"They're standard issue! How do you screw that up?!" Susan glared down at the procurement officer sitting behind the desk. The harried-looking woman looked back at her defensively.
"Now ma'am, raising your voice won't help. I'm afraid we are out of Alliance BDUs at the moment, and that's that."
"How do you run out of those?"
"I'm not privy to all the resource difficulties in the supply chain, ma'am."
"We're at the construction site for the single largest project the galaxy has ever known! This thing has no budget cap, no resource limits! I jumped off an exploding train a hundred meters in the air to get some of those resources! I just walked past a mess hall serving a turian dessert that looks like a tree made out of carved sugar and fruits. And then they lit it on fire! How can there be 'resource difficulties' when it comes to Alliance BDUs?"
"Ma'am, I understand you're upset, but I can't give you something I don't have. Oh wait, I've got something here."
"Thank you." Rizzi sat down at the seat before the desk and glanced around furtively. She was suddenly aware of how the background conversations in the immediate area had died away. Please don't let there be a journalist recording this.
"We still have some boots in your size," the procurement officer said, looking up from the screen before her.
"Okay, good! Boots are good!" Susan looked down at the boots she was wearing, taken from her armor and still coated with mud from the temple lake.
"Oh, there are some BDUs listed here."
"Alright." She let out a sigh of relief.
"Oh, maybe not. They're listed for krogan."
"Krogan? Why do we have Alliance BDUs for krogan?"
"I think they were commissioned as a symbol of the cooperation between the krogan clans and the Systems Alliance. Would you like to requisition a set?"
Susan just stared at the officer.
"I'll take that as a 'no.'"
"What about dress uniforms?" Susan brought a palm to her face when she received an apologetic shake of the head.
"We just ran out of those too." The officer went back to typing for several moments. "Is there anything else besides BDUs you needed?"
"Clothes. All kinds. Everything of mine was aboard one of the ships we lost at Thessia."
"Oh. You have my condolences."
"Thank you. It also means I need, well, everything. Underwear, socks, toothbrush. Floss. You name it."
"Let me see what I can help you with. Let's see, toothbrushes. We don't have any regular models available at the moment. But," she said hurriedly as Susan groaned and rolled her eyes, "your service history does entitle you to some of the premium models on a copay system."
The procurement officer turned one of her three screens to Susan. The screen displayed a toothbrush schematic, if a toothbrush was some sort of miniature starship capable of jumping between stars. "This is a Cision Pro Mark Three. It's not the latest model, but it uses mass effect fields to break up plaque. With this, you'll never need stringed floss again. The Cision Pro series offers unparalleled deep cleaning and represents the top of the line in oral hygiene."
Briefly, Susan wondered how it was that every procurement officer she'd ever encountered could rattle off a smooth sales pitch for whatever piece of equipment they were presenting at the moment. Was it an art form? Were they trained to do so as part of some Alliance procurement program? Was there some blurb that accompanied each item they were required to read? Had Michaels been right after all? Were they all indoctrinated and connected via some hive mind?
She shook herself out of the mental sidetracking. "You mentioned a copay system?"
"Correct. Under your current qualifications, you would pay a thousand credits."
"A thousand? It's a toothbrush."
"With an integrated eezo reactor. And an ergonomic no-slip, textured grip." The officer glanced at her screens again. "And you do have quite the sizable bonus from the operation on Thessia, Lieutenant. Combat pay, hazardous duty, VIP escort…" Her eyes widened. "Actually, you have quite the backlog of mission bonuses accumulating. You… you've seen quite a bit of combat, ma'am."
Susan sighed. "Yes, I suppose I have. Okay, you know what; I really do need a toothbrush. I'll take it."
"You won't regret it! Now let's see about other provisions. Socks… good news, we have those in your size. Will four pairs be adequate for now?"
"Sure, that's fine."
"Hmm, bad news on the underwear. We're out."
"How can you be out of underwear?!" Susan broke off, cognizant of the sudden silence following her outburst. She looked around at the multiple stares directed her way. She narrowed her eyes; a twist of mental effort encased her in a gently glowing blue biotic field. Operatives and staff alike quickly directed their gazes elsewhere. She sighed as she let the field dissipate. "Never mind. What kind of clothes do you have? That will fit me."
The procurement officer went back to her screens. "We have some salarian outfits donated by the STG…"
"They have concave chests," Susan said, pointing at her own. "Kind of the opposite thing going on here."
"Right, of course." More tapping at the screen. "How about this? We have surplus outfits for asari operatives. They're similar enough in shape and build to humans. Let me double-check your size here, and… I could get you… two sets of asari commando leather, and the matching underwear."
"Matching underwear?" Susan threw up her hands. "You know what; I don't care at this point. If it fits, I'll take it."
"Alright, so that'll be one Cision Pro Mark Three, two sets of commando leathers with accompanying undergarments, four pairs of socks, and one pair of Alliance issue boots. I'd better throw in a kitbag here. Never let it be said that Alliance Procurement doesn't take care of its own."
Susan opened her mouth incredulously as the procurement officer typed away, oblivious. She managed to halt her tongue before she said something she'd probably regret later and closed her mouth. Opened it again. Closed it. Settled for, "Certainly not. Much appreciated."
The procurement officer stood up from her desk. "Excellent. If you'll wait here, ma'am, I'll be right back with your requisitions."
Susan sat back in her chair as the officer walked away. She let out a long breath as she further tried to process the events of the last days. To go from running and hiding on a conquered planet to a desperate last stand to dealing with the bureaucracy… combined with her own internal turmoil, in some ways Susan felt just as exhausted as she'd been on Thessia. The mundane nature of her current situation set her mind spinning. Even her interactions with Elijah had been so strangely… domestic. A smile slipped out as she thought about that, before another commotion drew her attention.
"You're giving me a glove? To punch things with?" The operative at the desk next to hers had just filed a procurement request.
"It's a batarian design. The gauntlet incorporates a micro-fabricator that flash-forges multiple explosive blades to maximize impact damage against your target."
Idly, Susan glanced over at the table – and clasped a hand over her mouth to keep from laughing.
"You want to give me an exploding punching glove? But… but I'm a volus." The squat little alien's suit hissed as he took another breath. His suit was remarkably pristine, unmarred by the scars of battle. "Have you seen my arms?"
"All the more reason for you to have an effective method of defending yourself up close."
Susan shifted her hand to cover the right half of her face as she shook her head.
"Oh. I guess that makes sense."
She froze, then brought up her other hand over her face. She should intervene, yell at the volus not to listen to Procurement, not to run around trying to punch Banshees in the kneecaps, not to-
"And here we are." The procurement officer Susan had been speaking with returned, pushing a loaded cart before her. She wheeled it up to the desk and set an empty kitbag out first. "You'll need this."
The officer began transferring items off the cart, naming them as she did. Susan nearly snapped that she was perfectly capable of recognizing boots for herself, but the whole process had the feel of… ritual, or tradition. People fell back on such things in times like these. She reminded herself that the procurement officer was just trying to serve in her own way. She endured it until the officer reached down into the cart and pulled out-
"What the hell is that?"
Kitbag slung over her shoulder, Susan walked through the corridors of the Lair self-consciously. She felt the eyes of others watching her and mentally cursed Procurement again. Just ignore it, she told herself. The gazes felt like targeting scanners locking in. The leather catsuit clung to her like an embrace from neck to toe and left nothing to the imagination. Come on, people. Asari don't get this reaction. It must be the novelty, she decided. She still felt the eyes – two pairs of them, in particular.
Susan stopped, spun around to scowl at the batarian who'd followed her up the length of the corridor. "Can I help you?"
He gave her a leering grin. "Alright, I've gotta say it. Your ass is amazing."
The batarian turned and walked away as Susan stood in the corridor, mouth open, trying to decide whether she was offended, flattered, or amused. Eventually she settled on a combination of all three and shook her head. She started on her way again and looked in on the mess hall she'd passed earlier. The flames on the big centerpiece dessert had been extinguished; the dish itself carved up like so much confectionary lumber and served to the assembled operatives. There were nearly even numbers of turians and quarians at the arranged tables, about eighty altogether. One pair sharing a table waved at her standing in the doorway.
Susan moved to the table, set her kitbag down, and sat beside Maletha'Vael as Felix Kerranus laid out slices of pale yellow fruit by twisted strips of caramelized sugar.
"Hey, you two. What's all this?"
"A turian dessert," Felix said. "Finally. It's called the Honor Tree. I'd offer you some, but…"
"Biochemical barriers," Susan shrugged. "It's no problem." Even as she said the words however she felt the pangs of hunger stirring. She hadn't gotten a real meal since… before Thessia.
"Felix was kind enough to invite me to this," Maletha said. "He was just about to explain why they call it the Honor Tree."
"Right," he said. "Traditionally the dish is served after a company's victory in battle. The fruits on the sugar tree actually corresponded with various battle honors and were served to those who'd performed them."
"I saw it was on fire earlier?" Susan said.
"That symbolizes the bond of battle."
"It's so extravagant," Maletha said. "We could never have done that on the Migrant Fleet. The fire risk!" She paused, cocked her head. "Hmm? Yes, that's true. We should invent one of our own. Maybe something with a cybernetic theme?"
Felix froze. "Is Gilbert still in your suit?"
"Hmm? Oh yes. We decided to finish the suit optimizations and immune boost process before Gilbert re-uploads to the geth collective. Plus I've gotten used to its company."
"Oh." Felix's mandibles twitched.
"Don't worry! I enjoy your company too!"
"I'm glad to hear it." Felix grinned and took a bite of the sugar structure mixed with fruit. He looked over at Susan. "So… what's with the outfit? Seems a little…"
Susan groaned. "Would you believe Procurement ran out of Alliance BDUs? And dress uniforms? The only things they had that fit were asari commando leathers. I didn't think they were this tight. Or thin."
"Don't take this the wrong way," Maletha said, "but you look like you just stepped out of this… dance show I saw once."
Felix choked, coughed, and looked over at Maletha while Susan covered her face with a palm. "You… what?"
"It was during my Pilgrimage. A club hired me to help out with power management for a bit." She looked again at Susan's outfit. "The buckles on your belts look harder to undo, though."
The vibrating warble of Susan's omni-tool saved her from having to answer. She checked the message it announced: an invitation from Maiena to gather as a team for a late lunch. Susan smiled as she realized that despite having seen so much action, they hadn't eaten together very often.
"What is it?" Felix asked as he spooned another portion onto Maletha's plate.
"Food," Susan said as her stomach growled at the thought. "I assume you've both eaten already?"
"Oh keelah, yes," Maletha said. "Meat. We never have meat on the flotilla. I'm probably going to regret it later, but right now Felix, you're my hero."
Susan tried to hide her grin as Felix beamed and she grabbed her kitbag. "I'm heading to Mess Hall Six. Have fun, you two."
Lisa and Maiena stood outside the Mess Hall Six door speaking quietly when Susan arrived. The commando wore a slick blue version of her typical leathers with a small bag over one shoulder. Susan wondered where she'd gotten the replacement outfit as she approached. The Infiltrator, in a crisp dress uniform, spotted her first, eyes idly scanning the corridor over Maiena's shoulder. Susan saw Lisa's gaze sweep over her, then snap back like a recalibrated Thanix array. Her eyes widened. Maiena, seeing the change in her expression, turned around and also widened her eyes.
"Not a word," Susan said as Lisa opened her mouth.
"I was going to ask if you're okay. You were pretty torn up in the IUC."
"Oh." Susan looked down for a moment before meeting Lisa's eyes. "Sorry."
Lisa shrugged a shoulder. "No worries. So how are you?"
"I'm… holding together. And you?"
"Still in the fight. Okay… what are you wearing?"
Susan groaned. "Commando leathers. Can you believe they don't have BDUs?"
Lisa snorted. "I know. I had to settle for this." She ran a hand over her dress uniform. "I hate these things! And they said I was getting the last one, like it was some big honor to-" She stopped at Susan's sudden glower. "Oh. Uh, oops?"
"It's a miracle we haven't lost this war yet." Susan looked at Maiena, who was examining her outfit with narrowed eyes. "I don't understand how you put up with the stares all the time. Although… don't tell anybody," she said, glancing around, "but this is really comfortable."
"Self-molding, moisture wicking leather," Maiena said.
"The whole thing?" Susan raised an arm and took a closer look at the material, impressed despite herself. "That's… I didn't know that was possible."
"My people have had a long time to perfect such materials." Maiena sighed. "If only we'd paid more attention to other matters, like our military."
"Would it have helped?" Lisa said. "Look what the Reapers have done across the galaxy; to the turians, the batarians, and humanity."
"Maybe not. What's done is done." Maiena looked Susan over again and reached out. "You're wearing this wrong."
"Whoa! Hands!" Susan stepped back as Maiena unbuckled a strap across her chest, but the asari kept her grip on both ends, tugged her back, and then adjusted the strap's position before buckling it back together.
"There. That's how it should be worn."
Susan looked down. "Oh, come on. There's no way that's for any practical purpose! The only thing that does is show off my-"
"Exactly." Maiena gave a half-smile at Susan's skeptical eyebrow. "As a commando, you must be prepared for battlefields of all sorts, both the physical and the more… subtle."
"There's nothing subtle about this outfit, Maiena."
"That's what you must make your target believe. Then you'll be in a position of strength; able to dictate the terms of engagement."
"If you say so. I think I prefer the Annihilation Field."
"Maybe not on this target," Lisa said, smirking. She nodded over Susan's shoulder. "I think he approves…"
Susan turned to Elijah as he joined the group, data pad in hand. "Put your eyes back in your head," she said. She tried to keep a straight face, but couldn't resist returning his bemused smile.
Elijah opened and closed his mouth twice. He nodded. "So, about those BDUs…"
"They ran out," Lisa said. "And I got the last dress uniform." She leaned in closer. "You can thank me later."
"Hang on," Elijah said to Susan. "Your outfit is a little different from Maiena's. There're less… protective layers. Why's that?"
"That's simple enough," Maiena said. "Susan's isn't actually the outfit issued to commandos."
"Your procurers got the… performers' version."
Susan buried her face in her hands. "How do they manage to screw these things up?"
"In their defense, the outfits are made by the same manufacturers. They probably just put in a bulk order and didn't look too closely."
"Wait," Lisa said, gazing at Maiena. "How do you know the difference?"
"That suit reminds me of several years I spent on Illium," the asari said; the others turned to look at her. "Before I became a commando. I miss that old shotgun prop sometimes…" Maiena trailed off into a wistful sigh, then cleared her throat as she saw the others' stares. "Not that that's relevant to anything. I'll stop talking now."
"Oh you're telling me more later." Lisa licked her lips. "In detail."
Susan smirked as Maiena flushed a deeper shade of blue. Then she noticed Elijah looking her over from the corner of his eye, an… intrigued expression on his face. She crossed her arms and gave him a mock glare. "No."
Elijah held his hands up. "I didn't say anything."
"You didn't need to."
"No. I'm not getting a shotgun prop."
Elijah's grin split his face. "What about a prop Graal?"
Susan tilted her head and narrowed her eyes as a gently glowing biotic field sprung up around her. The pulse of energy she sent his way was nowhere near her full power, but Elijah dodged it anyway, chuckling as he did so.
Plates heaped with food, the squad sat down at a bare metal table amid the burble of background conversation. Susan looked around, at Elijah sitting next to her, Maiena and Lisa across the table, and smiled. She picked up her fork and plunged it into the steaming mound of stoemp before her. She took a mouthful of the mashed potato and carrot mixture, moaned, and rolled her eyes back.
"Wow," Lisa said. She grinned at Elijah. "Does she do that when you two…?"
"I'm not answering that," he said.
"Ooh, a gentleman. Old-fashioned."
"It's because this is the first real food we've had in a week," Susan said. "I can still taste the nutrient gel in my sleep." She speared a piece of bacon, relished the crunch and the smokiness. "Oh, meat. I completely understand Vael's reaction to it."
"Is she still running around with Gilbert in her suit?" Elijah asked.
"Yes. Poor Felix. He's trying so hard, too. Inviting her to dessert and everything."
Elijah blinked as he chewed and swallowed. "What's he trying to do?"
Susan smiled at him as Maiena shook her head. "You're oddly charming when you're so oblivious."
"Kerranus is interested in Vael?"
"Holy crap, you are oblivious," Lisa said with a bark of laughter. She jabbed her fork towards Elijah. "No wonder I had to shove Susan into your arms."
"As I recall, you shoved her into my apartment," he said. "We figured out the rest for ourselves." He swallowed another large forkful of stir-fried vegetables. "By the way, thank you for that. It was the best thing that's happened to me."
The sudden warmth inside Susan had nothing to do with the food.
"Well, somebody had to poke the thresher maw into action." Lisa shifted, took a bite of her own. She smiled, and Susan saw no trace of her typical teasing in it. "You're welcome."
"Speaking of thanks," Maiena said. She reached down to the bag at her feet and drew out four little glasses, each slightly larger than a typical shot glass. The smooth, swirling patterns of the glasses indicated asari design. Maiena set them down in a row, reached back into her bag, and brought forth a spiraling glass bottle marked with asari labels.
"What's this?" Susan said.
"Asari brandy from Chalkhos." Maiena poured measures with swift, precise movements and set a glass before each of them. The spicy aroma drifted up to Susan's nose. "I wanted to thank you all, for fighting for Thessia."
"You know we were just following orders?" Elijah said. "We'd have done the same for any planet."
"But it was my planet, and that makes it different for me." Maiena looked around at them. "If somebody told me a year ago I would be fighting for my homeworld alongside three humans, I'd have laughed. And broken their nose for the insult. It's strange, how things change." She looked at Susan. "I wasn't joking when I called you a commando earlier. Any Huntress would be honored to fight at your side."
"Thanks, Maiena." Susan sighed. "I'm sorry we couldn't do more."
"You did all you could. You stood and fought upon Thessia for its people. I hope to stand with you soon upon Earth and do the same."
"And shove the Crucible down the Reapers' throats," Lisa said.
"I like the sound of that," Elijah said.
Susan picked up the glass before her and held it out. The others looked at her, quieted, and picked their own glasses up. "Captain Banafsheh," she said.
The squad echoed her, clinked their glasses together. Drank. Maiena poured refills. The brandy slid down Susan's throat; she savored the smooth burn, the notes of smoky wood, and subtle sweetness.
"To those no longer with us," Elijah said, lifting his glass.
"Hear, hear," said Lisa as they brought their glasses together. "To Michaels, holding the line." She downed the contents of her glass, set it back down, and leaned forward. "Tell us about him," she said to Susan. "You knew him."
Susan tensed. "Why?"
"Because what he did deserves to be remembered. And not just the act, but the person."
She felt Elijah take her hand, squeeze it gently. She looked at her glass, swirled the amber liquid inside it. "Well, we picked the right way to remember him." She looked at Elijah through wet eyes. "He finished the Liver Replacement Route."
"Really? I didn't think anybody ever finished that." Elijah looked over at Lisa and Maiena's confused expressions. "The Liver Replacement Route is the name of this bar crawl through one of the seedier neighborhoods in Rio de Janeiro, headquarters of the N7 program. It's something like… eleven or twelve bars within about two square kilometers. And each of them makes their own… well… the only way to describe it would be moonshine."
"They're terrible," Susan said.
"They are pretty bad. Most people give up by the fifth bar."
"Bebida do Diabo? Oh yeah, that was… vile. But Michaels downed two of them."
"Two? And he went through the rest of the bars?"
"Yup." Susan brushed away tears with a hand even as she chuckled. "You know what was worse? We had a zero-G combat test the next day."
Elijah's face curdled into a horrified grimace. "Ooh."
"The craziest thing was," Susan continued, "that he got his highest score ever that test! See, every prior run, Michaels in zero-G was like… dogfighting with dreadnoughts. It wasn't pretty. Then this day he comes in; I don't think he was hungover, I think he was still just drunk. I didn't think he could see. He just… swaggers up and nails the course. Commander Akitaiko thought he was holding back all the previous times."
Susan found herself laughing with the others as she remembered the scene. She… preferred to remember Michaels this way, rather than his agonizing last moments.
"Commander Akitaiko was one of your trainers?" Lisa asked.
"Yeah. Michaels was always butting heads with him. Michaels never really cared for protocol…"
"While 'Psycho Taiko' was a bit of a stickler for what he called 'soldierly behavior,'" Elijah told the others.
"They respected each other when it counted though," said Susan. "There was this combat op we ran…"
Susan told some more stories about her and Michaels during N7 training. Soon enough they asked Elijah about his own experiences in the program. Before long the N7s were pressing Maiena for tales from her commando experiences as the bottle of asari brandy grew lighter. The time passed, marked by both tears and laughter.
She chuckled as Maiena told the story of a volus VIP extraction gone horribly right. A quote her brother had once shared with her rose to mind: Pain shared is pain divided, joy shared is joy multiplied. Susan smiled as Maiena related her efforts to unplug the volus from a sewer drain while crocodilian reptiles closed in. She enjoyed another bite of her meal while Lisa laughed and shook her head.
Maiena's smile turned brittle as she finished her story. "That… my performance on that mission drew the attention of others. I got an invitation to join a cadre that Matriarch Benezia was assembling. One of my… friends had already joined and tried her best to recruit me."
"Benezia?" Elijah frowned. "That was the Matriarch working with Saren, right?"
"Yes. Given what we now know about the Reapers…"
"Probably. I never knew Matriarch Benezia, but some of the commandos working for her…" Maiena looked away momentarily. "I suppose it's a small mercy that Shepard killed them."
"Doesn't mean their loss isn't painful," Susan said. "May I ask why you didn't join them?"
"I didn't trust myself," Maiena said. "The others… they all had more experience, more accolades. I didn't think I was good enough."
"Well, I'm glad you're here."
"As am I. Not something I ever imagined would happen."
Lisa snorted. "What, you mean being part of a rag-tag band of soldiers, mercenaries, assorted scum of the galaxy that are all that make up the thin line between life and the horde of mechanical abominations intent on ending it all? I don't think any of us imagined this."
"Point." Maiena lifted her glass. "Here's to us, then: the thin line."
Susan brought her glass up with the others. "The thin line."