W/N - This story has been rattling around in my head for a while. This one is a back story that takes place before the Skyllian Blitz as a young, arrogant Shepard goes through N training and learns as much about life as she does about killing. I want to bring out the intensity and brutality of the training as it might happen in a special forces selection as well as bringing out Shepard's cockiness at her genetically enhanced superiority. I took a little artistic license in the rank structure and am going to use some traditional military ranks. I still scratch my head at the ME ranks. CODEX of military terms at the bottom.

The Vila – February 12, 2176, 2246 hours

She had made it. She had really made it. There was a palpable sense of excitement in the night air as Ensign Claire Shepard settled into her cot and pulled her sleeping bag up to her chest. Here she was, at the highly touted Interplanetary Combatives Academy or ICA, the most intense, the most rigorous military school in the Alliance. To the cadre, those who survived the ordeal, it was known as N-School or simply The Vila.

For the One Hundred and Thirteen men and women who made it this far, the last six months of preparation had been nothing short of grueling. Unending physical and psychological training blending in with countless rounds of ammunition shot from all manner of weapons had become these candidates' entire world. Now, here at Selection, they would emerge the best of the best or just about die trying.

"Hey…hey you," a woman said in a loud whisper. Claire looked around, but the barracks was full of trainees rustling around and fixing cots. A balled up sock hit Claire in the head. "Yeah you, over here."

Shepard snorted in irritation. "What? What do you want?" She looked over to see a woman's dark face with bright eyes. The woman was sitting up in her cot, her white tank top tight around her muscular frame.

The woman snickered, giving Shepard a sly half grin. "Sorry, can't sleep. I'm Amanda…Amanda Richardson. I was with the First of the One O third. Marine all the way."

"Claire Shepard, fleet brat. I was with the SSV Saratoga. Not for very long though before I qualified for Selection here," she said with a cocky edge. She had the right to be a little full of herself. After all, you had to be somebody to get here. "Yeah, my mother and father are fleet brass."

Amanda wrinkled her nose and shook her head. "Oh, one of those, huh? I just had to fight my way here. So, what do you think is going to happen tomorrow? They just going to run us around? Maybe we shoot a bit? You know, this whole thing is just so hush hush."

"I met one of the cadre on the Sara before I shipped out. Guy was an N4. He never said a word about ICT and just gave me this weird smile when I asked."

"Well shit," Amanda said with a sigh, "it can't be any worse than the last six months. Our Top ran me ragged. If I have to say, 'more PT, sir, more PT' one more time, I'm gonna slit someone's throat."

"Yeah, I mean, how bad can it be? You have genetic enhancement, right?"

"I got the standard package, but I've done pretty well. The rest is grit and determination," Amanda said as she stretched out her right arm and made a fist, cocking it back to show a defined, bulging bicep.

Shepard raised her chin just a tad. "I got the in vitro. Strength, speed, stamina, the whole deal."

"Oh, lucky you. Rich dad trumps all."

Claire rolled back into her sleeping bag, satisfied that she was going to be the Alpha dog in this kennel. "We'd better grab some shuteye. You know they're going to run us around a bit in a few hours."

"Roger that. Have a good night, golden girl."

February 13, 2176, 0330 hours

A horrific clanging noise woke Claire up and she bolted out of her cot, her bare feet landing on the cold tile floor. Rustling in the dark told her that the other women in the female barracks were doing the same thing. She rubbed her eyes and stifled a yawn, but she was prepared for this. She survived the Naval Academy after all. The clanging noise grew louder as men and women in blue t-shirts and golden shorts entered the barracks, one of them banging the metal lid of a trash can with a large soup spoon.

"Line up! Line up in front of your cots! Do it now!" the trash can lid holder yelled, the veins in his thick neck bulging as he beat metal on metal. The man was as solid as a fireplug, ropey arms attached to a meaty chest that sat atop tree trunk thighs. But his most distinguishing feature was his bushy eyebrows, the kind that looked like a row of barbed wire. "Don't make me tell you again!"

In nothing but their underwear and tank tops, Claire, Amanda and the other women scrambled to get in front of their cots, slipping and sliding and jostling each other as they came to attention.

"Are you serious? Are you freaking serious?" the man hollered. "I could have taken a dump in the time it took you ladies to line up. Get back in your cots! Do it now!"

It was all part of the game and Shepard knew it. She rolled right back into her cot and lay, ramrod straight, waiting for the next order. She could feel a presence at the head of her cot, someone standing there, looking down at her, judging her.

"All right! Get back up! Line up! Line up! Line up!"

She leapt back up amid the shuffling feet of nearly thirty other women and hopped into place in front of the cot. In two seconds, the room was silent.

The man looked down his hawk's beak nose at her and curled the edge of his lip up. He pulled the curved brim of his baseball cap down so that his beady eyes were barely visible beneath it. Shepard managed a glance at the blue cap on which 'N7' was embroidered in gold. He caught her looking and her breath froze in her chest.

"What the heck are you looking at?" His eyes were bulging and his pink face turned beat red. "I said…what…the heck…are you…looking at?" he repeated, emphasizing each word as if he were speaking to an idiot. He got right up in Shepard's face and began jabbing her forehead with the brim of his cap, causing her to wince and close her eyes. The man seemed to calm down, his face returning to a normal pallor and the stress lines along his jaw relaxing. "Heh, you don't like that, do you, Miss Shepard? Well, you're not going to like me much when we get through. So, your dad's an admiral and your mom's a captain. You know what? I don't give a shit. We earn our own place here at The Vila and if you don't get that through your thick skull I will make it my mission to see you suffer and ride your candy ass out of here. Do I make myself clear?"

"Yes sir!"

The rage exploded from him again as he clenched his teeth. "Then all of you, get your asses out of my barracks! Get…your…asses…out of my barracks! Form up outside and sound off!"

Shepard bolted for the door along with the other women. She caught Amanda at the exit and the marine shot her a subtle smirk and a wink. They scrambled into a line opposite of the male candidates and snapped to attention. The woman on the far right began. "One!"

"Two!"

"Three!"

Shepard took a breath and sang out, "Four!" and on it went down the line. When they were done all fell silent again except for the pitter patter of a light drizzle in the darkness which accumulated into small, muddy pools.

The head training instructor paced in front of them like a tiger in a cage. He came to a stop and shrugged, holding up the metal lid and spoon. "Oh, forgive me. I forgot the introductions. I am Master Chief John Hartmann. Where are my manners?" he said with a chuckle that got everyone to breathe a sigh of relief. A few chuckles echoed from the ranks as the tension broke like popped balloon. Even Shepard let out a smile and a snicker.

Hartmann froze and so did everyone's breath. Without warning, he flung the lid and spoon to the ground, making the candidates wince with the loud clang. "You think that's fucking funny? You think ICT is a joke, don't you?" he yelled, his eyes bulging again. He ran up to Shepard, his face jutting out. "Get down! Get down and sound off!"

Ranks of trainees hit the deck and began pumping out pushups. "One, two, three, one! One, two, three, two…."

Shepard felt her genetically enhanced muscles kick in as blood surged from a superior heart. By the twentieth iteration she was barely breathing hard. All around her there were the groans and cries of pain and fatigue. A small smile escaped her lips. All her life she had been the Alpha dog and this would be no different. She could do this all day.

She heard the sound of spraying water and then saw the Master Chief squat in front of her, holding a water hose. "You have my undivided attention, Shepard. You have my undivided attention," he said and began spraying the water right in her face. Water shot up her nose. "Keep counting. I can't hear you. Sounds like you're underwater."

"One…two…three, fifty five. One…two…three, fifty six," Shepard gurgled.

"You aren't drowning, are you? Cause that'd be a damn shame. I couldn't sleep for at least a day if that happened."

She couldn't see a damn thing with the stream hitting her eyes, filling her mouth. "One…two…three, fifty eight. One…two…three, fifty nine."

The jet of water stopped and Shepard gulped undiluted air. Hartmann seized her by the ear and jerked her head around. "Look over there. Look over there, sugar britches," he whispered in her ear as he pointed to a male trainee sagging and crying out with each pushup. "You see that? That is something that you will never have. That is heart. That is courage. You, you're just some kid's science project." He yanked her head the other way and pointed to a brass bell that sat atop a worn wooden frame. Before it was the downtrodden path that only failed trainees walked when they had had enough…when ICT had proven to be beyond their reach. The bell meant a one way ticket home, never to walk the hallowed halls of the Vila Militar ever again.

Hartman got down in the mud right beside her and pinched her ear until she winced. "You're gonna ring that bell for me, Shepard. You're gonna ring that bell and I will put you on that shuttle myself and send you back home to mommy and daddy."

CODEX:

Selection – training course to select elite personnel

Top – Senior enlisted person in a unit