Ren's Longwinded Opening Note:
The Queen's Gambit: One of the oldest known chess opening moves, often used by grandmasters. Can be played either as Accepted or Denied, depending on the opponent's strategy.

I was surprised at how much I liked the quippy, geeky comms specialist. Despite her inexperience working on an active warship, Traynor's forward behavior towards Shepard tells me she'd be a fun, interesting woman outside of galaxy-wide genocide. Especially in her personal life. While I don't have working knowledge of communication, engineering, or the military, I did my best to at least give Sam and crew the dignity of intelligent dialogue.

All Mass Effect characters, missions, and canon dialogue are property of Bioware and their respective copyrights. I do not profit from this story in any way, it's just for fun.

I have also written a prologue of sorts for this fic explaining how Sam got on retrofit duty in the first place called "Pawn to d4."

Isabella sniffed disdainfully as she studied her reflection in the mirror. There was a small smudge of lipstick on her expensive white dress shirt collar. Running a washcloth under the faucet, she attempted to dab lightly (never blot!) at the stain. She glared through the mirror at the lipstick's owner who was still in bed.

"Must you be so... so..."

"Affectionate? Amazing? Fashionable?" Samantha Traynor supplied as she rolled over. She was already well aware of Isabella's uppity attitude the moment the woman had gotten out of bed. Samantha had even been placing a betting pool with herself on what tiny insignificant quirk would set Izzy off.

Six to one odds on the dirty towels. Four to one on my brand of toothpaste. Two to one on my Alliance housing and how much she hates it.

"Sloppy! I told you last night I had an early morning."

Damn. Don't think there was a bet in on marring her perfect outfit. No winners today. Better luck next time, Traynor.

"You told me a lot of things last night. The first was that you didn't think this was working, the second was that you missed me and to kiss you and never stop," Samantha reminded the fretting woman. She glanced back at the alarm clock holo. 0742 EST, 48 minutes before Sam was due at the Alliance dock for work. Damn this early schedule. I miss my flexible hours in R&D.

Isabella continued to sigh unhappily at her reflection. The petite woman's face, which had been so pretty and pale under the dim light of the restaurant overlooking Vancouver Harbor, seemed almost ugly now. Her make-up was a little too imperfect, her brown eyes a little too red from lack of sleep, her golden brown hair a little too unruly from her hurried morning. "You should have woken me sooner, Sam."

Oh, no you don't. You don't get to turn this around on me. "I set the alarm. I woke you when it went off for the third time. You're all grown up and running a company, Izzy. Big girls don't cry."

"And you should quit this Alliance shoestring R&D and come work with me at Eldfell-Ashland. Cut your teeth on some algorithms with credits behind them." Isabella's fingertips swept over her lower eyelids, desperate to smooth away errant eye make-up before shooting Sam a haughty glare. Her Omni-tool bracelet chirped for the eighth time, probably another update to her already full schedule. "I get tired of proposing the same thing every time we're together. Promise me you'll actually think about it this time."

And... time! Twelve minutes and thirty-seven seconds before Isabella makes a comment that I'm wasting my talent. She must be losing her touch. Or mine is improving. Maybe the night before mellowed her out more than usual.

Sam hated this conversation topic. She brushed it off like she always did. "Proposing? So soon? You old softie. I was thinking a fall wedding. Two kids. Maybe a dog?" Sarcasm dripped from her light, airy voice.

Isabella rolled her eyes. "If you can't be serious, then just forget it." Her well-manicured hand reached down for a gleaming toothbrush in a charger cradle.

Sitting up in bed, Sam tsked in annoyance. "Like hell you're using my Cision Pro Mark-4 when you just unproposed to me, Izzy. If you're not going to make an honest woman of me, your minions at Eld-Ash will just have to suffer your morning breath."

Muttering something about looking in her purse for mints, Isabella gathered up her things and attempted to smooth her wrinkled business suit. Her scowl deepening, Izzy snapped one last time as she headed for the door. "I'm late. When you decide to stop wasting your life as an Alliance lapdog and feel like doing some work that matters, give me a call. I'd hate to see you in ten years still stringing tin cans together on some dead end rock in the Terminus.

"You're better than this, Sam," Isabella added thoughtfully, softening her rebuke some. Samantha asked her if she was going to call later. Izzy evaded like she always did, mumbling something noncommittal before darting out the sliding doors. Sam could hear the faint, muffled chirp of Izzy's Omni-tool down the hall. Another schedule update for the Chief Communications Officer of Eldfell-Ashland Energy LLC.

Bloody hell. That confounding woman only wants a connection when it's convenient for her, never for me. I don't know why I always answer. If I'm better than anything, I'm better than people like her.

Sliding out of bed, Sam flicked the control panel to get hot water going which, in Alliance housing, could take awhile. Even though she was only in boot for a little while, she still had the anal retentive routine of a trained soldier. Set clothes aside, arrange make-up tools (which were pretty minimal at this point: eye liner, lip gloss, and light foundation. No one to look nice for anyway.), unwrap her ready-to-eat breakfast, and start warming a mug of water for hot tea.

Samantha fired up her Omni-tool to work the vid screen on the wall while brushing her teeth. The Alliance News Network was broadcasting pretty standard fare: economic turmoil in Africa, riots in China, and speculation on the Pan-Olympic games this summer in Reykjavik. Sam sighed after sticking her fingertips into the still-cool running water. Stupid Izzy, stealing all the hot water.

The dull vibration of the small mass effect fields on her toothbrush did wonders to calm the irritation from Isabella's departure at least. Shifting her attention back to the vids, local news had one topic and one topic only: the military trial of Commander Annelise Shepard.

Older holos of Shepard showed a fiery redhead with sharp green eyes leading the charge against Saren Arterius and his geth on the Citadel. But this Newer Shepard was almost a shadow of that other woman. She was no long fiery. The green eyes were still sharp, but mostly tired and resigned. Before, Shepard had shouted to any reporter who would listen about the Reapers coming and the sky falling. The more sensationalist channels latched on to Shepard's fire-and-brimstone predictions, but the ANN dismissed her claims.

After news that the Commander had destroyed a mass relay, killed hundreds of thousands of batarians and set humanity on the brink of war, she disappeared from the media. Locked down at Alliance headquarters, a perky Emily Wong speculated on what punishment awaited Shepard as news from the batarian Hegemony had gone dark in the last few months. There were worries they were mobilizing for war. Wong's report cycled through the confirmed rumors of the day, as well as opinion pieces from various colony and Earth citizens on what they thought of the Commander.

Samantha rolled her eyes as some of the backwoods colony interviewees accused Shepard of being a meddlesome pawn using Reapers as an excuse to stick Alliance bodies and funds into their business. Sharp. Real sharp. Way to make us colonists look good there, buddy. We'll be discovering the wheel and making fire any day now, just you wait.

Only palms and "No comment" could be spotted amongst Wong's Alliance government interviews. The reporter claimed that an unidentified source found Shepard's information on Cerberus useful and her Reaper fears credible, as well as requesting for vigilance from all humans. Sam laughed at a few soundbytes praising Shepard's actions as well as her ass, though she suspected the sources didn't have firsthand knowledge of either.

Suddenly an alarm chimed over the vid screen indicating Sam's train to the military base would be arriving in 25 minutes. An email alert also popped up in the corner. She recognized Isabella's email address.


Sorry I'm such a grouch. Can I make it up to you? Dinner tonight? A real date this time? I promise to behave if you promise to wear that black dress.

Who am I kidding, we both know I can't behave around that dress.


Rather than getting excited, Sam just sighed as she hopped into the acceptably warm shower. She spent those seven minutes of peace arguing with herself on whether to take Isabella up on her offer.

What the hell are you doing, Sam? Do you really want a repeat of this morning? Six to one odds she lays into you about the Alliance during dinner. Four to one she avoids talking about anything at all. ...which is always fun, but dreadful the next morning... Two to one she shows up two hours late smelling like someone else, probably her Eld-Ash flavor of the month. ...which means you're her flavor of the month to someone else...

Stop it.

Toweling off her dark hair, Samantha scowled as she exited the bathroom. Dressing in her simple blue civilian Alliance uniform was a matter of methodical snaps and zips, though her toes wiggled free of the light boots until the last possible moment. She took a seat at the low table near the prefab's only window while mentally calculating she had about 18 minutes before she had to scurry out the door to reach the light rail train to the Alliance dock.

Samantha pondered the chess board on the table, running an absent finger along the Lazy Susan. The pink and black stone pieces swayed back and forth before her fidgeting finger, scattered across the grid in tight attack patterns. Despite the fact her mind was processing dozens of scenarios and maneuvers for her hematite brethren to conquer the offending rose quartz army, Isabella drifted back into Sam's thoughts. Quite against her will.

Isabella never wanted to play chess. Didn't even bother to learn. The rose quartz king still defiant against the onslaught of a hematite bishop was a result of many idle nights and weekends against the ferocious opponent known as Samantha Traynor. And those nights that weren't idled away on chess were idled away on an absolutely infuriating woman who appreciated silly things like celebrity gossip and low cut blouses.

Before that thought could return to its inevitable, irresistibly sexy origins, Samantha's Omni-tool chimed with an incoming call. Giving the Lazy Susan a spin to attempt to defend herself from her repositioned hematite knight, she tapped the orange interface to accept the call.

Two cheerful faces popped into the small screen. An older approximation of Samantha was tucking errant strands of long salt and pepper hair behind her ears while the paler older man finished stealing a quick sip from a wine glass.

"Hi there, alpha sprog," Geoffrey Traynor jibed amiably. "How's the homeworld? Rife with manna and honey?"

"Mornin' Dad. And that's alpha and omega sprog, unless you've got a brother or sister waiting in the wings that I don't know about after 26 years." She waited a moment for her father to stop nudging her mother suggestively before addressing his original question. "It's raining manna as we speak. I'm lucky I don't get crushed on my walk to the tube from all the glorious promised land delights. How you tolerate colony life when paradise is clearly in Vancouver is beyond me," Samantha dryly retorted while running fingertips through her damp hair.

Priya Suresh-Traynor rolled her eyes at father and daughter. "Knock it off, you two. This call is costing a fortune as it is. How are you doing, princess? What time is it there?"

"Mum," Samantha started in exasperation. "You ask me this question every time you call. I've been here four months, and the time is always the same. I'm about to leave for work. How's Horizon?"

Tsking at her daughter's tone, Priya sighed. "We're still rebuilding. We finally finished the last of the funerals and wakes for the ones we lost. Six months, kid. It took six months for all that. There have been some Alliance reps conducting a census to get a feel for who all is left, though most of the families of the taken have already gone offworld for a fresh start."

Geoffrey chimed in, "I don't know how they expect to get an accurate census with all the coming and going. The northern section of the colony is still partly cordoned off from researchers picking up those bug… things… and they turned the medical district into a research lab to examine the Collectors that Commander Shepard killed."

"Have you met her yet? Commander Shepard?" There was intrigued awe in Samantha's mother's voice. "You did say you were working on her ship, right?"

"Mum," Samantha tried to keep her irritation to a minimum. "I've never even seen her in person. She's under lock and key at Alliance HQ. I'm at the dock. We don't exactly mingle around the water cooler. I don't even think the Normandy is considered her ship anymore since it's been impounded. All our retrofits have a new commanding officer listed."

Priya frowned with a disappointed "Oh…" while Geoffrey patted his wife's shoulder with encouragement. "Now now, my little lotus flower. I'm sure we'll get some grand kids out of little Sammy yet. Even if they aren't the Hero of the Citadel's." He winked at Samantha playfully, though she could only squawk out an awkward "Dad!"

It took considerable willpower to resist the urge to slap a palm to her forehead.

What in the bloody hell is going on? First Izzy is harping on me about my future, now my parents are fishing for fictitious grandchildren? With Commander bloody Shepard to boot? Whatever I did to deserve this, God, I hope I at least had fun doing it. Because this is just... just...

"I really should be" Samantha started before her mother interrupted. "Samantha. We're your parents. We love you. We just want to make sure you're happy. And settled down at some point. Not right this minute... when you're ready, of course. I just hope you're doing something with your life that matters to you."

The thoughtful concern in her mother's voice tangled up Sam's tongue in a mixture of gratitude and embarrassment. She found herself tucking her hair behind her ears nervously, exactly the way Priya had done earlier. "I—thank you, mum. I'm fine. I'm doing work I enjoy and I help people. I get to travel on the Alliance's dime. And I still make a mean cup of tea. I'm just fine."

Geoffrey, oblivious to the cryptically tender mother-daughter moment, interrupted. "Hey, kid? We just lost four of our database feeds from the Terminus. And we're getting reports Alliance-issue comms are down in Exodus and Horse Head. Did your people run a stress-test and crash the damn network again? You know us backwoods yokels piggyback on your comms for boring things like day-to-day life and infrastructure, yea?"

Sam flipped through her Omni-tool messages, which confirmed the blackout, but there were no warning messages about planned downtime. Assuming it was just some lazy tech who spilled a drink on their console, Samantha promised her dad she'd follow up on the comm outage when she got to the Alliance dock in… oh shit! Is that the time? I'm going to miss my train!

Hurrying her goodbyes, she signed off and quickly started gathering her things. Against her better judgment, Samantha tucked her favorite black dress into a small duffle, along with some overnight essentials. Her hand hesitated over her toothbrush, but in the end she decided to leave it safe and sound at home. Next time, ol' sport. Next time.

She took one last moment to slide a rose quartz bishop onto a black tile, 45 degrees from the hematite king. Check. Grinning smugly, Sam ran out her prefab door with a slide of a keycard. A helpful hand of an elderly man held the apartment elevator just long enough for her to dart into the car. Twelve floors later, they were both deposited at the ground where Samantha made a beeline down the busy street to the train station.

The last call sounded just as she huffed up the top step, though the sliding doors snagged a souvenir pin from the Eden Prime Observatory off her overnight bag in their eagerness to keep the train on schedule. A morning talk show blared from the small viewing screens tucked in the corners of the cars, background noise for the sleepy commuters to try and wake themselves up before yet another long day at work.

Resting her forehead against a cool metal support bar, Samantha let the rhythmic sway of the light rail settle her thoughts. She tapped her Omni-tool to re-read Isabella's date proposal. And sighed.

Dammit, mum, why do you have to be so prying but so supportive? It's quite the brilliant move from the Mom Playbook. It's not like I can admit I'm shagging a detached mining executive who has an aneurysm when I so much as plan a date a day in advance. I just… I don't know why I put up with Izzy. She certainly isn't what mum had in mind for settling down. She's completely infuriating and yet I still go back.

Because I'm lonely in this stupid city.

...Stop talking to yourself, Traynor. Have you gone barking mad already?

Vancouver Harbor whizzed by the train window, a sparkling morning sun glinting in its waters. Ship traffic seemed especially heavy the closer the train got to the military base.Strange. Several stops along the harbor dropped off medical personnel at the hospital, mechanics at one of the land vehicle hangars, and decorated officers at the command post. Samantha couldn't resist appraising a particularly attractive brunette in navy and gold before returning her wandering eyes to the glowing holo map. Next stop.

The doors swished open to a busy security screening station. Sam was surprised at how jammed the security line was at this time of morning; most ships on active duty were already gone by 0730, leaving the engineers and specialists a leisurely arrival free of military troops. But today was oddly different and she wanted to know why.

Samantha tried to strike up a friendly conversation with a few male troopers in front of her, but they were sullen and quiet. One answered with a surly, "That's classified, Specialist." Another wiggled his eyebrows suggestively and asked her what she was doing later. "That's classified, soldier," Sam returned playfully.

Abandoning all hope of making it to work on time, Sam slogged through 20 minutes of security scans before she could hop on to her freight elevator to the G-13 dock. Unlike the rest of the Alliance dock, the G terminal was exclusively for impounded ships and therefore had next to no foot traffic. She had become well-acquainted with the familiar security staff in G terminal, but those friendly faces were ashen and unresponsive to Samantha's hellos. What in the bloody hell is going on?

A jet bridge was already extended to a uniquely profiled deep scout frigate. "NORMANDY SR2" in bold lettering along the body of the ship greeted Sam from the window view, as it had for the last four months. Inside, however, was where the comfortable routine went to hell.

"Logged: Specialist Traynor is aboard," the Normandy's virtual intelligence, EDI, chimed above Sam's head. Another thing I miss about R&D: no VI punch card telling everyone I'm late, she grumbled inwardly.

The Normandy's Flight Lieutenant, Jeff "Joker" Moreau, rotated in his chair to better shout through the cockpit.

"Somebody's in trouble," he cackled in a singsong way. Joker pulled his blue SR2 cap off his head to scratch his palm against his fiery red hair. His lower lip stuck out in a knowing grin behind his thick beard.

"Already? Do I want to know, or would my time be better spent savoring the suspense?" Sam quipped as she shifted her duffle bag, eager to stow it away before one of the nosier tech specialists saw it.

Joker waved his hat to gesture to the back of the ship. "Your brass replacement is on the horn in the war room about some missed something. Normally I don't care… plus I like watching people get yelled at who aren't me, but she's threatening to lock down my ship. I think it's a new record for her." His nose wrinkled in disgust.

Sighing, Sam jogged through the CIC to drop her duffle into the cramped room next to the elevator. The massive overhaul to strip all signs of Cerberus from the CIC deck had made one of the corridors redundant, so it had become an unofficial junk storage area. Several crates marked "Property of A. Shepard" were stacked haphazardly in the shelves above.

Privates Westmoreland and Campbell were both engrossed in magazines on their datapads and didn't even acknowledge Traynor entering the security curtain. Sam rued the day that bloody thing was finally installed, because she had to pass through it about 30 times a day to get at all the comm hardware in the war room. And there was no bypass or skipping the line, either.

"EDI, what's going on?" Samantha asked the ceiling as she strolled through the conference room.

"You have an urgent message from Staff Lieutenant Ventura."

Everything is an urgent message to that shrew, Sam mused. Aloud, she asked what the message was regarding.

"The Staff Lieutenant has expressed displeasure that the cargo bay and CIC still contain crates and property from the previous crew of the Normandy. She is also requesting an updated timetable of the Normandy's comms readiness. I have, of course, sent memos to the Staff Lieutenant regarding both these issues, but she insists on speaking to you directly."

Of course she does.

Making brief greetings to Specialists Lucas and Xian, who were playing with wires underneath one of the instrument panels, Samantha cut across the wide, round war room. Peppered with chairs and high tech consoles, it was a far cry from the stark salarian laboratory that once occupied this half of deck 2.

Xian called out to Sam, peeking his dark eyes and messy hair out from an access panel in the floor. "Yo, Traynor! You're late!" She wished people would stop pointing that out. "And you need to check the ANN direct feed. Crazy bad interference. I'm gonna miss my stories." Samantha glibly replied that she wasn't responsible for the ANN's signal quality, and that he would just have to watch "Profiles in Courage" later.

The smaller comm hub behind the war room was still a work in progress. Heavy power cables had not yet been tucked under the floor boards, but the holo conference center was up and running. A yellow light pulsed on the comm panel, indicating an incoming transmission. An orange holo console popped up as Samantha approached it, and she typed in her credentials to accept the message.

A stern Hispanic woman with an officer's hat materialized above the third floor panel. Samantha crisply saluted the holo of Staff Lieutenant Vanessa Ventura, who was only a few kilometers away at Alliance HQ.

"Specialist Traynor."

"Lieutenant Ventura." Samantha had learned long ago to leave her disdain at the door. Just keep her face a mask and soldier through.

Ventura seemed to inspect a datapad before continuing. "I checked the retrofit logs. The Normandy is not ready for inspection."

"I was not aware we were being inspected, ma'am. To what do we owe the pleasure?"

The older woman put the datapad down and touched her fingertips together crossly. "You should always be ready for inspection," Ventura scowled.


Suddenly a feed lit up underneath the vid-call, spelling out a long list of delayed or delinquent Normandy action items. Samantha bit back the urge to shout, for some of these requests required acts of God. Upgrading calibration suites? A full drive core audit? Unless I missed about a million memos somewhere, she's pulling these requests out of her arse.

"My apologies, Lieutenant. My assignment to the Normandy did not include yeoman-level protocols. So my ability to procure tends to fall to the wayside when higher-ranking specialists make requests." Higher-ranking delights such as yourself, Sam snorted inwardly, whose need for gourmet coffee and scones trumps my need for engineering vent couplings and proprietary algorithm licenses.

Ventura shook her head with dismissal. "All I'm hearing is excuses. Admiral Anderson is scheduled to board the Normandy at 1330 today for an impromptu shakedown to Titan and back, following a late meeting with Commander Shepard and the Alliance Admiralty Board."

Why am I always the last to know this shit? "Will the Commander or any of the Admirals be joining us?" Sam asked in a disinterested monotone. She didn't particularly care one way or the other, though Specialist Xian would be over the moon. Shepard's was his favorite "Profile in Courage" and Samantha bet a hundred credits hers was the "story" he was keen on watching. Again.

"No. The Commander is under lockdown pending sentencing for her actions over the last year," Ventura growled. She was not one of Shepard's adoring fans. "But as you are not signed on for active duty, you are responsible for ensuring the Normandy is at optimal readiness for her ground crew."

Oh, goody. Sam eyed the long list of things left to do, many circling around removal of all the extraneous tech and parts. All of the unchecked stress test items were already complete, they just weren't properly reported on. Samantha and Specialist Lucas had an ongoing bet over who had to do all that bureaucratic bullshit, with no definite winner (or loser) in sight. We'll flip a coin later.

"Understood, Lieutenant. We will be ready for the Admiral's test drive of his new old ship," Sam lied with a smile. Her weak joke flew right over Ventura's head, who just muttered a distracted "Indeed."

Just as Sam was about to sign off with a polite goodbye, Ventura tilted her head. "May I ask why you have not put in a request to continue to serve aboard the Normandy,Specialist Traynor?"

Because you would be my executive officer and make my life hell? Sam cleared her throat to disguise a derisive chuckle.

"I intend to return to R&D on Arcturus Station. I had several QEC research projects in the works before I was requested to assist the retrofits. I like to finish things, ma'am. The Normandy is up and running beautifully. She needs a combat comms specialist for all that exploding and excitement, not a stodgy old tech geek like me."

"But the Normandy is the most advanced ship in the Alliance Navy, with its own QEC array. I think your time would be better suited to assisting us here," Ventura challenged, not satisfied with Samantha's modesty.

Sam replied through gritted teeth. "I'll take that under advisement, ma'am." Yet another woman telling me what I should be doing with my life. Three for three today, a new record. All sorts of records being broken today.

Just no good ones.

"As you should. Now what is the estimate on—wha?" A quizzical expression crossed Ventura's face as she looked somewhere off to her left. The confusion transitioned suddenly to horror.

"Oh my—oh my God!"

The Lieutenant shouted something else, but the feed cut out with a rumble. The last thing Sam saw was Ventura diving to her side, with what looked to be rubble crashing down on top of her.

That crash became very real as a dull rumble coursed through the Normandy. A warning klaxon blared as EDI came over the intercom. "Proximity warning. The Alliance dock is under attack. All exterior hatches closing and all crew report to their work stations."

Work stations?! There are 11 people on this damn ship! What are two security guards, three comms specialists, two pilots, two engineers and two weapons guidance techs going to do? Can we even get this ship running with a skeleton crew like this?

A second shockwave snapped Samantha out of her confused stupor. She struggled to stay upright down the infernal stairs of the war room but fell against the opposite railing. Lucas rolled across the floor while Xian held on to wiring for dear life. They both shouted at Sam for answers she didn't have. She wasn't a soldier, after all. She was supposed to be sipping coffee in the CIC while casually mapping real-time data lags on the galaxy map. Samantha kept closing her eyes and opening them to make sure this wasn't just a sleep-deprived nightmare she wasn't waking up from.

"Alliance impound lockdown has been overridden. Distress signal from Alliance Headquarters received. Multiple hostiles engaged. Rescue assigned mission-critical significance, combat assigned secondary priority," EDI reported.

Hostiles? Did the batarians attack Earth? How did they make it through our defense network? Sam's mind was a whirlwind of panic. She told the two Specialists to man the feeds like EDI asked. Their faces were ashen but they complied, Omni-tools glowing with purpose.

"EDI! What's happening?!" Another blast rocked the ship as Samantha stumbled to the conference area. She clung to the glass wall and peered out the window. The sight was enough to make her nauseous.

The Normandy was already lifting off out of the dock as the view tilted from the harbor to show the inland city. Giant squid-like robots, taller than skyscrapers, were landing in the distance. Angry red eyes sent out high-intensity blasts. Each sweep of red reduced buildings, cars, trees, flesh to ashes. Smaller crab-like ships, still bigger than most Alliance heavy cruisers, joined their larger brothers in the streets. Their focus was on releasing terrifying abominations, some humanoid, some not, onto the defenseless men, women and children unfortunate enough to be outside today.

"Specialist Traynor. The Reapers are here."

EDI said it so matter-of-factly. There was no other possible explanation. Just... Reapers.

But Reapers are just … children's stories. Shepard's stories? Just… stories. Not real. This can't be real. How is this happening?

Sam's hand flew to her mouth before her mind could actually process why. Out the window, on the opposite coast, a tall building bearing a bold, glowing EAE logo swayed for a second before completely collapsing. A giant Reaper stepped over the ruins on its rampage through downtown Vancouver.

EAE? Why do I know that name?

Eldfell-Ashland Energy.

Izzy. Isabella was in there.

It was EDI who finally broke through, because Samantha's brain had simply stopped working for a few seconds. "Specialist Traynor. I am in contact with Admiral Anderson and Lieutenant Commander Ashley Williams. I require your assistance in the CIC to clean up their communication transmissions, for most of my suites are currently engaged in running the Normandy in absence of a functioning crew."

Jerking backward, Sam dug her fingernails into her palms to remind herself she was alive and that yes, this was happening. Privates Westmoreland and Campbell were no longer idling their time with catching up on celebrity gossip. Both female soldiers were now sporting assault rifles, which pointed at Sam when the doors swung open.

All three women exclaimed a hearty "Shit!" before the soldiers gestured for Sam to keep going. She slid into her waiting console next to the galaxy map, making smooth swipes to bring up the proper channels. A blue tracking beacon on the roof of the Alliance HQ showed "Lt Cmdr A Williams" huddled in a corner with two other marines. Red dots flanked the position of those blue blips.

More Reapers. More monsters. More nightmares.

Okay. Okay okay okay. Sam chanted in her mind over and over to try and even out her breathing, which was nearing hyperventilation-level intervals. Oh. Inhale. Kay. Exhale.

"Specialist Traynor, I will need you to lock on to the Lieutenant Commander and ping her to these coordinates—" EDI brought up a neighboring building with a large landing pad adjoined by a jet bridge on the holographic city map, "—so that we can extract them. I have also received a transmission from Admiral Anderson but I have been unable to pinpoint his location."

Okay. Okay okay okay. I can do that. I do that all the time. I am the queen of doing that. O-kay.

Sam pulled out every coding and bypass trick in her arsenal to overcome the perpetual [Connection Failure] screen keeping her from that little blue dot on the roof. Victory came in the form of a shouting female voice through the comm feed.

"—ple hostiles! Need a pickup ASAP! Williams to Normandy! Respond! Over!"

EDI took over the guidance of the officers while Samantha switched gears to hunt down an elusive wave feed that was buried amidst thousands of other emergency distress signals being broadcast across the city, the planet, at this very moment. Burst fire struck the Normandy's kinetic shields as it unsteadily maneuvered past Reaper ground troops to reach Ashley Williams. Specialists Hertzfeld and Douglas in the third deck weapon bay unleashed the Normandy's heavy guns to clear a path for the marines.

Typing furiously, Samantha rerouted the remaining satellite feeds that were still broadcasting to one holo screen while opening another to start running custom scan filters. "Adm D Anderson" was in there somewhere, amidst thousands of other comm channel IP addresses. Isolate for military encoding. Cross filter with rank parameters. Last known location, pinpoint coordinates, and—

"EDI! I've got it! Comm link 045.7.8300.1-A7, Vancouver Harbor, on the roof of the ANN Telecom Tower!"

"Link established, Specialist Traynor. Thank you," came the warm reply. Sam and EDI opened a secure socket so that the Lieutenant Commander and Admiral could communicate without fear the enemy would cut them off or lock in to their position.

Samantha then went to work cleaning up the feed as best she could, although keeping a lock on the Admiral's comm unit was proving difficult. But she was able to overhear a good chunk of conversation at least.

"Lieutenant Commander? You read me? I'm patching in Shepard."

A new IP appeared on Samantha's screen, granting it classified-level access. She grabbed on to it and ran it through the necessary security filters, confirming it was in fact Commander Annelise Shepard.

"We're almost to the Normandy. I've got Lieutenant Vega with me, but we're taking heavy fire," Ashley said amidst the pop of gunfire. An affirmative from EDI reported Williams, James Vega, and Sergeant Benjamin Mason boarded the ship a few seconds later.

"We're about five minutes out," Anderson reported, before his comm cut out with an alarmed shout. "Husks!"

Is that what those—those things are? Samantha tapped into some of the emergency news feeds while keeping a close ear on the progress of Anderson and Shepard. Panicked journalists showed waves of terrifying monsters sweeping in to cities like a plague. London. Paris. Beijing. Buenos Aires. New York. They were all the same.

The voice of a terrified boy brought Samantha back to the immediate carnage at hand.

"Everyone's dying."

"Come here. I need to get you someplace safe."

It was the first time Sam had heard Shepard speak. Her voice was husky and warm. There was a pressing urgency to her words, but also the promise of safety. She asked the boy to take her hand. The child's response chilled Samantha to her core.

"You can't help me."

The boy didn't sound older than ten years old, and his hope was gone. If a child could stop believing, what hope was there for any of us? What can I do, against all this? Who am I to these things, these Reapers? I'm nobody.

Static took over the channel, so Samantha at least had something to busy herself from the dark thoughts closing in. The banter between Joker and Lieutenant Williams buzzing over her console also proved a decent distraction. Those two bickered like old friends: Ashley was stern and serious but had a touch of snark, while Joker's surly sarcasm was immune to even the end of the world. Williams sounded like she might have been one of the popular girls, the jocks. The ones who made life hell for geeks like Sam.

Get a grip, Traynor. You don't even know what she looks like. She's down in the shuttle bay. She's not about to tackle you and give you a noogie and make you do her homework.

The silly thoughts did make Samantha uncomfortably aware that her back was facing the elevator and she wouldn't even see it coming. Right. Because that's a priority when the world is being invaded by super aliens.

Focus, Sam.

Okay. Okay okay okay.

Anderson's comm finally cut back in after two minutes and thirty-nine seconds of dead air. "Lieutenant Commander Williams! We're in sight of the spaceport! ETA three minutes!"

"We made it to the Normandy," Williams shouted as the ship lurched. "We're taking heavy fire!" Even with the artificial pressure and gravity, Sam had to hold on to her console edge to keep from spinning off into a wall. An emergency halter attached to a sturdy cable popped out of the control panel. Dropping her arms through the straps, Samantha clipped the bungee to her belt to ensure she kept her feet on the ground.

"Oh God!" The Lieutenant Commander's cry of horror was drowned out by a proximity warning from EDI. Before Sam could ask what was going on, Williams clarified. "They're gonna take down that dreadnought! Evasive maneuvers!"

They? Who's they? Whose dreadnought? Could we—could we be winning? Pushing them back?

[Connection failure]

Sam cursed as the secure socket disconnected the Normandy from the Admiral and Shepard. She cursed again as a deep, resonating shockwave hit the ship. Her security buckle held as she was jerked off her feet by rough turbulence. "The Kilimanjaro-class SSV McKinley has been destroyed. Chance of survivors: 0.07%," EDI reported. Joker's cursing was much more colorful than Sam's.

"Anderson! Anderson, do you read me?" Ashley's comm broke through the stunned silence. She demanded a reconnection to the Admiral. Samantha ran search protocols, but both Shepard and Anderson had dropped off the communication map.

So an introduction was long overdue. "Lieutenant Commander, this is Specialist Traynor. I am working to reestablish a connection, but our system is overloaded with distress signals. There is simply too much interference. I need a signal boost from the Admiral on the ground in order to lock on to their position."

To Williams' credit, she didn't swear at or berate Sam for things out of their control. One up on Ventura, Samantha thought bitterly, before swallowing that resentment with guilt. Of course she has one up on Ventura: she's still alive.

"Understood, Traynor. I will continue hailing the Admiral until communications are back up. And when they are, I'm gonna need a big favor."

"What's that, ma'am?"

"I'll tell you when the time comes, Specialist. Keep trying Shepard, too."

Well, that sounds ominous, Samantha chewed her lip. She went back to probing the data feeds for any signs of comm signals. After the first half dozen probes into signals, Samantha had to set up a rule not to listen in to any feeds. She couldn't handle listening to hysterical women, panicking medics, or distraught soldiers demanding answers from the chain of command. The cry was the same for everyone.

What do we do?

What do we do against something like this? Run? Where do we run to? What if they're everywhere?

Okay. Okay okay okay.

A small gunship, the SSV Zelda, suddenly pinged Samantha's terminal. Her lip curled in a cautious smile when she saw two familiar comm links reconnect. Shepard. Anderson. They made it. Sam locked on to that comm buoy's signal with half a dozen layers of encryption before patching it over to Ashley's frequency.

"—ndy! This is Anderson, do you read!"

"Admiral! What's your location?"

"By a downed gunship in the harbor. I'm activating its distress beacon. Send support. We've got wounded out here—" A garbled burst of static and the comm went dead once more. Williams requested a response in her channel a few times before she gave up.

Bloody hell. Slamming her fist on the console, Samantha shouted at her terminal. "I know you're in there! Where are you?!" She managed to isolate the coordinates of the signal's distress beacon, but it simply didn't have the power to piggyback for comms anymore. She would have to find another comm buoy to tether to the Admiral's IP, but where—

"Specialist Traynor, I need you in the shuttle bay," Ashley commanded over the intercom. "Now."

Bloody hell, Sam swore inwardly again. But Williams was the ranking officer on the ship. Until Anderson, the assigned commanding officer, was found, Samantha had to obey the chain of command. Unhooking her safety harness, she shakily padded over to the elevator and hit the glowing 4 on the panel. She wondered if taking an elevator in a combat situation was a good idea, and mentally calculated her odds on getting stuck.

Seven to one there's sudden power loss and I get trapped. Five to one a direct hit somehow severs the cable and I plummet three decks to a very uncomfortable landing. Two to one I curl up in a ball and refuse to leave the elevator.

EDI updated their status. "We have located Admiral Anderson and Commander Shepard. ETA: two minutes. Extraction point shows approximately thirty-two hostiles at or near the Commander and Admiral Anderson. Status: extremely hot. Specialists Hertzfeld and Douglas: recalibrate heavy guns for precision targeting. Specialists Xian and Lucas: open up all emergency channels to broadcast Alliance retreat. Engineers Rashad and Pierce: assess kinetic barrier levels and drive core expulsion for FTL travel. Lieutenant Cortez: prep the Kodiak in case of emergency evac."

Wait, I can help. I can do those things. I'm the queen of doing those things, Sam mused despondently as the elevator doors opened. Her first view was of a beefy marine digging around in the armory for an arm guard. He had to be over 1,95m tall, complete with broad shoulders and a close cropped mohawk of hair. He slapped on a helmet just as a shorter brunette swept over to Samantha.

"Traynor? I'm calling in that favor now." Ashley Williams was different than Sam had pictured. For one, she was gorgeous. Waves of dark hair, full lips, bright brown eyes. She also had an assault rifle in one gloved hand and a heavy pistol in the other. Suddenly, the pistol was being tossed at Sam.

It was ungraceful and embarrassing and calling it a "catch" would have been an insult to all catches in the history of humankind. The gun was heavier than Sam remembered pistols being, and it struck her left palm before bobbling above her right hand, then she swept it to her chest before finally just dropping the damn thing.

Again, to Williams' credit, she didn't mock Samantha. She waited for Sam to pick up the gray and black weapon before continuing.

"I'm gonna need you to help defend the elevator, Specialist. Vega, Mason and I will take point on extracting the Admiral and Shepard. We aren't landing, but there's still a chance some hostiles might try to board the ship. If they do, we need every man and woman on this ship armed and ready to serve. We can't lose the Normandy again." Pain briefly flashed across Ashley's face before becoming serious once more.

It crossed Samantha's mind to protest. To say she couldn't do it. She wasn't a soldier, after all. But instead, a hardness settled inside her chest. It vaguely resembled determination, but it was enough. Instead of refusing, Sam nodded and took up a place behind the weapon bench.

Turbulence in the shuttle bay was the worst. Samantha could feel every jerk of the thrusters, every dip of the stabilizers, every blast hitting the kinetic shields. She took the time crouched behind the console to recall her very brief weapons training two years ago. Even geeks had to be certified to handle weapons, and Sam had received decent marks on her exams.

"It's because you're a woman," her trainer had said. "Women are just naturally better shots. It's the breathing. Once you get the breathing down, shooting is a breeze."

Breathe. Right. Okay. Okay okay okay. Deep breath. Slow. Steady. Sight your target. Inhale. Squeeze the trigger on the exhale.

She practiced a few times, making sure the safety was on. It seemed simple enough. The M-3 Predator was a heavier version of the M-5 Phalanx she'd used in training. Simple enough.

Then the shuttle bay doors opened and simple got really complicated. Ashley, James and Sergeant Mason bravely descended the bay doors and disappeared from sight, and the scene beyond was absolutely terrifying. Sam could see bright red things, armed to the teeth with rifles. Most were trading fire with presumably the Admiral and Shepard out of sight below, while more than a few were gleefully eating their fallen foes. Black and red haze surrounded their feeding, drawing strength from their cannibalistic madness.

That hard determination in Sam's chest sank to the pit of her stomach, and she squinched her eyes shut. She could still see their claws ripping into the intestines of humans,each other, in the chaos that was Earth. Hearing Williams shout for Anderson jerked Samantha back to the terrible reality.

She couldn't see anything, but the shuttle bay doors started to retract.

Oh God. What is coming aboard? Did they find Shepard? Anderson? Why isn't anyone saying anything? What do I do? What do I do?

I am not okay.

Everything evil and wrong is red. Red eyes. Red reapers. Red blood. So when Sam saw a red head with a red face pop up, she didn't think. She popped the safety off, closed her eyes, and fired blindly into the distance.

Samantha opened her eyes in time to see the bullet deflect off a hazy blue barrier. Her target, a new woman, had pulled her right hand into a tight, blood-stained paw against her chest. Her fingers relaxed as the biotic shield released. The fingers flexed outward suddenly and the pistol was yanked from Samantha's hands. It sped across the room to rest safely in the woman's outstretched hand, while biotic blue strands faded from the motion.

In the woman's left hand was a cord with jingling metal tags on the end. She lifted and dropped the dog tags over a crop of dark red hair, where they settled at home against her collarbone. White and red "N7" shone back at Samantha.

Oh shit. Oh shit shit shit SHIT.

Soot traced over high, blood-smeared cheekbones. Medium lips were tightened with stress. Ferocity glinted in deep green eyes.

Commander Annelise Shepard.

Sam had just shot at Commander bloody Shepard. Her first instinct was to hold up her hands in childish surrender. Samantha felt fire explode on her cheeks in profound embarrassment. She wanted to say she was sorry, say something, but her tongue was glued to the roof of her mouth.

The intensity in Shepard's green eyes was replaced by a new glint. Of amusement. She casually popped the heat sink out of the pistol as she strolled over to the weapon bench in front of Sam. Dropping the gun on the table, Shepard flashed Samantha a warm, understanding smile.

"Dismissed, soldier. We've got a war to win."

Ren's Thank-yous:
The wonderful cover art was designed by Fishbone76 and used with her permission. Please check out her deviantart gallery for more beautiful scenes from this story for nearly every chapter (there's a link to it in my profile).

Thanks to reviewers Lyaksandra, AndrogyMous and FloridaMagpie for catching a few lore inconsistencies in this story, as well as vandanaghost for looking out for my QEC/communications accuracy. I have corrected them, and greatly appreciate learnings like that to make the story better. Also thanks to themikefest on the BSN for his comprehensive listing of Traynor videos, and YouTube users FluffyNinjaLlama and Revan657 for recording any Traynor scene I could ever need. This story would probably suck without all you guys' effort, so thanks!