What if there had been no first contact?

The Final Frontier is an AU Mass Effect fanfic in which humanity developed separately from the rest of the galaxy and there was never a First Contact War. Following a batarian attack on the edge of the Sol system, a critically injured Commander Shepard and a prototype vessel called the Normandy are discovered by a turian patrol. Eventually Shepard is brought to the Citadel, where she meets Garrus Vakarian, C-Sec officer.

Eventual Shakarian. This is a kink meme fill.

Disclaimer: Bioware owns everything. I'm just borrowing them to play with.

Reviews and feedback are much appreciated. This story is also cross-posted to the kink meme and to Tumblr with username masseffectfinalfrontier. Enjoy!

"Space, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations…to boldly go where no man has gone before."

Out of the surrounding speakers, a cheerful and familiar theme started to play. Several crewmembers seated around the screen started humming or whistling along, and a few swayed playfully in time with the music. From where she stood watching the enraptured crew, Commander Shepard shook her head in amusement. Star Trek was about two hundred years old, and somehow it never got old.

"To boldly go where no man has gone before," Lieutenant Kaidan Alenko mused from his seat, front and center in the mess hall, converted into a makeshift theater. "Just like what we're doing, except, no aliens," he added, mouth quirked in a half-smile. "Guess we should be happy about that."

"Give me a break, Lieutenant," Gunnery Chief Ashley Williams retorted sarcastically from the far side of the hall. Williams shot Alenko a mischievous grin. "Everyone knows you've got all the Star Trek novels downloaded on your datapad. But I'm sure you didn't sign up for a tour in space just to read about aliens!"

Alenko ducked his head and chuckled sheepishly. "Guilty as charged, Chief. I like an adventure as much as anyone. But if we do run into aliens, let's hope it's the nice kind. Command won't be happy if we bring their new ship back covered in dents."

"Not happening, Lieutenant," an indignant voice came over the intercom. "I'm not letting anyone scratch up my new baby!"

Shepard smirked. It had been a competitive process, selecting the right pilot for this ship, and while Joker reminded everyone about his credentials daily, he was nevertheless feeling protective. "Relax, Joker," Shepard said reassuringly. "Just a test flight, out to Pluto and back. Nothing fancy."

This was no ordinary spacecraft. Christened the S.S. Normandy, she was a highly advanced prototype, combining an innovative new drive core with countless design improvements. As a result, they could travel at speeds that were previously unheard of. The Normandy was capable of making the trip from Earth to Pluto's moon, Charon, in merely two weeks; other ships could barely hope to do so in two months. The Normandy was, as people often said, an example of what different countries could accomplish when working together. And at least for this trip, she was Joker's responsibility. And Shepard's, of course.

It was supposed to be a vacation of sorts for Shepard – a reward, even. After a grueling six-month assignment in sub-Saharan Africa that ended with her single-handedly holding off a terrorist attack – earning her a promotion to Lieutenant Commander and a Star of Terra – a leisurely cruise through the Sol system sounded like a wonderful change of pace. Humanity had made incredible strides in spaceflight in the last fifty years, with many great nations committing resources and manpower to expanding into this final frontier. Already there were growing settlement on Luna and Mars, and recent advances in spacecraft technology would advance the rate at which progress could be made.

Shepard was proud to be a part of this mission, no matter how simple. Of course, there was another part of her that was just like Kaidan. Few people in the Alliance military knew that the great Commander Shepard had once been a skinny orphan living on the streets of New York City. Even fewer knew that to pass the time between runs with the Tenth Street Reds, she'd lifted ancient science fiction novels from sidewalk stands and read them by the dim lights of the subway tunnels where she'd often slept. She'd come a long way, but old habits died hard – and old dreams, too.

Shepard glanced up at the clock display. Space was an unending expanse of darkness, but here on the Normandy they maintained the conventions of observing day and night, and it was almost night time. "Don't stay up too late, people," she called as she headed toward the elevator, intending to get some rest.

"You're not staying, Skipper? It's a good episode."

Shepard grinned. "Don't need to. I know 'em all by heart already."

Behind her, the elevator doors closed on the sound of the crew's laughter.

An hour later, Shepard was woken up by an insistent ping from her comm system. Pushing her hair out of her eyes, she glared at the flashing red light and squinted at the clock display on the counter nearby. She shook off her irritation and took a deep, calming breath before hitting the comm.

"What's going on?"

"Commander…you might want to come down and see this." Joker's voice. She wondered briefly if the crippled pilot ever slept. She'd never seen him leave his chair, although Vrolik's Syndrome made it difficult for him to move around without injuring something.

"Can you elaborate?"

"I've…never seen anything like it," Joker added unhelpfully.

Shepard rolled her eyes. "It'd better be good, Joker," she muttered.

"Let's just say I wouldn't disturb the Commander's beauty rest just for any old space junk," the pilot quipped before closing the link. Shepard stumbled across her small room to the closet, throwing on the first thing she could find – her fatigues. After a quick splash of water on her face, she headed down the elevator.

Night shifts on the Normandy were manned by a rotating skeleton crew, but to Shepard's surprise few of the assigned crewmembers were at their stations. Instead, most were gathered in the cockpit. She got a few distracted salutes as she approached, then stopped, rubbed her eyes and stared.

Outside the window was what appeared to be a pointed, glowing…thing. It was huge, and…well, Shepard mentally forgave Joker his earlier lapse in elocution as she didn't really know how to describe it either. It was a sleek, smooth shape and she could see flickering bands of light along the surface. The most prominent feature, however, was a glowing orb of energy pulsing in the center, orbited by two rotating discs.

It was, in its own way, quite elegant, but Shepard mentally set aside aesthetic value and her brow furrowed suspiciously. "That thing doesn't look natural," she muttered. "Joker, comm Pressly and see if he knows anything about it."

"Aye-aye, Commander. Pressly, you awake?"

The navigation officer, like Shepard, woke up fully when he saw the strange landmark. "I've never heard of anything like it," Pressly admitted. "To be honest, I don't think any of our ships have physically been on this side of Charon yet. We're in uncharted territory, really."

By this time, word of the anomaly had spread in the crew quarters, and other members of the crew were joining them in the cockpit, Alenko and Williams among them. After letting them look their fill, Shepard instructed those on duty to return to their posts, as the bridge was starting to get a little crowded.

"That bright center…it's giving me a headache." Alenko murmured, frowning. "I wonder who built that thing."

"Maybe your aliens?" Williams teased. But the comment hung in the air heavily. She'd voiced their unspoken thoughts; there wasn't really an alternative explanation but that some alien life form had constructed this piece of – of technology, or art, or weapon, or whatever it was – and left it hanging here. From the looks of it, Shepard thought, whatever alien had built the structure must have been pretty advanced.

"Alright," Shepard muttered. She was so not trained to deal with alien artifacts suddenly appearing in the middle of space, but she could improvise. "Pressly, note our coordinates and send a message back to Alliance Command about this discovery. Give them a good visual. Joker, hold position. We don't really know what that thing is, so don't get any closer if you can help it."

"I can help it, Commander. Staying put."

"Good. And the rest of you…check our systems and see if this thing is causing any reactions from the ship. Keep monitoring for signs of irregularity, big or small."

A chorus of "Aye-aye, ma'am" and a flurry of salutes answered her, and the crew hastened to follow her instructions. Shepard turned around to gaze out at the strange artifact once more.

Guess we're not alone out there after all.

It took time for messages this far out in space to reach Alliance Command. As a child, Shepard remembered reading about the Mars Rover expeditions at the beginning of the 21st century, and how it took three days for each directive to reach the little wheeled machines that roamed the surface of the red planet, 50 million miles away from Earth. Today, from Pluto – three billion miles away – it took just a few hours, but it still meant that like the rovers of days past, the Normandy could be effectively operating alone for long periods of time.

There hadn't yet been any reports of irregularities from the crew monitoring the ship, so Shepard awaited her orders. When they came, they didn't surprise her. "Shepard, we don't know what this is. We've never seen anything like it. But the Normandy is the only ship we've got in a position to investigate. It would be a while before we can get someone else out there. So try to learn what you can from it, but don't take any unnecessary risks. Hackett out."

Well, there it was. She announced it to the assembled crew, getting a round of cheers in response – Alenko wasn't the only one with a taste for space adventures – and then stood on the bridge as Joker maneuvered the Normandy carefully around the structure.

"I'm getting some kind of power reading from the center, Commander," one of the crewmembers reported. "It seems like those discs are generating energy. And I'm getting a sign of some kind of electrical current…"

The Normandy inched closer.

"Okay, a huge electrical current," the crew member amended. "And it's…messing with our systems."

"Pull back, Joker," Shepard called out, and the pilot obeyed.

From his seat next to Joker, where he was studying system readouts, Alenko suddenly made a noise. "The stuff in the middle…I think it might be element zero," he said tentatively.

"What's that?" Shepard looked at him, startled.

"You were still holed up in Africa when it happened, Commander. But recently, they discovered an element on Mars that can shrink mass when you apply an electric current to it. It's possible that this current might be designed to do the same thing. That blue stuff looks like element zero…and the readouts I'm getting are indicating fluctuations consistent with that effect."

"Seems like being a sci-fi geek is useful," Williams commented.

"Seems like," Shepard agreed thoughtfully, as Alenko turned pink.

"How come she never listens when I explain things?" Joker teased.

They sent their observations and conjectures back to Alliance Command, and stood by, awaiting further instruction. Shepard wasn't about to risk the lives of her crew getting closer to that thing without at least some knowledge of its purpose or some backup. In the meantime, excitement mounted as crewmembers talked among themselves, throwing around personal theories.

In the midst of the noise, Alenko suddenly called her over. "I'm getting some indicators of activity, Commander," he said, pointing to a graph that was displaying a clear recent distortion. "It looks like the current's suddenly powered up."

As Shepard looked out at the glowing structure, she noticed that the blue core had started to flicker and pulse. Suddenly, the discs orbiting the core began picking up speed. There was a blinding flash and she reflexively covered her eyes. When she opened them again, there was something else there, floating next to the structure.

No one said a word as they stared, stunned, wondering what had just happened. Shepard moved closer to the front of the cockpit, and then she realized, that new thing now floating in front of them looked like... "Is that…a ship?"

"Yeah…think so," Joker answered. "A strange one. I know every ship in the Navy…and that is not one of ours. But how the heck does a ship suddenly appear out of nowhere?"

"It's that element zero structure," Alenko breathed. "It must be some kind of…galactic slingshot. That ship could be from anywhere in the galaxy."

Suddenly, the new ship turned – right towards the Normandy.

"Whoa!" Shepard exhaled. There were similar exclamations of alarm among the crew, and then silence, as Shepard held up a hand.

"Orders, Skipper?" Williams stood tensely behind Alenko, eyes trained on the ship.

"Stay calm. We don't know what they want. We don't know anything about them. And without any backup or information, we are not going to be the first to tangle with them." Shepard studied the ship, and wondered briefly if whoever was inside had built that element zero structure as well. If so, the Normandy was clearly outclassed. "Joker, if that thing gets one step closer to us, get us the hell out of here."

She thumbed the intercom. "All personnel back at stations. Pressly, get a message back to Command ASAP. We've encountered a vessel of unknown origin. Do not engage, I repeat, do not engage. At first sign of any hostilities we will take evasive action." After a pause, she added, "Any crewmembers with camera functions on your consoles, set to record now. If anything happens, we need to ensure that some record of this gets back to Command."

As they watched, there was a sudden movement from the other ship. The vessel began to glide towards them, like a shark intent on the kill. Front panels were sliding open to reveal turrets, and – was that a harpoon?

Well, that makes things a little clearer. "Joker, get us the fuck out of here before that thing shoots us!"

"Yes, ma'am!" The pilot's fingers flashed in a flurry of movement. The Normandy lurched, causing everyone to stumble – and began to move away. But suddenly, there was a flash of fire and an explosion, causing the ship to rock.

"They're shooting!" Williams shouted.

And then in a burst of movement, two harpoons shot towards the Normandy, and embedded themselves into its side.

Emergency lights began to flicker and alarms began to blare. "Hull breach in the lower cargo hold!" someone shouted over the klaxons. A couple of crewmembers screamed hysterically, but most of them just looked lost and scared. Most of them were Navy technical specialists; Alenko, Williams and Shepard were the only Marines with any real crisis training.

Shepard took a moment to close her eyes and breathe, suppressing her own panic and considering her options. The odds did not look good. The Normandy was armed with conventional defense systems, but it was certainly not designed for space combat against alien invaders. Their best chances at survival still lay in escape, if they could dislodge the projectiles. That was assuming, of course, that the Normandy could even outrun the enemy vessel once freed.

If not…well, then the best they could do would be to buy enough time to get a message out to Command, and warn them, and to get as many people into rescue pods as possible. Even then, the possibility of actual rescue was bleak. They were out by Pluto – and the nearest Alliance outpost was on Mars. But if they could get messages out, maybe someone would be able to pick them up.

She exhaled and hit the intercom.

"Alright, everyone. Listen to me and stay calm. We're under attack. The enemy ship has attached itself to us with harpoons. If we remain stuck to them, our chances aren't very good. Our priority is to detach, disengage and escape intact. But if it becomes clear that we cannot avoid engaging the enemy, our priority then is to get a message out to Command and warn them about these aliens. Pressly, do whatever you can to make sure this message goes out."

"Yes, ma'am!"

"While the message goes out, we're going to fight as hard as we can. I need everyone in space suits immediately as a precaution. Everyone who can use a weapon, have one by your side at all times." At that, there was a flurry of activity as people began reaching for their suits. She continued. "Alenko, Williams, I need you two to head down into the lower cargo hold and try to dislodge those harpoons manually if we can't do so from the bridge."

Alenko and Williams saluted her and headed off.

"All of you are familiar with the choke points on this ship in case of a hostile landing party. All noncombatants will evacuate first into the two rearmost rescue pods. Save the closer pods for others."

Shepard paused, and took one more calming breath. "Ladies and gentlemen, this is the very first encounter that humanity has ever had with an alien life form. This is a historic moment, although it may not be going the way we'd all hoped. Nevertheless, I want each and every one of you to know that no matter what happens, it's been an honor to serve with you."

The enemy ship continued to fire. Shepard looked around, acknowledging salutes and unflinchingly meeting the gazes of her crewmembers – brave, innocent men and women who wore the knowledge of their own deaths on their faces. She saluted them back. Another lurching movement, and the enemy ship began slowly reeling the Normandy in with the harpoons.

Shepard ruthlessly pushed away the fear in her gut.

"Now, get ready," she said, eyes narrowed. "Looks like they're heading our way…and they don't look friendly."

Three Days Later

"Nihlus, you're going to want to see this."

"What is it?" The turian Spectre stepped forward into the cockpit. Nihlus' ship was currently patrolling the Arcturus system, as he'd recently received news of batarian slaver activity in the region. It was strange for batarians to operate so far outside the Terminus systems, and he had been dispatched to investigate.

Nihlus's brow plates lifted at the sight before him. The Arcturus Relay. It had lain dormant for centuries by Council decree. But one glance at the glowing eezo core and it was clear that this relay was no longer dormant. The ship's pilot, Quintus, glanced down at his console, scanning the notes that holographically appeared before him. "It was activated not too long ago," Quintus reported, his dual-toned voice flanging low in disapproval. "Last patrol was just over a week ago and they reported nothing wrong. Maybe your batarians opened it and went through here after that."

Nihlus cursed. The Council would not be pleased. It was forbidden to activate dormant relays, for fear of unleashing unknown horrors – rachni, yahg, and who knew what else – on the galactic community. He turned and headed for the comm room. "Put me through to the Council."

He returned not long after, grim-faced, with his orders: to take his ship through the newly opened relay and investigate. No contact was to be made; it was merely a survey, the Councilors had stressed. The memory of the Yahg debacle was still too fresh in the Council's memory; no one wanted a repeat of the same incident that had left several of their ambassadors massacred.

No, they were not about to unleash another possibly aggressive species onto the galactic stage, but they couldn't let the batarians do so either. As one of the Council's top Spectres, Nihlus was trusted to perform the operation with utmost discretion. He called for his XO and a couple of other officers to join him on the bridge, then gave a quick briefing. "The Council has authorized us to go through the Arcturus Relay and look for signs of batarian slaver activity. We don't know yet what we'll find on the other side, so be prepared for anything. But we are under orders to observe only. No engagement if possible."

Just in case, Nihlus and several officers suited up and grabbed weapons. It was always much more comforting in unknown situations to be armed and armored, Nihlus thought. When the team of turians reconvened, he gave Quintus the signal to commence signal transmission and approach the mass relay.

When they got through to the other side, they were greeted by the sight of a derelict spaceship, adrift. Nihlus' eyes narrowed. "Move in closer."

As they approached the ship, it became immediately obvious that it had been attacked. Large sections of the side panels had been shot off, exposing sections of severed cables. "Spirits," the pilot muttered. "Looks like batarians got this thing. Look at the marks on the hull – looks just like punctures from Batarian harpoons."

"Slavers," Nihlus agreed. "But that doesn't look like any ship I've ever seen," he observed. "Certainly not a Council design. Give it a scan. Tell me if you find anything."

There was a pause as the pilot tapped a series of keys on the console, followed by a hum as the scanners began. "I'm picking up some kind of signal, but it's very fuzzy," Quintus muttered. He turned up the volume, and they heard some kind of fuzzy transmission, a jabbering of desperate, rapid speech in an unknown language, punctuated by the sound of screams and explosions.

Then, there was a rapid beeping from the scanners.

"Nihlus," Quintus said, "there's something still alive in there."

Nihlus bent down to study the console more closely. Sure enough, there was a faint signal indicating a life form, a red spot pulsing on the console diagram. Very faint. "Barely alive," Nihlus observed. "The batarians might have accidentally left a survivor." Reaching over Quintus' shoulder, he tapped a few keys, and a schematic of the vessel's structure came into view. In what appeared to be the command center, there was the outline of a figure, red life sign indicator still flashing. It lay crumpled in a corner, behind the cover of a downed console. It looked like it had been fighting for its life.

Quintus hummed in consideration, then looked to Nihlus. "What should we do, sir?"

Nihlus bowed his head for a moment. He had orders, yes. Observation only, the Council had instructed. But his eyes kept going back to that red dot on the screen. From the sounds of the distress signal, it wasn't a yahg or rachni, at least. Plus, whatever it was, it was clearly only barely alive, so the threat would be minimal. And if he was going to abandon someone on the brink of death at the edge of space, he at least wanted to know who it was.

Nihlus pushed the button for the intercom. "Ground team, get ready. We're going to board and take a look." He nodded down to Quintus. "Have the medbay prepared. If it doesn't look too dangerous, we'll bring it back to the Citadel. Maybe when it wakes up, it can give us more leads on the batarians we're looking for."

"Yes, sir."

Nihlus turned around and headed towards the airlock. "Besides," he muttered to himself, "if it survived a batarian attack, it probably deserves to live."