The barrel of the assault rifle never wavered as the commander asked, calmly, "I'm sure you're aware of your options. How's it going to be?"
The woman behind the desk glanced, with ill-concealed nerves, between the N7 markings on the soldier's armor, the gun, and the blue eyes only just visible behind the polycarbonate mask of the breather helmet. Still, she spoke with lazy contempt bordering on defiance. "This isn't Alliance space. This isn't even Council space. This is the Terminus, Commander. You have no authority here."
"That's where it gets a bit murky," the soldier agreed. The heat sink indicator was fading to blue now, but Shepard didn't need it. The ease in the trigger was enough to alert her that the gun was once again serviceable. That was Visagie's first mistake- sitting in shock when she first entered the room, even though the shots just prior were readily audible. "The problem is, there's no extraditing authority within the Terminus, and your terrorist network stretches all the way back to Sol. So instead of a polite diplomatic incident and cushy negotiated transfer, you get me."
"Do you honestly believe the Council will stand for Alliance interference here?" Visagie stood as she spoke, her right hand reaching for a drawer, casually.
Shepard released a brief burst of fire into the desk. Visagie let go fast. "That's more like it. You think anyone has any sympathy for you, Visagie? You blew up a ship full of colonists. Families. You're what makes humanity look bad to the rest of the galaxy. What I'm doing just proves the Alliance can muzzle its own dogs- assuming they ever let you see enough sunlight again for this to make it to the Council's ears, which seems unlikely."
Visagie switched tactics. "We're very well funded."
"I'm bored of talking to you. I'm no assassin, but don't believe for a moment I won't shoot you if you fail to cooperate. Let's go." Shepard jerked her head towards the door. She could hear her backup coming down the hall.
Visagie lowered her head, defeated. Shepard didn't buy it for a minute as the woman shuffled around the desk, before attempting to ram Shepard with her shoulder and make a break for it.
Shepard was ready for it, and stepped back to avoid the attack while bringing the butt of her rifle down between the woman's shoulder blades. Visagie stumbled, half-sprawling, through the door. There was a surprised shout, and then several shots in rapid succession. The woman was gone before she hit the floor.
"Aw, hell." Shepard shouldered the rifle and stuck her head out into the hall. "Somebody want to explain what in blazes just happened?"
The operative straightened, chagrined, holstering his pistol. Shepard recognized him as one of the upper ranked trainees from ICT. "She was coming straight at us, ma'am."
"Her network is still active, lieutenant. We needed her intel. She was ready to cut a deal with me, she would have talked." Shepard was frustrated enough to strangle the man herself. "You couldn't have restrained her?"
"She looked like she had a weapon," he replied, defensive. His stance was rigid, not meeting her narrowed eyes.
"Right." The lieutenant flinched at her sarcasm. Shepard stalked past him without a second glance and activated her comm. "Ready for pick-up. We need a clean-up crew."
Later, back on the ship in an even fouler mood, she was called into the comm room for a transmission. Captain Anderson's face flickered into life. Shepard saluted. "Sir."
"Commander," he greeted her, his tone relaxed. "Do you have our package?"
"Only if you wanted it on ice."
"Dammit." Anderson was more weary than angry. "What went wrong?"
"Lieutenant Buchar got a little jumpy when our girl tried break free, and he's a regrettably good shot." Shepard scowled.
"Buchar? The new N6, first time tagging along on a big boy run?"
"That's him." She shook her head. "I know the mission rarely goes according to plan, but…"
"Permission to speak freely, commander. I'd like to know your thoughts."
She looked up at the holo. "Goddammit, sir, but I am tired of these kinds of screw-ups. He was shaky from the moment we left the Mako, but the pussyfooting major back on the ship countermanded my order for him to stay back. Because what in the bloody hell does a marine on the ground know about running an op, right?"
"You're frustrated by the limits of your authority," he extrapolated.
"Damn right I am," she muttered. Shepard cleared her throat, and added, more loudly, "Sir."
"It's about time."
Her expression changed from frustration to puzzlement. "Excuse me, sir?"
"I said, it's about time." Anderson chuckled. "Truth is, you've been ready for more for awhile, Shepard. Which brings me to the point of this conversation- your new orders. I'm uploading information on Project: Dark Skies to your omni-tool now."
She gave it a glance, but didn't open the files. There would be plenty of time to peruse them later- it was a long haul back to Arcturus. "Give me the rundown."
"For several years now, I've been heading up an initiative charged with expanding Alliance hardware capabilities in new directions. We're living in an intragalactic world now, Commander. There's a lot of threats out there, and a lot we can learn from our allies. That search eventually led to the ship you're about to discover."
"A new ship?" Her confusion deepened. She activated her omni-tool, the familiar orange of the holographic display limning her forearm, and thumbed an icon. It presented a holo of a sleek craft, unlike any she'd seen in the Alliance fleet. "Sir, with all due respect, I specialize in small, targeted operations. Long term service aboard a frigate-"
"This is a classified vessel whose mission should be right in line with your experience. I'm recommending you for X.O. I need somebody on my team who understands how spec ops should be done." He smiled broadly. "Congratulations, Commander."
She drew herself to attention and saluted. "Thank you, sir."
"Don't screw up." Anderson reached forward to hit the switch. "Anderson out."
Four days later, Nathaly Shepard waved her omni-tool at the fare meter and stepped out into the cold midday sun of Mars. The house looked like every other home on the tidy, narrow streets just off-base- a postage stamp of a rock garden lawn, white painted contoured sides of the pre-fab going tan under this season's dust, Alliance flag hanging limply beside the door. The only thing that really set it apart was the lack of children's toys scattered in the yard and the rusty toolbox in the drive next to the car.
She frowned at that a moment, then shook her head and proceeded up the walk. She cut an imposing figure on the street- tall, especially for a woman, athletic, and dressed in jeans, combat boots, and a faded brown leather jacket that had formed itself to the shape of her body over the years. A pistol sat easy at her hip and she moved with a lazy, competent confidence that betrayed her years of training. A much-abused duffle bag banged against her thigh. Ted hair fell with a soft curl to just past her shoulders and across dusky cheeks smattered with freckles. More bored than weary, she rapped her knuckles against the hatch. It was a long trip.
There was some shuffling from inside the house, the sound of a lock being drawn, before the door slid aside. The man who answered was nearing sixty, with a salt-and-pepper mustache and deep bronze skin a few shades darker than the woman's, and his height several centimeters less. He broke into a smile, exacerbating the wrinkles at his eyes and mouth, though his tone was reproachful. "Zey-Zey. You could have called, you know."
"Hi, dad." Shepard returned his embrace. "You know what it's like trying to make a ship-to-residence call. Besides, I didn't have a lot of warning."
Paul Shepard made a tchting sound and stepped aside to let her in. The interior of the house was comfortably run-down- faded carpets, sagging couch, paint peeling off the kitchen chairs. Photographs lined the walls. Some were of family, Paul, his wife, and their daughter, taken on various bases and vacations all over the galaxy. Others were from their glory days in the Alliance, old friends and comrades-in-arms, old ships. Shepard had a whole wall in the kitchen to herself, from her first birthday to her promotion to commander two years ago, the virtue and embarrassment of an only child.
The space over the table, however, was dominated by portraits of her grandparents, a sort of honorarium to those gone before. Her maternal grandparents she never knew well, but the paternal set half-raised her in her earliest years, while her parents juggled deployments with their familial duties. Shepard smiled fleetingly at Zelena Goya Shepard, her middle namesake, a woman whose outspoken temerity was as well known in their small town back on Earth as her secret mole sauce. Shepard never managed to quite grasp the recipe, though sometime in her preteen years her father mysteriously began nailing it with unfailing accuracy. She suspected either black magic or a really juicy bit of family gossip paved the way.
Paul searched the fridge for a couple of beers. "So what brings you back to Hellas? I doubt you want to spend your shore leave visiting your old man."
Shepard was twenty-eight. Old enough that shore leave no longer consisted of a few days of black-out drinking followed by a few days of throwing up, but she was still more inclined to spend the time relaxing and partying with her friends than on more sedate pursuits. "I have a mission, actually."
"On Mars?" He was surprised, and with good reason. Shepard didn't exactly do logistics or fleet support.
"It's classified." She opened drawers, poking around for a bottle opener. "They've been building some kind of new frigate. I'm here to train for the shake-down, for the next three weeks."
Since the earliest days of its existence, the greatest shipyards of the Alliance were found on Mars. The plentiful resources, proximity to the asteroid belt mining operations, and relatively low gravity without the hazards of vacuum or zero-g made it ideal.
"That's not a usual assignment for a hot-shot N7 operative," Paul observed.
She flushed. Her father's pride occasionally offended her modesty. Shepard popped the cap off her beer and took a long draw. "Yeah, well. It's Anderson's baby. He sort of went and made me X.O."
His surprise showed. Her mother was also an executive officer, albeit aboard a much larger ship, and it took half her career to get there. "Congratulations."
"Thanks," she replied, somewhat awkwardly. She still wasn't sure what to make of the posting.
Paul recovered somewhat, and patted his daughter's cheek with patronizing affection, exaggerated for effect. "It couldn't have happened to a nicer girl."
"Oh, for god's sake, dad." She set down the drink and shrugged off the jacket, laying it over a chair. "I actually came to pick up my car. Speaking of which…"
"Oh, that." He rolled his eyes. "There was a noise in the engine. You know how it is."
She did know how it was, but she was still horrified. "You have her up on blocks in your driveway."
He waved a hand. "It's nothing."
"Dad, I swear-"
"You asked me to keep her in good condition," he said, indignant. "I'm doing exactly that. You're not around to drive her. She's only a little younger than you. She gets a little rattle from time to time, I check it out."
Shepard tried not to lose her patience. The 2160 Fire Starter was her pride and joy, bought with all of her signing bonus plus all her savings from her high school job when she enlisted ten years ago. Though a commercial model, it was a favorite of canyon racing leagues on Mars for its handling and superior traction and cornering. It also predated most standard safety features that made modern cars dull in comparison, in Shepard's estimation. "It's a classic, you have to be careful with it."
He gave her a wry glance. "Zey-Zey, sweetheart, I was fixing just about everything that can break on a ship years before you were born. You ever try to piece together a Mako retrorocket from scrap metal? I can get the crap out of your fussy little car without scratching the paint, don't worry."
"Can I at least pull out the blocks and let it sit on the stabilizers?"
"Well…" He dithered, taking another gulp of his beer.
"Oh my god." Shepard made for the door.
Her father trailed after her. "Zey-Zey, it's not as bad as it looks."
She popped open the hood and her eyes went wide. "The hell have you done to my car?!"
He put his arm around her shoulders. "Look, just give me the afternoon. You'll never know the difference. I promise."
They spent the rest of the day happily bickering over the requirements to fix the car while polishing off the rest of the six pack as the evening chill crept in. The tenting of Hellas in the 40s, back when terraforming still seemed the way of the future, in addition to the orbital mirror made the settlement habitable, but it never really got warm.
Like all these projects always go, it got worse before it got better. At one point seemingly half the engine was in pieces on the drive. However, by the time the last of the light was fading from the planitia, Shepard was able to climb in, thumb the starter, and hear it roar to life. It lifted onto all four stabilizers without sidling and held level.
Shepard managed to conceal her sigh of relief from her father, who was beaming with satisfaction from the yard. He was good with machines- none better, in fact- but occasionally his curiosity and sense of invention got the better of him. She ran her hand over the dash, a soothing gesture, and checked the haptic interface. All systems were reporting green. The controls didn't feel sluggish, either. Call it a success.
Paul went in to start dinner while she took it around the block for a check-out. What she wanted was to get it out on the planitia, without any roads or speed limits, where the engine could really open up, but some pleasures would have to wait for another time. The training schedule should leave a few spare hours here and there.
She polished a smudge off the cherry red paint with the hem of her grease-stained shirt and went inside.
The smell of toasting bread greeted her. Her father was a better cook than you'd expect, but most of the time he preferred easy to gourmet. Shepard washed her hands, found plates and bowls, and set them out on the table. Paul ladled out tomato soup and slid two grilled cheese sandwiches straight from the frying pan to the plates.
"Are you staying here, or up at the base?" her father asked, between bites.
"Probably the base. Looks like they're going to have us in training a good twelve to sixteen hours every day. Most of the crew's already been here six months, but they need to get the rest of the officers up to speed fast. The design's apparently pretty radical by Alliance standards."
"Good. It's about time they started thinking outside the box." Paul's complaints about design inefficiency in the fleet were legendary to those who knew him. Shepard thought, dryly, that she could recite most of them by heart.
Nevertheless, he seemed ready to launch into yet another recounting. "I kept telling them, you gotta pay attention to the maneuverability-"
Paul was interrupted by a spate of wet coughing that shook his body and left him gasping for air. Shepard handed him a paper towel to wipe his mouth. He took it, gratefully, and slipped a container of pills out of his pocket and gulped down two.
"It's getting worse, isn't it," she stated, quietly. It wasn't a question.
"The docs up at the VA told me I need to take it easy. They want me to get some kind of fancy humidifier system for the house. Say it'll help with inflammation and breathing." He made a small sound of disgust. "I told them, I'm fine. It's been like this for more than a dozen years now. I'm used to it."
When Shepard was a teenager, her father was assigned to a carrier ship that had a gasket go bad on the shuttle bay airlock. A small crew inside was trying to fix the problem so they could get a limping bird through to the hanger when the cabin suddenly vented to space. Luckily, they got help quickly and there were no fatalities, but the rapid decompression left her father with severe joint and lung problems. He was honorably discharged on disability and ended up settling on Mars, in a naval community where he could feel at home. She spent the latter part of her high school years here with him and, in a sense, it became home to her, too. This tiny prefab was the closest thing she had to a permanent address.
"Maybe you should look into it. If it makes you even a little more comfortable…"
"Screw that." He sat back and folded his arms. "I don't want a bunch of medical techs messing with my house. That's how it starts. Next thing you know, they'll have a fancy hospital bed installed and some kind of nurse coming around to count my shits."
"How much does it cost?" Shepard asked, rather more shrewdly than her father would have liked.
"I'm not a little girl, dad. If I can help, I want to."
"Nathaly Zelena." He reached across the table and covered her hand with his. "It's fine. Really. You have your own life, I don't want or need you worrying about mine."
She sighed, but let the subject drop, making a mental note to look into the system when she had a chance.
Sunrise was still a dream of the future when Shepard set off for the base. At this hour, even the few cops on patrol were too sleepy to care, and she managed to top 150 kph before the bends in the road started feeling too hard to trust. She loved old sci-fi classics as a kid. There was something delightfully quaint in reading how people over two hundred years ago thought living in space would be, especially when you happened to be reading it from the comforts of a station observation deck, or tearing across the surface of a foreign planet.
Now, driving near-silently past red hills in the frigid Martian pre-dawn, stars still pricked out in silver thread against the sky, she recalled Bradbury's description of a similar ride, and on a whim called up the passage from the car's sync with her collection. The narrator's voice was surprisingly hushed, mellow, striking exactly the right chord. "There was the smell of Time in the air tonight. He smiled and turned the fancy in his mind. There was a thought. What did Time smell like? Like dust and clocks and people. And if you wondered what Time sounded like it sounded like water running in a cave and voices crying and dirt dropping down on hollow box lids, and rain. And, going further, what did Time look like? Time looked like snow dropping silently into a black room or it looked like a silent film in an ancient theater, one hundred billion faces falling like those New York balloons, down and down into nothing. That was how Time smelled and looked and sounded. And tonight-Tomas shoved a hand into the wind outside the truck-tonight you could almost touch Time."
The ruins of the Protheans were hundreds of klicks south of here, inside the quarantine zone that protected them from development and access by non-approved personnel. Shepard often wondered what Mars looked like to them- did they erect the same towering crystal spires envisioned by so many humans, laid to waste in the intervening fifty thousand years, or did they just carve out underground bunkers and watch humanity through interplanetary binoculars, waiting for… something. There had to be reason for their interest. Or perhaps their resources were simply so vast that this was a tiny outpost manned by a few crackpot scientists who found the lumbering cavemen a particular fascination. She wasn't sure whether that notion was more funny or sad.
It didn't matter much. The discovery of the Prothean cache here thirty-five years ago, with its wealth of element zero technology, had radically altered the course of human civilization, whether by accident or ancient design. With the further unearthing of the mass effect relay frozen solid in Charon's ice, at the edge of the solar system, the galaxy had opened before them. It was Pandora's Box gone viral.
The car pulled into the personnel lot on base, and Shepard submitted to the requisite scan with a trace of regret. She loved her job, but moments to herself, unrestrained and free, floating in the space between one obligation and the next, were rare. That was the whole reason for the car. Sometimes she needed to be alone with herself and the speed and think.
The guard threw her a salute. "You're free to proceed, ma'am. Lot B if you don't mind."
She returned the salute and found a parking space.
The sun was just starting to peek over the horizon as she walked through the doors. Anderson was waiting to collect her. "There you are, Shepard."
She glanced at the holo on the wall displaying the time. "I didn't think I was late."
"No, though I suppose I should have expected you to stay off-base." Anderson was an old friend of her mother's in addition to being something of a mentor to Shepard.
She kept pace as he led her through the warrens of the base. "Don't worry. I'm moving in today."
"Good." He glanced over her with something like resignation. "I guess it was too much to hope you might pull out your service uniform instead of utilities."
"Sorry, sir, but I thought we were going to do some real work today, not just show off."
Anderson stopped and favored her with a glare. "I know you're used to commanding small squads in the field, but this is the big leagues, Shepard. I've assured my superiors that you're ready for it. You're a helluva a soldier and smarter than your own good, but you need to learn a little diplomacy and above all you need to see to that mouth of yours, if you want to play on this level. Don't let me down."
She pulled herself to attention, a touch stiffly, and offered another salute. "My apologies, sir. It won't happen again."
"That's what I like to hear." He opened a door off the hallway and held it for her with old-fashioned courtesy. "We'll be meeting with the other officers first for a briefing. Then we'll move on to the training sim and you can meet the rest of the crew."
It was a tiny conference room with a table and eight chairs, coffee maker, and an image of the SSV Normandy SR-1 primed on the holo display on the far wall. The people scattered around the table immediately stood at attention as Shepard and Anderson entered.
"At ease," Anderson said, comfortably. Shepard knew he'd handpicked most of the crew. The Normandy was a pet project, one he shepherded personally from funding to design all the way to this, its maiden voyage, usually fighting politics with one hand and budget with the other. Its success would be a make-or-break moment in an already distinguished career.
He gestured towards her. "Everyone, I'd like you to meet Lieutenant Commander Nathaly Shepard, who will be joining us as my executive officer. Most of you are familiar with her record. Unfortunately, she was unable to join us earlier due to a classified commitment in the Traverse. I wish we had another five of her, but she's here now."
"Classified commitment in the Traverse" was apparently the new Alliance slang for their quasi-legal ventures into the Terminus, but she kept her amusement to herself. Anderson was going around the room. "May I introduce Navigator Charles Pressly, our guide for the duration… our chief medical officer Dr. Karin Chakwas, Chief Engineer Greg Adams, an expert on the Tantalus drive core…"
Shepard exchanged nods as Anderson continued down the line. "Staff Lieutenant Kaidan Alenko, who will be commanding our marine detail, and last but not least our chief helmsman, Flight Lieutenant Jeff Moreau."
"I read through your dossiers on the inbound flight to Mars," she said, folding her hands behind her back and looking at them directly. "It's an impressive group. I look forward to working with you all."
"Let's get down to brass tacks," Adams said, cuing up the display. "The Normandy's not like any other ship in the fleet."
Shepard took a seat and accepted a cup of coffee passed her way by Chakwas. "I noticed that. It looked almost turian in the run-down I got."
Adams nodded, pleased. "As you know, it was a joint venture, and it shows. But she's got plenty of human in her too. Let's start with the stealth system, since that's certainly her flashiest feature…"
Shepard had the knack of multitasking. It was a necessity in her line of work. So while part of her brain focused on Adams' lecture, another was looking around the table, matching faces to the dossiers and updating her initial assessments. Chakwas, seated across from her, was doing a credible job of appearing attentive, though there was little to interest her in the arcana of ship design. She was easily the most experienced member of the crew outside Anderson himself. At her age, most doctors, even in the military, opted to settle down in hospitals or private practice, and she wondered if Chakwas was here by preference or as a favor to the captain.
To her left was Pressly, another older man, who immediately screamed "stuffy old guard" to her military sensibilities. He was the kind of person she could have impressed by showing up in a higher grade of uniform, with shined shoes and medals on display. Maybe that was what Anderson was trying to tell her in the hall- from this point forward there would be more officers like Pressly than like herself. The whole thing was a game, and Anderson wanted her to learn how to play. Why, she wasn't exactly sure yet.
Adams was still talking, gesturing from time to time at the cut-out drawings and vids he threw up on the display. He was another experienced officer, having served on as many kinds of ships as the Alliance had to offer, and reputably knew them each inside and out. His enthusiasm for his work was obvious. Nobody could ask for a better man to manage an experimental drive system. Apparently, in the late phases of the Tantalus' drafting, he was working with the design team directly, human and turian alike. If the Normandy was Anderson's baby, Adams was her midwife.
Past him, near the front of the table on her side, was Lieutenant Alenko. Alenko, Moreau, and herself represented the younger half of the Normandy's leadership. Of all the dossiers, his record stood out as the strangest. Alenko joined the Alliance later than most, with an education that should have routed him to a support role or even design work, but instead he chose a combat division, and apparently done well for himself there. He was also a biotic, which would have been odd enough on its own, with a record of serious and dedicated service, and indeed, he was taking in Adams' lecture now with a small frown of concentration.
Contrast that with the pilot, seated next to her, who was doodling a pornographic cartoon on his datapad. He caught her glance and waggled his eyebrows. Shepard had to bite her lip to avoid laughing.
"Joker," Anderson's voice suddenly snapped out, interrupting Adams. "Care to illuminate us on how you plan to get around the FTL flaw in the stealth system?"
Moreau, apparently better known as Joker, fumbled after a response. Shepard turned her attention back to the meeting fully. There would be enough time to evaluate the crew later.