharp blue business suit and a light pink scarf. She was someone professional, yet perky. Her face lit up at the sight of Shepard. "John!" she cried as if at a long lost brother. "Or should I say, Director Shepard? Do be a dear and catch old Penny up on your life," she said in a decidedly Yorkshire accent.

A very unpractical grin came over his face. He had deep feelings for his London Chief of Station. "Ahhh, Penny. You still look the same as when we were at Oxford." Through diligent practice, he had eliminated his own regional accent from New England. He always thought the dialect was too harsh and that would fail to impress those who needed to by impressed.

Penny cooed. "Flattery will get you everywhere. When can I cross the pond and see you, John?"

"You're welcome in Langley anytime, Penny. We always enjoy visits from our colleagues in England," he said. "With modern travel, you're only a couple of hours away. How is His Majesty's Secret Service these days?"

"Oh, it's been a little boring since the batarians and pirates were dealt such a crushing blow. Of course, the Verge is still the Wild West, but our electronic and sentient sources have kept us pretty well informed." They had both been in this game for very long and had built a very deep rapport. In fact, they had been at this since before the foundation of the Alliance. "John," she said with some disappointment, "the game doesn't have the same flair for me after all of the old groups went down. I miss challenging the Russians and the Chinese. Now, all of the traditional adversaries have merged into one happy dysfunctional family. We're all just one blob of intelligence. It's sad, John, simply sad," she said with a hint of humor. "Now, be a dear and tell me what's bothering you. I can see it written on your face."

He chuckled, feeling like a guilty schoolboy caught with his hand in the cookie jar. "You know me too well, Penny," he said as he sent her an image captured from a long-range SIGINT station. "Take a look at this. An agent of the mysterious Shadow Broker told me where to focus the station. It's like nothing we've ever seen before."

Penny brought up the multi-spectral image, which showed a fuzzy lobster-like vessel. "John, the power output from this object is incredible! The Ku and Ka Band emissions are off the chart," she mused about the radio frequency power coming from the ship. I'm assuming that we don't know what it is or you'd be telling me."

"Your assumption is correct. Our analysis indicates that it is more than a match for any Alliance vessel."

"So is the Destiny Ascension. Do you think it's another Asari prototype?"

"Though I wouldn't put it past the asari to construct another vessel in secret, I don't think it is," he said. "Look at the hull design…the asari are obsessed with beauty sometimes to the detriment of practicality. This beast is downright ugly. It's something entirely different…not turian or salarian either."

"Yes, you're right. Is there anything we can say about its intentions?"

"Based on the weapons signatures that we're seeing, it's not friendly. Also, we strongly think that it's heading for Alliance space."

"Alliance space?" Penny exclaimed with a gasp. She was clearly horrified. "I take it that information came from the Shadow Broker too? John, we need to warn people."

"Penny…I've always liked you because we are of similar minds. You know that since the First Contact War, humanity has foundered again culturally and devolved into self interest and corruption. We need something to galvanize us once more…something that will unite us before the Council and propel us into the forefront of galactic events. Information is power and when we give it away, we lose that power."

The London Chief of Station blew out a long breath. "What you're asking…. Aren't your wife and daughter out there now? Claire is on a frigate, John. They're the tip of the spear." Penny had often been a surrogate mother to young Claire when Hannah was on deployment.

John Shepard felt a cold prickly spread throughout his gut. "I know, Penny. I'm willing to make sacrifices for the greater good. You know that. This is for the future of humanity."

She nodded slowly as if letting the unstated request sink in. "I understand, John. It's not like we haven't done this before. I'll make the necessary arrangements to supply the Alliance with the intelligence…at the right time."

"I knew I could count on you. Please give my best to Alan."

"I shall. Good evening to you, John."

The Director of SAI was always a practical man, willing to make sacrifices for the Alliance. He scanned back across the vastness of his office to admire the rich sense of history and service. He walked across and ancient Persian rug and focused in on a Gothic suit of armor worn by Sir Arthur Shepard, a vassal of King Edward IV. The curved and fluted surfaces were meant to deflect any blade or arrow during the time of the Wars of the Roses much like John Shepard was the eyes and the armor of the Systems Alliance, deflecting threats to humanity even when that threat was humanity itself.

Eden Prime – 0100E

Forward Operating Base (FOB) of Charlie Company, 212th Battalion Near the Prothean Dig Site

Gunnery Chief Ashley Williams – Charlie Company NCO

Gunnery Chief Williams ran a long cleaning rod down the barrel of her rifle to push out moisture and carbon buildup. The brush popped out of the muzzle end of the smooth bore and she wiped off the cleaning solvent with a rag. Even these super modern weapons needed constant maintenance despite the Mass Effect field that propelled rounds through the barrel, imparting a magnetic spin on the bullet. The incredible muzzle velocity in which the rounds traveled left microscopic amounts of residue, which could eventually induce a malfunction if not taken care of. Also, there was something about servicing her weapons in the pre-dawn hours that brought her comfort. There was a controlled regularity to it and a hope that someone, somewhere, might notice her diligence and reward her with an assignment that she knew she deserved.

Colonial duty wasn't bad, mind you, if you liked monotony and marginal leadership. Every day since the 212 got in country it was get up at 0100, grab your chow, and patrol the dig site for long, boring hours. Then, if you were lucky, you got relieved by the 214 and could grab some evening chow and a shower before taps and do it all over again the next day. Then, there was colonial leadership…. Everyone knew that the top-rated officers got fleet duty. They went where the action was and where their leadership made a difference. REMF's, Pogues, or Fobbits with low scores and bad track records got the cheesy garrison commands where they could agonize over lawn care or compliance reports. Ashley swore she'd eat her gun if she had to serve under one more knucklehead who couldn't lead his way out of a paper bag.

"Why so glum, chief? It's a beautiful night," a woman said in a distinct Indian accent.

Williams looked up from the glow of the burner, where a pot of coffee was brewing. Indeed, the stars were in full glow, shimmering above the quiet colony. Ash tried to shake off the sleep, but it was getting harder each day that her career was slipping away through the cosmos. "Hand me a cup of coffee, Nirali," she asked the other woman.

"Two creams, no sugar, right?"

Ash smiled and nodded at some inside joke. "We've been doing this for too long."

Private First Class Nirali Bhatia poured a cup full of steaming joe and handed it over to her company NCO or non-commissioned officer. Ash took it gratefully and blew over the top of the cup. "Damn Nirali, you make the best Columbian blend in the colonies. I'm going to miss you."

"I will miss you too, chief. You must come and visit Samesh and I when we have the restaurant up and running."

Ash threw her head back, delighted at the idea. "Ohhh, you better make up some of that curry chicken. I'd fight a krogan for some of that."

"We'll make it special for you – extra hot and slightly sweet."

"Just the way I like it," Williams said, her mouth watering at the thought. Nirali was the best cook she'd ever served with so it was no wonder that colonial command put her on the line as an infantryman and made a guy, who could ruin salad, run the chow hall. "When do you ETS?" she asked, inquiring about Nirali mustering out.

"I am out of here in two days on a shuttle back to Earth. We will have the restaurant grand opening in one month. I expect you to be there, chief."

Ash looked at Nirali in the dim light. If it hadn't been for people like her and her squad mates, she'd have gotten out long ago for as well as the marines had treated her. Sometimes, it was like she had some kind of disease…yeah, it was the Williams Disease. "I wouldn't miss it for the world…and call me Ash. I'm not going to be your company NCO for much longer."

"Thank you, Ash," Nirali said as she brought out a video pad. "Oh, here is the latest from Samesh. He is so cute when he is cooking."

Williams leaned over to take a look at Mister Bhatia whipping up a thick broth. Nirali was a lucky woman to have such a loving husband. "I've seen so much of him I feel like part of the family."

Missus Bhatia touched Ash's hand. "You are."

Ash was deeply touched. Family was always important to her and being considered part of the Bhatia family, wow, that brought on some goose pimples. She was about to give her thanks when someone kicked dirt over the burner, putting it out. "Hey!"

"Williams, Bhatia, get your asses up. We got to get this patrol moving."

Ash looked up to see Major Kendall staring down at them. A feeling of disgust crept through her belly at seeing his beady pig eyes in a pink, pig face along with his pointy, salad bowl haircut around a shiny bald spot. "Yes, sir," she said, standing slowly as Nirali jumped to her feet.

He spat in her coffee. "You lazy pieces of shit in Charlie Company will be patrolling the south side of the dig site today. I don't want no screw ups or nuttin' going wrong. I'm not bussin' a promotion for you losers," he said in a rambling mumble.

"I wouldn't dream of denying your advancement, sir."

He got right up in her face, nose to nose. "Don' get smarts with me, Williams! You a disgrace to the Corpse," he shouted, mispronouncing the name of his own service. "I know where you come from…the daughter and granddaughter of losers. The apple don' fall far from the bush! You don' fool me for a second."

The urge to either smack him hard or laugh in his face almost overcame her and she knew that the Almighty was testing her. His butchery of the language was cause enough to smite him on the spot. The satisfaction of having him cry like a little girl would be great, but there would be consequences and there was no way that she was going to impugn the Williams name. A lot of people were looking down at her right now from beyond and she wouldn't blow this for a moment's pleasure. She merely held her tongue as her face turned beat red. God help her…or him one day.

Major Kendall paced around her, puffing his chest out like the ersatz soldier he was. "One more thang, Williams. Downloads your ammo and secure it. I don' want no accidental discharges from you clowns. One itchy trigger finger and some scientist gets winged and there goes my promotion. No loaded weapons, you hears me?"

"Clearly, sir."

He looked down his nose at her like she was trash. "Then what the hell are you still doin' here? Get moving!"

Ash and Nirali scrambled away to muster the company. She looked back to see Major Kendall creeping back into his cushy tent and she gave him the bird with her middle finger. "That pogue hasn't been on patrol with us yet. He bitches us out and then goes right back to bed."

Nirali gave a disgusted sneer back towards the tent. "You're the one holding Charlie Company together, Ash. How did he get to be the battalion commander?"

Williams looked up into the sky and snorted. "He's a son of Parliament. Minister papa Kendall pulled some strings and voila, his son's a CO. Daddy got him a posting out here as well so that fortunate son could beat the peasants without getting hurt in actual combat."

"Unbelievable," Nirali said, shaking her head. She then began ejecting her ammunition magazine and handed it to Williams.

Ash put her hand out to stop the private. "What are you doing? You don't think we're actually going to follow his lunatic orders, huh? Don't tell the company either. Meatpuppet will sleep right through the whole patrol and he won't know the difference."

Private Bhatia laughed out loud. "Meatpuppet! I love it when you call him that. I really thank Heaven for you, Ash."

The chief grinned back and genuflected with her hands as she knelt on her right knee. "By grace divine, not otherwise, O Nature, we are thine."

They walked past the 214, who would be patrolling the northern sector. While Eden Prime was pretty safe, you never knew about those crazy pirates or batarians. They just might try something stupid with that beacon here. Ash saw them downloading their magazines. "Hey, lieutenant, what are you doing?"

Lieutenant Chun didn't look up. "I'm following the major's orders, that's what I'm doing. You'd be wise to do the same, Williams."

"I'm going to top out at Gunnery Chief and no one will ever send me to fleet, so I'm protecting my marines. That's what I'm doing."

Chun snorted derisively. "Well, I've got a long career ahead of me, chief, and I won't go down for insubordination. Besides, who would ever attack this place? It's nothing but farms – Pigs, cows, and crops…."

Ash popped her hand outward, pointing a finger at him with a wink. "That's what they said at Elysium before that Shepard chick showed up. Don't worry, sir, I'll cry at your funeral."

Chun laughed at the jab. "And I'll cry at your court martial. You have a great morning, chief."

"Uurah, sir!" She and Nirali waved at the 214 as that unit headed up north. Off in the distance there was an eerie, smoky light in the sky above the city. Ash watched as it slowly descended, getting larger and larger. "What the heck is that?" she said, pointing at a weird, lobster-looking ship, shrouded in a hellish red glow.

CODEX –

REMF – Rear Echelon MF

Pogue – Derogatory military slang term for someone who is inept

Fobbit – Someone who is afraid to leave the safety of the Forward Operating Base (FOB) like Hobbits afraid to leave the Shire