Chapter Three: These Chains We Make
I don't own Bioware
'We met as soul mates, on Parris Island,
We left as inmates, from an asylum.'
"You only saw Kyle once more after the fighting was over, didn't you?" The Illusive Man was handed a pad from an assistant. "Right before the hearing started, you visited him."
ONE WEEK AFTER THE SIEGE OF TORFAN
"Hey sir," Taylor self consciously ran a hand over her shoulder length blonde hair. "Sorry I haven't been down to see you yet. It's been a little crazy. Debriefings with General Wallace and Vice Admiral Hackett. Getting what's left of the brigade squared away. Making my recommendations for promotions, postings, and commendations. I'm sorry sir, but they're splitting us up. Not enough of the 501st left to make reinforcements worthwhile. Not sure where they're sending me yet, I suppose that'll depend on the hearing."
Kyle didn't answer. His life support machine kept beeping, indicating his powerful heart was refusing to quit, despite the devastating injuries to his body. The surgeons assured Shepard that his lost left leg would be easily replaced with a prosthetic, and that brain damage would be minimal. But he had been in a coma for more than a week, and there was no telling when he'd come out of it.
"I've recommended that Casey get the Cross of Valor, Clancy for the Star of Gallantry…and Gunnery Chief Reynolds for the Star of Terra," Taylor squeezed her eyes shut.
MAIN BUNKER SYSTEM
THIRTEEN HOURS AFTER INITIAL LANDINGS
"Pull back now!" 2nd Lieutenant Lang barked as the batarians pressed in on what was left of the Recon Platoon. "Ma'am, we need that door open!"
"Working on it Lieutenant," Taylor cursed slightly as the system's firewalls closed in on her probe. "No good, Ryan, get me some omni-gel."
"I'm down to my last few units ma'am," the private inserted the tip of the dispenser into the lock. There was a squidging sound as the omni gel squeezed into the mechanism, and then a whine as the nanites began eating at the lock.
"We're through!" Shepard slid the door open. "Lang, get your ass back here now!"
"Negative ma'am, the lock on that door's ruined, it won't hold the squints off," the young officer gazed back. "Go ma'am, get to the control room, kill these bastards. I'll stay with Joyce and Beaumont, buy you some time.
"I didn't see guts like that again, till Gunnery Chief Williams told me to get my ass moving at Virmire, while she blew up the damn base," Taylor clenched her fists, wishing desperately for another cigarette. Maybe it was time to quit. She couldn't afford the distractions that nicotine cravings spread through her body. "The squints guessed what we were up to, threw up blast doors between us and the climate control center. And everyone we got to…"
"Door's open, let's go!" Ryan charged through, fumbling for another dispenser.
"You keep on trucking," Corporal Morgan knelt behind an improvised barricade. He placed his pistol, rifle and grenades within easy reach, then plucked a cigarette from a hidden container. "Zhang and I will keep them busy."
"'And I will fear no darkness, for my brother shall guard me, as I shall guard him'," The Illusive Man quoted.
Shepard nodded in agreement. "They were magnificent. Unbending, unyielding. If Ashley was right, if there is an afterlife…then those guys would have marched into it with backs straight and heads held high."
"Last door, Ryan, crack it!" Shepard ordered as she dragged a pair of crates into position for her and Reynolds. "Sanderson and Fern can't hold that intersection for much longer!"
"Working on it ma'am," Ryan hooked up his omni tool. "No more omni-gel, have to do this one manually. It'll be worth my magic."
The clatter of M-6 Avenger rifles suddenly ceased. In the distance, Shepard could hear the thud of booted feet charging down the hallway. "Well don't take all day about it," she reported tersely.
The first two batarians to come around the corner was cut down by Taylor's sniper rifle. The heatsink whined as she switched to the Firestorm VII shotgun that Reynolds had given her. The Gunnery Chief had his own Hydra X ready. They began firing in tandem, Reynolds with Disruptor rounds which would short out the most powerful shields, Shepard with Hammerhead rounds, inflicting the maximum amount of damage on shielded and unshielded targets alike.
Seconds turned into hours, minutes turned into eternity as Shepard depressed the trigger on the shotgun, again and again. It was the perfect chokepoint; the batarians were unable to get good angles on them. The occasional shot that did get through bounced of the shields of Shepard's Scorpion class, light hardsuit.
"Jammed!" Reynolds reached for his pistol. "Shit, we're gonna run out of ammo blocks faster than they run out of bodies."
A voice rang over a loudspeaker. =My name is Commander Rovin. I know what you are trying to do, you will not succeed. You will not be able to break the encryption on the blast doors=
"Ma'am, he's right, I can't get through," Ryan whispered, a series of lights flashing, indicative of another failure. "We're out of options."
"Not yet we're not," Taylor passed Reynolds her shotgun. "Let me take a look at it."
=I believe we should end this now, while we all still have a chance at getting out of here with our lives= the batarian commander continued. =I know that even if I kill you, there are more than enough Alliance ships and troops to completely trap me here. But I have enough supplies to last me for months, and it would cost humanity many soldiers to finish me off. Maybe we could come to some sort of agreement?=
"You want to talk? Send one of your guys out, unarmed! We'll do this face to face!" Reynolds yelled.
There was silence. Timidly a batarian poked his head out past the corner. Reynolds nodded encouragingly. The four eyed alien nervously began walking toward the three humans.
"Anyone else wanna negotiate!" Reynolds worked the pump action. "I can do this all day!"
"No good," Taylor banged her hand on the door. "Too many layers of encryption."
Ryan calmly picked up the jammed shotgun. "I think I know how to fix it ma'am," he suddenly slammed the butt of the weapon into the holographic interface and the lock behind it. "I JUST THIS MOTHERFUCKING DOOR TO OPEN SO I CAN FUCKING GO HOME AND END THIS FUCKING, FUCKING DAY!"
Without warning, the red interface flashed orange. =Warning, damage to auto-lock mechanism detected. Opening doors to allow repairs= A VI calmly stated.
The doors only opened twenty inches, but it was enough to allow Ryan to squeeze through, followed by Shepard. A few batarians still manned their posts. One of them threw up his hands, babbling in fear, begging for mercy. Taylor killed him first, and then moved on to the rest. Turning back to the door, she saw Reynolds still manning his post.
"Gunny, get your ass back here!" she yelled over the gunfire. He glanced back and nodded.
"Soon as we're in business!" he called, finishing off an unshielded slaver with a double tap.
"We have to seal this door! GET MOVING!"
"Alright, alright, don't get your pretty pink panties in a twist," the Non-Commissioned Officer stood and began to run for the door. A batarian leaned round the corner and blazed away with an assault rifle. A lucky round struck Reynolds on his ankle; he fell to the ground five meters away from the door.
"SHIT!" he tried to get back on his feet. With no more suppressing fire, the batarians swarmed into the corridor, shooting wildly. Taylor couldn't go to her friend. He looked up; she saw the fear, desperation…and acceptance. "Damn you Shepard, I'll see you in hell."
"Save me a good seat," Taylor activated the manual lock. The seals closed together with a hiss. Reynolds rolled onto his back, drew his emergency grenade, pulled the pin, and held it under his chin as the batarians swarmed around him.
Shepard felt a tear slide down her cheek, she brushed it away. Tears were for civilians, not soldiers. "Ryan, you have the systems online?"
"Roger that ma'am," he brought up the interface displaying the oxygen flow. "All we have to do is increase the carbon dioxide backwash and they'll be unconscious in a minute. Setting the return to twenty five percent."
"No!" her voice was like splintering ice. "Higher."
Ryan peered at her over his shoulder, his voice was nervous. "How high?"
"One hundred percent."
"Ma'am," Ryan seemed more scared now than he had in the corridor. "That will kill them."
"Well done Mr. Ryan, I knew you were a PFC for a reason," Taylor walked toward the console. "It's alright, I'll do it myself. Out of the chair."
The tech scrambled out of the way. Shepard began inputting the new parameters of the environmental systems. It barely took thirty seconds to set up. Thirty seconds to kill the better part of five thousand aliens. Her hand hovered above the activation button. The camera feeds showed the batarians outside the door, some running to fetch demolition charges. They would be far too late.
"Ma'am, this is murder," Ryan stammered.
She activated the switch. "This is war."
"Probably the only part of my reputation that I deserve," Shepard slipped her gauntlets off. "I didn't give a fuck about the moral ramifications. Those batarians deserved death, so I gave it to them."
"I believe we scouted you as a potential Cerberus recruit after that," The Illusive Man brought up the file. "The director of our recruiting cell decided you were too high profile, recommended waiting a few years."
"That's ironic, if you had offered me the job then, I would have taken it," Shepard shook her head. "Such is life."
TWO HOURS LATER
"Acting Major Shepard?" General Wallace gave her a slap on the back. "Well done lass. Over ten thousand batarians dead, and that's just the preliminary body count. Intel thinks there's over three thousand more KIA in those tunnels."
"With respect sir," Taylor gingerly sat down on one of the Navy standard seats. "I wouldn't trust Intel to accurately estimate the security of an Illium brothel, much less do anything worthwhile inside it."
The General's smile became a little tighter. "Yes, I was informed about the faulty reports. Still, you reacted damn well considering the circumstances."
"We reacted well," Shepard countered. "Major Kyle kept his head on straight sir, kept the air-support and medevacs coming in. Got our armor on the move, kept everyone calm and level."
"Until he was wounded," Wallace sat down next to Shepard. "That's what I wanted to talk to you about."
"Sir?" Taylor didn't want to talk about anything; she wanted to find a spare rack and sleep.
"We find ourselves in a devilishly complicated situation," the General handed her a padd. "Between the 501st and the 10th Cavalry, over five thousand of ours are KIA."
"10th Cav didn't do shit sir, most of the guys on that list are mine," Shepard spat.
"I understand, the trouble is, those boys and girls being body bagged out there have families, and those families are going to want a reason why there sons and daughters aren't coming home."
"I already told you sir, Intel screwed us over," Taylor protested. "The enemies strength, weapons, positions and determination were all underestimated. We weren't prepared."
"Major, you were a Lieutenant this morning, so allow me to explain to you how the world works," Wallace stood back up. "At the Little Big Horn, it was Major Benteen. At Mogadishu, it was General Garrison. At Shanxi, it was General Williams. Whenever soldiers die in unacceptable numbers, in victory or defeat, the general population needs someone to blame. A scapegoat to vent their anger on. Someone who made the wrong call, at the wrong time. It can be for any reason, cowardice, incompetence, arrogance, instability…"
"What are you suggesting sir?" her voice was deadly calm.
"Victory or not, we have five thousand caskets to fill," Wallace clasped his hands behind his back. "I was in orbit, unable to communicate with my people on the ground. I had no say in minute by minute decisions made by my ground commanders. That is what I will be telling the tribunal. What will you be saying?"
"General, I'll be telling them that my men fought bravely and that…"
"You will either be telling them," the grey haired human cut her off. "That Major Kyle lost his nerve and threw wave after wave of troops at unassailable positions, and after he was disabled, you courageously took command and managed to win despite the odds against you. Or the tribunal might surmise that a young, smart and ambitious Lieutenant gave herself a string of field promotions and tried to make a name for herself, at the expense of her men."
Taylor was silent for a moment. "Major Kyle does not deserve this. He's fought for a long time. He's got more medals than half the general staff combined. Even if he lives, he'll never be the same again. Not after what happened down there."
"Which is why he'll be quietly retired, with full pension etc." Wallace turned toward the door. "I've seen it all before. Just say your part and go back to your career. You're a hero now Shepard, you need to act like it."
"…and that's how it is sir," Taylor leaned back in her chair. "I screw you over or Wallace screws me over."
She resisted the urge to rub at the bandage underneath her eye. The medic had gone to rub medi-gel on it, Taylor had refused. She wanted the cut to heal naturally. "Sir…I need a Hail Mary real bad sir."
"Major Shepard?" an orderly entered the room. "I was asked to tell you that the board is almost ready."
"Thank you," Shepard stood up and smoothed the wrinkles on her dress uniform. She rested her hand on Kyle's shoulder. "It was fun while it lasted sir."
She had the speech in her pocket, the 'regretfully took command after Major Kyle's breakdown', the whole spiel that Wallace wanted. Taylor would lie her ass off to the Admiralty Board, present Major Kyle to the media as a sacrificial offering and receive a nice fancy medal, plus a confirmation of her promotion.
Kyle's left hand suddenly grasped Taylor's. She looked down to see his eyes open and staring at her. "Taylor," he whispered. "Did we win?"
She swallowed a lump in her throat. "We won sir."
"That's good," his grip relaxed. He exhaled easily. "You did good Shepard. I'm proud of you kid, you got the job done. Knew I could trust you."
Taylor couldn't look at him. "Yes sir, I'd never let you down sir."
"Alright, let's bring this meeting to order," Admiral Alicia Collins, Judge Advocate General of the Alliance Navy, took her seat. Eight other staff officers took their places to the left and right of her, General Wallace was among them. "Major Shepard, this is a formal hearing, but be as direct as you can. I have no time for bullshit. Captain Mason?"
"Major Shepard, this hearing is to determine the reasons behind the unacceptable losses at the recent…"
"Pardon me," Taylor interrupted, her arms clasped behind her back at parade rest. "I was not aware of any unacceptable losses."
A deathly silence fell over the room. "Major Shepard," Rear Admiral Harper spoke softly from the far end of the table. "Thousands of Alliance soldiers died taking Torfan."
"The mission's primary objectives were completed sir," Shepard assumed a curious expression. "We won."
"The objective of the mission was to take Torfan with minimal casualties and retrieve prisoners for interrogation and prosecution," General Alexander slammed his fist on the table. "We wanted to send a message!"
"A message was sent sir, in the form of fifteen thousand dead batarians." The men and women in the observation stand began murmuring in surprise.
Admiral Collins leaned forward. "It was our understanding from General Wallace's report that Major Kyle snapped and ordered the 501st to advance under heavy enemy fire, right into a minefield?"
"General Wallace was mistaken ma'am, I gave those orders. Major Kyle didn't approve of my methods, but we weren't going to win that fight sitting around waiting for enemy artillery to pick us off. I did the right thing ma'am. The Hegemony isn't going to forget this anytime soon."
General Wallace muttered something into Admiral Collin's ear. She nodded and tapped her gavel. "Major Shepard, you may leave now. This board will now discuss your testimony."
TEN MINUTES LATER
"You just shot yourself in both feet, your kneecaps and both hands for good measure," Wallace snarled as he exited the courtroom. "I had them primed to accept a quiet dishonorable discharge for Kyle, and then you went and screwed it up. What were you thinking?"
"Sir, I was thinking that I want Major Kyle to retire with dignity, with his honor and his name intact." Taylor handed him a padd. "My own resignation will have to suffice."
Wallace barely gave the document a glance. "You don't get off that easily Shepard. The crazy thing is that some of those Admiral's are on your side. 'Blood and Guts' Thornton wants to make you a General."
"Well I'm flattered but I'm not a big enough asshole for the job," She had to restrain a grin as Wallace turned a bright shade of pink.
"Keep making jokes Lieutenant Shepard. Maybe the other office workers will like it."
"Office workers sir?" her heart sank.
"Half of them wanted you up in front of a full JAG court for a heavily publicized trial and conviction; the other half wanted you back on the front lines. Admiral Collins and I negotiated a middle path. You accept an immediate demotion to 2nd Lieutenant, a transfer to Admin and Logistic Support here on Arcturus, quietly serve out the rest of your contract and retire in two years with an honorable discharge, good recommendations to any Private Military Company or secretary service, the whole shebang," Wallace paused. "And I had to fight them to get you that."
"Your generosity is astounding," Shepard unpinned the Major's bars from her tunic. "Military life was starting to get boring anyway."
Wallace shook his head in amazement. "You know Shepard; I hope you have lots of children. So in sixty years you can tell your grandchildren how you straightened your back, squared your shoulders and shook your fist at your career. Because the closest you're ever going to get to rank is making coffee for senior officers who should be shining your boots. I hope you think Kyle's good name was worth it. Dismissed."
TWO WEEKS LATER
ADMIRAL KELLY'S OFFICE
"This is your post," the white haired Lieutenant Commander indicated an un-occupied desk and terminal. "Whenever Admiral Kelly sends out a general order, your job is to proof-read it for spelling and grammar errors, then relay it to the dispatcher for issue to the rest of 5th Fleet. Any questions."
Taylor didn't answer, just slipped into the chair. Lieutenant Commander Peters gestured at the left side of her chest. "You don't need to wear those in here Lieutenant. No one's going to be impressed with service bling, the brass coming in and out have a lot more."
Shepard bristled. Her Master Combat Infantryman's Badge, Distinguished Combat Star, Legion of Courage, a dozen other commendations plus her sharpshooter and marksman's ribbons, N1 and B7 qualification badges, were not 'bling'. "Uniform regulations state all medals and accoutrements are to be fixed on the uniform at all times sir," she replied stiffly.
"Suit yourself," the career administrator shrugged. "We're a bit informal about how we dress up here. Admiral Kelly's an easy boss, just make sure you get your reports in on time, remember to keep the coffee hot and don't gossip about his smoking habits and he'll let a lot of things slide. Welcome to H Section Lieutenant Shepard."
"I keep this," she pointed to the scar underneath her eye. "To remind myself that actions have consequences. That is a lesson that you need to learn before I can trust you."
The Illusive Man nodded. "What happens now?"
"I'm heading for Illium as soon as the Normandy's ready for the jump," Shepard replied. "I'll see if I can help Liara with her Shadow Broker problem. After that? Who knows? I'm a Spectre, acting on behalf of the Council. They won't help me prepare for the Reapers, but Saren had the resources to fight his own private wars, even without the geth. With a few credits, some eager recruits and a fuck load of thermal clips, there's no reason I can't do the same."
"Your own private empire Shepard?" The Illusive Man smiled ironically. "It's harder than it looks. You need some very devoted allies to make it happen."
"There's squad you gave me to start with, Admiral Anderson on the Citadel, still ready to fight the good fight, Liara on Illium with her information network, Wrex and a slowly unifying Krogan government on Tuchanka," Shepard smiled. "Oh and a Rachini Queen that I released on the sole condition that she'd return the favor some day when I needed her. I think I've got plenty to start with."
"Well, if you ever need me, you know how to get in touch," The Illusive Man began to cut the connection, and then paused. "By the way, how did you get out of that office?"
"Story for another day," Shepard turned and walked out of sight. "Joker, lose this channel."
A/N: OK, show of hands, who'd like to see Taylor escape from desk jockey hell? I am eager to do a sequel if that is the case.