A/N: Thanks to M2J Mandalorian Jedi for the suggestion. And thanks to all of you who read, review, and follow - you guys rock!
Admiral David Anderson, Commander, Earth Resistance
Night has fallen.
It's pissing down with rain. Everyone on the strike team is cold, wet to the skin, and thoroughly miserable. Anderson hunches his shoulders, rubs his arms to try and keep the circulation going, swallows a curse as the movement causes a rivulet of icy water to trickle down his back. He checks the cover on his weapon, nodding to himself in satisfaction - he may be soaked through, but the antique Lancer in his hands (a weapon almost as old as he is) is bone dry.
Peering out at the sky beyond the edge of the tree line covering his team, he rejoices for once in the lousy weather of his homeland. The thick cloud cover, low and dense, is keeping the Harvesters out of the sky tonight. One less problem to deal with. He wonders for a moment if anyone would think him mad for looking at it that way, but a lifetime of battles has taught him a thing or two, a key lesson being to never look at a bigger picture than you have to. Keep your eyes on the next objective, don't get sidetracked by the scenery. You don't stop to contemplate what-ifs; it'll paralyze you. The scale of the war, the threat to the galaxy, the who-said-whats and whys and wherefores - none of those matter in the moment. All that matters is the mission. It's a lesson that was drilled into him, it's a lesson he's drilled into others, and right now he hopes to God that the lesson will stick with his latest bunch of students. He's tried to impart what truths he can, but there is never enough time, and too many of the people he now leads are simply too sheltered, too scared, too shocked to have taken his words in. They're not soldiers; civilian volunteers with no training, no experience of anything but the comfortable, secure existence that Anderson and his professional comrades have fought and bled and died to defend. He doesn't blame them for their ignorance of military matters, and he admires their courage for stepping up, but the Reapers are not an enemy one should have to learn the basics against.
A memory surfaces. Ten years previous, doing the rounds on the SSV Roanoke...
Stopping by the dimly lit marine wardroom he finds his new marine detachment commander staring out into space, the million-yard stare of post-combat reflection. "Shepard?"
The young woman doesn't hear him, lost in thought. She's sitting with her chin resting in one hand, elbow braced against the back of the couch, drowning in the stars beyond the viewport. Her hair is tucked up under her cap, and Anderson can't help but smile as he sees her father, sitting in a similar position with exactly the same look on his face, worrying about whether he's just royally screwed his chances with the charming Ensign Hannah Harrison. He doubts, however, that Shepard junior's thoughts are of such a pleasant concern. Stepping closer, he waves his hand at the light sensor, bathing the room in harsh fluorescence. "Lieutenant?"
Shepard jerks out of her reverie, spots him, and is standing at attention before Anderson can even draw his next breath. "Sir!" she responds smartly, snapping off a crisp salute. "Sorry, sir, I didn't hear you come in."
"Take it easy, kid," Anderson chuckles, returning her salute. "What's up?"
"Nothing, sir," Shepard replies, professional and clipped. "Everything's five-by. Well," she wrinkles her nose, "aside from Chief Ferretti's ankle, but Doc says he should be fit for active duty in two days. And there are some changes I'd like to make - the team is good, but I think it can be better."
"I've read your readiness report, Shepard, I'm satisfied that you'll have your team tuned like a violin in no time," Anderson reassures her. "I was asking on a personal level. Off the record." He offers her a smile as he takes a seat, and pats the couch beside him. "Take a load off, Rachel, and tell me what's bothering you."
Shepard smiles shyly, then settles beside him, snatching her cap off and scrubbing one hand through her hair before leaning forward and clutching the hat between her hands. "I was thinking about Elysium, sir."
Anderson nods. He suspected as much. It's been barely six weeks since the incident. "You had your therapy session today, right? Did it go OK?"
Shepard agrees with the barest inclination of her head. "Yes, sir, thank you. It went well. I have some more exercises to do, and the breathing techniques the doc recommended seem to help. It's not that," she twists the cap in her hands, suddenly, reflexively, "I was thinking about the Gunny."
Here it comes. Survivor guilt, coupled up with her first exposure to one of the heaviest burdens in the military, the physical expression of Mission, Men, Self: making the call that someone else's life is worth less than your objective. It's not something you should ever get used to, in Anderson's view, but he well remembers what it feels like, the very first time. "His death wasn't your fault, child."
"But it was my responsibility, sir," Shepard replies. "I ordered him to make a stand, knowing he was outnumbered, knowing that they'd kill him."
"And you were right to," Anderson reminds her. "You were the one with the codes to send out the distress call, you were the one who had to make it to the comm tower. If you'd stayed with him, and died with him, we would have lost the colony. It would have been another Mindoir."
Shepard shivers. "Mom told me about that. The Einstein was there, in the aftermath."
"You weren't on board at the time?"
"No. I did that semester at Annapolis to get some course credits I couldn't get from shipboard tuition." Shepard screws her cap up some more. "I understand the logic, sir. I know that I made the right tactical call, but... he knew before I did. I could see it in his eyes. And he just let me do it. He... he made it OK. He let me hope it'd be all right - even though I knew it wouldn't be, deep down - long enough to do my job."
Anderson offers a silent prayer of thanks to the departed Gunnery Chief for making this as easy on his young charge as he possibly could. "This is the hardest lesson about command that you'll ever learn, Rachel, having to order someone to do something you know will get them killed. It doesn't matter how good you are as a leader, how good you are as a soldier, few officers go through a combat career without having to make that sacrifice. The situation will not always allow you to bring everyone home." He pats her shoulder. "That doesn't mean you did it wrong. Our men and women understand there is a risk that any mission, any tour might result in their death. You understand that too, or you wouldn't be here. People will live or die as a result of the decisions you make, and you're right, that is always your responsibility even if it is not your fault. So you owe it to those people for those decisions to be the best ones you can possibly make. You will make mistakes. We all do. God knows I have. But your orders to Gunnery Chief Chao were not a mistake. They were the orders of an officer charged with defending a civilian population, and they were orders that enabled the preservation of the colony with a very limited force. You would have counted your life well spent in achieving that goal - grant your fallen comrade the courtesy of believing he would have felt that way too."
Shepard considers this for a moment, the nods slowly. "I understand, sir. Thank you."
A cold splat of water on the back of his neck brings Anderson out of his memories, and he rolls his shoulders to ease some of the stiffness, shifts his weight to change the muscles supporting his crouch. Peering out into the rain, he can barely make out the forms of the advance lookouts, even though he knows where to look. Itchy with anticipation, he checks his chrono. Another ten minutes, and they should see something. One good thing about fighting synthetics; they are metronomic in their scheduling.
He permits himself to lapse back into recall to pass the time, his thoughts remaining centred on the young woman to whom he and Stephen Hackett have entrusted the burden of leading the war against the Reapers. Two years on from Elysium, with Shepard confident in her leadership of her detachment, the twin lashes of her personal discipline and desire to do better driving her to excel, he taps her up for a late night chat.
"Lieutenant, join me for a nightcap?" Anderson waves Shepard into his cabin and fishes his jealously guarded bottle of single malt from his desk drawer.
"Generous of you, sir, thanks," Shepard accepts with the easy confidence Anderson has been working hard to encourage. His old friend's daughter has tremendous potential, and he's keen to see it fulfilled. Over the past two years she's grown into perhaps the most promising young officer he's had the privilege to command. He's proud of what she's achieved under his tutelage.
"Hear about that Charlie-Fox on Nepheron?" he asks as he pours the drinks. Shepard nods soberly.
"Hell of a thing, sir. Poor bastards never stood a chance. Like that thing at Akuze last year with the thresher maw."
"Mother Nature, the meanest motherfucker in the galaxy," Anderson grunts. "You know any of the unit that was on the ground?"
"No, sir, thank God," Shepard replies as she accepts her glass. "One of my cadet class was slated to take that platoon, but she busted her knees - bad landing from a HALO jump - three days before she rotated in. They called her back to the repple-depple and shipped someone else out." The lieutenant snorts. "Never know your luck, huh, sir?"
"Good thing too, otherwise you'd never haul ass out of your rack in the morning, right?" Anderson notes wryly. He raises his glass. "So, here's to us, who's like us?"
Shepard taps her glass against his. "Damn few, and they're all dead. Oorah!"
They drink to the fallen, then Anderson clears his throat. "So, my motives aren't entirely pure here, Shepard. I have a new assignment for you. Something that's going to be good for you. That is, if it doesn't kill you."
Shepard smiles wryly into her drink. "I don't like the sound of this, sir."
"You'll warm to it, I believe. You've been selected to attend ICT."
Shepard gapes at him, and Anderson chuckles. "Close your mouth, LT, you'll catch a bug."
"ICT?" Shepard almost whispers, her clear green eyes wide with shock.
"Congratulations, kid," Anderson grins. "I recommended you a few months ago, but they don't act on every suggestion they receive, so I wanted to be sure before I told you. I got confirmation this morning. I'll be sorry to lose you, but there you have it."
Shepard's eyes light up with enthusiasm. "I... thanks, sir. You really think I'm ready?"
"More important question is, do you?" Anderson parries. He knows she's ready; as a graduate of the school himself, he recognises the traits that make a good special ops soldier, and he's spent his career honing that judgement. Shepard will be the eighth candidate he's sponsored. Five of the seven before her now wear the most coveted designation the Alliance has to offer; one washed out at N4, and one died on his N6 field exam. Anderson sees the ability in her, but the answer to his question will be the final arrow in the quiver; before all else, to become an N7 commando requires unshakeable self-belief.
Shepard considers the question, taking her time, sipping at her drink thoughtfully before replying. "Yes, sir. I do."
Anderson bites down on a sudden, unprofessional burst of affection, but he allows her to hear a little bit of his pride. "Attagirl."
Movement off to his left snaps him alert. He looks around carefully, and curses softly as he sees one of his team approaching, one of the younger men. Fletcher, Anderson recalls his name, a local lad, an architecture student, barely old enough to be shaving. His geographic knowledge is tremendously useful, but he's unfit and uncoordinated, and his awkward clumsiness, while doubtless endearing when allied with his genial personality, is nothing short of a goddamn liability in the field. Anderson can't really afford to refuse the help, but he's tried talking the kid down a few times, sure as he is that the boy's only possible contribution to the cause in combat will be to die bravely.
He beckons the young man over to him. Fletcher nods readily, enthusiasm shining in his face.
"What part of 'wait for my signal' did you fail to comprehend, Fletcher?" the Admiral rebukes gruffly. "You wanna tip the Reapers off?"
"There's no one coming, Anderson," the kid protests, oblivious to the command deck growl that has made seasoned N7 commandos blanch. "I checked before I moved. I just - I can't see anything back there, and the suspense is getting to me. I thought if I could see, I'd be able to wait more easily."
Anderson stifles a sigh, wishing for a moment that he had Shepard at his side instead, with Williams and Vakarian, or maybe even Liara T'Soni. Nah, all four of them. Another three experienced officers and a combat-trained biotic, and he could really start to build something here. But as he looks into Fletcher's eyes, he feels ashamed for wishing it, selfish. Shepard and her team would be wasted here, their fight is out in the galaxy. And this kid, who has two left feet and can't hold a recoiling rifle on target, has stood up to be counted when it matters, knowing full well he isn't suited to the task, but prepared to fight regardless. Nodding permission, he allows Fletcher to hunker down beside him and wryly begins counting the seconds off in his head. One, two... He isn't the only one with Rachel Shepard on his mind - Fletcher talks about nothing else - and last night he'd been careless enough...five, six... to let slip that he knows her. Eight... Nine...
"So, Anderson, I heard you know Commander Shepard?" Fletcher asks eagerly.
In spite of himself, Anderson smiles. "Yeah, Fletcher, I do. We're good friends."
"Wow, it's so cool that you know such a famous person." Fletcher grins, and the expression belies the lingering traces of childhood. "Do you think, when she comes back to kick the arse of the Reapers, you might be able to, I dunno, introduce us? Put in a good word for me?"
Anderson risks a low snort. "I admire your taste in women, son, but I'm afraid you're too late. I believe the Commander's spoken for."
"Oh. Bugger." Fletcher considers this for a moment. "Well, clearly that's only 'cos she hasn't met me yet," he declares with a smile. "If I had a chance to try..." he winks, laughter in his eyes, "I'm sure I could win her over. I'm smart, witty, well-educated. And hey, I could fight this guy for her hand, now that I have you training me. A duel to win fair lady's heart."
Anderson shakes his head, desperately trying not to laugh at the image of this kid squaring off with Liara. Mild-mannered though the asari is, Anderson somehow doubts that she would react kindly to being challenged for Shepard's affections. "You don't happen to be a biotic, do you, Fletcher?"
"And you don't have any superpowers hidden beneath that Clark-Kent exterior?"
The kid bends one of his skinny arms at the elbow. "I'm all steel wire, me. And I got brains on my side, enough to outfox some meathead groundpounder."
Anderson does chuckle now; he's looking forward to telling Shepard about this - it'll give her a much-needed laugh. "You're on, kid. I promise, come the day, I'll introduce you." A click on the comm freak wipes his smile and brings his focus back to the mission. The target is coming into range. He taps two clicks back - acknowledged.
"Stay here," he orders Fletcher. "And get ready."
Worming his way forward on his belly across the cold, slick ground, he's thankful for the soft grass and muck beneath him - there will be fewer scrapes on his elbows and knees, less strain on his joints. Christ, he'd never really believed himself that old, but that last few weeks have shown him unequivocally just how long in the tooth he's become for an infantryman.
Another man waits at his destination in the ditch by the roadside, one of the few precious professional soldiers he has under his command. He lays one hand on the man's back to alert him to his presence, and moves into position beside him. "Where?" he whispers.
The ops chief nods down the road they're watching. Anderson follows his gaze, peering into the gloom, and slowly, slowly, he makes out movement. Squinting, he waits, and as his eyes adjust to the scene, he can see it's a group of humans, guarded by Batarian cannibals, shambling despondently through the rain. There's a marauder in command.
The Reapers' war on humanity is, in some respects, surprisingly low-tech. It's undertaken with typical machine logic; maximise efficiency and expend the least amount of energy to achieve a goal. Humans are capable of moving under their own steam, and there is no time constraint, no hard deadline by which the harvest must be completed. They have all the time in the galaxy, and sufficient troops to wage war on a pan-galactic scale - the production line for reinforcements in any one location can proceed at walking pace. They're surprisingly unconcerned by security, relying on the close presence of the destroyers to mop up any resistance that overwhelms their ground forces. Out here in the countryside, however, where the population is sparser, destroyers are few and far between, presenting opportunities for the resistance to disrupt their operations with relatively little need for heavy weaponry or sophisticated tactical systems.
The chief tenses, and Anderson slips the cover from his rifle. Here we go. He slaps his hand down on the chief's shoulder, and the NCO activates his comms.
"All teams, open fire!"
The fight is short but brutal. The resistance have the advantage of surprise and numbers, but the Reapers have savagery, skill, and the turian husk, with its inherited hive mind knowledge of tactics. Anderson and the chief, fighting as pair, target the marauder first, and once they take it down the cannibals become disorganized, frenetic; still dangerous, but easier pickings for their inexperienced comrades. As the last one falls, an eerie silence falls on the road, a moment of stunned disbelief.
Anderson ships his rifle, inspects the prisoners. Some of them were inevitably caught in the crossfire, bodies sprawled across the wet tarmac. It's not much consolation that a quick death is almost certainly better than the fate they were being marched to, but it's certainly all the consolation he's going to get. Looking round, he nods as the chief trots up to him. "Chief, what's the butcher's bill?"
"Three dead, five wounded, sir," Chief Rao replies tiredly. "The wounded are nothing medigel can't fix up, but..." he grimaces, "Fletcher bought his farm, sir, sorry. He must've followed us in on the marauder. Looks like he took a stray round to the head. Unlucky bastard."
You never know your luck, Shepard murmurs in his memory. "Dammit," he growls, "that's not where he was supposed to be." He should never have been anywhere near this fight.
Rao shrugs elaborately. "True dat, sir. None of these people are where they are supposed to be. Fletcher was supposed to be at school, Hawkins was supposed to be at home with her kids, I was supposed to be short-timing it to retirement as a dress marine. Ain't none of us where we should be, sir, but you go to war with the army you have."
Anderson grunts a wry affirmation. Still being schooled by his NCOs after all this time. "Agreed. Thanks, Chief. OK, round up the survivors, and let's head back to the barn."
"Excuse me, Admiral Anderson?" The voice behind him is unfamiliar, but confident. Not one of his team. He turns to see a dark-haired, pale-skinned man has approached from the cluster of freed prisoners.
"You have me at a disadvantage," Anderson replies warily.
"Yes, sir," the other man agrees with a smile. "I'm not as famous as Lightning Dave, I'm afraid."
Anderson grins. "Christ, I haven't been called that in forever. You're an Alliance man, then?"
The stranger snaps to attention and offers a salute. "Major Coats, sir, erstwhile of the 102nd Regiment, reporting for duty."
"You're being a little too modest, Major," Anderson replies as he returns the salute. "I've heard your name mentioned a lot recently as a man I should be trying to connect with." Coats has been leading the local resistance in London. "How did the Reapers manage to catch you?"
Coats smiles thinly. "They didn't, sir. I infiltrated the group. I wanted to see where the Reapers were taking these people, but you seem to have put a spanner in the works on that plan." He quirks a quick smile. "Shame, really."
Anderson nods. "Sorry about that. But as it happens I know where they were going. So what do you say we join forces, Major?"
Coats nods. "Sounds good to me, sir. Always nice to see a friendly face. And it's an honour to be working with you."
"Wait till you get to know me better - you might not hold to that opinion for long."
"Aye aye, sir." Coats gives an agreeable nod, and retrieves Fletcher's rifle, rolling the dead boy gently but quickly into the ditch that will disguise his final resting place. It's a cold necessity, but it cuts at Anderson even so. Sorry, kid. I tried to tell you. But at least you had the guts to fight. I'll tell Shepard about you. Shouldering his rifle, Anderson offers the ditch a final, respectful salute, then flips up his collar, and proceeds doggedly into the drenched dark.