Prologue

Part One: Earthborn

Earth, Chicago Metro Area, April 2172


Cinderella Complex.

They say Keeley Shepard is practically the definition of the term. They, of course, being the social workers, the psychologists, the councilors and the other kids at the group home. But she's pretty sure they have it all wrong. It doesn't help that she's a blonde beauty with amber-gold doe eyes and rosy cheeks and people always judge little girls on their looks. She had questionable parents that disappeared off the grid - just one more little girl with no listed birthplace; a doll-like child who has no shortage of families who think they want to adopt her but keeps getting sent back from the foster homes – shouldn't need a group home in this day and age, but things always break when she's around. The superstitious say she's cursed.

All her life she's been tossed around from one place to the other, but especially at first when she still allowed herself remember. She thinks she remembers a plane from somewhere warm and coming into the cold snow of the Midwest. She remembers the dampness of her father's scratchy polyester parka against her face. She is sure she remembers that mom smelled like sweet perfume, smoke and stims.

But then she knows they were gone and it hurt too much to feel it. She was at the park with the cold mist in her face as she swung back and forth on the swing and once she finally came down and her little worn out shoes hit the ground, mom and dad were gone. The sirens came eventually and everything in her short life became something else. When the social workers tried to explain; do you know why we're here? And we know it's so hard now that they are gone, but it will be okay. They might come back. You never know. Keeley reluctantly remembers that conversation on the vinyl chair in the police station and the side-eyed looks of the officers when they took her away.

She didn't...wouldn't cry with their eyes on her, but when she slept, it was horrible and all the light bulbs shattered. She'd hear shouting and the tinkle of glass. Cursing; that damned kid. There's a lump on one of her ribs where it cracked; it hurts fiercely to this day but she never tells anyone. She knows she's different even then. She has a half recalled memory of her parents arguing about the money and those people; they won't just let this go. We let them expose you and her and now they are going to take her away. She remembers mom saying just like Rapunzel, some horrible witch wants to take my baby away.

She remembers daddy's reply. She'll remember it for the rest of her life no matter how hard she tries to forget and cover up the words with a flip of perfect blonde hair and a wink and the curve of her cheek.

You should have thought of that before you sold her.

Keeley has had years to tell the voice in her head to shut up, years of beatific placid expressions and years of training her voice not to tremble when she says I don't have any family, sir. She's so good at it it's almost eerie. Eventually, the feelings for anyone else stopped too, at least in the personal way of a lover or a friend.

It is easy to love the whole world in an idealistic and impersonal way; she wants to make it better, hell, she wants to save the whole damn world when she has her biggest, most fantastic dreams. Maybe it's because her life has been so cold, maybe it's because she thinks the world can be better; more likely it's because she wants to be adored. She's got a strange sort of romanticism and its excellent armor against despair. She makes herself happy with her big utopian dreams and she's the one person she can always rely on.

If there was a scientist or a doctor willing to treat these unwanted kids, there would have been an answer to all those broken light bulbs and plates when she's mad that she didn't throw and that boy's broken arm when he touched her without permission. The other kids always knew what it was; she's far from the only undocumented biotic. When she learns more, when she reads from the net about Biotics, she learns about exposure to element zero and scandal and all these things she doesn't totally understand. It does however make one thing very clear. The rumors about money and intentional exposure? Well, Keeley is living proof.

You should have thought of that before you sold her.

Not that she'll tell. She'll never tell what she remembers. It's only a dream after all - it's almost like it was someone else's life. It doesn't matter. Besides, biotics are weird and they make her different and that's not what she's about. Doesn't matter that in time she learns to protect herself a bit; not throw things unless she wants to or her feelings get the better of her. Eventually, no one even knows anymore because she's so good at hiding it. She can throw a grown man across a room, and she's done it, but more often than more than not, it gets away from her so she doesn't use it at all.

She insists on learning to hack because she doesn't want to rely on something she can just barely control.

She can hack into any system, bypass any door lock. The group home was her first target and they never caught on. She bought a dress and warm boots that cost too much, color for her cheeks and perfume. Cash for her wallet and to bribe her way to protection from the gangs, too. Better to be a hack and be useful. She knows what happens to the pretty ones out on the streets, no matter how well the facilitators at the group home and the social workers think they are protecting her. Keeley wants to keep her pretty face and her dignity so a skill that doesn't require her to be on her back is the best insurance she can think of.

She's still willing to be rescued despite being self sufficient, despite being unable to let anyone in through the walls around her heart. She's not delusional or romantic enough to think he's a prince charming. She knows the score. But that doesn't mean she won't have a sweet smiling face and the curls in the end of her blonde hair and the whole package so he thinks he's saving her too. She'll find a boy like her, with more street cred than love in his life and who's not even twenty himself with too many tattoos and a growing addiction to stims he thinks he has completely under control.

Keeley plays Cinderella when it suits her and runs away from the group home with her rough hewn prince and away from her battered old life at midnight, just like any good fairytale princess is supposed to. Her escape is only missing a chiming grandfather clock and lost glass slippers. Better to run away now, than let them throw her out.

She has a date for when she was born but no place and she can't remember; April 11th, 2154 and this year she'll be eighteen and she'll be out on her own whether she's ready or not.

She's not, but she won't let anyone know.

Keeley starts her new life hacking into a bank terminal and getting arrested four days after her eighteenth birthday. The judge gives her two options: since her crime was reasonably minor - and god damn she has skills and the criminal justice system does have doctors and it took them all of fifteen minutes to figure out she's a biotic - two choices; jail or the Alliance Navy.

Since she does have a Cinderella complex, but not in the way they think, she immediately enlists. She's got a bit of martyr in her blood and maybe a lot of invincibility. She survived being unwanted and abandoned at three years old in the rain. She survived the gangs and the drugs and the temptations. She survived those haunting words; you should have thought of that before you sold her. She still has her pretty face and her dignity, just like she always fought so hard for.

Now she has a future too.


Part Two: Sole Survivor

Akuze, Colonial Landing zone, July 2179


Didn't take long before they realized she's more than they expected. Most criminal kids given the chance at military service become grunts and soldiers. They thought maybe she might make engineer, but she's better than even that. Biotics, electronics, hacking and decryption? They immediately send her to Vila Militar in Rio and by the time she's twenty-one she's the top of her class, and N2. She'll go all the way to N7 to wear that admirable designation on her chest; of this she has absolutely no doubts.

Keeley Shepard does it all with perfect skin and pretty eyes and not one precious tear, even when it might be warranted. She lets those men rescue her; her fellow soldiers, diplomats, instructors; just one solitary night at a time. Never two; never more than that. Come a bit close, but not too close. Come closer still, stay back. She smiles at Toombs when she sends him away and she makes him think it's his idea to do it; it's regs, it's the rules and they only get to break them this once. Toombs is utterly in love with her, but he walk away thinking he's protecting her. Maybe he is - protecting her from herself, from getting hurt, from taking a chance at loving someone because that means you can lose them. He has exactly no idea that Keeley knows she could love him too, even though he's rough around the edges and maybe a bit unstable. It makes him more terrifying to her than a bullet but unsuspecting Toombs has no idea.

Shepard can hide anything behind that beautiful smile.

She likes the Phoenix brand armor best when she dances with her pistol because it is white and pink; she's beautiful and deadly and still has the biggest heart in the Alliance. Toombs says she has fairytale hair and sweet honey eyes and he's a terrible romantic, even as she keeps pushing him away. No one has to know that she won't let herself feel anything. Let him think that his romantic streak is the reason they need to be tragically kept apart by their superiors and maybe someday, if they are the same rank, if they both make N7... Shepard knows it won't ever happen. He's not leadership material because despite his unbelievable stamina, he goes sideways a little too easily. And thank goodness for that one perfect way out.

Shepard cares not a whit for regulations, but he doesn't have to know that.

It's her mission to earn her N7 designation that sends her here to Akuze. She's first Lieutenant and she's leading the squad. It's the first time its real authority and the real unknown looming. Toombs is her right hand man as always and it's surprisingly not awkward; she knows he's a damn tough Marine and she has no idea what they are walking into. She trusts him with her life, just not her heart.

And then it all breaks loose, hell has been given the name Thresher Maw, though she doesn't know if at the time. At the time it reminds her something from a nightmare, a gaping forty foot mouth with muscle and poison and it's grabbing her squad and they are disappearing into the sand.

When it's over, she's firing her last shells into the thing even though it's already dead. Its gruesome worm body is half flopped out on to the bare sand and its greasy green blood is oozing everywhere. There are bodies. My god, there are bodies everywhere. There were fifty of them when boots touched down. Now it's only her and the stink of blood and acid and gunpowder.

When they evac her, consoling colonists and with their help recovering sixteen only sixteen of the bodies of her fallen comrades, she's told she performed in an admirable and effective fashion and they pin the N7 on her chest.

It's as heavy as a lead weight, but she won't have let those men and women die in vain. She won't let Toombs' death mean nothing and fuck that hurts so much more than she expected it would. She tried to protect herself, she tried to make sure she didn't care and although she knows she didn't love him, not like that at all, there is suddenly a Toombs' shaped hole in her life and it's bloody around the edges. But dammit, Keeley is a survivor, and goddamn she can survive through anything. Someone else might have let those bodies, those corpses drag them down. Some might see blood on their hands. But not Keeley Shepard. Not N7 Lt. Commander Shepard. She didn't kill anyone - the Thresher Maw and bad intel did that job. Toombs' would be proud of her. She was just lucky and canny and talented enough to survive.

Keeley Shepard was the sole survivor of the mission on Akuze, but the survivor part is more important.