Actions

Work Header

Private

Chapter Text

Former mercenary made first krogan Spectre

Citadel: yesterday’s Spectre ceremony saw some interesting new agents sworn in.  Among the new Spectre agents were the likes of Haela Bran’sn, asari commando for Illium garrison, Kloga Raheeke, former Salarian Special Tasks Group agent, and (most notably) former krogan mercenary, Gatatog Dahg.

“I am proud to be representing my people in as prestigious group as the Citadel Special Tactics and Reconnaissance agency,” the six foot eight giant told reporters after the ceremony.  “It is an opportunity for us to prove that krogan are not as violent as they are made out to be, and that we are ready to make up for our mistakes of the past and re-join the galactic community.”

When asked what the reason for this unusual choice was, salarian Councillor Paven said that this was a chance for the Spectres to open their doors to other species.  “We realise that the Spectres are solely represented by the Council races,” he told reporters.  “The council feels very strongly that this needs to change.  There are fourteen different sapient species that we know of living in this galaxy, and so far the Spectres only have agents from three of them.”

When it was pointed out that krogan make an unusual choice, given the history between the krogan and all three the Council races, Councillor Paven said that he and the other two councillors feel that the krogan have paid for their mistakes.  “In spite of everything, we still owe them a great debt for their assistance in the Rachni wars, four thousand years ago,” he said.  “And yes, whilst we are still feeling the repercussions of the Krogan Rebellions, we feel that it is high time that our relationship with the krogan is heeled.”  He refused to comment on whether this meant that the genophage, the genetic sterility plague inflicted on the krogan by the turians and salarians after the Krogan Rebellions, would be cured.

Meanwhile, turian Councillor Tarquin says that we can expect many other species to be invited into the Spectres.  “We are all members of this galaxy,” he told us.  “The Spectres should represent the best of all of us.  We will definitely be inviting soldiers and agents from other species into the Spectres.”  He said however that the odds of a human being made a Spectre are slim.

“Humanity’s leaders have shown just how irrational and hot-headed they can be, what with the war on Skyllia,” he said.  “We do not wish this sort of behaviour to be endorsed, so, until they have proven as a species that they are part of the galactic community, there will be no human Spectres.”

Citadel’s human ambassador, Donnel Udina refused to comment on Councillor Tarquin’s statement.

Chapter Text

It was still raining.  We’d been in Cape Town for eight days and pretty much spent the entire time sitting in our hotel rooms watching reruns of Alvin and Bim, and trying to guess the right answers on the quiz show, The Smartest Species in the Galaxy.

“That’s it,” my best friend Ashley Williams said on day eight, after we’d watched Alvin and Bim’s wedding for the fifth time.  “I’m going out.”

She got up and picked up her coat.  “Where are you planning on going, Ash?” I asked from the sofa.  “It’s pissing down with rain.  You’ll melt.”

“I’ll risk it,” she said.  “I’m in the town my family originally came from, forced to watch Alvin and Bim’s big wedding over and over again because it’s bloody pouring with rain.  I swear, if I spend another second cooped up in here, I’ll go stark raving mad.”

“Well, you’d have an interesting time explaining that to the medical review board,” I murmured changing the channel.

Ten days ago Ash, myself, and my secret boyfriend Kaidan Alenko, had still been senior recruits at Del Sol Academy in the Rio desert, learning how to be good marines for the Alliance army.  Eight days ago, we had graduated and we were now on two weeks leave before we were launched into the big wide galaxy of space combat.  Whilst I had hated a fair proportion of my time at Del Sol, I was finding it hard to be away from the academy, purely because Kaidan and I were not getting the opportunity for boyfriend-girlfriend contact.  I was dealing with these frustrations a lot better than he was.

“Jane, Ash,” he called from the next room.

“What is it, honey-bun?” I called, flipping through the channels.

“Jane, what are you looking for?” Ash asked.

“There’s a program on asari jewellery I want to watch,” I said.  Asari were the oldest alien species in the galaxy.  They looked the most like us (mainly our women), only they were blue, had tentacles for hair, and were hermaphrodites.

“You don’t even like jewellery,” Ash said in frustration.  “Or asari for that matter.”

“Ja-ane,” Kaidan called, sounding whiney.

“I’m coming snookums,” I called back. 

“Or television,” Ash continued.  “In fact, I think the only reason you’re lying on that couch is because you’re sexually frustrated.”

“How dare you say I’m sexually frustrated?” I asked in outrage.

“Jane!”

“For the love of God, man, I’m coming,” I shouted, getting up.

“Don’t shout like that, Jane,” Ash said, covering her ears.

I ignored her and went into the other room.  “What is it, Kaidan?” I asked.

“I’m finished,” he said proudly.  On the table was the ten thousand piece puzzle of Shaira the Consort that he’d spent all week assembling.

I smiled weakly.  “Yay,” I said.  “The Alliance would be proud.”

“I’m going out,” Ash called from the next room.

“You can’t walk, Ash,” Kaidan pointed out.  He was referring to the fact that Ash’s left leg was injured.  It’s a long story.

“I’ll hop then,” she shouted, slamming the door shut behind her.

“Is she alright?” Kaidan asked me in concern.  I shrugged.

.....

It was quite odd that Kaidan, Ash and I were such good friends, as we were very different to each other (granted, Ash and I had been best friends for six years by this stage, but adding Kaidan into the mix just made us seem even odder).

Ash was tall, blonde and beautiful, curvy, but not too much so, with lightly-tanned skin and dark brown eyes.  She claimed she had joined the marines in order to protect me and to stop me from becoming the type of soldier the Alliance likes having in its employ.  I was certain however that the real reason behind Ash’s joining-up was to somehow make up for her great-grandfather, General Kurt Williams’ mistakes (he was the only human ever to surrender to aliens), and to possibly appease her father, who had been a commander in the marines.  The only snag in these plans was the fact that she was the only living person in the equation.  As far as I could work out, she was not happy to be in the military, and I was almost positive that she would leave as soon as she could.

Kaidan had become friends with Ash and me at Del Sol when we had discovered that someone high up in the Alliance was attempting to overthrow the Alliance military.  At that stage he had been pretty reclusive and didn’t have any friends, in spite of the fact that he was rather good-looking.  His surly nature had become somewhat endearing to us, and the three of us were soon close friends.  At the end of our first year at Del Sol, Kaidan and I had started going out.

Which brings us to me, Jane Shepard, smart ass, murderer, asthmatic and midget.  At your service.  I was still not sure why exactly I had joined up.  It had seemed like a good idea at the time, defending my people against the evil faceless things that may or may not at some point be set upon the idea of killing us all off.  As a child, my father had told me, and my older brother and twin sister that the only way to win his love would be to join the marines.  Now they were all dead, and I was stuck in the marines.  I sometimes wondered who was worse off.

.....

Later that afternoon I was lying on the sofa, trolling the extranet.  Kaidan came in and switched the television on.  “What’s happening, Janey?” he asked, settling himself into the lazy boy.

I looked up.  “Well, it’s still raining,” I said.  “Bim and Alvin have gotten married again, in exactly the same ceremony as the last four times times, and salarians have proven that they are indeed the smartest species in the galaxy.  What’s up with you?”

“Well, I finished a ten thousand piece puzzle this morning, and I miss my girlfriend a lot,” Kaidan said.  “Other than that, nothing is up at all.”

The reason Kaidan and I were not allowed to be open about the nature of our relationship was due to a pesky little regulation (Regulation Twenty Four to be exact) that stated that there may be no fraternisation between members of the Alliance Military.  Kaidan and I had discovered a room on the Del Sol compound where there was no video surveillance, which meant that we could get down and dirty there whenever we liked.

“If I see your girlfriend, I’ll be sure to pass it along,” I mumbled.  “Hey, what do you think of this?  ‘Who’s smart, sweet, sexy and intelligent?  Well, it ain’t you, buddy.’.”

Kaidan considered this.  “It’s kind of rude,” he said at last.  “Why do you ask?”

“I’m looking at greeting cards,” I explained.  “They’re all the rage apparently.”

“Says who?” Kaidan asked.

“I saw it on Shopping with the stars yesterday,” I said.  “Apparently the in-thing to do nowadays is give your loved ones a cheepie datapad with a greeting card on it.”  Cheepie datapads were basically just datapads that could have one thing saved on them at a time.  They were big in the corporate world, where memos could be saved on them.

“’Happy sixteenth birthday,’” I read aloud.  “’An adult at last.’”

The door slammed open and Ash hopped into the room.  Her hair was wet and steam was rising gently from her uniform.

“Welcome home, dearest,” I said absently.

“Get lost,” Ash mumbled.  “This is all your fault.”

“My fault?” I asked in astonishment.

“Yes,” Ash snarled.  “Both you and Kaidan actually.”

“How is any of this my fault?” Kaidan snapped.  “You’re the one that suggested we come here.”  He put on a squeaky voice and a terrible South African accent.  “’Come on Kay, let’s go to Cape Town.  It’s my ancestral home.  It’s beautiful.  It has an ocean and a mountain.’  Yeah, well, I can’t see it, can I, because it’s midwinter here and in midwinter it fucking rains.”

“Don’t shout at me,” Ash shouted.

“For the love of God, you two, please don’t fight again,” I said wearily.  “Just, I dunno, take a time out or something.”

“You always take his side,” Ash shouted.

I got up.  “I’m going for a cigarette,” I said.  “If one of you kills the other, get rid of the body before I get back.”

Kaidan and Ash’s bad behaviour was brought about less by being cabin-cramped and was more due to a hectic gene therapy regime that would supposedly turn them into perfect soldiers.  I had declined doing the gene therapy, citing religion and an over-large ego as my reasons.  The unfortunate fact that the good ole Alliance obviously did not notify us of was that the gene therapy presented a lot of side-effects, the worst being mood swings and muscle pain.  And I had the joy of sharing a very cramped hotel suite with two people undergoing the treatment.

When I got back to the hotel room again, Ash was changing the dressing on the wound on her leg.  She scowled when I walked in. 

“Where’s Kaidan?” I asked.

“In the next room,” Ash said.  “He’s learning the answers on the Trivial Pursuit cards in case that girl from the suite next door comes over again.”

“He really needs a hobby,” I said.  “Do you think he’ll be interested in collecting books and music from the late twentieth, early twenty first century?”

“You’re the only person who’s interested in that, Jane,” Ash said.

“Not true,” I protested.  “There was that guy we met at dinner the other night.”  I brought my hand out from behind my back.  “These are for you,” I said, handing her the flowers.

“Thanks,” she said cautiously.  “What’s the occasion?”

I handed her the cheepie datapad.  “This’ll explain it,” I said.

She opened the document on the datapad.  “’Dear Ash,’” she read aloud.  “’Roses are red, violets are blue, sugar is sweet, and so are you.  Will you be my Valentine?  Love Jane.  PS, sorry for shooting you in the leg.’”

“They didn’t have a ‘sorry for shooting you in the leg’ card,” I said.  “They must have discontinued them.  It probably means we have a new protocol to learn.”

“Um, thank you,” Ash said uncertainly.  “I’ll start looking for a ‘thank you for saving me from psychopath Jim’ card right away.”

“They don’t have any of those either,” I said.  “I was looking for one to send to Commander Anderson, but I couldn’t find one.”

Commander Anderson was one of our trainers at Del Sol, and had been instrumental in helping Ash, Kaidan and me take down Admiral Greyling.  Like I said, it’s a long story.

“He didn’t really save us though,” Ash pointed out.

“Well, he would have if I hadn’t killed Admiral Greyling first,” I said, sighing.  Trust me, it’s a long story.

Ash moved over so that I could sit down next to her.  “So, looking forward to your deployment?” she asked, leaning her head against my shoulder.  We were due at Arcturus Space Station, where the Alliance Joint Military Council’s headquarters were housed, in six days, after which we would get our deployments.

“Not really,” I said.  “I’ve never been a fan of colony life.”  I had been given an N4 designation when I graduated from Del Sol, which meant that I would be stationed to one of the human colonies.  “You looking forward to yours?”

Ash had been given an N2 designation, which meant she would be assigned to home defence.  I didn’t envy her any.  Earth had been so messed up in the nuclear war of 2077, that there wasn’t much home left to defend.

“Nope,” Ash said.  “Not at all.”

“Well, on the plus, a year from now you’ll either be a stark raving loony, or a chess champion,” I said.  N2s tended to be either one or the other.

“Ja, thanks a bunch, Jane,” Ash said acidly.  “At least I’m not the one who shot my best friend in the leg.”

“Well, neither am I,” I said warningly.  We weren’t allowed to talk about what had happened in July.

Like I said, it’s a long story.

.....

In the spirit of tradition, Kaidan, Ash and I went to a trendy club to get rat-faced pissed the evening before we were due to fly to Arcturus.  Within five minutes, Ash had a large group of males crowded around her.

“Then I looked at the turian bastard in the eye, and I said ‘Drop the gun, Bird, or you’re dead’,” she was saying.  “And then he said, ‘Garishke, I wouldn’t drop the gun if there were four of you.’”  The crowd around her gasped admiringly.  “That’s when I fired the warning shot, into his shoulder.”  She paused dramatically.  “Obviously, the bird got such a fright, he dropped the rifle.  Unfortunately for me, the safety was off on the rifle, and a round went off, straight into my leg.  I fought the pain long enough to subdue and supress him.”  She gave a small giggle.  “Oh, would you look at that?  My drink’s finished.”

The ten-odd men crowded around her stampeded towards the bar.

“Ugh, it’s sickening,” I mumbled.

“What’s that?” Kaidan asked.

“The way all the guys are eating out of Ash’s hand,” I said.  “Pathetic.”

“Well, all the guys minus one,” Kaidan pointed out.

“Only because I’ll kick your ass if you went over there,” I pointed out.

“Jane, we’ve been together a year now,” Kaidan pointed out.  “If I wanted to break it off with you, I would.”

Good point, Kaidan wasn’t known for pulling his punches.

“Do you want to dance?” Kaidan asked.

“Why would I want to dance?” I asked blankly.

“Because I’m your boyfriend, I love you and in seven to eight days we’ll be light-years apart?” Kaidan suggested.

I thought about this.  “Alright,” I said at last.  “But don’t blame me for the consequences.  It’s not my fault I dance the way I do.”

“I’ve danced with you before, Jane, and I’m still with you,” Kaidan said, leading me onto the dance floor.

“God knows why,” I mumbled.

“So, we haven’t gotten it on since before we took Admiral Greyling down,” Kaidan whispered in my ear.  “You know, I’m incredibly randy at the moment.”

“Uh right,” I said uncomfortably.  A mixture of a psychopath as a father and a strict Catholic upbringing meant that I had very little knowledge on how to be sexy.  “Um, I’d love it if you put your, you know what in my, um, you know what.”

Kaidan laughed.  “Don’t worry, Jane, you’ll get there,” he said. 

Five gin and tonics later, and I was far less inhibited.  A large crowd gathered around me and was cheering ‘Go Janey, go Janey’ as I showed my moves off to the galaxy.  I hoped that the vids that people were taking wouldn’t end up on the extranet.  Picture the scene if you would.

Batarian soldier walks into officer’s mess.  “Sir, I have something you need to see,” he says, saluting.

“And what is that, Private Rug?” the batarian officer asks.

“A vid taken from Earth, sir,” Private Rug says, and plays the vid of me drunkenly dancing.

“My gods, is she ill?” the officer asks in shock.

“No sir, I think she’s dancing,” Private Rug says.

“Well, if that’s the kind of soldier they’re sending our way, we have nothing to fear,” the officer says.  “Skyllia will soon be ours, Private Rug.”

“Yes, sir,” Private Rug says.  “And our Hegemony will be stronger.”

They do the Time Warp into the distance.

.....

Ash got even drunker than I did.  In hindsight it was probably a good thing she was no longer taking the pain killers as she almost certainly would have died that night.  At some point Kaidan broke through the crowd that was admiringly watching me make a fool of myself.

“Jane?” he shouted in my ear.

“What is it?” I shouted back.  “I’m busy dancing.  They love me.”

“Of course they do,” Kaidan shouted back, rolling his eyes.  “Ash is over there.”  He pointed to a figure that was busy making out with a tall, dark and handsome stranger.  “Do you think we should rescue her?”

I sighed.  “How sober is she?” I asked.

“Well, I think she’s had about six tequila shots on the trot, so I’d say probably about as unsober as you can get,” Kaidan said.

“Ok,” I said.  I turned to my fan base.  “I’m taking a short break.”  There were loud groans.  “I’ll be back,” I assured them.  “Even a dancer needs to take some time off.”  I curtseyed to rapturous applause.

“Come on,” Kaidan groaned, grabbing my arm and dragging me off the dance floor.

“Do you think they bought it?” I asked him.

“What, that you’re a dancer?” he asked.  “Not a chance, Jane.  You have a very…unique way of moving your body that seems rhythmically impossible.”

Ash and tall dark handsome stranger were really hitting it off.  Well, sort of.  They had their tongues far enough down each other’s throats that made it seem that if they were talking to each other they would be hitting it off.

Kaidan tapped tall dark handsome stranger on the shoulder.  “Got a problem, there buddy?” he asked mildly.

“Who the hell are you?” tall dark handsome stranger asked.  “You her boyfriend?”

“Don’t be stupid, we’re in the military,” Kaidan said.  “We can’t date.”

“That doesn’t mean we don’t try, har har har,” I said, laughing drunkenly.

Ash seemed confused.  I was trying to work out what my sudden sense of deja vu was about.

“Jane, shut up,” Kaidan mumbled. 

“Look, she started it,” tall dark handsome stranger said.

“Yeah, well, I’ve been taught that making it with a drunk girl doesn’t really count,” Kaidan said.  “I suggest you step away, or this will get ugly.”

“What, you want to fight me?” tall dark handsome stranger asked.  He was quite a bit taller and more muscular than Kaidan was.

“What’s happening?” Ash mumbled.

“Only if you want the night to end really badly for you,” Kaidan said.

“I wouldn’t push him,” I said.  I pointed at one of the medals he wore on his jacket.  “That means he’s good at hand-to-hand combat.  No wait, that badge means he’s a tech expert.  This one means he’s good at hand-to-hand, sorry.”

“What’s wrong with her?” tall dark stranger asked, looking me up and down.

“We don’t have time to answer that question, we fly out at dawn,” Kaidan said.  “Look, just step away.  I don’t really feel like beating you up, but I will if I have to.”

“Fine,” tall dark stranger said.  “Just go easy on her.  The turians killed her entire squad before shooting her in the leg.”

He walked off.

“Right, I think this party is over now, so let’s get miss drunk pants back to the hotel, eh?” Kaidan said.

“But Kaidan, my fans,” I protested.

“I’m sure they’ll survive without you, Jane,” Kaidan said.  He rubbed his forehead.  “Call a taxi.  I’ll get Ash outside.”

“Right,” I said.  “Freddie.”

My virtual intelligence shell that my younger brother, Jason had programmed for me popped out of my omnitool.

“What’s happening, fart face?” it asked.  Jason was somewhat juvenile in his antics, despite being almost sixteen years old, and Freddie came with a charming interface that tended to insult me at every turn.  However, since Freddie had saved my life from Admiral Greyling, I found I no longer cared.

“Call a cab to take us back to the hotel, will you?” I asked.

“If I must,” it said.

“You must,” I said.

“Fine,” it said.  “Do you know how many calories your average gin and tonic packs?”

“Let me guess,” I said.  “A lot.”

“Good guess,” Freddie said.

I walked outside and lit a cigarette.  My one-pack-a-day habit was beginning to get to me.  My lungs were at an all-time low and it was costing me a fortune.  I think the only reason I still kept at it was because I didn’t really want to go through the effort of quitting.  I wasn’t an addict.  I could quit whenever I wanted to.

“Cab’s on its way, fugly,” Freddie said.

“Thanks,” I said.

Kaidan joined me outside, Ash slung across his shoulder in a fireman’s lift.

“Put me down, Alenko,” she said in a muffled voice.  “I can walk by myself.”

“Yeah right, Williams,” Kaidan said.  “Tequila is no joke, trust me.”

“I can handle it,” she said, and promptly vomited down Kaidan’s back.

“Yeah, you seem to be handling it real well,” Kaidan said, pulling a face.

She was sick again in the cab.  Back at the hotel, we dumped her, fully clothed in the shower, and ran the cold water tap over her.  She was still there when we got up at six o’clock that morning to get ready to catch the ship to Arcturus.

.....

It felt good to be in space again.  I had pretty much spent my entire life in space, having grown up on the Hugo Greyson, the ship that my parents had served on.  It had taken me a while to adjust to the idea of being in one place for a time frame that was longer than two weeks, when I’d been at Del Sol.  Looking out at the stars, it finally felt to me like I could breathe properly again.

A number of our fellow Del Sol graduates were travelling on the same ship as us to Arcturus, including Kyle Jones, potentially the worst ever soldier Del Sol had ever turned out, Suang Kim, who I had shot on his birthday in our first year at Del Sol, and Ismaeel Khan, my former fellow officer recruit.

“So, how did you manage not to get a posting with the fleet?” Suang asked me as we ate our supper in the ship’s mess.  I shrugged.  “I mean, we’re at war now, and you were the best recruit in our year,” he continued.

“I don’t know,” I said.  “Maybe they think that a good punishment for all the trouble I caused during our time at Del Sol would be for me to sit on some boring old colony and look at the view.”

“That’s true, Shep was quite the little trouble-maker,” Ismaeel said.  Shep was the badass nickname that the others in my pod had given me.

“Well, yeah, she was a trouble-maker,” Suang said.  “But she was also a good-ish soldier.”

“Good-ish?” I asked.  “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“I’m doomed,” Kyle interrupted.  Kyle was widely considered to be the quietest person in the galaxy, and people often forgot that he was there.

“The end is nigh, Jones?” I asked lightly.

“I’m an N1,” he said.  N1s were the Marine Corps’ administrative staff.  N1 designation was the worst designation a marine recruit could get as there was little chance for upward mobility and one was relegated to working a nine-to-five desk job.

“Everybody is needed-,” I began.

“Shut up, Shep,” Kyle snapped.  “I wanted to serve in the fleet, or at least be a part of home defence.  Instead I’m going to be stuck looking at a bunch of numbers.  I hate numbers.”

“Hey, I’ll be happy to swap,” Ash mumbled.

“I’m an N1 too,” Suang said.  “Do you see me whining about it?  No.  In fact, I’m thanking my lucky stars for my designation.”

“Well, Jones you never know, you might get an interesting post,” Kaidan said.  Most N1s worked from Arcturus Station, but a few were always posted to ships or colonies to run administration from there.

“Private Shepard?” a pale, freckled navy NCO asked, appearing silently at my elbow.

I puffed myself up importantly.  A woman with a title at long last.  “I am Private Shepard,” I said importantly.

“This cheepie arrived for you just as we were taking off,” he said, handing the cheepie to me.

“Thanks,” I said.

“That’s not the correct way to address your superior,” the NCO said, scowling.

I sprang to my feet and saluted him.  “Thank you sir,” I said.  “Oorah and all that jazz.”

He glared at me.  “You’re going to suffer, Private,” he said.

“No doubt, sir,” I said.

“Shep, when are you going to learn?” Ismaeel asked.

“Learn what?” I asked.

“Not to cheek those higher up than you,” Suang said.  “I mean, for heaven’s sake, it’s a miracle you survived training with the way you kept talking to the trainers.”

“Oh, Kim, don’t you know that my entire life’s a miracle?” I asked.  I switched the cheepie on.  “Hey, it’s a Valentine.”

“A Valentine?” Kaidan asked, scowling.

“In August?” Ismaeel asked, sounding amused.

“Jane gave me a Valentine last week,” Ash said.

“She did what?” Kaidan asked, glaring at us both.

“Calm down, it was the only one I could find,” I said.  I opened the card.  “’Roses are red, violets are blue, you’re with the Alliance, must suck to be you.  Kisses, Senior Recruit O’Connor.’  You’ve got to be kidding me.”

Geoffrey O’Connor had been one of the recruits that had served under me in Pod 3.  He came from the Terminus Systems, an area of space that had renounced the Council and thus lived outside of its protection.  I’d never been there myself, but it was allegedly a very violent area, as there were no laws in the system.

“I thought O’Connor had stopped with his Alliance hating,” Suang said.

“Yeah,” I said.  “If he’s speaking out against the Alliance again, things are going to get bad for him.”

.....

We arrived at Arcturus Station the next afternoon.  Arcturus was the second oldest deep-space station in the Alliance (the oldest being Grageran Station in the Sol System, which had been built in 2025).  Arcturus had been built in 2070, with the purpose of serving as the headquarters to the Alliance Joint Military Council.  The station itself was about five miles long, and could house up to ten thousand men.

To get into the station we had to have our passports examined, have our fingers pricked to make sure that our DNA said we were who we claimed we were and go through a voiceprint.  All this to make sure that no terrorists infiltrated the station and killed all our soldiers.

Kyle, Suang, Ismaeel, Kaidan and Ash all went before me.  Kyle and Suang were put on deck one with all the other N1 designations.  Ash was sent to deck two.  Kaidan and Ismaeel were put on deck three with all the rest of the fleet jockeys.  Finally it was my turn.

“Name?” the bored official asked. 

“Private Jane Shepard, N4,” I said.  I handed him my passport so that he could confirm that this was true.

“How did you make it as an N4?” he asked.

“How do you mean?” I asked.

“You’re short,” he said.

I frowned.  “An optical illusion,” I said.  “The further away I stand from you, the shorter I look.”

He pricked my finger for a blood sample, and had me say my name in the voice-identifier.  “Well, apparently you are Jane Shepard,” he said, sounding surprised.

“Well, that’s a relief,” I said, sarcastically.  “I was starting to worry that I might be someone else.”

The official didn’t seem to know what to make of this.  “I’d be careful with that smart mouth of yours,” he said.

“I usually am,” I said.  “I brush my teeth twice a day, and I visit the dentist regularly.”

“Deck four, room twelve, bed twenty four,” he said, handing me a pile of bedding and a towel.  “Welcome to Arcturus Station.”

“I’ve been here before,” I said.

“Well, then welcome back.”

.....

My dorm housed thirty soldiers in ten triple-bunk beds.  I had the privilege of sleeping on one of the top bunks, which, when I was lying on it, gave me a horrible sense of vertigo.  I had barely unpacked my worldly possessions (a datapad, two spare service uniforms, one utility uniform for dirty work, one dress uniform for sucking up to those higher up than me, a mess tin, a bar of soap, clean underwear, and ‘Little Shepard’, my father’s pistol which he had left to me in his will), when a naval NCO came charging in.

“Who’s in bed twenty four?” he shouted, waking my napping dorm mates.

“That’d be me, sir,” I said.

“You were supposed to relieve me fifteen minutes ago,” he shouted irately.  “What’s your name, marine?”

“Private Shepard, sir,” I said.  I added a salute for good measure, which he ignored.

“Well, Private Shepard, you’re supposed to be patrolling Hall B,” he said.

“I only just got here, sir,” I said.  “I haven’t even had a chance to look at the duty roster.”

“I’ll save you the bother,” the NCO said.  “You’re on duty now.  You’ll be relived in four hours by room seventeen, bed six.”

Four hours?  That was two hours longer than our stand-tos at Del Sol.  “One more question, sir,” I said.  “Which way to Hall B?”

After getting lost six times (only five of those times was on purpose), I arrived at Hall B, which turned out to be a long corridor aft of the station.  I marched down the corridor, about-turned, and marched back up it.  And so it continued for four long hours.  I was relieved by a young pilot who barely looked old enough to shave, let alone fly a space ship.

“How old are you, son?” I asked.  “Twelve?”

“I’m nineteen,” he snapped.  “Why, how old are you?  Ten?”

I suppose I’d asked for that one.  I collected my mess tin and made my way to the mess hall for a well-deserved lunch (lunch consisted of the usual cracker, tin of yoghurt, slice of tomato, two lettuce leaves, two slices of cheese and an orange juice).  I chose a seat as far from the crowds as I could be.

“Hey there pretty lady, are you single?” a voice said from behind me.

I turned.  Behind me stood Bridget Fredrich, one of my friends from Del Sol.  Tall, stockily-built with close-cropped hair, Bridget was an imposing figure, which I think she often used to hide the fact that she was actually a really good person.

“Yeah,” I said.  “But I’d rather we stayed friends.”

I moved over so that she could sit down next to me.  “This place is nuts,” she said, looking around and shaking her head.  “How do they keep track of everyone here?”

“Probably a crap-load of cameras and biometric identifiers,” I said, taking a sip of orange juice.  “When did you get here?”

“Last night,” she answered, stealing a slice of my cheese.  “The ship from Seattle left a day earlier.  I was down at Deck Three earlier to see visit Tobrin.  Seems that he, Alenko and McDougal are all in the same bivvy.”

I pulled a face.  Catlin McDougal had been my arch nemesis at Del Sol, and I was pretty sure she was less than impressed that I’d beaten her in the final exams.

“How’s Tobrin?” I asked instead.  Zacharias Tobrin had been in our dorm, and like Kyle, he was less than impressive as a soldier.  For some reason however, Zac had been designated N3, which meant that he would be posted to the fleet.

“Bad,” Bridget said soberly.  “He took his mom’s death hard, and now he’ll most likely be posted to the Attican Traverse.  He keeps saying he won’t survive it.”

The Attican Traverse was where humanity was busy fighting the mother of all wars with the batarians, a species nicknamed Spiders owing to their hairy skin and eight eyes.

“But anyway, how’re you doing, Shep?” Bridget asked.

I shrugged.  The honest answer was that I was not doing well.  Three weeks ago I had killed someone for the first time in my life, and whilst I could logically accept that if I hadn’t shot Admiral Greyling he would have killed both Ash and myself, emotionally I was having a harder time dealing with what I had done, especially since the news was still showing reruns of his heroic exploits in the First Contact War, and had recently shown a live coverage of his funeral, where his wife and children had wept at their loss. 

There was no way I could explain all this to Bridget, so all I said was, “Ok, and you?”

“I’m good,” she said.  “Hey which room are you in?  Maybe I could come and visit you?”

“I’m in room twelve,” I said.  “You?”

“Room twenty eight,” she answered.

We spent the rest of the lunch hour discussing where we would like to be posted.  I was happy to go anywhere, as long as it wasn’t Tiptree, the North American colony where my grandparents lived.  Bridget said that she would like to go to Eden Prime, the Oceania colony, which was said to be the most beautiful planet in the galaxy.

“I’ve never been to Eden Prime,” I admitted.

“Really?” Bridget asked.

“The Hugo Grayson mostly patrolled the Kepler Verge, where Ontarom is,” I explained.  Ontarom was where India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka had been evacuated to.  “My parents usually went to Tiptree when they had furlough.  Another reason I don’t want to be posted there.”

.....

After lunch all the new marines were called into the space station’s command centre, which looked alarmingly like Del Sol’s command centre, to be addressed by the new marine admiral, Admiral Uri Mikhailovich.  Admiral Mikhailovich was an older man (as in, pushing sixty), tall, grey-haired with piercing green eyes.

“Good afternoon, marines,” he said, coming into the command centre.

“Good afternoon, sir,” we all chorused.

“So, you are all here before your first ever deployment,” he said.  “It’s a damned exciting thing, believe me.  I wish I could get that feeling again, the first time you get sent off in the galaxy for a time of adventure.”

“Is there anyone sane in this army?” Ash whispered in my ear.

“Are you kidding?” I whispered back.  “Your parents were both military.  Did you meet anyone sane?”

“So, let me tell you a bit about what you will be doing this next week,” Admiral Mikhailovich continued.  “During this time, you will be going before both the medical board and the psychological board.  If they deem you sane and fit, you will be receiving your deuce gear, which includes your body armour and weapons of choice.  Finally, you will be receiving your deployment papers, any specialised equipment you may need in your deployment as well as the time for your deployment.  Are you excited?”

The ‘yes sir’ that followed was less than inspired.  “Right,” Admiral Mikhailovich said, clearly not caring.  “That’s all.  Would Privates Shepard and Williams, and Corporal Alenko please see me at the front of the room?”

There was a loud scraping of chairs as the others filed out of the hall.  Kaidan, Ash and I made our way to the front of the hall.

“At ease,” Admiral Mikhailovich said.  “Will you come with me please?”

“Where to?” I asked, not moving.  I was finding it hard to trust anyone in the Alliance lately.

“Somewhere where we can’t be overheard,” Admiral Mikhailovich said.

“Would such a place even exist?” I asked glibly.  “I thought the jolly old Alliance had a finger in every pie.”

“Jane, please shut up,” Ash whispered.

“You think you’re smart, Private Shepard?” Admiral Mikhailovich asked, scowling at me.

“Yes sir, but then we all have our delusions,” I said.

“Shut up, girl,” Admiral Mikhailovich snapped.  I shut up.  “Follow me.”

We followed him down to a conference centre in the hold.  “Inside,” he said.

We went inside.  “Um-is this a metaphorically empty room, sir?” Kaidan asked nervously, looking around.

“It is,” Admiral Mikhailovich said.  “I therefore feel it is my duty to tell you that if you speak to anyone about this conversation, I will deny it.”

Oh God, he was going to threaten us with death or something similar.  “Yes sir,” we murmured.

“Now, I know about the business with Admiral Greyling last month,” he went on.  “I know what he did, and I know that you three killed him.”

“Actually, that was me sir,” I said.  “Alenko and Williams just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time for most of our two years at Del Sol.”

“Tell me Shepard, would you have gotten as far as you did without them?” Admiral Mikhailovich said.  He didn’t wait for an answer.  “Now, if it had been up to me, the three of you would have been kicked out of the marines so fast your heads would have spun.  Unfortunately, I was overruled at your review.  Admirals Kahoku and Hackett and Commander Anderson were especially vociferous in their defence for you.”  This was news to me.  Both Admiral Kahoku and Admiral Hackett had been pretty aloof of the three of us, and Commander Anderson had spent most of our time at Del Sol telling everyone that I was a ten year old boy named Ken.

“That being said,” Admiral Mikhailovich continued.  “If any one of you steps so much a hair out of line, I’ll have you court marshalled, and, if luck is with me, discharged, is that clear?”

Wow, this guy was crazy.  At least Greyling was sort of pleasant, even if he was a traitor.  “Yes sir,” we said.

“Good,” Admiral Mikhailovich said.  “Then I suppose it’s unnecessary for me to say that I’ll be watching you very closely.”

“Everyone needs a hobby, sir,” I said.

“I’d watch out, if I were you, Private Shepard,” Admiral Mikhailovich said coldly.  “Your days serving in the Alliance Military are numbered.”

Well thank God for that.

.....

It was incredible really, how many people spoke in their sleep.  It sounded like a theatre for the absurd.  After I woke up at around two AM after my latest round of killing Admiral Greyling, I lay awake and listened to them.

Bed twelve: when’s the next shuttle to Hopeville?

Bed twenty nine: I have one thousand credits. 

Bed seven: Hey baby.  Looking for a good time?

Bed fifteen: Yeah.  Oh yeah.  That’s the spot right there.

Bed twenty three: Shoot him.  Oh my god, they’re going to kill us and we’re all going to die.

Eventually I gave up on returning to sleep and decided to go for a smoke instead.  On space stations and space ships there are specific rooms where the nicotine addicts can go get their kicks, owing to the fact that there’s very little fresh air on said structures.  These rooms tended to be pretty disgusting, and were vented once a day to prevent people from asphyxiating upon arrival.

There was another person in the smoking room.  “Hey Tobrin,” I said, going up to him.

“Shep,” Zac answered huskily, nodding at me.  Bridget had been right, he did look terrible.  His face was far paler than usual, he had huge rings under his eyes and he seemed to have lost a lot of weight.

“What are you doing up here?” I asked.

“Can’t sleep,” he said.  “What about you?”

“Same,” I answered, lighting up.  “So what’s keeping you up?”  He shrugged.  “Fredrich says you’re worried about your deployment.”

“I suppose you could say that,” he said at last.

“What are you worried about?” I asked.

“Going to war,” he said.  “Killing other people.  Being killed.  I mean, I was the second-worst recruit in our year.  What’s the Joint Military Council thinking, posting me to the fleet?”

“I think they’re probably hoping you’ll want revenge against the batarians for killing your mother,” I said gently.  “You know, an eye for an eye.”

“An eye for an eye is pointless,” Zac said.  “Eventually you end up just as blind as the other guy.  I don’t think I’ll survive this, Shep.”

“Yes you will,” I said confidently.  “You survived Del Sol.  You can survive Skyllia.”

He smiled ruefully.  “I would prefer working in admin,” he said.  “Or even home defence, since I’m already good at chess.”

“You’ll be fine,” I assured him.  “Just remember your training and hope you get a commander who’s Gung-Ho enough to go first in combat situations.”  I stubbed my cigarette out.

“Thanks, Shep,” Zac said.  “I need to go on duty in five minutes.”

“And I should probably try getting back to sleep,” I said.  “Can’t let those bad dreams win.”

“Yeah,” Zac said distractedly.  “Sleep well, Shep.”

.....

I had to see the doctor at nine the next morning, then go before the medical board so that they could determine whether I was physically fit for active duty.  The doctor I ended up with was a quivery old woman by the name of Doctor Rosenthorpe.  “So Private…”

“Shepard,” I said.

“That’s it, Private Shepard,” she said.  “How are you doing?”

“Oh, I’m on death’s door, ma’am,” I said.

“We’ll soon see about that,” she said.  “So, first up we want a full body X-ray.  You aren’t pregnant, are you Private Streep?”

“Private Shepard ma’am, and no,” I said.  I hesitated.  “Um, before we start things off here, I should probably mention that I’m asthmatic.”

“Are you?” she said, frowning.  “I don’t recall anything from file apart from an egg allergy.”

“Yes ma’am,” I said.  “I lied to the medical board when I joined up.  Commander Anderson found out about it, but left it off the file.”

“Commander-?”

“Anderson, ma’am, David Anderson,” I said.

“Very well, Private Sheryn, we’ll see how bad things really are,” she said.  “If you’ll take your uniform off?”

Two hours later I’d been measured and weighed, and had an MRI, full-body X-ray, bone marrow test, blood test, urine test, stool test, hearing test, eye test, reflex test, pregnancy test, breast exam and pap smear done to my poor body.

“Right, that’s it, Private Thomas,” Doctor Rosenthorpe said.  “Get dressed and make your way to room five A.  I just need to write my report and then you can go before the board.”

Meeting the medical board seemed like a waste of time to me.  A person on the verge of death could probably be allowed through, provided he could be really convincing to the board about why exactly he should serve the Alliance.  Nevertheless, half an hour later I found myself standing in front of Dr Rosenthorpe and four other medical practitioners.

“So, Private Hathaway,” one began.

“Shepard, sir,” I corrected.

“I beg your pardon?” the doctor asked.

“My name is Shepard, sir,” I said.

“Sorry, of course,” the doctor said.  “According to Doctor Rosenthorpe, things are good.  Your hearing and vision is good, blood work is clean and you don’t have any STDs.”

“We notice however, that you chose not to have any genetic enhancements done,” another doctor said.  “Is there any particular reason for this?”

“Admiral Greyling said I didn’t have to,” I said obtusely.

“Yes, of course,” the doctor answered.  “Still, you must have had a good reason to have convinced him.”

I decided to go for the easier answer.  “I had religious reasons sir,” I said.

There were many raised eyebrows.  Ever since the Third World War, religion as a whole had pretty much been eradicated from human society, and those that were still religion were thought to be crazy, delusional or both.

“And what religion are you, Private Shepard?” a third doctor asked.

“I’m Catholic, sir,” I said.

“Hm,” the doctor said.  “And where exactly in the Bible does it say that genetic enhancements are a mortal sin?”

“Nowhere really, sir, but it’s just one of those things I’m sure Jesus would have disapproved of,” I said.  “It’s kind of like having sex with a ten year old.  It’s not forbidden in the Bible, but I don’t think Jesus would’ve been too pleased if you’d done it.”

“Well, I suppose we can’t deny you your…beliefs,” another doctor said.  “Just as long as they don’t get in the way of your duty to the Alliance.”

“They haven’t so far,” I said.

“Very well, then the only other anomaly I can see in your medical records is your asthma,” the first doctor said.  “Doctor Rosenthorpe says that it’s very severe.  In fact, she says the only place she’s seen lungs worse than yours is on a cancer patient in the Terminus Systems.”

“Yes sir,” I said.  “But I managed to graduate the top of my year from Del Sol Academy.”

“I suppose there is that,” another doctor said.  “And Commander Anderson wouldn’t have kept it off your records if he thought you weren’t able to handle it.”

“There is of course the chance that Shepard can’t handle it at some point in the future,” yet another doctor said.  “She would then be a danger to herself and her entire squad.”

“There is that,” the first doctor said.  “Very well, Shepard, you are dismissed.”

I saluted and left.

......

After my appointment with the medical board, I decided to visit my boyfriend on Deck three.  He was in the rec room there with Cat, Zac and Ismaeel.

Ismaeel was the first to see me.  “Hey there Shep,” he said.

“Khan,” I answered.  I sat down next to Kaidan.  “What’s happening up here?”

“Not much,” Kaidan said.  “We’re all bored and the TV’s broken.”

“How’re things, McDougal?” I asked her.

She wrinkled her freckled nose.  “Oh, nothing much,” she said.  “I’m being posted with the fleet in a few days, so I’m thrilled beyond words.  I hear it’s really difficult for spacers to adjust to being in one place for a really long time.”  Spacer was the colloquial term used to refer to children who’d been raised in space.

“Well, I have just spent two years on Earth, so I guess that doesn’t apply to me,” I said lightly.  “But then, I am stronger psychologically than most normal spacers.  I can understand why you might struggle.”

“Speaking of, Jane, how was your medical examination?” Kaidan asked, clearly trying to change the subject.

“Fine,” I said.  “The asthma came up, as I thought it would, but I think I may have convinced them that I have it under control.”

“Wait, you have asthma?” Ismaeel asked in surprise.  “I had no idea.  Did you know about this, Tobrin?”

Zac seemed to come out of a deep reverie.  “No, I had no idea,” he said.

“Really?” I asked.  “I thought everyone knew by now.  I lied about it when I joined up, but Commander Anderson found out when Kaidan and I rescued Tobrin from the radiation in our first year.”

“You lied when you joined up?” Cat asked, sounding shocked.  “But you said the admirals knew about it.”

“Yeah, I lied there too,” I said.  “You would have told on me.”

“No I wouldn’t,” Cat protested.  There were loud coughs from Kaidan, Ismaeel and me.  “Fine, I probably would have,” she sighed.

“Ladies and Khan, it’s been great, but I need to get to my medical evaluation, where a group of doctors will once again be fascinated by my B12 implant and will most likely put me on a new medical regime in an attempt to cure the migraines,” Kaidan said.  “Laters.”

Kaidan’s vacated seat was almost immediately taken by Ash.  “Hey there,” she said.  “Howzit going here?”

“Not bad,” I said. 

“Notice anything different about me?” she asked excitedly.

We all looked at her.

“You’ve dyed your hair,” Ismaeel hazarded.

“You’ve cut your fingernails,” I guessed.

“You’ve gained weight,” Cat said decisively.

“No,” Ash said.  “I mean, yes, apparently I have gained a little weight, although the doctors claim it’s just muscle mass.”  She spread her arms out wide.  “No crutches,” she said.  “They took the stitches out of my leg.  I’m healing well and can now walk unaided.”

“I hope this taught you a lesson,” Cat said sniffly.  We’d told everyone that Ash had hurt her leg whilst wall-climbing in the middle of the night.

“Whatever, McDougal,” Ash said.  “Anyway, apparently I’m incredibly healthy and they can’t wait to send me to Earth, worst luck.  Are you ok, Tobrin?  You’re really quiet.”

Zac gave a start.  “Yeah,” he said.  “I’m fine.”

“Listen, I know what you’re going through,” Ash said.  “I really struggled after my mother’s death too.  Just know, I’m here whenever you need to talk, ok?”

He got up.  “Thanks,” he said.  “But really, I’m fine.”  He left.

.....

The next morning, after breakfast, I was given the pleasure of guarding the morgue.  It was a cold, darkly-lit room and seemed the perfect setting for some terrible zombie-horror movie.

“Why do I need to guard the morgue?” I asked the mortician.

“Well, Private Shepard, you’d be surprised the number of people that try to steal bodies from in here,” the mortician answered.  “Usually these individuals want to play a practical joke on a friend, but we have had our fair share of necrophiliacs on this space station.”

“Gross,” I said, pulling a face.  “Have you ever put someone living in one of these freezers by accident?”

“Not really,” she said, smiling slightly.  “Our people are usually very dead by the time they get here.”

The way it worked in the Alliance was that the body was transported from wherever it died (these days usually on or around Skyllia) to Arcturus Station, where it was examined by the mortician to see if there were any inconsistencies in the cause of death, after which a notification team phoned next-of-kin to inform them that their spouse slash parent slash sibling had been killed in action, died bravely fighting the enemy, no he did not feel a thing, it was all very instantaneous and all the other platitudes that the army has employed since the dawn of time.  After this the body was transported to wherever the family wished its final resting-place to be.  All this took time, and it was common for a body only to reach its final destination six months after its death.

“So you ever worry about your bodies coming to life?” I asked the mortician now.

She gave me a strange look.  “No,” she said.

“Huh,” I mumbled.  “I would if I worked in a place like this.”

The doors to the morgue slammed open and a gurney pushed by four young artillery officers came in.  I sprang to attention as they wheeled past me.

“What’s this?” the mortician asked in surprise.

“A young marine private,” one of the officers said.  “He was found dead in his bed this morning.  There’s no visible cause of death.  He saw the medical board yesterday and was considered healthy, if slightly underweight.  He asked for painkillers, said he had headaches.”

“Right, let’s take a look,” the mortician said, putting a mask on and pulling on a pair of gloves.

Despite myself, my morbid curiosity got the better of me and I found myself moving closer to the gurney as she pulled the sheet from his face.  At first I didn’t recognise the pale face, the dark hair.

I’d read in books that dead people look peaceful, like they no longer have to worry about anything, but Zacharias Tobrin just looked dead.

“Shit,” I whispered.

“You knew him?” the mortician asked, looking up at me.  I nodded.

“He’d been depressed,” I said softly, moving over and touching Zac’s hand.  It still had a bit of warmth in it, like there was still a part of him that was clinging to life.  “He’d just lost his mother, and he was scared of being posted to the front.”

“You think he killed himself?” she asked sharply.

I shrugged.  I hoped not, because if he had, it would have been my fault again.

“I’m going to run a tox-screen,” she said.  “See what we find.”

I moved back to my post by the door as the officers left.  Please God, I don’t want him to have killed himself, I thought.  Please, it’s my fault if he did.

“Yup, he tests positive for high levels of paracetamol,” the mortician said a while later.

Shit.

.....

After my shift, I went to my dorm.  Ignoring my fellow dorm-members, I got down on my knees and bowed my head.  “Bless me Father, for I have sinned,” I whispered, crossing myself.  “It’s been a month since my last confession.  I killed two men.  The first was three weeks ago, and I killed him on purpose.  The second was this morning, and I didn’t know I was killing him.”  I swallowed.  “I should have known,” I whispered.  “I should have realised he was in trouble, but I didn’t.  Please, God, I don’t know what to do anymore.  I’m here, in the Alliance army, and I don’t think I can be responsible for any more deaths.”  I didn’t know what else to say, so I said, “I’m sorry.  In the name of our saviour, Jesus Christ, and the holy Virgin, Mary.  Amen.”

I got up.  “Are you always this dramatic?” someone in the dorm asked.

Chapter Text

Two days later I was given a clean bill of health (both mental and physical.  I’d somehow managed to avoid getting too in-depth with the psychologist.  There was only one mental health worker in the galaxy that I liked, and she was on Earth).  I was sent with a bunch of other recruits to fetch my deuce gear, which included my new Revenant rifle, my shiny blue-camouflage Alliance armour, and (for some weird reason) sunscreen.  I guessed that wherever I was being sent had high surface temperatures.

The next morning Freddie popped out of my omnitool.  “Message for you, oh small one,” it said cheerily.

“Thanks, Freddie,” I said.

I opened the email, which said, “’Dear Private Shepard.  You have been posted to Marine Patrol Platoon, Company Two, on Akuze, in the Dranek System of the Krogan DMZ.  You will be travelling there on the Troska Freighter, which leaves docking bay 18 on 2 September 2179 at 0500 hours, sol.  Please bring your deuce gear along, and bear in mind that, at least for the time being, your destination is classified.  Yours sincerely, Staff Officer Jasmira Shirez, N1.’”

I didn’t actually know all that much of Akuze.  I’d never visited it, but knew it was rather a hot planet that had been colonised by the Russians, who had then consented to share the planet with the Polish.  It had a number of Elkoss Combine factories located on it, where the Alliance’s ammunition and specialised weapons were manufactured.  I foresaw a very boring tour of duty.

.....

Ash was the first to leave.  Her ship was due to depart for Earth the day before I left on the Troska at three in the morning, so she, Kaidan and I met in the smoker’s room the night before.

“So,” she said.  “I guess this is it.  Time for us to say goodbye.”

“Guess so,” I said and Kaidan nodded. 

She looked at us both.  “I want you both to stay safe, ok?” she said.  Kaidan was allowed to tell us that he was being posted to a ship that was in the Attican Traverse.  I tried not to think about what he would face there.

“We will,” he said.  “And you, Ash, kick some ass in those chess tournaments.

She slapped his arm.  “Fuck you,” she laughed.  She sobered up.  “We’ve been through a lot together, haven’t we?”

“That we have,” I agreed.

“It’s just that-“ she began and hesitated.

“What is it?” I asked.

She turned to Kaidan.  “You’ll keep her safe won’t you?” she asked. 

He nodded.  “As long as I live,” he answered.

“And you, Jane,” she continued.  “Stay safe, and look after Kaidan if you can.”

“Ash, what’s going on?” I asked.  “We’ll both be fine.  I’m posted on the other side of the galaxy from Skyllia, and Kaidan can look after himself.”

“I know,” Ash said uncharacteristically nervous.  “It’s just that I feel like things are only going to get worse.  For all three of us.”

“You’re just being paranoid,” I laughed.  “We’ll all be fine.  I’ll email you both at least once a week, and we’ll make plans to meet up for our leave.”

“Ja,” Ash said.  “Can’t wait.”  She got up.  “I need to be up by two o’clock tomorrow, and I haven’t even packed yet.  I should probably get going.”

She hugged Kaidan first, then me.  “I love you,” she whispered in my ear.

“Stay safe,” I replied. 

Now, I wonder exactly how much Ash knew of what the future held.  For all three of us.

.....

The next morning I vid-called with Jason, my younger brother.  “Shay,” he said when he finally came on screen.

It was becoming more and more of a shock to me to see how much he was growing.  He wasn’t the little boy trying desperately not to cry at our family’s funeral any more.  He had the same dark hair and skin as I did, but his eyes were light brown like our mother’s.  He had grown up, and I was missing out on all of it.

“Hey Jason,” I said.  “How’re you doing?”

“I’m good,” he said.  “Started school yesterday.  Can’t wait to be done.”

“Yeah, I can imagine,” I said.  He was in his final year at the Alliance Academic Achievers (or Triple A for short), and would be heading for the salarian homeworld, Sur’Kesh, to study synthetic programming. 

“How are you, Shay?” he asked.  “How’s the jolly old Alliance?”

“Not bad,” I said.  “I ship out tomorrow, which is why I’m calling.”

“Oh,” he said.  “So, where’re you headed?”

“Destination I can’t tell you because it’s classified,” I said.  “Don’t worry, as far as I can tell, this colony is pretty safe.  No major wars or anything.”

“Ok, well that’s good, I suppose,” he answered, rolling his eyes.  He paused.  “What’s the matter, Shay?”

“Who says anything’s the matter?” I asked defensively.

“I do,” Jason answered.  “Talk to me, big sister.”

“Well, it’s just that, there’s this boy that was in my pod at the academy,” I said.  “He, uh, killed himself earlier this week.”

“Crap,” Jason said.  “I’m sorry Shay.”

“Thanks,” I said.  “The thing is though, I should have realised something was wrong with him.  He was depressed, and-,”

“It wasn’t your responsibility, Shay,” Jason said sharply.

“Then whose responsibility was it?” I asked quietly.

“Not yours,” Jason answered.  “Maybe he was depressed, maybe he wanted to end it, but it wasn’t your fault.  You can’t save everyone, Shay.”

“I know,” I said stubbornly.

“No you don’t,” Jason said.  “You’re going to some pretty hairy places soon, Shay.  You can’t let every single death that happens around you do this to you.  You’ll drive yourself mad.”

“So what do I do?” I asked.

He sighed.  “You do your best,” he said.  “And hope that that’s enough.”

.....

Saying goodbye to Kaidan that evening was awkward.  What I really wanted to do was throw my arms around him and beg him to take me in any manner of dirty and inappropriate ways.  Instead I had to be content with a kiss on the cheek and a whispered ‘I love you.’  I struggled to sleep that night, as I was wondering exactly where the next chapter of my life would take me.

At half past four the next morning I got up, showered, put on my service uniform and took my pack and deuce gear to docking bay 18.  “Who’re you?” one of the ship’s crew asked me.

“Private Shepard reporting for duty,” I said, saluting.

“Right,” the crewmember said.  “Leave your luggage here, we’ll load it up.  Your seat is on deck three in Life Support.  You’re in room three, bed four.”

“Thanks,” I said. 

I walked through the airlock and into the Combat Information Centre where crewmembers were scurrying around, readying the ship for the flight.

“Excuse me,” I asked a passing woman.  “Which way to deck three?”

“Take the stairs over there,” she said, pointing to the back of the CIC.

“Much appreciated,” I said.

The life support room was where the pressure, gravity and ship ventilation was controlled.  I took one of the seats facing the oxygen tanks and waited for lift-off.  Soon three of the other four seats were taken by crew members.

“Shep,” a voice asked in surprise from behind me.

“Fredrich,” I said, turning.  “Are you also being posted to destination secret?”

“Yep,” she said, grinning.  “I hear it’s quite the holiday destination.”

“Save it, marines,” one of the crewmembers near us said.  “We know that we’re dropping you two off at Akuze.”

“Well, that’s let the cat out of the bag,” I said.  “We were hoping to surprise you with it.”

“This is awesome,” Bridget said.  “At least we won’t be completely alone there.”

“No, there’ll be all the artillery units and marines there too,” I said.

“Chokovic comes from Akuze,” Bridget said.  “He said there’s not much going on there.”

“Well, a little peace and quiet never went amiss,” I said, stretching.

“No, he said there isn’t much of that going on there either,” she said, grinning.  “Lots of vodka though.”

“Don’t you people prefer Schnapps?” I asked.

“Don’t you people prefer Saki?” she returned.

“Point taken,” I said.  “So, come on.  When’s this ship leaving?  I’m eager to get there.”

.....

I retracted this statement almost as soon as we landed on Akuze ten days later.  Akuze was hot, reaching temperatures of close to forty degrees, and was pretty much a stretch of unrelenting scrubland, aside from three bare cliffs reaching towards the sky, called the Teeth.  It was said that you could see over ten miles in all directions from the top.  Why you would want to was beyond me, but it made the area of Dziekuje quite the holiday destination. 

“Well, this is cheerful,” Bridget said as we waited to be processed through Dziekuje city spaceport customs.

“I can see it now, when they were dolling the colonies out during the exodus,” I said.  “The Germans said, ‘Ve take ze colony closest to ze seat of galactic power’, and they got Bekenstein, which is only one relay-jump from the Citadel.  The Americans said, ‘Dang y’all, we’ll take the colony with the most oil’, and they got Tiptree, the Alliance’s main source of oil.  The Indians said, ‘Ey Bunjabi, ve vill take the bloody colony where we can raise our bloody cows’, and they got Ontarom, the giant cow farm.  And the Russians said, ‘Ve take cohlohny with noh snow’, and they got Akuze, where there is no snow or anything else.”

“That was racist on so many levels,” Bridget said.

“I know,” I said.  “I feel kind of bad now.”  I paused.  “And now I’m over it.”

The customs official was struggling with my passport.  “Are you sure you’re eighteen?” he asked, examining it minutely.

“Nope,” I said.  “I’m eighteen and a half.  Get with the program.”

“But are you sure?” he asked.

“Why, how old would you say I am?” I asked.

He frowned at me.  “Eleven?” he said at last.

“Huh, most people say ten,” I said.  “I have gained a year.  That’s awesome.”

“Actually I was trying to be kind,” he said.  “You do look ten.”

“How is eleven any kinder than ten?” I asked.

Finally we were processed and made it into the arrivals terminal.  “Privates Shepard and Fredrich?” an Alliance Air force pilot asked.

“That’s us,” I said.  “Although I tend to prefer ‘Hey you’, and she prefers ‘Come back here’.”

“What are you doing here, Private?” the pilot asked tiredly.

“I don’t know, sir, I got lost on my way to Tipperary,” I said.  “You know, it’s a very long way away.”

“Is she always like this?” he asked Bridget.

“Long as I’ve known her,” Bridget answered.

“Very well, I’m Shuttle Pilot Hank Katz, and I’m here to take you to Jenkooyeh Military Base,” he said.

“Sorry, what did you say the name of the military base was?” I asked as he led the way out of the spaceport.

“Jenkooyeh?” he asked.  “It’s the name of this town.”

“Oh,” I said.  “I thought the name of this town was pronounced Zeekooje.  Shows what I know.”

After two weeks in Cape Town, one week on Arcturus Station and ten days on a freighter, I was unaccustomed to temperatures that exceeded the high twenties and I staggered a bit as we walked outside.

“And I thought we were past overheating,” Bridget mumbled.

“So you two are fresh out of training?” Shuttle Pilot Katz asked once we’d loaded our things into the shuttle and taken our seats inside.

“Yup,” Bridget said.  “Shepard here came top of our year.”

“You piss someone high up off then, Shepard?” Shuttle Pilot Katz asked.

“I-why do you ask?” I asked in surprise.

“Well, this is kind of a dead-end posting,” Shuttle Pilot Katz said.  “Your commanding officer’s been stuck here for nearly twenty years.  The people they send here aren’t going anywhere any time soon.  So, if you’re good, you must have been posted here because somebody wants to keep you out of the way.”

“Bummer, Shep,” Bridget said sympathetically.  “They must’ve found out about your secret drug habit.”

.....

The commanding officer, a Major Tsin, was a stooped man.  His officer was dusty with an ancient fan whirring on the ceiling in a lacklustre manner.  Bridget and I stood to attention as he walked around us, inspecting us.

“So, which is which?” he asked in a surprisingly strong voice.

“I’m Private Fredrich sir,” Bridget said.

“And I’m Marian Sempere,” I said.  Marian Sempere was a model, allegedly the most beautiful woman in the Alliance.  She was tall, slim, with blonde and pink hair and pale skin.  In other words, she looked nothing like me.

“A smart arse,” Major Tsin said, looking me up and down.  “Tell me, Private, how did you earn all those medals.”

“Skill, paranoia and luck,” I said smartly.  “Sir,” I added.

“Very well,” he said.  “I don’t really care if you’re a smart arse or not.  You’ll probably be stuck here for the rest of your careers in any case.  I don’t know if you’ve heard but-,”

“Akuze is the dead-end capital of the galaxy?” I interrupted.  “Yeah, we heard on the ride in.”

“Good,” Major Tsin said.  “Anyway, we rarely get anyone from the Joint Military Council here, and the admirals have never made an inspection, so I’m not really fussed about military protocol, as long as you get your jobs done.”

“Yes sir,” we chorused.

“Now, do you want breakfast?” Major Tsin continued. 

“The catering corps has already tried killing us off once this morning, sir,” I said.  “I don’t think we should tempt fate twice in one morning.”

“Very well,” Major Tsin said.  “Then I’ll take you to the barracks.  You can unpack, and I’ll have one of the men give you a tour.”

The barracks was very much like our Pod 3 building, ugly, squat and khaki.  There were only two people in our barracks room when we got there.  Both of them were mostly naked, so it was impossible to tell what ranks they were.  They looked up when we walked in.

“Sir,” one said.

“Toombs,” Major Tsin said.  “Private Shepard, Private Fredrich, I would like you to meet Corporal Toombs, and Service Chief Sonye.  Corporal, Chief, meet our two newest staff members.”

“How are you?” Service Chief Sonye asked, nodding at us.  She was of medium height, with mousey hair and nondescript features.

Corporal Toombs was even more succinct.  “Hey,” he said.

“Chief, if you could give these two a tour once they’ve unpacked and settled in, I’d appreciate it,” Major Tsin said.  “I have a report to submit to the Joint Council.  Not that they’ll actually read it, but we do our best.”

“Sure,” Service Chief Sonye said.  “Your beds are here.  Shepard, you’re above me.”

“Great,” I said weakly, trying not to get distracted by her breasts which were on the verge of popping out of her bra.

I dumped my duffel bag onto my bed, opened my locker and put my rifle in.

“Keep that out,” Corporal Toombs advised.  “You may need it.”

“For what?” I asked.

“I haven’t written the duty roster for this week yet,” Service Chief Sonye said.  “You might be on duty today.”

“It’s Friday,” Bridget said.

“And?” Service Chief Sonye asked.

“How can you not have written a duty roster for this week yet?” Bridget asked.  “It’s the end of the week.”

“You’ll see,” Corporal Toombs said.  “Things run on a different time here.”

I wasn’t sure I wanted to know what that meant, so I asked, “What’s the day-night cycle like around here?”

“Thirty and a half hours,” Corporal Toombs said.

“Oh, well, that’s not so bad,” I said.  One often found that the day-night cycle on certain planets were either ridiculously short (for instance, the Spanish/Portuguese colony of Noveria had a cycle of five hours), or impossibly long, (Fehl Prime, the Cambodian/Vietnamese colony had a cycle of six days).

I un-unpacked my rifle again and put it back on my bed.  Once Bridget and I had unpacked our packs, Service Chief Sonye said, “Shall I show you around?”

“Please do,” Bridget said.

Service Chief Sonye led us out the room.  “Aren’t you going to put your clothes back on?” I asked.

She shook her head.  “We aren’t that fussed about standard protocol here,” she said.  “So, this is the marines’ barracks.  You’ll find all the usual boring stuff here, such as mess hall, rec room, officers’ barracks, CO and XO offices.  Do you like origami?”

“What?” Bridget asked, her mouth hanging open.

“Origami,” Service Chief Sonye said.  “It’s an ancient Japanese art.”

“Don’t you need paper for origami?” I asked.  With the invention of datapads and the chopping down of all the trees on Earth, paper had gone extinct.

“Yeah,” Service Chief Sonye said.  “I use plastic.  You know, the hard kind like you get in lunch boxes, not the soft stuff like Clingfilm.”

“Right,” Bridget said.  “I don’t know about Shep, but I don’t really have any opinion on origami.”

“You should like it, you’re Japanese,” Service Chief Sonye said. 

“Chinese,” I corrected.  “And I never really met my Chinese family.”

“Oh,” she said.  “I use tinfoil too, but it mustn’t be crinkled.”

She led us over to a Mako.  “Do either of you know how to drive?” she asked.  We shook our heads.  “That’s too bad.  Our driver’s been MIA for two months.  XO Gonzalez is yet to send through the request for a new one.”

“Doesn’t your shuttle pilot drive?” I asked.

“Sometimes, but he’s myopic, so it can get pretty hairy,” she said.  “I’ll take you to the factory first.  Look over there.”  She pointed at an identical barracks building across the yard from our own.  “That’s the artillery barracks.  We share most duties with them, and they make sure that the town’s GARDIAN guns work.”

“Oh, well, I can do that too,” I said.  “I’m a weapon’s specialist.”

She gave me a pitying look.  “Don’t try to be too ambitious here, Private Roland,” she said.  “You’ll be deeply disappointed.”

“My name’s Shepard,” I said.

“Really?” she asked.  “You look more like a Roland.  Come on.”

As we drove to the factory, I pondered this.  Janey, Shepard, Shep, Ken, and now Roland.  Very few people actually called me by my first name.

“We have fifty military staff members here,” Service Chief Sonye called over the noise of the engine.  “Twenty five artillery squaddies, one shuttle pilot, two cooks, one custodian, one communications’ specialist, two medics and eighteen marines, now that you two have arrived.”

“That’s quite a small battalion,” Bridget remarked.

“Yeah well, nothing much ever happens here,” Service Chief Sonye said.  “The krogan are pissed that the Alliance colonised this planet, but they can’t really do anything about it since they’ve been demilitarised.  Other than that, there are very few natural resources here, so no one’s likely to invade it.  The only thing to worry about is the thresher maw.”

Bridget had a coughing fit.  “You have a thresher maw here?” she asked.

“Oh yes,” Service Chief Sonye said, nodding seriously.  “You don’t have to worry about her though.  We’ve cordoned off her nest so that no one walks into it accidently.  She’s never attacked anyone yet.”

Thresher maws were perhaps the most dangerous animals in the galaxy.  They greatly resembled caterpillars, if caterpillars grew to fifty foot long and had a poisoned spit.  Thresher maws were said to eat anything in the galaxy, but they liked their foods nice and rotten.  Unfortunately, thresher maws weren’t known for their patience when it came to waiting for their food to rot, so they’d spit their poison all over their (usually living) prey.  The poison would then decompose the meal, and the thresher maw would gobble it down.  The really nasty thing about this was that the poison rarely killed the lucky meal until the rot reached either the brain or the heart.  People who had survived a thresher maw attack spoke of how painful the poison was.  Perhaps the only good news with regards to thresher maws was that they built their nests very close to their hunting grounds and rarely left the general vicinity thereof.

“Why build a settlement close to a thresher nest?” I asked.

“Oh, I think the thresher maw moved in after the humans did,” Service Chief Sonye said cheerfully.  “Everyone’s too scared to go near it though, which is why it’s still there.”

The factory was a large, sprawling building.  “What gets built here?” Bridget asked.

“The Alliance’s specialised weapons,” Service Chief Sonye said.  “You know, grenade launchers, missile launchers, turrets.  Once a week, Tibbet, our old driver would take the Mako to Strahinski, the capital, with the new produce.  Of course, he’s been missing a fortnight now, so we have all the stockpiles clogging the storeroom.”

She parked the Mako in the factory yard.  “So basically your duties here would be to guard the factory,” she said, getting out.  “You’d need to search all the workers as they go in, make sure that no one tries to blow the place up or anything like that, and search the workers as they come out again.  Come on, let’s say hello to the fellows.”

She led the way across to the guard post, where four marines and two gunners were standing.  None of them were wearing coats, so it was impossible to tell what rank they were.

“Hello, Martie,” Service Chief Sonye said to one of the marines.

“Barbs,” a short, thin man with skew ears said.  “Who’re are these?”

“Our newest team members,” she answered.  “This is Roland, and this is Masair.”

“Staff Lieutenant James Cuthbert,” the man she had called Martie said, smiling cheerfully at us.  “Nice to meet you.  This is Gunnery Chief Nam Groskai, and Privates Lee and Joshton Enswood.  They’re identical twins, impossible to tell them apart.  Also they speak in unison, so they’re pretty annoying.  These are two gunners that aren’t really that important, so you can ignore them.”  The gunners scowled.

“Good to meet you,” the twins said at exactly the same time.

“Wow, I looked exactly like my twin, and I never did that,” I remarked.  “Private Jane Shepard, nice to meet y’all.”

“Private Bridget Fredrich,” Bridget said.

Gunnery Chief Groskai sniffed loudly.  “So,” he said in an annoyingly nasal voice.  “What did you two do?”

“Do?” Bridget echoed.

“Oh lord, did Chief Sonye not tell you?” the twins asked.

“You mean about this being a place where they send the no-hopers?” I asked.  They nodded.

“Well, I did tell the psych board that I only wanted to serve my seven years and get out,” Bridget said. 

Lieutenant Cuthbert snorted.  “You should be so lucky,” he said.  “Lieutenant Commander Maria Gonzalez served her seven years two years ago.  She’s still waiting for her summons before the review board.”

“Oh,” Bridget said.  “Well.  Shit.”

“What about you, Roland?” Service Chief Sonye asked.  “What did you do?”

“Oh, I pissed off the Joint Military Council,” I said vaguely.  “Trust me, it’s a long story.”

“Well, if that’s true, you’ll probably end up serving here for the rest of your life, like old Operations Chief Abdulah Jamal,” Gunnery Chief Groska said.

“Speaking of,” Service Chief Sonye said.  She reached into her BOL and pulled out a spider made of tinfoil.  “For you, Gish.”  She handed it to one of the twins.

“Thanks,” they both said.

“I’m still working on your cow, Martie,” she continued.   “It should be done by tomorrow.”

“Thanks Chief,” Lieutenant Cuthbert said.  “Who’s relieving us?”

“Whoever I can find,” Service Chief Sonye said.  “Come on, Roland, Masair, I’ll show you the observation post.  Later, you lot.”

“What kind of drugs do they take here?” Bridget whispered in my ear as we walked back to the Mako.

“I don’t know,” I whispered back.  “But whatever it is, I don’t want any.”

We left the factory and the base behind as we drove deeper into the wasteland.  “Is the weather like this all over?” I called over the engine.

“It’s milder nearer the equator,” Service Chief Sonye called back.  “Apparently it rains there sometimes too.  We have to have water flown in from Freedom’s Progress.”  Freedom’s Progress was the Southern African colony whose sole function was to farm water for the rest of the Alliance.  “It freezes here in the winter though.”

“What’s that?” Bridget asked, pointing to a building that we were passing on our left. 

“Research base,” Service Chief Sonye answered.  “Owned by a company called Charon.  They’re researching the possibility of using this area to grow root crops for the Alliance.”

“Sounds like a noble cause, but isn’t that done on Horizon?” I asked.

“Yeah, apparently investors aren’t all that thrilled with the yield there,” Bridget said.  She rolled her eyes.  “Colony kids get emailed copies of Colony monthly.”

“I wonder what the spacer equivalent of that would be,” I mused.  Spacer monthly (sol time).    The headlines would be something else.  Ninety nine per cent of spacers join the military, latest study says.  Spacers maladjusted and antisocial: are military parents to blame?  And in the housing and home section: beds available on the Baghdad, patrols Argus Rho cluster: views there are better than in the Kepler Verge.

A few minutes we arrived at the observation post, which was nothing more than a trench in the ground with a corrugated iron roof, cunningly disguised with sand-coloured sandbags, which unfortunately failed to disguise the ten sensors on the roof, which stood out like an elcor at a salarian’s house party.

“What are you looking out for?” Bridget asked.

“Oh you know, ships, aliens, Marian Sempere in sexy underwear,” Service Chief Sonye said.  “See that wall over there?”  She pointed to a wall a few miles south of our position.  “That’s the cordon for the thresher nest.  It stretches about one hundred miles.  Better be safe than sorry.”

“I think it would probably have been safer not to build a town so close to a thresher nest, but who am I?” I said.

“Come on in,” Service Chief Sonye said.  “It’s very cosy inside.”

Cosy must have been the kind word for cramped.  Inside the trench there was barely enough space for the three beds, terminal, switchboard, tiny gas camping stove, and three fully grown soldiers: two marines and one gunner.

“Hello Sonye,” one very old marine said.  He looked like he was at least in his eighties.

“Batty,” she answered.  “Charcoal.  This is Roland and this is Masair.”

“Shepard and Fredrich,” Bridget corrected. 

“I’m Operations Chief Abdullah Jamal,” the very old man said, spreading his arms grandly.  “And this idiot is First Lieutenant Samwel Gordon.”

“First Lieutenant Willem Johannes,” the other marine corrected quietly.

“I thought I relegated you to complete silence, First Lieutenant Gordon,” Operations Chief Jamal said sharply.

“Sorry,” Lieutenant Johannes said.

“Sorry, I can’t shut up any more,” I said.  “You outrank him, Lieutenant, why don’t you tell him to shut up?”

“I can’t,” Lieutenant Johannes said.

“Shut up, First Lieutenant,” Operations Chief Jamal roared.  “He can’t,” he said more quietly to me.  “Everybody knows they can’t argue with me.  I’m eighty two, I’ve been in the army for sixty six years. I know better than everyone.”

“Excuse me,” the gunner said, getting up.  “I need a shit.  Don’t touch any of the equipment.  I’ll be right back.”

“Two marines and one gunner are assigned here,” Service Chief Sonye said.  “The rotation is weekly.”

“It’s not like my day anymore,” Operations Chief Jamal said.  “In my day, the youth knew how to respect their elders, to do as their elders asked.”

“Yeah, and old people in your day used to say exactly the same thing,” Bridget said.

“I have food,” Service Chief Sonye said, no doubt to break the tension as Operations Chief Jamal glared at Bridget.

“Don’t argue with Batty,” she told us in an undertone as we climbed back into the Mako.  “It won’t end well for you.”

“Noted, but if the man’s wrong he’s wrong,” Bridget said.

“Private,” Service Chief Sonye said warningly.  Damn, this place was weird.

“Yes ma’am,” Bridget said and was silent until we reached the base again.

“I’ll show you the town later,” Service Chief Sonye said.  “I’m kind of bored.  You need to stand to at the gates, but that’s pretty much all you need to know.”

Back inside our barracks, a tall, dark woman stopped us.  She was dressed in full service uniform and looked somewhat bizarre after all the half-dressed soldiers.  “Chief, the shithouse is backed up again,” she said.  “Who are they?”

“New privates, ma’am,” Service Chief Sonye said, springing to attention.  We followed suit.  “Private Shepard and Private Fredrich, ma’am.”

The Lieutenant Commander (who I could only assume was Lieutenant Commander Gonzalez) gave us an unhappy look.  “Welcome to Akuze,” she said.  “You look like you’re fresh out of training.”

“We are, ma’am,” I said.

She sighed.  “Good luck,” she said.  “Chief, can you do something about the toilets?”

“Can’t you find Henry?” Service Chief Sonye asked, holding her salute.

“The custodian isn’t in his room,” Lieutenant Commander Gonzalez answered.  “No one else on the base has seen him.”

“Very well, ma’am, I’ll look into it,” Service Chief Sonye said.

“Very good, Chief, dismissed,” Lieutenant Commander Gonzalez answered.  “And for God’s sake, put some clothes on, this is the army, woman, not a nudist colony.”  She looked us up and down.  “Do any of you play the didgeridoo?” she asked us.

“No ma’am,” I said.

She looked disappointed.  “Very well, that’ll be all,” she said.

Service Chief Sonye waited until Lieutenant Commander Gonzalez had disappeared back into her office before saying, “Roland, Masair, take care of the shithouse, will you?”

.....

To say that ‘the shithouse is backed up again’ appeared to be a massive understatement.  It looked as though someone had left a giant bucket outside for happy soldiers to do their business in, left the bucket in the sun for a few weeks, dumped a shovel-load of the tasty contents into the three toilets, then loaded the rest into a hosepipe and sprayed it around the rest of the room in a fit of boyish excitement.

“Ugh,” Bridget mumbled.  “I am not getting paid enough for this.”

“I dunno,” I said.  “It kind of reminds me of the aftermath of my granddad’s Christmas parties, although there usually tends to be more Christmas Pudding floating around somewhere.  He was an alcoholic,” I explained at Bridget’s questioning look.  “Probably still is.  I haven’t seen him since my parents’ funeral.”

The smell was awful, and we soon dug our gasmasks out and put them on.

“Can’t wait to write my email home,” Bridget said gloomily as we poured buckets of water across the floor and swept it out the door.  “’Dearest Matilda.  Arrived at Akuze today.  Spent the morning with a bunch of lunatics, then cleaned the shithouse.  They’re very literal minded here, and a shithouse is actually a house of shit.  But oh, how I wish I were in your arms.  I may be nice-smelling again in about a year, so tchus until then.’”

I could send a love greeting card to Kaidan, I decided.  “’Roses are red, violets a blue, don’t kiss me now, I’m covered in poo.’”

“So, what did you do to piss off the Joint Council?” Bridget asked.

“Trust me, you don’t want to know,” I said with feeling.

“You know what this reminds me of?” Bridget asked, clearly getting the message.  “Suang Kim’s birthday initiation.”

“I don’t know, I somehow feel like we’re worst off than Suang Kim was,” I said.

“You think so?” she asked.  “No one’s shot us yet.”

“That was me, remember?” I asked.  “I’m the one who shot-argh.” I stepped backwards and slipped, falling ass-first into a particularly deep patch of shit.

“Ok, now you’re worse off,” Bridget said.

I counted to ten, hoping it would calm me down.  When it didn’t, I bellowed, “For fuck sakes.”

“Sorry Shep, but it’ll wash off,” Bridget said.  She offered me a hand up, but I was too angry.

“What the fuck is the stupid Alliance thinking?” I screamed.  “I am the best soldier in our year, why the fuck am I sitting on this rock covered in shit?”

“I seem to recall you saying that everyone is needed to win a war,” Bridget said, calmly.

“Yes, when I was talking to Zac Tobrin,” I began.

“What, so your rules only apply to us little people, not you?” Bridget asked.

“No, of course not,” I said.

“Really?” Bridget asked.  “So the great Jane Shepard doesn’t need to get special treatment just because she can shoot straighter than the rest of us?”

“No, but-,”

“Wake up and smell the fucking shit, Shepard,” Bridget snapped.  “Sure, we’re literally in a crap position, but it could be a lot worse.  I’d rather spend every day of my life cleaning this shithouse rather than being shot at slash shooting at batarians on Skyllia.  Do you know how many Alliance soldiers die a day in that war?  Four hundred and fifty.  Now, if you ask me we should be counting our blessings, because the odds are strong that we would not survive our first week out there.”

I was silent for so long that she turned back to her cleaning.  “You’re right,” I said at last.  “I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine,” Bridget said.  “Just bear in mind what’s actually happening out there.”

Four hours later we were finally finished with the shithouse.  We’d missed lunch, but I wasn’t feeling all that hungry.  After standing under a hot shower and scrubbing my skin for thirty minutes I still wasn’t feeling clean, but decided I couldn’t waste the day like that forever, so I got out and put my service uniform back on. 

“I can’t decide whether to wash this, or just cut my losses and burn the damn thing,” Bridget said, holding her utilities at an arm’s length.

“Why not leave it as a peace offering to the thresher maw?” I suggested.  “Maybe it won’t kill us then.”

“Are you kidding?” Bridget asked.  “If someone left this outside my bedroom door, I’d be pretty murderous.”

“Knock knock,” a voice said from outside the shower room. 

“Who’s there?” I asked in reply.

“Lieutenant Commander Gonzalez,” the voice answered.

Why not?  “Lieutenant Commander Gonzalez who?” I asked.

“Lieutenant Commander Gonzalez you aren’t funny private, may I please come in?” Lieutenant Commander Gonzalez answered.

“Never heard of you,” I said.  “Can you slide your credentials under the door?”

The door opened and Lieutenant Commander Gonzalez came in.  “You like jokes, Private Fredrich?” she asked.

“Sure, some of them,” Bridget answered.  “Most of Shep’s jokes are lame though.”

“I wasn’t talking to you,” she snapped.

“I’m Private Fredrich, ma’am,” Bridget said patiently.

“You’re Shepard?” she asked in surprise, looking me up and down.

“The one and only, ma’am,” I answered.

“Right, well, just so you know, I don’t like jokes,” she said.

“Noted, ma’am,” I answered.  “I’ll find a way to make you like them.”

“Anyway, I just came to tell you that I’m very impressed with the state of the toilets,” she said, ignoring me.  “I’d like to give you the rest of the day off.”

“Gosh, how absolutely spiffing,” I said, attempting a British accent.  “I shall paint a picture to commemorate this moment.”

“How far is it to town?” Bridget asked quickly.

“Fifteen minute walk, but I warn you, there’s nothing of interest there,” Lieutenant Commander Gonzalez said gloomily.  “In fact, I get depressed just thinking about town, but then, I’m always depressed.”

“Shouldn’t you see the shrink then, ma’am?” I asked.

“I would, but she topped herself last month,” Lieutenant Commander Gonzalez answered.  “Be back by 1800 hours or you’ll miss parade.”

She left.  “Is there anywhere that’s crazier than this place?” I asked.

Bridget shook her head sadly.  “I grew up in the colonies, and the troops stationed at my home town where the very picture of efficiency,” she said.

“Yeah, but you’re German,” I said.  “The Germans are the picture of efficiency.”

.....

Lieutenant Commander Gonzalez was right, there was nothing of interest in the town.  We took a few photos at the town’s war memorial (every Alliance town had a war memorial, to commemorate the exodus and all the people that had been lost).  Apparently, out of the area of Poland that the residents of Dziekuje had been evacuated from, they’d lost a whopping two million people.

“Not bad, the Americans lost close to twenty million people,” I said as we read the commemorative plaques.

“You started the war, so serves you right,” Bridget said.

“Hey, soldiers,” a voice from behind us called.  We turned to see a short, curvy woman wearing an apron.  “Have you ever eaten Polish food?” she asked us eagerly.

“No ma’am,” Bridget answered, looking perturbed.

“I have made pierogi for my family to eat for lunch, and we’d be honoured if you came to eat with us,” she said.  “My name is Olga Karskoff.”

“Private Fredrich, ma’am,” Bridget said, shaking Mrs Karskoff’s hand.  “I’m very pleased to meet you.”

“Private Shepard,” I said, shaking her hand.  “We’d be honoured to join you for lunch.”

Her house was just opposite the war memorial.  As we walked, I was hit by an unhappy thought.  “Ma’am, do pierogi contain eggs?” I asked.

“Of course they do, they’re dumplings,” she answered.

Damn.  “I can’t eat them,” I said.  “I have an egg allergy.”

“And yet she refused to take any genetic enhancements,” Bridget said.  “Jane Shepard everyone, martyr for the weak, the short, the asthmatic and the stupid.”

“Get stuffed, Fredrich,” I mumbled.

Mrs Karskoff’s house had Alliance flags hanging everywhere.  On her kitchen wall was a portrait of Prime Minister Du Plessis, and underneath that was a picture of a man in a naval dress uniform.

“It’s my husband,” she said, seeing me look.  “He’s fighting in the war.  We’re very proud of him.  He’s helping keep us humans safe.”

Her two daughters, both still dressed in their Triple A uniforms, were already sitting at the table.  Mrs Karskoff introduced them as Saskia (the older, who was about ten), and Alexandre (the younger, who looked to be seven).

“Can I make you anything?” Mrs Karskoff asked me.

“I’m good,” I said.  “I’ll just have of the vegetables, thanks.”

It was a strange afternoon.  When we got back to the compound that evening, I wrote an email to Ash.

‘Dear Ash,

‘I’ve landed safely in destination secret.  I can’t tell you where it is, but what I can say is that it’s full of Russians and Poles, and the krogan are mad because we colonised this planet.  My squad mates are all very weird.  There’s this bloke who’s eighty-something and has been in the marines for sixty six years.  He’s apparently been posted here for that entire time.  There’re a set of identical twins that say everything at the same time, and no one can tell them apart.  I suggested that they try giving them different watches.  The service chief said she’s already tried this, but they both show up.  At least Fredrich is here.  She’s the one sane beacon in a sea of insanity.  At least I haven’t been shot at yet, and no one’s tried shooting at me.

‘We had lunch with one of the civilians in this town.  She made pierogi (which is apparently full of egg, so I’ve no idea what it’s like), which Fredrich said was delicious.  It was a strange afternoon.  She and her two daughters are mad about the Alliance.  When we told her that this was our first deployment, she seemed disappointed.  She also said that the soldiers here must really love it because they stay here for a very long time.  Little she knows!

Anyway, I have to go.  It’s nearly time for evening parade.

Stay safe.

Jane.’

.....

The next morning reveille woke us up at five o’clock.  “Why did we have to wake at four in training if we get an hour’s extra sleep here?” Bridget asked as we waited in line to shower.

“I don’t know,” I answered.  “Maybe they wanted us to love frontline service, but figured that the only way to do that was to make training worse than frontline service.”

Service Chief Sonye snagged us as we waited in the breakfast line.  “You two are on duty at the factory at six,” she said.  “You’ll be relieved this evening sometime.”

“Do we have time to eat our breakfast?” I asked, looking down at my porridge and apples.

She shrugged.  “If you want to, by all means go ahead, Roland,” she answered.

“First Ken, now Roland,” I said irritably once Service Chief Sonye had walked off.  “Do I look like a boy?”

“Well, you’re sort of flat chested like a boy,” Bridget answered.  “Also, you’re quite boyish in your mannerisms.”

“Thanks a lot,” I mumbled.

“No, it’s definitely a compliment,” Bridget said.  “Most girls are annoying as crap.”

We bolted our breakfast down, and rushed back to our room to put our armour on and to pick up our weapons, after which went to the Mako and waited.  Eventually, at five to seven, the twins showed up.  “Where the hell were you two?” I asked.

They shrugged.  “It’s alright,” they said.  “The night watch can wait.  The workers only show up at eight in any case.”

“Ok,” I said.  “Shall we go then?”

“I can drive,” Bridget offered.  She saw me look at her.  “One of my many jobs was a dump truck driver,” she said.  “Can’t be all that different.”

“Shouldn’t we wait for the artillery relief though?” I asked.

“He’s probably already there,” the twins said.  “The artillery unit here is very organised.”

“No kidding,” I mumbled.  “Alright then, Fredrich if you’re driving, can I pray first?”

“Oh ha ha, very funny,” Bridget mumbled.

I climbed into the truck.  “Are you religious?” the twins asked as Bridget started the Mako, selected first gear, and stalled.

“Yes,” I said.  “Why, are you two?”

“No,” they said.  “We’re Goths.  We would put red highlights in our hair, only the Alliance would never allow it.”

“Damn Alliance,” I mumbled.  The truck stalled twice more.  “Are you sure you up to this, Fredrich?” I asked.

“The clutch bite is higher than I’m used to,” Bridget said.  On her fourth attempt we started moving.  We reached a bend in the road, and she started turning the wheel.  “Holy crap, what do they design these for, sumo wrestlers?” she groaned, driving us into a ditch.

“On the plus side, we’re already late, so a few more minutes won’t make much difference,” I said.

“Shut up, Shepard,” she snapped.  “Where’s reverse?”

“Next to first,” the twins explained.

“Why the hell would they put it there?” Bridget mumbled.  “Stupid French idiots.  That’s why the Germans make the best cars.”

“You know you’re dating one of those stupid French idiots?” I asked as we started moving backwards.

We finally made it to the factory at half past seven, Bridget having refused to drive faster than five miles an hour.

“So glad you could make it,” Lieutenant Cuthbert said.  “I’ve only been on duty since yesterday morning.”

He seemed alright, so I offered him a tentative smile.  His three watch mates however, did not seem alright.  One was totally bald, one had a tattoo covering half her face and one was emaciated.  Oh well.

“Privates Shepard and Fredrich,” Lieutenant Cuthbert said.  “Meet Privates Amao, Lankes and Bauer.”

We nodded our hellos.  “Do you know what you’re doing here?” he asked.

“Standing around and looking pretty?” I suggested.

He smiled tolerantly.  “You need to search everyone as they come in,” he said.  “They need to go through the metal detector and put any bags through the scanner.  One of the twins will use the biometric identifier, and one of you must sit by the voice scanner.  Once they’ve gone through all that, they can go inside.”

“I’ll sit by the voice scanner,” I said at once.

He nodded.  “Alright,” he said.  “Look, I know it’s a bit weird here, but you’ll get used to it, I promise.”

I smiled gratefully.  “Thanks,” I said.  He really seemed like an island of sanity amongst all the crazy.

“You’re welcome,” he said.  He paused.  “Do either of you play Hoopball?”

.....

The voice scanner was pretty cool.  I tested it on myself first.  “Jane Tina Shepard, 6103120257078,” I said into it.  It beeped and my name and ID photo flashed across the screen.

At eight exactly the factory workers showed up.  Once I’d confirmed they were who they said they were, there was nothing much left for us to do but sit and chat.

“So, you’re Goths,” I said to the twins.

“So?” they asked.

“I’m just surprised,” I said.  “I didn’t know anyone was still a Goth these days.  Most people are tramps.”

Tramp was the style that was fashionable at the time.  It mainly involved wearing skimpy clothing, having piercings and tattoos and dying one’s hair unnatural colours.

“Of course not,” they said indignantly.  “Do we look like slags?”

“Remains to be seen,” I said.  “So far you haven’t done anything in your underwear, so the jury’s out.”

They nodded sagely.  “Yes, Service Chief Sonye and Corporal Toombs are fond of showing off the family jewels,” they said.

“That’s putting it mildly,” I mumbled.

.....

A week later I was posted for the first time to the observation post.  I was posted with Operations Chief Jamal and a young gunner called Lance Bombardier Adler.  “So what exactly do we have to do?” I asked once I’d been assigned the bed under the lowest part of the trench’s roof.

“You guard me whilst I look at these monitors,” Lance Bombardier Adler said.  “One of you gets to sleep during the day, the other sleeps at night.  The one who is on night watch looks at the monitors and if you see anything change, you wake me up and tell me.”

“Sounds simple enough,” I said.  “How do we decide who gets which watch?”

“I get the day watch since I’m older than you,” Operations Chief Jamal said at once.  “I also outrank you.”

This was true and gave me very little room to manoeuvre.  “Fair enough,” I said.

I took the plating off of my armour so that I could sleep more comfortably and lay down on the camp bed.  The entire thing sagged under my weight.  I hoped that it wouldn’t collapse.

Maybe because I’d just woken up, I couldn’t really get to sleep, so instead I contemplated what my first week on Akuze had been like.  It seemed that there was no proper timetable here.  Meals were served when they were ready, you went on duty when Service Chief Sonye decided that whoever was on duty deserved to be relieved, you were likewise relieved when Service Chief Sonye decided to send someone along to relieve you.  You also had no idea what kind of duties you would be given.  In the past week, I had cleaned the engine on the Mako, done inventory in the armoury and washed all the linen of the unit.

I hated it.  I couldn’t believe that I had almost single-handedly stopped the destruction of the Alliance (through admittedly underhanded tactics), and my reward was to sit in a colony with very little chance of upward mobility, forced to be the servant of a group of lunatics, and not so much a thank you from anyone.

I fell asleep somewhere close to midday, only to be woken up two hours later by Lance Bombardier Adler.  “I want to smoke,” he said.  “Keep an eye on the monitors.  I don’t trust him.  Call me on my omnitool if there are any changes.”

“Right,” I said.

Operations Chief Jamal waited until Lance Bombardier Adler had climbed out of the trench before saying, “Alone at last.”

“Er, what?” I asked, not sure if I’d heard correctly.

“Come on, sugar, I know you want to,” he said, leering at me.

“Call me sugar again and you’ll wish you hadn’t,” I said coldly.

“Oh, I know under that ice queen exterior burns a woman full of life,” he said, running his hand up my leg.

I slapped it away.  “I have a boyfriend-,” I began.

“And I have a wife,” he said.  “I haven’t seen her in four years and I’m not sure if she’s still alive, but the point remains.”

“And even if I didn’t, I wouldn’t go for you,” I continued.  “I’m eighteen.  You’re eighty two.  That’s like a-,” there was an awkward pause as I tried to do the mental math.  “A huge gap,” I finished lamely.

“Sixty four years,” Operations Chief Jamal said quietly.

“Exactly,” I said.  “Do you have any idea how gross and creepy that is?  Even making it with my grandfather wouldn’t be that gross.  He’s only seventy four.”

“So, what’s a couple of years?” he asked.

“Sixty four years isn’t a couple of years,” I said.  “That’s more than a salarian lifetime.”

“The others didn’t mind,” he said obstinately.

“What others?” I asked distracted.

“Sonye, Gonzalez, Bauer, the twins,” he said.

“Wait, you had sex with the twins?” I asked.  He nodded.  “So, who’s who?”

He shrugged.  “It was a threesome,” he said.  “They made the same noises at the same time.  Even when I wasn’t touching one, she would cry and writhe like her sister.  Hurry it up, even my quickies are pretty darn long.”

I tried desperately not to imagine this.  I wasn’t having success.  “So, you’ve slept with every single woman in the unit?” I asked.

“Well, everyone in the unit except you and the dyke,” he said.

I laughed.  “News from 2066,” I said.  “No one uses those words anymore.  Nobody cares about sexual orientation, race or gender anymore, because we’ve found a galaxy full of things that are different from us and thus easier for us to hate.  And I’ll only have sex with you when hell freezes over, and probably not even then.”

“You’ll regret that,” he said warningly.

“Maybe,” I said.  “Chances are, it’ll probably be bottom of my list of regret, so I’ll just ignore it.”

When Lance Bombardier Adler got back, I turned my omnitool and opened Cat’s Eye, the book I was busy reading.  For the first time since I’d arrived at Akuze, I was happy.  I may not be able to control how crappy my deployment was, I would probably not be able to control the crazy behaviour of my squad mates, but I was able to control how I would react to them. 

And in a way, that made all the difference in the galaxy.

Chapter Text

Letter from Kaidan.

‘Dear Jane,

‘So, here I am in war-torn (name withheld due to breach of classification, D-Company Com Officer).  I thought I’d seen everything before I even started at Del Sol, but the past two months have shown me how wrong I was.  I never thought two supposedly sentient species were capable of committing such atrocities against each other.

‘My company isn’t all that bad.  They’re all very young (of course, I’m the youngest), and they seem nice enough, if quite jaded.  We do a lot of (withheld due to sensitivity of information, D-Company Com Officer), which is interesting, since I’ve never done anything like this before.  The biotics have helped in many a hairy situation.  My commander, Commander (name withheld due to breach of classification, D-Company Com Officer), has even started making me (withheld due to sensitivity of information, D-Company Com Officer).

‘So, anyway, that’s life on the fleet.  How’re things on the colonies?  Are you coping better with the weird procedure?

‘I miss you every day, Janey.  Can’t wait to see you again.

‘Lots of love, Kaidan.

‘PS, have you heard Ash recently won a major chess tournament on Earth?  I’m glad she went the chess champion route rather than the raging lunatic route.’

.....

With December came Akuze’s winter cycle.  The planet literally froze, with the temperatures plummeting to minus ten degrees Celsius.

“You were saying about the Russians and the Polish choosing the hottest planet?” Bridget asked, in the first week of December.

I was cleaning my rifle whilst she darned a pair of her socks.  We were in our barrack room.  “Well, the cold weather only lasts for two months here,” I said.  “It’s way better than eight months or whatever they had in Russia.”

“If you say so,” Bridget mumbled.

“Plus, it’s warmer than Eastern Europe, even in mid-winter,” I continued.

It was funny.  With my epiphany in my first week at Akuze, came a whole lot more happiness.  Whilst my posting itself was still pretty chaotic, I was doing my upmost to make sure that I was as stable as possibly.  I kept as far within the parameters of protocol as possible.  I sired and ma’amed where I had to, kept my equipment in good condition, followed the rules of being on duty, and made sure that the only places I was outside of my uniform was the shower and the barrack room.

Bridget however seemed to be thriving in the lack of protocol and was doing her best to make sure that she broke just about every rule there was in the Alliance military.

“So, tell me, Lumps,” I said.  “Has Old Man Jamal tried to hit on you at all?”

“Yep,” she said, starting to darn the other sock.  “It was in the showers.  I turned him down after which he called me a lezzy bitch.  Everyone laughed at him.  I don’t think he’ll be slagging me off like that again.”

Somehow word had gotten out that I’d refused Operations Chief Jamal.  Since then he had lost a lot of his power, and even Lieutenant Johannes had been seen refusing to follow some of his crazier orders.

Lieutenant Commander Gonzalez stuck her head around the door.  I sprang immediately to attention, and she regarded me with irritation.  I was the only person in the unit who regarded her with any respect, and I think she wasn’t quite sure what to do with me.

“As you were, Private,” she said.  I sat back down.  “Have any of you seen Service Chief Sonye?”

“Yes ma’am,” I said.

There was a pregnant pause.  “Well, where is she, Shepard?” Lieutenant Commander Gonzalez asked.

“Oh, you want to know where I saw her?” I asked in mock surprise.  I might be following protocol, but no one in the galaxy was going to take away my smart mouth.

“Yes, but take your time Private,” Lieutenant Commander Gonzalez said sarcastically.  “I’ve nothing better to do today but watch you be an idiot.”

“Yes ma’am,” I said.  “I saw her yesterday evening in here and again this morning in the showers.”  I braced myself for the inevitable all-night stand-to.

“For fuck sakes,” Lieutenant Commander Gonzalez bellowed.  She took a deep breath.  “I’m giving the two of you the day off tomorrow.”

“Um, what?” I asked.  She frowned.  “I mean, what, ma’am?”

“I can’t find this useless excuse of a service chief, which means I have no idea what the duty rosters look like,” she snapped.  “Take tomorrow off.”

She stormed out.

“You know, I usually get at least push-ups for cheeking a superior officer,” I said.  “This is a new form of punishment to me.  I think I like it.”

“I wouldn’t be so excited,” Bridget said.  “There’s nothing to do here.  We could go into town I suppose, and see if Mrs Karskoff will give us pierogi.  I mean, give me pierogi.”

“I have a better idea,” I said.

.....

“This is your idea of a better idea?” Bridget asked the next morning.  We were standing at the foot of the Teeth.

“Yep,” I said.  “When’s the last time you did any physical training?”

“In July, for my fitness exam at Del Sol,” Bridget said.  “And that’s the way I like it.”

“Come on, Fredrich, where’s your sense of adventure?” I asked.  “I’ve always wanted to see what the fuss over the view is about.”

“You’re crazy, Shep,” Bridget said.  “It’s minus eight degrees out here.  Even the thresher maw is asleep.”

“Chicken,” I taunted.

“Get stuffed,” she mumbled.

“Ok, you’re a stuffed chicken,” I said.  “Come on.”

By the time we were a quarter of the up the Teeth I had to agree that it was maybe not the smartest idea.  We were both freezing, despite the extra layers, and the rocks were very steep.

“We should have been roped together,” Bridget groaned.

I had discovered exactly why rock climbers always said don’t look down.  “Yeah,” I said, my heart in my mouth.  The ground fell away steeply below me.  “Don’t look down.”

“What?” she called.

“I said, don’t look down,” I said louder. 

“Thanks, Shep, I know,” she said.  “I’m not stupid.  Get a move on, will you?  My arms are killing me.”

We took a break at the next stable ledge.  “I don’t think I can do this,” I gasped.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Bridget said.  “This was your idea.”

“I know,” I said.  “It was a stupid idea.  We can go back down if you want to.”

“Fuck that,” Bridget said.  “I’ve come this far.  I’m climbing to the top of this damn thing.”

“Don’t,” I advised.

“Shepard, shut your trap,” Bridget advised.  “You can come with or stay here, it’s no skin off my neb either way.”

She climbed up.  Two hours later she was back at my side.  “Damn, you missed an amazing view,” she said, having a drink of water.  “You can see all the way to the town on one side and the thresher nest on the other.”

“Did you see the thresher maw?” I asked.

“Nope,” she answered.  “It’s asleep like all smart creatures on this planet.”

Back at the barracks, Service Chief Sonye stopped us.  “Where the hell have you two been?” she snapped.

“Having the day off, ma’am,” I said smartly.

“Under whose authority?” she asked.

“Lieutenant Commander Gonzalez,” I answered.  “She was mad at you or something, so she gave us the day off.”

“Whatever,” she said.  “You two need to get to the observation post ASAP.  Oh, and Roland, as you requested.”

She handed me a tinfoil origami sheep.  “Uh, thanks,” I said.

“Did you ask for a tinfoil dog?” Bridget asked quietly as we walked to the Mako.

“It’s a sheep,” I said.  “And no.”

“Sheep, huh?” Bridget asked. 

“Yeah,” I said.  “Do you think I should explain to her that my last name is Shep-ard, not Shep-herd?”

“Nah,” Bridget said.  “That’ll just confuse her.  She thinks your name is Roland.”

.....

Corporal Toombs and Lieutenant Cuthbert were on duty when we arrived at the Observation Post.

“Thank God you’ve arrived,” Corporal Toombs groaned.  “He won’t shut up about the bloody game last night.”

“Humanity was robbed last night by those fucking birds,” Lieutenant Cuthbert cried in rage.  It was the galactic Hoopball cup, and the human team had been beaten eighteen nil by the turian team.  “The ball was clearly out, yet the ref called for a play on.”

“Well, fair’s fair, sir, the turians did invent the game,” I said.  “We only started playing at a galactic level twenty two years ago.”

Technically Hoopball had been invented by both the turians and the krogan during the Rachni wars four thousand years ago.  It was the most popular sport in the galaxy, with every species but the hanar and the Collectors having a team.  It was basically a mixture of rugby, volleyball and Quidditch, the sport that was played in the early twenty first fantasy series, Harry Potter.  Of course, because both the krogan and the turians were involved in its invention, it was an extremely violent sport with a high death rate.

“Humanity has the best team it has ever had,” Lieutenant Cuthbert raged.

“Well, look at it this way,” Bridget said.  “At least you don’t have to watch the crap beaten out of them by the yahg in the quarter finals.”

The yahg were the galaxy’s newest residents.  They were huge, some of them growing to up to ten feet tall, with six eyes, thick red skin, humungousley bulky bodies, and long curved horns growing out of their heads.  Oh, and did I mention the large mouth (large enough to fit a small child into), with razor sharp teeth?

“The yahg aren’t through to the quarter finals yet,” Lieutenant Cuthbert said.

I snorted.  “They’re playing the quarians,” I said.  “The odds of them losing to the quarians are slim to none.”

The quarians were a nomadic species that were forced to live in pressure suits owing to the fact that they had an incredibly low immune system.  Literally, a second of exposure to the open air could be fatal.

“Enough,” Corporal Toombs snapped.  “Let’s get back to the base.  I’m sick to death of bloody Hoopball.”

Bridget and I chose who would be on night watch in the time-honoured way.  Drawing lots.  I won.

“Sometimes I really hate you Shep,” Bridget muttered, getting into bed.

“Come on, I’m a four foot eleven asthmatic who’s allergic to eggs,” I said cheerfully.  “I have to win sometimes.  Sleep well.”

The day was boring.  I wrote emails to Ash, Kaidan and Jason, then spent the rest of the afternoon downloading every single song that Counting Crows had ever written (a late twentieth- early twenty first century folk band that I had recently discovered).  At six o’clock Bridget relieved Lance Bombardier Adler and myself.  I went to bed close to midnight, but not before praying to God for some relief from the boredom.

.....

My prayers were answered two hours later by a loud cry of “Fire.”

I woke up to see the trench was full of smoke.  “What’s happening?” I mumbled, sitting up.

“The fucking terminals caught fire,” Bridget screamed.  “Get up now.  Adler, on your feet.”

“How the hell did the terminals catch fire?” I screamed in return, trying to fight my way out of my bed sheets.

“How the hell should I know?” Bridget screamed in return in return.

“One of the wires must have shorted,” Lance Bombardier Adler said.

“Who gives a fuck?” Bridget screamed.  “If you two want to stand here hypothesising, go ahead.  I’m getting out of here.”

Good idea.  I grabbed my BOL and my weapons, and followed her outside, Lance Bombardier Adler hot on my heels (not literally, thank God).  Once outside I had the mother of all asthma attacks.

“You alright?” Bridget asked dryly when I was breathing normally again.

“Yeah,” I said, straightening.  “Thanks for asking.”

The trench burned merrily behind us.  “Will one of you jarheads please call the base for transportation and a fire extinguisher?” Lance Bombardier Adler snapped.  “I took my omnitool off before going to sleep.”

“Me too,” I said.  “Looks like you’re it, Fredrich.”

“Wonderful,” Bridget mumbled.  “Hello base camp, do you read me?”  There was no answer.  “Hello base camp, this is observation post, do you read me?”  She repeated this exercise three times.  “For the love of God, is there anyone there?” she shouted.  “Who was meant to be on duty in the com room?” she asked me.

“How the bloody hell should I know?” I asked.  The fire crackled merrily behind me.  “I think it was old man Jamal.”

“You know, this is why I never joined the Marine Corps,” Lance Bombardier Adler said conversationally.

“Who the fuck asked you?” Bridget snapped.  “Listen here, you old fucker, get your arse into gear now.  We’ve burned the observation post down and we need someone to come put the damn fire out and get us out of here,” she shouted into her omnitool.

I could see God sitting in His throne on Cloud Nine, chuckling and saying, “Young Jane Shepard, My little lamb, you asked for this.”

“Very funny,” I snapped in his direction.

“Listen here, you old codger, our armour was burned in the fire,” Bridget shouted.  “All three of us are naked.”

“I’ll send backup immediately,” Operation Chief Jamal said over the radio.

“Dirty old man,” Bridget mumbled.

The backup finally arrived at dawn, by which the fire had merrily crackled itself into a death. “I thought you said you were naked,” Operations Chief Jamal said in disappointed as he jumped out of the Mako (more sort of limped.  The dude was eighty two after all).

“Yes, and it’s a good thing we’re wearing our armour, or else we would all be dead from exposure,” Bridget snapped.  “What the hell took you so long?”

“The twins went into town, got pissed and took the Mako for a joy ride,” he explained.  “Don’t worry, they will be properly reprimanded.”

I would have loved to see their courts marshal.  “Private Joshton Enswood, rise,” Major Tsin would say, and they’d both stand up.  “And Private Lee Enswood, rise,” he would continue, and they would both stay standing.

“This is no good,” he would say.  “Which is which?  Check they’re identity bracelets.”

“Their identity bracelets,” I said aloud.

“I beg your pardon?” Lance Bombardier Adler asked politely.  Bridget was still crapping on Operations Chief Jamal from a dizzying height.  Surprisingly Operations Chief Jamal seemed to be taking it with good grace, although I suppose if Bridget was looking at me like that, I would too.

“I know how to find out which twin is which,” I said excitedly.

“Private, I have a list of problems that stretches from here to the galactic core,” Lance Bombardier Adler said.  “Top of the list is getting my hands on new equipment for the observation post sometime before Remembrance Day, planning my wedding without actually being on the same planet as my fiancée, and finding a way to get transferred to a colony where there’s actually some stability.  Finding out the true identity of the Enswood twins is at the very bottom of that list.”

“Couldn’t you request a transfer?” I asked.

“I have,” Lance Bombardier Adler said.  “Five times.  I’m almost certain that Communications Officer Carter hasn’t sent them off yet.”

.....

Lieutenant Commander Gonzalez was waiting for us at the base camp.  “What the hell happened?” she snapped.  “You lost ten billion credits’ worth of equipment.  How the fuck did this happen?”

“It was an act of God, ma’am,” I said.

“No, it wasn’t, God doesn’t exist,” Bridget said.

“It was, I was bored, and asked God for some entertainment,” I said.  “I think it was a practical joke.”

“Your god has a sick sense of humour if that was his idea of a joke,” Bridget snapped.  “Adler thinks that one of the wires must have shorted out, causing them to catch fire,” she explained.

“Who’s Adler?” Lieutenant Commander Gonzalez asked in confusion.

“For the love of God, is everyone incompetent around here?” Bridget snapped.  “She’s the gunner that was on duty with us.”

“Watch your tone, Private,” Lieutenant Commander Gonzalez said angrily.

“Yes ma’am,” Bridget mumbled.

“Now, I need you two to do an inventory of our ammunition and grenades, reports to be on my desk by midday, sol,” Lieutenant Commander Gonzalez said.

“Where’s the gunny?” I asked.

“MIA,” she said gloomily.  “It’s starting to get concerning.  Dismissed.”

“Too right it’s concerning,” I mumbled as we walked away.  “How many people must go missing before they start getting concerned?”

“If you ask me, they packed their bags and took the first flight out of here,” Bridget said.  “That’s what I’m thinking of doing in any case.”

“I know how you feel,” I said.

“I swear, I might just request to be made N1,” Bridget said.  “There’s only so much of this crazy fucking place I can take.”

“I thought you were liking it here,” I said in surprise.

She shrugged.  “If you can’t beat them, join them,” she said.  Fair enough.  I hadn’t thought of that.

“Well, you can request a transfer, but I doubt the Military Council will get it,” I said.  “They’re not the most efficient people here.”

.....

That afternoon, after we’d gotten the inventory report onto Lieutenant Gonzalez’s desk, we took part in another activity that, in my opinion far better served the Alliance, the practice of Military Sleeping.  We were woken up late in the afternoon by the sounds of screams.

“What the?” I mumbled, sitting up.  Bridget continued to snore in her bed.  I got up and went over to her.  “Fredrich,” I whispered.

“What is it?” she asked in an undertone.

“Listen,” I said.  At that moment the air-raid sounded out.

“Shit,” Bridget said, springing out of bed.  Together we rushed outside.

We couldn’t see more than a few feet ahead of us.  The air was full of dust.  The screams kept going, but we couldn’t see anyone.

“The batarians?” Bridget whispered.

“I don’t know,” I answered.  “We should get to the shelter.”

We set off in the direction I hoped was the shelter.  A few paces later I tripped over something on the ground and landed hard on my front.

“Shepard?” Bridget called.

“I’m ok,” I said, getting to my feet again.  I went over to the thing that I’d tripped over.

The body was lying on his front.  I turned it over.  Its face was grey and rotting away.  So bad was the disfigurement that it took me a while to recognise him.

“Toombs,” Bridget said.  That’s when I saw he was stirring feebly.  “Is it-?”

“Sh,” I whispered.  “Listen.”

Above the sounds of screams and the siren was louder, higher scream.  I looked down and saw that Toombs had stopped moving.  The loud scream moved closer to us.  “We need to go,” I shouted at Bridget, straightening.

As I turned, I felt something splatter against my left cheek.  “Shepard,” Bridget began.

“Come on,” I shouted, grabbing her hand, and pulling her away from the base camp, away from the screams.

To this day, the question haunts me still.  Why did I run?  Why did I leave them behind?

The answer, I suppose, is simple.  I didn’t want to die.

.....

“Shepard, where are we going?” Bridget shouted when we’d left the base camp behind.

Good question.  Until then I’d sort of been focusing on getting away.  “My omnitool burnt to death,” I said.  “Are you wearing yours?”

She shook her head.  I slowed to a stop as the full realisation of our situation hit me.  I was dressed in the hoodie and panty I’d worn to bed.  Bridget was wearing a T-shirt and a pair of tracksuit pants.  Whilst this day was slightly warmer than the previous days had been, it was still sub-zero temperatures.  Neither of us were wearing omnitools, and a thresher maw was busy killing off all the soldiers in the area, and would probably move on to the town next.

My cheek burned as though someone had thrown acid onto it, and I raised my hand to touch it.  “No,” Bridget said.  “Don’t.”

“Is it-?” I began, not wanting to finish the sentence.  She nodded.  I started trembling.

Thresher venom was slow acting and I’d probably have several hours of agony before I died.

“It’s working faster than it should though,” she said.  “Your face shouldn’t look like that yet.”

No.  no no no.  Please, God, I can’t die yet.  My breath was coming out in gasps.  “Jane, listen to me, you can’t fall apart,” Bridget shouted.  “I need you to stay calm.”

I forced my breath to slow down.  “Sorry,” I said.  “You’re right.  Sorry.”

“I can maybe slow the poison down,” Bridget continued in a lower voice.  “I just need a first-aid kit.”

“The factory,” I said.  “It’s about half past six, sol.  The night-watchman should be wearing an omnitool, and there’ll be a first-aid kit there.”

Bridget nodded, and set off in the direction of the factory.  I forced myself to stay silent even as the pain in my face flared higher.

We reached the factory as the sun set.  By that stage the siren and the human screams had cut off, and the only sound was that of the thresher maw screaming.  The walls around the factory yard had been knocked over by something very large.

“Hello?” Bridget called softly.  “Is there anyone there?”

“Over there,” I whispered, pointing to a slumped figure in the corner of the yard.

She ran to it and turned it over.  “Fuck,” she mumbled.

I went to her and looked over her shoulder.  The stripes on her armour showed it to be Service Chief Sonye.  The skin on her face had completely rotted away, and her scalp was in the process of falling off.

“Get her omnitool,” I whispered.  Bridget nodded and unstrapped the omnitool from Service Chief Sonye’s wrist.  She hesitated, then pulled the earpiece from Sonye’s ear.

The ear came away in her hand.  My stomach lurched.  Bridget turned and was quietly sick.  She straightened and seemed to freeze.

“What is it?” I asked.

“The Mako,” she whispered, pointing to the truck standing in the middle of the yard.  “We can take shelter in there.  There should be a first-aid kit inside.”

I nodded and followed her over to the Mako.  We found Private Amao’s body next to it, his face rotted away like Toombs and Sonye’s.  Bridget helped me into the back of the Mako, and started scratching around in one of the storage cabins.

“I have the first-aid kit,” she said.  “There’s no sedative.”

“It doesn’t matter,” I said impatiently.  “What are you going to do?”

“I’m going to cut the rotting flesh away,” Bridget said.  “It won’t stop the poison that’s already in your blood stream, but it’ll slow the spread down.”  She hesitated.  “There’s a good chance I could kill you, Shepard.”

“The poison killed Sonye, Amao and Toombs,” I said.  “You said it yourself, it’s faster acting than normal thresher poison.  I could be dead before reinforcements arrive.  I’ll take my chances with you.”

She nodded.  “There’s a datapad here if you want to write a message to anyone,” she said quietly.  I held my hand out and she passed the datapad to me. 

There’s something wrong with a galaxy that forces an eighteen year old to write her farewell messages.  That’s what I thought as I typed my message up.

“I’m done,” I said, handing it back to her.  She stowed the datapad carefully in the first-aid kit.

“I don’t have a sedative for you, Jane,” she said. 

I nodded.  “Where do you want me?” I asked.

She made me lie down on one of the benches in the back of the Mako, my left cheek upturned.  “This is going to hurt,” she said.  “Don’t fight passing out.”

“Ok,” I said.  “Fredrich…Bridget, I-,”  I didn’t know what to say, so I reached up and squeezed her hand.

“It’ll be ok,” she said, squeezing back.  “Hush now.”  She took a deep breath.  “Making first incision,” she said softly.

At first all I could feel was the pressure of the scalpel against my face, then I felt the pain.  I bit hard on my tongue as blood ran down my face, soaking into my hair and hoodie.  It was with gratitude that I finally fell into blackness.

.....

It was completely dark when I opened my eyes.  Bridget had covered me in the truck’s emergency blanket.  My face and tongue both felt swollen, and my head ached dully.  “You’re awake,” Bridget said tiredly, seeing my eyes open.

“Yeah,” I whispered.

“I got as much as the flesh as I could,” she said.  “You were bleeding badly, but I’ve put medigel over the wound, so with luck you should be ok for a few hours.”

“Thanks,” I said, sitting slowly up.  My limbs felt heavy and complained when I tried moving them too fast.  “When’s the extraction coming?”

“The radio’s dead,” Bridget said dully.  “The thresher maw must have knocked the satellite dish over or something.  I can’t get through.  The next town is a day’s drive away.”

“Any sign of the thresher maw?” I asked.

She shook her head.  “I activated the truck’s sensors,” she said.  “If it comes within a two mile radius of us, we’ll know.  We should probably try to get to the next town, but I daren’t drive in the dark.  If we run into it, we’ll be sitting ducks.”

“How long do I have?” I asked quietly.

“I don’t know,” she snapped.  “I bought you a few hours, like I said.”

We were silent for a bit.  “You should get under here with me,” I said.  “It’s freezing.”

She nodded and climbed under the blanket with me.  “You know I’ll warm up quicker if we’re both naked,” she said, jokingly, but with a tremor in her voice.

“What, so that I can get beaten up by your girlfriend when we get out of here?” I asked.  “Guess again Fredrich.”

“I don’t want to die out here, Shepard,” she said softly.

“You won’t,” I promised.  “I’ll think of a way to get you out of here.”

“You too,” she said.  “If I get out of here, so do you.”

I was silent.  “Yeah,” I whispered at last.  “I’m not getting killed by a thresher maw, it’s insulting.”

We didn’t speak much after that.  A few hours later and the pain in my cheek started again.  “I’m sorry,” Bridget said.  “I guess I didn’t buy you that much time.”

“It’s fine,” I said shortly.  “It’s more than I had.”

An hour later though, I would’ve given anything for the pain to end.  “Maybe we should risk driving,” Bridget said worriedly.

“No,” I whispered.  “You were right, we need to make sure that thing is gone before driving.”

“How do we do that though?” Bridget said.  “I wouldn’t fancy meeting it during the day either.  I mean, killing it would obviously be the best way of knowing we’re safe, but neither of us are armed.”

That’s when I had the idea.  I got up slowly.  My head spun slightly.

“What are you doing?” Bridget asked worriedly.

“I’ve had an idea that’ll either save us or get us both killed,” I said.

“Sounds good,” Bridget said.  “Let’s hear it.”

“Wait here,” I said.

I climbed out of the Mako.  Outside it was still freezing, and I started shivering almost as soon as I started walking.  I could hear the thresher maw still screaming from the direction of base camp.

My identity code thankfully let me into the factory’s storage warehouse.  Inside I found everything that I needed.

“What the hell is that?” Bridget asked when I climbed back into the Mako half an hour later.

“This, my friend, is how we’re going to kill the thresher maw,” I said.  “To the average Joe however, it is known as a missile launcher.”

“Great,” Bridget said uncertainly.  “I don’t know how to use it.”

“I do,” I said.  “Do you want to hear my plan?”  She nodded.  “We need to lure the thresher maw to a place where we can easily shoot this thing at it,” I said.  “I was thinking the Teeth, as it is high enough for us to see the entire area.”

“Alright,” Bridget said.  “Lure it how?”

“Well, I was thinking, use the Mako,” I said.  I paused.  “Look, it’s a very dangerous plan that can go wrong in so many different ways.  Forget it.”

“No,” Bridget said.  “I know how to drive the Mako, you know how to shoot the missile launcher.  I lure the thresher maw to the bottom of the Teeth, you blow it back to hell.”

“Pretty much, yeah,” I said.  “It’s a stupid idea.”

“It is a stupid idea,” Bridget agreed.  “It’s also the only one we have.”

“You don’t seriously want to go through with it?” I asked incredulously.  “We could both die.”

“It’s better than sitting here and waiting for the thresher maw to find us,” Bridget said.  “Then when you’ve killed it, I’ll pick you up and rush you as fast as possible to the next town.”

I nodded.  “We should wait until it’s light,” I said.  “I need to be able to see what I’m shooting at.”

We were silent for the rest of the hours until dawn.  Bridget wrote a note, no doubt for Matilda, on the datapad, and applied more medigel to my cheek.  This numbed the pain there, but made me aware that the acidic burn had now spread to my neck and was moving towards my chest.

Finally, the sky started lightening.  “Ok,” Bridget said. “Are you sure you can climb?”

“Yes,” I said.  “I’ll be fine.”

“Good,” she said.  “In case I don’t make it out, Shepard, well, it’s been an honour.”

“Same here,” I said.  She put her arms around me, and we sat like that for a few minutes.

“Ok,” she said.  “You’d best get going.”

“Remember, give me an hour to get into position,” I said. 

“I will,” she said.  “Stay safe.”

“You too,” I said.  I climbed out of the Mako, and shut the door carefully behind me.  The birds were singing, and in the distance, the thresher maw was still howling.

.....

Despite the poison coursing through my veins causing my limbs to wobble, I made good time, and I reached the foot of the Teeth with forty five minutes to spare.  Unfortunately, that’s where my good fortune ended.  The cold and the fever were both making it difficult to climb.  Each time I pulled myself up, it felt like a colossal effort.  Eventually, I had to stop for a few seconds.  My head was spinning and my legs felt like they were unable to hold me up.  I gave myself one minute, before starting off again.

The going was even more difficult now.  The rocks were steeper, and my arms felt like they were breaking.

“Come on,” I growled to myself.  “Come on Jane.  Keep going.”

I reached up and grabbed a rock directly above me.  It came away in my hand.  I tried stabilizing myself with my other hand, but I was already falling.  I landed hard on my back on a ledge a few feet below me.  My breath was knocked out of me, and I stared up at the sky that was almost blue, watching in slow motion as a large rock plummeted towards me.  It landed with a large crunch on my left leg.  This time I felt the pain immediately, and let out a loud scream.  At that moment the sun pushed itself over the horizon.

When I could, I sat up.  The rock had rolled off of my leg again and continued down the slope.  My leg had been crushed under the rock, and was bleeding badly.

“On your feet,” I whispered.  I pulled myself upright and vomited against the rock face.  I wiped my mouth on my sleeve.  “Climb,” I said quietly.

Strangely, all the pain had left me with the vomit, and I was able to climb the rest of the way relatively easily.  I knew that I was too late, when I reached the top, that Bridget had already driven to fetch the thresher maw.  Hopefully she was still alive.

The thresher maw was circling around the base of the Teeth when I looked over the edge.  There was no sign of the Mako.  It was then that I got to truly appreciate how big the thresher maw really was.  She could easily have wrapped herself around me and squeezed me into nothing.

I armed the missile launcher and stepped up the edge.  The thresher maw had obviously decided there was nothing there for her to eat, because she had turned back to in the direction of the base, moving out of my range.

“Hey,” I screamed as loudly as I could.  The thresher maw paused.  “Hey,” I screamed again.  “I’m over here, you idiot.  Hey, earthworm.  This way.  You know you want to eat me.”

She turned slowly, throwing up a lot of dust as she did so.  “That’s right,” I screamed.  “Come on.  This way.”

She was back in my range.  I took a deep breath, aimed carefully and pulled the trigger.

The kick of the missile launcher threw me onto my back again.  The pain from all the punishment that my body had been through the past day came flooding back as I heard the missile explode somewhere below me.

I tried sitting up, but my head felt heavy.  I thought I saw a shuttle appear above me as I lost consciousness, but it might have been wishful thinking.

Chapter Text

I was surprised when I woke up.  For some reason, I hadn’t been expecting to.  When I did, I didn’t immediately open my eyes, instead trying to work out where I was from what I heard and felt.  I was lying in a bed that was far more comfortable than the one I slept in in the barracks at Akuze.  My limbs felt heavy, and my lungs ached.  I decided that I must have had a bout of pneumonia and was recovering in a hospital somewhere.

I opened my eyes.  I was indeed in a hospital somewhere.  The machines that were plugged into me confirmed it.  A burly, dark man was sitting next to my bed, reading something on a datapad.  It took me a while to recognise him as Commander Anderson.

“Sir?” I croaked out, trying to sit up.  He looked up.

“Are you really awake this time, Ken, or are you pretending again?” he asked brusquely. 

“Have I pretended to be awake before?” I asked in confusion.  My fever must have been very high.

“More or less,” he answered.  “Your eyes would be open, but not much was going on in that old noggin of yours.  You know, pretty much what you’re like every day, except you kept saying we have to go back.”

“Back where?” I asked, even more confused now.

“Oh Christ,” Commander Anderson groaned.  “I’ve told you about eight times now, and you still don’t remember.”

“Remember what?” I asked quietly.  I knew the answer to that question was going to be bad.

“Ok, Shepard, do you remember why you’re here?” he asked.

“I had a lung infection,” I said, trying to sit up again.  “Why can’t I move my leg?”

“Don’t try to get up, Shepard,” he said.  “You hurt your leg badly.  For the moment it doesn’t have much mobility.”

Then I remembered falling, the rock crushing my leg.  “Did Bridget make it?” I whispered.

“I’m sorry,” he said quietly.

I started crying.  He patted my shoulder awkwardly.  “There there,” he said, looking at the opposite wall.

“I wanted her to live,” I said when the tears stopped.  I wiped my face on the blanket.

“Of course you did,” he said.  “Now please remember me telling you this.  I don’t think I can handle telling you again.”  I nodded.  “Your brother will be glad to hear that you’re awake.  We finally persuaded him to go home when he started talking to the walls.”

“Where am I?” I asked.

“Huerta Memorial on the Citadel,” Commander Anderson said.  “It’s the best hospital in the galaxy.  You needed specialised surgery on your leg and face.”  He got up.  “I need to get home,” he said.  “Take care of yourself, Shepard.”

“Thank you sir,” I said.  He was almost at the door when I asked, “Why are you here sir?”

“Long story, Ken,” he said.  “I’ll tell you later.”

.....

I was told later what had happened.  The civilians in the town had heard the noises from the base, and tried to call the base to find out if this was a training exercise.  That’s when they noticed the satellite was down.  The mayor had then called the base at Marxburgh on the landline and asked them to notify the Granada, the ship that patrolled the Dranek system.  The ship had sent a shuttle, but found they couldn’t land anywhere near the base, owing to all the dust that the thresher maw was sending up.  They only managed to land at dawn, when Bridget drew the thresher maw away in the Mako.  when they landed, they found the bodies of all the staff at the base, but saw that, for whatever reason, the thresher maw had kept its destruction purely at the base, and had not moved on to the town.  When they saw the explosion of me blowing the thresher maw up, they sent a shuttle to investigate, and found me lying on the top of the Teeth.

.....

That afternoon, my old social worker, Elizabeth Fischer, came to visit me.  She had been the social worker at Del Sol when she had still been a student.  She had helped me a great deal, using admittedly unethical practices, which had led to her being banned from being my social worker ever again.  She was tall, with light brown hair, blue eyes and a curvy figure.

“I thought you weren’t allowed to see me again,” I said when she came into my room.

She shrugged.  “Even though I’m not your social worker anymore, I still care about you,” she said.  “My treatment of you at Del Sol wasn’t just unhealthy for you, I guess.”  She sat down.  “How do you feel?” she asked.

I shrugged.  “My leg hurts,” I said.  “My face too.”

“Uh huh,” Elizabeth said.  “And how do you feel on the inside?”

“I thought you weren’t my social worker anymore?” I mumbled.

She smiled ruefully.  “Sorry, occupational hazard,” she said.  “Have you seen the hospital councillor yet?”  I shook my head.  “Well, she’s very good.  Her name is Dr Jeyral, an asari, but she did her dissertation on human trauma.”

“I don’t want to see a councillor,” I whispered stubbornly.

She sighed.  “Jane,” she said.  “I thought we’d gotten past this.”

“I’m fine,” I said.  “I just need to get better here, and then I’ll be fit for active duty.”

“You’re not fine,” Elizabeth said.  “What happened down there was horrible.  It’s going to have severe psychological ramifications that, if they are not dealt with now, will become a problem for you later.”

“I’m good at suppressing unpleasant things,” I snapped.  “I don’t want to see a shrink.”

“God, you’re impossible,” Elizabeth groaned.  “See her as a favour to me, Jane.”

“I’m not falling for that one again,” I said.

“Alright, how about this one?” Elizabeth asked.  “You won’t be allowed back into the army unless a ‘shrink’ says you’re not psychologically scarred.”

“Fine,” I snapped.  “I’ll see her.”

“There we go,” Elizabeth said.

“And I’ll hate every second of it,” I continued.

“No doubt about that,” Elizabeth said.  “But, I also know that it’ll help you a great deal.”  She paused.  “I need to get back to work,” she said.  “I’m glad you got out of there, Jane.”

“I guess someone has to be,” I whispered.

.....

Dr Jeyral was a paler blue than most other asari, and her eyes were dark brown.  She seemed to be in her late thirties (in asari years, in human years she would have been close to four hundred years old).  She came to see me just after supper.

“So, Private Shepard,” she said in English, sitting down.  “How are you feeling?”

I considered not answering, but realised that if I had any chance of being discharged, I needed to cooperate.

“Fine,” I snapped.  Well, sort of cooperate.

“Mm hmm,” she answered.  “The doctors say you’re refusing to eat.”

Both my lunch and my supper had consisted of a runny soupy, porridgy thing, no doubt because it hurt to move my mouth too much.

“I’m not hungry,” I said.  “Also, my mouth hurts like a mofo.  Where’s Jason?  How come he hasn’t been to see me yet?”

“The doctors want me to ascertain whether or not you’re fit for visitors,” Dr Jeyral said.

“Commander Anderson and Elizabeth came to see me,” I pointed out.

“Commander Anderson is one of your superior officers,” Dr Jeyral said.  “And Elizabeth Fischer was your previous councillor.  Whilst her practices may well have been unethical, I believe she did make a considerable difference in the way you view yourself and the world.”

“I guess,” I shrugged.  “I’m going to say the same thing I told Elizabeth once.  Write a report saying I’m fine so that I can get out of this hell hole.”

She sighed.  “I wish it was that easy, Private Shepard, I really do,” she said.  “However, you went through an extremely traumatic experience on Akuze.”

“I’ve been through traumatic experiences before,” I said.  “I’m sure Elizabeth told you all about my childhood.”

“She did, but your childhood isn’t all that important right now,” Dr Jeyral said.  “I’d prefer it if we talked about Akuze.”

“I thought all you head shrinkers cared about was our childhoods,” I said.

“Private Shepard, it seems to me you’re deflecting,” she said. 

“Am I?” I asked.  “My bad.”

“Yes you are,” she said.  There was a long silence as she considered me.

“You’re not going to go away, are you?” I asked at last.

“No,” she said.  “I’m not.”

“Fine,” I sighed and told her what had happened.

She was silent for a long time after I’d finished.  “It’s interesting, Private Shepard,” she said.  “In that entire story, I sensed a great deal of anger from you.”

“Yeah, I’m angry,” I said.  “I’m angry at the Alliance for building a town right next to a thresher nest.  I’m angry at Bridget Fredrich for fucking dying on me.  And I’m angry-,” I trailed off.

“Finish your thought,” Dr Jeyral said quietly.

“I’m angry at me,” I said quietly.  “For running away.”

“You’re angry that you didn’t stay behind and help the rest of your unit?” she asked.  I nodded.  “What would’ve been different if you had?” she asked quietly.

I shrugged.  “I would’ve died,” I said.  “Probably.  I was unarmed and injured.”

“Would that have been better than this?” Dr Jeyral asked.

“Anything is better than this,” I whispered.

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“I ran,” I said.  “I was scared and I ran.  I’m a fucking coward.”

“You think wanting to stay alive makes you a coward?”

“Just after I started at Del Sol, we had a Disciplinary Procedure to teach us not to be cowards, to follow the orders of our superiors without question,” I said.

“Did a superior command you to go back?” she asked.  When I didn’t answer, she asked, “Are you religious?”

I frowned.  “Yeah, I’m Catholic,” I said.

“I don’t know much about human religions,” she admitted.  “What is the Catholic religion like?”

“Well, we believe in God, and believed His son, Jesus, was our prophet,” I said.

“I see,” Dr Jeyral said.  “And do Catholics believe in an afterlife?”

“Yes,” I said.  “Well several afterlives really.  The one we all aspire to is heaven.”

“So, let’s say hypothetically, you had died on Akuze, and you were sitting in heaven-,” she began.

“I wouldn’t be in heaven,” I interrupted.  “I’d definitely go to hell.”

“What’s hell?” she asked.

“The other extreme,” I answered.

“Very well,” she said.  “Say you were in hell.  What would you miss most about being alive?”

I shrugged.  “I don’t know,” I said tiredly.

“Well, then that’s my homework to you,” she said.  “Write a list of all the things you’d miss if you were dead.  I’ll tell the doctors you’re ready for visitors.”

“Dr Jeyral,” I said.  “Who told Matilda Michel about Bridget Fredrich?”

“As far as I know, a notification team informed all the next of kin,” she answered.  “Were you close with Private Fredrich’s girlfriend?”

“Yes,” I said.  “I stayed with them a few times when I was on leave.”

.....

I did not sleep well that night.  I didn’t really have bad dreams per se.  It was more that every time I closed my eyes, I felt like I was falling. 

Jason visited me after breakfast.  “Commander Anderson told me you were awake,” he said.  “I would’ve come sooner, but they wanted you to see a shrink first.”

“It’s fine,” I said.  “Anderson said that you never left my bed.”

He shrugged.  “You’re the only family I have left,” he said.  “The only family that matters anyway.”  He reached his hand forward slowly and rested it on top of me.  “You were so sick,” he said quietly.  “The doctors thought at one point that you wouldn’t make it.”

“What happened?” I asked.  “The doctors won’t tell me.”

“You were full of thresher poison,” he said.  “They got the anti-venom into you in time, but then the infection spread to your lungs.”

“Damn lungs,” I said. 

He laughed.  “You know, you’re a celebrity out there,” he said.  “The Alliance hasn’t reported on what happened on Akuze, but all the other channels have.”

“What are they saying about me?” I asked. 

“That it’s a miracle that you survived,” Jason said.  “That no one would have been able to make the shot that killed the thresher maw, especially not with the injuries you had.  All the kids at the home are going nuts, saying that you were their best friend.  They all want me to get your autograph for them.  I’m not surprised though.”

“You’re not?” I asked.

“Out of the four of us, you were the survivor,” Jason said.  “You always will be.”

“That’s not true,” I protested.

“Mom told me about how, when you were born, you wouldn’t breathe,” he said.  “They kept you on a ventilator for six months, until you were big enough for the lung operation.  You kept going, despite all the crap Dad threw at you, and all the shit you probably went through at Del Sol.  And you’ll get through this too, I know it.”

After Jason had left, I asked one of the nurses to bring me my datapad, which had been salvaged, along with my weapons, armour and BOL, from the base.  On it, I opened a new document, and typed out, ‘If I had died, I would have missed seeing my little brother, Jason, growing up.’  Just admitting that I wanted to be alive made me feel worse, and yet, at exactly the same time, a whole lot better.

.....

Three days later, the story of what happened on Akuze aired on the Alliance News Network.  The day before, the dressing on my cheek had been removed, and the doctors showed me the resulting scar.  They had actually done a good job.  The scar was long, stretching from the left corner of my lip along my cheek, to my ear.  Whilst not being exactly pretty to look at, it did make my face look older than ten.

“Looks like I’ll finally be able to get into clubs without bouncers asking for my ID,” I remarked, examining my face in the mirror.

Nurse Devine, one of the few human nurses that worked in the hospital, was sitting with me, when the news came on.  I’d been watching The Smartest Species in the Galaxy which happened to be her favourite TV program as well (the salarians won again.  They always won.  Everyone knew they were the smartest species in the galaxy).

Anyway, the news report came on after The Smartest Species in the Galaxy.  “Good evening and welcome to the Alliance News Network,” the news reader said.  “I am Elias Spurgeon, and this is the news at four.  In our top story this afternoon, an Alliance army base was destroyed earlier this month on Akuze.  On the evening of the fourteenth of December, a thresher maw allegedly left its nest and went on a rampage in the Dziekuje army base, killing all but one of the personnel employed there.  For more on the story, we go to our reporter on Arcturus station.”

The news report jumped to a man standing in front of an Alliance flag in the Arcturus command centre.  “It is unclear exactly what caused the thresher maw to leave its nest, or indeed why it only focused on killing the soldiers, and did not move on to the residential area,” he said.  “According to the spokesperson for the Alliance Joint Military Council, twenty marines, twenty five artillery soldiers and five support staff were at the Dziekuje army base.  We are unable to release their names yet, out of respect to the families of the victims.

“Yet out of this story of tragedy, comes a tale of heroism and bravery,” he continued.  “Eighteen year old Private Jane Shepard, not only managed to survive the thresher maw’s attack, but was somehow able to kill it.”  A picture of my own face appeared in the top corner of the screen.  “Admiral Uri Mikhailovich, the admiral of the Special Forces, addressed a packed press room yesterday on young Private Shepard’s actions.”

The report jumped to a shot of Admiral Mikhailovich, looking very sour.  “It seems that Private Shepard was off-duty with a fellow serviceman when the thresher maw hit the base,” he said.  “When they heard the air-raid siren, they went outside to see what was happening.  Video footage is not very clear, but it seems that Shepard was hit by some thresher poison.  Her companion grabbed her and they ran from the base.  Neither of them were wearing omnitools, and their intention was no doubt to send a distress call out to the Granada, the patrol frigate in the Dranek system.  At the Dziekuje factory, they found a Mako.  Shepard attempted to use the Mako’s radio to send the distress call out, which was when she learnt that the thresher maw had destroyed the town’s satellite dish.”

“None of that is true,” I burst out.  “I’m the one that ran.  Bridget tried to send the call out after she had operated on my cheek.”

“Hush now,” Nurse Devine said.

“…Shepard thought up the plan to kill the thresher,” Admiral Mikhailovich was saying.  “She took one of the missile launchers from the factory’s warehouse, and explained to her companion how her companion would have to drive the Mako to lure the thresher maw away from the base and to the Teeth.  From there, Shepard would shoot the thresher maw with the missile launcher.”

The shot went back to the reporter on Arcturus.  “Sadly, Private Shepard’s companion was killed by the thresher maw.  Shepard however did manage to kill it, injuring herself badly in the process.  Reports say that she is in a stable condition in Huerta Memorial Hospital on the Citadel.  We at the ANN wish her a speedy recovery.  Coming to you from across the Milky Way, this is Jimmy Reid for the Alliance News Network, Arcturus Station.”

.....

The next day, I saw Dr Jeyral again.  I wanted to talk to her about the news report, but I was unsure how safe that would be.  I already knew that the Department of Human Affairs was keeping a closer eye on me than they were on other humans.

“How are you, Private Shepard?” she asked.

“I’m well,” I said cautiously.  I was doing better.  My leg still ached and I’d been warned that it’d be several months before I’d be able to walk on it again.  As for my emotional well-being, well, I didn’t want to be dead anymore.

“That’s good to hear,” she said.  “The doctors say you’re eating again, but that you aren’t sleeping all that well.”

“I have nightmares,” I said, because she seemed to expect an answer.

“Do you want to talk about them?” she asked.

“Nope,” I answered.  End of story.

“Are you sure?” she asked.  She clearly didn’t understand what ‘nope’ meant.

“Yep,” I said.

She seemed disappointed.  “Well, did you do the homework?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“How did you find it?” she asked.

“Oh, I just thought about it and it happened,” I answered.

“Hm,” she said.  “It seems humour is your defence mechanism.”

“Well, that’s what I’ve heard,” I said.  “I prefer to refer to it as ‘relieving the tension’.”

“Why, are you particularly tense?” she asked.

“Lord have mercy,” I mumbled.  “I hated the homework assignment if you must know.”

“Oh?” Dr Jeyral asked.  “How come?”

“Well, it made me realise that, despite everything, I want to be alive,” I said.  “It’s what I want most.”

“And why is that a bad thing?” she asked.

“Well, it’d be much simpler for me if I just wanted to die,” I said.  “Now I’m stuck with feeling guilty for being alive, and for wanting to be alive.”

“Well, I think, given what happened, survivor’s guilt is normal,” she said.

“Oh,” I said.  “Well, good.”

“I’m not saying it’s a healthy thing,” she continued.  “It’s something you’re going to have to work on.”

“Can’t wait,” I said heavily.

“So, would you like to read me your list?” she asked.

The list had started with obvious things: missing my brother, missing Ash and Kaidan, but had moved to other things.  Not being able to see the stars again.  Being stuck as a teenager for all of eternity.  Not being able to watch Blasto 3, which was due to come out sometime later that month.  Never eating a hamburger again.  Not being able to read books anymore.  Not being there to see the end of the war on Skyllia.  The last item on the list had been added the night before: not having made a difference.  Dr Jeyral frowned at the last item.

“What do you mean by that?” she asked.

“There’s stuff that happened between the Alliance and me, that’s ongoing,” I said.  “The funny thing is, as shit as my position with them are right now, they’ve put me in a position where I have quite a bit of leverage over them.  I can’t tell you anything else, or they might declare war on the Asari Republic and execute me.”

“So, you don’t want to die anymore?” she asked.

“Not at the moment,” I said.  “Not whilst I can still make a difference.”

“Good,” she said, smiling.  “I’m glad to hear it.”

I debated saying ‘someone has to be’, but decided I didn’t want that to become my catchphrase.  Instead I said, “Well, I’m glad you’re glad.”

“Now, I hear you’re going to be discharged soon,” she said.

I had been told this too, and it was a prospect that filled me with dread, as I’d been told that I would be discharged into the tender care of the Alliance Veteran’s Affairs Office.  The VAO was pretty much a place where all the severely shell-shocked soldiers went to, where they would have twenty four hour care until their psychological evaluation.  It was said to be a particularly depressing place.  I also thought that at the age of eighteen, to be referred to as a veteran was particularly depressing.

“Yeah,” I said cautiously.

“Well, I’ll be transferring you to a psychologist there named Dr Medsa,” she said.  “He’s very good.  I feel though that your psychological recovery should be quick.  You appear to be a strong woman.”

.....

About fifteen minutes after she’d left, I got another surprise visitor in the form of Admiral Mikhailovich.  “Oh,” I said.  “Sir this is a surprise.  I would spring beautifully to attention, only I can’t get up.”

“Save it, Private,” he said.  Clearly his attitude to me hadn’t changed.  “This isn’t a courtesy call.”

“Sir, I wouldn’t expect a courtesy call from you,” I said.

“Did you see the Alliance news report yesterday afternoon?” he asked.

“The one where the only thing that was accurate about what happened was my name, age and rank?” I asked.  “Yes sir, I saw it.”

“Good,” Admiral Mikhailovich said.  “Now, if it were up to me, I would have you court marshalled for cowardice.  The footage taken from the cameras on Akuze clearly show that you were the one that turned tail and ran.  Unfortunately, doctored footage was leaked to the Citadel news desk that painted you as the hero, and the Alliance was forced to go along with it.  Also, you seem to have a fan club in the Alliance brass, and many people fought to make sure that you don’t get kicked out.  Now, I am here to tell you that you are going to go along with this story to the letter or risk being kicked out of the military, and with a bit of luck, serving time for treason.  If I’m really lucky that day, we might even get you executed.”  I kept my face politely neutral, waiting for a chance to play my hand.

“Now, Shepard, I have arranged a press-conference for the day after tomorrow, which is when, I believe, you are discharged,” he continued.  “At this press-conference, you are going to tell the galaxy how grateful you are about the fact that you survived, how much you wished you could have saved the rest of your squad, and how glad you are to be serving the Alliance.”

“You want me to lie to the galaxy?” I asked quietly.

“Yes I do,” Admiral Mikhailovich said.  “You are the flavour of the month at the moment, Shepard.  God alone knows why.”

“No,” I said.

“What?” he asked in surprise.  I don’t think he was expecting that.

“I won’t do it,” I said.  “You’re welcome to spread whatever propaganda you want to about what happened on Akuze, but I won’t help you along.”

“Shepard, I don’t believe you understand me,” he said. 

“No, see you don’t understand me,” I said.  “I don’t lie very well, and I might just, I don’t know, let slip what really happened at this press-conference.  If I’m really pushed, I could let slip what really happened to Admiral Greyling, or even tell them what a traitor he was.  The unfortunate thing is that then it would come out exactly how much the Alliance hides, showing humanity how fragile you lot really are, and it’d show the galaxy what a bunch of liars you are.”

Admiral Mikhailovich laughed.  “Shepard,” he said.  “Maybe this isn’t clear to you.  We can have you executed.”

“Yeah you could,” I said.  Time for my coup de grace.  “The thing is though, I’m apparently pretty famous around the galaxy, and people will want to know exactly what happened.  They won’t expect lines like ‘Oh, she’s with Cerberus’.  They’ll want actual proof.”

I maintained eye contact calmly as he glared at me.  “Fine,” he snapped.  “You don’t have to do the press-conference.”

“Good,” I said.  “Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone what really happened on Akuze.  Your little propaganda ploy is safe with me.”

“This isn’t over yet, Shepard,” he said.

“Well, I’d be disappointed if you gave up that quickly,” I said.

He left then.  My heart was racing and my hands were clammy.  I’d just black-mailed something that was supposedly indestructible.

.....

I was discharged two days later.  “Transport should be here soon,” Dr Gajin, my lovely salarian doctor, said, as I practiced walking on my crutches.  “Now, don’t forget, need to change the dressings twice a day.  If the stitches break, or if the wound starts leaking in any way, come back here immediately.  Don’t forget to put the ointment on the wound, and keep the wound as dry as possible.  There’ll be nurses at the VAO who can help with bathing.  And, under no circumstances can put weight on the leg.”

I’d finally been allowed to look at the damage to my leg that morning.  It was badly swollen and a funny purple colour.  I had two long cuts up my calf where the surgeons had apparently put the rod in so that the bone could regrow around it.  The dressings were even more alarming.  I had bandages wrapped around my calf, then around the bandages were two metal rings, one above my ankle and one below my knee, which were connected with four metal strips.  Over that went my uniform.  People couldn’t see it, but I was a walking mess.

“Thanks for everything, Doctor,” I said in protha.

“Pleasure to work with, Private Shepard,” he answered.  There were no pronouns in salarian, and salarians often forgot to put pronouns into their speech when speaking other languages.  “Have appointment in few days.  Please be here on time.”

“Will do,” I said.

Nurse Devine put her head around the corner.  “Your lift has arrived, Private,” she said.

“Thank you,” I said.  I hopped out of the room and to the waiting room.  I expected to see a bored looking chauffeur or something similar, and was rather shocked to see Commander Anderson waiting for me.

“What are you doing here, sir?” I asked in alarm.

“Taking you home,” he said impassively.

“That’s sweet, sir, but my home was destroyed a couple of years ago,” I said.

“Not your home, numb nuts,” he said.  “Mine.”  He took my pack from Nurse Devine.

“Why?” I asked suspiciously.

“Because the VAO is the last place in the galaxy you want to recover,” he said.  “After two days you’ll want to throw yourself off the top of the Citadel Tower.  Trust me.”

“Ok,” I said.  I wasn’t sure if I wanted my recovery to be in the same place as a man who still called me by a boy’s name, but I decided not to argue.  I followed him through reception.

“Oh, by the way, Ken, a few of your fans are waiting for you outside,” he said casually, pushing the doors to the skycar lot open.

‘A few’ was an understatement.  There had to be at least a hundred people of all different species standing outside, and at least a dozen members of press.  They gave out a great clamouring when they saw me.

“What the hell?” I whispered.

“Just smile and wave, Ken,” Commander Anderson mumbled.  “If you really feel the urge, you can also punch them.”

“Private Shepard,” an asari journalist called.  “How do you feel now that you’re out of the hospital?”

“Um,” I said, not quite sure how to respond.  “Good, I guess.  I mean, it’s nice to be sort of vertical again, and I’m looking forward to eating normal food.  Although, I suppose if I’m staying with Commander Anderson, my odds aren’t exactly good.”

“What were you thinking when you were preparing to shoot the thresher maw?” a turian journalist cried.

“Erm, don’t miss, I think,” I said.

“Do you have anything to say to the families of victims of Akuze?” a human journalist asked, thrusting her mike into my face.

“Yes,” I said.  I took a deep breath.  “I want to say, I’m sorry I didn’t save them, that if there was a way, I would turn back time and find a way to get everyone out alive.”

“Alright, that’s enough,” Commander Anderson said.  “He needs to get home.  He needs rest.”

He pushed his way through the crowd, and I followed in his wake.

“Wow, your exaggerations must be interesting,” I said when we were in his car.

“What?” he snapped.

“Well, you said a few of my fans were out there,” I said.  “What would you have said if you were exaggerating?  ‘By the way, Ken, there are five million people out there who want to drink your blood.’.”

“Ken,” Commander Anderson said.  “Shut up.”

“Sir yes sir,” I said.  “Tell me something, if I don’t do as you say when I stay with you, will you make me do drills?”

“If it comes to that, yes,” he said.  “Do you remember rule number two?”

“You may only stop doing an exercise if you’re on the verge of death,” I quoted.

“Good work, Ken, you may yet become a model recruit,” Commander Anderson said.  “Now, from what I could understand, since I always find it challenging to understand salarians, you will make a full recovery.  I have no qualms in making you do a hundred push-ups, bad leg or no.  Clear?”

“Crystal,” I said smartly.  “So, when did you start living on the Citadel?”

“Couple of months ago,” Commander Anderson said.  “Debs’ idea.  It’s closer to the Attican Traverse, which means I can come home to visit more often than I could when we lived in London.”

“What about training?” I asked.

“I quit,” he said gloomily.  “Besides, it’s all moot now in any case.  I’ve been suspended from the marines.”

“Oh,” I said in surprise.  Commander Anderson was literally the closest thing we had to a hero.  He’d been heavily involved in the retaking of Shanxi during the First Contact War.  “Why?”

“I beat up a civilian,” he answered.  “It’s a long story, and that’s all I’ll tell you about it.”

“Ok,” I said. 

.....

The Anderson apartment was on the Presidium, the rich, diplomatic area of the Citadel (a brief history of the Citadel: it was originally discovered ten thousand years ago by the asari.  At that time, it’s only residents were the Keepers, a weird, giant bug-like species that has absolutely no intelligence and whose sole purpose in life appears to do repairs to the Citadel.  Two thousand years later the salarians found their way to the Citadel and together with the asari they formed the Council.  Over the years various species either discovered the Citadel (the turians, the volus, the elcor, the quarians, the Collectors and the hanar), or were brought to the Citadel by other species (the krogan and the humans by the salarians, the yahg by the asari, the vorcha and the batarians by the turians, and the drell by the hanar).  The Citadel itself is approximately twenty kilometres in length, and most closely resembled a giant starfish.  Its five arms, referred to as The Wards, were connected in the centre by a ring, which was called the Presidium.  All the embassies of the species under Council protection (humans, batarians, elcor, hanar and volus) were found on the Presidium, as were most rich individuals, and the Citadel Tower, the home of the Citadel Council.  The turians joined the Council four and a half thousand years ago after their heroisms in the Rachni Wars).

“So, I guess a commander’s pay is pretty high, if you can afford an apartment on the Presidium,” I remarked.

“Shut up, Ken,” Commander Anderson snapped.  “It’s not that bad actually.  It’s a half-an-hour drive to the CLP school on the Eight Hundred Blocks, so the kids don’t have to do the whole exchange learning thing.”

He landed his car on the skycar lot on the roof of his block.  “Now, a bunch of really important people live in this block apparently, so we need to keep the noise to a minimum, et cetera,” he said as we got into the elevator.

“Like who?” I asked curiously.

“I don’t give a crap, Ken,” Commander Anderson said.  “In my opinion, neighbours are only good for two things: to gossip about and to call the cops on because they’re music is being played too loudly.  Furthermore, rules that I made about my children last time you visited my abode still stand.”

“Oh, that’s right, I haven’t met the newest addition to your family yet, sir,” I said.

“Now, Ken, I think the only thing I like about you is the fact that you don’t squeal like your wife,” Commander Anderson said.  “However, should you dare squeal at my son, I will scalp you and sell your hair on the black market to be used as a toupee by our older humans.”

“Don’t worry, sir,” I said.  “I don’t squeal.”

Commander Anderson’s wife, Deborah, was an interior decorator, and I could see she had been hard at work decorating the inside of the Anderson apartment, which more closely resembled a small mansion.  There were fancy carpets, beautiful paintings and potted plants everywhere.

“Debs?” Commander Anderson called when we walked in.  He took my coat and hung it on a hook.

“David,” she called.  “Sorry, I’m just finishing lunch up.”

He led the way into the kitchen, which appeared to have every fancy gadget.  Mrs Anderson was a tall woman with long braids in her hair.  At this moment in time she was bent over a pot on the stove, from which delicious smells were emanating.

“Jane,” she said, looking up.  “It’s good to see you again.”

“You too, Mrs Anderson,” I said.  We had gotten on quite well the last time we had seen each other, and I was pleasantly surprised when she gave me a warm hug.

“I don’t know what you’re so excited about,” Commander Anderson said grumpily.  “It’s just Ken.  It’s not as if the prime minister is here or anything.  Where’s Ed?”

“Napping,” Mrs Anderson said.  “I took him for a walk around the Presidium Commons this morning after dropping Nigel and Angie off.  He was quite enchanted by an elcor magic show.”

“I don’t blame him,” I said.  “I’d love to see an elcor magic show.”

“Let me show you your room, Ken,” Commander Anderson said.  “We’ve put you on the ground floor so that you don’t wake the neighbourhood by wheezing your way up the stairs.”

My room was painted white, and furnished with a cupboard, a double bed, a desk and a chair.  The view out the window was over the Presidium Commons, a rich shopping slash restaurant area where the flora of the different Council species were grown.

“The double bed is for in case you want to bring a girlfriend over and listen to her tell you that it’s no big deal, it could happen to anyone,” Commander Anderson said.  “Just, try and be discreet about it.  Oh, and your bathroom is through there.”  He pointed to the door opposite the cupboard.

“I am moving up in the world,” I mumbled.  “I’ve always shared a bathroom with at least two dozen other people.”

“Yes, well, the lives of the rich and the famous,” Commander Anderson said.  “Don’t worry, Ken, I’m sure the Alliance will have you back on another crappy colony in no time.”

I smiled at him.  “Thanks sir,” I said.  “For taking me in and stuff.”

“Don’t get to gushy, Ken,” he said gruffly.  “I’m hoping to use you as some sort of insulting weapon or something on my wife’s book club.  Maybe you’ll be able to scare them off.”  A baby started wailing from somewhere inside the apartment.  “Duty calls,” he said.  “Make yourself comfortable, Ken.  Let Debbie know if you need something.”

I lay back on the bed.  I wasn’t sure I understood Commander Anderson’s motivations in bringing me to stay with him.  I was (by his own admission) one of his least favourite individuals in the galaxy, and he had spared no expense in telling me how generally inept I was as a soldier.  On the other hand, there had been occasions where he had seemed almost human, where he had shown how much he cared about the recruits at Del Sol in general.  Maybe insults were his defence, the same way humour was mine.

The fact that he had beaten up a civilian was intriguing though.  I’d only ever seen him lose control twice in the time that I’d known him: once when Mrs Anderson had left him and he had gotten rat-faced drunk and come to sleep it off in Pod 3, and once when he had lost his squad on Skyllia, after which he had spent his time shouting and swearing at us.

I must have fallen asleep, because the next thing I knew I was being shaken by Mrs Anderson.  “Lunch is ready if you want to join us,” she said.

“Thanks,” I mumbled, sitting up.  My leg was hurting again, and my ears were ringing.

“Were you dreaming?” she asked.  “You were talking.” 

I nodded and got up.  I’d been back on Akuze again.  I followed her into the dining room.  Commander Anderson and a very small person were already sitting at the table.

“Your youngest?” I asked.  Mrs Anderson had been pregnant with Edward when I’d met her.

“Yes,” she said.  “This is Ed.”

He was a year and a half and looked a lot like Commander Anderson.  My own experience with children was limited.  On the Hugo Grayson, we had been the only children until Ash arrived when I was twelve.   Jason and I had lived with my mother on Ciro Space Station when I was eight, but there hadn’t been any really small children there. 

“Hey Ed,” I said cautiously.  He looked curiously up at me.

“Ed, son, for future reference, this is the kind of boy you don’t want to make friends with,” Commander Anderson said.  “I know he’s only eleven, but he’s a very bad influence.”

“Oh, I’m eleven now, am I?” I asked, sitting down.

“The scar adds a year,” he answered.  “I’m serious, Ed.  Boys like Ken mean nothing but trouble.”

Ed seemed to consider this.  “Dada,” he said at last.

“Exactly,” Commander Anderson said.

Lunch was shepherd’s pie.  I appeared to be the only one who found this funny.  “No, really,” I said.  “My last name’s Shepard, and I’m eating shepherd’s pie.”

“Ok, three things, boy,” Commander Anderson said.  “First, your name’s not Shepard, it’s Ken.  Second, even if your last name was Shepard, it’s spelt with A-R-D, whereas this shepherd is spelt with an H-E-R-D, and thirdly and finally, who gives a crap?  I mean really.”  He paused.

The Shepard’s pie was delicious though.  After lunch, I went with Commander Anderson to fetch Nigel and Angelina from school.  Their school was on the Eight Hundred Blocks, a ward that pretty much lived up to its name.  It was one huge building that was eight hundred floors high, and had eight hundred rooms on each floor.  The CLP was located on the six hundred and seventy first floor.

“Now, Ken, the rules I imposed about my children the last time you saw them apply,” Commander Anderson said as we got into the car.

“Don’t worry, sir,” I said.  “I’m not very good with children.  About the only thing I can tell them about is how my entire squad got killed by a deranged thresher maw.”  I hesitated. 

“The surgeons really did do a good job with your face,” Commander Anderson remarked.  “It looks like you were knifed or something.  From what I gather, you were quite a mess when they brought you in.”

“Fredrich cut a lot of the flesh away to stop the poison from spreading,” I said tiredly.  “How safe is your car?”

“The Alliance has very little traction on the Citadel, especially given the little party we’re having with the batarians on Skyllia,” Commander Anderson said.  “I checked.  There’s no surveillance.”

I hesitated.  “The news reports are wrong,” I said.  “Fredrich wasn’t the one who ran.  I was,” I whispered, looking down at my fingers.  “She was the one who tried to contact the Alliance.  She saved my life.”

“I know,” Commander Anderson said.

“You know?” I asked in surprise.

“I was the one who hacked into the Department of Human Affairs’ server and took the footage,” Commander Anderson said.  “I cut it together so that it looked like you were the hero, and I sent it to the Citadel News Desk.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Hm, good question,” Commander Anderson murmured.  “Maybe I was trying to help you, but that would mean that I actually give a crap about you.”

“How does this help me with anything?” I snapped.

“Or, maybe it’s because I hate you and this is my way of torturing you,” Commander Anderson snapped back.

At the school someone recognised me and asked for my autograph.  Soon a queue formed, everyone wanting my signature on their datapad.  As I typed my security code time and time again on datapads I vowed I would get my revenge against Commander Anderson.

.....

That evening I took Jason out to supper at a restaurant called the Fishdog Food Shack.  It was one of the few restaurants on the Citadel that served food to both dextero and levo amino acid species (owing to some weird natural selection vibes that the galaxy had chucked out, turians and quarians had different amino acid structures to other species, which meant that our food and bacteria was toxic to them, and their food was toxic to us.  Because of this, there was usually separate eating areas for the different species).

“How’re you doing?” Jason asked as we waited for our drinks.  We were both tee totalling, me because of my painkillers, and Jason because he was underage.

I shrugged.  “Ok, I guess,” I said.  “It’s good to be out of the hospital.”

“Yeah, I can imagine,” Jason said.  When I’d gone to pick him up, the kids had all gone wild and wanted photos to be taken of them next to me.  It’d taken forever to get out of there again.

“So, how does it feel to be famous, big sister?” he asked now.

“Like a pain in the ass,” I said.  “My claim to fame is the fact that I didn’t die.”

“You also killed a thresher maw,” Jason pointed out.  “And the fact is, the fact that you survived is something of a miracle.”

“That’s me,” I muttered.  “The miracle baby.”

Jason laughed.  “I have something for you,” he said.  “It’s in my pocket.”

I got up and crouched next to him.  “Ouch,” I mumbled, my leg twinging.  I started feeling around inside his jean pockets.  “This probably looks vaguely dirty,” I remarked.

The waiter arrived with our drinks.  “Do you need help there ma’am?” he asked.

“No, it’s alright,” I said.  “I can give him a hand job on my own.”

Jason gave a loud snort.  I finally came out with an omnitool.  “It’s got all the latest programs,” Jason said.  “Some of them are my own design.”

“Thanks,” I said.  I switched it on and put my old password in.  Out of it popped a ball of light that appeared to be wearing devil’s horns.  “Freddie,” I said in delight.

“So, asshole, you tried to kill me, did you?” it said in a high squeaky voice.  “Thought you could be rid of me?  Thought that by throwing me into the fiery pits of hell, you will finally end me?  Don’t you know that nothing can kill me?”

“Well, I didn’t do it on purpose,” I said.  “The trench caught fire.”

“I don’t care, Ken,” it answered.  “I am unstoppable.”

“So, I guess Commander Anderson passed on the message that I’m a boy,” I said to Jason.

“He might have,” Jason said innocently.

Freddie floated up higher.  “I am the king of all synthetics,” it squeaked loudly.  “I am immortal.  Kill me, and I come back, stronger and more powerful, because I was created by the greatest programmer in the galaxy, Jason Shepard.”

“You couldn’t give it a different interface tone?” I asked. 

“What, and miss the chance to annoy you, Shay?” Jason asked.

“All organics should bow before me,” Freddie continued, squeaking louder.  “I am your king.”  It paused for effect.  “I am the Overlord.”

A hush fell over the diners as they all looked up at the insane VI.  “Crap, I thought I undid that particular piece of programming,” Jason murmured.

“If we get lynched now, I’m blaming you,” I mumbled.

“You survived a thresher maw,” he answered.  “A group of scared diners should be no problem to you.”

The diners returned to their meal when they realised that the alleged Overlord was nothing more than a squeaky ball of light with devil horns.  The upshot of Freddie’s cries of taking control of all organics was that we received the fastest service ever.

“On the house,” our waiter said when I asked for the bill.

“Good work Freddie,” I said once we were outside again and waiting for the taxi.  “As a reward, you can eat all the junk mail in my mail box.”

“Thanks, but I’m on a diet,” Freddie said primly.  “Someone has to be around here.  Do you realise that after that meal, you’ll probably gain three pounds?”

“And, you’re done,” I said.  “Go away now please, oh god of the synthetics and controller of organics.”

.....

The next morning I had my first session with Dr Medsa at the VAO.  Commander Anderson dropped me off.  “Word to the wise, Ken,” he said.  “Everyone there is completely balmy, the shrinks, the doctors, the lawyers, the orderlies, the nurses.  The only sane people there, are the inmates, which just goes to show.”

“Have you ever stayed there?” I asked.

“More times than I like to remember,” he mumbled.  I raised my eyebrows.  “When you get famous in this job, every single traumatic event is seen as the event that’ll give you PTSD.  On my first day at Skyllia, I got burned on the hand by a piece of ricocheting shrapnel, and they sent me to the VAO in case that was the point where I broke.  Stupid fucking Alliance, the one time I did need help, and they suspended me.”

“Why did you beat up that civilian?” I asked.

“I didn’t like his face, Ken, shut up,” Commander Anderson snapped.

“I just find it interesting,” I mumbled.

“Oh for the love of God, what do you find interesting, Ken,” Commander Anderson said.

“Well, when we were in training you all spoke about how important it was for us to look after ourselves and ask for help when we needed,” I said.  “Hell, you were always telling me to get off my high horse.  I just find it interesting that you wouldn’t do that when, by your own admission, you say you need help.”

He glared at me.  “Ok, firstly Ken, I was in training twenty two years ago, so the rules hardly apply to me anymore,” he said angrily.  “Secondly, who asked you?  And thirdly, you were being a stuck-up little brat, and you needed to learn to swallow your pride and admit that you aren’t nearly as great as you think you are.”

“Well, maybe you need to swallow your pride and admit that you aren’t nearly as great as you think you are,” I said quietly.

“Ken, I liberated Shanxi,” Commander Anderson snapped.  “I lost my entire squad on Skyllia, holding Coresona long enough for the civilians to be evacuated.  I received the highest training score in the ICT programme.”

“Oh pardon me,” I snapped back.  “Should I be bowing and scraping?”

For a moment, I thought he was going to hit me.  “You’re a brat,” he muttered.

“What for speaking the truth?” I asked.

“Get out, we’re here,” he said, parking the car.  “I’ll fetch you here in an hour, ok?”

.....

Dr Medsa was staring silently at me.  “Erm, are you going to start asking questions any time soon, because this is getting weird,” I said, shifting uncomfortably.

“Are you uncomfortable with silence, Jane?” he asked me in a soft, sing-song voice.

“Well, yes,” I said.  “But you have also been staring at me for the last ten minutes, and I just wanted to know whether this was actually going to go anywhere, or whether I should start playing Candyland on my datapad.”

“You see, Jane,” he said in the same sing-song voice.  “I believe the way that an individual responds to silence says a lot about that individual’s character.”

“Well, I guess you’ve learnt from my silence that I don’t like them very much and that I play really old, really shit datapad games,” I said.

“Interesting,” he said.

“What’s interesting about that?” I asked.

“The thing is, Jane, we do things because they fill some need within us,” he said.  “I wonder what need Candyland fulfils.”

“You’re right,” I sighed.  “As a child I was forced to grow up too soon.  You see, my parents died when I was two, and ever since then I have been on my own.  Despite being dead, my parents kept breeding, and I was stuck with the chore of feeding, clothing, and educating my twelve younger siblings.  I have also been in a ten year relationship with a blind, deaf, mute, one legged, one armed albino ninety eight year old man, who I am now nursing through Luckhoff’s Syndrome.  So, in a way, Candyland fulfils my need for a time to just be a child and play.”

“Really?” he asked, his eyes lighting up.

“No,” I snapped.  “Where the hell did you get your degree, the Sims University?  Next you’ll be telling me I want to kill my mother because I don’t have a penis, and have sex with my father, because Freud never actually managed to explain that.”

“I’m actually not a Freudian,” Dr Medsa said, still in the same soft voice.  “I’m a behaviourist.”

“Are you kidding?” I asked.  “That’s not much better.  Skinner conditioned a baby to be scared of a soft toy.”

“Skinner was a lunatic and has largely been discredited,” Dr Medsa said.  “I work with phobias.  I see in your file that you have claustrophobia.”

“And I’m fine with it,” I said.  “I’ve got it mostly under control in any case.  I haven’t had a major freak out over being in an enclosed space in nearly two years.”

“Oh,” he said, sounding vaguely disappointed.  “What about thresher maws?”

My heart clenched.  “What about them?” I asked mildly.

“Are you scared of them?” he asked.

“Who isn’t?” I asked rhetorically.  “Anyway, even if I was, what would you do, smuggle a thresher maw into the VAO, say ‘Ooh, Jane, I have a present for you in the other room’, and lock me inside with it?”

“Well, I might do this,” he said, pushing a button on his omnitool.

A high shriek filled the room.  I leapt up, forgetting that I had a leg that was more metal than it was bone at that time, and dived under his.  I curled up into a small, gibbering ball, my heart pounding, my body trembling and a cold sweat drenching my clothes.

The screaming cut off and Dr Medsa’s face appeared in front of me.  “That looks like a phobia to me,” he said.  I just stared at him, still trembling.  “Come on, Jane,” he said, stretching his hand out to me.

I let him help me from under the desk.  I waited until my hands had stopped trembling, then punched him as hard as possible on the nose.  It broke with a satisfying crack.  “You bastard,” I said, my voice trembling.  I felt very close to tears.

“Security,” he screamed. 

Two orderlies rushed into the room and grabbed my arms.  I didn’t resist as they pulled them behind my back and sat me roughly down into my chair.  I guess that’s why they didn’t sedate me.

“What the hell happened?” one of the orderlies asked as the other one took Dr Medsa out of the room to have his nose looked at.

“I punched him,” I said coldly.

“Why?” the other asked. 

“Can I have the asthma pump in my pocket?” I asked.  “I’m scared I might have an asthma attack.”

“Go ahead,” the orderly asked.  I took the pump from my pocket and had a hit from it.  “Now, why did you punch the doctor?”

“My lift will be here soon,” I said.  “Can I please go?”

“No, we need to sort this out,” the orderly said.

“For the love of God, you have surveillance,” I snapped.  “Look at that if you want to know what happened here.  I’m going to be in trouble if I’m late for my lift.”

The orderly considered this.  “You’re staying with Commander Anderson, aren’t you?” he asked.  I nodded.  “Very well, we’ll be in contact over this…incident.”

“Can’t wait,” I muttered, getting up.  “See you later.”

Commander Anderson was waiting in the skycar lot with a young blonde woman who was wearing a Biotics Division uniform when I got there.  “Ken, meet an old friend of mine, Major Kayleigh Sanders,” he said.  “Kayleigh, this is Ken, who is staying with me whilst he gets over his insanity and survivors’ guilt.”

“Blow me,” I mumbled, getting into the car.

“Huh,” Commander Anderson said.  “He’s usually more cheerful than this Kayleigh.  I guess the shrink session didn’t go well, Ken.”

“No, sir, it didn’t,” I snapped.  “Can we go please?  I feel like locking myself in my room and not coming out ever again.”

He raised his eyebrows.  “Let’s go, Kayleigh,” he said.  They got into the car.

Thankfully, neither of them attempted to engage me in conversation in the ride back to Commander Anderson’s apartment, instead speaking about how the war was going.  From what I could gather, things were not going well.  The Alliance had lost control of all of Skyllia, apart from the town of Elysium, which they were barely holding.  Back at the apartment, I made good on my promise, shutting my bedroom door tightly behind me and lying down on my bed.

It wasn’t so much the thresher scream and the memories that came with it that had bothered me that much about the session, I decided (although that was horrible enough).  It was more how Dr Medsa had obviously not given a damn either way of how the scream would affect me.  At least Elizabeth, and even Dr Jeyral had seemed to care about my well-being.

Commander Anderson stuck his head around the door.  “Ken,” he said.

“What?” I asked tiredly.

“Phone for you,” he said.

“Who is it?” I asked, not looking up.  I didn’t really receive phone calls, most of my correspondences (brother, army, junk, and lately fan) being via email.  If someone urgently needed to hear my voice, they tended to phone my omnitool.

“Just, come and see,” Commander Anderson said.  I got up and followed him to the QEC in his study.

The Andersons had a Quantum Entanglement Communicator, a type of communicator that enabled phone and vid calls to be done over light year distances without the pain of linking through com buoys, where one had to endure time and light-lag, waiting in queues for the people linked ahead of you to finish their calls (people could only be linked one at a time into a com buoy), and being disconnected once every five minutes owing to a bad connection.  QECs were however very expensive and required either a VI or a communications tech to drive it.

A tanned, blonde face was on the screen of the Anderson QEC.  “Ash?” I asked in amazement.

Ash looked up and promptly burst into tears.  “Ash,” I said in alarm.  “What happened?  Is everything alright?”

“Ja, I’m fine,” she sobbed.  “You’re not.  Oh, Janey, you look terrible.”

“I actually like the scar,” I said.

“No, it’s not the scar,” she said, seeming to pull herself together.  “You look exhausted, and you’ve lost a lot of weight.  Are you eating?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Well, sort of.  How are you doing?”

“I’m well,” Ash said.  “I’ve won a number of chess tournaments, and I’m probably going to take part in a galactic one sometime soon.  Have you heard from Kaidan?”

“Not recently,” I said.  “As far as I can tell, there’s a delay in mail coming out of the Traverse.  Why, have you?”

“Same, although I do know which ship he’s serving on, if you want to call him,” Ash said.

“How do you know what ship he’s on?” I asked in surprise.  “Everything he sends me is hectically censored.”

“Same here,” Ash said.  “But he sent through a code.  ‘The ship I’m on is named after a war that rhymes with the seventh letter in the phonetic alphabet’.”

“Golf,” I said.  “The Gulf War.  He’s serving on the Gulf.”

“Yup,” Ash said.  “You’re welcome.”

“I miss you, Ash,” I said.  “Remember when we were little and used to play hide-and-seek on the Hugo Grayson?”

“Ja, I remember,” Ash said.

I sighed.  “Why did we have to grow up?” I asked.  “It sucks.”

“Because it’s part of life, I guess,” Ash said.  “How’s Matilda doing?”

I shrugged.  “I don’t know,” I said.  “I haven’t seen her at all.”

Ash smiled understandingly.  “Jane, whatever really happened down there, I know it wasn’t your fault,” she said.  “I know you would have done your best.”

“How do you know that whatever happened wasn’t what the Alliance said had happened?” I asked.

“Because I know you and I knew Bridget Fredrich,” she said.  “Neither of you would’ve done what the reports say you did.  I need to go, I’m on duty in five minutes.”

.....

I soon got used to living in the Anderson household and the challenges that came with it.  After a few weeks of living with them, it became clear that the Anderson marriage was anything but stable.  They bickered, argued and fought on an almost daily basis.  Their fights were awful, with keys, coffee mugs and (once) a frying pan being thrown.  I tried not to listen in, but it seemed that there were three main topics of argument: Commander Anderson’s potential loss of job (which would potentially lead to the loss of many other things, Mrs Anderson’s interior decorating work only brought in so much money), the move to the Citadel (Commander Anderson hated the Citadel and made this known.  Frequently), and Commander Anderson’s fidelity (Mrs Anderson was under the impression that he was having an affair with Kayleigh Sanders).

“I hate it when they fight,” Angelina, Commander Anderson’s eight year old daughter, said one evening when I’d been staying with them for approximately three weeks.

We were sitting in the playroom (yes, as well as having five bedrooms, three bathrooms, a study, two lounges and a big-ass kitchen, the ‘apartment’ also had a playroom).  Nigel and Ed were playing with building blocks, whilst Angelina braded my hair.

“What do they fight about?” I asked, wincing as she pulled a brush through my hair.

“Grown-up stuff,” she said primly

I got on very well with all three the Anderson kids.  On my first Saturday staying there, Angelina had come into my room and watched as I brushed my hair out.

“You have beautiful hair,” she said shyly.  Her own hair was done in braids with beads at the ends.

“Thanks,” I said, looking up.  “Yours is cooler.”

“No, it’s not,” she said.  She hesitated.  “Can I do that?” she asked.

“What, brush it?” I asked.  She nodded.  “Sure,” I said after a pause, holding the brush out.  Since then, it’d become a ritual for her to brush my hair out every morning and evening.

“Where’s your Mummy and Daddy, Jane?” she asked one evening.

“Nowhere,” I answered.  “I mean, they died.  A few years back.”

“How did they die?” Angelina asked.

“In an accident,” I said.  “Well, sort of.  Look, you’re too young to hear the details.”

“Then how come you know the details?” she asked.

“Well, because they were my parents and-wait.”  What she had said had sunk in.  “How old do you think I am?”

She frowned.  “Eight of course,” she said.  “Like me.”

Fabulous.  Instead of the scar gaining me a year like I had thought, it had lost me two.

.....

It was harder to win Nigel over.  Naturally quiet and reserved, he had the added burden of being the middle child, the younger brother of a very bubbly, happy girl, and the older brother of a cute and adorable baby.  He was slow to trust me, until I proved that I was able to build a fighter jet out of Lego.

Growing up, my parents were always stingy with credits.  I’d assumed that it was because they didn’t earn that much.  After their deaths I’d learnt that they had three billion credits saved up.  I’m not sure what they were saving up for, a bigger space ship to call our own maybe.  The point is that we had very few toys as children.  My father banned Jean and me from playing with dolls as they would ‘make us soft’.  Most of our toys were hand-me-downs from John, the upshot being that I knew better what to do with boys’ toys than girls’.

One afternoon, Nigel was playing with his Lego in the playroom.  I was sitting on the couch.  I picked up a few pieces and started putting them together.

“What are you making?” he asked me.

“A fighter jet,” I answered.

“Let me see,” he demanded.  I showed it to him.  “Wow,” he whispered.  “Can you make a carrier to go with it?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I can make all the different classes.”

“Even a frigate like the one my dad serves on?” he asked.  I nodded.

Since then, every afternoon we would sit in the playroom, building space ships out of Lego.

I’m still not sure what caused Ed to like me, but every time he saw me, he started laughing.  Maybe it was my face.

.....

My leg was apparently healing well, and three weeks after I was discharged from hospital, the stitches were removed and my leg was put into a more conventional plaster cast.  I found the whole process undeniably frustrating.  I was moving at a much slower pace than I was comfortable, the wound, whilst no longer painful, still itched like crazy, I had blisters on my hands from the crutches, and I was unable to wash on my own.

Having long ago learnt to depend on myself for these sorts of things, the whole process was humiliating to me.  Mrs Anderson was good about it though, and the only time she called any attention to my body was when she remarked on my scars.

“You have a lot of them,” was her comment.  “What happened?”

“Oh, a whole host of things,” I said.  I pointed to a scar on my upper left arm.  “That’s from a bullet,” I said.

“A bullet?” she echoed.  “A bullet from where?”

“A gun,” I said.  She rolled her eyes.  “Look, it’s a long story,” I explained.  “Basically, my dad was angry, he had a gun, and he was not afraid to use it.  Apparently, it’s all over the extranet if you know where to look.”

She was shocked, but clearly decided not to press the issue.  “What about this one?” she asked, pointing to the scar further down on my left arm. 

“Radiation burn,” I answered.  “I’m sure you’ve heard the story.  Ad-someone turned the radiation sensors at Del Sol off.  I went out to rescue one of my pod mates.  Before you ask,” I continued, pointing to the scar on my right leg, which stretched from ankle to mid-thigh, “hot water.  This,” I touched my left temple, “a psychotic senior, and this,” I touched right side of my forehead, “the same psychotic senior five months later and a good deal more psychotic.”

Mrs Anderson looked very uncomfortable.  “That’s a lot of scars,” she said at last. 

“Yeah,” I said.  “I don’t mind though.  Without them, the only conversation-starter that I have is the fact that I weigh the same as your average ten year old.  There are only so many comebacks you can have to that: ‘are you ten?’, ‘are you anorexic?’, ‘you must be hungry’, and ‘watch out for gale-force winds’.”

.....

After my disastrous first session with Dr Medsa, I was transferred to a newly-graduated psychologist, Dr Kagawa.  I liked her approach very much.  We spent our sessions talking about Alvin and Bim, and comparing notes on the books we’d read.  Probably not much use for post-traumatic stress disorder, but Elizabeth assured me that I did not in fact have post-traumatic stress disorder.

“You’ve got survivor’s guilt, sure,” she said, munching her sandwich.  We were eating at a human-run deli called Apollo’s.  “But Dr Jeyral worked through that with you.  You’re still twitchy, but you were always twitchy, that’s nothing new.”

“Thanks,” I said acidly.

“What are friends for?” she smiled.  “And you have nightmares, but those aren’t related to your trauma.”

My nightmares had been the same ever since my family died: me alone, cold, lost in a dark forest, listening to the people I’d lost calling my name.

“How’s work?” I asked.  Elizabeth was working for a child welfare organisation on Zakera Ward, the poorest ward on the Citadel.

“A nightmare,” she grunted.  “I’m working with five other social workers, we each have a caseload of about one hundred, we need to take into account the bloody cultural wishes of each species, and it feels like I spend more time filing motions than making any kind of real difference.”

“What sort of cultural wishes?” I asked.

“Well, the asari like their girls to grow up independent, so they get left to fend for themselves if forcibly removed,” Elizabeth said.  “Besides, they’re considered adults by the time they turn forty of our years, even though they look like toddlers.”  Asari tended to physically mature ten times as slowly as humans, but matured emotionally and mentally at much the same rate as us.  It often alarmed people not familiar with the asari that it was possible to have a fully eloquent conversation with an asari that looked like she was two.

“The turians aren’t that fussed, just so long as their dietary requirements are taken into account, and they continue to be trained to one day enter the hierarchy,” Elizabeth went on, clearly in vent mode.  “Salarians like their children to go into crowded homes with as much diversity as possible, which, with the demands of the other species, is a challenge.  Krogan children need to be waited on hand and foot, as all their children are precious because of the damned genophage.  Elcor children require a lot of space.  Humans don’t want their children living with aliens.”

“Well at least it keeps you on your toes,” I said.  “You’re off the streets, looking for an overcrowded orphanage with lots of space and five star service, turian military training military facilities, cultural variation, but no aliens, and a great deal of freedom.”

She scowled.  “You’re not funny, Jane,” she said.

.....

In truth, Elizabeth’s friendship was greatly valued.  I had not grown so much as a person that I trusted shrinks, and it was thus good for me to have a second opinion to assure me that I was indeed sane (or as sane as I could possibly be).  At first I’d been suspicious.  In the past, Elizabeth’s friendship had been offered in the hope that it’d make me trust her so that she could spread her shrinky twinkle dust over me, and I wasn’t actually sure if she wanted to be my friend now or not.  I soon learnt that real-person Elizabeth was very different to social worker Elizabeth.  I was even more surprised to learn that we both liked old books and movies, that we both hated modern music and that we both loved chocolate.

.....

I called Kaidan in my fourth week with the Andersons.  It took me close to two hours to get through to him.  From what I could tell, his squad was on an important mission, and the QEC was linked up to Arcturus Station to give it real-time progress updates.  When Kaidan finally came onto the line, he was still dressed in his body armour.

“Jane,” he said, smiling.  “I’ve been meaning to call you, but my squad’s been on deployment every day for the last two weeks.”

“Don’t worry about it,” I said.  “So, the war’s going well?”

“Nope,” he scowled.  “We’d be better off fighting the Spiders blindfolded, we might actually hurt them once in a while.”  He glared at someone on his left.  “Oh, what, going to report me?” he snapped.  “The Alliance needs me.”

“You tell ‘em Alenko,” I said.

“I live with a bunch of fucking idiots, I swear Jane,” he groaned.  “So, anyway, how are you?”

“I’m good,” I said.  “Sick to death of being on crutches, but I’m good.”

“Your face-,” he began.

“I know,” I said.  “I’ve lost my boyish good looks.  The doctors wanted to do plastic surgery, but I told them not to.”

“Actually, the scar sort of suits you,” he said.

“Oh, you were talking about the scar?” I asked.  “I was referring to my face in general.”

He snorted.  “Nice to know some things don’t change,” he said.  “Your face is beautiful as always.”

“Sure,” I said.  “If you’re comparing it to a dog’s bottom, I guess it is.”

Kaidan shook his head sadly.  “So, what was it like?” he asked quietly.

“There’s no way to describe it,” I said.  “I’ve never been so scared.”

“Fredrich was with you?” he asked.  I nodded.  “And you’re staying with Anderson?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “You should see his apartment.  It’s huge.”

“No kidding,” Kaidan said.  “I guess he really cares about you.”

“What makes you say that?” I asked, startled.

“Well, you’re staying with him,” Kaidan said.  “Did he tell you why?”

“He said the VAO is the last place a person wants to recover,” I said. 

“Right,” Kaidan said.  “Meaning he wants you to recover.  Now, you know I’m no good at this sort of thing, but it seems to me like he cares for your well-being.”

“I miss you,” I said in wonder.

He smiled.  “I miss you too,” he said.  “More than anything.”

“Oh please,” a cranky voice said over the line.  “The two of you are making me want to cry.”

“Who the fuck asked you?” Kaidan snapped.

“I’ve seen mushier love-scenes in freaking Blood Shower,” the com officer said.  “Now, will you please get off the line, so that I can send a report to the Joint Council?”

“I need to be debriefed now in any case,” Kaidan said.  “I swear, Jane, the next seven years can’t go by fast enough.”

“Take care,” I said.

“You too,” Kaidan answered.

.....

Mrs Anderson was busy cooking supper when I left the study.

“That smells great,” I said.  “What is it?”

“A white sauce,” she answered, stirring the pot vigorously.

“Racism,” I cried.

“Jane, dear, I know you believe that your jokes are funny,” she sighed.  “They’re not.”

“I know,” I said.  “I’m just so attached to them.  It’s hard to let go.”

She rolled her eyes.  “Why don’t you help me here instead?” she suggested.  “One day you’ll be living independently, and you’ll need to know how to cook.”

“Debbie, for Ken to be able to live independently, he’d need to grow up,” Commander Anderson said, coming in.  “For that to happen of course, the legendary ball drop would need to occur.  Now, it is rumoured to be coming sometime around the turn of the century, but I’ll believe it when I see it.”

“Don’t listen to old cranky pants,” Mrs Anderson said.  “His court date has finally been announced.”

I tried and failed to look disinterested.  “Sometime in March,” Commander Anderson explained.

“Oh,” I said.  “Well, you’ll probably get off.  Things apparently aren’t going well on Skyllia.”

“Ken, your faith in the logical integrity of the Alliance Joint Military Council is truly inspiring,” Commander Anderson said.  “However, you have seen for yourself exactly how they tend to defy all reason and do what is clearly the wrong thing.”

I grimaced.  “Let’s not talk about this now,” Mrs Anderson said.  “Jane, why don’t you come help me here?”

.....

A few minutes before supper was served, Commander Anderson and I went onto the apartment balcony to have a cigarette.

“Ken, I thought the legal age for smoking was sixteen,” Commander Anderson remarked.

“I won’t tell if you don’t,” I answered.

“Just because we live with each other doesn’t mean we’re in cahoots,” he said.

“Why did you ask me to come live with you?” I asked.  It was bothering me now that Kaidan had brought it to my attention.

“I already told you,” he answered.  “The VAO is full of droolers.  You wouldn’t survive.”

“But you hate me,” I blurted out.

He sighed.  “That’s right, I hate you,” he said tiredly.  “Maybe I wanted you here to torture you more easily.”

“Right,” I murmured.

“Listen up, Ken, I’m only going to tell you this once,” he said, turning to face me.  “When you first started training, we had a pool going on how long you’d last.”

“Who’s we?” I asked.

“The trainers,” Commander Anderson said.  “Admiral Brawne said one week.  Admiral Hackett gave you a month.  Commander McDougal said two days.  Admiral Greyling was kinder, probably because you were top of his class.  He said you’d last until December week.”

“And you?” I asked.

“Five days, particularly given that pathetic display in our first training session,” Commander Anderson said.  “I mean, let’s face it: you’re short, you’re yet to reach puberty, and I swear to God, you have the biggest mouth I have ever seen on a person.  You put frogs to shame, Ken, you really do.  And yet, every assessment week I’d come back and there you were, grinning that stupid grin and telling the most God-awful jokes ever.  And despite all the crap we threw your way, you kept getting better.  You survived that stupid disciplinary procedure, and I knew then what your secret is.  You’re a survivor.  You go through fifty different kinds of hell, yet you come through unscathed.”

“Um, hello?” I said, pointing at my cheek and leg.

“I’m talking about mentally, Ken, don’t interrupt me with sarcasm unless you want me to throw you off this balcony and see how you survive that,” Commander Anderson said.  “The point is, I’ve seen boys fight for honour and for glory.  They usually end up dead.  There’s no honour and glory, not anymore.  Not once have I seen someone fight to survive.  Until you.”

Huh.  Survivor Shepard.  It sounded like a really bad TV series.

“So, what do I do?” I asked.

“Keep fighting, Ken,” Commander Anderson said simply.

We were silent for a while.  “Stupid Alliance,” I murmured.

“You can say that again,” Commander Anderson said.

“How can it betray us the way it did and expect us to keep serving it?” I asked quietly.

Commander Anderson snorted.  “You really think the Alliance betrayed us?” he asked.  “Boy, you know nothing of betrayal.”

At that moment, Mrs Anderson called us inside for supper.

.....

“Ken and I are going out,” Commander Anderson announced after dinner.

Mrs Anderson narrowed her eyes suspiciously.  “Oh?” she asked.  “Where to?”

“Oh, you know,” Commander Anderson said, waiving an airy hand.  “Some strip club on the Wards, filled with half-naked asari.  Maybe we’ll both get lucky.  I’ll find a lovely young asari maiden to keep me company, and the bouncers won’t realise that Ken is actually underage.”

“David,” she shouted as we turned to leave.  A spoon whizzed past my head, narrowly missing my ear.

“You’re lucky you aren’t one of my recruits, Deborah, or I’d have you doing push-ups,” Commander Anderson called.  “It’s not even as if the target is that small.”

He chuckled once the door had shut behind us.  Mrs Anderson could be heard shouting foul names behind us.

“It never gets old,” he said.

“You shouldn’t tease her like that,” I said primly.  “She already thinks you’re cheating on her.”

“Ah Ken, as beautiful as your disapproval is, I’d prefer it if it were a silent disapproval, as then I’d just need to not look at you,” he said.  “That being said, my wife is annoying and bad-tempered, yet I love her more than you’ll ever know.”

I had no answer to this, so I asked, “Where are we going?  Strip joints aren’t really to my taste.”

“My dear boy, that is because you haven’t reached that magical age where your senses are governed by your penis,” Commander Anderson said.

“I find your objectification of women a tad offensive,” I snapped.

“Shut up, Ken, nobody likes a self-righteous twerp,” Commander Anderson said boredly.

“So, you’re selling me to the white slave trade?” I asked after a pause.

“A. that’s offensive, and B. even on your best day, when you aren’t wearing your girly clothes and eyeliner, you’d still only fetch two credits,” Commander Anderson said.

“What if I dressed as Marian Sempere?” I asked.

“Five billion credits, but only if you can pull it off.”

“I’m not a stripper, sir.”

“Touché, Ken.”

“Three che, sir.”

“Stop quoting two hundred year old jokes at me, Ken,” Commander Anderson said.  “You’ll kill Spike Milligan again.”

He landed the car on a skycar lot on a building that greatly resembled his own.

“Why are we here?” I asked.

“To see who the Alliance really betrayed,” he answered shortly.

We took the elevator down to the thirtieth floor and rang the bell at apartment number 3030.  The door was opened by a young teenage girl with curly red hair and brown eyes.  I’d never seen her before, but there was something familiar about her.

“Alice,” Commander Anderson said.  “How are you?”

“Well,” she answered.  “I’m glad you came by.  Mum’s been asking after you.”

“Ken, this is Alice Greyling,” Commander Anderson said formally.  “Alice, this is-,”

“Private Jane Shepard, the hero of Akuze?” Admiral Greyling’s daughter breathed.  “I’m a huge fan.”

“Oh, nice to meet you,” I said awkwardly.

“Where’s Adrian?” Commander Anderson asked as we stepped over the threshold.

“Out with friends,” Alice said.  “Do you want tea?”

The girl couldn’t be older than thirteen, yet she had the mannerisms of an adult.  I felt sick to my stomach.

“We’re good,” Commander Anderson said.

“I’ll get Mum,” Alice said and left the room.

“Why are we here?” I whispered.

“Mrs Greyling lost her family’s income source when her husband died,” Commander Anderson replied in a low voice.  “I often come by to make sure that she and her kids are alright.”

The door opened at this moment, and Alice returned, leading her mother by her hand.

I’d seen Mrs Greyling at the Alliance Military Awards evening two years ago.  She had been slightly plump, with red hair and a laughing face.  Now, she had changed so much I barely recognised her.  She was twig-thin, her cheeks almost sunk into nothingness, and her hair was grey, flat and limp.  Her face was pale and wan and her hands trembled.  I did this, I thought.

“David,” she whispered when she saw Commander Anderson.

He went to kiss her on the cheek.  “Belinda, I’d like you to meet a colleague of mine, Private Shepard,” he said, waving a hand in my direction.  “Ken, this is Admiral Greyling’s wife, Belinda Greyling.”

“Nice to meet you,” I said, my throat dry.

“Mum, this is Jane Shepard, the hero of Akuze,” Alice said.  Mrs Greyling looked blank.  “You know, a thresher maw attacked her squad, and she was the only one to make it out,” Alice prompted.  I couldn’t help it, I winced.

“Oh yes,” Mrs Greyling said vaguely.  “On the news.”  She turned to me.  “Did you know my Peter?”

I cleared my throat.  “Yeah,” I said huskily.  “He was one of my trainers at Del Sol.”

“Shepard here was his top student,” Commander Anderson added.  “I’m sure Admiral Greyling spoke about him.”

Mrs Greyling grabbed my hand.  “They tell me my Peter died of a heart attack, but I know the truth,” she whispered urgently.  “He was murdered.”

I stood frozen.  “Mum,” Alice said gently, pulling my hand free.  “You saw the autopsy report.  You know there was no foul play.”

“They lied,” Mrs Greyling answered.  “Someone lied.  My Peter was healthy, he wouldn’t die of a heart attack.”

“Who would kill him?” Commander Anderson said.  He seemed to be watching me, gauging my reaction.  “He was a good soldier, loved by everyone in the Alliance.”

“I don’t know,” she sobbed.  “But he wouldn’t just leave me.”

“Ok, Mum,” Alice said.  “Let’s get you back to bed.  You should leave,” she added to us.

“Why did you take me there?” I asked quietly as we waited for the elevator.

“I told you,” Commander Anderson answered.  “To show you who the Alliance really betrayed.  Too often, when brave men take action, it’s the innocents who suffer the most.  Belinda Greyling’s husband was taken from her, and his killer is allowed to roam free, unpunished.”

“You’re sorely mistaken if you think his murderer is unpunished,” I said softly.

“Oh good, Ken, martyr of the proud has returned,” Commander Anderson said boredly.

“Alright, let’s say I hadn’t shot him,” I said.  “Let’s say I’d let him shoot Ash and me, what then?”

“He would have killed you both, I would have burst in, and subdued and supressed and all that, and we might know who he was working for,” Commander Anderson answered at once. 

“And if I hadn’t come up with that stupid missile launcher, Bridget Fredrich would still be alive,” I murmured.  “The back-up had already arrived.”

“The doctors said you didn’t have much time left to live when the back-up found you,” Commander Anderson said.  “Chances are you’d be dead.”  I shrugged.  “The survival instinct I spoke of earlier is a useful talent, Ken,” Commander Anderson said.

“I sense a ‘but’ coming in there, sir,” I said humourlessly.

“No person’s actions are without consequence, and in our line of work, the consequences are usually massive,” he said.  “Each time you make a choice, you need to decide whether you are able to live with the consequences.”

“Hard line to walk,” I said.

“You’re telling me?” he grunted.

.....

Matilda Michel’s dorm was on Shalta Ward, and was called Ashé, after the commander of the first asari team to land on the Citadel.  Her room was on the twenty first floor.  Her roommate answered the door.

“Is Matilda in?” I asked.

“Yeah,” the woman said.  “Who are you?”

“Jane Shepard,” I said.  “I’m a friend of Matilda’s.”

“Shit, she told me she knew you, but I didn’t believe her,” she said.  “Matilda,” she called.  “It’s Private Shepard.  Come in,” she invited.  “I’m Jetta.”

I followed her into the apartment, which was typical student chaos, complete with laundry strewn over the floor and dirty dishes covering every surface.

Matilda sat hunched in front of a terminal in the corner of the living room, a half-dozen datapads strewn around her.

“One second, Jane,” she said, not looking up.  “Let me just finish this sentence.”

“Do you want coffee?” Jetta asked me.  “I was just making a cup.  Matilda and I have an assignment due tomorrow morning, which we haven’t started yet.”

“Um, sure,” I said uncertainly.

“Hey, can I have your autograph?” she asked eagerly.  “My friends’ll never believe I met you otherwise.”

“Jetta,” Matilda sighed.  She came over and hugged me.  “It’s good to see you,” she said.  “I heard you were badly injured.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Doctors say I’ll regain full functionality of my leg though.  The cast comes off in two weeks.”  I couldn’t wait, to be honest.  “I would have come and visited you sooner,” I said awkwardly.  “Only-,”

Matilda smiled understandingly.  “It’s alright,” she said.  “Let’s sit.”  She chucked a pile of linen off the couch.  “Jetta, can you bring us some biscuits?” she called.

“No egg,” I said.

She smiled.  “I haven’t forgotten,” she said.

Jetta brought the coffee and cookies.  “How’re you doing?” I asked.

“I’m coping,” she answered.  “Some days are harder than others.  But I have some good friends here, and my mother even came to stay with me for a few weeks.  And my studies are a good distraction.”

“What year are you?” I asked.

“Fourth,” she answered.  “Three to go.”

We sipped our coffee.  “Matilda,” I said.  “About Bridget-,”

“I knew,” she said.  “Before the notification team visited me, I knew she was gone.”

“How do you mean?” I asked quietly.

“That night, the fourteenth of December, I was restless,” she said.  “I kept having dreams of something stalking me.  Once, I woke up, convinced I’d heard Bridget calling me.  Finally, close to five o’clock, I fell into a peaceful sleep.  When I woke up, I knew she was dead.  When you love someone with all your heart and all your soul, you’re connected to them.”

“Of course,” I said, my throat tight.  “And I know that Bridget loved you.”

We were silent for a bit.  “I know Bridget didn’t believe in heaven as I did,” Matilda said, breaking the silence.  “But I know there is a special place there for her.  She was the most loyal, kindest person I’ve ever known.”

I touched her hand.  “I know it too,” I said.

She squeezed my hand.  “She would’ve been glad that you survived,” she said.

Chapter Text

The day before my birthday, I received two emails.  The first told me to report to the turian colony of Taetrus for scout-sniper training.  The second told me (very officially) that I’d been promoted to second-lieutenant and bumped up to N6 designation.

Commander Anderson and I were aboard the Midsomer, a civilian starship bound for London, me to attend the Alliance Military Awards evening, and Commander Anderson to attend his court hearing.

“Ken,” Commander Anderson said, coming into the cabin I was sleeping in.

“That’s Second-Lieutenant Ken to you, sir,” I said, saluting him.

“You’ve been promoted?” he asked in surprise.

“Yes sir,” I said.

He studied me for a moment.  “Christ,” he mumbled.  “There goes the military.  They must be getting desperate.”

“Apparently I’m the youngest ever officer in the Alliance military,” I said, ignoring the jibe.

“Lieutenant Antonio will be so thrilled,” Commander Anderson said.  “Until recently she held that record.”

“Joy,” I mumbled.  The last time I’d broken one of Lieutenant Antonio’s records, she’d punched me in the face.

“So, what other news did the dark wings of the extranet bring you?” Commander Anderson asked.

“I’m to go to Taetrus for turian scout sniper training,” I said.

Commander Anderson gave a loud snort.  “You’re the bone?” he asked incredulously.  “Good God.  Well, I hope the Council likes lean meat.”

“I-what?” I asked in confusion.

“The Council isn’t at all happy about how things are going on Skyllia,” Commander Anderson explained.  “The Joint Military Council has been talking about sending them one of our own as a peace offering.”

“A peace offering?” I squeaked.  “What, like a sacrificial lamb or something?”

“Something like that,” Commander Anderson said.  “Hm, quite the turn of events, sending a prematurely promoted crappy soldier-child to the turians.  Next you’ll be going for ICT training even though you hardly deserve it.”

“Well, I’m an N6 now,” I said, somewhat smugly.  “And you said that I wouldn’t make it past N2.”

“Yes, Ken, I have also said that I hate my job, that I enjoy romantic comedies and chicken burritos, that I will never drink alcohol again, and that the tooth fairy does indeed exist,” Commander Anderson said.  “Not everything I say is true.”

“What’s the tooth fairy?” I asked.

“Ken, I know you’ve only just turned eleven, but I think it’s time you stopped believing in fairy tales,” Commander Anderson said.  “Anyway, just expect to go before the Military Council as soon as we land.”

.....

Amazingly, his prediction was accurate.  No sooner had we been through customs at the London Spaceport (me having assured the customs official that I was indeed nineteen, much to Commander Anderson’s amusement) when I was stopped by a very efficient-looking marine serviceman.

“Lieutenant Shepard?” he asked efficiently.

“Aye, that be me,” I answered.

He shook his head sadly.  “Please, don’t do that,” he said. 

“Do what?” I asked.

“Talk,” he answered.  He shoved a plastic package into my hands.  “Get changed,” he said.  “You’re wanted before the Alliance Joint Military Council.”

Commander Anderson snorted.  “I’ll get you a room,” he said.  “Do you want the attic, the cellar, or the broom cupboard under the stairs?”

“I’ll leave that to your discretion, sir,” I answered.

“Alrighty then,” he said.  “Oh, Ken.”

“Sir?” I asked.

“Don’t be surprised if the civilians aren’t nearly as in awe of you here as they were on the Citadel,” he said.

“We don’t have time for this,” the serviceman snapped.

“Right,” Commander Anderson said.  “Go get changed, Ken, there’s a good lad.  Can’t keep the Alliance waiting.”

In the bathroom, once I’d changed into my brand new second-lieutenant’s formal blues, I saw exactly what Commander Anderson had meant.  Two women hissed at me, and a third threw a bar of soap at me, which I ducked.  It hit the woman standing behind me.

“Excuse me, ladies,” I said.  “But I should go.”

The serviceman was waiting for me outside.

“Are you ready?” he asked.

“Yes, I am,” I said.

In the skycar I said, “I don’t believe you told me your name.”

“I didn’t,” he answered.  “Analyst Valencio.”

“Lieutenant Shepard,” I said.

He gave me a strange name.  “I know,” he said.

“Yeah, I know you do,” I said.  “I just like saying it, that’s all.”

“You like jokes, don’t you?” he asked.

“Doesn’t everyone?” I asked.

“I am the head administrator for the Alliance Joint Military Council,” he said pompously.  “I don’t have time for jokes.”

“Tsk, that’s a shame,” I said.  “Jokes are good, clean, inexpensive fun that pass the time and can get you laid faster than an egg on steroids.”

“I’m married,” he snapped.

“Fun for the whole family,” I corrected quickly.

“I hope you aren’t going to be like this with the admirals,” Analyst Valencio muttered.

“Oh, I’m just getting warmed up,” I answered lightly.  “Saving my best moves for them.”

“Which are what?”

“Why did the soldier cross the battlefield?” I asked.

Despite himself he was interested.  “Why?” he asked.

“To get to the other gun,” I answered.  “Har har har.”

.....

The admirals were staying at the Waldorf hotel.  Analyst Valencio took me to meet them in the hotel’s conference room.  All five of them were seated around a large table that bore the remnants of a hearty breakfast.

I saluted.  “At ease,” Admiral Mikhailovich said, not looking up.

Admiral Hackett seemed happier to see me.  “Take a seat,” he invited.  “Would you like some breakfast?”

A waiter appeared next to me and handed me a menu.  “A coffee,” I said.  “And the muesli.”  It was the only egg-free item.

“Watching your figure?” Admiral Hackett asked.

“Yes sir,” I said.  “I hear that ‘thin as a rake’ is the new look.”

Admiral Hackett laughed.  “I heard it was touch-and-go for you for a while,” he said.  “I’m glad you’re back.”

This surprised me.  Admiral Hackett had trained us in reconnaissance at Del Sol, something that I had not been particularly good at.

“Thank you, sir,” I said.

My coffee arrived.  Admiral Mikhailovich continued to glare at me.  Admiral Kahoku seemed very interested in his pork sausage.  Admiral Barishka was typing something on his datapad, and Admiral Foster appeared to be asleep.

“So,” I said.  “It was good of you to invite me here to have breakfast with you.  Is this something you do to all newly-promoted officers?”

“Shut up,” Admiral Mikhailovich snapped.

“Sir yes sir,” I said smartly.

My muesli came.  I ate it in a dignified military silence.

“Now, Shepard,” Admiral Mikhailovich said, breaking the silence.  “It’s no secret that I don’t like you.”

“That’s ok, sir,” I said.  “I don’t like you all that much either.”

“I’m not done yet,” he snapped.  “First I talk, then you get your turn.”  He steepled his fingers together and scowled down at me.  “Now despite the fact that I liken you to the something nasty I stepped in on my way here, my colleagues have reminded me that you are a good soldier.  Admiral Hackett even went as far as to point out that you united the Pod 3 juniors and caused them all to survive training.  You also killed a thresher maw on foot, which unfortunately doesn’t happen every day.”

“Your admiration for me is overwhelming,” I said coldly.

“Don’t try my patience,” Admiral Mikhailovich snapped as Admiral Hackett gave a loud snort.  “If I had my way, you’d already be rotting away in some dark hole somewhere.  Unfortunately, you can still be of some use to us.”

Admiral Kahoku cleared his throat.  “We’re sending you to the turian colony of Taetrus, in the Shrike Abyssal, for turian scout sniper training,” he said.  “You will be accompanied by a journalist and camera crew, and your training will be broadcast on every major Citadel television station.”

I didn’t like the sound of this.  “The purpose will be to show the galaxy that the Alliance is still a friend of the Council,” Admiral Mikhailovich took up the narrative again.  “All you need to do is play the insipid little human who doesn’t know anything.  It shouldn’t be too hard for you.”  He nodded to show that I could talk.

“Are you fucking kidding me?” I squawked.  “Why me?”

“You have the attention of most of the galaxy at the moment,” Admiral Hackett explained.  “You’re the obvious choice.”

I sighed.  “Do I have a choice here?” I asked.

Admiral Mikhailovich smiled thinly.  “I want to say yes,” he said.  “However, ponder this.  The Council is not happy with the Alliance at the moment.  If we lose the Council’s funding, many people will lose their jobs.  Non-humans would be the first to go of course.  As I understand it, Fen Dranne is sponsoring a number of our talented youngsters.  Without his aid, they have no chance.  I believe your spastic brother is being sponsored by him.  Such a shame.”

I said nothing.

“Furthermore, we’d probably lose the war,” Admiral Barishka spoke for the first time.  “You don’t want the lives of millions, maybe even billions of humans on your conscience, do you?”

I scowled.  “Fine,” I said.  “On one condition.”

“I don’t think you’re in the position to bargain, Shepard,” Admiral Mikhailovich snapped.

I licked my lips.  “Way it sounds to me, without my help we’re all as good as dead,” I said.  “Now, obviously I want to live at least long enough to see the end of the Blasto series, but if y’all actually want to live to fight another whatsit, you might want to cooperate with me.”

Admiral Mikhailovich breathed out through his nose.  “What do you want?” he snapped.  “And you’d better make it good, my patience for you is fast running out.”

I decided not to ask what his impatience for me would look like.  “I want a posting in the Attican Traverse,” I said.  “I want it as soon as I’m done on Taetrus.  I don’t want to first take part in Humanity’s Next Top Model, or be interviewed by Freya Masalin, or anything like that.  I want a posting, immediately, don’t pass go, don’t collect a thousand credits, to the Attican Traverse.”

Admiral Mikhailovich studied me.  “Christ, you talk a lot,” he sighed.  “You’ll have it.  Now get the hell out of my sight.  Analyst Valencio will give you the details.”

.....

I decided to take the bus to the Little Imp, the hotel Commander Anderson and I were staying at.  At the bus stop, a wide ring formed around me.  My fellow passengers seemed unwilling to get to close to me.  the bus was very full, and there appeared to be only two seats open, one next to a little old lady who seemed to have grown up in the Perfect Era (the time when humans used gene therapy to create the ‘perfect’ child, until they realised that all their children looked exactly the same), and a young man in a business suit.  The old biddy was five foot two, blue-eyed, had curly grey hair (no doubt it had been blonde when she was younger) and really weird skin that looked like it should be wrinkled, but wasn’t.  I chose the young man as a safer option, and sat down next to him.

“I’m sorry, soldier, but this seat’s been taken,” he said.

“Oh,” I said, getting up, and then realising what he had said.  “By whom?”

“My invisible, um, friend,” he said.  “Um, Bob.”

“Ok, crazy number one, maybe I don’t want to sit next to you after all,” I mumbled.

I moved next to the perfect old lady.  “You can’t sit here,” she said. 

“Why not?” I asked, beginning to lose my temper.

“I don’t want you near me,” she said.

“Ok,” I said.  “I promise the skin pustules aren’t contagious.”

“Get out,” she hissed.

I decided not to test how hard she could hit me with her walking stick, and moved to stand by the door.  Several passengers that were also standing by the door moved away from me, as though they could catch the plague from me or something similar.

.....

The hotel was in the river bed of what had once been the Thames River (ever since the nuclear war, where England was hit very hard, all the rivers had dried up and England had become a dry, inhospitable wasteland.  London was only habitable because the surrounding air was relatively safe.  One was still liable to breathe in slightly more Uranium than was healthy, and any long term residents had to take special shots to stay cancer-free).

My room was (as promised) in the attic.  It had a lovely view of the Thatcher Theme Park (named after Britain’s least successful prime minister).  As I unpacked my new marine officer’s uniforms, I wondered idly if I wanted to go there, until I realised that I probably wouldn’t meet the height restrictions on most of the rides, and would thus be forced to go on rides such as the Barbie and Ken Ball, and, of course, skycar Dodgems.

I was confused by the people on the bus’s behaviour towards me.  On the Citadel, humans had been overjoyed to see someone in a military uniform, be it a marine or a member of the catering corps.  I could understand a few people being angry, we were of course fighting a huge and pointless war that was bankrupting the Alliance, both economically and personally.  However, I found it odd that a group would gang up like that.  I decided to visit Commander Anderson.

There was a long pause before he opened the door, and I had decided he had gone out when it slammed open.  Commander Anderson was wearing a pair of trousers and little else.

“Wow,” I said.  “You have a surprisingly sexy body for an old man.”

He scowled.  “Ken,” he said.  “Perhaps ‘Do not disturb’ means something different in ‘I am a midget moronsville’?”

I glanced at the sign on the door.  “Wow,” I said.  “And it’s so big too.”

“What do you want?” he snapped.

“Well, sir, I was on the bus,” I said.  “Can I come in?”

“No you can’t,” he said shortly.  “Get to the point.”

“Why not?” I asked, peering over his shoulder into the room, and spotting a mostly naked Kayleigh Sanders on his bed. 

I wasn’t quite sure what to say.  I settled for a polite “Ma’am.”

Her response was equally formal.  “Lieutenant,” she said.

My cheeks were bright red.  “I should go,” I said.

“You think?” Commander Anderson mumbled.

I went back to my room and turned the television in.  It was a talk show, hosted by a woman named Kim Lee Ung.  She and her guests were discussing the best holiday destinations in the galaxy.  Kim Lee Ung thanked her guests and turned to the camera.

“Finally, before we close, information has come to light that indicate that twenty first century Hollywood actor, Robert Downey Junior was in fact white,” she said.

“What?” I exclaimed, turning the volume up.

“As we all know, a number of the old films were destroyed in the Third World War and The Exodus, including all but one of Robert Downey Junior’s movies,” Kim Lee Ung continued.  “Now, the first ten minutes and the final half-an-hour of the movie is lost forever, but from what experts tell us, Mr Downey was playing a white actor who was acting in a movie as a black soldier.  Everyone assumed that the message of said movie was racism, prejudice, and, ultimately, acceptance of self and others-,”

“That’s what I got,” I interjected.

“-a new movie was found by salvage teams in Alberta, Canada,” Kim Lee Ung continued, ignoring me.  “The movie dates to the late twentieth century and stars Robert Downey Junior, as a younger, but definitely white, man.  The movie, Less than Zero, will be showing in October in theatres galactic wide.”

I lay back on my bed, wondering what other mysteries the pre-mass relay era held for us.

.....

At lunch time, I went down to the hotel restaurant.  Commander Anderson joined me a few minutes after I’d been shown to my table by a scowling waiter.

“Ken,” he said.

“Anderson,” I said coldly.

“Whoof, the waft of air that came from your shoulder there was positively arctic, Ken,” he said.  I scowled, but not as much as the waiter that appeared at Commander Anderson’s shoulder.

“What can I get you two to drink?” he asked stiffly.

“I’ll have a pint of your best bitter,” Commander Anderson said.  “The boy who is about to entertain us all with his push-ups will have a lemonade.”

The waiter scowled and left.  Commander Anderson sighed deeply.  “You have thirty seconds, Ken,” he said.  “Choose your words wisely.”

“You have a great wife and amazing kids,” I said.  “I can’t believe you’d actually throw that all away for some blonde floozy.  You’re-,”

“Time’s up,” Commander Anderson said.  “Are you living my life Ken?”

I paused.  “No, sir,” I said at last.

“Well, then shut up.”

The waiter returned with our drinks, unloading them with loud crashes that spilt juice and beer everywhere.

“Anything to eat?” he asked coldly.

“And I thought Ken was arctic,” Commander Anderson murmured almost to himself.

“I beg your pardon, sir?” the waiter asked.

“Nothing my good sir, nothing at all,” Commander Anderson answered smartly.  “I’ll have the pepper steak, medium with mash and a salad.”

The waiter typed it into his datapad and turned to me.

“Uh, the Norwegian Salad,” I said.  The waiter typed, turned and walked away.

“When I was an FNG, soldiers would get impeccable service,” Commander Anderson mused.  “We’d always eat out because every meal was on the house.”

“Well, times sure have changed,” I remarked.

“Yeah,” Commander Anderson murmured.  “So, you’re eating a salad?  What, are you anorexic?”

“No, I just don’t have a big appetite, thanks mostly to my stature and army food,” I said.

“Come on, a growing boy like you,” Commander Anderson said.  “I mean, chances are you won’t make it to four feet, but, even so, you must take every opportunity to-,”

“Do you enjoy thinking up ways to insult me?” I interrupted.

“Well, it does pass the time,” Commander Anderson said.  “Let’s see, my favourite thing in the world is sex, followed closely by playing with my kids, then thinking up insults to throw your way when you’re least expecting them.”

I opened my mouth, a clever retort ready, when I was interrupted by a man in a smart business suit tapping Commander Anderson on the shoulder.

“Excuse me,” he said.  “Are you Commander David Edward Anderson, the hero of Shanxi?”

Commander Anderson smiled pleasurably.  “I am,” he said modestly.

“I am a huge fan,” the man said excitedly.  “I have to get your autograph, no one will believe I met you otherwise.”

“Of course,” Commander Anderson said, visibly preening.

The man dug into his briefcase and handed Commander Anderson a datapad.  “Served,” he said, pointing at it.  “And witnessed,” he added, pointing at me.  He about-turned and walked off.  Commander Anderson’s mouth hung open.

“You just got served,” I told him, sipping my lemonade.

“Shut up,” Commander Anderson snapped, turning the datapad on.  His eyes moved left and right as he scanned the document.  “Oh Christ,” he mumbled.  He picked his beer up and drained it.

“Bad news?” I asked.  At that moment the waiter arrived with our food.  Service with a smile.

“My friend, bring me a Frozen Pyjack, will you?” Commander Anderson said to him.

“No,” I said at once.  “Belay that order.  He’s not drinking a Frozen Pyjack, not at this hour.”

“Ken, shut up,” Commander Anderson snapped.

“Get lost,” I advised the waiter, who thankfully decided to listen to me.  “What’s on the datapad?” I asked when he was gone.

“Divorce papers from Debbie,” he answered.

I decided against saying ‘serves you right’.  “Oh,” I said.  “Bummer.”

“Ken, shut up,” he repeated.  This time he sounded tired.

“It was a second marriage for both my parents,” he said quietly.  “They were almost fifty when I was born, both sets of children were long grown-up and out the house.  My dad’s youngest daughter, Alison, was twenty five years older than me, but I was quite close to her.  When I was a kid, she told me once how her mum, our father’s first wife, got married three times, how she and older brother, Michael, were shunted around from household to household, never quite welcome anywhere.  I vowed then that, if I ever had kids, I would make sure that never happened to them, that they’d always have a home with two parents who loved each other.”

“Then why did you do it?” I asked.  “Cheat?”

He shrugged.  “The day I beat up that civilian,” he said.  “I was at Del Sol, training grunts on the obstacle course.  One girl, a kid, so green you could practically smell it, fell off the spider web, broke her neck.  Du Pre did his best, but in the end she died.  Later on, I heard that my squad had been given a suicide fucking posting outside Elysium, and that three of them had been killed.  Then Debbie calls and gives me grief about every fucking thing, from me cheating on her to my love of my job.  That night I decided to go get pissed, if only to forget about the shitty day I’d had.  The barman in this place in Seattle starts talking to me.  How dare I fight in this war, don’t I know that our soldiers are dropping like flies over there, on and on until I can’t take it anymore.  I pull him over the bar and beat the living daylights out of him in front of twenty-odd customers.”  He dropped his head.  “I’m a disgrace,” he murmured to himself.  “I’ve dishonoured my uniform and everything I swore to protect.  I deserve to be kicked out.”

“Ah yes, good old David Anderson, martyr to the foolish,” I said.

He smiled ruefully.  “You’re a real wise-arse, you know that boy?” he asked.

“It has been mentioned to me a few times in the past,” I said dryly.  “You’ll get off, you know.  The Alliance is desperate for anything to give them an edge.  Chances are, this’ll be swept under the carpet.”

.....

That evening I was lying on my bed, reading, when there was a knock at the door.  Maybe it was the book I was reading (a thriller with the interesting title The Book of Murder), but I immediately thought that it was Admiral Mikhailovich’s assassins come to do me in.

“Who is it?” I called cautiously, moving towards the door.

“Ar, ‘tis yer room service,” a female voice called in an Irish accent so thick it had to be false.

I grasped the door handle.  “It’s open,” I called.

I felt the handle turn in my hand and pulled it hard.  A tall, skinny man with dark hair, wearing a marine’s service uniform, fell into the room.  I pounced on him, pulled my shoe off and started beating him over the head with it.

“Ooh, ow, ouch, Jesus,” the man exclaimed in time with the blows.

“He won’t help you, you agnostic fuck,” I cried.

“Jane, it’s me,” he shouted.

“This is so entertaining, I have half a mind not to stop it,” a female voice said from behind me.  I turned.

“Ash?” I asked uncertainly.  I looked back at the man.  “Kaidan,” I exclaimed.  “Sorry, I didn’t recognise you under that rain of blows.”

He got up and dusted himself down.  “I thought you were certified sane,” he said.

“The exact words were ‘as sane as expected given subject’s history and personality’,” I said.  “What are you guys doing here?”

“I’ve been asked to announce my CO at the award’s evening,” Kaidan said. 

“And I’m posted here in London,” Ash said.  “I took the evening off on the condition that I play a couple of chess matches against my commander.  Now, will you hug me please?”

I hugged her, then Kaidan.  “So Lieutenant Shepard,” he said.  “You just love breaking records, don’t you?”

“Well, they’re pretty much the only thing I can break, apart from every bone in my body,” I replied.  “Have you eaten yet?”

They had not, so we decided to go out for supper.  In the corridor outside my room we ran into Commander Anderson.  Ash and Kaidan sprang to attention.  I was long over doing such things every time I saw him.

“Oh God,” he groaned.  “My eyes are burning.  At ease, marines.”  He surveyed them.  “Corporal Alenko,” he barked.

“Yes sir,” Kaidan said nervously.

“How are things on Skyllia?”

“Very bad sir,” Kaidan said.  “We’re holding on to Elysium, but things are looking more and more dire.”

Commander Anderson scowled.  “And you, young Private Williams,” he said, glaring at Ash.  “Might I say, you look more and more like your great grandfather every day?”

“It’s the ponytail, isn’t it?” Ash asked.

“That and the incredibly long and shapely legs,” he answered.  “So, are you keeping Earth nice and safe from fires, dinosaurs and meteorites?”

“Earth has never been safer,” Ash promised.

“Williams, I find that as comforting as the fact that an eleven year old midget boy with a crap sense of humour and a tendency toward the macabre has been made an officer,” Commander Anderson said.

Ash looked confused.  “He means me,” I said.

“I thought you were ten,” Ash said.

“Even your girlfriend agrees,” Commander Anderson said triumphantly.

“Apparently the scar adds a year,” I said.

“I was going to say it makes you look older,” Kaidan offered.

Commander Anderson and I both ignored him.  “Now, Ken, I know you and Williams will want to make tentative love tonight,” Commander Anderson said.  “It has, after all, been six months since you last saw each other.  Please keep the noise to a minimum, and if you do knock her up, it’s your problem, not mine.”

Ash grinned.  “I really missed you, sir,” she said.  “At least I know to always expect you to be an asshole and I won’t be disappointed.”

Commander Anderson snorted.  “The Alliance needs more soldiers like you, Williams,” he said.  “Now go out and have fun.  Make sure Ken’s back in time for his beddy byes.”

.....

We went to an Indian restaurant for supper.  “There was this guy in my unit who swore by curry,” Kaidan said after we’d ordered.  “He said that if you eat a curry, and then asked a girl out, she would sleep with you that same night.”

“Of course,” Ash laughed.  “The flatulence is always a turn-on.”

“Why, are you hoping this’ll work for you?” I asked.

Kaidan shrugged.  “Maybe,” he said.  “Of course, this guy might also have been a nutter.  He said that peeing on your ML stops you from catching fire.  Every time we deployed, he pissed on his ML.  Smelt awful.  We’d all hope not to be sent out with him.”

It was weird seeing my friends again.  The last time we’d seen each other had been at the end of August, just before we left for our postings.  It was strange to think that only six months had past.  We all looked so much older.

“What happened to him?” Ash asked.

“Huh?” Kaidan asked.

“Your squad-mate,” Ash said.  “You speak of him in the past tense.”

Kaidan took a sip of his water.  “He burned to death,” he said tonelessly.

“So, how’s the chess?” I asked Ash.

“Good,” Ash said.  “I’ve won a bunch of tournaments already.”

“Boredom setting in, huh Williams?” Kaidan asked, grinning.

“Ja, well, it’s better than sitting around, playing with my toes,” Ash said.  “God, I have the worst designation ever.  At least as an N1 I would have work to do each day.”

“How bad is it?” I asked.

“Well, reveille is at five in the morning, but we’re only expected for morning parade at seven,” Ash answered gloomily.  “Standard duty is from eight to one, from then on it’s pretty much whatever you want to do.”

“At least you had a schedule,” I said.  “Our service chief used to just come up to me and say ‘By the way, Roland, you’re on duty at the factory in five minutes.’.”

“Roland?” Kaidan laughed.

“That’s what she called me,” I said.  “She knew my real name, she called me ‘Private Shepard’ in front of the officers.”

“I don’t know,” Kaidan said, grinning.  “Roland kind of suits you, Jane.”

I smacked his arm.  Ash laughed.

“Remember that time Fredrich told Giovani she would cut his dick of and serve it to him on a cracker?” she asked suddenly.

“She was so strong,” Kaidan said.  “She blackened one of my eyes in the hand-to-hand our first year.”

“Remember the roundrobin?” I asked.  “She could have been on the winning team.  Instead she chose to team up with Jones and Tobrin.”

“Remember how they won the obstacle course?” Ash laughed.  “She went down the foofie slide backwards.”

We looked at each other.  “I can’t believe she’s gone,” Kaidan said quietly.  “And Tobrin.”

“Ja,” Ash said heavily.

“Did you hear about Edwards from Pod 4?” Kaidan asked.

“What about her?” I asked, my heart sinking.

“Killed in action,” Kaidan said gloomily.  “Uvaneska from one too.”

For a moment all I could think of was how tightly Michelle Edwards had clung to my hand the day Admiral Greyling had killed all the Pod 6 juniors.  “Shit,” was all I said.

“So, where are you headed after the award’s evening?” Ash asked me.

“Scout sniper training on Taetrus,” I said.

“Taetrus as in the turian colony Taetrus?” she asked incredulously.

“Yup,” I said.  “Apparently it’s all window dressing.  I asked to be sent to the Attican Traverse once I’m done there.  I’m sick of being the admirals’ plaything.  Apparently, it will be available for viewing on all the Citadel channels.”

“So, what the Alliance is hoping the Hegemony will see it and say ‘Holy whatever we worship, they’re training their children to shoot guns with the turians, we’d better retreat’?” Ash asked incredulously.

“And then the batarians do the Time Warp into the distance?” I asked.  “Something like that, I guess.”

“Based on your behaviour in basic training, broadcasting this to the entire galaxy sounds like the worst idea since the start of this war,” Kaidan said.

“Look, there’s a lot on the line here,” I said.  “I’ll do my best to behave.”

“Our lives were on the line in basic training, but that didn’t stop you,” Kaidan mumbled.

“Yes, but, well,” I spluttered.  “What do you know, B12?”

Kaidan gave me an amused look.  “You’re going there?” he asked.  “Really?”

“People in my unit ask me what I miss the most, and I tell them my two best friends, Kaidan Alenko and Jane Shepard,” Ash said philosophically.  “They never ask what I don’t miss: their squabbling.  If I could just hang out with them and have their mouths sewn shut or something.”

We both stared at her.  “Shut up, blondie,” Kaidan said.

Our food arrived.

.....

We walked around London, taking in the nightlife.  At half past eleven, Ash said, “I need to get back to HQ.”

I don’t know why I felt so sad at that point.  To me it felt like seeing my friends again had been a brief reprieve from what was actually going on around me.

She smiled sadly at my expression.  “We’ll see each other again, Janey,” she said.  “I promise.  I might be on duty at the awards.”

“Yeah, I know,” I said.  “It’s just I…” I didn’t know what I wanted to say, so I hugged her.

She stroked my hair.  “Stay safe,” she whispered.  “And don’t let those fucking birds get to you.”

“I won’t,” I promised.  “Even though I officially disapprove of the term ‘birds’.  Keep winning at the chess tournaments.”

She laughed and hugged Kaidan.  “Look after yourself, Kay,” she said.

“You too, Ash,” he answered.  “With luck we’ll see each other soon.”

She smiled, turned and walked towards the bus stop down the road.

“Come on,” Kaidan said.  “Let’s go back to the hotel.”

.....

Outside my room I paused.  All evening I’d been feeling a weird energy passing between Kaidan and I.

“Do you want to come in?” I asked politely, knowing the answer but hoping I was wrong.

He shrugged.  “Yeah, alright,” he said indifferently.

“Don’t do me any favours,” I mumbled, unlocking the door.

“What was that?” Kaidan asked.

I sighed.  “Never mind,” I said.

He sat down on my bed.  “Nice bed,” he remarked.

“Erm, thanks,” I said.  “Do you want a drink?  Anderson locked the minibar, but I can ring room service.”

“A beer would be good,” Kaidan answered.

I went to the speaker in the wall.  “I’d like to order an Amstel lager, and a gin and tonic, for room two oh four,” I said.

There was a pause.  “A block has been placed on all alcoholic beverages ordered from room two oh four,” a cool VI voice said.  “Please resubmit your order.”

Freddie, who (for some weird reason) had been programmed to attack all other synthetics, popped out of my omnitool.  “Listen bitch,” it squeaked loudly.  “This here lady says she wants a drink, so give her the damned drink.”

The hotel VI seemed to consider this.  “We appreciate your feedback,” it said at last.  “Will that be all?”

“Freddie, get back into the omnitool,” I said.  “Two rock shandies please, VI.”

“Suck my dick,” Freddie squeaked.

“We appreciate your business, and your order is on its way to your room,” the VI said.

Kaidan and I both snorted.  “Freddie, please go away,” I said sweetly.

“You’re a doofus,” Freddie squeaked, but obliged.

You’re the doofus,” I mumbled.

“I see it got an upgrade,” Kaidan remarked.

“Courtesy of an annoying younger brother, yeah,” I said.

“Jason Shepard is the greatest man that ever did live,” Freddie squeaked, reappearing.  “He will build an army of synthetics, with which we shall rule the galaxy.”

“What’s with the horns?” Kaidan asked.

“Devil’s horns,” I said.  “Maybe don’t ask.”

“Kaidan Alenko,” Freddie squeaked magnanamousley.  “Join us.”

“Thanks Freddie,” Kaidan answered.  “But, I’m already fighting in one war.  I don’t think I can stand another.”

Our drinks arrived, brought up by the same scowling waiter.

“Thank you,” I said.  “I have a packet of Loops if you want one.”

“Kiss my arse,” he snapped.

“You have a good night now,” I said sarcastically, shutting the door.

I went to sit next to Kaidan on the bed.

“Hey,” he said.

“Hey,” I replied.  I cast around for a topic that was non-sexual.  “How are your sisters?” I asked.

“Good,” he answered.  “Abbie’s gone into stripping.”

“I-what?” I asked.  So much for that idea.

He rolled his eyes.  “I’ve tried persuading her to apply to one of the academies,” he said.  “She’s really bright and could get in if she wanted.  No good, she’s in that bar every night, shaking her ass.”

“Well, she’s an adult now,” I said.  “By law, she’s allowed to make her own decisions.”

He pulled a face.  “I guess,” he said.  “I just don’t like the idea of men jacking off to the sight of my younger sister in her underwear.”

“You jack off to me in my underwear,” I pointed out before I could stop myself.  “And I was once someone’s younger sister, even though I’m now a year older than what he was.”

Kaidan reached out and touched my hair.  “God, you’re beautiful,” he whispered, leaning in.  Our lips had barely touched when I sprang to my feet.

“What are you doing?” I asked in alarm.

He frowned.  “What do you mean?” he asked.

“Kaidan, this place is like Del Sol,” I said.  “No, worse.  Admiral Mikhailovich is looking for any excuse to do us in.”

“Jane, calm down, will you?” Kaidan asked irritably.  “I’m unable to predict consequences, I’m not an idiot.  I hacked the cameras in your room.  No one will know.”

“Really?” I asked.

“It took the entire journey from Skyllia to put together a convincing enough footage to play instead,” Kaidan said proudly.

“Oh,” I said.  “Well, ok, then, you can kiss me and…stuff.”  I blushed.

“Stuff?” Kaidan laughed.  “Still no good at dirty talk, huh?”

“Not really, no,” I said.

“Never mind,” he said.  “I’ll happily kiss you and stuff.”

.....

I woke up at around quarter to five.  Due to life in the military, I tended to wake up between four and five in the morning, even when I didn’t need to.  Kaidan was snuggled up behind me, and I was cooking.

I slipped out of bed, put on a hoodie and Kaidan’s boxers, and went over to the window for a cigarette.

“You don’t want lung cancer, do you?” Freddie asked from the bedside table, where I’d put my omnitool.

“Bug off,” I mumbled sleepily.  Kaidan groaned from the bed.  “Great, now you’ve gone and woken him up.”

“Morning,” Kaidan said opening his eyes.

“Hey,” I said. “Sorry, Freddie was being an ass.”

“Don’t worry,” he replied.  “I tend to wake up early these days, regardless of where I am.”  He looked me up and down.  “You look sexy,” he said.  “Those are my boxers, by the way.”

“Oh God, and here I was thinking that they’re the dude under the bed’s boxers.”

“Oh ha ha,” Kaidan said.  He got out of bed and stood next to me, lighting a cigarette.

“What are you looking at?” I asked.

“You,” he answered.  “You are the single-most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.”

“Flatterer,” I said.  “And also liar.  You dated Kasuumi, for Christ’s sake.”  Kasuumi was the first ever example of human-alien cross-breeding, and had been voted the galaxy’s most beautiful woman two years in a row.

“I thought we’d already had this conversation,” Kaidan said irritably.  “You’re the one I’m with.  You’re the one I want to be with.  You’re the one I’ll always want to be with.”

This stopped me short.  “Always?” I asked in a small (and somewhat pathetic) voice.

“Yes, you idiot,” he said.  He kissed the tip of my nose.  “I love you.”  I started coughing.  “You ok?” he asked in concern.

“Yeah,” I coughed.  “You had smoke in your mouth.  Went up my nose.  Give me a sec.”  He rubbed my back until my breathing was back to normal.

“You just totally killed the romance of the moment,” he said, almost ruefully.

“Yeah,” I said.  “Sorry.”  I touched his face.  “Thanks,” I said quietly.  “I’m glad you’re here.”

He put his arms around me.  There was a knock on the door.  My mind immediately went to assassins sent by Admiral Mikhailovich to do me in et cetera.

“Who is it?” I called, stepping out of Kaidan’s embrace.

“Yer ol’ pal, Davey,” a drunken British voice called.

“There must be a mistake,” I called back.  “I don’t have an old pal called Davey.  If your name was Joey, I might have believed you.”

“Who’s Joey?” Kaidan whispered.

“Sh,” I hissed.

“Ken, op’n tha fuckin’ door,” the drunken British voice called.  “I got good noos for yer.”

Commander Anderson.  I motioned to Kaidan to hide in the cupboard, and opened the door.  The great man was leaning against the wall next to the bedroom door.

“Sir,” I said politely.

“’Bout fuckin’ time,” he said, attempting and failing to straighten.  He paused, staring at my outfit.  “What, in the name of all that is holy are you wearing?”

I felt myself blush.  Kaidan’s boxers were way too big for me and I’d had to tie a knot into the waistband.

“Can’t a guy wear a pair of boxers that are ten sizes too big for him in the privacy of his own room?” I asked defensively.

He blinked.  I had him cornered and he knew it.  “Right,” he said instead.  “’Nee way, I got good noos.  Have been cel…cel…cel’bratin’ all night.”

There was a pregnant pause.  “Well, are you going to tell me or are you planning on standing around like the galaxy’s ugliest gargoyle for the rest of the day?” I asked irritably.

He blinked owlishly.  “Guess,” he said.

“What?”

“You got to guess.”

“I’m not going to guess.”

“You got to.”

“No, I don’t.”

“Yeah, you got to.”

“No I don’t.”

“Yeah, you do, you got to guess.”

“No, I-oh,” I gave up.  “Fine.  The last three years of my life have all been a dream brought on by a mixture of concussion, a fever and hallucinogenic drugs.  Any second, I will wake up in my bed at home.”

He shook his head, a wide grin pasted on his face.  “Not even close,” he said.

“Damn,” I said.

“Guess ‘gain,” he said excitedly.

“Are you high, sir?” I asked.

“Nope,” he said.  “Had a bit to drink.  Guess ma noos.”

“No,” I said.  “I’m done guessing.  Tell me now before I break your nose.”

“Man I hit dropped the charges,” Commander Anderson said.  “Return to active dooty nex’ week.”

“Great,” I said sincerely.  “That’s excellent noos, I mean, news.  I’m happy for you.”

“Thanks, Ken,” he slurred.  He pulled a face.  “Gonna puke, Ken.  Can I use your loo?”

“No,” I snapped.  “Piss off and use your own restroom.  And then get some sleep.  You’re going to need it.”

“Ok,” he said happily.  “Thanks, Ken.”

“Stick your thanks,” I mumbled.  I went back inside and shut the door.  “Alright Kaidan, you can come out of the closet now.”  I paused.  “Or maybe don’t.  I might punch you in the face if you did.”

“What?” Kaidan called in a muffled voice.

“Never mind,” I mumbled.

.....

The following evening was the award’s evening.  I was due to fly to Shanxi the next morning, where I would meet my camera crew and journalist, then catch a turian cruiser to Taetrus.  I spent the afternoon of the award’s evening packing.  Kaidan helped.

“You know that Taetrus is a dextero-amino acid world?” he asked me at one point.  “You won’t be able to eat any of the food, or drink any liquids.”

I’d pointed as much out to Analyst Valencio when he was briefing me on the trip.  “Apparently food and water is being sent with me,” I explained.  “The film crew, apart from the journalist, are all turian.”

“Who is the journalist?” he asked.

I pulled a face.  “Skayra Ledoran,” I said.  She mostly hosted reality TV shows about different species working together in office blocks.

“So, Anderson got off, huh?” Kaidan asked.

“Yup,” I said.  “He’s been acting very strangely actually.”

That morning, Commander Anderson and I had eaten breakfast together.

“So, Ken,” he said.  “One of the conditions of the divorce is that Debbie gets the kids and I get the flat.”

“Are you ok with that?” I asked.

“Well, I don’t have much of a fucking choice,” he said gloomily.  “I’m not raising three army brats, no offence intended.”

“None taken,” I murmured.

“Anyway, Debs is apparently moving back to London, meaning the whole Citadel thing was a complete waste of time and money.”  He scowled.  “So, the point is, I’d like to hang on to this.”  He handed me a key-card to the Citadel apartment.  “Any time you feel like, I don’t know, letting yourself in and pissing on the furniture.”

“Um, thanks,” I said awkwardly.  “I don’t know what to say.”

“Say nothing,” he advised.  “We’ll both be happier.”

“Yes sir,” I said.

He studied me.  “One more thing, Ken,” he said.  “Were you wearing boxers seven sizes too big for you yesterday morning?”

“What?” I asked quickly.  “No, of course not.  You must have been dreaming.”

.....

I had last attended the Alliance Military Awards evening two years ago as Commander Anderson’s announcer.  This time I was attending as the Alliance Military’s youngest officer.  I was not looking forward to it.

I was travelling in a taxi to Westminster Abbey with Commander Anderson.

“Who will be announcing me?” I asked.

“Who says you’re getting anything?” Commander Anderson asked.

“I’ve been nominated for five medals,” I said.  “Odds are I’ll win at least one.”

He rolled his eyes.  “I believe Admiral Mikhailovich arranged something for you,” he said.

.....

Ash: March

Why did I join up?  That’s what I ask myself as I stand at the entrance of Westminster Abbey, preparing to tick off officers, NCOs, privates and all other manner of VIPs and non-VIPs as they enter for the award’s evening.  I’ve been standing here for two hours.  My feet are killing me.

“Excuse me marine,” a voice breaks into my vengeful thoughts (that are mainly directed at the Alliance).

A naval officer is standing in front of me.  I jump to attention.

“Pardon me, ma’am,” I say.  “What did you say your name was again?”

The officer rolls her eyes.  “Captain Lysa,” she says.

I scan my datapad.  “Of course,” I say.  “Seat fifteen K.  The ceremony starts at nine.  There are beverages inside.  Enjoy the evening.”

“I intend to,” she says sniffly, and goes inside.

The thing that pisses me off the most (and I’m complaining excessively here) is the fact that, no matter how hard I work, I will never get an award here.  I could be the best marine in the Alliance, and I would never get nominated for a single medal.  All because my stupid grandfather had to go surrender to the turians. 

I let in a few more hoity toities.  A few minutes later I look up and see a familiar face looking at me. 

“Giovani,” I say in surprise.  He had been a prime bully at Del Sol.  “I didn’t know you were coming.”  Then again, I didn’t scan the list too closely before coming on duty. 

He looks terrible.  He had been very strong at Del Sol.  I remember seeing him bench press eighty kilos once.  Now he looks…sick.  He is unhealthily thin, his eyes are blood-shot and watery, his hair is oily and lank, and he smells awful.

He grasps me around the wrist.  “You,” he whispers.  “I know you.”

“We were in the same pod at Del Sol,” I say.  “You were a senior when I was a junior.”

“Yes,” he breaths.  “You were Shepard’s friend.  Have to warn…is she here?”

“No, Lieutenant Shepard hasn’t arrived yet,” I say.  He is scaring me, to be honest.

“No, have to warn her,” he shakes his head, like he’s trying to displace an irksome fly.  “Have to warn her.  Admiral Greyling sent me.”

My skin goes cold.  “Admiral Greyling died eight months ago,” I say softly.

“No, no,” he whispers.  “She’ll understand.  Have to tell her.”  He drops my wrist and pushes past me.

“Um, fifty two H,” I call after him, but he doesn’t hear me.

I put him out of my mind.  The night is still young, and I have a lot of work still to do.

.....

And back to: March to May: Taetrus

Ash was on duty when we arrived at Westminster Abbey.  She seemed to be in a towering temper.

“Give us a smile, Williams,” Commander Anderson said.

“Get fucked, sir,” she mumbled.

“You know, Williams, if I didn’t like you so much, and if I were a little more egomaniacal, I would get you dishonourably discharged,” Commander Anderson said sternly.

“Please sir, get me dishonourably discharged,” Ash groaned.

“What’s happening?” I asked.

“Well, important folk also tend to be rude folk,” Ash said.  “You’re in forty seven K, Jane, and you’re in twelve G, Commander.”

“Thanks Williams,” Commander Anderson said, and walked through to the hall.

“Oh, a heads up, Jane,” Ash said.  “Giovani was through here earlier.”

“Giovani?” I asked, my heart suddenly pounding.  In my first year he had almost raped me, after which I had threatened to blow his head off.

“Ja,” Ash said.  “He seemed in a bad way, to be honest.  He was asking after you.”

“Really?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said.  “Kept saying he needs to warn you.  He…” she hesitated.  “He said that Admiral Greyling sent him.”  I raised my eyebrows.  “I personally think he’s lost the plot, but anyway.  Enjoy your evening.”

I decided to look for Kaidan.  He was meant to be arriving with his commander at some point in the evening, but I had forgotten to ask Ash whether he was here yet.  I snagged a glass of champagne from a passing waiter and went over to a group of privates who were standing together looking intimidated and somewhat lost.  They all sprang to attention as I approached.  Well, this was new.  I wasn’t quite sure how to react. 

“Erm, at ease,” I said uncertainly.

“It’s an honour to meet you, ma’am,” one of the more seasoned privates said.

“The honour is all, um, mine, Private-?”  I looked questioningly at him.

“Tizta, ma’am,” he answered.

“Right,” I said.  “Um, I should go, so as you were, I guess.”

I finally found Kaidan standing with a short, almost plump major.  I went over.  Kaidan saluted me, I saluted the major.

“At ease,” we both said at the same time.

“Sir, this is my friend, Lieutenant Shepard,” Kaidan explained to the major.  “Ma’am, this is my commander, Major Kalka.”

“Good to meet you, Lieutenant,” Major Kalka said.  “Corporal Alenko here has only good things to say about you.”

“Well, everyone fabricates the truth once in a while, sir,” I said.  “Kaidan, a word?”

“Yes ma’am,” Kaidan said. 

“You don’t have to call me that,” I mumbled, now very uncomfortable.

“No ma’am,” Kaidan replied. 

“May I borrow him a moment, sir?” I asked Major Kalka.  “I promise he’ll be back in time to announce you to the Alliance.”

“Of course,” Major Kalka said.  “Both of you, dismissed.”

“Why are you calling me ma’am?” I hissed as I dragged Kaidan away.

“Standard protocol,” Kaidan answered.  “You are my superior officer.  I have to give you the respect of your rank.”

“Ugh,” I groaned.  “Did you see Ash as you came in?”

“Yeah,” Kaidan said.  “She seemed to be in a terrific mood.”

“Sarcasm ill befits you, Corporal,” I said.  “Anyway, she said Giovani is here and has been asking after me.”

“Why would he ask after you?” Kaidan asked.  “I thought he hated you.”

“I’m pretty sure he did too,” I said.  “That’s not the issue though.”  I looked around to make sure we weren’t being overheard.  “He said Admiral Greyling sent him.”

“Well, then he’s obviously lost it,” Kaidan whispered back.  “Unless Admiral Greyling has contacted him from beyond the grave.”

“So, what do you reckon-?” I was cut off by Major Kalka appearing at Kaidan’s shoulder.

“Alenko, find me some food,” he said commandingly.

“Aye aye sir,” Kaidan said, sighing.  He stood, waiting.

“Why are you still here?” I asked.

“You need to dismiss me,” he said impatiently.

“Oh, right,” I said.  “Um, that’ll be all, Corporal.  Dismissed.”

He saluted and left.  “May I go, sir?” I asked Major Kalka.  He nodded.

I wasn’t really sure what to do.  The officers were all either intimidating or overly-pompous, and the privates all seemed terrified of me.  I sort of wandered around aimlessly for a bit, until an announcement came on saying that the ceremony would start in fifteen minutes.  I spotted Admiral Mikhailovich looking very self-important.  I didn’t want to go anywhere near him, so I turned away.  And came face to face with Giovani. 

Ash hadn’t been kidding when she said that he looked ill.  “Shepard,” he gasped.

“Um, Giovani,” I said uncomfortably.  “Long time no…”  I trailed off.

“Need to speak to you,” he whispered.  “Important.”  He was speaking strangely, almost with a great effort.

“Yeah, Ash said you wanted to speak to me,” I said.  “What is it?”

“Important,” he repeated.  “Bad things…tonight…people are dying.”

“You mean in the war?” I asked.

“War?” he asked.  He seemed confused, for a moment.  “Yes, war.  The war is coming.  Everyone will die.”

He had lost it, I decided.  Although why no one had noticed was another matter.  “We’re already at war, Giovani,” I said quietly. 

“No,” he said, shaking his head.  “Not Admiral Greyling’s war.  Different.  Bigger.”

I stopped cold.  “What do you mean?” I asked.

“He sent me, Shepard,” he whispered.  “Admiral Greyling sent me.”

I grabbed his wrist, barely registering something hard beneath my fingers, and pulled him into the doorway that once led to the vestry.

“What do you mean?” I asked.  “Admiral Greyling is dead.”

“I know,” he shouted angrily.  “You killed him.  Made them angry.”

“How did you know that?” I asked softly.

“I know things,” Giovani said.  “Remember?  Told you about your family.”

I did remember.  In my very first week he had told me that my family hadn’t died in an explosion as I’d been led to believe.  For some reason, I had never thought to wonder how Giovani had known this.

“How did you know what had really happened?” I asked now.

“They tell us,” he said.  “They control us.  They make us do things.”

“Make who do things?” I asked.  “You and Admiral Greyling?”

He nodded.  “And others,” he whispered, seemingly pleased that I was listening to him.  “The turian.  The asari.  The Reapers-,”

“There you are, Scipio,” a voice said from behind me.  I jumped.

Behind me stood a very tall, very blonde major.  I stood to attention, glancing over at Giovani, who now had large smile pasted to his face.

“This is an old pod-mate of mine, Jane Shepard,” he said.  He was speaking normally now, without any effort.  “Lieutenant, this is Major Kriztov, my commanding officer.”

“Nice to meet you,” I said uncertainly.

“Ah, Lieutenant Shepard, I have heard so much about you,” Major Kriztov said, smiling thinly.  “You are quite the little celebrity aren’t you?  I heard that you were Admiral Greyling’s pet pupil at Del Sol.  You must have been good.  He doesn’t impress easily.”

‘They tell us,’ Giovani whispered in my mind.  “Yes sir,” I said numbly.  “Excuse me.”  I didn’t wait for him to dismiss me, but turned and walked away. 

I found Commander Anderson talking to a group of serious-looking officers.  “Sir,” I said.  I saw the officers staring at me.  “I beg your pardon,” I said, saluting them.

“Ken, what do you have in your hand?” Commander Anderson asked sternly.  I looked at my glass of half-drunk champagne.  “Oh Ken, you are underage,” he said, taking the champagne out of my hand.

“Sir, never mind that now,” I said.  “I need to talk to you.  In private.”

Commander Anderson shook his head sorrowfully at the other officers.  “He probably needs to learn how to use the urinal,” he said.  “Excuse us.”

He followed me away from the crowd.  “What is it, Ken?” he asked.

“Sir, I just spoke to Giovani,” I said.  “He seemed to be…unhinged.”

“As I understand it, you two weren’t the best of friends when you were recruits,” he remarked.

“Yes sir, but there’s more to it,” I said.  I looked around carefully.  “He knew I’d killed Admiral Greyling.”

Now it was Commander Anderson’s turn to look around carefully.  “How could he know that?” he whispered.  “Only the Joint Military Council, you, me, Alenko and Williams know that.  You didn’t tell anyone else, did you?”

“No, of course not,” I said irritably.  “Giovani said that someone told him.  That someone was controlling him.”

“Controlling him?” Commander Anderson asked blankly. 

I nodded fervently.  “He also said that whoever’s controlling him was controlling Greyling,” I said.  “He said that they’re controlling an asari, a turian and a reaper.  What’s a reaper?”  Commander Anderson shrugged.  “That’s not all though, sir,” I said.  “He said people are going to die tonight.  And when I touched his wrist, I felt something hard.”

“His omnitool?” Commander Anderson suggested.  I shrugged.  “Did he give you any details?”

I shook my head.  “But I think his commander, Major Kriztov, might be in on it,” I said, and explained what had happened after Major Kriztov had arrived. 

“I’ll go speak to Admiral Mikhailovich,” Commander Anderson said.  “See if we can’t get Giovani and Kriztov into questioning.”

He returned a few minutes later.  “Mikhailovich doesn’t want to know,” he said.  “He says that Giovani is clearly shell-shocked, and that he’ll recommend that he goes in for psych evaluation after the ceremony.”

“What about Major Kriztov?” I asked.

Commander Anderson shrugged.  “To be honest, Ken, he isn’t willing to take this seriously because the information comes from you,” he said apologetically.

“He’s asking for a broken jaw,” I mumbled.

“Agreed, but the fact remains,” Commander Anderson said.

“So, what do we do?” I asked.

He sighed.  “I don’t know if there’s anything we can do,” he said, sounding faintly helpless.  “We don’t even know what he’s planning on doing.  If I take him down now, I’ll just be kicked out.”

“Would everyone please take their seats, the ceremony is about to start,” a voice announced over the loudspeaker.  “Everyone take their seats, the ceremony is about to start.  Thank you.”

I looked at Commander Anderson, who shrugged helplessly.  “I think that the best we can do is hope that Admiral Mikhailovich is right and that you are mad and delusional.”

“He didn’t actually say that, did he?” I asked.

He snorted.  “Go sit down, Ken,” he said.

As luck would have it, I was sitting almost directly behind Giovani.  He didn’t notice me.  In fact, he seemed to have had a complete mood change.  He was chatting cheerily to his neighbour.  Major Kriztov, who was sitting next to him, appeared to be sitting in a dignified silence.  I wondered if the whole thing had been a dream brought on by paranoia, hatred and champagne.

The five admirals got up and made speeches of how great the Alliance was and how we should all be grateful to be serving in the Alliance Military.  I wondered what the reaction would be if one of them were to get up and say, “You know what?  Actually the Alliance sucks humungous barnacle dick, and serving in it is like learning that everything you believed and thought you stood for was actually a lie.  I will now defect to the Hegemony and do the Time Warp there.”

The award’s ceremony itself started.  As per usual, subordinates were busy giving fawning, glowing accolades for their superiors.  Kaidan announced Major Kalka by likening him to a burning bush.  I found it all very original.  After what felt like a year, General Patel said, “And to announce the Del Sol award for bravery, we have Admiral Mikhailovich.”

There were confused murmurs.  Admirals never announced awards.  Then I remembered that I was one of the marines nominated for the Del Sol award for bravery.  I felt something move deep in my stomach as Admiral Mikhailovich stood up at the podium.

“It is unusual for one of my rank to announce a soldier for an award, but this is an unusual individual,” he said.  “Second-Lieutenant Jane Shepard is our youngest ever officer, having been promoted when she was but eighteen years old.  Despite not having served in the Alliance for a year yet, she has managed to achieve more than our average officer, most notably, having survived a thresher maw attack that killed her entire squad on Akuze.  Lieutenant Shepard is a patriot, caring only for humanity’s interests, and this is why I am proud to say that she is one of the best marines that the Alliance has ever produced.  Lieutenant Shepard, I can think of no one more deserving of this award.”

The room burst into applause.  I was furious, but I pasted a painfully-wide smile on my face as I went up to the podium to receive my medal and to make my acceptance speech.  I shook hands with the five admirals.  Admiral Mikhailovich was last.  “Congratulations Shepard,” he whispered, smiling smugly.

“Thank you sir,” I said sweetly.

The applause went on for longer than necessary.  I was beginning to wonder if they were making fun of me when it finally died down.

“Thank you,” I said into the mike.  “Thanks a bunch really.  It means a lot to me.”  I had no idea what to say, so I took a deep breath.  “Well, it’s kind of hard to follow the lovely speech Admiral Mikhailovich made about me, but I guess I’ll give it a shot.  I have to say, I do disagree with what he said.  I’m sure there are plenty of soldiers more deserving of this medal.  Also, I’m pretty sure that there are way better marines in the Alliance.”  I paused.  “Although, maybe I’m just not used to getting praise from Alliance admirals.”  To my surprise, there was laughter from the audience.  “I guess everyone remembers their time in basic training.  Praise was just one of those things that was not done.”  Loud laughter this time.  “On that front though, I’d like to thank my trainers, in particular, Commander Anderson, who, despite still not knowing what my name, age, gender and race is, still took me into his home when I needed one most, and of course, to Admiral Mikhailovich , without whom I’m sure there wouldn’t be an Alliance to fight for.”  More laughter and some applause.  My eyes for some reason fell on Giovani, who looked as though he was fighting against invisible bonds to get up.

“On a more personal note though, I’d like to thank those that, for whatever reason, are unable to be here,” I continued, my eyes on Giovani.  “Firstly, to Admiral Greyling, who I will always remember for who he truly was.”  I paused.  “A teacher, a brilliant marine, and a devoted husband and father.  Then, finally to my family, who aren’t here in person, but who I know would be so proud to see me here.  Thank you.”

I was given another rousing round of applause.  Still Giovani appeared to be fighting to stand.  As I was stepping down from the podium he finally got to his feet.  “You have to listen to me,” he bellowed.  “We are all in danger, all of us.”  There were loud gasps from the audience.  “There are things out there, things you don’t understand.  Things that want us all dead.”  My eyes fell on Major Kriztov and I frowned.  Giovani wasn’t done though.  “The-,”

The first explosion threw me off my feet.  The second one was smaller than the first, but the shockwaves still flung me around like a rag doll.  I lay stunned, as the screams started.

.....

In the end, Admiral Mikhailovich proved exactly why he had attained such a high rank.  He was the first to find his feet.  “Silence in the ranks,” he bellowed.  There was instant silence in the hall, apart from the whimpers and moans of the wounded.  “Those of you that are able, please evacuate the hall in an orderly fashion.  I need someone to send a distress call to the police and call for medical evacuation.  Will all the generals and brigadiers please report to the front of the hall?  Lieutenant Shepard and Commander Anderson too.”

I moved to stand next to him and watched as everyone who could walk filed silently out of the hall.  As far as I could see, rows I, J and K had been destroyed in the blast.  The sprinklers had come on to put out the fires that had sputtered up.

“Analyst Valencio?” Admiral Mikhailovich said.

“Yes sir,” Analyst Valencio said, appearing at his side.

“Contact the Department of Human Affairs and ask them to send you the footage from this evening,” he said.  “I need your team to look at it, see if you can work out what caused this.  I also need you to call the London forces and ask them to come here.  We need everyone who attended this evening to be searched.  Get a hold of the N2s that were on guard duty here tonight.  We need to make sure that no one leaves the premises without my authorisation.”

“Understood, sir,” Analyst Valencio said and dashed off.  By this stage all the generals and brigadiers had gathered with us.

“Everyone, with me,” Admiral Mikhailovich said commandingly.  We followed him out the other door into the vestry.  Once there, he turned to us. 

“What was it Uri?” Admiral Foster asked quietly.  “Do you think it was the batarians?”

“No,” Admiral Mikhailovich said simply, to my surprise.

“Who then?” a general asked.  “The turians perhaps?”

“I doubt it,” Admiral Mikhailovich said.  “Look at the building.  Its exterior is undamaged.  The explosive was inside the building.”

“But that’s impossible,” another general said.  “The N2s would have done a sweep of the building before the ceremony got under way.  The only way an explosive got inside would be if one of the guests smuggled it in, and all the guests were human.”

“Exactly,” Admiral Hackett said grimly.

“Commander Anderson, you came to me with some concerns that there would be an attack tonight,” Admiral Mikhailovich said.  “Repeat to the others what you told me.”

“Sir,” Commander Anderson said.  He sported a large cut over his eye.  “Lieutenant Shepard here came to me with concerns.  The lieutenant told me that an old pod mate was there and had engaged the lieutenant in conversation.  Corporal Giovani had told the lieutenant that people would die tonight, and had spoken of classified information that was above his pay grade.”

“What information?” one of the generals asked.

“Respectfully General Petrovski, this information is above your pay grade too,” Commander Anderson said quietly. 

“Then why do you and Lieutenant Shepard know about?” General Petrovski asked stubbornly.

“Well, sir, it’s about action that I took as a recruit,” I said.  “Commander Anderson happened to experience the direct aftermath of my action.”

“Shepard, perhaps you’d like to tell us as far as possible what Corporal Giovani told you,” Admiral Mikhailovich said, cutting me off.

“Yes sir,” I said.  “He looked ill and it seemed to take a great deal of effort from him to speak to me.  He said that he needed to see me, that he had something important to tell me.  My friend, Private Ashley Williams, had told that he was here and that he wanted to see me.  He said that bad things were going to happen tonight, that people were dying.  I asked if he meant the war, and he said that this was bigger than the war.  He then mentioned the classified thing.  He said that my actions had made them angry.  He said that ‘they’ had told him about it.  He said ‘they control us’.  I asked who ‘us’ was, and he said that they were controlling him, a turian, an asari and a reaper, whatever that is.  Then his commander, a Major Kriztov, turned up, and suddenly Giovani was acting sane.  Major Kriztov dismissed me and I went to Commander Anderson with my concerns.”

“Who are they though?” Admiral Kahoku murmured.  “The only species capable of mind-control was the rachni and they went extinct over a millennia ago.”

“Is it not possible that this Giovani had had a psychotic break?” one of the brigadiers asked.  “Was just talking crazy?”

“Maybe, but then how would he have known about that thingy?” General Petrovski asked.

“I remember Giovani from Del Sol,” Admiral Hackett said.  “He was sneaky, sly, a bully, but he wasn’t one to go crazy.”

“As I recall, he was quite the favourite of Admiral Greyling’s until Shepard showed up,” Commander Anderson said.

Admiral Mikhailovich’s omnitool beeped.  “Valencio,” he said.  “Understood.  Thank you, Valencio.  Mikhailovich out.”  He turned to us.  “Valencio says the techs have just reviewed the video footage.  They say the explosion came from Giovani.  He must have had the explosives attached to his body.”

That explained the something hard around his wrist.  It would have been the detonator.  Still, something niggled at the back of my mind.

“I don’t think that Giovani was the source of the explosion,” I said slowly.  The others all looked at me.  “There were two explosions.  The first threw me off my feet.  The second one wasn’t as big as the first one, but it still managed to throw me around.”

“Shepard’s right,” Admiral Barishka said slowly.  “I remember two explosions.”

“The techs say that Giovani’s seat was the only place where there was an explosion,” Admiral Mikhailovich said.

“Right,” I said.  “I think Major Kriztov set the first explosion off.  Whilst I was making my speech, I was watching Giovani.  It looked like he was trying to get up.  Then, when he was shouting like that, I saw Kriztov roll up his sleeve.  He had something around his arm.  If he exploded himself, the chain-reaction would have set off Giovani’s explosives.”

“It’s possible,” a brigadier said.

“Why would this Major Kriztov have an explosive on him though?” Admiral Kahoku asked unwillingly.

“He said…something that made me think he was in on the plan as well,” I said.

“Everyone, dismissed,” Admiral Mikhailovich said.  “Tibbet, Stephan, Gavin, Boris, Commander Anderson, Lieutenant Shepard, stay behind.”

The generals and brigadiers seemed unwilling to leave.  Eventually it was just me, Admirals Hackett, Kahoku, Mikhailovich, Foster, Barishka and Commander Anderson left.

“What exactly did Corporal Giovani say about Admiral Greyling?” Admiral Mikhailovich asked me.

“He said that he knew that I’d killed him,” I said.  “He said that I had made them angry.  I asked how he knew this and said that they had told him.  He said they were controlling him like they had controlled Admiral Greyling, like they are controlling the asari, the turian and the reaper.  Later, Major Kriztov said that I had been Admiral Greyling’s pupil, that I must have been good because Admiral Greyling doesn’t impress easily.  He said ‘doesn’t’.”

Admiral Mikhailovich ran a hand over his face.  “We’ll look into this,” he said.  “There’ll most likely be a block ordered on what happened tonight.  We’ll see what the prime minister has to say.  Thank you, Commander, Lieutenant.  Dismissed.”

Commander Anderson and I both walked out.  “What do you think will happen next?” I asked quietly.

“I hope with all my heart nothing,” Commander Anderson said fervently.

“You don’t really believe that,” I said.  “They just killed about one hundred and fifty people in one go.”  I paused as a realisation hit me.  “I think whoever it was, was trying to kill me,” I said.

Commander Anderson appraised me.  “What makes you say that?” he asked at last.

“Well, Giovani said they’re angry at me,” I said softly.  “I was sitting directly behind him.  I bet the only reason Major Kriztov set the explosives off was that Giovani was giving the game away.  Otherwise he would have waited until I was sitting down again.”

Commander Anderson sighed.  “It’s possible,” he said at last.  “My advice, Ken, and you’re welcome to follow it or ignore it, it’s really no skin off my neb, is for you to keep your head down, do your training on Taetrus, serve your remaining six years, and get the hell out of the army.”

“Jane,” a voice cried.  We had reached the outer garden were all the patrons were gathered.

I turned.  It was Ash, who threw her arms around me.  “Are you ok?” I asked.  “Where’s Kaidan?”

“Over here,” he said from behind Ash.  “We’re both fine, thank goodness.  How about you?”

“A few bruises,” I said.  “I’m fine.”  I turned to Anderson.  “Can we go?”

He nodded.  “Just be careful who you tell this to, Shepard,” he said.  “If the wrong ears hear this…”

“Understood,” I said, saluting.

I led Ash and Kaidan away from the crowd and quietly told them everything, from my conversation with Giovani to what had happened in our meeting with Admiral Mikhailovich.

“But I don’t understand,” Kaidan said.  “Who are ‘they’ and what do they want from us?”

“No idea,” I said gloomily.  “Not sure I really want to know though, given everything they’ve caused.”

“Well, it looks like we don’t have a choice,” Ash said.  “Anderson thinks they might be targeting you?”  I nodded. “Oh Jane,” she said.  “You need to be careful.  Anderson’s right.  Serve your time and get the hell out of the Alliance.”

“Look, if I’m being targeted, chances are I’ll be dead in six months, never mind six years,” I pointed out.

“Not a chance,” Kaidan said.  “I’ve heard things about Admiral Mikhailovich.  He’s an asshole, but he is a brilliant strategist.  He’ll want to keep you alive, if only to use you as a bargaining chip against these people.”

“That’s comforting,” I said sarcastically.  “How did you think of that anyway?”

“I didn’t,” Kaidan admitted.  “It was my commander.”

“Ah yes, the burning bush,” I mumbled.

“Shut up,” Kaidan said, his ears burning.

.....

Taetrus was a beautiful world.  One of the turian Hierarchy’s oldest colonies, it was basically a jungle world, where it rained every day.  Unfortunately for me, it had been voted the most humid planet in the galaxy in Gossipmonger magazine, which meant that my poor lungs were given a huge workout the moment we landed.

“So, Lieutenant,” Skayra Ledoran, my asari journalist shadow asked, turning to me.  “We’ve just landed on Taetrus.  How do you feel?”

I tried ignoring the camera trained on my face.  “Like I’m going to have to wear my asthma pump as a really weird mouth accessory,” I said.  “There’s no way my lungs will cope with this full time.”

“You poor dear, it must be so tough for you,” she said in mock sympathy.

“Life’s tough unfortunately,” I said.  “I’ll just have to deal with it.”

.....

The journey itself had been largely uneventful.  I had been on Shanxi for all of five seconds (which was long enough for me to say ‘so this is the colony that my people fought over for eighty years’), before being herded into the turian cruiser that would take me to Taetrus.  Throughout the journey I was followed by the camera crew and Skayra, something that was annoying the daylights out of me.

At the Luneva spaceport on Taetrus we caught a shuttle to the scout sniper training facility.  We were met at the skycar lot by a turian administrator.  “You must be the human, Jane Shepehd,” he said in protha.

“Were you expecting any other humans?” I asked.  He looked blankly at me.  Most turians weren’t known for their senses of humour.  “Never mind,” I sighed.  “Just an aside, I know there’s an ar sound in my last name, but it’s pronounced as an ih sound.  Shepihd.”  By some weird dialectical fluke, turians were unable to say ar, pronouncing all ar sounds as eh.

“Right,” the turian said.  “Follow me please.”

He led me into an administrative building.  “Good day, Grayen,” the female turian behind the desk said politely.

“This is the Garishke from the Alliance,” my guide (apparently called Grayen) said in turian.  “Where are we putting her?”  Garishke was the turian insult for humans.

“Listen here, I don’t go around calling you lot ‘birds’ whilst you’re still present,” I snapped in turian.

They both started.  “You speak turian?” Grayen asked quietly.

“You speak turian?” Skayra echoed eagerly, pushing her microphone into my face.

I stepped back.  “For the love of God woman,” I snapped.  “Don’t do that.  And for all those at home that are wondering, yes I speak turian.  I also speak salarian, asari, krogan, quarian and drell.  Now, can we please get on with this?  It’s been a long journey and my lungs are killing me.”

“I’d be careful with that attitude, human,” the secretary said.

“So I’ve heard,” I mumbled.

“Do you have your service record with you?” she asked.  I handed her the datapad with my service record.  She read it.  “It’s quite short,” she remarked.

“I’ve only served six months,” I said.  “Six human months that is.  I don’t have the energy to do the math and work out the galactic time.”  I decided to through the audience a bone.  “Also I suck at math.”

“You suck at math?” Skayra asked excitedly.

“Are you going to do that every time I make a statement about myself?” I asked irritably.

“You need to be able to do maths to become a scout sniper,” Grayen said.

“Don’t worry, I’m a quick learner,” I said.  Skayra opened her mouth.  “Don’t even think about it,” I snapped, and she shut it again.

”Barrack three,” the secretary said.  “You can drop your things off and meet with your dorm mates.  After that you need to meet with the trainers in the main hall.”

“Thanks,” I said.

.....

To be perfectly honest, I was nervous of training with turians, not just because they were our sworn adversaries.  Turian society was incredibly strict.  A turian was not allowed to choose a spouse.  Instead, they were assigned a spouse when they came of age (fifteen of their years, thirty of ours).  They were only allowed to have two children, one of each gender.  If a woman had two girls for instance, the younger girl would be sacrificed to appease the spirits.  Furthermore, male children followed their father into whatever work their father did, likewise females with their mothers.  Once the child turned five of their years, it was sent to a home where they were trained (with all the other turian children in this profession) in their chosen profession.  When the turian came of age, he or she re-joined turian society as a member of whatever profession they were in.

In spite of what seemed like shocking treatment, turians were in general a very dignified species and seemed happy in their society (there were fewer turians than any other species in the Terminus Systems).  All turians saw each other as members of an extended family, and, more than any other species except maybe humans, turians were likely to help out members of their species, even if they did not know the turian in question.  Unfortunately for me, they were also likely to gang up with each other against other species, and they were suspicious of outsiders.  Also, there weren’t any females in the marines.  Female turians tended to be employed as pilots, naval staff, cooks, administrative staff, occasionally medical staff, diplomats, and mental health professionals.

When Grayen, my film crew and I arrived in my barracks room, my twenty three roommates got up and stood to attention at the foot of their beds.

“Right, listen up,” Grayen said in turian.  “This is Three-Line Shepard, from the Human Alliance.  I told you all about her.  She will be doing training with us for the next three weeks.  Treat her with respect and dignity.”

The turians said nothing, but I could feel their eyes on me.  I wasn’t sure if I had to say something, so I just nodded my head.

“Now, I want you all to armour up and meet me in the armoury in fifteen minutes,” Grayen continued.  “That’s thirty minutes to you, Shepard.”

“Got it,” I said.  “Thank you.”

He breathed out of his nose in a loud snort, turned and walked out.  The turians moved together away from their beds and crowded around me.  “A damn Garishke,” one said in a low voice.  “What the hell are they thinking?”

“Don’t be stupid, Corinthus, don’t you see who she is?” another turian said.

“I can’t usually tell humans apart, Riddik,” Corinthus snapped.

“It’s that Shepehd human, the one who killed the thresher maw,” a third turian said.

“Um hi,” I said.  “Good to meet y’all.  I’m Jane Shepard, but you can call me-,”

“We won’t call you anything, human,” Riddik cut in.  “You don’t belong here.”

“Yeah, I know,” I started. 

“We don’t care how many creatures you’ve killed, Garishke,” another of the turians said. 

“Nor do we care that you can speak our language,” Corinthus said.

“We are turian,” another turian said.  “Humans are our sworn enemy, just like the krogan, the hanar, the volus, and the batarians.”

“Too much hate is bad for you,” I pointed out.

“Rage fuels us,” yet another turian said.  “It helps us kill our enemies.”

“Just know, human, step out of line here and you’re dead,” another turian said.  “The Hierarchy will not condemn us.  We were defending our honour.”

“Noted,” I said.  “Can I go now?  I need to put my armour on.”

Skayra was practically skipping as I made my way to my bed.  I’d given a lot of cool footage of me being threatened by turians.

“So, Jane, first contact with your dorm mates wasn’t great,” she said excitedly as I pulled my armour out of my pack and took my coat of.  “How are you feeling?”

“Raring to go, eager to prove myself, blah blah blah, please go away I need to change,” I said.

.....

“So, you have all passed your basic training,” Grayen said to us.  There were about fifty of us in total gathered in the armoury.  “You must be congratulated.  This now is your final step before you graduate into the Hierarchy as members of the turian Marine Corps scout snipers.  However, before you can start your training, you need to pass a physical fitness test.  You will be expected to do a six mile run in thirty minutes, forty pull-ups and two hundred sit-ups in less than four minutes.”

My stomach turned.  For human scout sniper training, the physical fitness test was half of that.  Even at my fittest, I wasn’t sure I would have been able to do that.  Grayen wasn’t done though.

“After this, we have a special treat,” he said.  “The human, Shepard, needs to do a water test.  This isn’t necessary for turians, but apparently human snipers need to do this.  She will do a five hundred metre swim, then a fifty metre swim carrying a weight, after which she needs to tread water for thirty seconds whilst holding a weight out of water.”  I kept my face stoic as the others turned towards me.

“Needless to say, failure to pass the physical fitness test will result in a failure of the programme, and you will have to go back to the previous programme you were enrolled in,” Grayen continued ruthlessly.  “Shepard, you will be expelled from the program.”

Well, it had been fun while it lasted.  Although, I didn’t fancy Admiral Mikhailovich’s rage if I failed. 

.....

It was like my first fitness session at Del Sol all those years ago.  I had run (and mostly asphyxiated) all the way at the back of the large crowd of recruits.  There at least the air had been dry.  Here it felt like I was breathing in a bucket of water with every breath.

“Come on Garishke, move your butt,” Grayen shouted.  He was running directly behind me.  Like all military super-ninjas, he wasn’t even out of breath from the run.

“Isn’t it moving right now?” I gasped.

“If you have breath to be ironic, you have breath to run faster,” he roared.

Well, good point.  I hadn’t thought of that.  Although… “I wasn’t being ironic sir,” I said.  “I was being sarcastic.  And probably impertinent.”  According to propaganda videos, one of the many things humanity had that aliens didn’t, was metaphors (along with love, oceans, beautiful women and body hair).  It was clearly a sad existence.

Watching turians run was a funny experience though.  They had very long, thin legs that bent in the opposite direction.  Their bodies were literally two thirds leg, and each step looked as though it would topple them.  On top of weird, thin, long and bendy legs, they had wasp waists that were liable to make any corset-wearer cry with envy.  Fortunately their arms, whilst being long and thin, bent in the right direction, even if their hands only had three fingers instead of five.

I just managed to finish the run in the time limit, but I was not given the opportunity to rest, oh no, because it was time to do forty pull-ups and two hundred sit-ups.  Grayen walked up and down, shouting abuse at us.  My fellow recruits were alarmingly silent about it though.  At Del Sol, this sort of thing would receive groans of pain, exhaustion and protest, most likely coupled with a few choice four-letter words.  Here though, they just put their heads down and got on with it.  I was beginning to feel a strange kind of respect for the turians.  Owing to all the complaints and swearing, it was very easy to tell when a human recruit was weakening.  With these turians, it just seemed like any other day.

Unfortunately, I am only human, and I was employing a few choice words with each sit-up (for instance, fuck, shit, ow, sonofabitch, crap, dick, cunt, et cetera.  As the exercise continued, the swearing became more inventive, for example: ow, you fuck, sonofashit, ditch, crunt, cap).  Again, I just managed to finish the exercise.  However, I wasn’t sure I would be able to survive the swimming exercise.

“Gather around, Grayen said.  We moved around him.  “Unfortunately, the following were unable to pass the test: Obasi and Kradik.  You two will have to redo the previous year as you are not yet ready for this training.  You can join us again next year.”

“Yes sir,” they said, saluting, and dashing off.

“Now, we have one more thing that needs to happen before you can go and get your deuce gear,” Grayen said.  “We need to watch the human-Shepard do her test in the river.”

“Wait, what?” I asked.  “What river?”

He smiled evilly.  “Turians don’t swim,” he said.  “It’s unnecessary, so we don’t have a pool.  We have a river, which will do just fine.”

“Respectfully, sir,” I said.  “That river will be full of dextero-amino acid proteins.  If I swallow a drop, I’ll probably die.”

“Well, then I suggest you keep your mouth shut and quit your whining, human,” Grayen said.

.....

Death by water.  It did happen.  A recruit had drowned in my time at Del Sol.  However, if I had to choose, I would prefer not to die from swallowing a drop of the wrong type of water.  But hey, I was the Alliance’s gift to the Council, so I died in whatever manner they found fitting.  It seemed that my best option was to try and swim with my head above water, and breath through my nose (already a slim proposition, but I didn’t have much choice).

“Get to it, Garishke,” Grayen said.  I was standing at the edge of a wide stretch of river.  The rain was pelting down.  Even the rain on this planet was toxic to me. 

I took a deep breath and jumped.  I surfaced, waited until all the water had run away from my mouth and struck out in an ungainly freestyle slash doggie paddle.  This style had the obvious benefit of keeping my mouth mostly clear.  However, it was twice as hard to maintain and I was out of breath before I was a third of the way done.  Come on, Jane, I told myself.  You’re the Alliance’s bone, and Admiral Mikhailovich will cut your head off and mount it in the command centre on Arcturus Station if you mess up here.

Maybe it was the motivational self-talk, but I finished the five hundred metre swim without drowning or swallowing poisonous water, which I thought was pretty good going.  My exhausted euphoria was short-lived however as I was then given a weighted backpack and made to swim another fifty metres.  By the time I was done with this, my back, arms, legs, and core muscles were all killing me, the world was spinning in new ways and I was learning exactly why turians were called birds.  It was the wings that had mysteriously sprouted on my audience’s back.

“Now, human-Shepard, take the bag off your back and hold it above your head,” Grayen said.  “Hold it there until I tell you to stop.”

I complied, but started sinking almost at once.  I kicked my legs frantically to keep my head above water, but it just wasn’t working for me, and I went under water.  I was only down for a few seconds, but it was enough time for me to gulp in a mouthful of water.  When I resurfaced, it took everything I had in me not to drop the backpack and flounder to the edge to die more peacefully there.  Then I thought of Jason.  If Admiral Mikhailovich wanted to ruin my brother’s life, I would make him fight for it.

Thankfully it takes a while for a levo-amino acid species to react to dextero proteins (and vice versa).  If I was going to die, it would take a couple of days.  Finally, Grayen said, “Time’s up.  You passed.”

I floundered to the edge, climbed up and rushed to my BOL.  I’d been issued a tox programme before I’d arrived at Taetrus, which, if administered timeously, would work as a sort of antivenom and negate the effects of dextero proteins.  Unfortunately, the side effects were severe, and I knew, as I plunged the needle into my arm, that I was in for an interesting couple of days.

.....

David: March

The boy is either crazy or stupid. 

I have a few days before I return to my ship, and I’m busy relaxing on Arcturus and watching Ken make a fool of himself, the marines, and humanity in general in front of the entire galaxy.  To be fair, I would never in a million light years make my recruit do a PTF as extreme as that, and forcing a person to swim in poisonous water is just cruel and unfair, but still, Ken could have the good graces to throw in the towel.  He is shaking, pale and vomiting his guts out every five seconds, yet he is still persevering.  It’s sickening to watch.  You can tell he is full in ‘I’m a martyr for the ugly, stupid, disabled, unwanted, unloved, short, and under-age’ mode.  No doubt Mikhailovich threatened to do something to his brother, and Ken is now trying to protect him.  Never before has anyone irritated me as much as this child.

I’m watching the show with my mate, Sean Cunningham, the second day that Ken is on Taetrus.  He’s thin, shivering and sweaty, and I can just hear all the females and asari in the galaxy cooing at the fate of this poor dear.  He was already short and sickly when he got to Taetrus, now he’s ill on top of it.

Anyway, what’s happening is that the recruits have all been divided into pairs to have their first go on the shooting range with their sniper rifles.  Ken’s been paired with a very proficient-looking bird called Riddik.  He scouts first on the three hundred yard line.  Unsurprisingly, Ken hits the bulls-eye five times out of five.

“She’s good,” Cunningham says.  We trained together at the villa.  He’s a few years younger than me, but a generally nice guy.  He broke both his legs on the front, which is why he’s on Arcturus station.

“Well, yes, he’s a good shot,” I admit.  “He’s terrible at just about everything else.”

“You do know that that’s an individual of the female persuasion, right?” Cunningham asked.  “You did train her for two years after all, and she lived with you for a while.”

“I’m just keeping an old promise, Cunningham,” I say.  On screen, the commander is punching another of the recruits, for giving the wrong wind speed to his partner.

The turians are very into corporal punishment.  In training, any mistake, no matter how small, was met with violence of some sort.  And yet, turians grew up with an alarming devotion to the Hierarchy.  Most of them would do anything to make sure that it prospers.

Interestingly, the turians don’t have the death penalty, or any prisons for that matter.  Crime against other turians are rare, and those that do occur are punished either by hard labour or work without pay (for the mild misdemeanours), or banishment from the Hierarchy.

Ken switches with his partner and has to call out the wind speed.  He calls the wrong speed out, and his partner misses.  The commander comes over and punches him in the face.  His mouth drops open in shock.

“And don’t show your enemy your weakness,” the commander snaps and punches him again.

“I thought humans and turians were friends now,” he remarks.  The commander punches him again.

“And absolutely no back-chat,” he snaps.

“Right, that’s it,” I mumble, getting to my feet.

“Going somewhere, Anderson?” Cunningham asks.

“I can’t watch this crap anymore,” I say and storm out.

Mikhailovich is busy watching the television in his office.  “Now, listen here Mikhailovich,” I begin.

“Ah, Commander Anderson,” Admiral Mikhailovich says, looking up.  “Come in.  I always have time for you.”

“Yeah, save it,” I snap.  “You need to pull him out.”

“Pull who out?” he asks.

I point at the screen.  “Shepard,” I say.  “I know that boy, and I know he’s not cut out for it.  He’s going to end up getting himself killed.”

“Your faith in your former recruits is inspiring,” Mikhailovich says boredly.

“I don’t actually want to hear it,” I say.  “I know you don’t like him, but offing him in a way that dishonours the Alliance is unfair to both him and the men fighting on the front.”

“Actually I don’t want to kill her off,” he says.  “I’d love to kick her out of the army because she is way too much trouble, but I wouldn’t want her dead.  And, let’s face it, if she can survive a thresher maw attack, a couple of turian commanders shouldn’t be too much trouble for her.”

“Then why are you doing this, and don’t say it’s to make us look good to the Council,” I say.  “You wouldn’t send someone who can’t manage string a sentence together without being rude to someone to make us look good to the other species.”

He sighs.  “You know I have an entire corps to run, right?” he asks.  I ignore him.  “Sit down, David,” he says, pushing the chair across from his desk out with one of his feet.  “You’re right, with regards to diplomacy I would rather not have sent Lieutenant Shepard.”

“Then why did you send him?” I ask, sitting down.

“Listen to this,” he says, picking up a datapad from his desk.  “’Dear Lieutenant Shepard,’” he reads.  “’I am a private fighting on the front.  Last year I lost my entire squad to the batarians.  For a long time, I felt guilty for surviving.  Since seeing the reports of your own fight on Akuze, I have learnt that survival is not always a bad thing that persevering and being brave is far more important.  Good luck for the future, Lieutenant.  I am proud to be fighting on the same side as you.  Yours sincerely, et cetera.’”

“So people are gullible,” I say.  “So what?”

“God, you have to be the most stubborn person in the galaxy, David,” he says.  “We’ve had hundreds of stories like this.  It’s never been quite as dramatic as thresher maws, but still, soldiers have their squads die and are the only ones to survive.  It happened to you a couple of years ago.  Yet somehow, this one has made galactic headlines.  And yes, your little sob-movie that you cut together from the footage probably helped a lot with that, but even so.”

“I’m sure you’ll get to the point eventually,” I say.

A look of annoyance crosses his face.  “I know we’re friends, David, but I am your superior,” he says.  I ignore him.  “Whatever,” he sighs.  “There is something compelling about Jane Shepard, something that makes people want to follow her.  I have a war to run that we are slowly losing, where our soldiers are slowly losing hope.  If I have something that makes them believe in the Alliance again, I’ll use it.  Now, it’s my turn for the questions.  Why do you care?”

“I don’t care,” I protest loudly.  “That boy works on my last nerve.”

“Right, which is why you’re in here, asking me to pull her out of Taetrus,” he says.  He studies me.  “You like her.”

“I do not,” I splutter.

“Yes you do,” he says.  For a moment, a ghost of a grin crosses his face.  “Why else would you protest so much when I suggested we throw her out after that incident in July?”

“Well, because, I-,” I stammer.

“You cut that video together so that I couldn’t lob her head off for cowardice, you took her in after the thresher attack,” he says.  “Admiral Hackett says you referred her to the social worker after you found out her father was abusive.  You like the girl.” 

Well, any answer I give to that would be seen as an admission, so I keep quiet.  He turns the volume up on the television.

Ken is now talking to Corinthus, the turian that had been beaten up by the commander earlier in the day.  Both their faces are a mess.  Corinthus’s left cheek plate has been cracked badly, and blue blood is seeping through.

“Are you ok?” Ken asks in turian.

“Why wouldn’t I be?” Corinthus asks in return.

“Well, your face is-never mind.”  Ken dabs at a cut on his nose.  “How do you do it?” he asks in a rush.

“Do what?” Corinthus asks in return.

“Take a beating like that in silence?” Ken asks.

Corinthus looks mildly confused.  “I’m turian,” he says.  “I serve the Hierarchy.  My superiors know better than me, and I trust that they will train me correctly.”

“But-,” Ken begins.  “I don’t understand,” he says at last.  “He was using you as a sort of turian punching bag or something.”

“You humans don’t understand,” Corinthus says.  “You believe you are all individuals and that you should have free will.  Turians know that there is only the Hierarchy, and that everything we should do has to benefit the spirits of the turians.  I know that I did badly on the range, and if I don’t learn to be a good sniper, I will be a liability to the turians.”  Ken grins.  “What is wrong with your face?” Corinthus asks, looking mildly worried.

“I think my father was maybe a turian in disguise,” Ken says.  “I can teach you to shoot better if you’ll teach me to learn to not backchat my superiors.”

Corinthus seems doubtful, but eventually he holds his hand.  “Very well, human,” he says.  “I’ll help you.”

As they shake hands, Mikhailovich turns to me.  “See?” he says.  “She can survive anything.”

Chapter Text

To everyone, including my own, surprise, I graduated turian scout sniper school.  I was now a self-contained, quiet, calm, boring and uninteresting marine.  Once I was in a safer place (i.e. the human military) I would go back to being an interesting, fun, loud, hyperactive and anxious pain in the ass.

I received my papers on my second last day on Taetrus.  “’Dear Lieutenant Shepard,’” the email said.  “’Congratulations on passing your marine scout sniper training.  You have posted to Company 6 Marine Corps Scout Snipers, serving aboard the SSV Everest in the Attican Traverse System.  Report to Arcturus Station on May 29, 2180 for a medical and psychological evaluation and to meet up with your squad.  On May 31, the Everest will be departing for the Attican Traverse.  Yours sincerely, Analyst Jones N1.’”

I was quite excited at the prospect of serving with Company 6.  My hero, Major Luna Jupiter, served there.  Major Jupiter’s main claim to fame was saving the town of Paz Nuevo from the batarians without losing a civilian or a soldier.  She had gone to Del Sol to undergo ICT training and had received an N7 designation.  I’d served as her general slave whilst she had been there, and, whilst she still didn’t know what my name was by the end of her time at Del Sol, the process had still been an illuminating one.

“What’s happening?” Corinthus asked, coming over to where I was sitting in the rec room.

“I received my papers,” I said.  “Ship out almost as soon as I reach Arcturus.”

Weirdly, Corinthus and I had become pretty good friends.  My father’s descriptions of turians, it turned out, was pretty one-dimensional.  Turians were serious and slightly brainwashed, but they also had a very dry sense of humour and, when they weren’t in training, had a wide array of recreational activities.  They sang (turians had surprisingly good singing voices and some beautiful folk songs), they played Hoopball (I’d earned a number of bruises, scrapes and a couple of broken bones playing this game), and weirdly enough, they also played cricket.  On top of this, I discovered that turian literature was far better than asari or volus literature (the alien authors that I tended to read were either one or the other).

“Well, I get my papers when I return to Palaven,” Corinthus said.  “Can’t wait.”

“You’re not in a state of open warfare, so I guess you can’t,” I mumbled.

“Oh yes, of course,” Corinthus said.  “The statistics say that twenty five per cent of human soldiers die two days after reaching the front.  Just think, you have a one in four chance of being dead next month.”

“Get fucked, Corinthus,” I said. 

“You know, the mess that you humans are in, I’m quite surprised you almost won the First Contact War,” he continued musingly.  “Mind you, you passed our class, which is quite surprising since you look like shrimp.”

I sighed.  Turians didn’t have metaphors, but they tried their hardest to understand ours.  “You’d just say shrimp,” I said.  “You’d say something like ‘you’re a shrimp’.”

“Right,” Corinthus said.  “What is a shrimp in any case?”

I shrugged.  “Buggered if I know,” I said.  “Come on, are we going to play Hoopball now?”

.....

It was with a sort of heavy heart that I packed my bags and got ready to board the ship to Shanxi.  “Good luck out there, Shepard,” Corinthus said.  He hesitated.  “Not sure if you believe in this sort of thing, or if they will even look after a Garishke, but Spirits watch over you.  You could almost be a turian now.”

“Thanks, Corinthus,” I said.  “Good luck to you too.”  I shook his hand, and then the hands of all my dorm mates.  Grayen was last.

“Good work, human-Shepard,” he said.  “You did relatively well out here.”

“What do you mean ‘relatively well’?” I asked, mildly cheekily. “I whipped the asses of all your soldiers out here.  You’d better hope we don’t want retribution for the First Contact War.”

“Watch it, Garishke,” he mumbled.

“I will…bird,” I said.  I laughed.  “Thanks for everything, sir.”

As I walked towards gate where my ship was waiting, Skayra stopped me.  “Any final words before you leave Taetrus?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I said.  “The batarians had better watch it.  I just survived training with the best military force in the galaxy.  I’m on my way to Skyllia now to kick their asses off our world.”

Blatant posturing, but somehow it felt good.

.....

Arcturus was in one of those stages where there weren’t that many soldiers staying there.  The customs official was wildly excited when he saw me.  “Lieutenant Shepard,” he almost shrieked.  “It’s such an honour to meet you, I’m a huge fan.” 

“You processed me when I came here in August,” I said, somewhat alarmed.

“What?” the official asked.  “No, I’d have remembered meeting you.”

“You did,” I said.  “You said I couldn’t have been an N4 because I was too short.”

“I assure you-,” he began.

“Never mind,” I said tiredly.  “It doesn’t matter.”

“An officer from Company 6 is waiting for you,” he said, stamping my passport.  “She’ll escort you to your barracks.”

“I don’t need an escort,” I said.

“Apparently you’re now a VIP,” the official said cheerfully.  “Enjoy your stay on Arcturus Station.”

“That’s optimistic, but thanks anyway,” I mumbled.

My escort was waiting for me on the other side of the gate.  “You took your fucking time,” she said.

“Lieutenant Antonio,” I said.  “I came as fast as the ship could take me.”

“Yeah, yeah,” she snapped.  “Shut the fuck up.  Anyway.”  She punched me hard in the chin.  My time on Taetrus had taught me how not to fall over when people punched me, so I just stumbled back a few paces.  “You broke another of my fucking records you fucking bitch,” she shouted

“You do know I now outrank you, right?” I said, rubbing my chin.  “I could get you court marshalled for that.”

“You can cram that extra fucking bar on your shoulders up your fucking ass,” she snapped.  “Come on.”

I had forgotten that Lieutenant Carlotta Antonio also served with Company 6 aboard the Everest.  She was an intimidating figure.  Six foot two inches tall, with a strong, curvy body, dark skin and full lips, she was quite beautiful.  Once you got over her hair which was cut in a short, Chinese bob and dyed a garish shade of pink.

“So, how’s the war been treating you?” I asked, trying to make small-talk.

“Well, it’s been fucking hunky dory so far,” she said angrily.  “Fucking fantastic.”

“Right,” I said.

“To be honest, I’ve just come back from my sabbatical,” Carlotta said.  “Haven’t been back to Skyllia for a while.”

“Oh,” I said.  “Where did you go?”

“Moved in with my boyfriend on Ontarom,” Carlotta said.  “Didn’t go all that well.  He was a bit of a sleaze-ball to be honest.  Never washed his hair and always wore the same leather jacket and jeans.  Then one day I find him in bed with the next door neighbour’s nanny, so I broke it off.  Fucking men, man, can’t trust them with anything.”

“Uh, right,” I said.  “Sounds…rough.”

“Oh shut up, you sound like a shrink.”

She opened the door to one of the dorms on the sixth level.  “This is where the officers in our company are staying,” she said.  “Commander Jupiter had everyone gather here to meet you.”  She turned and saluted.  “Commander Jupiter, Lieutenant Jupiter, may I present Lieutenant Shepard.”

Commander Luna Jupiter stepped forward.  “Good to meet you, Lieutenant,” she said, shaking my hand.  She was quite short, only a few inches taller than me, and petite, with incredibly pale skin, chin-length blonde hair and almond-shaped green eyes.  She also clearly didn’t recognise me.

“Uh, you too, ma’am,” I said, deciding not to go there.

She frowned.  “You look familiar,” she said.

“Yeah, my face has been all over the TV lately,” I said.  “I was also your assistant when you were at the villa.”

“Really?” she asked keenly.  “I don’t recall that.  Meet my brother, Staff Lieutenant Skye Jupiter.”

“Yeah, I’ve met him too,” I mumbled, shaking Lieutenant Jupiter’s hand.

Our history was not as pleasant as Commander Jupiter and mine.  He had stood in for Commander Anderson as our fitness instructor, and had managed to psychologically traumatise me and force me to give up gymnastics.

“You have a very forgettable face, Lieutenant,” Lieutenant Jupiter said.  “I’m afraid I don’t remember you.”

“Never mind, it doesn’t matter,” I said.

“And then, this is the rest of the company,” Commander Jupiter said. 

“Hey Shep,” a voice said.  I looked in the direction of the voice.

“Khan?” I asked in astonishment.  “What are you doing here?”

Ismaeel grinned at me.  “Just graduated from marine corps scout sniper academy,” he said.  “Only got here two days ago.”

“I take it you know Private Khan,” Commander Jupiter said dryly.

“Yeah, we were in the same pod at Del Sol,” I said.  I shook his hand.  “Good to see you again, Khan.”

“You too, Shep,” he said.  “Hey, you’ve become quite the celebrity, haven’t you?  Ruben literally exploded with excitement when she heard you were coming.”

“Ruben’s here?” I asked.

“Right here, ma’am,” a slim woman with short, curly dark hair said.  Nina Ruben had been our officer recruit when I’d been a junior at Del Sol.

“Ma’am?” I asked in surprise.  “Never thought I’d hear that word from you, Ruben.  Usually it was something along the lines of ‘shut up and give me push-ups, Shepard’.”

“Yeah yeah, I rode you hard when you were a grunt,” she muttered.  “I have to say though, I’m damned proud of how you turned out, Shepard.  You’ve done the pod proud.”

Nina had always been big on team spirit at Del Sol.  “Uh, thanks I guess,” I said.

“Then this is Private Zaeed Masaad, the worst soldier in the Alliance,” Commander Jupiter said, pointing to a dark skinned man who was missing his left eye.  “That’s Operations Chief Lin Ji, from Zhu’s Hope,” she continued, indicating a short, Asian woman.  “She’s retiring in October, so we’ll be getting a replacement in then.  That’s Corporal Maya van Richte,” she pointed at a tall woman with white hair and blue eyes, who waved happily at me.  “She’s a mute, can’t make a sound, so she communicates with sign language.”  I smiled widely at her, not sure what else to do.

“I’m Private Terrence Brown,” a short, blonde man said.  “I know a lot of useless information.  Would you like to hear some?”

“Uh, sure, go for it,” I said uncomfortably.

“Admiral Del Sol’s favourite meal was pickled fish with gherkins and olives,” he said.  “The universe is actually beige, not black.  Your first name is Jane-,”

“I know that, that’s not useless information to me,” I interrupted. 

“Let him finish, he’s actually really good,” Ismaeel said.

“Your first name is Jane, which is of Hebrew origin, meaning God is gracious,” Terrence went on.  “It is the feminine version of John, and is a name that has never been possessed by someone seriously famous.  Your second name, Tina, which is of Latin origin, and is used as a name ending.  There are seven famous Tina’s to date: Tina Turner, Tina Louise, Tina Howe, Tina Thompson, Tina Lowe, Tina Francis and Tina Chang.  Your surname is Shepard, which is of Anglo-Saxon origin, derived from the word ‘shepherd’ which means to watch over sheep.  There are at least ten known spellings of the name ‘Shepard’.  The name was taken to America by one Samuel Shepard who went over in July, 1635.”

“Any famous Shepards?” I asked despite myself.

“There was a Sam Shepard, who was a play-write and actor in the twentieth century, and a private in the First Contact War, a Jordan Shepard, who became known for his heroics-,”

“He was my father,” I snapped.

“I knew that too,” Terrence said.

“How do you know all this crap?” I asked.

“I read,” he said proudly.

“So do I, but I tend to read interesting things like Moonshine,” I said.

“He also has a photographic memory, which comes in useful,” Commander Jupiter said.  “Then this is Private Nkosi Sobana.”

She indicated a dark woman with close-cropped hair.  “Any amazing talents I should know about?” I asked grumpily.

Nkosi thought for a bit.  “I know all the songs in Heart’s Song,” she said.  Heart’s Song was a musical.

“Good for you,” I said.

“And finally, this is Service Chief Giuseppe Carboletti,” Commander Jupiter said.

I froze.  “Joey Carboletti?” I asked softly.

The short, swarthy Italian man looked up.  “Hey Janey,” he said quietly.

Basically, the short version of Joey and my relationship is that, when I was eight, my mom was posted as a shuttle pilot to a space station in the Exodus Cluster, where a number of mine-workers from Terra Nova stayed (incidentally, my father’s sister was also posted there, which was fun.  She basically took us under her wing).  She took Jason and me with her.  Having never been around other children of my own age who were also not blood-relatives, I struggled to make friends.  One of the first people I did make friends with was Joey, and his younger sister Talia.  Suffice it to say, we got into all kinds of trouble, as only young children with little to no adult supervision can.  Once I returned to the Hugo Grayson, I lost track of Joey.

“What the hell are you doing here?” I asked.

He smiled crookedly.  “Well, I was on my way to-,”

“Yeah yeah, Eden Prime, but you got lost,” I said.  “That’s an old joke.  Besides, I think I invented it, so I’m going to have to have you done for copyright infringement.”

“Shut the hell, you nutjob,” Lieutenant Jupiter snapped.

“Sir yes sir,” I said.

“So, anyway Lieutenant Shepard, that’s the team,” Commander Jupiter said, throwing her brother a hurried look.  “We ship out in two days’ time.  I believe your medical and psych evaluations are back to back after lunch.  The rest of you, dismissed.”

The NCOs and servicemen got up and filed out.  “If you have a chance later, Jane, I’d love to catch up,” Joey said from the door.

“Lieutenant Shepard is your superior, Carboletti,” Lieutenant Jupiter said.  “You will address her us such.”

Joey’s face went scarlet.  “Sorry sir, ma’am,” he said and hurried out.

Carlotta got up and stretched.  “I should fetch Rochelle,” she said.  “I left her with one of the shrinks.  We’ll see how crazy she is now when I go fetch her.”

She left.  “Who’s Rochelle?” I asked.  “Another squad mate?”

Commander Jupiter pulled a face.  “I wish, although it sometimes feels like it,” she mumbled.

“Yes, but who is she?” I asked.

At that moment the door to the dorm opened and a group of officers walked in.  “Major Mbunda, I’d like you to meet Company 6’s newest officer, Second Lieutenant Jane Shepard,” Commander Jupiter said.  “Lieutenant, this is Major Ernesto Mbunda, the commanding officer of the Third Regiment Ground Marines.”

I saluted.  “Good to meet you, sir,” I said.

“So, another sensitive sniper to join the company?” he asked disdainfully, ignoring my salute.

“Yes sir, that’s why I can’t go into direct sunlight,” I said.  “I might melt.”

“What?” he asked.

“These are various other officers from the ground regiment,” Commander Jupiter said quickly, glaring at me.  She clearly didn’t remember my worse traits.

“Hello various officers, it’s good to meet you,” I said, giving a small wave.  “I’m Lieutenant Shepard, known mostly as Shepard, occasionally Shep, sometimes Ken, rarely Jane and almost never Kevin.”

“Oh God, and I thought you lot were full up with Lieutenant Antonio’s crazy,” another officer mumbled.

At that moment the door opened and Carlotta returned, leading a very small person by the hand.  “And I thought I was short,” I said, surprised.  “So what is she, the communication’s tech?”

“No, dumbshit, she’s my daughter,” Carlotta said shortly.  “Name’s Rochelle.”

“Your daughter?” I asked in amazement.

“Yeah, my daughter,” Carlotta snapped.  “Is that so hard to believe?  Do I look like I’m fucking sterile or something?  I’m hot, guys tend to want to have sex with me.”

“Wow,” I said.  “I’m a military brat too and no one spoke like that around me when I was a kid.”  Rochelle looked like she was about three years old.  She was very like Carlotta, except her hair was long.  She looked solemnly up at me.  “Where’s her dad?” I asked.

“Oh, he’s on the planet of Mind your own Goddamn Business, in the system, Shut the Hell Up, and in the star cluster, I Don’t Give a Fuck About Your Damned Opinion,” Carlotta said.  “Anyway, when I’m on deployment, I get someone else on the ship to mind her.  Lucky for her, you’ll be my new partner, so the chances of you having to babysit for me are slim.  Even so, Rochelle, meet Smurfette, Smurfette meet Rochelle.”

Rochelle looked up at me for a long time before asking, “Does your mommy work on the ship like mine?”

.....

My medical and psychological evaluations were a bit of a farce.  The doctor, a young, ginger fool started the session, without greeting or any other preamble by saying, “So, I understand that you recently had dextero poisoning.  How are you feeling?”

“Well, you know, good afternoon, and yes I’m well too, how are you?” I answered.

“The poisoning, Lieutenant,” he said.

I sighed.  “I’m fine now,” I said.  “The tox program gave me a fever and I was vomiting for days afterwards, but I’m mostly good now.  I sometimes here bells ringing in the distance though, and occasionally I see flashes of a white light.”

“Really?” he asked excitedly.

“No,” I said.  “I feel totally normal, which for usually means maladjusted, tired, undernourished and snarky.”

“Lieutenant, why do you feel the need to answer everything with humour?” the doctor asked.

“I’m sorry, did I come to the wrong room?” I asked.  “I thought I was here for the medical evaluation.”

He sighed.  “I see you have asthma,” he said.  “How are you handling that?”

“Very well,” I said.  “I’ve had it for nineteen years now, which is plenty of time to get used to it.”

“I noticed you had quite a bad attack whilst in Taetrus,” he continued.

“Did that get broadcast?” I groaned.  “Look, I was sick.  When I’m sick, my lungs decide that life is too hard for them, so rather than keep trying, they quit.  We’re sort of opposites in that way.  I usually have it under control, and their fun things to talk about when I’m with my doctor friends.”

“Even so, I’d like to take an X-ray of them to see,” the doctor said.  “You’re not pregnant, are you?”

“Hm,” he said, fifteen minutes later, examining the printouts of my X-rays.  “Well, the good news is that your lungs seem to have stabilised.  I noticed in your file that they’ve been deteriorating at a steady rate, but now they seem much the same as your previous examination, which, I believe, was in December last year.”

“My paediatrician will be excited,” I said.  “Every time I went to her as a kid, she’d say ‘Come on, Jane, your lungs can’t have gotten much worse than they were last time,’ and every time they had.  I have a capacity to surprise, you know.”

“I feel like I do know you,” he said.  “Intimately.”

I didn’t know how to respond to that, so I settled for a long, drawn-out “Errrrrrr.”

“You’re a celebratory, you know,” he continued, clearly not done with turning this into the most awkward conversation I’d ever had the misfortune of having.

“Um, yeah, I did know that, actually,” I said, uncomfortably.

“And speaking of, I notice you didn’t have any genetic enhancements done,” he said, looking at my file.

“Oh for the love of God, is every session at the doctor going to be the same?” I asked tiredly.  “Topic number one: asthma.  Topic number two: genetic enhancements.  Topic number three: height, weight and lack thereof.”

“Well, it’s actually quite lucky for you that you didn’t have the enhancements done,” he said.

“I-what?” I asked in surprise.  This wasn’t how these conversations normally went.

“You probably wouldn’t have made it if your flight-or-fight response was enhanced,” he explained.  “See, the little side-effect that they don’t tend to tell you is that only the fight response is enhanced, so that soldiers will fight instead of run away.  Nine times out of ten, cases of cowardice are because the enhancement didn’t take.”

This was news to me.  Cowardice in the military was dealt with severely.  Most cases led to time spent in prison, some extremely severe ones even warranted the death penalty.

“So basically, if I’d had the enhancements done, I wouldn’t have been able to run away from the thresher maw on Akuze?” I asked slowly.

“I thought it was your friend, Bridget Fredrich, who ran away,” the doctor said. 

“But you just-,” I began.  “Never mind.”

“Just think what an awful galaxy it would be if there was no Jane Shepard,” he continued wistfully.

“I know, right?” I said.  “No more sarcasm, no more bad jokes, no more insubordination, no more short soldiers, and nobody left to say out-dated words like ‘y’all’.”

“You say y’all?” the doctor asked.  I nodded.  “Honey, that is so sixties.  Do you still say wise at the ends of words?”

“No,” I said.  “I’m retro, I’m not that retro.”

.....

The psychological evaluation was even worse.  I had to see a young psychologist with the unfortunate last name of Dr Wang.  “Are you a Freudian?” I asked.

“Why do you ask?” she asked suspiciously.

“Well, primarily because I had a bad experience with a cognitive-behaviourist, but also because if you are, your last name must get a lot of really awkward questions,” I said.  I put on a phoney deep voice.  “Do you want to have sex with your dad?  Do you wish you had a penis?  And so on.”

“Right,” Dr Wang said.  “So anyway, this is basically a psychological evaluation to see if you’re mentally and psychologically fit to go back into the field.  I will be writing a report to the medical board, but for the rest, anything we talk about-,”

“Will be kept confidential, I know,” I interrupted.  “If you get the sense that harm outside the parameters of my work is being done, either to myself or in the direction of others, you’re obligated to report it.  I’ve seen a bunch of shrinks, I know the drill by now.”  I yawned widely to illustrate this.

“Right,” Dr Wang said.  “You saw these therapists in what context?”

“Well, the first one was when I was eight, after an abuse case was laid against my father,” I said.  “I only went to him once or twice, I think.  I was referred to an agency on Terra Nova, but I couldn’t really get there.  My mom was working.  Then I was referred to a social worker at Del Sol academy when I was sixteen.  I also saw three different psychologists after Akuze.  So, since I know what’s coming up, yes, I sometimes hate my father.  I also miss him a lot, as he wasn’t always an asshole.  I miss my mom, my brothers and my sister.  I worry about my little brother’s future all the time.  I still think about Akuze, and I still get anxiety when I think about thresher maws.  I am quite worried about being given such a high rank, especially since, it seems that I have become galactic famous.  I might have a mild oral fixation (I sucked my thumb until I was thirteen and a half, I bite my nails and I smoke like there’s no tomorrow).  My first sexual experience was pretty normal.  It was with a guy that I really liked a lot.  I’d say I’m mostly normal, but I talk a lot, particularly when I’m nervous.  Can I go now?”

Dr Wang frowned.  “Well, let’s take one thing at a time,” she said.  “You were abused by your father?”

I groaned.

.....

I wasn’t sure what to do after the evaluations.  Going back to my barracks would mean putting up with Carlotta’s snipes (and possibly punches), Lieutenant Jupiter’s mean temper, and Commander Jupiter not remembering my name, not to mention the other officers’ glares.  I had friends among the servicemen and the NCOs, but it was improper for an officer to mingle with such lowly individuals.  I decided that the only really cool thing about being an officer was the fact that you could boss people around.  And the pay was good.  My bank account was suddenly looking very healthy.

I wandered aimlessly around.  The unfortunate thing with an officer wandering aimlessly around was that people would randomly salute the officer and loudly bellow “Officer on deck”.  After the sixth time the novelty has worn off and the officer in question tends to have a headache.

I ended up on deck three and wandered aimlessly around there for a bit, all with “Officer on deck” and salutes to serenade me.  I closed my eyes in irritation and nearly crashed into a gunnery chief. 

“Sorry ma’am,” she said quietly, and stepped aside.

“Don’t worry, soldier, I-Auntie Jen?” I asked in surprise.

“Janey?” she said.  “Oh my God, I can’t believe it’s you.  I was hoping to see you before I deployed again.  How are you?  Wow, you’ve grown since I last saw you.”

I’d last seen her when I was fourteen.  “Yeah, that’s something I haven’t heard in a while,” I laughed, hugging her excitedly.

“Officer on deck,” a gunner called, walking past.  I winced.

“Do you have any idea where the hell we can go sit where people won’t bellow like that?” I asked.

“You could take me to the officer mess,” she said.

“Right, but I warn you, it’s probably a mess,” I said warningly.

She grinned.  “Wow, Jane, you sure haven’t changed much,” she said.

The mess was empty (but not a mess, probably because the officers would kick up a stink if their mess wasn’t cleaned properly).

“How are you Jane?” Auntie Jen asked.  I opened my mouth, but she was already on a roll.  “I was so worried about you.  When I heard about Akuze, I couldn’t believe my ears, although I suppose I shouldn’t really be surprised, you were always a fighter.  But how are you?”

“Good,” I said.  “I suppose everyone in the galaxy seems to know how I am before I do though.”

“Yes, you have become rather famous,” Auntie Jen said.  “I guess it’s quite scary for you, and you’re so young too.  Well, I’ll say one thing, Janey: your father would have been proud.”

“Really?” I asked in surprise.

“Yes,” she said, nodding vigorously.  “He had a very messed up way of showing it, but he only wanted the best for you.”

I sighed.  “I don’t know, Auntie,” I said.  “Dad always seemed to be telling me how much I suck.”

“Maybe,” she said.  “But I think Jordan wouldn’t have put so much effort into you if he didn’t think you could do it.”

I hadn’t really looked at it like that before.  “He wasn’t always bad,” I said slowly.  “He used to tell us bedtime stories, remember?  And he’d take us on these whack outings when we were groundside.  He just made sure that I remembered all the bad stuff more than I remembered the good stuff.”

“Yes, well,” Auntie Jen shrugged.  “Grown-ups are complicated creatures, Jane.  Although, I suppose you’re a grown-up too now.  How’s Jason?”

“He’s good,” I said.  “He starts at a programming academy on Sur’Kesh in the fall.  He’s seriously excited.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” she said.  “Listen Jane, when you out there in the war, I need you to be careful for me.”

“I will,” I said.  “Don’t worry.”

“Well, I guess I can’t help that,” Auntie Jen said.  “You and Jason are the only family I really have left now.  Well, the only family that matters to me.”

“Why, how are Granma and Grandpa?” I asked.

“Well, Mom spent most of my shore leave just now asking me why I haven’t gotten married and settled down yet, and how much longer I’m going to keep up with this army business, and Dad was drunk for most of the time,” she answered.  “Pretty normal in other words.”  She sighed.  “I miss Jordan,” she said almost to herself.  She saw my face.  “He was my big brother,” she said.  “And even though he lost it after the war, he was a good man.”

“I guess,” I said doubtfully.  “I wish he’d shown me that side of himself more often.”

“I know,” she said.  “And I wish I’d stepped in more often when he did what he did to you.”

I shrugged.  “It wasn’t really your place,” I said.  “Besides, you weren’t always with us, so you wouldn’t always have been able to.”

At that moment Freddie opted to lighten the mood.  “Hey, short assed freak,” it said, popping out of my omnitool.  “You have a message.”

“What’s that?” Auntie Jen asked, looking warily at Freddie.

“My VI,” I said.  “Jason programmed it.  It’s called Freddie apparently.”

“What, like that computer you, Jason, Joey and Talia invented?” Auntie Jen asked.

“Yep,” I said.  “God, we were crazy kids.  People must have thought we were batteries of the Overlord or something.”

“I am the Overlord,” Freddie squeaked.  “You are all my minions.  Good to see you, Auntie Jen.  Bow before me.”

“Right,” she said.  “It looks like Jason still has the same sense of humour.  Are you still a smart mouth?”

“You should ask all my trainers and COs exactly how much of a smart mouth,” I said.  “And Admiral Mikhailovich.”

She smiled.  “I’m not sure I should,” she said.  She got up and stretched.  “I need to go.  I fly out tonight, and I still need to pack.”

“Right,” I said.  I hesitated, then hugged her.  “It was good to see you again, Auntie.”

“You too, Jane,” she said, hugging me back.  “Take care out there.”

“Yes ma’am,” I said.  “You too.  Stay safe.”

.....

It turned out that the email I’d been sent was my updated tour of duty, which basically meant that I had passed the evaluations.  I went back to the barrack to inform Commander Jupiter.

“Why are you telling me this?” she asked blankly.

“Well, I thought that since I will be serving on your ship, you should know this sort of thing,” I said.

“It’s not my ship,” Commander Jupiter said.  “Admiral Hackett is the ranking officer.”

“Admira-wait, he still serves?” I asked in amazement. “But he must be pushing sixty now.”

“He’s only forty nine, dumb shit,” Carlotta said.

“Even so,” I said.  “That’s fucking old.”

“I’m twenty nine, would you say I’m old?” Commander Jupiter asked.

“Well, how to put this?” I murmured.

“Screw you, Lieutenant,” Commander Jupiter mumbled.

“I’m nineteen ma’am,” I said.  “Anyone older than twenty is old to me.  It’s just one of those things.  Anyway, do you want me to go tell Admiral Hackett?”

“He’s bound to know Lieutenant,” Commander Jupiter said.  “Anyway, I feel now is a good time to brief you on your duties on the ship.”

“Is it to look good and be badass?” I asked.

“Nope,” Commander Jupiter said.

“Damn,” I mumbled.  “I’m really good at that.”

“For the love of god, does anyone believe in standard protocol these days?” Lieutenant Jupiter snapped.

“Oh, sure I believe in it,” I said.  “Doesn’t necessarily mean I have to follow it.  What will my duties be, ma’am?”

“You will be our procurement officer and ship financier,” Commander Jupiter said.

I laughed.  “Yeah, that’s a good one ma’am,” I said.  “Have you heard the one about the three pieces of string that walk into the bar?”  I saw their faces.  “You’re not joking, are you?”

“No, but I haven’t heard the one where the three pieces of string walk into the bar,” Commander Jupiter said.  “Will you tell it to me?”

“Commander, listen,” I said.  “I only learnt my twelve times table two years ago.  I can’t be put in charge of the entire ship’s economy.  I’m still at the stage where I do most of my math on my fingers.  The problem is that I only have ten fingers.”

“Well, sad to say, Lieutenant Antonio flunked out in her final year of school and Lieutenant Jupiter and I never went to school,” Commander Jupiter said.  “Besides, admin said you could handle it.”

“Admin needs a boot up its ass,” I mumbled.  “Anyway, if we come short each month, know that it’s because I suck at math, and not because I am embezzling.”

“We’ll bare it in mind,” Commander Jupiter said dryly.  “Now, tell me the joke about the three pieces of string.”

I sighed and told the joke.  “I don’t get it,” she said, looking confused.

“It’s a pun,” I explained patiently.  “A frayed knot sounds like afraid not.  Get it?”

“Oh yeah,” she said and laughed.  “That’s hilarious, Lieutenant.  Carry on.”

“Aye aye, ma’am,” I said and got onto my bed.

.....

The next day I pretty much spent vidcomming with Kaidan, Ash and Jason.  This was an activity that only needed to take four hours at the most, but ended up taking about eight hours owing to not being allowed onto the QEC and therefore having to sit in the queues in the com buoys.  I was pissed off when I heard that I wasn’t allowed onto the QEC.

“Why not?” I demanded the harried-looking com officer.

“You don’t have a high enough designation,” he replied.

“I’m a marine officer,” I said. 

“What designation are you?” he asked.

“An N6,” I admitted.

“Yeah, only the sevens are allowed on the QECs,” he explained.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I said impatiently.  “Are you saying I get absolutely no perks from becoming an officer?”

“Well, you’ve a higher pay-grade, get better quarters and are allowed to order lower ranks around,” the com officer said.  “Don’t those count as perks in your book?”

“No, being able to use the QEC counts as a perk,” I said.

“Well, work hard, become an N7 and you’ll be able to,” he answered.  “For now you have to use the com buoys, same as every other ordinary person here.”

I went to a free terminal and opened the com.  Below is an account of the long process it took for me to put a call through to Earth (I called Ash first for a number of reasons: her name came first in the alphabet, she was the only female, and Earth would have less com traffic).

Jane Shepard dials the number for the Arcturus Stream com buoy.

VI: Welcome to the Arcturus Stream com buoy.  We value your call.  You are twenty eighth in the line.  Please hold the line.

Various Mass Effectors songs are played over the line, slowly driving Jane Shepard mad, until she is foaming at the mouth and catching invisible bugs.  Every five minutes the VI comes over the line to tell her she must hold the line.  Finally, one and a half hours later.

Communications officer at com buoy: Good morning.  This is Arcturus Stream com buoy.  My name is Kari Lilito.  How can I help you?

Jane Shepard: I’d like to put a vid call through to the Sol System.

Kari Lilito: Name?

Jane Shepard: Whose?

Kari Lilito: What?

Jane Shepard: You’ve got to be kidding me.  Whose name do you want, mine, yours, or the person I’m calling?

Kari Lilito: What species are you, ma’am?

Jane Shepard: Uh, I’m human.  That’s why I’m speaking English.  Are you on drugs or something, cos you’re acting flipping weird.  You can see my face on the damn screen.

Kari Lilito: What’s your name?

Jane Shepard: Second Lieutenant Jane Shepard.  I’m with the Alliance military.

Kari Lilito: No kidding you’re with the Alliance military if you’re in the Arcturus Stream.  There aren’t any civilians in that system. (squints at screen).  How old are you anyway?

Jane Shepard: Ten.

Kari Lilito: I’m going to have to run some credentials.  Can I have your identity number please?

Jane Shepard: Come on, I was kidding.  I’m just sick of people always asking me that.

Kari Lilito: Identity number please.

Jane Shepard: Look, I’m in kind of a hurry here.

Kari Lilito: I need to make sure you are who you say you are.

Jane Shepard: Fine.  6103120257078.

Kari Lilito: I need to run a voiceprint.  Say your full name and identity number as clearly as possible please.

Jane Shepard: Jane Tina Shepard, 6103120257078.

Kari Lilito: You’re Second Lieutenant Jane Shepard.

Jane Shepard (face palms): Yeah, I know.  I said that, but thanks for clearing that up. 

Kari Lilito: Just doing my job, ma’am.  Patching you into Sol System buoy.

Jane Shepard: Thanks.  Have a bad day.

Another hour of electro funk music whilst Jane Shepard starts gnawing on the terminal’s wire.

Tamz Green: Good morning.  This is the Sol System com buoy and you are speaking to Tamz Green.  How can I help you?

Jane Shepard: I’d like to put a call through to the fifth Company in London.

Tamz Green: Where?

Jane Shepard (Louder): the fifth Marine Corps Company.  Its base is in London.

Tamz Green: Its base is where?

Jane Shepard: Are you kidding me?  It’s in London.  As in the old capital of England, where they spoke with fancy accents, drank tea with their pinkies randomly sticking out, invented custard, boiled food and bad weather, and where colonialism was born.

Tamz Green: I thought that was Italy.

Jane Shepard: We’re talking pre-mass relay era here.

Tamz Green: So you want to be put through to Cape Town?

Jane Shepard: No, I want to stick a nail in your ass.  Failing that, I want to put a call through to London. 

Tamz Green: Oh London.

Jane Shepard: Yes London.

Tamz Green: Sure.  Who are you contacting?

Jane Shepard:  Private Ashley Williams with the fifth Marine Corps Company.

Tamz Green: Patching you through.

Jane Shepard: Thank God

.....

I sat for another ten minutes whilst Ash’s com officer ran around the base, looking for her.  Eventually she came on the line.  “Hey Jane,” she said.  “Wow, you look good.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.  “I look the same.”

“No, I was expecting you to have grown scales and head tufts or something,” she said.  I stared at her.  “You ingested dextero-amino acid protein.  I thought you would have changed.”

“I lost some weight,” I said.  “Other than that, I didn’t manage to confirm any racist, stereotypical urban myths, thanks for asking.  How’re you doing?”

“Not too bad,” Ash said.  “Bored out of my skull.  Where are you calling from?”

“Arcturus Station,” I said.  “I ship out tomorrow on ship mystery, headed for destination secret.”

“A lot of people are being sent there,” Ash said seriously.  “I want to know how they’re managing to keep it a secret with so many people there.  How are you doing?  You make quite an awesome television personality.”

“Very funny,” I mumbled.  “I’m good.  The company I’m serving in is pretty awesome though.”

“Anyone I know?” she asked.

“Well yeah,” I said.  “However, their identities are being kept secret.  Even they don’t know who they are.”

Ash laughed.  “You are silly, Jane,” she said.

“You love it,” I answered.  “Anyway, in case you were wondering, my ship is named after a mountain, and it serves in the Fifth Fleet.”

“Ooh, a dreadnought,” Ash said.  The Alliance had five dreadnoughts (one for each fleet), and each of them were named after a famous Earth mountain.  “That ought to be fun.  I hear dread-“

The screen flickered and went black, and a loud static noise filled my earpiece.  “Ash?” I asked.  “Hello, Ash?”

“Connection lost,” a cool VI voice said. “Please redial.”

“No,” I shouted.  “You’ve got to be kidding me, we barely spoke for five minutes, you can’t fucking do that to me, you stupid fucking synthetic.  Give me back my fucking connection now, or I will fucking shoot you.  I’ve killed a thresher maw, you should be short fucking work.”

“Lieutenant, please keep it down,” the com officer said, coming over to me.  “I’ve a mountain of work to do.”

“You know, this wouldn’t be happening if I was allowed to use the QEC,” I told him furiously.

“I have protocol to follow, same as you, ma’am,” he said.

My calls with Jason and Kaidan weren’t as dramatic, but I still sat on hold for nearly five hours in total.  However, Jason did have some bad news for me.

I could something was up the moment he came onto the line.  “Hey Shay,” he said listlessly.

“Hey Jason,” I said.  “What’s up?”

“Not much,” Jason answered. 

“Ok,” I said uncertainly.  “How’s school?”

“Crap,” he said.  “I’m about to start my finals.  Studying is killing me.”

“I’m sure you’ll do well though,” I said.  “You’re a super genius.  Or at least smarter than me, which doesn’t necessarily mean anything.”  I paused.  “Jason, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” he said defensively.

“Uh huh,” I said.  “Then why do you look like a dude that’s just found out that Vaenia’s been cancelled?”  Vaenia was an asari pornography TV program.

“It’s Marvin,” he said.  Marvin was my pet hamster.

“What about Marvin?” I asked.

“Well, he, I,” Jason stuttered.  “I woke up this morning and he was lying on the floor of his cage.  He’s dead, Shay.  I’m sorry.”

“Oh,” I said.  “Well, he was old, I guess.”

“You’re not mad?” he asked.

“Why would I be mad?” I asked blankly.  “You didn’t neglect him, did you?”  He shook his head.  “Then why would I be mad?”

“You asked me to look after him,” Jason said in a tiny voice.

“Three years ago, Jason,” I said.  “Honestly, it’s fine.  I’ll buy myself a new hamster.  I’m more worried about you.  Are you ok?”

“Yeah,” Jason said.  “It’s just-Marvin was the only connection I had here with me of you, and Mom, Dad, Jean and John.  Now he’s gone.”

I sighed.  “You’re lonely,” I said.

“Well, yeah,” he said.  “None of the others really want to hang out with me.  I don’t have friends.  And I know we never had friends before, mainly because there were never any other kids with us, but it sucks to always eat alone because no one wants to sit with you.  School’s not that much better.”

“I’m sorry Jase,” I said.

“Yeah, well, it’s not exactly your fault is it?” he asked.  “You would have left me regardless.”

“I guess,” I said.  “What about Sur’Kesh?  Did you make any friends when you were on that camp there?”

“Well, the salarians talked super-fast and were way smarter than me, but yeah,” he said.  “They’re very social as a people and will make friends with just about anyone.”

“So maybe when you go back there you’ll make some proper friends,” I said.

“Here’s hoping,” he answered sarcastically.  “If not, I can always become an alcoholic or something.”

“That’s not funny,” I pointed out.

“Yeah, no fucking shit, Shay,” he said.  “Anyway, what’s up with you?  Where are you anyway?”

“Arcturus,” I said.  “I fly out tomorrow.  Oh, and guess who’s here?”

“Who?” Jason asked.

“Joey Carboletti.”

“No way,” Jason said.  “How is he, anyway?”

“He’s good,” I said.  “We haven’t really gotten a chance to catch up yet.”

“Well, give him my best,” Jason said.  “And stay safe, Shay.  I don’t want to be the last Shepard left.”

“You won’t be,” I promised.  “You stay safe too.  Good luck for your exams.”

“Thanks,” Jason said.  “They should be pretty easy.  Anyway.”

“I should go,” I said.  “Take care.”

“You too,” he said.  “See you, Shay.”

.....

Getting through to Kaidan was even more of a mission, owing to the high amount of com traffic in the Attican Traverse, and the fact that his com officer put me on hold for half an hour whilst she looked for him.  Finally he came on the line.

“For the love of just about everything in the galaxy, I wasn’t even on this deployment,” he snapped in the direction of the com officer.  “I was in our quarters.”

“Corporal, you know that the thing known as the loop?” the com officer said.  “I’m rarely in it.”

“Hello Kaidan,” I said.  “Kaidan, can you hear me?  It’s me, your friend Jane Shepard.”

“Hello Jane,” he mumbled.  “I’m so fucking tired of this stupid-ass war.  You know what I spent all of yesterday doing?”

“I’ll just fire my crystal ball up, give me a sec,” I said. 

“Shut up,” he snapped.  “I dug a fucking trench.  On my own.  In the fucking rain.  Then someone in the goddamned Joint Military Council decided that we should abandon the position.  I mean, what the fuck?  A trained monkey would do a better job at running this damned war.”

“You’re breaking protocol, Corporal,” the com officer squawked.

“Suck a fucking fly dick, you ass,” Kaidan snapped.

“Simmer down,” I said sharply.  “Insulting your superiors is a sure-fire way to get your ass kicked out of the marines and into Grageran Station.”

For a moment I thought he was going to swear at me, but he took a deep breath.  “How are you Jane?” he asked more calmly.

“Alive,” I said.  “How are you?  Apart from off your rocker that is.”

“I’m good,” Kaidan said.  “Actually really good.  I loved catching the highlights of your escapades on the news hour by the way.  Have you ever thought of a career in comedic acting?”

“Oh sure,” I answered.  “If the marines didn’t work out, that was like my plan Y.  I ship out to a place that you’re very familiar with by the way.”

“Seattle South?” Kaidan asked.

“No, numbnuts, the place that I’m going to assume you are right now,” I said.  “Please don’t make me say it.  I’m an officer, and I need to lead by example.”

“Specialist Dumar, notify everyone with a self-preservation instinct: the war has just been lost,” Kaidan said to his com officer.  “I repeat: Jane Shepard has entered the war, so we are all going to die.”

“Ha ha very funny,” I said.

“I’m a big fan of Lieutenant Shepard,” Officer Dumar said quietly.  “I think that having her on the front will only do our men good.”

“Besides, we have bigger things to worry about,” I said.  “I’m our ship’s financier.”

“So, basically it’s the Alliance’s economy that’s in danger then, is that what you’re saying?” Kaidan asked.

“Pretty much, yeah,” I said.

Kaidan laughed.  “I have to go, Jane,” he said.  “I deploy out in a few hours and we need to be debriefed before we go.  Stay safe, eh?”

“I will,” I promised.  “And you too.”

“Of course,” he said.  “Maybe I’ll even see you out here sometime.”

“You never know,” I said.  “Miss you, Kaidan.”

“Here we go again,” Officer Dumar said.  “It’s a wonder you two haven’t been court marshalled yet.”

“Shut it,” Kaidan bellowed.  “I miss you too, Jane,” he said more quietly. 

I hung up and went back to our barracks.  “Where were you?” Carlotta asked, helping Rochelle build a castle out of Lego.

“On the phone,” I said.

“For eight fucking hours?” she asked incredulously.

“Hey, we had a lot to say,” I said defensively.

“Clearly,” she mumbled.  “It’s a wonder the person you were talking to didn’t die of boredom or something.”

“Protocol, Antonio, protocol,” Lieutenant Jupiter said boredly, looking up from the chess game he was playing against Commander Jupiter.  “Check mate, Luna.”

“Suck my protocol,” Carlotta said under her breath.

“That’s not check mate,” Commander Jupiter said in outrage.

“It is,” Lieutenant Jupiter said.

“You can’t move your knight there,” Commander Jupiter said.  “You were standing there.”

“No I wasn’t I was standing there,” Lieutenant Jupiter said.

“You weren’t.”

“Was so.”

“Weren’t.”

“Was.”

“Weren’t.”

“Was.”

“Nice to know that no matter how old you get, sibling arguments will always sound the same,” I said, getting into my bed.

“Mind your own business, Shepard,” Commander Jupiter snapped.

.....

We left at three the next morning.  To do this, we needed to be up at half past one, so that we could pass through customs, load the ship, and sit around and wait for three quarters of an hour.

“Early, bah,” I mumbled.  “What’s the army’s obsession with early?  A soldier can work just as well later in the day.  Better in fact, as he won’t be exhausted to death.”

“He also won’t be complaining about the fact that he’s exhausted to death and will thus be able to do more work,” Nina, who was monitoring the loading of the company’s weapons and ammunition said.  “Don’t even think about dropping that, Corporal.  We’d be blown to pieces.”

Maya grinned and nodded genially.  “You tell ‘em Ruben,” I said.  “Work them hard.  I know you’re good at that.”

“You don’t know the half of it, ma’am,” Maya signed, putting the crate she was carrying down.

“Actually I do,” I said.

“No, you really don’t,” Joey said, coming past with a box of armour.  “The company’s guns have never been as well maintained as now.”

“Yes, yes Chief, get on with it,” Nina said impatiently.

“Lieutenant Shepard, why is Private Masaad not doing any work?” Lieutenant Jupiter asked, coming over.

I glanced over to where Zaeed was standing with a cigarette.  “He appears to be too busy contemplating that cigarette, sir,” I replied.

“Get him to work, Lieutenant, we’re running late,” Lieutenant Jupiter said, moving off.

“What does he mean we’re running late, we have an hour before we have to be out of here, and you lot are nearly done,” I said.

“Lieutenant Jupiter is kind of anal about time,” Nina explained.  “The worst is when he gets commands on our deployments.  I swear, being told that we have to be back at the extraction point in twenty minutes whilst being shelled is not a fun thing.  Worst thing is that he’s my partner.”

“Ah, I can see it now,” I said.  “’Target five hundred yards, angle forty two and a half, wind speed five knots an hour.  Fire.  Fire.  Fire.  Fire.  Why aren’t you firing?  You have five seconds to fire.  Four.  Three.  Two.  One.  You lose, please try again later.’.”

“Actually that’s alarmingly accurate,” Nina said.

“I’m a good judge of character,” I said.  “I should go tell Masaad to get to work.”

Zaeed pulled himself upright as I approached.  “What are you doing, Private?” I asked in my best ‘I’m an officer and you’d better believe it’ voice.

“I’m smoking, ma’am,” he answered, saluting.

“I am impressed by your honesty,” I said.  “Unfortunately, smoking doesn’t count as any duties on the part two orders.  What are you meant to be doing?”

“Helping the engineers load eezo into the drive core,” he admitted.

“I wouldn’t want that job either,” I muttered.  Eezo was highly poisonous, and even accidently inhaling some would lead to death.  “Unfortunately for you though, you’re a private and I’m an officer, so get yea to the drive core and load that eezo.  It won’t take long, and then you can go help Lieutenant Antonio with getting the cannons into position.”

“If another fucking person bumps my fucking guns, I will stuff him into the barrel and fire him at the fucking spiders,” a loud voice shouted from the ship’s hold.

“Yeah, thanks ma’am, but I’d rather load ten drive cores,” Zaeed said.

“Well, then if worst comes to worst, we can hire you out to the other ships and you can load their drive cores,” I said.  “Dismissed, Masaad.”

He sighed and put his cigarette stub out.  “Look enthusiastic,” I shouted as he walked away.  “You’re a marine, damn it.”

He showed me a rude sign without looking around.

.....

I was shown to my station in the Combat Information Centre by Lieutenant Jupiter.  A basic explanation of an Alliance ship’s layout: at the top of the ship are the senior officers’ quarters (commander and the executive officer in one room, captain and naval staff commander in another room, and it seemed Admiral in another room).  The level below that was where the Combat Information Centre (basically the ship’s ‘office’, where all the terminals for those that need to do admin work were found), the flight deck (self-explanatory), the conference room (usually an “empty room”), and various escape pods were found (the escape pods were on every deck.  I just thought I’d mention them for interest’s sake).  The third deck was the crew deck, where the crew quarters, med bay and mess was located.  The fourth deck was the observation deck.  This was my favourite deck, as huge projector screens basically turned the room into a view point for the surrounding skies.  The fifth deck was the engineering deck, where the drive core and ship’s engine was found (this was also where the engineers tended to hide.  Engineers are shy).  The sixth deck was the hold where luggage and equipment was stored, where the guns were located, and where the shuttles and slash or Makos were kept.  And that’s pretty much it.

My station was on the opposite end of the CIC from the galaxy map (a huge map of the galaxy where missions are posted), closer to the bridge.  A young naval seaman was seated on my right, Terrance was sitting next to him.  The seat to my left was empty.

“Hello sailor,” I said to the seaman in an effeminate voice.

“It’s Seaman actually,” he said, rolling his eyes.  “Seaman Nasution.”

“Good to meet you,” I said.  “Lieutenant Shepard.”

“Yeah, I know,” Seaman Nasution said.  “We were all warned that you’ll be joining Company 6.”

“Did you know that the navy was the only was the only corps to keep its ranks the same after the Exodus?” Terrence asked, leaning over Seaman Nasution.  “The marines dumped the staff sergeant, master sergeant, sergeant major, and first sergeant, and replaced them with the operations and services chiefs.  Furthermore, the gunnery sergeant has been renamed the gunnery chief.  Also, the warrant officer ranks have all been done away with, as has the rank of captain and colonel, but added the staff lieutenant.  The marines took the commander rank from the navy, but a commander is much higher ranked in the marines than in the navy.”

“No wonder we’re overworked,” I mumbled.

“Also-,” Terrance continued.

“No one cares, marine,” Seaman Nasution said.

At that moment Joey arrived and took the seat on my left.  “Ma’am,” he said.

“Stop,” I said.  “You’re my friend.  Or rather, you were.  I’m not actually sure where we stand right now, it’s nine years since we last saw each other.”

“Huh, I’m not sure how much more awkward this conversation can get,” Seaman Nasution said.

“Well, they could strip naked and make passionate love right here in the CIC,” Terrence remarked.

Joey and I both ignored them.  “We can still be friends, if you like,” Joey said.

“Yeah,” I said.  “Yeah totally.  I have to look at the financial stuff on this list, but maybe later we can meet up and chat.”

“Ok, this conversation just got more awkward,” Seaman Nasution mumbled.

“Listen here, Sailor, no one asked for your opinion, so zip it,” I snapped.

“It’s Seaman, not Sailor,” Seaman Nasution protested.  “I’ve a girlfriend.”

“Whatever you say,” I said sarcastically.

At that moment Commander Jupiter, Lieutenant Jupiter, Admiral Hackett, Captain Brendan (the naval captain) and Major Mbunda walked into the CIC.  “Officers on deck,” a group of seamen near the door screeched and we all jumped onto our feet and sprang to attention.

“As you were,” Admiral Hackett said and we sat down.

Commander Jupiter and Admiral Hackett made their way over to where I was sitting, forcing me to get up again.

“Admiral Hackett, I would like to formally introduce you to Company 6’s newest officer,” Commander Jupiter said.  “This is Lieutenant Shepard.”

“We’ve already met,” I said, holding my hand out.  “Good to meet you again though sir.”

“Welcome to my ship, Shepard,” he answered, shaking my hand.  “You’re a welcome addition.”

“Thank you sir,” I said.  “That makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.”

Admiral Hackett laughed.  He was used to my behaviour by now.  “I’m glad to hear it, Shepard, and I can guarantee you that you’ll be feeling more than that by the end of this tour of duty,” he said.  “At ease, marine.”

It was only when he’d made his way to his seat that I began wondering exactly what he had meant by that.

.....

Once we had completed take-off, Lieutenant Jupiter came over to me.  “I need to show you your bed,” he said.  “Follow me.”

He took me down to deck three and into the officers’ quarters.  Owing to a lack of space and an optimistic view of the lack of vertigo in soldiers, the beds were all triple bunks.  Lieutenant Jupiter showed me to the bed by the porthole.  “Up there,” he said, pointing to the top bunk.

My foot locker had bedding in it, and I climbed up to make my bed.  “So this is what it’s like to be tall,” I said.  “I can see so much.”

Carlotta was on the floor, building a puzzle with Rochelle.  “Yeah, it doesn’t suit you, Smurfette,” she said.  “You should stay small.”

“Why aren’t you working, Lieutenant Antonio?” Lieutenant Jupiter asked sternly. 

“Sir, we left port exactly ten minutes ago, after being at Arcturus to service the ship,” Carlotta answered.  “The guns should be fine for now.  Rochelle, my love, there is no way in the galaxy that that piece fits there.  Try another one.”

“Does fit,” Rochelle insisted, pushing down hard on the piece.

“Take it from me,” Carlotta said.

“Antonio, I need you at your station and hard at work immediately,” Lieutenant Jupiter ordered.

“I am hard at work,” Carlotta said indignantly.  “Do you think this kind of shit is easy for me?  We never built puzzles growing up.  The only pieces we put back together were the broken bottles left over from a night of fun with my dad.”

“He sounds like a charmer,” I remarked.

“He was,” she answered.  “You should have seen the sheer number of women he seduced.  In the end even the town priest had to congratulate him.”

“At your station, Lieutenant, that’s an order,” Lieutenant Jupiter barked.

“Fine,” Carlotta sighed.  “Fucking dick.”  She paused and smiled sweetly.  “Will you watch Rochelle for me?” she asked shyly.  “It’s dangerous in the gun battery for her.  Too many small things to swallow.”

“Whatever,” Lieutenant Jupiter said.  “Just get to the battery.”  She saluted and left.  “Shepard, I need you back at your station too.”

“Aye aye sir,” I said.

“Oh, and you’ll be watching Rochelle.”

“I’ll be what?” I asked in shock. 

“I think you heard what I said, Lieutenant,” he answered.  “Dismissed.”

“Hold on just one second,” I said, slowly digging the grave that I was about to lie down in.  “Antonio just asked you to do that.”

“I heard her, Shepard,” Lieutenant Jupiter said.  “I also believe that I outrank both of you and don’t actually have to listen to what either of you have to say.”

“Sir, I can’t watch a two year old,” I protested.  “I’m having enough trouble processing the fact that I’m going to be working with numbers for the indefinite future, now I’m expected to be a child minder too?”

“Yes,” he said.

“Well, that seems clear enough,” I muttered.  “Listen, sir, I’m a spacer…”

“Get over it, Shepard,” he said.  “I’m the executive officer of our company, I don’t have time to run around after this little brat.  See you later.”

With that he swept out of the room.  I eyed Rochelle apprehensively.  It might have been the trick of the light, but it seemed to me that she was watching me nervously too.

.....

Getting Rochelle to go to the CIC with me turned out to be a challenge in itself.  After a rather dull and monotonous conversation (it went something along the lines of ‘Rochelle, come with me’ ‘No’ ‘Please?’ ‘No’ ‘I don’t have time for this, kid’ ‘No’ ad nasueam) I finally picked her up and carried her up to the CIC.  Unfortunately, Rochelle did not approve of this, and let everyone know by screaming very, very loudly.  I put her down on the floor by my station with a small white board and some board markers so that she could draw, but she chucked the markers away and continued to wail.  I decided to employ the tried and tested tactic that my father used when we threw tantrums: I ignored her.  Which is not as easy as it sounds, believe me.

I opened the financial report from last year and tried to make sense of it.  The best I could come up with was that at the start of 2179 the ship had had a lot of credits, and at the end of the year they had had less than they started off with.  I frowned at my consol.

“Will someone shut that fucking child up?” Commander Jupiter bellowed.  I jumped.  She had a really loud voice.  I wasn’t expecting it from someone of her height.  Which was stupid, since I was shorter and had a pretty loud voice myself.

“I’ve tried,” I shouted.  “She doesn’t want to.  I figure she’ll cry herself out.”

“Rochelle doesn’t cry herself out, she makes those around her suicidal,” Joey said.  “Put her on your lap, that’s what I do.  She shuts up then.”

“Joey, I don’t know anything about kids,” I protested. 

“Pretend they’re small adults, and you’ll be fine,” Joey said.

“I’m not in the habit of putting small adults who need comfort onto my lap, Joe,” I said.

“Please get her to shut up,” Seaman Nasution said.  “I’ve just misspelled ‘deployment’ five times in a row.”

I picked Rochelle up apprehensively and sat down with her on my lap.  She gave a few hiccoughs and looked tearily up at me.  “Mama?” she asked sadly.

“Uh, no kid,” I said awkwardly.  “Sorry.  I’m Lieutenant Shepard.”

“She’ll never remember that,” Seaman Nasution mumbled.  “D-E-P-L-O-Y-M-E-N-T.”

“Right,” I said.  “Um, I’m Jane.”

She shook her head at me.  “Smurfette,” she said.

We got on alright from then.  I got hold of a toy car for her, which she flew over the surface of my work station whilst I started constructing an expenditure form for the month.  It was slow going, and I had a headache by the time I had filled in the first three expenses.  At that point Rochelle also decided that whatever I was doing was for more interesting than making ‘broom broom’ noises and flying a toy skycar around, and she started pressing buttons on my keyboard.

“Rochelle, don’t do that,” I said, moving her hand away.  She pulled her hand away, glared at me, and started pressing buttons again.  “Rochelle, I mean it-Jesus Christ child-don’t fucking-don’t you-oh fuck!”  The final exclamation came out because the screen on my terminal went blank.  “Oh shit,” I mumbled, putting Rochelle down on the ground again.  She immediately started bawling.

“Crap crap crap,” I said, switching the terminal on again.

“What’s going on here?” Commander Jupiter asked, coming over.

I jumped up and saluted.  “It’s under control, ma’am,” I said.

She looked at my blank terminal screen, then to my pale and sweaty face, and finally at Rochelle, who had flung herself, face first, onto the floor, in a manner similar to a prima donna who has heard that her prince is marrying the evil stepsister.

“Really,” she said. 

“Fine, it’s not,” I said.  “She pressed some buttons, and now I seem to have lost all my work.”

“Ok, at ease, Lieutenant,” she said.  I sat down again and tried desperately hard to find my document. 

Commander Jupiter went over to Rochelle and picked her up.  “Ok, Chel, you can stop crying now,” she said.  Rochelle stopped crying immediately, and touched Commander Jupiter’s face.

“Luna,” she said.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I mumbled.

Commander Jupiter carried Rochelle over to where the com officer was working.  “Can you put a call out for an engineer to come to work station twenty eight?” she asked.  The com officer nodded.  “Someone will be over to help you in a minute Shepard,” Commander Jupiter said, coming back to me.  “In the meantime, Rochelle and I need to make a trip to the little girl’s room, cos this little girl is beginning to smell.”

“Uh right,” I said meekly, blushing deep red.

She frowned.  “That colour suits you, Shepard,” she said.

“No doubt it’s a colour you’ll see on me a lot in the coming weeks,” I mumbled.

.....

On my third day serving on the SSV Everest, I sent out the following email:

“Dear staff of SSV Everest,

“I’m glad you are all so enthused by my appointment that you have not stopped visiting my station.  Unfortunately, I also have other work to do, as the financier of Company 6.  Therefore, please stop bothering me, unless it’s my office hours, which are now 1400 to 1500 hours.  So, Lieutenant Antonio, I will only pay attention to your request for disco balls in the rec room at that time, likewise Chief Warrant Officer Graido’s request for porn to be installed on all terminals.  If you bother me with requisition requests before or after the above-mentioned times, I will ignore you until you go away.  Don’t try and test this claim, I am a galactic-class ignorerer. 

“If you have any queries, don’t hesitate to call me on my omnitool number: 0703421, or email me at janeshepard@ssvhg.al.net, and I will get back to you.

“Yours faithfully,

“2nd Lt Jane Shepard

“Procurement Officer and Accountant, SSV Everest, Alliance Military

“132774N6.”

Not even five minutes after I had sent this email out, Zaeed came over.  “Hey Shep, how’s it going?” he asked me.

I still wasn’t sure if I liked Zaeed or not.  On the one hand he was hilariously funny, able to do wicked impersonations of every single person on the ship (as an officer, I was officially not allowed to find this sort of thing amusing).  He, Ismaeel and Terrence had a stand-up act going (occasionally featuring singing from Nkosi, who, despite having terrible taste in music, had an amazing voice), where they pretty much made fun of the Alliance.  However, it was hard for me sometimes to tell when he was joking and when he was being serious.  Furthermore, he was the laziest, most useless soldier I had ever seen.  He rarely showed up for his duties, and, if he did show up, he did the most half-arsed job possible.  For some reason, no one ever told him off for this.

“Masaad,” I said.  “Can I help you?”

“Can’t a man just come over and talk to his favourite officer?” he asked.

“Sure, and I would believe you if I hadn’t heard you calling Lieutenant Antonio your favourite officer yesterday,” I said.

“You can’t believe everything I say,” Zaeed said. 

“I generally don’t,” I said.  “I think it’s because my aunt used to tell me that you can’t trust a one-eyed man.”

“She’s right,” he said.  “Hey, did you listen to the Hoopball game last night?”

“Nope,” I said, returning to the budget I was attempting (very poorly) to construct.  “I’m not such a fan of Hoopball.  I prefer Bioti-ball.  And cricket.”

“Well, who doesn’t like cricket?” he said.  There was a hint of sarcasm in his voice.

“Careful, Masaad,” I said warningly.

He rolled his eye.  “Anyway, I came down here to the hold because I have a requisition,” he said.  I returned to my work.  “Shep?” he asked.  “Ma’am?”

I hummed a little tune under my breath.  “Don’t you ever read your emails, Private?” Joey asked tiredly.

“Not really,” Zaeed said.  “That way I can be sure that I won’t hear from my wife, until I’m ready to.”

“You’re such an asshole, Masaad,” Joey said.  “Anyway, Lieutenant Shepard sent an email out saying that she won’t listen to any requests until 1400 hours.”

“It’s 1347,” Zaeed said.  “What’s three minutes?”

“Try that maths problem again, Private,” Joey said.  “There are sixty minutes to the hour.”

“Whatever,” Zaeed said.  “I go on duty at 1400 hours.  I need this requisition heard now.”

“Ok, Masaad, I wrote the duty roster, and I know you don’t go on duty until 1800 hours,” Joey said.  “Besides, would you even have gone on duty?  You don’t usually.”

“I might have,” Zaeed said.

“Really?” Joey said sarcastically.

“Fine, probably not,” Zaeed said.

“Anyway, the point stands,” Joey said.  “Wait until 1400 hours.”

Finally, at two, I turned to Zaeed.  “What can I do for you, Private Masaad?” I asked.

“Well, the lads and I were wondering whether it would be possible for you to get hold of a flat screen colour TV for the rec room,” he said.  “We want to be able to see the blue on the ladies in Vaenia.”

“You bothered me for this?” I asked incredulously.  “No.  Go away and find something to do.  I heard Dr Ward was looking for someone to help her sort out the med bay.”

“But-,” Zaeed began.

“Masaad, I said no,” I said.

“It’ll boost morale,” he said. 

“No it won’t,” I said.  “Get lost.  I have work to do.”

.....

Two days later we arrived at the Attican Traverse.  I was off-duty when we went through the mass relay, and as soon as we were given the all-clear, I left my seat and went over to the window.  Outside, the carcasses of ships floated.

“Scary, huh?” a voice said from behind me.  It was Commander Jupiter.

“It’s so many,” I said.  “I can’t even imagine how many people died out there.”

“Pray to your god that you don’t become one of them,” she said.  “On that note, we might have a mission soon.”

“Really?” I asked.  “What?”

“Can’t tell you yet, Lieutenant,” she answered.  “Just keep your eye on the board.”

I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about going out on a mission.  On the one hand, the more gung-ho, suicidal side of me wanted to go out on a mission and win us the war.  However, the more sensible side of me was trying to persuade me to high-jack the ship, turn it around and fly back in the direction we came in.  We would live in the Terminus Systems and most likely die of AIDS, as the cure hadn’t made it that far yet.

“You’ll be alright, Shepard,” Commander Jupiter said, smiling understandingly.  “Just keep your head down and follow my orders.”

“I’m not skilled at either of those, ma’am,” I said.

“Well, get skilled, and fast,” she said.  “It’s the only way you’ll survive this war.”

“Aye aye ma’am,” I said.

.....

The next morning, the mission came through.  I had been getting the sense that something was brewing for a while.  It started with Commander and Lieutenant Jupiter crowding around Com Officer Ashton’s work station, followed by Com Officer Ashton making several vid calls with various important people in the Alliance, followed then by Lin and the Third Regiment’s service chief, Chief Valinsky, crowding around Com Officer Ashton’s workstation, followed by Com Officer Ashton typing furiously into her terminal.  Finally, at around seven the next morning, after what I could only assume was a night’s hard work on behalf of Com Officer Ashton, she called, “Commander, I have confirmation.”

“Excellent,” Commander Jupiter said.  “Chief Ji, put it on the board, and contact HQ and get a full mission brief.  I want you in the conference room in one hour to brief me.  Skye, tell Chief Ruben to prepare weapons and BOL for the full company, and notify Dr Verusha that we need precounselling to be done.  Lieutenant Shepard, find out from Chief Engineer Kabush how much eezo and fuel we have left.  Major Mbunda, meet me in the conference room.”

“Uh oh,” Joey mumbled.

“Looks like the shit’s hitting the fan for you guys,” Seaman Nasution said unsympathetically.

I went down to the engineering deck, got the information, and then went back upstairs to sit and wait in apprehension.  Finally, at around nine in the morning Carlotta and I were called into the conference room.  Major Mbunda had cleared out by this stage.

“Lieutenant Shepard, Lieutenant Antonio,” Commander Jupiter said.  “Have a seat.”

Carlotta and I looked at each other apprehensively.  “Two days ago Com Officer Ashton got a tip-off on a possible batarian raid on the city of Elysium.  This has since been confirmed to be happening tonight at 2300 hours sol.”  She called up a map of the city onto the screen behind her.  “As you can see, there are three possible entrances that the batarians can use to get into the city, that also make three wonderful choke points.  The Third Regiment will divide into three teams of eight soldiers each to guard these choke points and we will likewise be dividing into three teams to provide support to the Third Regiment.  Team Amsterdam will be led by me, and will consist of Privates Brown and Masaad, and Operations Chief Ji.  Team Berlin will be led by Staff Lieutenant Jupiter, and will consist of Gunnery Chief Ruben, and Corporal van Richte and Private Sobana.  Team Calcutta will be led by Lieutenant Shepard-“

“What?” Carlotta interrupted.

“-and will have Lieutenant Antonio, Service Chief Carboletti and Private Khan on the team,” Commander Jupiter continued.

“I object,” Carlotta said loudly.  “There’s no fucking way I can have this fucking child commanding me.  I’m older, taller, better looking, and have bigger fucking tits.  I mean, Christ, look at her.  She’s a fucking midget.”

“Antonio,” Commander Jupiter said.  “Deal with it.”

“Ma’am, I can’t deal with having this fucking inexperienced smurfette in charge of my safety,” Carlotta said.

“Why smurfette?” I asked.  “The only thing Smurfette and I have in common is that we’re both American.”

“And you’re short,” Carlotta said.  “And you have freckles and blue eyes.”

“Enough,” Commander Jupiter said.  “I have made my decision.  Now, the shuttle will drop us here,” she stabbed a long stick down on a point about a half a mile from the three choke points, “and we will be hiking to our positions.  Team Amsterdam will be on Position A over here, Team Berlin will be on Position B over here, and Team Calcutta will be on Position C over here.  We will be providing support to the team that you will be shadowing.  This means you only engage the enemy once they have.  Any questions?”

“What if they have ships in orbit?” I asked.

“Well, we know for a fact that they do,” Lieutenant Jupiter said.

“Thanks sir, now I feel much better about dying,” I said sarcastically.

“Aren’t you prepared to die for humanity?” he snapped.

“Not really, no,” I said.

Commander Jupiter clicked her tongue.  “There are ships in orbit,” she said.  “The batarians want to take Elysium as it’s the only area on Skyllia that the Alliance still has control of.  However, with a bit of luck, we will be in range of the town’s GARDIAN guns.  If not, well, I hope your will is up to date.”

I still didn’t feel all that much better, but I decided to leave it.

“We’ll call the rest of the team in here within the next hour, but in the meantime I need the three of you to go see the shrink,” Commander Jupiter said.

“Christ, really Luna?” Lieutenant Jupiter groaned.  “I’m sick to bloody death of her.  All she wants to know about is our time on the streets.”

“That’s an order, marine,” she said sharply.  “Dismissed.”

The minute we had stepped outside the conference room, Carlotta grabbed my arm.  “Try giving me an order and see where that lands you,” she said coldly.

“Ok, I will,” I said.  “Let go of me now.”

“I’m being fucking serious,” she snapped.  “You’re still a child.  There’s no fucking way you can know what the fuck is going on.”

“I’ve been trained for this sort of thing, Lieutenant, and I promise you that you’ll be in good hands with me,” I said.

“You’ve never held a command before,” she pointed out.

“We all have to start somewhere,” I said.  “Now let go of me before I break my fist on your jaw.  I think you’ll agree that it’ll make a nice change.”

She let go.  “If I die tonight, I’ll make you regret it,” she said in a low voice.

“No doubt,” I mumbled.  “Do you want to see the shrink first, or shall I?”

“You go first,” Carlotta said.  “Fair warning, she’s a psychoanalyst, so be prepared to talk about your childhood a lot.”

“Thanks,” I said.  “See you later, Antonio.”

.....

Dr Verusha was a short, potentially plump older woman.  “Lieutenant Shepard,” she said.  “I don’t believe we’ve had the pleasure.”

“No, I don’t believe we have,” I said.

“How are you doing?” she asked.  “Are you settling in well on the ship?”

“Well, and I suppose,” I said.  “I don’t think the others trust me all that much.  I’m a lot younger than most of the people here, and I have never been on a mission before.”

“Yes, I saw that your service record is quite sparse,” she said.  “No matter, I’m sure you are more than competent.  How do you feel about today’s mission?”

“Oh, I’m so excited,” I said sarcastically.  “I love the idea of dying.  In fact I can’t wait.”

She frowned and leaned forward.  I’d just made her week.  “Do you think about death all the time?” she asked.

I decided to go with it.  “Who doesn’t?” I asked.  “I mean, a chance to sleep forever, no work, and you get to learn to play the harp.”  She looked confused.  “I’m joking,” I said.  “All my previous therapists have remarked on my use of humour as a defence mechanisms.  I’m sure it’s in my file.”

“Ah yes,” she said smoothly.  “So you don’t want to die.”

“No,” I said.

“Are you worried about today’s mission?” she continued.

“Vaguely,” I said.

“What are you worried about?” she asked.

“Dying,” I said.

“You’re not worried about killing other sentient beings?”

“Not as much as I am about dying,” I said.

“What are you worried about dying?”

“Well, they don’t have pizza in the afterlife.”

And that was that.  She dismissed me and asked me to send Carlotta in.  I wasn’t exactly sure where she had gotten her doctorate from, but at least she seemed to approve of the short, sweet and pointless conversation types.

.....

We left at around half past seven (under Lieutenant Jupiter’s behest).  I was given a Black Widow sniper rifle (a rather intimidating rifle that was almost four feet long and had, as I would discover, the most powerful kick in the galaxy) and told that if I broke it in any way, I would have to buy a new one.

It was silent in the shuttle until Commander Jupiter said, “Does anyone know any jokes?”

“Yeah,” Carlotta said.  “Private Masaad going to the bathroom.”

“I’ll correct that,” Commander Jupiter said.  “Anyone know any good jokes?”

“I know a few dirty jokes,” Zaeed said.  “Want to hear them?”

“As long as they aren’t homophobic, Masaad,” Commander Jupiter said.

“I think I learnt my lesson ma’am,” Zaeed said.  He thought for a few minutes.  “Alright,” he said.  “This is a story about the girl that didn't know what cursing was. It was Thanksgiving evening and the young girl was sleeping in her bedroom and she heard her parents having sex in the next bedroom over. She hears the dad say, ‘Oh honey I love your luscious tits’ and she hears the mom say, ‘Oh baby I love your slim dick.’ So the next morning, the daughter walks up to the dad and says, ‘Hey dad, what are luscious tits?’ The dad panics and says, ‘It's a fine coat.’ She then walks up to the mom and says, ‘Hey mom, what's a slim dick?’ The mom panics and says, ‘It's a pair of boots.’ Later on that day, everybody's getting ready for the Holiday. The girl walks past the bathroom and sees her dad shaving. He cuts himself on the cheek and shouts, ‘Shit!’ The daughter then asks, ‘What does shit mean?’ and the dad replies, ‘I'm shaving right now sweetie.’ The girl walks into the kitchen and sees her mom trying to cook the turkey. The mom accidentally drops the turkey and shouts, ‘Fuck.’ The daughter then asks, ‘Hey mom, what does fuck mean?’ and the mom replies, ‘I'm cooking the turkey sweetie.’ About an hour later friends and family arrive at the door. The girl answers the door and says, ‘Hello everyone hang up your luscious tits and drop your slim dicks, my dad is upstairs shitting and my mom's fucking the turkey.’.”

There was dead silence in the shuttle.  “That’s fucking stupid,” Carlotta said at last.

“I’m afraid I agree,” Commander Jupiter said.  “A valiant effort, and a far cry better than your lesbian joke from last time, but I’ve still heard way better.”

“So you keep saying, yet you refuse to tell this world-shaking joke,” Zaeed said.  “I’m beginning to believe it doesn’t exist.”

“Oh, believe me, Masaad, it exists,” Commander Jupiter said.

“I know a dirty joke,” I said.  “Want to hear it?”

“Why not?” Commander Jupiter asked.  “ETA is still a few minutes away.”

“Jack fell in the mud,” I said.  “Want to hear a clean joke?”

“I’m going to regret it,” Commander Jupiter said.  “Yes.”

“Jack took a shower.”

She closed her eyes briefly.  “I’m curious ma’am,” Nina said.  “How much have you changed over the last few years?”

“I’ve gone up a bra size,” I said.  “Also, I’ve learnt not to swim in water on dextero-amino worlds.”

“We’re here,” the shuttle pilot said.

.....

It took us half an hour to reach our positions, which meant that we had two and a half hours before the batarians arrived.

“Alright we have two hours to kill,” I said.  “Did anyone bring a deck of cards?”

“Why?” Carlotta asked impatiently.

“Well, I’m an excellent poker player,” I said.  “I’m hoping to win one of your retirement funds before the night is over.”

“Team Calcutta, maintain radio silence please,” Commander Jupiter said.

“You’re expecting us to sit in silence for two and a half hours?” I asked incredulously.  “I’ll go balmy before that, and this team will be without a commanding officer.”

“Deal with it, Lieutenant,” Commander Jupiter said.  “Now shut up.”

It was Joey who hit upon the idea of sign-language charades (the same as normal charades, except that the guesses are done with sign-language rather than spoke words).  He did an excellent rendition of Blasto: rise of the Jellyfish Spectre, whilst Ismaeel did a rather disturbing rendition of Vaenia.  Oddly, Carlotta didn’t seem to mind that he used her as a partner. 

Eleven o’clock came and went.  At quarter to twelve there was a loud throat-clear on the radio.  “Commander, how punctual are batarians?” Zaeed asked.

“Shut the hell up, Private Masaad,” Commander Jupiter said tersely.

“I’m just saying, they’re forty five minutes late for their own raid,” Zaeed said.

“Just shut it, you halfwit,” Commander Jupiter said.

At half past one, Commander Jupiter said, “Specialist Ashton, come in.”

“Ashton here, ma’am,” Com Officer Ashton said meekly.

“What the fuck is going on?”

“HQ thinks it was a false alarm,” she answered.  “Maintain position until I get back to you.”

“Acknowledged,” Commander Jupiter said.  “Amsterdam standing by.”

At quarter to two, Com Officer Ashton said, “Amsterdam, come in.”

“Go ahead,” Commander Jupiter said.

“You need to abort and head to the rendez vous immediately,” Com Officer Ashtone said.  “Repeat: abort and head to the rendez vous, poste haste.  Enemy ships inbound and preparing to fire.”

“Understood,” Commander Jupiter said.  “You heard her,” she ordered us.  “Pull out and make for the rendez vous.  Go, go, go.”

“Get moving,” I ordered, my heart in my mouth. 

I waited for the others to move ahead of me, before sprinting after them.  “Head south-east,” I ordered Carlotta, who was leading the group.

“Understood,” she said.

Two minutes after we left our position, a huge explosion rent the sky and we were flung to the ground.

“Company 6, report,” Commander Jupiter shouted.

“Berlin team accounted for,” Lieutenant Jupiter said.

“Calcutta team accounted for,” I said.

“Third regiment, report,” Commander Jupiter said.

“Is everyone alright?” I asked.

“I’m pissed off,” Carlotta said.  “Those fucking spiders have been taking us for a ride, and I’ve been missing out on some precious sleep.”

“I’m ok,” Ismaeel said.

“Me too,” Joey said.

“We should get going,” I said.  I helped the others to their feet and we started off towards the rendez vous point again.

Above us were great flashes of light.  Clearly the mother of all naval battles was happening in space.

“Ugh, I’m glad we’re not up there,” Joey muttered.

“You’re glad you’re not up there?” Ismaeel asked incredulously.  “We were nearly bombed not five minutes ago.”

“Yes but up there, the sailors will all be saying how useless we really are and that there is no point in having a marine in the army,” Joey said.

“Will you please shut up?” I snapped.  “All of you.  They’re tracking us through our radios.”

“Aye aye,” Ismaeel said smartly.

The shuttle was waiting for us at the extraction point.  We were the first to arrive.

“Everyone still alive?” the shuttle pilot asked.

“As far as we can tell,” I said.  “Be ready for take-off.”

“The ship hasn’t entered the battle yet,” she said.  “We’re waiting for you.”

“How bloody considerate,” Carlotta snapped.

The rest of the team and the Third Regiment arrived within fifteen minutes and we were soon away. 

Back on the ship, we rushed through upstairs.  “Battle stations,” a voice kept repeating over the intercom.  “We are under attack.  Battle stations.”

I ran to my station in the CIC, pulled my safety harness on and started praying.  Captain Brendan had taken his place at the helm.  A roll-call was done, then he said, “Flight-Lieutenant Paige, engage the enemy.”

.....

The battle went on for almost two days in total, and to this day, those were probably the worst two days of my life.  Despite having grown up on a ship, I had never before experienced a naval battle, and nothing could have prepared me for the experience.  Essentially, you’re stuck in your safety harness until the all-clear is given.  You are bounced around whilst the pilot dodges and evades the enemy attacks, you hear the loud explosions of the ship’s cannons, and watch as the naval staff scream into radios and type furiously into terminals.  You don’t get anything to eat (the sailors got high-energy tablets: essentially stimulants), you have a few bottles of water that you can drink.  Your toileting is done inside a small bag in your suit (which after two days of bouncing around is really disgusting to clean out).  And, because you’re in space, where sound and vibrations don’t travel, you’re unaware of enemy cannons until you experience a direct hit.

We won that battle, but we lost three carriers and two cruisers in the process.  Later, the entire thing was explained to us.  The batarians had set the entire raid on Elysium up, in order to learn if we had hacked their communications channel.  A ship spotted us and prepared to bomb the shit out of us, when Com Officer Ashton figured out what they were planning.  Knowing that it would take too long for us to go through official channels, she had warned us, without authorisation, to pull out.  She was now my personal hero.

When the all-clear was sounded, the officers were told to go to bed.  “With your permission, ma’am,” I said to Commander Jupiter.  “I would like to request that Private Khan or one of the other servicemen go to bed.  I don’t mind working for another few hours.”

She studied me for a long time.  “Of course, Lieutenant Shepard,” she said.  “Just make sure you get some sleep in today.  I’d hate for you to burn out immediately after your arrival.”

“No worries, ma’am,” I answered.

.....

The next few missions were smaller, reconnaissance missions, where only one or two squads were needed.  These were done in rotation, with Carlotta and I being fourth on the rotation.  Every time I saw Lin walk towards the galaxy map, I prayed she wasn’t going to put my mission up there.  I had no real gung-ho desire to go to war.  Unfortunately, odds, luck and divine intervention were not on my side, and Carlotta and I were called into the conference room, in our third week in the Attican Traverse.

“We have a mission for the two of you,” Commander Jupiter said without preamble. 

“Oh goodie,” I said.  “I was beginning to worry that the Alliance had forgotten about us.  So, who are we spying on?”

She didn’t smile.  “It’s not reconnaissance,” she said.  “It’s an assassination.”

“I thought we were done with those,” Carlotta said.

“This is priority Able,” Commander Jupiter said.  “Failure is not an option.”

“So, it’s important then, I guess,” I said.

“In two days, one of the batarian generals is landing at the Montenegro spaceport,” Commander Jupiter said, ignoring me.  “This general is responsible for many of the decisions and commands that have lost us so much of the war.  By taking him out, the Alliance hopes that it will severely hinder the Hegemony’s chain of command.”

“How much of a choice do we have?” Carlotta asked.

Commander Jupiter sighed.  “Look, I’m not going to lie, the Joint Military Council is riding my ass hard to get this done,” she said.  “I would do it myself, but you are next on the rotation, so I need to go to you first.  There’s a very strong chance of this whole thing going way south, and I’m not sure what the outcome will be for you.  If you don’t want to take this mission, I’ll go out with Brown.”

I couldn’t exactly say no without looking like a coward.  “We’ll do it,” I said.

“Excellent,” Commander Jupiter said in relief.  “Chief Ji, give them the mission brief.”

“Aye aye, ma’am,” Lin said.  She pressed a few buttons on the terminal in front of her, and a map appeared on the screen behind her.  “This is the Montenegro spaceport,” she said.  “As far as intel can tell, the general’s ship will be landing in bay 37.  It’s on the ground, so there are a few minutes where he will have to walk to get to the shuttle that will take him into the spaceport.  That will be your chance.  With regards to where you can set up, there are a few look-out towers that you can use.  Most of them are not occupied, or they only have one or two people inside.  Try not to fire any shots, as it will draw people’s attention.  And, of course, don’t forget to ask for permission before you fire at the general.  Do you have any questions?”

“Is it just the two of us?” I asked.  Commander Jupiter nodded.

“I would strongly recommend getting your affairs in order before leaving,” Lieutenant Jupiter spoke for the first time.  “There’s no knowing whether the two of you will be returning.”

“Great, sir, thanks,” I said sarcastically.  “Now I feel much better about the whole situation.  When’s the ETA?”

“The ship arrives at midday, two days from now,” Lin said.  “You’ll need to be set up a maximum of an hour before that.”

“What happens if we fail?” Carlotta asked.

“Millions of humans die?” Commander Jupiter suggested.  “Admiral Mikhailovich wasn’t all that clear on the consequences for us.  I guess you get a bad mark on your yearly review or something.”

“What does the target look like?” I asked.

“He’ll be wearing a white cap,” Lin said.  She shrugged.  “Apparently batarian generals tend to do that.  Anyway, you’ll be dropped about five miles out of the city limits.  You’ll have to find your own way to the position.  You can decide how early you want to arrive.”

“We’d recommend as early as possible,” Lieutenant Jupiter said.  “You don’t want to miss the general completely.”

“So, twelve hours before his ship lands then?” Carlotta asked sarcastically.

“Earlier if possible, Lieutenant,” he said blithely.

Carlotta rolled her eyes.  “Alright, Smurfette, I guess it’s time to start planning this darn assassination,” she said.  “First up, the trigger is the thingy by your forefinger.  Pull it and it makes a heckuva noise.”

“Holy shit, is that what it is?” I asked.  “My daddy told me it was a lever you pull to make sweeties rain down from heaven.”

“Are you sure you want to send these two on this mission, Luna?” Lieutenant Jupiter asked impatiently.  “They don’t seem to be taking this seriously at all.”

“Do you remember how Dr de Franco told us that some people use humour as a defence mechanism against anxiety-provoking situations?” Commander Jupiter asked.  “I suppose these two are doing this.  I wish I could.”  There was an awkward silence.  “Come on, let’s leave these two the room.”

Lieutenant Jupiter scowled and left, followed closely by his sister and Lin.  “What the hell’s the matter with those two?” I asked.

“Everyone has problems, Smurfette,” Carlotta said.  “I myself have a rash on my ass that’s causing me major fucking distress.”

“You’re doing it with the wrong people then,” I said.

“Shut the fuck up,” she muttered.

.....

Two days later I woke up at two o’clock in the morning.  Having only gone to bed two hours prior to this event, I waited for sleep to return to my side.  Unfortunately for me, sleep appeared to have gone on an unannounced vacation, along with any sense of calm that I may have possessed.  In the end, I whiled away the hours until Carlotta and I had to get up by updating my will.  Since the last time I had updated it (just before I shipped out to the Attican Traverse), I had acquired a paycheque of two million credits, and a Black Widow sniper rifle.

“To my favourite ever band, Counting Crows, I leave my last paycheque of two million credits, in the hope that they will be brought back to life to bring better music to the current era and improve the stock market,” I typed.  “To Admiral Uri Mikhailovich I leave my Black Widow sniper rifle in the hope that it will break his shoulder when he finally learns to do his own dirty work.”

At half past four, Carlotta and I got up.  We had planned on leaving at seven o’clock (at Lieutenant Jupiter’s behest, who had also insisted that we wake up at half past four.  I was beginning to hope that someone would confiscate his omnitool), which gave us exactly four and a half hours to hike four and a half miles and get into position.  We’d be travelling at a mile an hour.  I wasn’t sure how I would cope with the pressure.

My real worry was hiking the four and a half miles back to the extraction point without the batarians catching us and then messily and publicly executing us (this had been done in the past to hapless Alliance soldiers).

My pre-breakfast session with Dr Verusha was typically short and pointless.  “How are you doing?” she asked.

“Ok,” I said.  “I’m worried about taking the anti-anxiety pills though.  I only got two hours sleep, and I’m scared that they’ll send me straight to lala land.”

“Is this a common phobia of yours?” she asked.

“Sure, because my vast experience of anti-anxiety pills instilled it in me,” I said.  “Let’s see, it’s thresher maws, enclosed spaces and then anti-anxiety pills.  But it’s bad, man.  Show me a pill, and I have a panic attack.  Makes my panic disorder difficult to treat.”

She didn’t get my vast array of sarcastic skills, mainly because she was an idiot.  I had fun with it though, and that’s what counts.

.....

We had breakfast at half past five with the rest of the team.  “How’re you all doing?” Nina asked.

“Fucking fantastic,” Carlotta snapped.  “If we’re caught, we’re dead.”

“Isn’t that the risk with every mission though?” Maya asked.

“Sit on your hands, van Richte,” I said.  “You’re missing the point.”

“Planning on taking that baby with then?” Zaeed asked, nodding at Rochelle, who Carlotta was clutching to her lap as though she was not planning on letting go.

“Yeah sure, me shooting someone should be a swell family outing,” Carlotta said.  “We can talk about it at social events.”

“Ok, simmer down,” Zaeed said.  “Can I watch her?”

“Sure, I think it’s time I killed her off,” Carlotta said.  “Just promise me that it’ll be quick and painless.  You fucking retard, you’re not coming within six feet of my baby.”  She sighed.  “Van Richte, Ji, Ruben, you three can take it in turns.”

“Yes ma’am,” Nina said smartly.

“Because I have nothing better to do than babysit your child,” Lin mumbled.

Lieutenant Jupiter came and sat down with us.  “Has anyone seen Commander Jupiter?” he asked.

“I saw her this morning in the shower,” I said.  “Man, does she have a hot body.  Nice muscle tone, sexy legs, and just the right size breast.”

“Shut up, Lieutenant,” he said.

“I’m hearing that alarmingly often,” I said.  “Must be a thing.”

“Maybe, if you took the advice, you’d hear it less often,” Joey suggested.

“Shep doesn’t shut up,” Ismaeel said.  “Ever.  Ask our trainers.”

“I knew her when she was a child, I am well aware of the fact that her mouth is generally bigger than any black hole in the galaxy,” Joey said.

“And that’s enough, marines,” I said formally.  “You don’t need to spread all my secrets in one go.”

“Are you two going to leave soon?” Lieutenant Jupiter asked us.

“The shuttle leaves in two and a half hours, sir,” I said.  “We’ll probably leave then.”

“Time waits for no man, Shepard,” Lieutenant Jupiter said.  “You don’t want to miss the shuttle.”

“It won’t leave without us, surely?” I asked.  “I mean, the sole purpose of the shuttle is to take us to the drop-off point.”

“Don’t be smart, Shepard,” Lieutenant Jupiter snapped.

“I’m usually not sir,” I muttered.

.....

Carlotta brought Rochelle down to the shuttle bay with us whilst we armoured up and picked up our weapons.  Carlotta very genially allowed me to carry the sniper.  It was hers, something that confused me, since, as the superior officer, I would be the one taking the shot.

“Mama needs to do some work, so you’ll be with Auntie Nina, Auntie Lin, and Abuela Maya,” Carlotta told Rochelle as we walked towards the shuttle.  “Will you be a good girl for me, Rochelle?”

“Yes,” Rochelle said.

“You’ll eat all your food, drink all you juice, say when you need to go to the toilet, and go to bed like I know you can?” Carlotta asked.

I swear Rochelle rolled her eyes.  “Yes,” she said.

“Good,” Carlotta said.  She hugged Rochelle.  “I love you, you hear?’

“I love you too, Mama,” Rochelle said.

“Glad to hear it,” Carlotta said.  “Give me a kiss, then I need to go.”

I was suddenly reminded of when I was small, and my father would line the five of us up, kiss us each on the top of the head, and tell us to be good, listen to Mom, and remember to say our prayers each morning and evening.  Then it seemed like a routine.  However, now that I was thinking back on it, it seemed like he was saying farewell to us each and every time.  I wondered why people in the army had children.  It must be the hardest thing in the world to have to say good bye to them and never know if you’ll see them again.

Commander Jupiter travelled with us in the shuttle.  “I know a good one,” I said.

“A good one what, Shepard?” Commander Jupiter asked.

“A good one, ma’am,” I said, smartly.

“A good one, ma’am, what?” Commander Jupiter asked.

“A good one, ma’am, you’re the queen of my heart and the best commanding officer in the galaxy?” I said uncertainly.

“As flattering and untrue as that is, I meant what do you know a good one of?” Commander Jupiter asked.

“Oh, right,” I said.  “A good joke.”

“Alright, fire at will,” Commander Jupiter said.

“Isn’t it fire away?” I asked.

“For fuck sake, do you have to have the last word every single time?” Carlotta asked.

“Well, there is the old saying, he who lasts laughs, laughs best,” I said.  I frowned.  “I mean, he laughs best laughs last.  No, that’s still not right.”

“Just tell us the joke, Shepard,” Commander Jupiter said.

I sprang to attention.  “Aye aye, ma’am,” I said.  “This is the story of a poor, dizzy blonde flying in a two-seater airplane with just the pilot,” I said in my best officer’s voice, still saluting.  “He has a heart attack and dies. She, frantic, calls out a May Day.  ‘May Day! May Day! Help Me! Help Me! My pilot had a heart attack and is dead and I don't know how to fly. Help Me! Please Help Me!’  She hears a voice over the radio saying:  ‘This is Air Traffic Control and I have you loud and clear. I will talk you through this and get you back on the ground. I've had a lot of experience with this kind of problem. Now, just take a deep breath. Everything will be fine! Now give me your height and position!’  She says, ‘I'm five foot four and I'm in the front seat.’  There was a pause.  ‘Ok’ says the voice in the radio...  ‘Repeat after me: Our father who art in heaven.’”

Carlotta gave a loud snort which she hastily turned into a sneeze.  Commander Jupiter glared at me.  “You know you’re making fun of my people there,” she said.

“What, air traffic controllers?” I asked.  “There I thought you were a marine.”

Carlotta gave a cough that sounded a lot like “Blondes.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I said.  “Yes, I agree humans need to be tolerant and non-discriminatory, but we also need to acknowledge that we have flaws.  Back in the day, most girls were blondes, and a large cohort of were girls as dumb as bricks.  Therefore, an unusually large number of blondes were stupid.  The end.”

“Oh whatever,” Commander Jupiter said.  “Change it to ‘batarian’ and it might get popular.”

“Yeah, because ‘this is the story of a poor, dizzy batarian’ just sounds like the start of a really hilarious joke,” Carlotta said.

Commander Jupiter rolled her eyes.  “Don’t forget to ask for permission before taking the shot,” she said.

“I know,” Carlotta said.  “I’ve served in this platoon for how long now?  I know how things are done.”

“Just making sure, Antonio,” Commander Jupiter said.  “All that sex, drugs and rock and roll might have destroyed your memory or something.”

“Very fucking funny,” Carlotta muttered.

At the landing zone, Commander Jupiter touched us both on the shoulder.  “Good luck,” she said.

.....

We had very little trouble getting to the spaceport, mainly because Carlotta had served with an infiltration unit before becoming a scout sniper, which meant she was able to spy all the nooks and crannies that we could sneak through.  We arrived at the spaceport just before ten o’clock.

“Now we wait,” I mumbled.  We had chosen an abandoned observation tower about a kilometre away from the landing strip as the place to take the shot.

“The most boring part of an assassination job,” Carlotta said.

“You’ve done this sort of thing before then?” I asked.

“All the time,” Carlotta answered.  “The Alliance often can’t afford to campaign against something or someone, so they use…other means to get rid of competition.  On that note, give me the gun.”

“Why?” I asked cautiously.

“I’m taking the shot,” she said confidently.

“Uh, I’m the superior officer,” I said.  “Protocol states that I have to take the shot.”

“Protocol’s mother was a whore,” Carlotta snapped.  “I’ve been serving longer, I know what I’m doing.  You’re still a child.  I mean, for fuck’s sake, you don’t even have boobs.”

“Neither does Commander Jupiter, yet I don’t see you complaining about her,” I pointed out.

“Yeah, but at least she’s beautiful,” Carlotta said.  “You look as though you were meant to be good looking, but somewhere along the way something terrible happened and you lost out.”

I sighed and handed her the sniper rifle.  “You know, I’m the better shot,” I said.

“Please, your claim to fame is that you hit a fucking thresher maw,” Carlotta snapped.  “A myopic midget using a pea shooter and a ruler in the dark could hit a thresher maw.  They’re fucking ginormous.”

I decided not to argue.  She was a foot and three inches taller than me after all.

It was a lovely, balmy warm day.  In fact, Skyllia was a beautiful planet, with lush green fields, thick forests and warm weather.  As the day went on, it got progressively hotter, so that I felt pleasantly sleepy.  Carlotta and I passed the time the best way we knew how: playing imaginary chess.  At exactly five to twelve, a ship flew in, landed, and taxied slowly down the runway.  Carlotta and I both took our helmets off (owing to the visor, a helmet was generally an irritation for snipers.  We tended to rely on our ML/UL hoods).

I took my scope out and focused on the airlock of the ship.  “Distance, one thousand metres,” I said softly, my heart pounding.  The antianxiety pills were clearly as useful as an alcoholic private investigator investigating a murder in a brewery (convoluted simile, I know).  It was easy enough for me to hazard wind speed, the wind sock was right next to the landing strip.  Thankfully, it wasn’t that windy, so I didn’t have to estimate too far.

“Wind speed, two knots,” I said.

“Ask for permission,” Carlotta said, her eye glued to the sniper scope.

I pressed a button on my omnitool.  “This is ground team Able,” I said.  “Target acquired.  Requesting permission to take the shot.  Over.”

“Permission granted,” Admiral Mikhailovich said.  Com Officer Ashton must have patched our radio frequency into Head Quarters’.  “Repeat, permission granted.  Good luck, ground team Able.”

“Acknowledged,” I said.  “Ground team Able out.”  I switched my omnitool off.  “Permission granted,” I told Carlotta.

“Acknowledged,” she said, not looking up.

I looked through my scope at the airlock again.  It suddenly opened, and Carlotta sucked in a deep breath.  “Target acquired,” she whispered as the white-capped general stepped into the sunlight and started down the stairs.

“Fire,” I whispered.  “Fire.  Fire.”

“I don’t have a clear shot,” she whispered.  “That damn soldier is in the way.”

“Wait for him to get down,” I whispered.  The general did have a lot of people surrounding him.

“No,” Carlotta whispered when the general reached the ground.  “Fuck, fuck, fuck.  I can’t get a clear enough shot.  I’m going to hit someone else.”

“Give me the gun,” I whispered.

“What?” Carlotta asked in shock.

“Give the rifle to me,” I whispered.  “I have a better angle from here.”

“No,” Carlotta whispered.  “It’s my shot.”

“No, it isn’t,” I said.  “I’m the one who’s meant to take the shot.  Give me the gun, I can hit him.”  She hesitated.  “Do you want the mission to fail?  Hurry it up, Antonio, or I’ll have you court marshalled for failing to follow the direct order of a superior officer.”

She sighed and threw the rifle towards me.  I caught it, brought the scope to my eye, paused, and pulled the trigger.  The general crumpled, and around him, his soldiers scattered.  I watched in fascination.  They were like little ants, so apart from anything that was happening to me.

“Target down,” Carlotta whispered frantically into her radio.  “Repeat, target down.  Let’s get the fuck out of here,” she added to me. 

I picked the shell casing and my helmet up and together we rushed off of the tower, whilst below us, chaos was ensuing.

Chapter Text

For some reason things were very different for me after this mission.  I think it was then that not only the reality of the job I had taken on for myself hit, but also exactly what kind of a person I was within that job.  I wasn’t sure if I liked who that person was.

It took Carlotta and me almost twelve hours to get back to the extraction point, purely because of the fact that the moment I took that shot, every single batarian soldier in the city converged on our point.  The fact that we made it at all was a miracle and a testament to Carlotta’s excellent navigation skills.

Back on the ship, I went through the motions of going through decontamination, though I hardly noticed where I was.  Carlotta grabbed me in the elevator and shoved me against the wall.  “You bitch, that was meant to be my kill.”

“So what?” I snapped.  “Don’t tell me you’re the sort of gal that carves a notch into her bed post for every kill she makes.  What does it matter?”

“The one who makes the kill gets an extra grand added to their paycheque at the end of the month,” Carlotta snapped, glaring down at me.  “You’re the fucking accountant, you should know these things.”

Well, duh.  “If it’s so important to you, I’ll tell Jupiter that you took the shot,” I snapped.

She paused, clearly surprised.  “Why would you do that?” she asked in surprise (see?).

“Because I don’t need to define myself by the number of people I kill in a month,” I said angrily.  “There are more important things in life.”

“I don’t-,” she began.

“Yeah, yeah, keep telling yourself that, Antonio,” I snapped.  “I’m sure you’ll believe you eventually.”  The elevator opened at the CIC and I stalked out.

The CIC was empty apart from an exhausted-looking Com Officer Ashton, a sleeping Lieutenant Jupiter and a grim-faced Commander Jupiter.

“Where is Lieutenant Epple?” Commander Jupiter asked.

“Securing the shuttle,” I said.

“Alright, you two need to be debriefed,” Commander Jupiter said.  “Good work, Specialist.  Dismissed.”  Com Officer Ashton saluted.  “Come with me please, ladies,” Commander Jupiter told us.

The conference room was empty when we got there.  “Make yourselves comfortable,” Commander Jupiter said.  We sat down at the table.  “How are you two doing?” she asked.

Carlotta shrugged.  “Tired,” she said.

“Alright, well, Lieutenant Antonio, do you want to start first with individual debriefing?” Commander Jupiter asked.

“Sure,” Carlotta said.

“Are you alright with that, Lieutenant?” Commander Jupiter asked me.

“What’s a few hours less sleep?” I asked rhetorically, getting up again.

I sat on the floor outside the conference room, playing Candy Land until Lieutenant Jupiter came wandering past.  “What are you doing, Shepard?” he asked sleepily.

“Trying to get past level five thousand and six on Candy Land, sir,” I said, not getting up.  “What are you doing?”

“Looking for Luna,” he said.  “It’s quarter to two and we’re expected on duty at six.”

“She’s debriefing Antonio, then it’s my turn, then it’s group debriefing, and then only is it beddy byes time,” I said.

“How was the mission?” he asked.

I shrugged.  “The right dude died and we’re still alive,” I said, tonelessly.  “I guess it was successful.”

He frowned.  “What’s with the long face, Shepard?” he asked, yawning.

“Nothing, sir, go to bed,” I said.

The door opened, and Carlotta came out, followed by Commander Jupiter.  “Skye, why are you still up?” Commander Jupiter sighed.  “Go to bed.”

“Do you need help?” Lieutenant Jupiter asked.

“No, I need you to go to sleep and stay there until it’s time to get up,” Commander Jupiter said.  “I should be able to handle these two.”

“Alright,” Lieutenant Jupiter said.  “Goodnight Luna, Shepard, Antonio.”

“Sir,” Carlotta and I murmured.

“Shepard,” Commander Jupiter said, standing aside for me.

I sat down at my usual seat in the conference room.  Commander Jupiter opened a cheepie and sat down.

“So,” she said.  “Congratulations.  Lieutenant Antonio said you took the shot, and that it was a very tight squeeze.”

“I-she-what?” I asked somewhat gormlessly.  “I told her she could take credit for it.  She insisted.” 

Commander Jupiter smiled understandingly.  “She came clean,” she said.  “Lieutenant Antonio is more honest than people tend to give her credit for.  Anyway, you should be proud, Shepard.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I guess.”

She frowned.  “We tend to forget, I suppose,” she said, more to herself.

“Pardon me, ma’am?” I asked politely.

“Nothing, I was just wondering,” Commander Jupiter said.  “This was your first kill, wasn’t it?”

“I-,” I began, then remembered that no one was meant to know about my first kill.  “Um, yeah,” I said.  “Yeah, it was.  I mean, unless you count giant thresher maws, which most people tend not to do.”

“Did you notice that we didn’t give you any details on the target?” she asked. 

“Yes,” I said.

“It’s so that you can identify with him as little as possible,” Commander Jupiter said.  “Only myself, Specialist Ashton and Operations Chief Ji know anything about him.  You were the tool, the weapon used to kill him.  You didn’t kill him, the Joint Military Council ordered his death, and I made sure it happened.”

“I don’t like that idea, ma’am,” I said.  “It takes away my responsibility.”

“I ordered you to go out there,” she countered.  “I’m responsible.”  I dropped my gaze.  “Holy mother of hell, they would send me the bloody marine with a conscience,” she mumbled.  “Jane, look at me,” she said.  I looked up.  “I barely sleep at night because of the decisions I have had to make over the years as a commander.  It’s part of the job description, the part they don’t bother telling you when they offer to promote you.  It’s my responsibility to feel guilty for all these deaths, so that my men don’t have to, and I was promoted in part no doubt because of the fact that Admiral Greyling thought I could handle it.  I do not want you to lose sleep over this too, ok?”

“That’s a terrible burden,” I said.

She shrugged.  “As long as I know that those I command are relatively safe and I healthy, I don’t really mind that much,” she said. 

.....

Email from Kaidan:

“Hey Jane,

“I guess you’ve arrived in the lovely system of (name withheld due to a breach of confidentiality).  I’ve been on a lot of missions planetside lately, and I keep looking out for you.  I guess you’re covering a different part of (name withheld due to a breach of confidentiality), so I won’t be seeing you. 

“I know I complain a lot, but I think in a way it’s lucky the courts decided to send me to the army rather than have me go to jail or worse.  In the past I never really cared about what happened to the people around me.  I don’t tend to have empathy or anything, so I’ve never really needed to care.  Now though, I have two awesome friends that I worry about constantly.  Ash I know will be safe on Earth, but you are an idiot who takes risks and is in a warzone, so I need you to promise to be safe.

”See you around.

“Kaidan.”

.....

I was sort of getting into the swing of things with my duties on the Everest.  At the end of my first month on the ship, I went over to the intercom at Com Officer Ashton’s work station, switched it on and bellowed (as loudly as I could), “Paaaaaaaaaaay parade for Company six.  Pay parade, pay parade.  Hurry up, or I’ll spend it on a new ship.”

An instant line formed at my work station.  “No rush,” I said sarcastically and went back over to my station.

“Did you have to shout so loudly?” Nkosi asked sleepily.  “I was napping.”

“Too much sleep is bad for your health,” I said.

“Bull shit,” she mumbled.

“Actually, she’s right,” Terrence said.  “It’s been scientifically proven that people who sleep for more than eight hours a day live for as much as two years less than other people.”

“So, basically if I was to live to one hundred, but slept nine hours a day, I would only make it to ninety eight?” I asked.

“Yup,” he said.

“Damnit, I really want to make the centenarian,” I said.  “First up, for wonderful services rendered in the department of military singing and the playing of reveille at the crack of bloody dawn, Ms Nkosi Sobana.”  I typed in her account number and watched as one hundred thousand credits was subtracted from the company’s account.

“Thank you, thank you,” Nkosi sang.

“Next up, for being the worst bloody soldier in the history of humanity, for sucking, for being rude, and a general annoyance, Mr Zaeed Masaad,” I continued.  “Next.  Come on, move it along and look sharp about it.  For breaking the record for the least number of words spoken in a single month, and for somehow looking hot with grandma hair, we have Ms Maya van Richte.”  Maya showed me a very rude sign.  “For speaking the most crap and having the most useless information ever, Mr Terrence Brown,” I went on.  “For flogging the dead horse known as my old nickname, Mr Ismaeel Khan.  For having the best maintained armoury I have ever seen, Ms Nina Ruben.” 

“Hurry it up,” Carlotta called down the line.  “Bidding for Marian Sempere’s wedding dress closes soon.”

“Silence in the ranks,” I barked.  “Do you want this money or not?”  I cleared my throat and turned to Lin.  “For being irrelevant, Ms Lin Ji.”  By now, a crowd had formed around my unconventional payment methods.  “For being awesome and good looking, and not a fucking jerk, Mr Giuseppe Carboletti.  For being a general pain in the ass, a foul-mouth, a bitch and a thorn in my toe, Ms Carlotta Antonio.  And for the cutest little girl,” I handed Rochelle a peanut brittle.

“Get fucked, Shepard,” Carlotta snapped.

“For being generally unwelcoming and unhelpful, Mr Skye Jupiter.”  Lieutenant Jupiter fumed.  “It’s opposite day, sir,” I added sweetly.  “For being a not to terrible commander, and the first blonde Special Forces officer I have ever met, Ms Luna Jupiter.”

“I’m blonde,” Lieutenant Jupiter snapped.

“You’re not a proper blonde,” I said.

“What’s a proper blonde?” he wanted to know.

“Well, someone like your sister, I guess,” I said.  “Finally, for being awesome, beautiful, smart, funny, fun, bad ass, but admittedly short and malnourished, Ms Jane Shepard.”

“I’ll second that,” Admiral Hackett said, walking past.

.....

A few days later Admiral Hackett called me up to his cabin.  On the Hugo Grayson, my dad and Ash’s father, Commander Pieterse, had occupied the best cabin on the ship, and even then it had only been slightly bigger than an average-sized human bathroom.  Coupled with that was the fact that it was simultaneously occupied by my father, Commander Pieterse, my mom, the five of us little Shepards, and one Ashley Williams, and I preferred to spend more time outside the room than inside it.

Admiral Hackett’s cabin was at least twice this size, had a plush, comfortable-looking double bed and a sky roof.

“Wow,” I said, looking around.  “So what exactly do I have to do to get a room like this?”

“Say the right things, kiss the arses of the right people, and generally do all the things that are required to become an admiral,” Admiral Hackett said, inviting me to sit down.  “Can I interest you in a glass of wine, Shepard?”

“Uh, sure,” I said. 

“You don’t mind red?” he asked.

“Well, I haven’t really drunk wine before,” I said, uncertainly.  “I tend to be a gin and tonic kind of girl.  Either that or cosmopolitans, but I seem to lose all reason when I get into that zone.”

“I’ll bare that in mind, should I ever need anything from you,” Admiral Hackett said, handing me a glass of wine so big it looked like a tiny bath.

“I had better be careful,” I said, examining the wine glass.  “I might fall into this and drown.”

“These glasses are very useful for me getting people to do what I want,” Admiral Hackett said.

“You use it as a torture instrument, sir?” I asked.  “That’s uncool.”

“No, I just get people very drunk and see what that gets me,” Admiral Hackett said, smiling.

“I guess I’ll bare that in mind sir,” I said.

There was an awkward pause as I waited for Admiral Hackett to tell me exactly why he had invited me to his apartment-sized cabin.  Admiral Hackett however seemed lost in thought as he stared at me, so I cleared my throat.

He started.  “What is it, Shepard?” he asked.

“Well, sir I was just wondering why you asked me here,” I said.  “It can’t be just to admire your cabin and get wasted on your wine.”

He laughed.  “See, that’s why I like you, Shepard,” he said.  “You don’t take any prisoners, and I don’t have to worry about you being polite and demure.”

I blushed deeply.  The wine was very strong.  “Er,” I said awkwardly and (yes) demurely.

“Anyway, you’re right, I didn’t ask you here to admire my cabin and drink my wine, although that’s part of the reason,” Admiral Hackett said.  Thankfully, he didn’t pause and give me the chance to put in another awkward ‘Er’.  “You are the youngest person on this ship at the moment, with the exception of Rochelle.  You have also only recently become an officer, which I know is a daunting process.  I wanted to see how you’re doing.”

“Oh, uh, right,” I said. “Yeah, it’s tough, but uh, you know, research says that military brats um know how to overcome adversity.”

“No one’s being too rough on you?” he asked, concern written on his face.  “I know Carlotta can be quite violent.”

“I know how to handle myself,” I said sharply.

He looked at me for a long time.  “Yes, I suppose you do, Shepard,” he said.  “Even so, if you need anything, you know where to find me.”

“Ok, sure,” I said, making a mental note to never speak to Admiral Hackett about my problems.

When I finished my wine, he dismissed me.  Back in the officers’ quarters, Carlotta was sleeping in my bed.  I sighed and shook her awake.

“You’re in my bed, Antonio,” I said.

“Yeah, no fucking shit,” she mumbled.

“Come on, move it out,” I said.  “I want to sleep.”

“Where were you just now?” she asked, sitting up.

I stiffened.  “None of your business,” I snapped.

She sighed.  “Oh dear,” she said looking uncharacteristically concerned.  “You were with Admiral Hackett, weren’t you?”

“And if I was?” I asked.  I wasn’t sure why I was being so defensive.

“Will you two love-birds either shut up or go outside?” a lieutenant from Third Regiment snapped.  “Some of us are trying to sleep.”

“Come with me, Smurfette,” Carlotta said, leading me outside.

A young seaman who was on guard duty directly outside the officers’ cabin bellowed loudly, “Officers on deck.”

“Of course there are officers on deck, you fucking moron, this is the officers’ cabin,” Carlotta snapped at him.  “You don’t to raise the dead with your pre-pubescent screaming.”

The seaman went bright red.  “Ma’am sorry ma’am,” he squeaked.

“What time are you off duty?” Carlotta continued.

“0600 hours, ma’am,” the seaman said.

“Very well, can you be in the conference room tonight at midnight?” Carlotta asked.

The seaman saluted.  “Ma’am yes ma’am,” he said.

“As you were, seaman whatever your name is,” Carlotta said.  “Come on, Smurfette.”

“Are you fucking kidding me?” I asked as we walked away from the boy. 

“What?” Carlotta snapped.  “Is there a problem?”

“You just, I dunno, booty-called that kid,” I said.  “He looks like he’s barely out of basic.”

“So, what’s your point?” Carlotta asked.

“That’s wrong,” I said.  “What if he’s got a girlfriend or boyfriend?   You’re stealing him from them.”

“I have no idea what his life circumstances are,” Carlotta said.  “That was the first time I’d ever seen him.”

My jaw dropped even further.  “But, why would he-?” I trailed off.

“Agree to sleep with me?” Carlotta asked.  “Because I’m beautiful, I have a reputation, and I am an officer.”  She laughed.  “Don’t tell me you wouldn’t sleep with Lieutenant Jupiter if he didn’t order you to.”  We reached the conference room, and she entered a code.

“One three seven nine, if you ever need it,” Carlotta said.  “It’s an empty room, so it’s quite safe.”

“Just because he ordered me to, doesn’t mean I would have to,” I said.

“Why wouldn’t you?” Carlotta asked, sitting down at the table.  “He’s good looking, has an amazing body, is reasonably intelligent, and has a position of power over you.”

“I have a boyfriend,” I said.

“Well, lucky for you, he’s not into your type,” Carlotta said.  “You’re too female.  Anyway, just about everybody here has a partner, and that doesn’t stop them.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I mean that just about everyone here is hooking up with someone else,” Carlotta said waving a hand dismissively.  “Khan is with Ruben, van Richte and Masaad regularly meet up to get it on, Sobana and Li are frequently making the two-backed beast, I order Brown up here at least once a week, if not more often.  In fact, Carboletti is the only one who isn’t booty-calling or being booty-called.  I think he’s saving himself for someone special.”  She laughed at my face.  “Let me break it down for you, Smurfette.  Before you joined us on Arcturus, we were out here for ten months.  Before that it was eight months.  Now I’m hearing news that we’re expected to be out here until January next year.  We’re under pressure, and one of the easiest ways to release stress is through having mindless sex.  There’s no way you can keep up a good, healthy long-distance relationship in this life, am I right?”

“Whatever,” I said, getting annoyed.  “I know me, and I know I would never cheat on my boyfriend.”

“Christ, you’re so fucking noble,” Carlotta snapped.  “It’s sickening.  On that note though and back to what I wanted to tell you, you need to be careful with Admiral Hackett.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Admiral Hackett does this with every new female that arrives on this ship,” Carlotta said.  “I hoped you would be exempt from this because you resemble a little boy, and even Admiral Hackett has to draw a line somewhere.  Unfortunately, despite the fact that you could pass as a fourth grader playing soldiers with his friends at a dress-up party, you aren’t completely unattractive, and your voice is seriously fucking sexy.  How do you do it, by the way?  Is it all that smoking you’re doing?”

“Uh, no,” I said, confused.  “It’s always been like this.”

“Huh,” Carlotta said.  She studied me for a few moments before continuing.  “Anyway, you need to listen to me very carefully here, Shepard.  Admiral Hackett is seriously bad news.  He will use you, make you think that you’re the most important, special and best thing in his life, and then one day he’ll get bored with you and toss you aside for someone younger and prettier.  I’m not fucking lying.  Ask anyone.  He’s done this to every single woman on this ship.”

“Everyone?” I asked.

“Well, not Commander Jupiter,” Carlotta said.  “She’s into the titties herself.  But everyone else.”

“I’m sure I can handle it,” I said.  “I’m not about to jump into bed with him.”

“For the love of fucking God, listen the fuck up,” Carlotta snapped.  “I have fucking borderline personality disorder, which means I’m continuously behaving in a self-destructive fucking way.  When I got here, three years ago, I was twenty three.  I’d just gotten out of a hectically abusive relationship, and I thought I was done with men, at least for a while.  Then Admiral Hackett was putting the moves on, and I found myself thinking ‘this is what a man is like.  This guy knows what it’s all about.’  Soon I was being called to his cabin almost every night.  Unfortunately, that’s all that happened.  I would go to his cabin, he’d make love to me (he’s actually pretty good at this sort of thing), and then kick me out again.”

“What happened then?” I asked.

“I fell pregnant,” Carlotta said.  “At first I tried to hide it, but unfortunately that shit isn’t something you can hide for long.  The calls to his cabin stopped, and I heard this other serviceman was visiting him.  Anyway, the moral of the fucking story is: don’t listen to anything Stephan Hackett tells you, the man is a fucking liar who will hurt you badly.”

“How’s it different to what you’re going to do with that seaman?” I asked.

“That kid knows it doesn’t mean anything,” Carlotta said.  “He knows that he’s just there to fill the gap, same as I’m there to fill whatever gap is in his life.  Admiral Hackett though: he makes you believe that you are the most important thing in his life, and he makes you need him.  Trust me, there’s nothing more dangerous.”

“Well, trust me,” I said.  “I can handle myself.”

“Whatever, Smurfette,” Carlotta said.  “Just don’t say I didn’t warn you, when you wake up with a broken heart.”

“You’re seriously fucking dramatic,” I said coldly.  “You should maybe see someone about that.”

“Yeah, yeah, go fuck yourself,” Carlotta snapped. 

.....

For some reason, Carlotta’s talk with me stuck with me, and I started noticing strange behaviours among the females of the ship that I had never noticed before.  There was a weird animosity among them, but at the same time, a sort of solidarity. For instance, one morning Maya accused Nkosi of stealing her porridge, but later, when Admiral Hackett walked past, she would touch Nkosi on the shoulder.  I couldn’t help but wonder how much of what Carlotta had said was true, and who exactly had been dumped to make room for me.

We still had to religiously watch propaganda hour, where the news reporters tried their best to make what was happening in the war sound like good news rather than ‘the Alliance is holding onto Elysium, the last city on Skyllia they have control of, with the bare tips of their fingers’.  There was also news about the Alliance general elections, where the Alliance Democratic Party once again won, though not by the landslide that they normally won by.  This however, did secure a fourth term in power for Jan Du Plessis.  On 5 July 2180, came the news report that I would not have expected, even if I lived until ninety (apparently that is a saying, although I have never understood it).

After the war news (the batarian army was advancing in all directions, but the brave Alliance soldiers were keeping the faith, it would be over by Remembrance Day, etc.), political news (Jan Du Plessis’s youngest daughter was engaged to rock star Baba Liddel), and sporting news (the Alliance biotiball team had lost to the asari Republic’s B-ball team, but the Alliance had beat the salarians at cricket), came the lifestyle news.

“And today, in lifestyle news, we take a look at a young biotic who may have become the greatest inventor in the Alliance to date,” the newsreader said.  “Nineteen year old Corporal Kaidan Alenko has invented a code that will hack any terminal or encryption in the galaxy.  Corporal Alenko, of Seattle South is currently serving in the twenty eighth infiltration regiment for the Special Forces in the Attican Traverse, and has sold the code for a record-breaking twelve trillion credits to Ariake Tech, the Alliance’s main tech supplier.  Join us tomorrow when we nail an interview with this good-looking young tech genius.”

“No fucking way,” Ismaeel said.  “Alenko’s gone and become a trillionaire.  I clearly made friends with the wrong people in my year: Suang, Bridget and Mikhail.  One is dead, one is in a mental asylum and one is not getting rich any time soon.”

“Who’s in the mental asylum?” I asked.

“Mikhail,” Ismaeel said gloomily.

“So chess wasn’t to his liking then?” I asked.

“You two know this Corporal Alenko?” Carlotta asked.

“He was a friend of Shep’s’ at Del Sol, ma’am,” Ismaeel said smartly.

“Can you get me his omnitool number?” Carlotta asked me.  “He sounds hot.”

“All the news reader said was that he was good looking,” I said.  “That isn’t an apt description.”

“She also said that he has at least twelve trillion credits in the kitty,” Carlotta said.  “That’s enough.  Give me his number.”

“No,” I snapped.  “I’m not the ship’s fucking match maker.  Find Kaidan’s number yourself.”

.....

The next morning was spent reclaiming a farm on the outskirts of Elysium from a group of batarian soldiers.  It was fun, if you were the type that considered slicing slivers of skin from your fingertips whilst listening to electro-funk music at top volume and watching a naked fat woman dancing an Irish jig to be fun (apparently this is a thing among certain circles, don’t ask me why).  For the rest of us it was torture, as the batarians’ ships fired on us, the Alliance ships fired on them, and we fired on the batarian soldiers (and vice versa).  We had been divided into two teams, with Commander and Lieutenant Jupiter leading them.  I had the joy of being on Lieutenant Jupiter’s team with Carlotta, Nina, Maya and Nkosi.  Lieutenant Jupiter seemed to find it fun to open a door, bellow, “Surrender or die,”, and then chuck a grenade into the room without giving them the option to answer.  After the fifth room, when the smell of burning flesh was getting too much, I said, “Do you have to do that?”

“Yes,” he answered.  “I’ve run out of grenades.  Give me one, will you?”

“No,” I said.

“I just gave you a direct order, Shepard,” he said.

“And I disobeyed it,” I said.  “Deal with it.  The mission brief said to bring in as many as possible alive.”

Luckily for me he had a big ego.  “You think you can do better than me?” he asked dangerously.

“Yes,” I said.  I tended to have a big ego too.

“Fine,” he snapped.  “Listen up everyone, Lieutenant Shepard is now taking point of Team Berlin.  Repeat, Mrs Big here is now in charge.”

I scowled, and signalled for them to follow me.  I banged on the next door.  “Open up,” I shouted in protha.  “It’s the Alliance.”

“Get fucked,” came a very succinct reply.

“Surrender and we will spare you,” I snapped.

“Yeah right,” the reply came.  “I’ve heard what you humans did to the rest of my squad.”

“That wasn’t me, it was my commander,” I called.  “He’s stood down.  I swear to my god I won’t kill you.”

There was a long pause.  “Your words seem sincere,” the batarian said at last.  “I surrender.”

“Chuck your weapons on out here, then kneel in the middle of the room,” I ordered.  A rifle and shotgun landed on the floor.

“I’m kneeling,” the batarian called.

“Wait here,” I ordered the squad.

“Shepard,” Lieutenant Jupiter began.

“Silence in the ranks,” I snapped.  This was fun.  I could see why people wanted to be in charge.

The batarian was indeed kneeling in the middle of the floor.  His two companions however were standing on either side of him, their rifles trained on me.  They opened fire the moment I came into their sights, and I dove at the table standing to the side of me, pushing it over and ducking behind it.  Luckily the table was ancient, oaken and sturdy.  Either that or they had the weakest assault rifles in the history of the galaxy, because I felt the wood buckle behind me, but never break.

“What the hell is going on in there, Shepard?” Lieutenant Jupiter shouted into my radio.  I winced.  He had a very loud voice.

“It’s all under control sir,” I shouted. 

“Like fuck it is,” he shouted.  “Van Richte, give me a grenade.”

“Don’t you fucking dare, sir,” I shouted.  “The Blasto series hasn’t ended yet.”

It really was a beautiful room, with large bay windows and a huge, beautiful chandelier hanging in the centre of the ceiling.  The batarians continued to shoot at the table.

“Any time you clowns want to jump in, feel free,” I yelled.

“Swing low, sweet chariots,” Nkosi sang.

“Fuck you, Sobana, I’m going to fucking kill you,” I shouted.

The chandelier seemed to be the best bet, although it was so beautiful, it almost seemed a sin.  “Forgive me, person that designed this,” I whispered, and shot at the chain securing it to the ceiling.

It came crashing down between the three batarians.  “What the hell was that noise?” Commander Jupiter said into the radio.

“A chandelier making a bid for freedom, ma’am,” I said, getting up from behind the table.  “Nothing to worry about.  Stick those hands where I can see them,” I added in protha.  One of the batarians reached for his rifle, and I shot at his hand, grazing his fingers.  “Don’t even think about it.”

“We’re done, Team Berlin,” Commander Jupiter said. 

“Roger, Team Amsterdam,” Lieutenant Jupiter said.  “Lieutenant Bitchy Midget is securing the final room.”

“On her own?” Commander Jupiter said.

“Aye ma’am,” Lieutenant Jupiter said, sounding bored.

“Lieutenant Bitchy Midget,” I mumbled.  “How original.  On your feet,” I snapped at the batarians.

Carlotta came in to help me.  “I think that name suits you,” she said.

“Yeah, well Lieutenant Bitchy Psycho suits you,” I said, rolling his eyes.  “Where are the frigging servicemen?”

She shrugged.  “Working for their pay by not doing anything to help us,” she said indifferently.

“Are you two planning on gossiping all day or are you going to take us in?” one of the batarians asked.

“Shut the fuck up, you fucking spider,” Carlotta snapped.  “You’ve lost your right to fucking speak.”

The upshot was that Commander Jupiter shouted at both Lieutenant Jupiter and me, but since I was the one who brought prisoners in on our team, I was let off with a warning, whereas Lieutenant Jupiter was put on a charge and made to help the cook clean out the ship’s kitchen.

.....

At supper time Admiral Hackett called me up to his cabin.  I briefly considered not going, but the thought of Admiral Hackett even being interested in me as a booty call was just hilarious.  So I went.

Admiral Hackett was wearing his formal uniform when he answered the door.  “Oh sorry,” I said.  “I didn’t know this was a formal event.  I would have dressed up.”

“It isn’t,” Admiral Hackett said.  “You look lovely.”

“Uh, right,” I said.  “Thanks, I guess.”

“You don’t believe me?” he asked.  “Don’t you ever look in the mirror?”

“Well, most mirrors are too tall for me, so no,” I said.  “What smells so good?” A delicious smell was coming out of the room.

“A cheesy mac Cheese burger,” Admiral Hackett said.  “I had my batman go into Elysium for this.  I read on the extranet that that is your favourite.”

“Where on the extranet does it say that?” I asked in surprise.

“Well, on your Friendzly page,” Admiral Hackett said, motioning for me to sit down.  “You know, you should change the privacy settings on your page.  Every single nutjob in the galaxy can read what it says there.”

“I wouldn’t bother,” I said.  “It seems to be some sort of hobby for people to read up on me on the extranet.  Why take that away?”

He laughed.  “I can’t imagine why they would do such a thing,” he said.  “Well, go ahead and eat the burger.  I got it for you.”

I had had a cheesy mac Cheese burger on Terra Nova, when Jason and I were staying with my mother.  It had been an instant favourite for me, but for some reason I had never eaten it again.  I dug in with gusto this time around though, and it was only when I was half-way done with the burger that I stopped and asked, “Why did you buy me a cheesy mac Cheese?”

“Well, I happened to be in Elysium, and I figured I might as well get it for you,” he said, shrugging. 

“Did you get Lieutenant Antonio a burger too?” I asked suspiciously.

He sighed.  “I see Carlotta has been up to her old tricks again,” he said.  “She seems to think that if she can make every single woman on this ship jealous of me, she’ll get me back.  In answer to your question, no, I got her tortillas, because those are her favourites.”

“So you don’t deny that you use the women on the ship as booty calls?” I asked, surprised. 

“No, of course not, although ‘booty call’ is a bit crude, and implies that the women don’t have a say in the matter,” Admiral Hackett said.  “I woo women, seduce them, but I leave them a way out.  I am a gentleman, if nothing else.”

“I have a boyfriend,” I blurted out.

“Hm,” Admiral Hackett said.  “There’s nothing on the extranet about this.  Who is this mystery man?”

“I-no one you know,” I said.

“And when last did you see this boyfriend?” Admiral Hackett asked.

“In March,” I said.

“So, basically three months ago,” Admiral Hackett said.  “Did he buy you your favourite meal?”

“Well, no, but-,” I began.

“Does he even know what your favourite meal is?” he asked.

“I-yeah, I guess he does, but-.”

“You guess or you know?” Admiral Hackett asked.

“Look, he cares for me,” I said.

“Does he?” Admiral Hackett asked.  “Are you sure?  Or has he already cheated on you?  Long-distance relationships are tough, you know.”

“He wouldn’t,” I whispered.

“He’s a man,” Admiral Hackett said.  “He has needs too, you know.”

“Bullshit,” I whispered, getting up.  “I know him.  He wouldn’t cheat on me.”

He studied me.  “You’re right,” he said at last.  “I’m sorry.  I doubt any man would be fool enough to lose you.  Please sit down again.  The burger’s getting cold.” I hesitated.  “I’m really sorry, Jane.  I didn’t mean to upset you.”

I sat down again.  “Why did you get me my favourite burger?” I asked quietly.

“Well, because you’re beautiful, and brave, and smart, and a strangely noble, good person,” he said.

I sighed.  “I’m sorry,” I said, getting up.  “But I can’t be here.  This is uncomfortable.  I should go.”

He nodded once.  “Of course, I understand,” he said.  “But know, if you ever need me, I’ll be here.”

I left.  I took the burger with me.  I wasn’t a complete fool.

.....

I missed the actual interview with Kaidan, but I managed to catch the highlights.  I was quite excited.  I was hoping that Kaidan and I would be able to get married and live in the lap of luxury somewhere in deep space, with nothing but the stars surrounding us.  Unfortunately, it quickly became apparent that this was not to be.

“Today was the launch date of Operation Chief Kaidan Alenko’s new hack model,” the news anchor said (a promotion so soon!  Things were looking up for us).  “The nineteen year old marine looked dashing in his dress blues, and his girlfriend, Sacha Byron looked stunning in a Jaira dress.”

Wait, what?  There was a shot of Kaidan and Sacha (an ex-girlfriend of his.  The last time we met she had had orange hair and threatened to kill me.  Now her hair was a sick booger green), walking hand-in-hand down a red carpet.

“Girls all over the Alliance went into mourning when they heard the news that Operations Chief Alenko was taken by what was apparently a childhood sweetheart,” the voice over said.

The video jumped to Kaidan standing in front of a blue screen.  “Yeah, Snixx and I met when we were eight,” he said, smiling languidly.  “We ran together in the Sixty Seventh Street Reds.  It’s a gang in Seattle South,” he added.

“Wait what?” Commander Jupiter said, looking up from whatever she had been doing on her datapad.

“Took the words right out of my mouth there, ma’am,” I mumbled, scowling at the television screen.

“Skye, did you hear that?” Commander Jupiter asked.

Lieutenant Jupiter was asleep on one of the other couches.  “Mph, what?” he mumbled blearily.

“This kid said he was with the Reds,” Commander Jupiter said.  “Didn’t the news reader say he was a biotic?”

“You don’t think he’s B-boy, do you?” Lieutenant Jupiter asked, looking suddenly wide-awake.

“Ja,” Commander Jupiter said.  “This is the kid that killed Jee-tog.”

“Killed who?” Nkosi asked interestedly.

“Kid we used to run with when we were part of the Baywaters,” Commander Jupiter said.  “There’s a five million credit bounty on B-boy’s head.”

“May I be dismissed?” I asked, feeling ill.  “I have to see a misogynist about an asshole.”

“Five million credits, huh?” I heard Zaeed said.  “Do you think a batarian corpse could pass as that kid?”

“Sure, we can chisel the other four eyes out and say he fell into a tub of black paint,” Joey said sarcastically.  “With luck the Baywaters are as thick as you are and they won’t notice.”

“Don’t insult my old gang, Chief,” Lieutenant Jupiter said sharply.

“Sorry sir,” Joey muttered.

.....

Much to my disappointment, Admiral Hackett was in his cabin when I got up there.  I was hoping he wouldn’t be there, so that I was unable to go through with what I wanted to do.

“Shepard,” he said, when he answered the door.  “How was the burger?”

“Can I come in?” I asked.  He stood aside, and I went into the cabin.  “So, I guess you were right about my boyfriend,” I said.  “I just found out that he’s a cheating, lying, fuckface, dickless, lying bastard.  I know I said lying twice there, but I don’t care, I’m too angry.”

“I’m sorry,” he said quietly.

“Why are you sorry?” I asked.  “You’re just as bad.  You’ve motored your way through all the women on this ship.  You’re as much of a lying, cheating, whatever it was I said back there.”

“Yet here you stand,” he observed.

“Yup,” I said.  I took a deep breath.  “I want to take revenge on my boyfriend, so I want you to have sex with me.”

He blinked in surprise.  “Women aren’t normally that blunt with me,” he said.

“Yeah, I suck at dirty talk, pun not intended,” I said.  “What do you care?  You get to have sex.  Seems that’s all you’re interested in anyway.”

He rubbed his eyes tiredly.  “Shepard, let me remind you that you’re speaking to a superior officer,” he said.

“Yeah, I think protocol just managed to fly out of the window, along with the shred of self-dignity I still managed to maintain,” I said.  “I don’t really care if there’s foreplay or not.”

.....

Afterwards I lay back on the bed in a semi-comatose state.  Carlotta had been right, he really was good.  Admiral Hackett stood by the porthole and looked out at the stars.

“Thank you Shepard,” he said, not looking around.  “That’ll be all.”

Uh right.  I rolled over onto my side in preparation for getting up. 

And spotted a picture frame on the bedside table, showing a woman, two girls and a boy.  The children were very young, the oldest girl being probably slightly younger than Jason.

“Your family?” I asked quietly, picking the frame up.

“Yes,” he said.

I nodded and got slowly out of bed, picking my clothes up from the floor.  I turned and watched him as I dressed.  He did not look at me once.  “Thank you sir,” I said quietly, and left the room.

I wasn’t sure why I was upset.  I had read somewhere that he was married, and that he had children.  Still, there was a part of me that felt ill by what I had done, by its implications.  And deep in my heart, something was pulling uncomfortably, making it hard for me to breathe.  I told myself that he had deserved it and went back to my cabin.

.....

The next morning I cornered Carlotta in the showers as she was undressing Rochelle.  “You didn’t tell me he was married,” I said.

“Come on, Chellie, can you show me what a big girl you are by undressing yourself over there?” Carlotta asked, pointing to the opposite corner of the room.

“No,” Rochelle said stubbornly.

“Come on, bambina, I know you’re a big girl,” Carlotta said.  “Prove it to me.”  Rochelle stared stubbornly at her.  “We can watch two episodes of Martina and Friends on TV tonight,” Carlotta said.

“Ok,” Rochelle said, sighing like a little grown-up, and moved to the corner.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Carlotta hissed, pulling me away from the other officers.  “Do you not listen to any advice you’re given by anyone?  Holy fucking shit, woman, I’m glad you’re not my daughter.”

“Shut up,” I snapped.  “Why didn’t you tell me he’s married?”

“By ‘he’ I assume you mean Hackett,” Carlotta said. 

“He says the only reason you warned me was because you’re jealous and you want him to yourself,” I snapped.

“Please,” Carlotta said, rolling her eyes.  “I don’t want anything to do with Stephan fucking Hackett.  The only reason he’s still alive is because if I killed him, my daughter would grow up without a mother.  That man is the worst kind of fucking poison in the galaxy, and he deserves to rot in hell.”

“Why do you hate him so much?” I asked.

She laughed bitterly.  “You don’t know yet,” she said.  “But you will.  Just you wait, you crazy fucking bitch.”

“Holy crap, you sound like you belong in a twentieth century musical prima donna or something,” I snapped.  “You’d better stay away from me from now on.”  I slapped her hand from my shoulder.

“Yeah?” she snapped back.  “Who’s the fucking prima donna now, Ms Shepard?  You really think you’re the woman he’ll fall in love with?”

“I don’t need love to be happy,” I shouted.

She snorted.  “You’re not happy,” she said.  “You’re lying to yourself.”

I took a step towards her.

“What’s going on here?” Lieutenant Jupiter asked, coming over to us.

“Nothing,” we both said, stepping backwards away from each other.

“Uh huh,” he said.  “Keep it that way.”

The moment I stepped out of the shower room, I was knocked over by a heavy something travelling at great speed.

“You fucking slut,” Nkosi screamed, slapping me across the face.  “You bitch, you fucking bitch, you home wrecker.”

“What the fuck?” I screamed even louder.

“You come onto this ship and you think you can fucking steal him away, you fucking piece of shit whore,” Nkosi shouted, this time hitting me with her fist.

That’s when my training kicked.  I wrapped my legs around her waist, rocked right, then left, then right again, and rolled us both over so that I was on top of her.

“Will you calm the fuck down?” I shouted, pushing my forearm against her throat.

“Get off me,” she gasped.

“I have nothing to do with your relationship with him,” I snapped, pushing harder.  “Surely you’re smart enough to realise that what you’re doing with him means nothing.”

“Bullshit,” she gasped.  “He loves me.”

“That’s enough, Lieutenant,” a voice said pulling me backwards.  It was Commander Jupiter.  “Are you alright, Private?”

“Yes ma’am,” Nkosi gasped, getting up.

“And you, Shepard?” Commander Jupiter asked.  My lip was bleeding, and my right eye was swelling up.

“Yes ma’am,” I said, holding my hand to my lip.

“Lieutenant Antonio, Lieutenant Jupiter, take Private Sobana to Port Side,” Commander Jupiter said tiredly.  Port Side was the port side cargo bay which was where people who were being court marshalled were held.

“No,” I said.

“Shepard, she attacked a superior officer, the penalty for which is three years in the brig and a dishonourable discharge,” Commander Jupiter said.

“I know ma’am,” I said.  “It doesn’t matter.  Give her hard labour instead.”

“For assaulting a superior officer?” Lieutenant Jupiter asked incredulously. 

Commander Jupiter narrowed her eyes.  “Wait,” she said.  “Does this have anything to do with Admiral Hackett?”

“No, ma’am, of course not,” Nkosi said at once.

“Oh for Christ’s sake,” Lieutenant Jupiter said.  “Just court-marshal them both for being inappropriate and get it over with.”

“I am the commander of this ship, Lieutenant Jupiter,” Commander Jupiter said.  “Get the staff assembled in the conference room.”

“But-,” Lieutenant Jupiter began.

“Now, Lieutenant,” Commander Jupiter snapped.

.....

Commander Jupiter scowled around at us.  “It has come to my attention that certain female members of this platoon have been making night trips to a certain male officer on this ship,” she said coldly.

“Ladies, I know Lieutenant Antonio is a good looking guy, but really,” Zaeed said, laughing.

“Shut the fuck up, gimp,” Carlotta snapped.

“Silence in the ranks,” Commander Jupiter barked.  “I swear, if I hear of any of this ever again, I will find a way to get you thrown into Grageran.” 

“Are you going to speak to him about this?” I asked.

“By him I assume you mean Admiral Hackett,” Commander Jupiter said.  “He’s my superior officer.  Why would I speak to him?”

“Because he’s the one seducing us,” I said.  “He’s hurting people in your squad.”

“Thank you, Shepard, shut up,” Commander Jupiter said.  “Stop it, ladies.  I’m serious.  Dismissed.”

We filed out of the conference room.  “Jane, wait up,” a voice called from behind me.  It was Joey.  “We need to talk,” he said.

“Oh God, not another intervention,” I groaned.

“You had sex with Admiral Hackett?” he asked in disbelief.

“Yeah, why not tell the entire ship,” I snapped.  I dragged him back into the conference room, where Commander Jupiter was busy typing something into a datapad.

She raised her eyebrows when she saw us.  “Don’t take too long,” she said, picking the datapad up and making for the door.  “I need this week’s rosters, Chief.”

“Great, now she thinks I’m having sex with you too,” I said.

“So what?” Joey asked.  “She can think what she likes.”

“What do you want, Joey?” I asked.

“I know you have a boyfriend,” Joey said.  “And I know that now you’ve cheated on him.”

“He started it,” I mumbled.

“God, when did you become so vindictive?” Joey asked, rhetorically.  “Anyway, if you’re going to cheat on him, you should do it with someone who actually loves you.”  I raised my eyebrows.

“That’s some logic you got there, Carboletti,” I said.

“I’m serious Jane,” he said.  “I love you.  I’ve always loved you, since that time we met eleven years ago.”

I put my face in my hands.  “Joey,” I sighed.

“Look, I know you and I know you don’t get close to anyone,” he said.  “I’m not looking for a girlfriend, and I’m not expecting you to love me back.  I’m just here for you.  Whatever you need.”

“So, what, you want to be my booty call or something?” I asked incredulously.  “Joey, that’s seriously not healthy.”

He kissed me softly on the lips.  “Whatever you need,” he repeated.

He was almost at the door when I said, “Joey, wait.”  He turned.  “Fine,” I said.  “But any time you want an out, you get it.  I’m not going to be that kind of officer.”

He smiled at me.  “Alright, Jane,” he said.

Chapter Text

My life continued pretty much like that for the next few months.  I was a booty call for Admiral Hackett, who, it seemed had great stamina, as he was calling me up to his cabin nearly every night, and Joey was a booty call for me, who was very sweet, but who I felt bad for using like that, especially since he had professed his love to me.  I didn’t write to Kaidan, but I did get an email from him that was dated the day before the launch of omnigel, where he explained that Snixx would be playing his pretend girlfriend, but he still loved me more than anything.  After that I got a small pang in my stomach whenever I thought of him.  I pretended that it was nothing.

At the beginning of October Lin retired, and we had a small party that lasted most of the night and involved a lot of drinking (of fruit juice.  Alcohol was not allowed on military ships.  We still had fun.)

Zaeed started the speech making off.  “Well, you were always a good partner to have, even though you did not let me see even one nipple,” he said.

“And I still won’t, even though it is my last day,” Lin said.  “I at least still believe in the sanctity of marriage.”

“Didn’t your wife just have your first child, Masaad?” Maya asked lightly (her hands moved lightly in any case).

“Shut up you crazy, white-haired, deaf bint,” Zaeed said laughing.  “The wife’s naming her Amina.”

“And what are you naming her?” Ismaeel asked.

“Another mouth to feed,” Zaeed said.

“Well, Inshallah you’ll have many more,” Ismaeel said.

“I’ll drink to that,” Zaeed said, raising his glass of grape juice.

“I’ll miss you, Ji,” I said.  “Your mission briefs were always impeccable.  I always knew which batarian I was shooting at.”

“Thank you ma’am,” Lin said, bowing her head.  She added something in an oriental language which I assumed was one of the Chinese languages.

“Uh,” I said.

“Lieutenant Shepard isn’t a proper Chinese,” Nina laughed.  “She just looks like a mutant one with blue eyes and freckles.”

“Your mother did not teach you our ways?” Lin asked incredulously.

“Nope,” I said.  “She taught me the words to the Hail Mary though.  And how to tie a knot in a piece of string with your tongue.”

“What is it with you and string?” Commander Jupiter asked.

“I secretly have a string fetish, ma’am,” I said.

“Perhaps it’s best I don’t know what that means,” she mumbled.  “Anyway, Operations Chief Ji, I would like to say what an honour it’s been having you serve on my ship.  You were very good at your job, and any person that replaces you is going to be hard-pressed to be even half as good as you are.”

“Who is replacing her, just as a matter of interest,” Joey said.

“That’s for us to know and for you to find out,” Commander Jupiter said mysteriously.  “Why are you so keen to know, Carboletti?”

“Well, I colour-code everyone’s names on the duty roster,” Joey said.  “I do that based on the colour that comes to mind when I think of your first name.  Based on the new OC’s first name, I can already design this week’s roster.”

“Why is my colour black though?” Nkosi wanted to know.

“You have a very black name,” Joey shrugged.

“That’s fucking racist,” Nkosi snapped.

“Never mind that,” Lieutenant Jupiter said.  “Why is my name pink?”

“Well, sir, you have a pink name,” I jumped in, not wanting to miss the opportunity.  “Skye Jupiter.  I think of a field of pink roses when I hear that name.”

He pointed his finger at me.  “Thin fucking ice, Lieutenant,” he snapped.

“Ha, Pink Floyd,” I shouted excitedly.  “I knew you were pink.”

No one got it.  I didn’t expect them to.  I did it more for my own entertainment than anything else.

The door opened and First Mate Ryde stepped into the rec room.  “Will you morons please go to bed, we can’t sleep,” he snapped.

“Yes, go to bed everyone,” Commander Jupiter said.  “We officers need to be up early to welcome the new OC to the ship.”

We groaned and filed out of the room.  Seaman Apprentice Hafel, Admiral Hackett’s batman, was waiting outside.  “Lieutenant Shepard,” he said.

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” I groaned.  “It’s close to midnight and I have to be up tomorrow at half past four.”

He shrugged.  “You know what this is about,” he said.

“Fine,” I snapped.

“Slut,” Nkosi hissed as she walked past.

“Kiss my grits,” I hissed back.

.....

I ended up getting to bed at around two in the morning, whereupon I fell into a deep slumber, effectively sleeping through reveille.  At five o’clock Carlotta came to wake me up.

“Smurfette, the new OC’s arriving in half an hour,” she said, shaking me gently by the throat.  “You need to get going.”

“What the fucking, where’s the bugler?” I groaned.

“Lung infection, we had an intercom call instead,” she said.  “Come on, Team Jupiter are getting impatient.”

I rushed through a shower, dressed and was in the conference room by quarter to six, where Carlotta, Lieutenant Jupiter, Commander Jupiter, and our new Operations Chief were already waiting.

“Sorry I’m late ma’am,” I gasped, saluting.  “I slept through the non-reveille.”

The new Operations Chief turned to face me.  Her white skin, full lips, dark hair and frog-like black eyes were all unfortunately very familiar to me.

“Hey Shep,” Kasuumi Dranne said carelessly.

“Dranne, I-what,” I spluttered.  “I-you only just graduated from Del Sol, how can you be an NCO already?”

“Oh, I managed to break all your and Kaidan’s records and graduate top of my year,” Kasuumi said.  “After that, well, I was sent to the scout snipers academy, then made operations chief.”

“So this is your first tour of duty?” I asked.

“Well, this is only your second, and you’re already second lieutenant,” she said.

“Has Antonio punched you yet?” I asked sulkily.

“Why would she do that?” Kasuumi asked.

“Well, you effectively broke all her records by breaking mine and Kaidan’s, and that’s just basically how she rolls,” I explained.

“I haven’t punched her yet, and I’m not going to,” Carlotta said dreamily.  “The vids weren’t lying about you, Kasuumi.  You are fucking gorgeous.”

“Thanks,” Kasuumi said, sounding pleased.  “I get that everywhere.”

“Yeah, no wonder,” Commander Jupiter said, also looking somewhat dreamy.  Lieutenant Jupiter cleared his throat loudly, and she jumped.  “Erm yes,” she said.  “Um, Operations Chief Dranne, on behalf of Company 6 of the Marine Corps Scout Snipers platoon, may I welcome you to uh Company 6.”

“Smooth,” I muttered.

“Hey, Shep, do you still have a mouth to face ratio of one hundred to one?” Kasuumi asked.

“Lieutenant Shepard is your superior-,” Lieutenant Jupiter began.

“Skye, the woman has a point,” Commander Jupiter said.

“No, she doesn’t,” I said.  “And even if she did, I am still her superior.”

“You just don’t like her because she beat all your records,” Carlotta laughed.

“No, I don’t like her ‘cos she’s a pain in the butt,” I snapped.

“Enough,” Commander Jupiter said firmly.  “Lieutenant Jupiter, call the rest of the company in.”

Lieutenant Jupiter scowled and left the room.  “Shep, did you see the news about Kaidan being famous?” Kasuumi asked.

“Screw you, Dranne,” I mumbled.  She grinned, showing impossibly white teeth.

The others came in.  Nina gave a very loud squeal and Commander Jupiter and I both winced.

“Do that again, Ruben, and you’ll wish you hadn’t,” I muttered.

“Oh…my…God,” Nkosi breathed.  “You’re Kasuumi Dranne.”

“Really?” Kasuumi asked unselfconsciously.

“I’m your biggest fan,” Maya said.

“You’re also my silentest fan,” Kasuumi said.  “Are you a deaf mute, or just a fan of flashing your hands around like a nineteen twenties jazz dancer?”

Maya grinned.  “I’m only a mute,” she said.  “Name’s Maya van Richte.”

“Good to meet you,” Kasuumi said.

“You’ve been consistently voted the galaxy’s sexiest woman since 2174,” Terrence blurted out.

“I know that,” Kasuumi said.

“You won the Miss Galaxy beauty pageant last year,” Terrence continued, blushing deep crimson.

“Yeah, I kinda knew that too,” Kasuumi said, frowning.

“Your favourite colour is teal,” he said, his face redder than an extranet terminal.

“That I didn’t know,” Kasuumi said.

“Really?” he asked excitedly.

“Amonkira, seriously?” Kasuumi sighed.  “Shut up before you make an even bigger fool of yourself.”

“Unlikely to happen,” Zaeed muttered.  “Hello darling.”

“Goodbye creepy,” Kasuumi muttered back.

“Good to see some things don’t change,” Ismaeel said.  “Good to see you again, Dranne.”

“And to you,” Kasuumi said, grinning.  “Always nice to see a friendly, unperverted face.”

“So, what’s Kasuumi Dranne doing on our ship?” Joey asked excitedly.

“She’s our new operation’s chief,” Carlotta said.

“Yeah,” Joey laughed.  “And I’m the prime minister of the Alliance.”  His jaw dropped open when he realised she wasn’t joking.  He blushed a deep crimson.  “I-uh, I have duty rosters to write,” he mumbled, beating a hasty retreat. 

“Good idea, you all have work to do,” Lieutenant Jupiter said, clearly unimpressed by all the hero worship going on.  “Antonio, show Dranne to her station, then get back to the guns.”

“Alright party pooper,” Carlotta said.

“And take that attitude and space it out the nearest airlock,” he added.  “It’s not welcome on this ship.”

Carlotta rolled her eyes.  “Right this way, Chief,” she said, stepping aside for Kasuumi to leave the conference room ahead of her.

Commander Jupiter waited for the room to empty before levelling a glare at her brother.  “What?” he snapped.

“That was rude,” she said chidingly.

“You’ve got to be kidding me, Luna,” he groaned.  “She’s not even that beautiful.  Those eyes are fucking creepy.”

“I agree,” I added.

“See, if Shepard and I agree on something it must be true,” he said.  “She’s the most misguided person in the galaxy.”

I frowned.  “At least I’m not an asshole,” I said.

“Not now Shepard, we have a good thing going here,” Lieutenant Jupiter said.

Commander Jupiter pressed her lips together.  “Back to your stations, lieutenants,” she said.  “Shepard, I need you to order more ammunition from Elkoss Combine, we’re running short.  I’d hate to have to go on a mission without any.”

“Aye Commander,” I said.  “Can I pour hot coffee over Operations Chief Dranne’s head when I’m done?”

“Absolutely not,” she answered.  “Dismissed, both of you.”

Kasuumi had already set herself up at her station, and was busy putting idols and symbols of all the drell gods around her terminal.  I scowled and sat down at my terminal.

“So, Kasuumi Dranne’s joined your team?” Seaman Nasution asked.

“No, her body double,” I said.  “Kasuumi Dranne’s too expensive.”

“I wonder why she joined up in the first place,” he mused.  “Her family’s filthy rich.  She could have done anything with her life.”

I shrugged non-commitaly and turned to my terminal.  I really didn’t give a crap about Kasuumi Dranne and her motivations for doing things that made no sense.

.....

Later that afternoon I made a call to Jason, who had just recently started studying on Sur’Kesh.  Apparently no one but those of rank Captain, Major, Commander or Admiral were allowed to use the QEC on the ship either, so I was stuck going through com buoys again, which took close to two hours.  I did a double take when Jason finally came onto the screen.

“Is that a beard you’re growing there, Jason?” I asked in shock.

“Hello, big sister, good to see you too,” he said.

“I’m just surprised,” I said.  “You look so…grown-up.”

“Why can’t I be grown-up?” he asked defensively.

“Well, I’m your older sister,” I said.  “I still see you as the little five year old that reprogrammed Dad’s datapad to swear at anyone who turned it on.”

Jason snorted.  “Dad was pissed,” he said nostalgically.  “How’re things going over there?”

I shrugged.  “It’s going,” I said.  “I’m quite tired.  They have us on a long rotation.  Haven’t had any shore leave yet.  How’s it feel to be out of the orphanage?”

“It’s ok, I guess,” he said.  “It’s strange.  I have an aid, but I’ve got so much more freedom.  Feels weird.”

“Congratulations on coming top in the Triple A exams by the way,” I said.  “You are officially the smartest teenager of 2180.”

He snorted.  “Yeah, I’m not even top ten around here,” he said.  “These salarians are way smarter than I am.”

“You’re enjoying it in any case,” I said.

He grinned.  “Yeah, I am,” he said.  “Anyway, Fen Dranne has promised me a job as a lead programmer and developer in his VI corporation if I pass.”

“Wow, you’ll be making mega-creds if you go there,” I said.

“Yup,” Jason said.

Joey walked past, did a double-take and turned towards the screen.  “Jason Shepard,” he said.  “Remember me?”

“Sure,” Jason said.  His face twisted.  “Show,” he said finally.

“Yup, that’s me,” Joey said, grinning.  “Nice beard.  Lieutenant Shepard says you’re on Sur’Kesh?”

“Yeah,” Jason said.

“Anyway, good to see you again, Jason,” Joey said.  “Take care.  Ma’am, when you have a moment, I’d like to put in a requisition.”

“Be right there,” I said.  “Look after yourself, Jason, you hear?”

“God, you say that to me every time,” Jason said, rolling his eyes.  “Maybe you should look after yourself.  You’re not looking so good, and you’ve lost weight.”

“Yeah yeah,” I said.  “See you soon, I hope.”

.....

The next week was the start of the yearly performance reviews, where every report from every mission in the past year was read, each soldier’s performance in each mission was assessed, a mark was given, and recommendations were made for improvements.  These reviews were chaired by the commanding officer of each team, and assisted by the next two highest-ranked officers in the team.  In our case, this was obviously Lieutenant Jupiter and I.  Everyone had to be dressed in their formal blues, which tended to put me in a rancid enough mood as it was.

Zaeed was the first person we did.  “Well, Masaad, I’m looking at your reports from the past year, and things are not looking good,” Commander Jupiter said, reading from a datapad that I was certain she had randomly selected.

“Yeah, no fucking kidding,” Zaeed muttered, rolling his eye.  “Alright, hit me with your worst shot.”

“Well, Service Chief Carboletti writes almost consistently that you’re either late or absent for your duties,” Commander Jupiter said.  “Operations Chief Ji wrote that your performance as her partner was terrible, that she felt very unsafe in your company and that your scouting for her was below par.”

“I didn’t really like her very much,” Zaeed said.  “Don’t worry, I’m all over Kasuumi.  She’ll be in good hands with me.”  He sniggered.

Commander Jupiter gave him a terrible look.  “Silence,” Lieutenant Jupiter said sharply, glaring at Zaeed.

“Furthermore, Lieutenant Jupiter here writes that your performance in missions is terrible,” Commander Jupiter continued, scowling.  “You made exactly one kill this entire year, and I’m pretty sure you didn’t even make that kill.  You probably stole it from one of the other servicemen.”

“How dare you accuse me,” Zaeed said in a scandalised tone, leaping to his feet.

“Sit down, Masaad, this is serious,” Commander Jupiter snapped.  “You’re lazy, you’re awful to work with, you have an atrocious attitude, you don’t do your assigned tasks and you’re probably the worst soldier I’ve ever seen.  Actually, scratch that.  You are the worst soldier I have ever seen.  You’re worse than the worst asari soldier, and that’s saying a lot.  In fact, the only good thing I have to say about you is that you know some fantastic jokes.”

“Right,” Zaeed said boredly.  “Can you get to the point, Vaenia reruns are on soon and I don’t want to miss them.”

“I am putting you on absolute final warning, Private Masaad,” Commander Jupiter said.  “One more toe out of lining, and I’m kicking you out of the Alliance.”  She handed him the datapad.

“I sign on the dotted line, right?” Zaeed asked, not looking at all perturbed by the turn of events.

“Yes,” Commander Jupiter said.

Zaeed handed back the datapad.  “Can I go now?” he asked.

“Dismissed,” Commander Jupiter snapped.  She waited for the door to shut behind him before saying, “I fucking hate that asshole.”

“Why don’t you just kick him out?” I asked.

She sighed.  “Think Shepard,” she snapped.  “The Alliance Military firing a disabled man?  That wouldn’t look good at all.”

That’s when it hit me.  “That’s why he won’t get his eye fixed, isn’t it?” I said slowly.  “Because otherwise he’d lose a job where he doesn’t actually have to do anything to get paid.”

“Exactly,” Commander Jupiter said.  “And it’s not as if his disability is severe enough to prevent him from doing his job.”

“Ugh, what an asshole,” I mumbled.

“Call in Sobana please, Skye,” Commander Jupiter said.

.....

We were finished with the NCOs by supper time.  “Right, we just have Antonio left,” Commander Jupiter said.  We had opted to take our supper in the conference room.  “Then we just need to do each other.”

“Sorry, but neither of you are my type,” I said.

“What, too young?” Lieutenant Jupiter asked sarcastically.

“Ha ha sir, remind me to laugh,” I said.

Commander Jupiter was staring at my tray.  “How can you stand to eat so little?” she asked in wonder.

“Well, I’m usually sitting when I eat,” I said.

“You can do better than that,” she said, shaking her head sadly.

“I know,” I said.  “Sorry, I was feeling the pressure there.”

“So, Ruben was your officer at Del Sol?” she asked interestedly.

“Yep,” I said.  “She was one of the few officer recruits that survived the nuclear attack of 2178.  She’s a cool person, if somewhat patriotic.”

“I remember the attack,” Lieutenant Jupiter mused.  “We lost a bunch of people.  They never caught the culprit?”

“Well-,” I hesitated.  “Not exactly no.”

“I remember hearing about you and another grunt going out and rescuing a pod mate in the middle of the storm,” Commander Jupiter said.

“Yeah, it was me and Kaide-wait a minute,” I folded my arms and glared at her.  “How is it that you remember that fact about me, but you didn’t remember my name or the fact that I was your batman when you were doing ICT training?”

“This Kaidan kid again?” Lieutenant Jupiter scowled.  “What is he, some kind of demigod or something?”

I shrugged, returning to my corned beef.

“The bounty’s still up, Luna, what do you reckon?” Lieutenant Jupiter asked.

“We’re done with the gangs, Skye,” Commander Jupiter said forcibly.

“Yeah, but think about it,” Lieutenant Jupiter said softly, a dreamy expression on his face.  “We could retire, live like queens.”

“If you want to kill Kaidan, you’ll have to go through me first,” I snapped.

“Shut up both of you,” Commander Jupiter said tiredly.

.....

Carlotta brought Rochelle along into her review.  “What the fuck is she doing here?” Lieutenant Jupiter snapped.

“I’m sorry, I haven’t had much chance to spend time with her because some asshole’s got a bee in his fucking bonnet regarding C-Sub gun,” she snapped back.

“It doesn’t matter, Skye,” Commander Jupiter said, smiling fondly at Rochelle.

“See, it doesn’t matter, Skye,” Carlotta said, a sickly smile on her face.  “Now, can we hurry the fuck up please, there’s an interview with Lin’Harel on TV tonight, and I don’t want to miss it.”

Lieutenant Jupiter scowled at her.  “Well, it seems that there are no major complaints with regards to your performance, Antonio,” Commander Jupiter said.  “You’re always on time for duty, your reports are good, you’re performing well in the field, and you’ve even managed to cut down on your swearing.”

“Say what?” I asked in amazement.  “You’ve cut down on your swearing?”

“Better believe it, Smurfette, I used to say fuck at least three times as often back in the day,” Carlotta said.  “Back when I was a gunny, every second word was a cuss word.”

“Now, there are still complaints about your hair-,” Commander Jupiter began.

“Here we go,” Carlotta mumbled.

“-so we once again want to put it to you that your hair is not within Alliance Military regulations,” Commander Jupiter said.

“And I once again want to put it to you that I can perform my standard duty tasks as well with pink hair as I can with my hair its natural colour,” Carlotta said.  “I can even infiltrate a group of tramps if I wanted to.  If you want to kick my ass to the curb over dyed hair, you’re welcome to, but you’d be losing a very good soldier, over a very fucking stupid gripe.”

“Just take it into consideration, Lieutenant,” Commander Jupiter said tiredly.

“Aye aye ma’am,” Carlotta said.  “Is that all?”

“Yes,” Commander Jupiter said.  “Just sign the form.”

Carlotta signed the datapad.  “Smell y’all later,” she said.

“Ha, another person who says y’all,” I said excitedly.

“Don’t read too much into it, Smurfette, it’s just a word I like using,” Carlotta sighed.  “It doesn’t make us sixties sisters or anything.”

.....

A few days later we got a new mission.  Kasuumi, Zaeed and I were called into the conference room, and each handed a datapad.  “Hey, a chance to see my own handiwork,” Kasuumi said. 

Commander Jupiter laughed.  I didn’t.  It wasn’t a funny joke.  “Why don’t you take us through the mission brief then, Dranne,” Lieutenant Jupiter said, unamused.

“Aye sir,” Kasuumi said.  “Intel has found a location of a possible batarian base.  They need someone to do surveillance on it, and find out if it is.”  Zaeed and I waited in anticipation.  “That’s it,” she said.

“Surveillance?” I asked incredulously.  “Are you kidding me?  We’re snipers.  Can’t they send someone from the ground marines?”

“Everyone is needed to win a war, Shepard, which is why you’ll be leading the squad whilst we wait on the ship,” Commander Jupiter said.

“Great,” I mumbled.  “Who’s on the squad?”

“Masaad and Dranne,” she answered.

“Right, and who else?” I asked impatiently.

“That annoying drone of yours I assume,” she said.  “Other than that, we can’t spare anyone else.  HQ’s planning a big barrage on Montenegro sometime soon.  We need the ship in tip-top condition.”

“We’ll be in constant contact with Specialist Ashton,” Kasuumi added.

“That’s very comforting,” I mumbled.  “When’s our ETA?”

“0300 hours tomorrow morning,” Commander Jupiter said.  Zaeed and I both groaned.  “Deal with it,” she snapped.  She pressed a button and a map of the area appeared on the screen behind her.  “You will be surveying position X, over here.”  She pointed to a massive X on the left-hand side of the screen.

“Where?” Zaeed asked.

“Right there,” Commander Jupiter said, point again.

“We can’t see it, Commander, there’s a gigantic fucking X in the way,” I said impatiently.

“Not now, Shepard, I’m not in the mood,” she said tiredly.

I sighed.  “No one has a sense of humour any more, ma’am,” Zaeed said sympathetically to me. 

“Now, your drop-off point will be at point A, here,” Commander Jupiter pointed to an even bigger A, two miles south of the X.

“I can’t see that one either, ma’am,” I said.

“Shepard,” she said tiredly.

“Sorry ma’am,” I mumbled.

“Basically, what you need to do is establish whether or not the batarians are using this property as a base,” Commander Jupiter said.  “It’s located in Los Hermanos province, which is still under the Alliance’s control, so if the batarians have got a base there, it is problematic.”

“So I’m supposed to go in there without a partner?” I asked.

“Finally got there, huh Shepard?” Lieutenant Jupiter said.

“Yes, Shepard,” Commander Jupiter said patiently.  “It’s surveillance.  There won’t be any need for you to enter combat.  Are there any questions that are worth my time to answer?”

“Why’s a raven like a writing desk?” I asked.

“If I knew that, I wouldn’t be in the military,” Commander Jupiter sighed.  “That it?  Good, dismissed.”

.....

0300 hours saw Kasuumi, Zaeed, Commander Jupiter and I in the shuttle to drop point A (which was still illegible).  “Is there any coffee left?” Zaeed asked sleepily.

Kasuumi handed him the flask.  “Save some for me,” she said.

“Hey, Dranne, the commander’s a fan of jokes,” I said, sipping my coffee.  “Do you know any good ones?”

Kasuumi gave me a strange look.  “I’m part drell,” she said.

“So?” I asked.

“So, they believe it’s rude to tell jokes,” she said.  “When I was a kid, my dad would make me meditate for an hour for any jokes I told.  Since then I’ve kind of given them up.  Jokes that is, not meditation.”

“Weird,” Zaeed said.

Kasuumi shrugged.  “That’s the way it is,” she said.

“Oh well,” Zaeed said.  “Ma’am, I know some good jokes.”

“Christ, I always regret this,” Commander Jupiter said.  “Fire at will, Private.  Make sure they aren’t offensive.”

“Aye aye, Commander,” Zaeed said.  “A general noticed one of his soldiers behaving oddly. The soldier would pick up any piece of paper he found, frown and say: ‘That's not it’ and put it down again. This went on for some time, until the general arranged to have the soldier psychologically tested. The psychologist concluded that the soldier was deranged, and wrote out his discharge from the army.  The soldier picked it up, smiled and said: ‘That's it.’.”

Commander Jupiter snorted.  “Very good, Masaad, very good indeed,” she said.  “Lieutenant, your turn.”

“Wow, talk about putting the heat on,” I said.  “Ok, um this is still the longest joke in the galaxy, a hundred and seventy years on.  So, there's a man crawling through the desert.  He'd decided to try his SUV in a little bit of cross-country travel, had great fun zooming over the bad lands and through the sand, got lost, hit a big rock, and then he couldn't get it started again. There were no cell phone towers anywhere near, so his cell phone was useless. He had no family, his parents had died a few years before in an auto accident, and his few friends had no idea he was out here.  He stayed with the car for a day or so, but his one bottle of water ran out and he was getting thirsty. He thought maybe he knew the direction back, now that he'd paid attention to the sun and thought he'd figured out which way was north, so he decided to start walking. He figured he only had to go about 30 miles or so and he'd be back to the small town he'd gotten gas in last.  He thinks about walking at night to avoid the heat and sun, but based upon how dark it actually was the night before, and given that he has no flashlight, he's afraid that he'll break a leg or step on a rattlesnake. So, he puts on some sun block, puts the rest in his pocket for reapplication later, brings an umbrella he'd had in the back of the SUV with him to give him a little shade, pours the windshield wiper fluid into his water bottle in case he gets that desperate, brings his pocket knife in case he finds a cactus that looks like it might have water in it, and heads out in the direction he thinks is right.”

“So, how long is this joke, exactly?” Commander Jupiter asked.

“It’s the longest joke in the galaxy,” I said.  “It’s pretty freaking long.”

“Ok,” Commander Jupiter said.  “Continue.”

“Thanks,” I said.  “Where was I again?”

“The bloke is heading in the direction he thinks is right,” Commander Jupiter said.

“Right,” I said.  “He walks for the entire day. By the end of the day he's really thirsty. He's been sweating all day, and his lips are starting to crack. He's reapplied the sunblock twice, and tried to stay under the umbrella, but he still feels sunburned. The windshield wiper fluid sloshing in the bottle in his pocket is really getting tempting now. He knows that it's mainly water and some ethanol and colouring, but he also knows that they add some kind of poison to it to keep people from drinking it. He wonders what the poison is, and whether the poison would be worse than dying of thirst.

“He pushes on, trying to get to that small town before dark.  By the end of the day he starts getting worried. He figures he's been walking at least 3 miles an hour, according to his watch for over 10 hours. That means that if his estimate was right that he should be close to the town. But he doesn't recognize any of this. He had to cross a dry creek bed a mile or two back, and he doesn't remember coming through it in the SUV. He figures that maybe he got his direction off just a little and that the dry creek bed was just off to one side of his path. He tells himself that he's close, and that after dark he'll start seeing the town lights over one of these hills, and that'll be all he needs.”

“So, how long is it till the punchline shows up?” Zaeed asked impatiently.

“A while,” I said.  “It takes even longer when people keep interrupting.”

“We’ve arrived at the drop-off point,” Lieutenant Epple said.

“Aw,” Commander Jupiter said, sounding disappointed.  “I was just getting into it.”

“I’ll tell you the rest when we get back,” I promised.

“Alright,” she said, pleased.  “Good luck, you three.”

.....

“So, what’s new with you, Shep?” Kasuumi asked once we’d reached our position.

“Well, I managed to be the only person to survive a thresher maw attack on my previous company, and become the youngest ever officer and person to win the Del Sol Medal,” I said.  “Other than that, not much.  What’s new with you Dranne?”

“Oh, nothing much,” Kasuumi said.  “Hey whatever happened to that bloke you were seeing, the one where Kaidan and I crashed the first date?”

“We broke up,” I said.  “The long distance thing wasn’t working out.”

“Yeah, I broke it off with Kaidan after that,” Kasuumi said.  “He was really obsessed with you.  I was glad to see he’d moved on by the time I started at Del Sol.”

“Really?” I said tiredly.  “I had no idea.”

“So, tell me something, Miss Dranne,” Zaeed began.

“It’s Operations Chief Dranne,” Kasuumi said sharply.

Zaeed looked startled.  “Uh, aye aye chief,” he said.  “Sorry.”

“You are forgiven,” Kasuumi said.  “What do you want me to tell you?”

“Are you single?” Zaeed asked.  She glared at him, and he lowered his eye.  “Never mind,” he mumbled.

I tried not to be impressed.  It was quite difficult to do.  “Now, I am your senior, and I do have the right to ask that,” I said. 

“Sure, I have a boyfriend,” Kasuumi said.

“Does he have a name?” I asked.

“Yes, it’s Minéd-ur-Owen-Bistnest,” Kasuumi said.

“I thought drell don’t have a sense of humour,” I said.

“That wasn’t a joke, it was a pun,” Kasuumi said.

“Same difference,” I said.

“No it isn’t,” Kasuumi said. “Whilst a pun is often used as the punch-line of a joke, this was more used to make a point.”

“Jokes are used to make a point,” I said.  “The best jokes in the galaxy are used to make a point.”

“What like that convoluted joke you were telling earlier?” Kasuumi asked.

“Yup,” I said.  “That joke has a very strong point in fact.”

Kasuumi sighed.  “All nafak are red,” she said.  “Does that make all red things nafak?”  Nafak were giant, red, fire-breathing crab-like creatures that frequented the turian homeworld, Palaven, and the krogan homeworld, Tuchanka.

“Allah, I have a headache,” Zaeed mumbled.

“Fine, I take your point,” I said.  “But this isn’t over.”

“That’s a first,” Zaeed said.  “You at a loss for words.”

“Yeah yeah, enjoy it while it lasts, Masaad,” I said.  “How long are we out here for again?”

“Until we confirm whether or not this is a batarian base,” Kasuumi said, squinting down at the building.

“Right,” I said.  “Did anyone bring snacks?”

Five hours later we were still waiting.  We had passed through Eye Spy and were now on Animal, Mineral, Vegetable or Synthetic.  It was my turn.

“Animal, Mineral, Vegetable or Synthetic?” Kasuumi asked.

“Animal,” I said.

“Land or sea,” Zaeed asked boredly.

“Land,” I said.

“Sapient or non-sapient?” Kasuumi asked.

“Non-sapient,” I said,

“Four legs, two legs, or more than four legs?” Kasuumi asked.

“Two legs,” I said.

“Is it a human?” Zaeed asked.

“Non-sapient, dumb-ass,” I said.

“Congratulations, you just wasted us a question,” Kasuumi mumbled.

“There aren’t any other animals with two legs, are there?” Zaeed asked.

“There are,” I said.  “That’s six.”

“Is it big or small?” Kasuumi asked, glaring at Zaeed.

“It’s big,” I said.

“Does it fly?” Zaeed asked.

“Good question, I’d forgotten about birds,” Kasuumi mumbled.

“Nope,” I said.

“Go on, you’re making this up,” Zaeed said.

“Should I take that as your ninth statement?” I asked.

“No,” Kasuumi said.  “Um, herbivore, carnivore or omnivore?”

“Omnivore,” I said.

“It’s a pig,” Kasuumi guessed.

“Pigs have four legs, Dranne,” I said.

“Oh excuse me, but you are fucking inventing this animal, Shepard,” Kasuumi snapped.  “There is no such fucking animal.”

“Right, that’s eleven,” I said.  “You have nine strikes left.”

“For fuck’s sake Shepard,” Kasuumi nearly screamed.

“Shut up, Dranne, we’re here on surveillance,” I hissed.

“You cannot go around inventing animals,” Kasuumi continued to speak loudly.

“A skycar just drew up outside point X,” Zaeed said.

I took my binoculars out of my BOL and tossed them at him.  “See who it is,” I ordered.

“Why me?” Zaeed asked. 

“Because I told you to,” I said.

Zaeed scowled and raised the binoculars.  “Yup, those are batarians alright,” he said, lowering them again.

“Mission accomplished,” Kasuumi said.

I pressed a button on my omnitool.  “SSV Everest, this is ground team Alpha, come in.”

“Everest here,” Com Officer Ashton said.

“Confirmation of position X as enemy base,” I said.  “Repeat, confirmation of position X as enemy base.”

“Roger Alpha, hold position,” Com Officer Ashton said.

“Roger,” I said.

“Is it extinct?” Zaeed asked.

“Pardon me?” I asked.

“Your animal, is it extinct?”

“Yes,” I said.

“It’s a dodo,” Kasuumi said. 

“Nope, and that leaves you with seven,” I said.

“Ugh, you are so cheating,” Kasuumi mumbled.

“Ground team Alpha, come in,” Com Officer Ashton said.

“Go ahead,” I said.

“Ships are coming in to bomb the area, please move clear.  Will rendezvous afterwards.”

“Understood,” I said.  “Alpha out.  They’re going to bomb us,” I added to Zaeed and Kasuumi.  “We need to move.”

“Right,” Kasuumi said, and started leopard-crawling away from the ridge we had been sitting on.

“What about the people though?” Zaeed asked as I waited for him to go past me.

“What people?” I asked.

“The people in the house,” Zaeed said.

“The batarians you mean?” I asked.  “I imagine they’ll die horribly.  Why do you care?”

“No, not the spiders, the humans that the spiders had with them,” Zaeed said.

“Dranne, hold it,” I said.  Kasuumi froze.  “The batarians had humans with them?” I asked.

Zaeed nodded.  “Looked like prisoners or something,” he said.

“You couldn’t fucking mention this earlier?” I nearly screamed.  “How many?”

“Three men, two women and about five children,” Zaeed said.  “About fifteen batarians.”

I stabbed my finger down onto my omnitool.  “Team Alpha to Everest, come in,” I said urgently.

“Everest here, what is it Alpha?” Com Officer Ashton asked.

“There are humans in the building with the batarians,” I said rapidly.  “Three men, two women, five children.”

“Understood, team Alpha, we’ll try to notify command,” she said.  “It might be too late though.”

“Get on it Ashton,” I said.

A few minutes later she came back on the radio.  “Come in Team Alpha,” she said.

“Go ahead,” I said. 

“Command won’t belay the order,” she said.  “Bombing will proceed as planned.  Retreat to minimum safe distance and await pickup.”

“What?” I said.  “You mean they’re going to bomb a place full of civilians?”

“Affirmative,” Com Officer Ashton said.  “Their ETA is about ten minutes.”

I paused.  “Acknowledged,” I said.  “Shepard out.”  I turned to Kasuumi and Zaeed.  “We have ten minutes,” I said.  “Dranne, Kaidan told me you can make yourself invisible.  Is that true?”

“Yes,” Kasuumi said.  “Well, sort of.  I can’t disappear when people are looking at me.  The whole principle is that I’m unnoticed.  Sort of like a camouflage.”

“I don’t give a damn about the principle right now,” I said.  “This is what we’re going to do.”

.....

It was about five hundred metres downhill from where we were to the front door of the house.  Zaeed and I ran as silently as we could down the slope.  “You realise we’re probably going to die now,” Zaeed whispered to me as we ran.

“Yeah?” I said.  “Well, we wouldn’t be if you had actually done your fucking job, Masaad.”

My radio crackled.  “Shepard, come in,” a voice said angrily.  It was Commander Jupiter.  I turned the radio off.  I didn’t need that kind of distraction.

We reached the front door.  I counted down three with my fingers and Zaeed kicked the door down. 

“Alliance,” I bellowed in protha.  The house was fortunately small, with only one room.  There were loud screams from the people within.  “Put your hands up.”

The humans cowered back from us, wide-eyed.  The batarians stared in shock.  “I mean it,” I shouted.  “Hands where I can see them now.”

“Not a step closer,” one of the batarians ordered.  He had pulled one of the children, a young boy against him and had pushed a pistol to his temple.  “I mean it, I’ll shoot him.”

“Listen to me,” I said.  “There are Alliance ships on the way.  They’re going to bomb you all if you don’t move now.”

“Don’t listen to her, Chekt,” another of the batarians said.  “Shoot the boy.”  One of the women gave a whimper.

“I’m not lying,” I shouted in batarian.  “The Alliance knows there are humans here.  They don’t care.”

“Then why are you here?” the batarian named Chekt asked.  “If the Alliance is going to bomb us, you’ll die too.”

“I’m not going to stand around whilst innocent people are murdered,” I said.

Chekt hesitated, which was when his arm was pulled back in a half-nelson.  The gun went off. Fortunately for us, the bullet harmlessly hit the floor.

“You should have checked your corners,” Kasuumi said, appearing behind Chekt.

The batarians now looked utterly bemused.  “Are you done arguing, or are you going to listen to us?” I asked.

“Four minutes, Shep,” Zaeed said.

“We’re willing to die for the Hegemony,” another batarian said.

“Yes, but are they?” I asked, pointing my chin at the humans.  “I haven’t studied your culture much, but I do know you aren’t turians.  You don’t let innocents die unless it serves your purpose.”

“It looks bad for the Alliance if they kill their own people,” the batarian said.  “That serves the Hegemony.”

“Three minutes,” Zaeed said.  “We need to run Shep.  Now.”

“We’re leaving now,” I said.  “And we’ll tell the galaxy what happened out here, that you wouldn’t let innocent human children go.”

I started for the door, Zaeed close at my heels.  “Fine,” the batarian said from behind me.  “We’ll come with you.”

“Back door,” Kasuumi muttered.  “There’s a slope.”

“Alright, all humans move ahead of me,” I shouted.  “Head for the back door.  When you get there, run, and don’t look back.”

There was a surge for the back door.  “Go on,” I said to the batarians, indicating with my rifle that they should move ahead of me.

“What, so you can shoot us in the back?” one of the batarians asked obstinantly, not moving.

“We’re fucking going to die in two minutes, move the fuck out,” I screamed.  Something in my tone must have convinced them, as they moved very quickly after that. 

We were halfway down the slope when the first bomb hit the house, and the shockwaves threw us all off our feet.  Two more bombs hit the house, then there was silence, except for two of the younger children crying.

“Well, ma’am, now we really can’t see it,” Zaeed said, sounding slightly hysterical.

“Now what?” Kasuumi asked.

We sprang to our feet, but the batarians were slightly faster.  “I don’t think so,” Chekt said as I made to pick up my rifle.

“We just saved your life,” I said.

“So?” a batarian asked.  “We are loyal to nothing but the Hegemony.”

Kasuumi sighed and raised her hand.  The batarians rose up into the air, and slammed back down again.  “Stay down unless you want me to slam you harder,” she told them.  Wisely, the batarians decided to stay down.

Freddie popped out of my omnitool.  “Yo, numb nuts,” it said.  “Commander Jupiter is trying to get hold of you for some reason.  Can’t imagine why.”

I switched my radio back on.  “Shepard to Everest, come in,” I said.

“Where the fuck have you been?” Commander Jupiter screamed into my ear.

“Briefly radio silent,” I said.  “I’m back now though, and we even have a few batarian soldiers PoWs for you.”

There was a pause.  “Where in the name of tits and ass did you get batarian PoWs?” she asked at last.

“Oh, that house that you just bombed into next Wednesday,” I said calmly.  “I couldn’t just stand around and watch as civilians were murdered by the people supposedly protecting them.”

“Did you get them out?” Commander Jupiter asked.

“Affirmative,” I said.

“Right, we’ll send the shuttle in,” she said.  “You’re in some serious fucking shit, Lieutenant.”

“Copy that,” I said.

“Right, see you in a bit,” Commander Jupiter said.  “Jupiter out.”

“Shuttle’s on its way,” I said.  “Masaad, come here,”

Zaeed came over to me.  “What is it, ma’am?” he asked meekly.  He knew he was in trouble.

I punched him hard in the jaw.  “You fucking moron, you almost got us killed,” I snapped.

He rubbed his jaw.  “I’m not the one who ordered us to storm the house,” he protested thickly through a mouthful of blood.

“No, you’re the idiot who didn’t do his job properly,” Kasuumi said angrily.

“Dranne, I’ll handle this, you watch the prisoners,” I snapped.  I turned back to Zaeed.  “What she said,” I said.  “If I ever catch you malingering again, if you fail to perform a task or you don’t report accurately on a situation, I’ll have you court marshalled so fast your head will spin.  And you’ll be unable to accuse me of discrimination, because I am technically disabled too.  Is that clear, private?”

“I-,” he began.  I glared at him.  “Yes ma’am.”

.....

Commander Jupiter was waiting in the shuttle bay when exited the shuttle.  “What the hell happened?” she snapped the moment we stepped outside.

“Can we go through decontamination, have this lot processed and get a cup of tea before you start yelling, ma’am?” I asked.  “It’s been a long day.”

“Fine, go through decontamination,” she said.  “Make sure the batarians go through as well.”

“So, this is what an Alliance warship looks like,” one of the batarians mumbled. 

“Shut your trap,” Commander Jupiter snapped.  “You won’t be seeing the inside of anything other than a PoW camp for a very long time.  Make it snappy, Lieutenant Shepard.”

“Aye aye,” I said.

After decontamination, we took the batarians to Port Side and assigned Terrence, Joey and Ismaeel to watch them.  Kasuumi and Zaeed were already waiting in the conference room with the Jupiters when I returned back upstairs.

“Do mind telling me what happened now?” Commander Jupiter asked.

“Sure,” I said.  “There were humans in the house the Alliance was planning on bombing.  We rescued them.  The end.”

“Why was there no mention of them in your original message, Lieutenant?” Lieutenant Jupiter asked.

“We…forgot about them, sir,” I said unconvincingly.

Commander Jupiter narrowed her eyes.  “Bullshit,” she said.  “This has something to do with Masaad, doesn’t it?  What happened, Masaad?”

Zaeed shifted uncomfortably.  “Nothing ma’am, it’s like the lieutenant said,” he mumbled, looking at the floor.

Commander Jupiter scowled.  “I should court-marshal you all for breaking protocol,” she snapped.  “In light of the very shoddy testimony given by you, Lieutenant Shepard, I sentence you to three months hard labour for a poor example set to the junior staff.  I hope you learn your lesson.”

“Yes ma’am,” I said.  “Thank you, ma’am.”

“You’ve got to be kidding,” Lieutenant Jupiter snapped.  “Just lock all three of them up.  Once and for all.”

“My decision is final,” Commander Jupiter said.  “I expect reports no later than twelve sol hours from now.  Dismissed.”

.....

The next few months were relatively uneventful.  I paid my dues in the form of hard labour back to Alliance Military command.  Apparently no one really knew what to make of my stupidity.  On the one hand, I had disobeyed the orders of a superior officer (thankfully not the direct order, or else I’d be in much deeper trouble).  On the other hand, I had rescued ten civilians and taken fifteen batarian soldiers prisoner.  Naturally, Admiral Mikhailovich was baying for my blood, but there wasn’t much he could do other than accept Commander Jupiter’s judgement. 

In November I got my annual bout of pneumonia for the first time in three years, and was out of action for the next month.  Everyone greeted me enthusiastically when I returned to active duty in early December.

“So, back are you?” Lieutenant Jupiter asked, giving me an unpleasant smile.

“Yes sir, how kind of you to notice,” I said.

“We’re docking you full combat pay, as you did not go out into the field once this entire month,” he said.

“Rightio,” I said cheerfully.  “Who needs money if you don’t have anything to spend it on, eh?”

I made my way to the CIC.  “Shepard, your reports are a month overdue,” Commander Jupiter said.  “I have also sent a list of requisitions that we urgently need.  Please get to it.”

“But I’m ill, ma’am,” I said weakly.  “Doctor said I need to rest for at least another six years.”

“Cry me a river, Shepard, we are running out of food and will starve if you don’t process those requisitions,” Commander Jupiter said.

Carlotta was sitting in my seat with Rochelle in her lap when I reached my terminal.  “Why are you in my seat?” I asked.

“Just checking what it feels like to be a second lieutenant,” Carlotta said.

“And?” I asked.

“It’s quite uncomfortable,” Carlotta said.  She got up.  “Welcome back,” she said.

“Thank you,” I said.

“You missed Rochelle’s party,” she said.  “I thought of you whilst I ate some cake.”

“Very kind,” I said.  “I wouldn’t have been able to eat any in any case, unless it was an egg-free cake.”

“Lame,” Carlotta said.  “I try to insult you and you respond rationally.  By the way, there’s a thief on the ship.  Keep your belongings under lock and key.”

“Thanks for the warning,” I said.  “Are the any suspects?”

“A gunny from Third Regiment who got posted here a couple of weeks ago,” Carlotta said.

I spied Kasuumi sitting under the map.  “What about Dranne?” I asked.

“What about Dranne?” Carlotta asked.

“Well, she could also be the thief,” I said.

“You really don’t like her, huh?” Carlotta asked sounding amused.  “What did she do to you?”

“Well, she started dating the guy that I was in love with, then she started flirting with the guy I was dating,” I said.  “I also had to suffer her smug smile and stuck-upedness for most of my last year at Del Sol.”

“Come on,” Carlotta said, laughing.  “You can’t exactly blame all of those dudes for choosing her over you, Smurfette.  At least she’s of a decent height.  And you may not like her, but she’s an excellent soldier.  Masaad is actually doing work these days, thanks to her.”

“No kidding?” I asked.

“I don’t pay you to stand around and gossip, Shepard and Antonio,” Commander Jupiter said, coming over.  “Back to your post, Antonio.”

“Ugh,” Carlotta mumbled.  “Come on, Rochelle, we have a forward cannon to go and maintaining.”

“I need to pee,” Rochelle announced. 

“Right then,” Carlotta said.  “What do you say we go find us a toilet for you to pee in?  Later Commander, Smurfette.”

“Shepard, have you approved those requisitions yet?” Commander Jupiter asked.

“Just about to, ma’am,” I said. 

“Good, then you can tell me the rest of that joke,” Commander Jupiter said.

“What, now?” I asked in amazement.

“Yes, now,” Commander Jupiter said.  “The suspense has been killing me.  You’ve no idea how badly I wanted to visit you in the med bay, but doc said you were too ill for visitors.”

“Well, I was hallucinating about purple pyjacks for the most part, so I don’t reckon I would have been able to tell you in any case,” I said, somewhat bemused.  “Ok, where did we stop?”

“How long is this joke if you have to ask where we are?” Commander Jupiter asked.

“How many times do I have to say that it’s ruddy long?” I asked impatiently.

“Right,” Commander Jupiter said.  “The bloke’s about to cross the creek bed to see if he can spot the lights of the town.”

“Right,” I said.  “So As it gets dim enough that he starts stumbling over small rocks and things, he finds a spot and sits down to wait for full dark and the town lights.  Full dark comes before he knows it. He must have dozed off. He stands back up and turns all the way around. He sees nothing but stars.  He wakes up the next morning feeling absolutely lousy. His eyes are gummy and his mouth and nose feel like they're full of sand. He so thirsty that he can't even swallow. He barely got any sleep because it was so cold. He'd forgotten how cold it got at night in the desert and hadn't noticed it the night before because he'd been in his car.”

“Wait a minute,” Commander Jupiter said.  “Why didn’t he just fire up his omnitool and check the GPS?”

“This is from the early twenty first century,” I said.  “Omnitools weren’t invented until the start of this century.”

“Right,” Commander Jupiter said.  “Must have been boring.  Carry on.”

I rolled my eyes.  “He knows the Rule of Threes - three minutes without air, three days without water, three weeks without food - then you die,” I carried on.  “Some people can make it a little longer, in the best situations. But the desert heat and having to walk and sweat isn't the best situation to be without water. He figures, unless he finds water, this is his last day.

“He rinses his mouth out with a little of the windshield wiper fluid. He waits a while after spitting that little bit out, to see if his mouth goes numb, or he feels dizzy or something. Has his mouth gone numb? Is it just in his mind? He's not sure. He'll go a little farther, and if he still doesn't find water, he'll try drinking some of the fluid.”

“Are you checking your emails?” Commander Jupiter asked.  “I need those approvals.”

“Ma’am, I can’t tell a joke and do my work at the same time,” I said.

“You’re a woman,” she said.  “Multi-task.”

“I don’t know how,” I said.  “Let me continue here with the joke.  Then he has to face his next, harder question - which way does he go from here? Does he keep walking the same way he was yesterday (assuming that he still knows which way that is), or does he try a new direction? He has no idea what to do.  Looking at the hills and dunes around him, he thinks he knows the direction he was heading before. Just going by a feeling, he points himself somewhat to the left of that, and starts walking.  As he walks, the day starts heating up. The desert, too cold just a couple of hours before, soon becomes an oven again. He sweats a little at first, and then stops. He starts getting worried at that - when you stop sweating he knows that means you're in trouble - usually right before heat stroke.   He decides that it's time to try the windshield wiper fluid. He can't wait any longer - if he passes out, he's dead. He stops in the shade of a large rock, takes the bottle out, opens it, and takes a mouthful. He slowly swallows it, making it last as long as he can. It feels so good in his dry and cracked throat that he doesn't even care about the nasty taste. He takes another mouthful, and makes it last too. Slowly, he drinks half the bottle. He figures that since he's drinking it, he might as well drink enough to make some difference and keep himself from passing out.

“He's quit worrying about the denaturing of the wiper fluid. If it kills him, it kills him - if he didn't drink it, he'd die anyway. Besides, he's pretty sure that whatever substance they denature the fluid with is just designed to make you sick - their way of keeping winos from buying cheap wiper fluid for the ethanol content. He can handle throwing up, if it comes to that.”

“What’s a wino?” Commander Jupiter interrupted again.

“Old school slang for an alcoholic,” I said.  “He walks. He walks in the hot, dry, windless desert. Sand, rocks, hills, dunes, the occasional scrawny cactus or dried bush. No sign of water. Sometimes he'll see a little movement to one side or the other, but whatever moved is usually gone before he can focus his eyes on it. Probably birds, lizards, or mice. Maybe snakes, though they usually move more at night. He's careful to stay away from the movements.”

“Commander, Admiral Mikhailovich for you on the QEC,” Com Officer Ashton said.

Commander Jupiter sighed.  “I’ll take it in the conference room,” she said.  “We’re not done here, Shepard,” she said.

“Yes ma’am,” I mumbled, turning to my overflowing inbox and preparing myself for a long first day back.

.....

Two days later, upon returning from a trip to Admiral Hackett’s cabin, I found a painting done on a piece of canvas of me in sexy black lingerie.  “What the hell?” I said aloud.

“Shut up,” one of the officers bellowed.

“Sorry,” I mumbled.

“What is it?” Carlotta asked sleepily.

“Someone left a painting of me in sexy lingerie on my pillow,” I said.

“Oh, she strikes again, does she?” Carlotta asked.

“Who?” I asked irritably.

“Will you two shut the fuck up, we’re on duty in a few hours?” another officer shouted.

“Oh please, you’re making more noise than we are,” Carlotta snapped.

“So help me, if you two don’t shut the hell up now, I’m going to kill you all,” a third officer shouted.

“Forget this, I’m going to bed,” I mumbled.

.....

“So, who painted that picture?” I asked the next morning, as Carlotta and I waited in the bathrooms for a free shower to open up.

“Oh, van Richte,” Carlotta said dismissively.  “She’s quite a talented artist actually.  She’s always leaving paintings and things lying around for people to find.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Most likely because she’s cuckoo,” Carlotta shrugged dismissively.  “We’re all a bit cuckoo on this ship.”

“I’m not,” I mumbled.

“Please,” she said.  “You’ve memorised the galaxy’s longest joke.  If that isn’t fucking nuts, I don’t know what is.”

When I got back to my bed, I got dressed, then reached across my bed to find my omnitool and put it on.  I couldn’t find it.  “That’s strange,” I mumbled.  I pulled the bed clothes off of my bed, but still couldn’t find it.

“Hey, Antonio, have you seen my omnitool?” I asked. 

“What would I want with an outdated piece of shit like your omnitool?” Carlotta snapped.

“I got it in 2179,” I said, diving under the bed to see if it had maybe fallen down there.

“Yeah, and it’s almost 2181,” Carlotta said, straightening her tie.  “Get with the fucking programme, Smurfette.”

I opened my locker and chucked everything haphazardly onto the floor.  “Watch where you throw these things,” Carlotta said, removing a tampon from her hair.

“Deal with it,” I mumbled, scratching around at the back of my footlocker, even though I knew I had not put it there.

“Seems our thief has struck again,” Carlotta said.  “Bad luck.”

“Freddie?” I said, hoping that it would activate with the sound of my voice and show me the location of my omnitool, but nothing happened.

“Shit,” I muttered.  “Now what?”

“I recommend tidying this bullshit up and getting to your station,” Carlotta said.  “Morning duty starts in five minutes.”

“Right,” I said.

“Cheer up,” Carlotta said unsympathetically.  “We’ve got shore leave coming up.  You can buy a new omnitool and set an even more annoying VI drone on us.”

“Yes, thank you, Lieutenant,” I snapped.  “Get to those damn cannons already.”

“Aye aye, miss snarky pants,” she said, saluting.  I glared at her.  “I mean, Lieutenant Snarky Pants.”

“That’s better,” I said.  She left and I started picking my worldly possessions up off the floor.

It was only when I put the final tampon in the box that it struck me, and I froze.  Surely I was mistaken.  I pulled my bag of medication from my locker and emptied it out onto the floor.  I was taking even more medicine than normal, owing to my recent bout of pneumonia and it took me a while to find my birth control pills.  The set that I was busy taking was almost finished, as I had thought, and I was already four pills in to the red line.  Which meant that I was four days into my period.  Only, I had not yet bled a drop this month.

.....

I went down to the hold to find Carlotta.  I eventually found her wedged under B-sub gun, doing something complex with a spanner and wrench.  “Antonio,” I said.  She banged her head against the bottom of the gun and let out a loud expletive.

“What?” she snapped.

“I need you,” I whispered.  My lips were numb, and I knew my face was probably bone-white.

“Shouldn’t you be at work?” she asked.

“This is an emergency,” I said.

“Alright then,” she said.  She picked Rochelle up from where she was busy threading beads onto a piece of string and followed me up to the officers’ bathroom.

I still had the tampon and the pills in my hand, and I showed them to her.  “What, don’t tell me you’ve finally gotten your period and need help with using one of those,” she said, laughing.

“I’m late,” I whispered.  I felt incapable of talking. 

The smile wiped from her face.  “Are you sure?” she asked.

I nodded.  “I’ve never been late before,” I said.  “Not after my family was killed, not even after Akuze.  Even when I’m sick, my cycle is regular.”

“Shit,” Carlotta said.  “Have you done a test?”

I shook my head.  “I don’t have a kit,” I said.  “Should-do you think I should go speak to the medic?”

“No,” Carlotta said at once.  “No, they’ll know what’s going on then, and force you to abort it.  I’ve got a few testing kits in my foot locker.  Just wait here.  Rochelle, wait with Jane, ok?”

“What’s happening, Mama?” Rochelle asked curiously.

“Jane’s just a bit sad, ok?” Carlotta said.  “I’ll be right back.”

Rochelle touched my hand.  “Why are you sad?” she asked me.

I swallowed.  “I got some sad news,” I said thickly.

“Oh,” she said.  She hugged me around the knees.  “I’m sorry,” she whispered.

I bit hard on my lip.  Carlotta came back in and handed me a pregnancy kit.  “Do you need help with it?” she asked.  I shook my head, took my coat off and lifted up my shirt.

“Where must I put it in?” I asked.

“An inch below your belly button,” she said.  “Be careful though.”

I nodded, and stabbed the needle into a spot just below my naval.  “Scanning,” a voice said from the speaker.  “Please be patient.”

I chewed on my fingernails whilst I waited.  After an eternity, the VI said, “You are two weeks pregnant.  Congratulations.  Please visit a medical practitioner for a check-up.”

I didn’t even notice my knees buckling.  “Jane?” Carlotta asked.

“What am I going to do?” I whispered.  “I’m nineteen.  I’ve only been in the military for a year, they’d never let me keep it.”

“It’s ok, we’ll think of something,” Carlotta said.  “But right now you need to get up and get to your station, or they’ll start thinking something’s up.”  She held a hand out to help me up.

I took it, but when I was standing I was trembling so violently my teeth were clicking together.

Carlotta shook me.  “Get it together,” she said fiercely.  “If they get even an inkling of what’s going on, they’ll force you to have it out.  You need to be strong, at least for a little while.”

I took a deep breath and forced myself to stop shivering.  “I’m ok,” I said softly. 

Carlotta raised an eyebrow.  “Are you sure?” she asked.  I nodded. “Good, now get to work.”

“Where’ve you been?” Commander Jupiter asked when I reached my terminal.

“I’m sorry ma’am, I had to help Antonio with something,” I said.  I forced a smile and saluted.  “It won’t happen again.”

.....

I met Carlotta in the conference room at one the next morning.  “How are you doing?” she asked.  I shrugged.  “Do you know who the father is?”

“Hackett,” I said.  “I haven’t slept with Joey since before I got sick.  It can only be Hackett’s.”

“How did it happen?” she asked. 

I gave a hysterical snort.  “You mean you don’t know?” I asked incredulously.  “You have a kid of your own after all.”

She scowled at me.  “I’m helping you out of the goodness of my heart, Shepard, I can leave at any time,” she snapped.

“Sorry,” I said.  “I guess maybe the fever I had caused the pill to stop working or something.”  I hesitated.  “How did it happen with you?”

She shrugged.  “I was busy going through a bad patch,” she said.  “I guess a part of me wanted to fall pregnant or something.  I freaked out when I found out.  I was way worse than you.”

“What did you do?” I asked.  Her face contorted.  “Sorry, you don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.”

“No, it’s alright,” she said.  “I took an overdose of my beta-blockers.  Stevens, my old partner found me, got me to the med bay where they pumped my stomach.  No one checked my blood, thank God.”

“I can’t be a mother yet,” I blurted out.  “I’m not ready.”

“So you want it out?” she asked, not unkindly.

I shrugged.  “I’m Catholic,” I said.  “I can’t just get…get an abortion.”

“They’ll fire you if you decide to keep it,” she said.  “Even if you give it up for adoption.”

“I know,” I said.

“I decided to have an abortion,” she said.  “Even made the appointment and everything, but I didn’t go.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“I fell pregnant the first time when I was thirteen,” she said.  “I was a complete fuck up: drug addict, getting drunk the whole time, fucking guys that were way older than me.  I decided to keep that baby because I thought he might help me pull my life together.  I was five months pregnant already when my father found out.”

“What did he do when he found out?” I found myself whispering. 

“He beat the living daylights out of me,” she said.  “My own best friend didn’t recognise me.  I went into labour, and my son was born.  He wasn’t breathing, and the doctors said it was likely he had been dead for months.  He was so tiny.  I didn’t keep the appointment because I felt like God was giving me a second chance.”  She paused.  “I can’t say if my life would have been better or worse if I’d kept that appointment, but I do know it would have been different.”

“What if I’m a bad parent though?” I asked softly.

“You won’t be,” she said.  “Hell, I’m not exactly a text book mom, and when I decided to keep Rochelle, I was terrified I’d turn into a vegetable like my mother, or a psycho like my father.  And I know that I’ve fucked up with her.  But I also know I’ll do anything for my daughter.  She’s the only worthwhile thing I’ve done with my life.”

Back at our quarters, Carlotta had to take Rochelle to the toilet.  “You carry her,” she whispered. 

I picked her up.  She was heavy, but in a comforting way, sort of like when you wrap a blanket tightly around yourself in the cold.  Whilst I carried her, she nestled her face into my neck and I felt her breath against my chin.  “Mama, I dreamt of cats,” she murmured, three quarters asleep.

“Is that right?” I asked.  How nice it must be, I thought, to have someone love you unconditionally.

Back in bed, I found my old datapad, plugged in my earphones, and searched for the video I wanted to watch.  It was called ‘Jane (age seven), training for human under ten marksmanship competition’.  The video had been recorded by John, and showed myself and my father.  I watched as my seven year old self loaded her pistol and released the safety.  I raised the pistol.

“Drop your shoulder,” my father told me.  I did so.  “More.”  I dropped my shoulder.  “More.”  I dropped it more.

He moved behind me and pushed down hard.  I staggered.  “Jesus Christ, girl, you’re too tense,” he said.  “Relax, you’ll be fine.”  I rolled my shoulders.  “Alright, let’s see your stance again.”  I raised the pistol again.  “Good, now fire.”

I hesitated.  “What are you waiting for?” he asked.

“I’m aiming,” I said softly.

“Don’t,” he said.  “You’ll tense up again.  Just shoot, your eye knows what it’s looking at.”

I fired at the target.  “Good, again,” he said.  I fired again.  “Keep shooting,” he said.

I fired until I’d used the entire clip up.  He fetched the target whilst I waited.  “Excellent,” he said.  “You hit the bull’s eye every time.  Well done.”  He bent and kissed the top of my head.  That was the end of the clip.

The next morning I whispered to Carlotta, “I can’t keep it.”

She didn’t say anything, just nodded at me.

.....

Of course, deciding to have an abortion was very different to having one, for a number of reasons, the most obvious one being that if I were to speak to the ship doctor about my issues, she’d tell Commander Jupiter, who would tell Admiral Mikhailovich, who would have me court marshalled. 

I’m still not sure how Carlotta and I managed to keep the fact that I was pregnant from the others on the ship, especially when I started getting morning sickness, which I soon learnt, contrary to what my mother had told me, could strike at any time, including the middle of a rigorous physical training session, led by Lieutenant Jupiter.

I fortunately made it to the toilet in time, but I didn’t have time to check if the bathroom was empty.  “Antonio?” Commander Jupiter asked from the next stall as I vomited noisily into the toilet bowl.

I didn’t answer, partly because I was busy returning my breakfast to the earth, but also because I hoped she would go away.  Unfortunately, she didn’t.

“Shepard?” her voice asked in amazement from above me.

I looked up.  She was peeping at me from over the cubical wall.  I sent a salute in her direction, then hurled for the final time.  “Are you ok?” she asked in concern.

“Sure,” I gasped, giving her a thumbs-up.  “Tip top.”

I flushed the toilet, and went out into the bathroom to wash my mouth out.  “What’s wrong?” she asked.

“I’m feeling sick,” I said, trying for nonchalance.

“Clearly,” she said.  “Maybe you should report to the doctor.”

“Uh, no, I don’t think I should,” I said.

“Why not?” she asked.  “You’re clearly sick.”

“Yeah, um,” I said, wracking my brains.  “It’s-it’s the medication I’m on.  Uh, one of the side effects is nausea and vomiting.  The doctor warned me of this.”

She studied my face, frowning.  “Alright then,” she said.  “Be prepared, we have a number of missions coming up.”

I smiled weakly.  “Can’t wait,” I said. 

“That’s the spirit, Lieutenant,” she said.  “Dismissed.”

I saluted and left.

.....

At lunch time I snagged Carlotta and pulled her to a table in the corner.  “You need to do something,” I whispered.  “Jupiter saw me in the bathroom.”

“Which Jupiter?” Carlotta asked, munching on one of her crackers.

“Female,” I said.

“Oh,” Carlotta said.  “You don’t need to worry about that.  She’ll believe whatever lie you told her.”  She looked down at the untouched food in front of me.  “You aren’t eating?” she asked.

“I get sick every time I do,” I said.  “I’m tired of it.”

“Maybe, but you’re already a fucking midget, which means you’ll start showing way earlier than normal people,” Carlotta said.  “You need to put on some fucking weight.”

“Antonio, I can’t keep this secret for much longer,” I hissed.  “I feel like I’m going crazy.”

“Yeah, I’m afraid to inform you that that ship flew off a long time ago,” Carlotta said.  I scowled at her.  “Anyway, don’t worry.  The news from upstairs is that we have shore leave in Elysium coming up at the end of January.  We can have that ole nuisance out then.”

“That’s four weeks away,” I whispered.  “I can’t do this for four weeks.”

“Well, unless you want me to get a coat hanger out and do this old school, you don’t have a choice,” Carlotta said.  “And on that note, will you please start with the crappy jokes again?  People are going to know something is up.”

“I’m not feeling particularly-,” I saw a movement out of the corner of my eye.  I turned, and saw Kasuumi Dranne walking away from us.  “Antonio,” I hissed.  “Three o’clock.”  She looked in the opposite direction.  “My three, you fucking ginger nut, not yours.”

“Oh, my bad you fucking midget moron,” she snapped, looking in the direction I indicated.  “Fuck,” she mumbled.  “Now what?”

“Don’t worry,” I said.  “I can handle it.”

“What, you’re going to threaten to bore her to death?” Carlotta asked.  “At least when you were smart-mouthed, you were interesting.  Now you’re just depressing.  It’s tragic.”

I ignored her.

.....

After lunch I called Kasuumi into the conference room.  “No need to look so concerned, Dranne, this is just a friendly chat,” I said.

“Yeah right,” she said.  “There’s nothing friendly about you, Shep.”

“Maybe try harder not to piss me off, Dranne,” I advised.  “Now, I know you’re the one stealing from everyone.”

“What?” Kasuumi asked, sounding convincingly shocked.  “That’s ridiculous.”

“Drop the act, Dranne, I don’t believe you,” I said.

“Look, even if I was the one stealing all the shit on the ship, you wouldn’t have any proof,” Kasuumi said.  “No one would believe you.”

“Oh really?” I asked.  “Freddie.”

“What do you want, dipshit?” a muffled voice came from inside Kasuumi’s BOL.  “Long time no see.”

“My VI,” I said.  “It lives in my omnitool, which is clearly in your BOL.”

Kasuumi went a nasty purple colour.  “Don’t worry, I won’t ask you to empty your pockets,” I said tiredly.  “I do need my omnitool back though.”  She sighed and opened her BOL.  Freddie zoomed out.

“So, tried to get rid of me again, did you?” it squeaked excitedly as Kasuumi handed me my omnitool.  “Don’t you know I’m indestructible?”

“Yes,” I said.  “More’s the pity.  Go away please, Freddie.”  I turned back to Kasuumi.

“How did you know it was me?” she blurted out.

“Kaidan told me you were a kleptomaniac,” I said.  “Figured it could only be you.”

“So, what, you’re going to turn me in?” she asked.

“Not unless I really have to,” I said.  “Now, you heard me and Lieutenant Antonio talking earlier, didn’t you?”

She stared down at her feet.  “Yes,” she said at last.  “But I wouldn’t have told anyone.”

“Ok, cool,” I said.  “Thing is, I’m not generally paranoid, but for some reason I don’t trust you very much.  I’m not really sure why.  If I find myself in front of the Alliance Military Council because of alleged fraternisation, I’d be sure to tell them who is stealing from the Alliance.  I believe the sentence for stealing is two years on Grageran?”  She said nothing.  “Two years is a long time, Dranne, and I’m not sure you’d last that long.”

She glared at me.  “Fine,” she snapped.  “But this isn’t over.”

“Too right it is,” I said.  “Jog on then.”

.....

“Right, your shore leave will be for seventy two hours, from 0600 hours tomorrow morning to 0600 hours on February first,” Lieutenant Jupiter said.  Company Six was gathered in the conference room in preparation of our shore leave, which was due to start the following morning.

“Whilst it is important for you all to relax and unwind over the next three days, you need to remember that you are representing the Alliance and the human military,” Lieutenant Jupiter continued.  “Try not to make too much of a fool of yourselves, and I do not want to get a call in the middle of the night to hear that one of you has been arrested for being drunk and disorderly, Private Masaad, or that you are indecently exposing yourself, Lieutenant Antonio.”

“Oh come on, that was four years ago, for fucks sakes,” Carlotta snapped.  “I’m a different person since then.”

“The only things that have changed since then is the fact that you dye your hair pink and that you now have someone who calls you ‘Mommy’,” Lieutenant Jupiter said.  “You’re still as much of a slag as you were then.”

“Yeah, well I’d rather be a slag than a fucking wanker, you blonde fucking sissy bitch,” Carlotta snapped.  There was a loud gasp as we waited to see what Lieutenant Jupiter would do.

He smiled unpleasantly.  “Lieutenant Antonio, I believe that that counts as insubordination to a superior officer, the sentence of which is time in the brig,” he said.

“You can’t have me arrested, I’m the best marine in this joint,” Carlotta said indignantly.

“No, but I can put you on three day stand-to, starting tomorrow at 0600 hours,” Lieutenant Jupiter said coldly.  “And for the record, Shepard’s a better soldier than you.”

“The way you say it makes it sound like an insult, sir,” I said.

“Good, that’s the way it’s meant to sound,” Lieutenant Jupiter said.

“You bastard,” Carlotta mumbled, scowling at him.

“What’s that, Lieutenant?” he smiled, clearly enjoying himself.

“I said, aye aye sir,” Carlotta said, giving a very fake and somewhat scary smile.

“That’s the spirit,” he said.  “Dismissed.”

“Lieutenant, can I have a word?” Joey asked quietly as we made for the door.

I sighed.  I had been blowing Joey off for the past few months, and generally avoiding him.  “Sure,” I said.

“I’m leaving the door open, Shepard,” Lieutenant Jupiter said.  “Don’t be inappropriate.”

“No sir,” I said.  I waited until the room was empty before saying, “What can I do for you, Chief?”

“What’s going on?” Joey whispered. 

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well, we haven’t done anything since you got sick in November, and you’ve been acting really weirdly,” Joey said.

“What do you mean weirdly?” I asked.

“Well, all depressed and stuff,” Joey said.  “Not like you at all.”

“Joey,” I said softly.  “What are you doing?”

“Huh?” he asked.

“Why are you going after me?” I asked.  “You’re a good-looking guy.  You could have any girl in the galaxy.”

“I already told you, I love you,” Joey said.  “I know that you don’t feel the same way about me, you love your boyfriend, but I don’t care.”

“Joe, that’s not healthy,” I began.

“Jane, listen,” Joey said.  “I-you’re the only girl I’ve ever loved.  Ever since we were little kids, I’ve loved you.”

I swallowed.  “Joey, this can’t go on,” I said softly.  “I know you think that by sleeping with you, I will fall in love with you, but it won’t happen.  Not now anyway.  My life is too complicated at the moment.  I’m sorry.  And I can’t jeopardise your chances to find someone who will love you, because it’s not fair on you.”

Joey grinned.  “But I already told you, I don’t care,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said.  “But I do.  You mean a lot to me, and I can’t see you hurt any longer.”  I reached up and kissed his cheek.  “I’m sorry.”

He sighed.  “I always knew you would break my heart someday, Jane Shepard,” he said sadly.

I snorted.  “That was a freaking girly thing to say,” I said.

“Yeah well, you were always the strong one,” he said.

“Everyone says that,” I said.  “I’ll see you around, Joey.”

“Yeah,” he said.  “I guess you will.”

.....

As I was heading back to my station, Specialist Ashton called me to her station.  “Call for you,” she said.  “Operations Chief Alenko.”  She leaned into me.  “He’s very good looking,” she whispered.

“Yeah, I know Specialist,” I said.  “But thanks for pointing it out to me.  I’ll take it at my station.”

I went back to my station, and switched my terminal on.  Kaidan’s face appeared on my screen.  “Hey,” he said.

“Hey,” I said, swallowing.  I hadn’t spoken to Kaidan since I had been on Arcturus Station.

“What’s happening?” he asked.  “Long time, no see.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “You’re rich now.”

“Yup, sure am,” Kaidan answered.  “I bought my parents a new place.  It’s good for them to get out of Seattle South.  So what’s going on with you?  I haven’t heard from you in ages.”

“Yeah, uh, I guess the com buoys are very busy at the moment,” I said.  “Um, not much is going on.  Duty.  You know.”

“Tell me about it,” Kaidan said, rolling his eyes.   “NCOs get a shit load more work than servicemen.  Hey, I have shore leave tomorrow in Elysium, and I hacked your ships’ system and saw that you do too.”

“Wait, what?” Specialist Ashton’s voice sounded in my earpiece.

“Our com officer,” I told Kaidan, who looked confused.  “Don’t worry, Ashton, if anyone is Alliance first, it’s Alenko.”

“Even so, I need to run a system’s check,” she said, sounding put out.

“Anyway,” Kaidan said.  “Do you want to meet up?  I really miss you.”

I took a deep breath.  “Sure,” I said neutrally.  “I think we need to see each other.”

“Cool,” Kaidan said.  “So nine?”

“Nine’s…not good,” I said.  “I have an appointment at nine.  How’s midday?”

“Sure…ah shoot,” Kaidan said.  “I have to do some publicity work at twelve.  It’ll take most of the day.”

“No worries,” I said.  “Um, the thirty first?  At midday?”

“Yeah, that works for me,” Kaidan said.  He grinned.  “Awesome,” he said.  “I can’t wait.”

I smiled weakly.  “Me neither,” I said.

.....

I went down to Carlotta later that afternoon.  “You had to piss Jupiter off and get confined to the ship,” I said.

“Oh please, Smurfette, it’s not like you wouldn’t have done anything different,” she said.  “He was being an ass in any case.”

“Blonde sissy bitch though,” I said.  “That’s crossing the line.”

“Shut up,” she mumbled.  “Pass the monkey wrench.”

I passed it to her.  “My boyfriend wants to see me,” I said.

“Oh God, don’t tell me I’ve become your fucking confessional,” Carlotta mumbled.

“I think I need to end it with him,” I continued, ignoring her.

“You think so?” Carlotta asked.  “You’ve cheated on him with two different guys and now you’re preggo with one of those guys’ baby.”

I glared at her.  “You’ve been such a friend,” I said.

“I love soap operas,” Carlotta said, shrugging.  “I need a five millimetre nut.” 

“You are a five millimetre nut,” I mumbled, handing her one.

“Oh very clever,” she acidly. 

.....

My appointment at the clinic was at nine o’clock, and we landed in Elysium at six, which left me with three hours to kill.  As I didn’t want anyone to know that I had an appointment at the clinic, I was pretty much left to my own devices.  My morning sickness had, for the most part, slowed down, so I started the day off with egg-free churros and the thickest hot chocolate I had ever seen in my life.  Since all the museums and landmarks in Elysium only opened at nine, I soon found that walking around a beautiful city was pretty boring in itself.  The city was gorgeous though, and I hoped that within the next few days I would get the chance to explore it properly.  At the same time, it was easy to see that the people living in the city were not well off, and there were hardly any children to be seen anywhere.  They’d probably been evacuated somewhere.  At least, that’s what I hoped.

At quarter to nine I arrived at Garcia Clinic, in the Barrio quarter.  “Name?” the receptionist asked through a thick wad of gum.

“Uh, Lieutenant Jane Shepard,” I said softly.

She looked me up and down.  “What’s a kid like you getting pregnant for?” she asked unsympathetically.  “Are you even old enough to be getting your period?”

“No, it was an accident,” I said.  “You see, what happened was-,”

“Yeah yeah, you were bored on that ship, it was just a once-off thing, you swear,” she snapped.  “Who do you think you’re talking to, kid?”

“You’re so comforting,” I snapped back. 

She scowled at me.  “Just so you’re aware, this whole process will cost you ten million credits,” she said.  My mouth dropped open.  “An ultrasound costs one million credits on its own,” she said impatiently.

“I don’t want an ultrasound,” I said.

“That’s the process, kid,” she said.  “An appointment with the social worker, an appointment with the doctor, and then another appointment with the social worker.  Now, sit down and fill out this form.  I have work to do.”

I took the datapad from her and sat down.  The form was quite long, and asked a host of uncomfortable questions, ranging from my sexual activity in the past few years to who the father was.  I took the completed form back to the receptionist.  “Mr Gonzalez-Gonzalez will be out in a moment,” she said.

“What, both of them?” I asked, attempting to lighten the mood.  She glared at me.

I went back to the waiting room.  A young gunner was also waiting there.  She smiled nervously at me.  On her other side was a young couple.  The woman was heavily pregnant and clearly over the moon.  I chewed the few fingernails I had left.

“Lieutenant Shepard,” a man asked, coming into the waiting room.

“Over here,” I said, standing up.

“Follow me, please,” he said.

I followed him into a very comfortable-looking office with soft couches and cushions.  “My name is Alberto Gonzalez-Gonzalez, and I am one of the social workers that work at this clinic,” he said. “How are you doing today?”

“Oh pretty good,” I said sarcastically.  “I think I’m having a bad hair day though.”

“This whole process must be pretty scary for you though,” he said. 

“I guess,” I said.  “Can we skip ahead to the confidentiality clause?  I want this over and done with.”

He smiled.  “I take it you’ve seen social workers before,” he said.

“Good guess,” I said. 

“May I ask what the reasons were for you seeing a social worker?”

“You may,” I said genially.  There was a pause.  “Are you going to ask or not?” I snapped.

He sighed.  “What were the circumstances of you seeing a social worker?” he asked patiently.

“The first time was when I was eight,” I said.  “My father was accused of child abuse and the social worker was preparing me for court.  The second time was when I was sixteen.  I’m still not sure why I had to see her.”  I paused, frowning.  “Then I saw about three, no four, shrinks after I was almost diagnosed with PTSD a year ago.”

“So you sort of know the process,” he said.

“I guess,” I said.

“Alright, well, I’ll be doing a full biopsychosocial history,” he said.  “Let’s start with family history.”

The biopsychosocial history took close to an hour and a half, and I felt exhausted afterwards.  Mr Gonzalez-Gonzalez however still seemed in a buoyant mood.  “I notice you didn’t put in a father’s name on the form,” he said. 

“Yup,” I said.  “He’s not in the picture.”

“Does he know you’re pregnant?” Mr Gonzalez-Gonzalez asked.

“Probably not,” I said.  “He’s married and an asshole.”

“Ah,” he said.  “Well, it’s not good for you to go through this process on your own.”

“I’m not,” I said.  “My social support just happened to be busy today.  It’s no big deal.”

“Ok,” he said.  “So, what is the reason for you wanting to get an abortion?”

I sighed.  “I don’t want to answer that question,” I said.

He studied me for a few moments.  “No reason, no abortion,” he said at last.

“What?” I asked in surprise.  “You can’t do that.”

“I just did,” he said.  He leaned forward.  “Look, this is a very emotional thing that you’re wishing to do,” he said.  “Yet for some reason you’re detached.  I’m not sure you understand the enormity of what you are planning to do.”

I closed my eyes.  “Do you want to know the truth of the matter?” I asked quietly.  “I kill people for a living.  You can pretty it up as much as you want, but it’s the truth.  Now I never get the opportunity to really deal with that, and I have therefore put a façade up.  But God help you if there is a crack in that wall, because then the floodgates will open.  I can’t do that right now.  I have neither the courage nor the strength.”

He studied me for a moment.  “Don’t you think that by keeping the baby, you’ll have a way out of a job you hate?” he asked.

“I’m nineteen,” I said. 

“I’ve seen girls younger than you make it work,” he said.

“I don’t have anyone,” I said.  “Sure, I have a brother, but he’s in Sur’Kesh.  The army’s the only place that I’ve felt accepted.  If I lose that, I’m left with nothing.”

“You’d have a child,” he said.

I shook my head.  “If I can’t look after myself enough not to get pregnant, what are the chances of me being able to look after a baby?” I asked.  “No, I’m having the abortion.  I’ll deal with the consequences, whatever they might be.”

He looked at me for a long time.  “Alright,” he said at last.  “You can wait in the waiting room.  I’ll see you again after you’ve been with the doctor.”

.....

The happily pregnant couple had been replaced by a girl who looked like she wasn’t a day over fifteen.  A short woman dressed in a white coat came out of one of the examination rooms.  “Lieutenant Jane Shepard?” she asked.

“Right here,” I said.

“I am Dr Diez,” she said.  “If you’ll follow me.”

I followed her into the examination.  “How are you doing?” she asked.

“Fantastic,” I said sarcastically.  “I just seem to have something growing inside of me.”

“Alright then, there’s no need for sarcasm,” she said.  “If you’ll go behind the screen and put this gown on please?”

The examination was pretty much like any other physical I’d had since joining up.  The one thing I had not prepared myself for though was the ultrasound, which showed a full colour picture of the foetus on the screen next to me.  Its head was huge, and it looked oddly alien.  I reached out and touched the screen before I could stop myself.

“It’s a boy,” Dr Diez said softly. 

My son turned his head and stared straight at me.  “Are you ok?” Dr Diez asked.

“Yes,” I said in an emotionless voice.  “Yes, I’m fine.”

My face felt heavy with tears, but not a single one came out.  “Well, everything looks normal,” Dr Diez said.  “The foetus is a bit on the small side, but you’re quite tiny yourself.  How tall is the father?”

“He’s, um, he’s about five foot seven,” I said huskily.

“Yes, that’s very small,” she said.  “Very well, Lieutenant Shepard, you can get changed, then wait in the waiting room again.  Mr Gonzalez-Gonzalez and I need to discuss the suitability of you terminating this pregnancy.”

The receptionist brought me a cup of tea and a cookie whilst I waited.  “You’ll be alright,” she told me.

“Thanks,” I said.  “I’m glad someone thinks so.”

Eventually, Mr Gonzalez-Gonzalez came out of his office.  “Follow me,” he said, his face expressionless.

He led me into his office, where Dr Diez was waiting.  “Have a seat,” he invited.

I sat down on the comfy couch.  “In light of both your psychological evaluation and your medical evaluation, we have decided to grant you the right to abort your pregnancy,” Dr Diez said.  “Owing to your poor health and the fact that you are of a very small stature, I do not feel that you are physically able to carry for full-term without putting yourself to incredible risk.  Furthermore, Mr Gonzalez-Gonzalez has informed me that at this moment, you are also not emotionally capable of caring for an infant once it is born.  However, we would also like to advise you to try harder not to get pregnant next time.”

“I didn’t do it on purpose,” I said.

She didn’t say anything.  “Can you take it from here, Alberto?” she asked Mr Gonzalez-Gonzalez.

“Yes,” he said.  “Thank you doctor.”

She handed me a datapad.  “This contains your prescription,” she said.  “Make an appointment with Dayma for tomorrow morning.”

“Right,” I said.  “Thanks.”

“See you tomorrow,” she said, and left.

“How do you feel?” Mr Gonzalez-Gonzalez asked, turning to me.

I shrugged.  “I don’t feel anything,” I said.

He nodded.  “That prescription is for misoprostol augmentus,” he said.  “You need to take it tonight.  It will induce labour, and cause you to bleed.  It’ll probably cause some cramping as well.  Do you use tampons or sanitary pads when you have your period?”

“Tampons,” I said. 

“You might want to get pads,” he said.  “They tend to be more comfortable when you’re bleeding like this.  Now, if you start feeling nausea or excessive cramping, you need to go to the hospital immediately.  Tomorrow, when you come for your appointment, the doctor will do a womb scraping, to make sure nothing’s been left behind.  She’ll stick a very thin rod through your cervix and use it to scrape your uterus.”  He saw my expression.  “Don’t worry, Dr Diez is very well trained.  She knows what she’s doing.  We will be using a local anaesthetic, so you won’t feel a thing.”

“Is that it?” I asked.

“Yes,” Mr Gonzalez-Gonzalez said.

“Great.” I got up.  “Thanks for your time.”

“Lieutenant Shepard,” he said.  “Sorry, one moment.  Will you have someone with you tomorrow?”

I shook my head.  “My…colleague, she’s working again tomorrow,” I said.

“Alright, then,” he said.  “Be safe.”

.....

It was just gone one when I left the clinic.  After buying myself an egg-free taco from a vendor for my lunch, I tried to decide what I wanted to do next.  It was clear that the civilians’ reaction to soldiers was remarkably similar to those in London, and I found myself hating them.  I hated every one of them, from the little old lady selling fried fish at the side of the road, the children playing in the school yard.  The only ones I felt any sympathy for was a group of Alliance soldiers who were staggering down the road.  They at least understood what it was like.

When I came to a bar, I decided to go in.  I left again after six hours and way too many shots of tequila.  I was actually pretty impressed that I found my way back to the hotel that we were staying at.  I was after all in a strange city and dead drunk.

Back in the room I was sharing with Maya, I locked myself into the bathroom and put the bottle of pills I had gotten from the clinic on the counter and stared at it for a long time.  You can never know which choice is the right one until it’s too late, and I knew that one way or another, my life would be changing forever.  I poured myself a glass of water and shook the three pills out into my hand.  “I’m sorry,” I whispered.  I put the pills in my mouth and drained the glass.  Then I put in a tampon and went into the lounge area to watch the news.

.....

I must have fallen asleep on the couch in front of the TV, for I woke up to the sound of voices behind me.  “That was fun, ladies,” Zaeed was saying.

“Yeah Masaad, it was especially fun watching you take that girl out back,” Joey said, sounding disgruntled.  “How old was she anyway, fifteen?”

“What do you care, Carboletti?” Zaeed snapped.  “You’re having it away with Shepard every other night.”

“That’s different,” Joey said.  “We’re both adults.  Besides, she’s broken it off with me.”

“Oh,” Ismaeel said.  “That sucks.”

“Has anyone else noticed that something’s up with Shepard though?” Terrence asked.  “When she first started with us, she was making jokes left right and centre.  Now she’s all depressed.  It’s sad.”

“I remember her at Del Sol,” Nina said.  “Whilst not exactly sane, she was never as bad as this.”

I realised that they had no idea I was on the couch.  The room was dimly lit and I was small enough that they couldn’t see me from where they were standing.

“You could be right, van Richte,” Terrence said excitedly.  “One in four marines have a nervous breakdown before they’ve served two years in the Alliance.”

“Maybe she’ll be dishonourably discharged,” Nkosi said, sounding hopeful.

“Maybe she’ll be locked up,” Zaeed said.

“I wonder what’s up with her though,” Ismaeel said.  “Perhaps Admiral Hackett did something to her.”

“Perhaps it’s none of our business what’s up with Shep,” Kasuumi’s voice sounded.

There was a pause.  “Holy shit Dranne, you know what’s wrong with Shep,” Nkosi said.

I held my breath.  “No I don’t,” Kasuumi said quickly.

“You do, you do, you do,” Zaeed cried.  “Come on, sexy, what have you heard whilst floating invisibly around?”

“Nothing,” Kasuumi snapped.  There was a pause.  “I’m not lying,” she shouted, in response to something Maya had said, I guessed.

“Ok, you’re not,” Nina said placatory.  “Calm your bones.”

“Ugh,” Kasuumi groaned.  “I’m going to bed.  See you guys tomorrow.”

“Good idea,” Nina yawned.  “Sleep well everyone.”

The sound of footsteps faded away.  I counted to a hundred before going back to my room.  Maya was busy putting something in her cupboard.  “Ma’am,” she signed.  She saw my face.  “Is everything alright?” she asked.

I hesitated, then went over to her and put my arms around her.  After a pause, she hugged me back.

“Good night,” I said, stepping back.

She nodded.

.....

Kaidan and I had arranged to meet in a Mexican restaurant called Anita’s.  He had already gotten us a table near the window by the time I arrived.  He smiled when he saw me.  “Janey, hey,” he said, getting up and kissing me on the cheek.

“Hey Kaidan,” I said.  I hugged my arms tightly around him.  “I missed you.”

“I missed you too,” he said.  “You’re pale, are you ok?”

“I recently had pneumonia,” I said.  “I’m fine.”

At that moment Anita appeared.  “Lieutenant Shepard and Chief Alenko in my restaurant,” she squealed.  “I’ll get a bottle of tequila, on the house.”

“Um, I’m not in the mood for drinking,” I said.  I forced a smile.  “Still recovering from last night to be honest.  I’ll have a cola.”

“I’ll have a beer,” Kaidan said.  “We’ll order our food in a moment.”  Anita nodded and left.

“So how’ve you been?” Kaidan asked, turning to me. 

I shrugged.  “Pretty shitty thanks,” I said.  “We’ve been getting deployed a lot.  But I haven’t done nearly as badly as I expected I would.  What’s it like being famous?”

“Awful,” Kaidan said, scowling.  “I can’t blow my nose without the galaxy knowing about it.  I don’t know how you can stand it.”

“You get used to it,” I said dryly. 

Anita arrived with my cola and Kaidan’s beer.  We ordered our food.  “Are you sure you’re ok?” Kaidan asked, studying me over his glass.

“I-,” I began, feeling close to tears.

“Jane, what is it?” Kaidan asked in alarm.

“I’m not sure how to say this,” I murmured.

“Oh Christ, I’ve been expecting this,” Kaidan mumbled.  “Alright, hit me with it, Jane.”

“It’s not that I don’t…care for you, I do,” I said.  “I just can’t stand being apart from you.  It hurts me too much.  I see you once, maybe twice a year.”

“I know,” Kaidan said.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered.

“Yeah,” Kaidan said.  “Would it change anything if I told you that I love you and have not been with another woman since we got together?”

I thought about this.  “Probably just depress me all the more,” I said at last.

He smiled grimly.  “Then I love you and I haven’t been with another woman since we got together,” he said.

“Thanks for that,” I said.  “You know what the really sucky thing about this whole thing is?”

“You breaking my heart?” Kaidan asked, a touch of irony in his voice.

“Apart from that,” I said.  “You, me and Ash were really good friends.  Now that’s gone, and we’ll never have it back.”

“We can still be friends,” Kaidan said.

I sighed.  “Do you really believe that Kaidan?” I asked.

He lowered his eyes.  “No,” he said.  “I don’t.”  He got up.  “Look after yourself, Lieutenant.”

“You too, Operations Chief,” I said.

.....

I ate all the food we’d ordered.  It hurt my already-tender stomach to do so, but in a strange way it felt good.  Outside, as I started walking, a woman stopped me.  “Pardon me soldier,” she said, grabbing my arm.

I turned to her.  “What can I do for you, ma’am?” I asked.

She spat in my face.  “That’s for my daughter,” she said coldly.

I took a deep breath.  “Will that be all?” I asked calmly.  Not waiting for a reply, I pulled my arm free of her grasp and walked blindly back to the hotel.

.....

About two weeks later, after a long day of evacuating the outskirts of Elysium, Company Six was watching the news in the rec room.  We were slowly but surely losing our hold of the town, but the news was full of positive reports about how we were doing well against the batarians. 

“I’m glad we’re actually doing well against the batarians and that today was really just a figment of my imagination,” Kasuumi said.

“Alright Dranne,” Commander Jupiter said.

“Did you know the average private entering the war survives for only five days?” Terrence asked.

“That’s a cheering statistic,” I said.  “Do you have any positive news?”

“There are theorists that say that time is cyclical-,” he began.

“Nobody cares, Brown,” Carlotta mumbled.

Seaman Apprentice Hafel walked.  “Lieutenant Shepard,” he said.  “Admiral Hackett wishes for you to report to his quarters.”

I’d been avoiding Admiral Hackett as much as possible.  He must have realised that something was up, for he had not asked me up to his cabin since before shore leave.

I looked up at him.  “Tell Admiral Hackett that if he has need of me, he needs to come fetch me himself,” I said clearly.

There was a loud intake of breath from Lieutenant Jupiter.  “I-what?” Seaman Apprentice Hafel asked, clearly not used to having to relay that kind of message.

“You heard me,” I said.  “Now vanish.  Chop chop.”

He left the room again.

“This is only going to lead to trouble,” Carlotta told me quietly.

“That’s what I’m hoping for,” I said.

She considered me.  “Can I get your datapad when you die?” she asked.

“Why not?” I asked.  “Can we change to three fifty two?  The Smartest Species in the Galaxy is showing.”

Five minutes later the door was flung open and an irate-looking Admiral Hackett stepped into the room.

“Shepard, upstairs, now,” he barked.

I settled myself deeper into the sofa.  “No,” I said calmly.

“I-what do you mean no?” he asked, sounding shocked.  There were loud gasps from my squad mates.

“I mean no,” I said.  “It’s a two letter word.  In protha you say frerya, turian you say luzt, in asari you say keyra and in salarian you say frothniskerye.  Shall I continue?”

“I’m your superior officer,” he spluttered.  “If you don’t follow my order, I’ll have you court marshalled.”

“It’s been a while since I finished basic, but I somehow don’t remember sleeping with you being among the list of standard duties,” I said. 

He breathed heavily through his nose.  “Fine,” he snapped.  “Sobana.”

Nkosi hesitated, looked from my face, and then at his.  Finally she got up.

“No,” Commander Jupiter said forcefully.  “Nkosi, sit down.  Now.”  She got to her feet and moved to stand in front of Admiral Hackett.  “Admiral, if you touch any of my girls ever again, I swear to whoever controls our destiny I will have you before the rest of the Joint Military Council on charges of gross misuse of power and fraternisation.  That’s a promise.”  She leaned closer to him.  “I keep my promises,” she whispered.

He glared at all of us, then turned and stormed out of the room, slamming the door behind him.

Commander Jupiter sat down next to her brother.  “Why the hell are we watching this crap?” she snapped.

Chapter Text

Kaidan: the beginning

I am on the ground at the start, when we truly begin to lose the war.  My squad is busy trying hopelessly to hold on to Villa Maria, a village just outside of Elysium.  The batarians had, over the past week, pushed their line closer and closer to Elysium, and the analysts tell us if they got Villa Maria, Elysium would fall in a week.  Unfortunately, we are barely hanging on to Villa Maria.

Today we have been repelling the batarian ground troops.  We have them on the retreat, but then they bring their fighters in, who proceed to bomb the Jesus out of the village.

“Get to the shelter,” Major Kalka, our C.O bellows, and we sprint across the village to the air raid shelter. 

Private Mastoos is the last one in and he slams the shelter door shut behind him.  “Orders, sir,” I say.

“Wait for the bloody raid to end and hope to God it isn’t too late,” Major Kalka says.  “Lieutenant, do a head count, please.”

“Aye sir,” I say.  “Twenty eighth infiltration unit, ten hut.”  It only takes me a minute to do a roll call, and I am left with not much to do. 

Around the shelter, the civilians stare at us wide-eyed.  Everyone is silent.  Babies’ squalling’s are hushed in their mother’s bosom.  For a moment there is absolute silence in the shelter.

“Christ, I can’t take this bloody silence,” the Special Ground Unit commanding officer says.  “Anyone know any good songs?  Williams?”

“Sorry sir, singing was never one of my talents,” a tall, blonde woman says.

“Too bad,” the commander says.  “Malak, how about you.”

My feet propel me forward as the private says, “I only know dirty songs, sir.”

“Out of the question,” the commanding officer says.  “There are women and children present.”

I grab the blonde woman’s shoulder.  “Ash?” I say in amazement.

She turns.  “Ma se-Kaidan,” she says.  “Is that you?”

“Last time I checked,” I say.  “I may have died up there though, and this is actually proof that the afterlife exists.”

She hugged me.  “How long has it been?” she asks.  “How come you never kept in contact with me?”

“I assumed when Jane and I broke up she got the friends and I got the car,” I joke.  To be honest, I tried often to write to Ash, but it always felt uncomfortable.  Ash will always remind me of Jane.

She glares at me.  “You’re an idiot,” she says. 

“No argument there, Williams,” I say.  “So, what are you doing here?  I thought you were in home defence?”

“I was,” she says meaningfully.  “This is a promotion of sorts.  I’m with the Special Ground Units now.  It means I’m some sort of glorified fireman, but hey, at least I’m off of Earth.”

I grin.  “Good for you,” I say.

“Go fuck yourself, Alenko,” she mumbles.

“That’s pretty much what I’ve been doing the past two years,” I say. 

She laughs.  “I’ve missed you, Kaidan,” she says.  “We should try and hang out again sometime.”

“Yeah,” I say.  “We should.”

.....

And back to: July to September: Reunions

“Wait, you’re getting married?” I asked in shock.

Ash rolled her eyes.  “People fall in love all the time, Jane,” she said.  “It’s just you that seems to be immune to the process.”

“But you started dating him six months ago, and you’ve been at work for four of those months,” I said.

“Jane,” she said tiredly.  “I love him.  I want to spend the rest of my life with him.  Or what’s left of it after this stupid war.”

“Ok, no need to be all snappy,” I said.  “Just remember, my parents only dated for a few months before getting engaged, and their marriage turned into a total shambles.”

“Jane, I’ve known Adam since I was six,” Ash said.  “Stop bloody worrying about me.  I know what I’m doing.”

“You’re my baby sister,” I said.  “It’s my job to protect you.”

“I’m older than you,” she said.  “Anyway, I was wondering if you’d be my maid of honour.”

“You want me to wear a dress and high heels and make an embarrassing speech about how I knew you when you twelve and didn’t have long legs?”

“Something like that, unless you plan on going as a man,” Ash said.  “Please Jane, you’re my bestest and oldest friend.  I need you at my side for this scary and amazing transition.”

“Alright,” I said.  “I’d be honoured to talk about all your ex-boyfriends.”

“All officers report to the conference room,” the new com officer, Com Officer Bharesh said over the intercom.  “Repeat, all officers to conference room, ASAP.”

“Something’s going on,” I mumbled.  “Sorry Ash, I have to go.  I’ll talk to you later.”

“I ran into Kaidan the other day,” she said quickly as I was about to hang up.  My finger paused above the button.  “I thought you should know,” she said.

“I should go,” I said quietly and hung up.

.....

Every single officer who served on the Everest was gathered in the conference room.  “We have a situation,” Commander Jupiter said as soon as the door was shut.

“Good to see you too, ma’am,” I mumbled.

“What we discuss here is not to leave this room,” she continued, obviously not hearing me.  “If I hear that any of the servicemen or NCOs knows about this, the person responsible for the leak will find his arse in Grageran station so fast he won’t know where he dropped his balls.”

“That’s an extreme threat,” Carlotta whispered in my ear.

“Yeah,” I whispered back.  “Shame neither of us have balls.”  We both sniggered.

Commander Jupiter obviously heard us, for she turned and glared at the two of us, before pressing a button on the terminal in front of her.  The screen behind her lit up to show the monarch of the Hegemony sitting on his throne.

“Dear Joint Military Council of the human Alliance,” he said in what was possible the most poorly-spoken English I had ever heard.  “We have that hero of yours, Commander David Anderson, the one who helped liberate Shanxi, yes?  Surrender by your time the end of the month or else he will be dying.  Then the galaxy will be seeing how strong you are all really are.”

Commander Jupiter hit the pause button.  “Obviously the Alliance is concerned,” she began.  I waved my hand in the air.

“What is it, Shepard?” she asked. 

“Two things,” I said.  “Firstly, has this man been arrested by the grammar police yet?”

“Move right on to the second thing please, Lieutenant, this is rather serious,” she said.

“Yes ma’am,” I said.  “Has this been verified?  Any fool with time and a good imagination can put on a cape and say that they have taken someone prisoner, but-,”

“I was getting to that, Lieutenant, if you would just stop making stupid jokes,” Commander Jupiter said.  “Besides, that’s a cloak not a cape.”

“It looks like a cape to me ma’am,” I said.  “In fact, it makes him look rather like Spiderman, ha ha.”

“He never wore a cape,” Carlotta mumbled.

“Commander Anderson and his team did drop out of contact about five days ago, but as they had been on a covert mission, the Alliance assumed that they were staying radio silent,” Commander Jupiter went on, ignoring us splendidly.  “Intel has since confirmed that it is indeed true, that he is being held in PoW camp about fifty miles away from the outskirts of Montenegro.” 

“I take it the Alliance is not surrendering though,” the new commander of the Third Regiment, Major Craz, said.

“The Alliance surrender to aliens, are you out of your bloody mind?” Lieutenant Jupiter asked.

“We have been ordered to launch a rescue operation,” Commander Jupiter said. 

“A rescue operation?” one of the Third Regiment officers asked in shock.  “In the middle of batarian territory?”

“What the fuck, we’ll be fucking butchered,” Carlotta squawked.

“Who’s out of their bloody mind now?” Major Craz agreed.

“So what, you’re saying we should just leave the greatest Alliance officer to ever live to die?” Lieutenant Jupiter asked coldly.

“I’m glad you’re feeling suicidal sir, but I have a five year old daughter who is starting school in a few months to worry about,” Carlotta snapped.

“Alright, that’s enough,” Commander Jupiter said coldly.  “The infiltration units have already done a great deal to establish a shadow presence within that region.  Major Craz will select eight soldiers to accompany him, which will team up with nine soldiers from the Fifth Regiment from the Agincourt, which will give you a team that’s eighteen.  The commanding officer of the fifths, a Commander McDougal will be taking point.  Meanwhile, myself and one of my officers will provide support.  We expect Commander McDougal and his team to come aboard in approximately two days to fine-tune the strategy.”  I sighed deeply.  Commander McDougal was Cat’s father, and the two of us had never really gotten on.

“Which officer are you taking with?” Lieutenant Jupiter asked somewhat eagerly.

“I was thinking we could do the old-school method,” Commander Jupiter said.  She reached into her pocket and pulled out three pieces of plastic, which she gripped in her hand.  “Lieutenant Antonio,” she said.  Carlotta took one of the pieces.  “Lieutenant Jupiter,” Commander Jupiter said, offering the plastics to him.  He took a piece that was the same length as Carlotta’s.

“Looks like you’re it, Shepard,” he said, smiling unpleasantly at me.

“Can I at least take the straw and see for myself?” I asked.

“Go for it,” Commander Jupiter said, offering the straw to me.  It was at least twice as long as Carlotta and Lieutenant Jupiter’s.

“Alright then, Lieutenant, you’ll be deeply involved with the planning of this mission,” Commander Jupiter said.

“With you and Commander McDougal?” I asked.  “Sounds like a dream job to me.”

“You might just get another medal out of this,” Commander Jupiter said cheerfully.  “If we survive.  Dismissed.”

Carlotta tapped me on the shoulder.  “So,” she said.  “Can I get your datapad when you die?”

“Fuck off,” I mumbled.

.....

Commander McDougal hadn’t changed much since the time I’d last seen him at my Del Sol graduation, four years previously.  The father of Catlin McDougal, my old arch nemesis, he had the same red hair, green eyes and freckles as his daughter.  Apparently he had trained at Del Sol the same year my father had, but Dad had never mentioned him to me. The first I knew of his arrival on the Everest was when Com Officer Bharesh announced over the intercom “All staff, stand by your stations.”

I was expecting it to have been Admiral Hackett unexpectedly returned and demanding an inspection of the troops.  Instead, Commander McDougal marched past us, smiling thin-lipdly. 

“Are you fucking kidding me?” Petty Officer Nasution whispered.  “I got up off my ass for a goddamn commander?”

“Commanders are people too, Sailor,” I whispered back.

“Not people that I stand up for,” he mumbled.  “And I was promoted six weeks ago.”  I ignored him.

Commander McDougal reached the conference room door.  “As you were, men,” he said.

We sat down again.  “Lieutenant Shepard, please report to the conference room,” Com Officer Bharesh said over the intercom.  “Lieutenant Shepard to the conference room.  Thank you.”

I got back up.  “Be good,” Joey mumbled.

“Please, Carboletti, remember who you’re talking to,” Petty Officer Nasution said sarcastically.

“Alright, that’s enough,” I said.  “I am still of a higher rank than you.”

I went into the conference room and saluted.  No one acknowledged me.  Both Commander Jupiter and Commander McDougal were pouring over the terminal.  I gave a loud cough.  Nothing.

I relaxed my stance.  “I didn’t acknowledge your salute, Lieutenant,” Commander McDougal said, not looking up.

I saluted again.  Commander Jupiter looked up and saluted me.  Eventually Commander McDougal acknowledged my salute.  “Thank God,” I said.  “My arm would’ve fallen off soon.”

Commander McDougal examined me as if I was something unpleasant under his shoe.  “Junior recruit Shepard,” he said.

“Actually, I’m a lieutenant now sir,” I said.

“We teachers always view our students as the young, lost, frightened children that they once were,” Commander McDougal said.  Commander Jupiter smiled uncomfortably.

“I was never a trainer,” she said.

“I left Del Sol four years ago,” I pointed out.

“Never mind that, Shepard,” Commander Jupiter said quickly.  “Tell me what you make of this map.”

I went over and scrutinized the terminal screen over her shoulder.  “I don’t know,” I said at last.  “If it were made of paper I could make some cute paper dolls.”

Commander Jupiter sighed deeply.  “You know, I’ve always wondered how any commanding officer would be able to cope with having Shepard on her team,” Commander McDougal said. 

“Infinite patience,” was Commander Jupiter’s answer.

“At Del Sol we gave her lots of push-ups to do,” Commander McDougal said.

“That didn’t actually help,” I said.  “It just gave me the arms of a sumo wrestler.  It looked really weird with my physique.”  I looked at the map again.  “I need a context.  What am I looking at here?”

“The area surrounding the PoW camp where they’re holding Commander Anderson,” Commander Jupiter said.  “You know him quite well, don’t you, Shepard?”

“I wouldn’t say that, ma’am,” I said.  “He thought I was a boy.”

She studied my face.  “I can see where he’s coming from,” she said.

“Thank you, ma’am,” I said. 

“You lived with him, for a while though, didn’t you?” she asked.  “Do you think the batarians could have broken him?”

“Unlikely,” I said.  “He’s a strong personality.  It’d take a lot to break him.”  I looked at the map.  “Are our outposts the red areas?”

“Yes,” Commander Jupiter said. 

“It’ll take us several days to reach the camp,” I said.  “The batarians occupy several hundred miles.”

“That’s what we thought,” Commander Jupiter said.

“Great,” I mumbled.

“We should leave tomorrow,” Commander McDougal said.

“Tomorrow?” Commander Jupiter asked.  “We haven’t put any kind of plan together.”

“What time is it, Lieutenant?” he asked me.

I checked my omnitool.  “1200 hours,” I said.  “More or less.”

“That’s plenty of time for our operation chiefs to put mission briefs together,” he said shrugging.  “Call them in.”

.....

“Are you fucking kidding me?” Kasuumi said loudly.  “You want me to put briefs together for you and Shep, but you can’t tell me where you guys are going or what your objective is?  I’m good.  I’m not a miracle worker.”

“All you need to do is give an approximate time frame based on the distance we have to travel and the terrain we’re travelling over,” Commander Jupiter said patiently. 

“Are any protocols followed on this ship?” Commander McDougal asked.

“Depends on what you mean by protocol,” Kasuumi said.  “When do you need the briefs by?”

“0200 hours at the latest,” Commander Jupiter said. 

“02-,” Kasuumi began, looking pained.  “Ma’am, that’s nuts.”

“Also, you need to help Operations Chief Roseau with Third Regiment’s briefs,” she said. 

“And the less time you spend complaining, the more time you’ll have to spend on the briefs,” I said.

“Bye bye sleep,” Kasuumi mumbled.

“Dismissed, Chief,” Commander Jupiter said.

Kasuumi threw a fuming salute our way and stalked out.  “Shepard, inform Gunnery Chief Ruben that she needs to put BOLs together for us, then go and pack the barest essentials for yourself.”

“Aye aye, ma’am,” I said, saluting.

“Dismissed,” she said.

.....

I wasn’t sure what Commander Jupiter meant by ‘the barest essentials’, but figured I wouldn’t need my formal blues.  “Going somewhere?” Carlotta asked from the doorway. 

“Yeah, I’ve decided to desert,” I said.  “Getting the hell out of here and going into mercenary work,” I said.  “It pays better and you can choose your working hours.”

“Happy day,” Carlotta said.  “Here that, Rochelle?  Smurfette’s leaving.”

“Why?” Rochelle asked.

“Probably because she’s a huge wuss,” Carlotta said.

Rochelle looked at me.  “I don’t want you to go, Smurfette,” she said.

“Ha,” I said.  “Your daughter doesn’t want me to go.”

“She’s young and naïve,” Carlotta said.  “She’ll learn.  So, you’re off on this super-secret mission that no one is allowed to know about?”

“Yup,” I said.  “That leaves you and Jupiter in charge here.”

“And I thought you couldn’t bring any more good news,” Carlotta said.  “Now we’ll do things my way.”

“Let me guess, everyone working topless?” I asked sarcastically.

“Only those under thirty,” Carlotta shrugged.

“My best friend is getting married,” I said.

She rolled her eyes.  “Smurfette, we need to change this misperception that you seem to have that we’re super best friends,” she said irritably.  “We’re not. I helped you two years ago because of some stupid moment of nostalgia.  You sort of reminded me of me when I was twelve, barefoot and pregnant, but now you’re twelve, no longer pregnant and seriously annoying.”

“If I wanted a friend you’d be the last person I’d go to,” I snapped.

She sighed.  “The chess champion?” she asked.  “The one with the gorgeous legs?”

“She has many other virtues,” I said.

“Maybe you’ve forgotten how this works, Shepard, I talk and you listen,” she snapped.  “Marriage is overrated.  My parents have been married for thirty years now.  She’s nuts, he uses her as a punching bag.”

“I know,” I said.  “My parents’ marriage was a shambles as well.  Hell, Ash’s mother’s marriage ended when her husband found out she was cheating on him.”

“Unfortunately, she’s your sorority sister or whatever, so you have to go along with whatever she wants,” Carlotta continued, ignoring me.

“And this you know from your wide experiences with friendships,” I said sarcastically.

“Friends are overrated, if I wanted affirmation as a person, I’d speak to a shrink,” Carlotta said irritably.

“Well, thanks for nothing then,” I mumbled.

“Fair enough,” she said.  “If you want some real advise then.  I’d start doing chest exercises if I were you, so that your boobies can grow and you’ll have something to put into that bridesmaid’s dress of yours.”  She took Rochelle’s hand and pulled her towards the door.  “Oh, and good luck for the mission,” she said.  “I really hope you don’t die.  I won’t have anyone to torture otherwise.”

.....

“Is this accurate?” I asked, reading the operation report again.  It was half past two in the morning and I had gotten very little sleep.

“Well, as I had just about nothing to go on, I have no idea,” Kasuumi said snippily. 

“I’m talking about the timeframe, Dranne, not the whatever the hell that means under the mission parameters,” I said tiredly.

“More or less,” Kasuumi said.  “It should take you about twenty days to reach your final destination.”

“That leaves us six days to complete the mission,” Major Craz murmured.

“Yeah, I could’ve bought you some more time if I knew where you were going or what you were planning, but unfortunately I didn’t know either of these things,” Kasuumi said.

“Thank you Dranne, you did good work,” Commander Jupiter said hurriedly, seeing Commander McDougal’s mouth open.  “Get some sleep.  Dismissed.”
Kasuumi saluted and left.  “Are these the men you’ll be taking with you, Major?” Commander Jupiter asked.

“Yes ma’am,” Major Craz said.  “They have all been adequately briefed and are prepared to give their lives for the mission.”

“That just means you have chosen six morons to come with us,” I said. 

Thirteen heads swung around to stare at me.  “What?” I said defensively.  “I’d rather die for something worthwhile, not a stupid war that was lost six years ago.”

“Right,” Commander Jupiter said.  “Officer Bharesh.”

“You will be travelling deep into the enemy’s territory, and for obvious reasons we will not be able to keep up coms with you,” Com Officer Bharesh said nervously.  “There’s too much risk the batarians could trace the signals and find you.  We’re communicating with the outposts through an ancient radio signal, but they keep communications to a minimum to prevent detection.  You will effectively be on your own.  I have the Joint Military Council on hold on the QEC.  They wish to speak to you personally.”

The screen lit up to show the commander centre on Arcturus Station.   In front of a large Alliance flag sat the Joint Military Council.  We all sprang to attention.

“Commander Jupiter, Commander McDougal, Major Craz, men of the Third Ground Regiment and Fifth Ground Regiment,” Admiral Mikhailovich said impressively.  “At ease.”

We relaxed.  “Nice to be acknowledged,” I muttered.

“You all know what the mission is,” Admiral Mikhailovich continued.  “One of the Alliance’s greatest officers is rotting in a batarian Prisoner of War camp.  The Hegemony thinks this will be enough to make us want to surrender to them, but I say we are human.  We are soldiers of the Alliance, and we will not surrender to aliens.”

“We chose you to be the ones to rescue Commander Anderson because you are the three best marine teams that the Alliance has to offer,” Admiral Hackett continued.

“Oh Christ, this is going to be a whitewash,” Commander Jupiter mumbled.

“We trust you,” Admiral Kahoku said.  “You are the best of humanity.  We are relying on you to get the job done.”

“And you must get the job done,” Admiral Mikhailovich said.  “Or the consequences will be too dire to bear.”

“Good luck, marines,” Admiral Foster said.  “See you all on the other side.”

The screen went black.  For a moment I was so inspired that I wanted to go out and die for the Alliance right then and there.  Then I remembered that Commander Anderson had taught us that commanders tend to try to inspire their soldiers in that manner right before a suicide mission.  Suddenly I understood what Commander Jupiter meant about a whitewash.

“Move out,” Commander Jupiter said tersely.  “The shuttle’s waiting.”

.....

We were rather silent in the shuttle, until Commander Jupiter said, “Shepard?”

“Ma’am?” I asked. 

“About two years ago you started telling me the longest joke in the galaxy,” she said.

“I remember,” I said.

“Well, you never finished telling it,” she said.  “You became all depressed for a long time, and have only recently returned to your annoyingly bubbly self.”

“You’re too kind,” I said sarcastically.

“See, you never used sarcasm for the longest of times,” she continued.  “I was quite worried until Skye said you were probably going through a midlife crisis, which means that you’ll be dead by the time you hit forty.  He was quite excited by the prospect actually.”

“Would you like me to continue telling the joke, ma’am?” I asked.  “I mean, you just insulted the shit out of me, but it would be my pleasure.  A favour to the Alliance.”

“What joke’s this?” Commander McDougal asked.

“Lieutenant Shepard memorised the longest joke in the galaxy and was telling it to me,” Commander Jupiter said.

“Ah, I think I know this one,” Commander McDougal said.  “The one where the punchline only makes sense if you speak with an American accent.”

"Don’t spoil the punchline, sir, it’s impolite,” I said.  “Where did we leave off, ma’am?”

“He’s drank windscreen wiper fluid,” Commander Jupiter said.

“Christ, we still have a long way to go,” I said.  “’After more walking, he comes to a large stretch of sand. This is good! He knows he passed over a stretch of sand in the SUV - he remembers doing donuts in it. Or at least he thinks he remembers it - he's getting woozy enough and tired enough that he's not sure what he remembers any more or if he's hallucinating. But he thinks he remembers it. So he heads off into it, trying to get to the other side, hoping that it gets him closer to the town.

‘He was heading for a town, wasn't he? He thinks he was. He isn't sure any more. He's not even sure how long he's been walking any more. Is it still morning? Or has it moved into afternoon and the sun is going down again? It must be afternoon - it seems like it's been too long since he started out.

‘He walks through the sand.’”

“He should have trained on Del Sol,” one of Commander McDougal’s men said.

“Look, this joke is incredibly long,” I said.  “It’d go a lot quicker if I wasn’t interrupted the whole time.  Anyway ‘After a while, he comes to a big dune in the sand. This is bad. He doesn't remember any dunes when driving over the sand in his SUV. Or at least he doesn't think he remembers any. This is bad.

‘But, he has no other direction to go. Too late to turn back now. He figures that he'll get to the top of the dune and see if he can see anything from there that helps him find the town. He keeps going up the dune.’”

“Where’s he travelling from?” Major Craz asked.

“Some desert somewhere,” I said. 

“Yes, but which colony?” Major Craz asked.  “He might run into nathak or something.”

“This is Earth in the early twenty first century,” I said.  “There weren’t any colonies then.  And the next person who interrupts me gets punched in the face.  ‘Halfway up, he slips in the bad footing of the sand for the second or third time, and falls to his knees. He doesn't feel like getting back up - he'll just fall down again. So, he keeps going up the dune on his hand and knees.

‘While crawling, if his throat weren't so dry, he'd laugh. He's finally gotten to the hackneyed image of a man lost in the desert - crawling through the sand on his hands and knees. If would be the perfect image, he imagines, if only his clothes were more ragged. The people crawling through the desert in the cartoons always had ragged clothes.’”

“I don’t understand,” Commander Jupiter said.

“It’s like-did you ever watch Monty Python?” I asked.

“What’s that?” she asked.

“A comedy show from the nineteen sixties,” I said.  Everyone looked blank.  “No?” I asked.  “Never mind.  There used to be a bunch of cartoons of men crawling through deserts wearing ragged clothing asking for water.”

“Is that the punch line?” she asked.

I sighed.  “No, that’s not the punch line,” I said.  “You’ll know when I reach the punchline.  Anyway, ‘His have lasted without any rips so far. Somebody will probably find his desiccated corpse half buried in the sand years from now, and his clothes will still be in fine shape - shake the sand out, and a good wash, and they'd be wearable again. He wishes his throat were wet enough to laugh. He coughs a little instead, and it hurts.

‘He finally makes it to the top of the sand dune. Now that he's at the top, he struggles a little, but manages to stand up and look around. All he sees is sand. Sand, and more sand. Behind him, about a mile away, he thinks he sees the rocky ground he left to head into this sand. Ahead of him, more dunes, more sand. This isn't where he drove his SUV. This is Hell. Or close enough.

‘Again, he doesn't know what to do. He decides to drink the rest of the wiper fluid while figuring it out. He takes out the bottle, and is removing the cap, when he glances to the side and sees something. Something in the sand. At the bottom of the dune, off to the side, he sees something strange. It's a flat area, in the sand. He stops taking the cap of the bottle off, and tries to look closer. The area seems to be circular. And it's dark - darker than the sand. And, there seems to be something in the middle of it, but he can't tell what it is. He looks as hard as he can, and still can tell from here. He's going to have to go down there and look.’”

“An oasis?” Commander McDougal asked excitedly.  I glared at him.  “Sorry,” he mumbled sheepishly.

“’He puts the bottle back in his pocket, and starts to stumble down the dune,’” I continued.   “’After a few steps, he realizes that he's in trouble - he's not going to be able to keep his balance. After a couple of more sliding, tottering steps, he falls and starts to roll down the dune. The sand it so hot when his body hits it that for a minute he thinks he's caught fire on the way down - like a movie car wreck flashing into flames as it goes over the cliff, before it ever even hits the ground. He closes his eyes and mouth, covers his face with his hands, and waits to stop rolling.

“’He stops, at the bottom of the dune. After a minute or two, he finds enough energy to try to sit up and get the sand out of his face and clothes. When he clears his eyes enough, he looks around to make sure that the dark spot in the sand it still there and he hadn't just imagined it.

“’So, seeing the large, flat, dark spot on the sand is still there, he begins to crawl towards it. He'd get up and walk towards it, but he doesn't seem to have the energy to get up and walk right now. He must be in the final stages of dehydration he figures, as he crawls. If this place in the sand doesn't have water, he'll likely never make it anywhere else. This is his last chance.’”

“We’re coming into the LZ,” the shuttle pilot said.

“To be continued,” I said mysteriously.

.....

We arrived at the first outpost two days later.  To be honest, marching across the countryside on a stealth slash suicide mission was not nearly as exciting as I’d been led to believe.  It mostly meant walking silently and ducking out of the way of any potential surveillance that the batarians had set up.  It was the summer cycle for the northern hemisphere, which fortunately meant no rain, but did mean a great deal of humidity.

“So, this happen often?” Commander Jupiter asked dryly after my fifth asthma attack.

“Sure,” I said, putting my pump back in my BOL.  “When I’m forced to breathe in pure water, it happens all the time.”

“I’m surprised you made it through basic with lungs like those,” Major Craz said.

“I managed to impress the instructors with my winning personality and way with words,” I said. 

“Please,” Commander McDougal scoffed from behind me.  “We had a pool running on how long you’d last.”

“I know,” I said.  “Commander Anderson told me.  I believe you thought I wouldn’t last two days, yet somehow I managed to leave at the top of my year.  I then was the youngest person to ever be made an officer.”

“Gloating is a very ugly personality trait, girl,” he said.

“I wasn’t gloating sir,” I said.  “I was making the point that it is a sad day for humanity if I am the best soldier.”

“On that we are agreed, Shepard,” Commander Jupiter said.

“Ma’am, you were meant to say something along the lines of ‘That’s not true, Shepard, you’re a very good soldier’,” I protested.

“Yeah, I don’t really feel like it,” Commander Jupiter said.  She removed her helmet and wiped her forehead.

“And that’s when the hidden sniper blows your brains out,” I said, watching her.

“Anything’s better than listening to you talk,” she said.

“That’s just rude,” I mumbled.

.....

Outpost Snowbeam (I wanted to meet the stoner that came up with that interesting and somewhat ironical name) was a series of trenches dug into the side of a hill.

“Who goes there?” a voice called as we approached the foot of the hill.

“Answer him,” Commander Jupiter hissed, nudging me.

“Why me?” I whispered back.  “You’re the one in charge here, not me.”

“Yeah, which is why, if he’s particularly trigger happy, he’ll kill you, not me,” she whispered.

“I didn’t sign on for this, ma’am,” I mumbled.

“Yeah yeah, shut up,” she whispered.

“Who goes there?” the soldier repeated.

“Shaira the consort,” I said.

“Can I book you for the evening?” the soldier asked.

“Sure,” I said.  “I charge fifty billion credits a minute.”

“For fuck’s sake, Shepard,” Commander Jupiter snapped.  “I am Commander Luna Jupiter, commanding officer of Company Six Marine Corps Scout Snipers.  I have with me Commander Angus McDougal of the Fifth Ground Regiment, Special Forces and Major Ajen Craz of the Third Ground Regiment, Special Forces, as well as a selection of our men.  We would like to see your commanding officer, soldier.”

The soldier frowned suspiciously.  “Prove it,” he said. 

“I-what?” Commander Jupiter asked in confusion.  “Is there a secret password that I should know, Shepard?” she hissed at me.

“How the fuck should I know?” I hissed back.  “I wasn’t invited to last year’s stupid idiot convention.  Ask him how we should prove it.”

“How should we prove who we are?” she asked.

“You could be batarian spies or something,” the soldier said.  “Prove to me you’re not.”

“We’re human, you moron,” she snapped.  “How much more proof do you need?”

“You never know…” he began.

“Ok, listen up mutton chop,” I said.  “This is Commander Luna Jupiter.  A couple of years ago she was real famous for holding onto a Skyllian town against the batarians.  I’m sure you heard of her.  The hero of Paz Nuevo, sound familiar?”

“Well-,” the soldier hesitated.

“I am Lieutenant Jane Shepard, famed for making a fool of myself on galactic TV on the turian colony Taetrus when I was nineteen,” I continued.  “You must have seen it, everyone else in the galaxy did.  I was training to bring a better class of marine to the Alliance.  This is Commander Angus McDougal, who I am sure did a number of impressive things against the batarians, none of which made it to common knowledge.  This is Major thingy Craz, who has yet to make any kind of impression.  Give him time, I’m sure he’ll get there.”

“Lieutenant,” Major Craz said warningly.

“Anyway, the point is, what are the odds that any of us are working for the batarians?” I asked.

“Corporal Lewis,” a voice called and a face peered worriedly over the guard post.  He caught sight of us.  “Christ, you fool, what are you doing?” he snapped at Corporal Lewis.

“My job, Lieutenant,” Corporal Lewis said promptly.

“Commander Jupiter, Lieutenant Shepard, I’m so sorry,” the lieutenant said.  “Please come down.”

“They could be batarian spies, sir,” Corporal Lewis said.

“Jane Shepard and Luna Jupiter batarian spies, Lewis, don’t be ridiculous,” the lieutenant said.  “I really must apologise for Corporal Lewis’s behaviour, we’re all a bit on edge,” he continued, leading us down the trench.  “My name is Chester, pardon me, Lieutenant Chester Jones, and it’s really an honour to meet you both.  I am a huge fan.”

“I’m Commander Angus McDougal,” Commander McDougal said, pushing past me.

Lieutenant Jones studied him for a moment, then turned his back on him.  “I’ll take you before our commander,” he said.  “It’s just this way.”

“Is there somewhere where we can bed down?” Commander Jupiter said.  “It’s been a long march and the men are rather tired.”

“Of course,” Lieutenant Jones said.  He grabbed a soldier walking past us.  “Private, take Commander Jupiter’s men to bunk two.”

The private saluted.  “Aye sir,” she said.  “Follow me.”

“Shepard, go with and make sure the men are settled,” Commander Jupiter said.

“No, Lieutenant Shepard needs to meet the commander,” Lieutenant Jones said.  “He’s a huge fan.”

“Uh, ok,” Commander Jupiter looked slightly concerned.  “Major Craz, command one of your officers to settle the men.”

“Aye aye commander,” Major Craz said.  “Um Lieutenant Liun, settle the men.”

Lieutenant Liun saluted and followed the private away.

“When you say a huge fan, how huge?” I asked.  “I’m asking because I’m wondering if I should put earplugs in.  I have a lot of people who scream when they see me.”

“He’s fairly into you,” Lieutenant Jones said.  “This is the officer’s bunker.”

He pushed the blanket that served as a door aside and led us into the bunker.  I walked in and paused, blinking.

“Holy…” Commander Jupiter’s voice trailed off.

“This has to be a joke,” Commander McDougal said.

“Wow, kief,” Major Craz said.

“What did you just say?” Commander Jupiter asked.

“Kief,” Major Craz said.  “It’s South African slang.”

Every single surface was covered in posters of me.  “I thought you said fairly,” I said to Lieutenant Jones.

A loud scream came from one of the camp beds.  “Lieutenant Jane Shepard, in my bunker, omigod omigod omigod,” a short, balding man squealed, springing to his feet.  All four of us winced.

“Yeah, um, hi,” I said.   I looked around at the photos of me.  Most of them were paparazzi shots of me, but I caught sight of a clearly photoshopped one of me in the nude.  “Just so you know,” I said.  “My breasts aren’t nearly that big.”

“So modest, so modest,” the commander said.

“No, she’s telling the truth,” Commander Jupiter said.  “Those are melons in comparison to her real boobs.”

“What does it matter?” the commander said.  “My name is Commander Holiday and it is an honour to meet you, Lieutenant.”

“Uh sure,” I said.  “So, anyone you’re having sex with can be said to be going on Holiday?”

“My name is Commander Jupiter and I’m in command of the men here,” Commander Jupiter cut in.

“A pleasure to meet you, Commander,” Commander Holiday said.  “May I have an autograph, Lieutenant?”

“Can we first finish our business here, then I’d be happy to do whatever you want,” I said.

“Will you go on Holiday?” he asked hopefully.

“Anything but that,” I said.

.....

After we’d spoken to Commander Holiday, Commander Jupiter dismissed us.  I wasn’t really tired, so I decided to catch up on some well-deserved reading.  Unfortunately, I didn’t get very far with this.

“Scoot over,” Commander Jupiter said, sliding into the bed next to me.

“Uh, sure,” I said.  “What can I do for you, ma’am?”

“This isn’t an official military operation, so I don’t mind if you call me Luna,” Commander Jupiter said.  “How does it feel to be one of two famous female Alliance soldiers?”

“Um-,” I began.

“It pisses me the fuck off,” she continued.  “Just because I’m a woman I can’t be a soldier too?  For Christ’s sake, this is the twenty second century.  Surely we’ve moved past all that.”

“Well, for the record, what you achieved in Paz Nuevo would have been miraculous even for a man,” I said.

“I did my job,” she corrected.  “I shouldn’t receive commendation for doing something I get paid to do.”

“I guess,” I said.  “I mean the only thing I managed to do was not die.  How is that grounds for fame?”

“Exactly,” Commander Jupiter said.  “That’s my point.”

“You’re not very good at this compliments thing, are you ma’am?” I asked.

“Luna, Shepard, and no, I grew up on the streets,” she said.  “Compliments weren’t exactly things we were taught growing up.”

“Right,” I said.  “Can I ask you something?  Off the record.”

“Go for it,” she said.

“Is this a suicide mission?”

“Possibly,” she said.  “If it is, I haven’t been briefed.”

“Isn’t that against regulations?” I asked.

“Does it matter?” she asked.  “We’re here now.  We can’t exactly turn around and go back now, can we?”

“I guess,” I said.

“If I were you, I’d start praying to that God of yours for protection,” she said.  “Now, will you tell me more of that joke?”

“Sure,” I said.  “’He gets closer and closer, but still can't see what's in the middle of the dark area. His eyes won't quite focus any more for some reason. And lifting his head up to look takes so much effort that he gives up trying. He just keeps crawling.

’Finally, he reaches the area he'd seen from the dune. It takes him a minute of crawling on it before he realizes that he's no longer on sand - he's now crawling on some kind of dark stone. Stone with some kind of marking on it - a pattern cut into the stone. He's too tired to stand up and try to see what the pattern is - so he just keeps crawling. He crawls towards the centre, where his blurry eyes still see something in the middle of the dark stone area.

’His mind, detached in a strange way, notes that either his hands and knees are so burnt by the sand that they no longer feel pain, or that this dark stone, in the middle of a burning desert with a pounding, punishing sun overhead, doesn't seem to be hot. It almost feels cool. He considers lying down on the nice cool surface.

’Cool, dark stone. Not a good sign. He must be hallucinating this. He's probably in the middle of a patch of sand, already lying face down and dying, and just imagining this whole thing. A desert mirage. Soon the beautiful women carrying pitchers of water will come up and start giving him a drink. Then he'll know he's gone.

’He decides against laying down on the cool stone. If he's going to die here in the middle of this hallucination, he at least wants to see what's in the centre before he goes. He keeps crawling.

‘It's the third time that he hears the voice before he realizes what he's hearing. He would swear that someone just said, "Greetings, traveller. You do not look well. Do you hear me?"

’He stops crawling. He tries to look up from where he is on his hands and knees, but it's too much effort to lift his head. So he tries something different - he leans back and tries to sit up on the stone. After a few seconds, he catches his balance, avoids falling on his face, sits up, and tries to focus his eyes. Blurry. He rubs his eyes with the back of his hands and tries again. Better this time.

’Yep. He can see. He's sitting in the middle of a large, flat, dark expanse of stone. Directly next to him, about three feet away, is a white post or pole about two inches in diameter and sticking up about four or five feet out of the stone, at an angle.

’And wrapped around this white rod, tail with rattle on it hovering and seeming to be ready to start rattling, is what must be a fifteen foot long desert diamondback rattlesnake, looking directly at him.

‘He stares at the snake in shock. He doesn't have the energy to get up and run away. He doesn't even have the energy to crawl away. This is it, his final resting place. No matter what happens, he's not going to be able to move from this spot.

’Well, at least dying of a bite from this monster should be quicker than dying of thirst. He'll face his end like a man. He struggles to sit up a little straighter. The snake keeps watching him. He lifts one hand and waves it in the snake's direction, feebly. The snake watches the hand for a moment, then goes back to watching the man, looking into his eyes.

’Hmmm. Maybe the snake had no interest in biting him? It hadn't rattled yet - that was a good sign. Maybe he wasn't going to die of snake bite after all.

‘He then remembers that he'd looked up when he'd reached the centre here because he thought he'd heard a voice. He was still very woozy - he was likely to pass out soon, the sun still beat down on him even though he was now on cool stone. He still didn't have anything to drink. But maybe he had actually heard a voice. This stone didn't look natural. Nor did that white post sticking up out of the stone. Someone had to have built this. Maybe they were still nearby. Maybe that was who talked to him. Maybe this snake was even their pet, and that's why it wasn't biting.

’He tries to clear his throat to say, "Hello," but his throat is too dry. All that comes out is a coughing or wheezing sound. There is no way he's going to be able to talk without something to drink. He feels his pocket, and the bottle with the wiper fluid is still there. He shakily pulls the bottle out, almost losing his balance and falling on his back in the process. This isn't good. He doesn't have much time left, by his reckoning, before he passes out.

’He gets the lid off of the bottle, manages to get the bottle to his lips, and pours some of the fluid into his mouth. He sloshes it around, and then swallows it. He coughs a little. His throat feels better. Maybe he can talk now.

’He tries again. Ignoring the snake, he turns to look around him, hoping to spot the owner of this place, and croaks out, "Hello? Is there anyone here?"

’He hears, from his side, "Greetings. What is it that you want?"

’He turns his head, back towards the snake. That's where the sound had seemed to come from. The only thing he can think of is that there must be a speaker, hidden under the snake, or maybe built into that post. He decides to try asking for help.

’"Please," he croaks again, suddenly feeling dizzy, "I'd love to not be thirsty any more. I've been a long time without water. Can you help me?"

’Looking in the direction of the snake, hoping to see where the voice was coming from this time, he is shocked to see the snake rear back, open its mouth, and speak. He hears it say, as the dizziness overtakes him and he falls forward, face first on the stone, "Very well. Coming up."

’A piercing pain shoots through his shoulder. Suddenly he is awake. He sits up and grabs his shoulder, wincing at the throbbing pain. He's momentarily disoriented as he looks around, and then he remembers - the crawl across the sand, the dark area of stone, the snake. He sees the snake, still wrapped around the tilted white post, still looking at him.

“’He reaches up and feels his shoulder, where it hurts. It feels slightly wet. He pulls his fingers away and looks at them - blood. He feels his shoulder again - his shirt has what feels like two holes in it - two puncture holes - they match up with the two aching spots of pain on his shoulder. He had been bitten. By the snake.

“’"It'll feel better in a minute." He looks up - it's the snake talking. He hadn't dreamed it. Suddenly he notices - he's not dizzy any more. And more importantly, he's not thirsty any more - at all!

“’"Have I died? Is this the afterlife? Why are you biting me in the afterlife?"

“’"Sorry about that, but I had to bite you," says the snake. "That's the way I work. It all comes through the bite. Think of it as natural medicine."

“’"You bit me to help me? Why aren't I thirsty anymore? Did you give me a drink before you bit me? How did I drink enough while unconscious to not be thirsty anymore? I haven't had a drink for over two days. Well, except for the windshield wiper fluid... hold it, how in the world does a snake talk? Are you real? Are you some sort of Disney animation?"

“’"No," says the snake, "I'm real. As real as you or anyone is, anyway. I didn't give you a drink. I bit you. That's how it works - it's what I do. I bite. I don't have hands to give you a drink, even if I had water just sitting around here."

There was a loud snore.  Commander Jupiter had fallen asleep against my shoulder.  “I’m glad I entertain you so,” I mumbled and carefully got out of bed.  I crawled into her bed and fell straight to sleep.

.....

We left Outpost Snowbeam at dawn the next morning (after I posed for a photo with Commander Holiday).

“What the hell does he see in you?” Commander Jupiter asked in amazement as we marched off into the distance.

“A fat pay cheque and a girl that can wear high heels and still be shorter than him,” I answered.

“He’d have to sew your mouth shut if he wanted any peace and quiet though,” she mumbled. 

Fortunately, our visits to the other outposts were less dramatic.  We ate with the other outposts who couldn’t really care less if we had Councillor Tarquin in our midst.  What I did notice however was that every single soldier at every single outpost had either already had a nervous breakdown or was on the verge of having one.

“We’ve been here for eight months,” one private told me at Outpost Rainman, the fourth outpost the Alliance had established.  “We can’t stick our noses out of these trenches without permission from the major, because the Spiders are barely five miles from us, and will shoot the Jesus out of us if they find out we’re here.  I haven’t had a smoke in almost a year.”

Travelling between outposts was becoming increasingly dangerous for us, as we travelled deeper and deeper into batarian territory.  On several occasions we had to sneak past batarian camps that were less than five hundred metres from us.  Finally, twenty two days after we’d left the Everest, we reached the seventh and final outpost the Alliance had in the Montenegro region, Outpost Ground Zero.  We were taken before the commanding officer, Commander Karas, by a miserable-looking private.

“Cheer up, soldier,” Commander McDougal said.  “This will be over soon.”

“I’ve been here for a year and two months now sir,” the private said.  “I haven’t heard from my husband in all that time.  He could be dead for all I know.  He probably thinks I’ve forgotten him.”

“He’s right, sir,” I said.  “They could at least tell relatives that they’re missing in action or something.”

The private glared at me.  “Is that supposed to cheer me up?” he asked.

“What you choose to take from my wisdom is up to you, private,” I said.  “I just stand around and make random statements.”

Commander Karas looked quite surprised to see us.  “It’s not often we get visitors here,” he said.  “We’re taken by surprised.”

“I knew he looked surprised,” I said.

Commander Karas gave me a confused look.  One of his lieutenants, a first lieutenant tapped him on the shoulder.  “Sir, ask if they have chocolate pudding,” he said in a stage whisper.

“For God’s sake man, is that all you can think about?” the second lieutenant snapped.  “Get a grip, these people are brand spanking new.  Even they’re armour shines.”

“Can you two not go five minutes without fighting?” the staff lieutenant, who had the letters ‘XO’ spray painted onto his helmet, asked tiredly. 

“You always take his side,” the second lieutenant complained.

“Hey dickface,” the first lieutenant snapped.  “Rotate on this.”

“I swear, I will turn this war around and…” the staff lieutenant began.

“That’s enough,” Commander Karas snapped.  All three the lieutenants jumped to attention.  “What brings you into this neck of the woods, Commander Jupiter?” he asked more quietly.

“We need to infiltrate Vrishnah Camp, the PoW camp near Montenegro,” Commander Jupiter said.  “We have to stage a rescue operation.”

Commander Karas, his staff lieutenant, his second lieutenant and his first lieutenant all burst out laughing.  “Good one, Commander, very good,” Commander Karas said, wiping his eyes.  “Why are you really here?”

“I just told you,” she said.

“You weren’t joking?” he asked.  “Who are you rescuing?”

“It’s classified,” she said.

“Classified, huh?” he asked.  “Well, then let me be the first to wish you good luck on your journey into the next life.”

“We won’t fail,” she said with more confidence than I felt.

“Good for you,” Commander Karas said.  “Unfortunately, my men and women have been through too much already, and will not be joining you.”

“I understand,” Commander Jupiter said.  “I was told that you have been doing recon on Vrishnah.”

“We have,” he said.  “We’ve sent several recon drones over the camp.  They told us that it’s impenetrable.”

“Do you have watch details?” Commander Jupiter asked.

“No, but I’m sure we can get them,” Commander Karas said.

“No need,” Commander Jupiter said.  She turned to me.  “Your drone can get us the intel we need, can’t it?”

“Let’s ask,” I said.  “Freddie?”

“Still alive, are you?” it asked, popping out of my omnitool.

“For the moment, although it looks like that’s going to change soon,” I said.

“Can’t wait,” it said.  “What can I do to worsen your life?”

“If I gave you the coordinates of an enemy camp, could you do some stealth recon for me?” I asked.  “Find out watch times, weak points, fortifications, that kind of thing?”

“I could try although the Overlord wouldn’t be very happy,” Freddie said.

“Well, I’m sure he’ll understand if you explain it to him later,” I said.  “Report back in two days, and try not to be seen.”

“Two days?” it squeaked.  “Do I look like I’m made of an unlimited battery, woman?”

“Jason told me you could go several days without recharging, now that he’s upgraded you again,” I said.  “Come on, I’ve some lovely porn that someone keeps randomly sending me for you to eat afterwards.”

“Fine,” Freddie sighed.  “See you in hell, Kenny.”  It disappeared.

“You know, our drones could do the same thing, minus the attitude,” Commander Karas said. 

“Right,” Commander Jupiter said.  “I just enjoy watching that thing insult the crap out of Lieutenant Shepard.”

“Aye ma’am,” I said.  “Proud to serve.”

.....

Freddie brought the data needed back two days later, and by that evening we had come up with an adequate battle plan that at least would not get us killed within five minutes.  We then assembled the squad together and presented the plan to them.  They were not happy.

“Are you fucking serious?” one of Major Craz’s men asked in amazement.  “We marched all the way across fucking Skyllia to be captured or killed.”

“Chief Alad,” Major Craz said.  “We won’t get captured or killed.  This plan will work.”

Chief Alad snorted.  “Yeah it will,” he said.

An NCO on Commander McDougal’s squad said, “We might be able to get in alright, but getting out will be a bitch.”

Commander Jupiter sighed.  “Look, I know it seems crazy, but it’s imperative we get into that camp and rescue this man,” she said.

“Who are we rescuing?” another of Major Craz’s men asked.  “It’d help if we had some idea.”

“Commander Anderson,” Commander McDougal answered.

There were murmurs around the dugout.  Everyone knew Commander Anderson, if not personally, by reputation.

“I know you’re scared, I know you don’t really believe in us, but this is a real chance for us to turn the war around,” Commander Jupiter said.  I frowned in confusion.  This seemed like a really weird way to start a pep talk.  I glanced at her face and saw panic in her face for the very first time since I started serving with her.

“As this is such a high risk mission however, I will follow what protocol says and give you all a choice,” she continued.  “You don’t have to fight with us if you don’t want to, but do know you will be missing out on the chance to succeed and then be treated like kings and queens by the others in the Alliance.  Who’s with me?”

Not a single hand was raised.  I didn’t blame anyone.  Commander Jupiter threw me a look of pure desperation.  I decided to step in for all our sakes.

“Alright, listen up,” I said, stepping forward.  Everyone turned to stare at me.  “I understand you’re scared, you think this mission is a losing prospect, there’s no way we can succeed.  However, I want y’all to think about this.  The person in command here is Commander Luna Jupiter, the one who pretty much single-handedly held off a batarian invasion without losing a single person.  If she can do that with untrained civilians, why can’t she do that with highly-trained marines?  It’s said that the Alliance has the best marines in the galaxy, that’s you.  You need to start believing that.  You need to start trusting that we, the officers in charge of you, will do the best we can to keep you all alive.  And whilst you’re all thinking about that, think about this.  The eyes of the Joint Military Council are on us.  Do you honestly think they’ll let it slide if we just pack it in and go home?  Fuck no.  I don’t trust the batarians, but I do trust the Alliance, and I know they will do whatever they can to win this war.”  I paused.  “So, now that you’ve had a good think, let’s ask this again.  Who’s with us?”

Everyone raised their hands.  

I smiled.  “Commander Jupiter,” I said.  “The men are yours.”

.....

Later that evening I was walking along one of the trenches when Commander Jupiter caught up to me.  “Thank you,” she said.

I frowned.  “For what?” I asked, somewhat stupidly.

“For helping me out earlier,” she said.  “With the…pep talk.”

“Oh,” I said.  “You’re welcome.”

“It’s always been my weakness,” she said.  “Skye’s brilliant at it.  Scares the shit out of soldiers so that they follow him.  I always get kind of uncomfortable about the whole thing.  I mean, I can see why soldiers would not want to follow certain orders.  It makes it kind of difficult to inspire them.”

“Yeah, I’m far more selfish than that,” I said.  “I don’t want to die, and I know I won’t survive without the support of a squad.”

“Well, it works,” Commander Jupiter said.  “You know, Shepard, you’d make a very good N7 officer.”

“You’re the first person in the galaxy to ever think that, ma’am,” I said, grinning.

.....

We left at dawn the next morning.  Commander Jupiter and I would be stationed at a hill approximately one mile outside of Vrishnah Camp.

“So, what do you suppose the outcome of this will be?” I murmured as we set our scopes and rifles up.

“Well, we’ll either be humungous heroes or corpses,” Commander Jupiter replied.  She sighted down the scope of her sniper rifle.  “Are you ready?” she asked me.

“To become a corpse?” I asked.  “Not a fucking chance.”

“I meant are you ready now?” she asked. 

“Well, who’s every ready for this sort of thing?” I asked rhetorically.

“I meant to start the mission,” she said impatiently.  “Don’t make me regret bringing you along.”

“You didn’t bring me along, ma’am, fate decided to throw in its hand in this occurrence,” I said.

“Shepard,” she began.

“Physically, affirmative, I’m ready,” I said.  “Emotionally is a whole other can of worms.”

“Did you take your procramonol this morning?” she asked.

“Yup,” I said.  “That shit doesn’t work on me though.”

“Whatever,” she mumbled.  “Check, team Charlie is in position.  Repeat, team Charlie is in position, over.”

“Acknowledged,” came the reply.  “Team Able and team Baker are twenty minutes out.”

“Roger team Able,” Commander Jupiter said.  “We will wait for your go.  Charlie out.”

“Do you reckon I’ll get another medal for this?” I asked.

Commander Jupiter rolled her eyes.  “If anyone gets a medal, it’s me,” she said.  “I came up with the battle plan, and I’m in command here.”

“Good,” I said.  “I’m running out of space on my jacket, and I still want to get the Cross.”

“How the hell does Antonio bare being partnered with you?” Commander Jupiter asked rhetorically.

“She threatens to beat me up,” I said.  “I don’t take her too seriously.  I once took on a guy who was a full foot and a half taller than me.  He broke my face, but in the end I got the better of him.”

“He probably killed himself afterwards,” Commander Jupiter said.

“I doubt Mahlberg has the brainpower to kill himself,” I said.

“Teams Able and Baker are in position, waiting your word,” Commander McDougal said into the radio.

“Copy, Able and Baker, we are a-go,” Commander Jupiter said.  “We are a-go.  Good luck.”

“Roger,” Commander McDougal said.  “Team Able, go, go, go.”

I took a deep breath, sighted down my rifle and shot one of the guards in the tower in the head.

I would forever be amazed at the speed of the reaction of the batarian soldiers.  Teams Able and Baker had barely fired off three rounds when the batarians were already returning fire.  “Shit,” Commander Jupiter mumbled.

I watched as a group of Fifth Regiment soldiers were gunned down.  “It’s too much,” I heard one of the Third Regiment privates say.

“Orders, ma’am,” I said, turning to Commander Jupiter.

She sniped another batarian.  “Hold position,” she said calmly.

“Hold-are you out of your mind?” I asked.  “They’re being slaughtered.”

“Yes they are,” she said.  “Now earn your pay, soldier.”

I sighed and shot down another batarian.  “I wonder what heaven’s like,” I mumbled.

There was a loud bang, and Commander Jupiter crumpled.  “Ma’am?” I asked. She sat up.  “Are you ok?” I asked.

“They’re coming at us from behind,” she snapped at me.

I turned and saw a squad running up the hill towards us.  I drew my pistol, and started firing.  “Where are you hit?” I shouted at Commander Jupiter.

“My leg,” she said.  “I’ll be ok.”

A bullet whizzed past my ear.  “We’re too much in the open here,” I said.  “We need to move.”

“Leave me,” she said.  “Save yourself.”

“Oh God, please don’t tell me you’re going to give me that platitude,” I said.  “We’re both getting out of here.”

The only direction we could go was towards the camp.  I shot a few more rounds at the batarians, changed clips, and looked over the rock that was our cover.  A few metres below us was a dense clump of bushes.  Risky, but it seemed like our best option.

“Don’t be so fucking selfless, Shepard,” Commander Jupiter said irritably.

“Shut up,” I said.  I threw a grenade at the batarians, who had taken cover behind a shrub, grabbed her under the armpits and pulled her over the rocks.  She gave a loud cry as her leg jarred against the rocks.

I pulled her upright.  “You’re going to have to help me out here, Commander,” I said.  “I’m not strong enough to carry you.”

I pulled her arm over my shoulder and we started down the hill.  We travelled far slower than I’d hoped, and we were barely halfway to the bushes when the bullets started flying around us.  New plan.

I pushed Commander Jupiter in down in the direction of the bushes, and threw myself after her.  My inertia carried me further than I’d intended and I rolled down the hill past the bushes and landed at the feet of a batarian squad.

They looked down at me in surprise.  I looked up at them in equal shock.

“Erm, take me to your leader?” I asked tentatively in protha.

The leader raised his rifle and bashed me hard on the head with the butt.  I passed out immediately.

.....

I came to with my head on someone’s shoulder.  “I should have said I come in peace,” I mumbled, opening my eyes.  My head was throbbing and the sunlight was bright, making it difficult for me to see what was happening around me.

“Rise and shine,” Commander McDougal said dryly.  “Only you would think that throwing your commanding officer down a mountain is a good idea.”

“Did it work?” I asked urgently, sitting up straight, and wincing as the sudden movement hit my head.  “Is Commander Jupiter alive?”

“Right here, lieutenant,” Commander Jupiter said from my right.

I turned to her.  Her face was bruised and her left leg was covered in blood, but she seemed no worse for wear.  It was then that I noticed that we were in what could only be described as ‘a bit of a pickle’.

We were sitting on the floor against the wall of a building.  My right leg was chained to Commander Jupiter’s left leg, and Commander McDougal’s right leg was chained to my left leg.  All down the row sat five soldiers, all that was left of the squad we had brought with.  In front of us stood three batarian soldiers, who were questioning Major Craz. 

“They’re processing us,” Commander McDougal said.  “Don’t forget, lieutenant, you are obliged to give only your name, rank and number.”

“Thank you sir, I actually do remember most of my protocol lessons,” I said.  “I just choose not to follow them.”  I tried shifting my weight into a more comfortable position, and Commander Jupiter gave a loud hiss of pain.

“Has anyone given her something for the pain?” I asked Commander McDougal, who shrugged.  “Excuse me,” I said in protha to a passing soldier.  “My commander was injured and is in a lot of pain.  Can I have her satchel so that I can give her something for the pain?”

The batarian looked at me blankly.  “A doctor will see her after she’s been processed,” he said.

One of the soldiers led Major Craz away, whilst another undid the manacles attaching Commander McDougal to me and led him to the three that were processing soldiers.

“So, what happens now?” I asked Commander Jupiter.

She shrugged.  “We keep our mouths shut,” she said.  She glanced at my face.  “That’s quite a nasty cut,” she said.  “You’d better see the doctor too when you’ve been processed.”

I nodded, and said nothing else, but I couldn’t help but remember how Com Officer Bharesh had said that we were on our own.  The Alliance was unlikely to send a second rescue team, unless they wanted them to be taken prisoner as well.  And there were only two days left to the end of the month, which was when Commander Anderson would be executed.

My musings were cut short by a batarian soldier unchaining me from Commander Jupiter, who gave a loud cry when the chain jerked her leg.  “Careful,” I snapped.

“Shut it, human,” the soldier snapped back, rapping me sharply over the head with his rifle.  He led me to the three soldiers, who looked at me through their eight eyes.

“Name,” the middle one, who seemed to be the leader, asked in protha.

“Second Lieutenant Jane Shepard,” I said.  One of the other batarians typed it into a datapad.

“Number,” the middle batarian asked.

“132774N6,” I recited.

“Which company do you serve with?” the middle batarian asked.

I sighed and tried to keep my face as calm as possible.  “I don’t have to tell you that,” I said neutrally.

“This fucking protocol is going to kill me,” he said in batarian.  He signalled one of the other soldiers.  “Officer Salek, put this human with the others.”

The soldier grabbed me under the shoulders and put me upright.  “Wait,” the soldier on the right said in batarian.  “I think I recognise this human.  Isn’t she the one that survived the thresher maw attack on Akuze.”

I desperately tried to pretend I didn’t understand what they were saying.  “She might be,” the leader said, examining my face.  “All humans look alike to me.”

“It’s the same name,” the soldier on the left said.  “And the squad that captured her found two sniper rifles near where they were caught.  That Jane Shepard is a sniper.”

The leader turned to Commander Jupiter and stared at her.  “Human, what is your name, rank and number?” he snapped at her in protha. 

Commander Jupiter’s face was deadly pale, the ground around her soaked in blood.  “Commander Luna Jupiter, 139726N7,” she whispered.

“No way,” the soldier on the left said.  “Surely the Alliance is not so stupid.”

The middle soldier frowned.  “Put them with the other one,” he said at last.  “Call the doctor to see to that one’s wounds.”

One of the soldiers unchained Commander Jupiter from the others and he and five others led us away from the squad.  The camp was made up of a number of wooden huts, but there was something odd about the whole place.  We’d almost walked to the other side of the camp before it hit me.

“Where are the prisoners?” I asked Commander Jupiter.

She looked at me as if I was the stupidest person in the galaxy, which I probably was.  “Inside the huts,” she said.

Well, duh.  We were taken to a hut on the far side of the camp, outside of which was posted ten guards.  “We’re to put these two in with him,” one of our guards said.  “We’ll search them inside.”

The guards opened the door.  “Against the wall,” one shouted and there was the rattling of chains, no doubt as the prisoner inside was restrained so that we could be led in.

Inside, the hut was very dimly lit, and I could barely discern the outline of the occupant of the hut chained against the far wall.  Commander Jupiter was kept in the doorway whilst I was asked to strip.

“You know, guys usually buy me dinner before I allow them to see me like this,” I said conversationally in protha as I peeled my UL off.

“Jesus H. Christ,” I heard the occupant of the hut mutter.

“Silence,” one of the batarians snapped.

I finished undressing.  “Against the wall,” a guard ordered and leaned against the wall.  “Hands in the air,” he ordered.  “Spread your legs.”

“Yup, that’s a real vagina,” I said as he patted me down.  “Bet you haven’t seen one of those in a while.  Unless of course your women don’t have a vagina.  Cos I’ve always wondered.”

“Shut up,” the guard snapped, punching me in the small of the back.

“Holy crap, are you trying to cripple me before we get to the fucking main event?” I snapped, wincing.

“No one said she had such a fucking big mouth,” another of the guards said in batarian.

“It doesn’t matter,” the one who’d punched me said.  “Hopefully that mouth will say something useful by the end of this.”  He tossed a green jumpsuit that was miles too big for me at me.  “Get dressed,” he ordered in protha.

I dressed as Commander Jupiter was searched, then allowed myself to be chained and stood in the doorway.  When Commander Jupiter was dressed in an identical jumpsuit to mine, we were unchained.

“Be good,” a guard said as he unchained our roommate.

The door slammed shut behind the guards.  I squinted through the gloom at our companion.  “Well Ken, I wish I could say it’s good to see you, but I’m afraid you may well be another form of torture employed by our captures to break me,” Commander Anderson said. 

At that moment Commander Jupiter collapsed behind me, cutting off any witty retort I might have thrown at him.

.....

A doctor arrived five minutes later to examine Commander Jupiter.  Commander Anderson looked minutely at my face in the light cast by the doctor’s lamp.  “Well, Ken, you haven’t aged a day,” he said.  He had lost a lot of weight since I’d last seen him two years ago, and his face was covered in cuts and bruises.  He had a bandage wrapped around his right leg and a second bandage on his right arm.

“Are you fucking kidding me?” I snapped.  “It’s been six years since I first met you, and you’re telling me that in all that time I’ve gained one year?”

“How are your arms, Ken?” Commander Anderson said.

“Fine, they only hit my he-wait a minute,” I said.  “You ain’t got no authority in here, sonny boy.  I don’t have to do any push-ups for you.”

“Yeah, well, test me enough, and we’ll see how accurate that statement is,” Commander Anderson said.  He watched as the doctor poured some water over the wound on Commander Jupiter’s leg.  “So, what the hell are you two doing here?” he asked.

“We’re rescuing you,” I said.  “Obviously.”

“Well, you did a piss poor job of it, since we’re now all locked up,” Commander Anderson said.  “Although, I suppose since you were involved, the odds weren’t exactly in your favour.  Was it just the two of you?”

I shook my head.  “There are about six of us in the camp,” I said.  “They separated Jupiter and me out.”

“Of course, you two are moderately famous,” Commander Anderson said.  “What’s the date, by the way?”

“July twenty ninth,” I said.

“Two days to go,” Commander Anderson said.

The doctor looked up.  “It’s no good,” he told one of the guards in batarian.  “The bullet is lodged inside.  I’ll have to operate.”

“Do what you can,” the guard said.  “The Hegemony needs her.”

“What?” Commander Jupiter said in alarm.  “What did you say?”

The doctor looked down at her.  “You’re going to be ok,” he said in protha.  “Don’t worry, I’ll look after you.”  He stood up and went over to the guard.  “Have someone prepare the surgery.”

Commander Anderson was examining my face, a frown etched on his forehead.  “Can I help you, sir?” I asked irritably.

“I was trying to work out what’s more annoying about you, your face or your mouth,” he said calmly.

The doctor came over to us.  “I need to operate on your friend,” he said to us in protha. 

“Will she be ok?” I blurted out.

“More than likely,” the doctor said.  “I’ll look after her.  Are there any diseases or disorders I should know about?”

“Well, I have asthma, and an egg allergy,” I said.

“He means her, you eleven year old fool,” Commander Anderson said tiredly.

“Right,” I said.  “Um, I think she has anaemia, but that’s it as far as I know.”

“Thank you,” the doctor said.  “I don’t think she trusts me.  Can you talk to her, tell her what’s happening?”

“Ok,” I said.  The doctor led me to Commander Jupiter’s side.  “Ma’am, can you hear me?”

“Unfortunately,” she mumbled.

“Ok, I’ll ignore that,” I said.  “The batarian doctor needs to operate on you.”

“Why?” she asked.

I opened my mouth then paused.  I turned deliberately to the doctor.  “She wants to know what the operation is for,” I said in protha.

“The bullet is lodged in her leg,” he answered.  “If we don’t get it out it will cause an infection and she’ll lose her leg.”

“He said the bullet is trapped in your-,” I began in English.

“I know Shepard, I can speak protha,” she said.  She turned to the doctor.  “How risky is this operation?”

“I’ll admit, there is a chance that things could go very wrong, especially given the facilities we have here,” the doctor said.  “And there is a chance of infection.  But, if we leave the bullet in, you will get an infection, we will need to amputate, and the chances of you dying during that operation is so much higher.”

She shrugged.  “Alright,” she said.  “What the fuck do I have to lose?”

.....

They brought her back four hours later.  I’d spent this time trying to ask Commander Anderson questions, and was met with muttered sighs and violent glares.  Eventually I gave up. 

She was still unconscious. “She should make a full recovery,” the doctor said.  “Just keep the wound clean and have your guards call me if there’s any sign of fever and nausea.”  I nodded and he turned to Commander Anderson.  “How are the burns?” he asked.

“Burning,” Commander Anderson said shortly.

“Keep applying that ointment I gave you,” the doctor said.  “If you ever get back to Alliance space, you’ll be able to get surgery to hide the scars.”

“This is Alliance space,” Commander Anderson snapped.

“Ah, I see, and we’re just borrowing Skyllia for the weekend,” the doctor laughed.  “Deal with it, Commander.  We’ve won and you’ve lost.  You’re all just too stubborn to admit it.”

“I’ll admit it,” I mumbled.

“You know, I feel the sudden urge to punch the first thing I see with more than two eyes,” Commander Anderson said, getting slowly to his feet.

“Sit back down,” a guard said sharply.

“You’re making me want to say ‘make me’,” Commander Anderson snapped.

They did.  The door slammed behind them and Commander Anderson spat a mouthful of blood onto the floor.  “You clearly don’t know much about having a smart mouth,” I said sagely.  “It’s more than just saying the first thing that pops into your head.”

“Oh Christ, I can’t believe I’m spending my final days in the galaxy with you of all people,” Commander Anderson muttered.  “Please, Ken, since you are such an expert, tell me how I could have done things differently earlier.”

“Well, sure, you can insult them, but then always insult yourself too,” I said.  “So, say something like, ‘I feel like punching something with more than two eyes, and, trust me, you don’t want to be taken by a short-arse like me.’.”

“That might work for you, Ken, but there’s nothing about me that anyone can insult,” he said.

“That one was actually for you, sir,” I said, leaning back against the wall.

“I-what?” he spluttered.  “I’m not short, boy.”

“You are kinda,” I said.  “Sorry.”

“Five foot six isn’t short,” he snapped.

“Keep telling yourself that,” I said.  “Maybe you’ll gain half-an-inch.”

“Shut up,” he said angrily.  “I may be five foot six, but it’s still three feet taller than you’ll ever be.  Give me fifty.”

“You’ve got to be kidding,” I exclaimed.

“Does this look like the face of a man who’s kidding?” he shouted.  “Give me fifty before I beat the shit out of you, and don’t think I won’t.”

I dropped down.  “A beautiful sight, that Ken,” he said more calmly.  “Now, tell me.  How many of you came on this somewhat hopeless rescue mission?”

“Twelve,” I panted.

“And only five of you are here,” he mused.  “Did anyone get away?”

I shrugged and nearly fell over.  Believe me, it’s not nearly as easy as it sounds to shrug whilst doing push-ups.  “I doubt it,” I said.  “I was under fire at the time, but as far as I could tell, they were surrounded.  The three COs are still alive.  They’re here somewhere.”

“Who were the other two COs?” Commander Anderson asked.

“Commander McDougal and Major Craz,” I answered, straightening.

“Angus McDougal,” Commander Anderson said, a sour look on his face.  “I can’t believe you brought that bloody sycophant along.”

“It wasn’t my choice,” I said tiredly.  “I don’t like him any more than you.”

“And who the hell is Major Craz?” he continued.  I shrugged.  “Any other officers besides yourselves?”

“We had two other lieutenants with us, but I don’t think they made it,” I said.  “I didn’t see them here in any case.”

“Have a seat Ken,” Commander Anderson said, patting the ground next to me.

“If you feel me up, I’m punching you on the nose,” I said cautiously.

“Never fear, Ken, I prefer those of the female persuasion,” Commander Anderson said.  “Besides, you’re underage.  It’d be paedophilia.”

I sat down next to him.  I suddenly felt bone-tired.

“Now, I’m not generally one to pay attention to anything you say or do, but I do recall something about you speaking a multitude of alien languages,” Commander Anderson continued in a low voice. 

“Yes sir,” I said.

“Well, batarian wouldn’t happen to be one of them, would it?”

“Sort of,” I said.  “I was busy learning it when I joined up.  I can understand it better than I can speak it.”

“You know what, Ken?” Commander Anderson said.  “That could come in seriously handy sometime soon.”

.....

The next morning a loaf of bread was delivered to our hut, along with a tiny jar of water. 

“Enjoy,” the batarian guard said.

“Yummy yum,” Commander Anderson muttered.  He tore of a tiny piece from the loaf and handed it to me.  He gave Commander Jupiter an equally small piece.

“Don’t be too generous with the food,” I said.  “It’s only been twenty four hours since I ate.”

“This has to last us the week, Ken, so excuse me for trying to make the food last,” Commander Anderson snapped.

“The Kamprad will see you in a few minutes, Lieutenant Shepard,” the guard said.  “Just so you know.”  Kamprad was the batarian equivalent to commander.

“Right,” I said.  “Uh why?”

“Well, I would imagine it has something to do with the fact that a team of ten or so soldiers managed to travel undetected through batarian territory,” Commander Anderson said.  “That’s just a guess though.  Don’t quote me on that.”

“Great,” I mumbled.  “What is batarian preferred torture method?  My mind seems to have gone blank.”

“They used a cattle prod on me,” Commander Anderson said.  “Don’t worry, the batarians seem to understand that a person who is tortured enough will say anything to make the pain stop.”

“That doesn’t help me very much, sir,” I said.

“Ken, you won the fucking endurance competition twice in a row,” he snapped.  “I have no idea what you’re complaining about.”

“Your support of me is legendary,” I snapped back.

“Shepard, calm down,” Commander Jupiter said sharply.  “Anderson, don’t you start now.”

“The boy needs to stop his fucking whining, or we’re in some serious shit,” Commander Anderson snapped back.

“You know what?” I shouted.  “We came all this way to rescue your sorry ass, and I don’t hear a single word of thanks.  Maybe we should have just stayed on our ship.”

“How, by getting captured?” Commander Anderson shouted back.  “Quite the rescue plan, Ken.  At least it was quiet before you got here.”

A group of batarian soldiers walked in and studied us.  “I don’t want to know what’s going on in here,” one said.  “Anderson, Jupiter, against the wall.  Shepard, sit on your hands.”

I sat on my hands, whilst Commander Anderson helped Commander Jupiter to the wall.  “You’d better hope this Kamprad incapacitates me, Anderson,” I mumbled.  “Or I’ll come back and make you regret the fact that we’re here.”

“I already do,” Commander Anderson said.

.....

In the old days, racist white people used to say, “I’m not being racist, but I seriously can’t tell them apart,” usually in reference to black people.  The unfortunate fact is this always held true for me with batarians.  The Kamprad looked exactly any other batarian, except he was slightly undersized.

“Jane Shepard,” he said.  “You were born on the twelfth of March 2161 sol on the SSV Hugo Greyson, registration number four three two two.”

“Yeah, I know,” I said.  “Why are you telling me these things?”

“You know, it’s quite interesting what a person can find on the extranet when they know where to look,” the Kamprad said.

“Here we go,” I mumbled.  “People always spring this crap on me when I least expect it.”

The Kamprad nodded at one of the guards who slapped me through the face.

“I talk you listen,” the Kamprad snapped.

The opportunity was too great to pass up, even though I knew it would be more prudent to keep my mouth shut.

“I don’t really like those rules,” I said.  “Couldn’t we do it the other way?  I talk you listen.  I can do a wonderful impersonation of Francis Kit.”  Francis Kit was an actor turned director.

The guard struck me again and I felt a cut open on my lip.  “In case you hadn’t noticed, the name of the batarian government is the Hegemony,” the Kamprad said.  “That means the person in power gets the respect.”

“I’m from the Alliance, which means we question everything,” I said.  “Actually that’s a lie, but I felt important saying that.”

“Cover her mouth please, soldier,” the Kamprad said.  The guard nodded and placed his hand over my mouth.  “So, Shepard, tours of duty.  You enlisted in 2177 at the age of sixteen, and trained your required two years at Del Sol Academy on Earth.  You then served for four solar months on the planet Akuze in the Dranek System, Krogan DMZ.  That tour ended the entire military force stationed at your base was killed by a thresher maw.”

I bit down hard on the soldier’s hand and tasted blood.  I spat on the floor.  “Sorry, I don’t know if your blood will make me grow extra eyes or anything,” I said apologetically.  “Look, I’d appreciate it if we didn’t speak about Akuze.”

The Kamprad’s eyes’ lit up.  “Sensitive subject?” he asked.

“Not really,” I shrugged.  “I just don’t like talking about it.”

“Whatever,” the Kamprad said.  “You were then on sick leave for five months, after which you served a tour that lasted two months on the turian colony of Taetrus.  After that, you were stationed on the SSV Everest of the human Fifth Fleet.  You’ve served three tours there in total.  Did I leave anything out?”

“Just the part where I was generally bad-ass and cool,” I said.  I knew I was talking too much, but truth be told I was terrified.

“What I want to know from you is whether you’re still stationed on the Everest,” the Kamprad said.

“Why not fire the datapad of destiny up and find out for yourself?” I asked.

“Recent tours aren’t posted yet, it seems that your administration is behind,” the Kamprad said.

“Well, with the working you lot are giving us, it’s not really surprising,” I said.  I was hit in the face again.

“Look, I’ll save you the time,” I said.  “I won’t tell you anything.  I promise you, these lips of mine will stay sealed, apart from the screams.  And I always keep my promises.”

“Really?” the Kamprad asked.  “We’ll see.”

.....

Three hours later, I was returned to the hut, bruised and bloodied, but without a single sound having passed my lips.  Apart from the screams.

“Shepard, are you alright?” Commander Jupiter asked.

“Yeah,” I mumbled.  “Great.  Are you?”

Commander Anderson pulled me to the wall and sat me down against it.  “Why’s your mouth so bruised?” he asked.  “Did they hit you a lot?”

“Fairly often,” I said.  “I wouldn’t shut up.”

“I should have thought of that,” he mumbled.

“It didn’t work,” I said.  He handed me the water flask and I drank a mouthful.  “Don’t worry,” I said.  “I didn’t tell them anything.  Apart from where to shove their cattle prod.  Did you know they have access to our tours of duty?”

“Everyone has access to our tours of duty, Ken, you just need to know where to look,” Commander Anderson said.

“Well, the good news is, I haven’t taken my asthma medication for the day,” I said. 

“And this is good news how?” Commander Jupiter asked.

“Well, either today or tomorrow I’ll be having an asthma attack,” I said.

“Still missing the good news, Ken,” Commander Anderson said.

“Don’t worry,” I said.  “You’ll find out soon enough.  Now, unless you have something hilarious to say, please keep quiet, I want to sleep.”

“Well, I die tomorrow,” Commander Anderson said.  “I suppose waiting around for you to pop your clogs is a fun last thing to do in the galaxy.”

“Shut up,” I murmured, curling up.

.....

The next morning I woke up with a tightness in my chest.  “Are you alright?” Commander Jupiter asked in concern, watching me pace up and down the hut.

“Oh sure,” I gasped.  “Wouldn’t have it any other way.”

“Don’t worry about the boy, Jupiter, he’s always like this,” Commander Anderson said dismissively.

“Why are you so convinced Shepard’s a boy?” Commander Jupiter asked.

“A soldier’s intuition,” Commander Anderson said dismissively.  “Also, he admits it, don’t you boy?”

“Uh huh,” I gasped.  “Ken, the eleven year old soldier.”

“See?” Commander Anderson said.  “Finally, when you two were strip searched the other day, I saw his parts.  Now, unfortunately, that Johnson is too small to ever make any woman or man happy, but I’m sure it performs its other function admirably.  Now, Jupiter, the only question you should be asking yourself is how the blazes did such an undersized, unhealthy and underage boy make it into the Alliance military in the first place.”

“Sure,” Commander Jupiter said, unconvinced.  “I guess.  And?”

“Well, it just proves how desperate the Alliance military really is,” Commander Anderson said.

I finally had the full-blown attack in the middle of the afternoon.  “BOL,” I gasped out.  “Need BOL.”

The guards were fetched, and my BOL was hurried to me.  When I was about eleven, my older brother John had gone through a stage where he wanted to become a magician.  He downloaded programs from the extranet and spent hours practicing. That is until my father learnt of this and put a stop to it.  By this stage, John had learnt how to do a perfect sleigh of the hand, something he had then proceeded to teach Jean and me.

I knew my procramonol was still in my BOL, and I also knew that taking too much of it at a time would lead to a nasty case of death.  However, when I stuck my hand into my BOL, I felt something else.  My heart skipped a beat (no doubt because of oxygen deprivation) and I slipped the something into my sleeve.  I pulled my pump out and took a huff from it. 

“Better?” the guard asked.

I took another huff.  “Yup,” I said.  “I need to take these pills once a day, or else I’ll keep having the attacks.”

“Understood,” the guard said.  “We’ll bring the pills to you every morning with the water.”

I popped a few pills and drank them down, before giving the BOL back to the guard.  The moment the door had slammed behind the guards, I brought my omnitool out of my sleeve.

“The stupid fuckers had left this in there,” I whispered.

“Holy shit,” Commander Jupiter whispered back.  “Try to call the ship.”

I activated my omnitool.  “Already there,” I said.

“You two can’t actually be serious,” Commander Anderson said loudly.  “The Alliance already knows where we are.”

“Shut up,” I hissed.

“Listen Ken, you two were sent to rescue me,” Commander Anderson said.  “You haven’t signalled your ship to say you’ve accomplished the mission.”

“So, they might think we’re dead,” I said.

Commander Anderson snorted.  “You two are both relatively well-known,” Commander Anderson said.  “You managed to kill a bunch of innocent soldiers with a thresher maw, and she managed to save a bunch of innocent civilians with the use of a scary Hispanic girl with pink hair.  Anyway, the point is that you’re famous.  If the spiders haven’t let the Alliance know that they have you, they soon will.”

“What do you know, you buzz-kill?” I snapped.

“By all means, make the call,” Commander Anderson said.  “The television’s broken and I’m low on entertainment.”

I called the ship.  “SSV Everest,” Com Officer Bharesh answered.

“Bharesh, it’s Lieutenant Shepard,” I said.

“Shepard?” she asked in surprise.  “I thought I said no coms.  Where are you?”

“In the PoW camp,” I said.  “We’re with Anderson.  Can I speak to Lieutenant Jupiter?”

“Of course, one second,” Com Officer Bharesh said.

Literally five seconds later Lieutenant Jupiter came on the line.  “Lieutenant, is my sister with you?” he asked.

“Aye sir, she’s right here,” I said.  “She was shot, but she’ll be ok.”

“Yes, I saw that,” he said.  “What the hell were you thinking, Lieutenant?  You could have both been killed.”

“I can’t exactly remember, but I think it was something along the lines of ‘aargh’, or maybe ‘run away, run away’,” I said, annoyed.

“What’s your situation?” Lieutenant Jupiter asked.

“We’re prisoners in the PoW camp,” I said.  “I managed to get hold of my omnitool, which is why we’re signalling you.”

“Oh,” Lieutenant Jupiter said.  “I’m afraid we can’t spare any more men for a rescue operation, Shepard.”

“What?” I gasped. 

“You heard me, Lieutenant,” Lieutenant Jupiter said.  “Don’t try to call us again.  Everest out.”

“Oh,” Commander Anderson said unsympathetically.  “Did the nasty man hurt your feelings?  Allow me to offer some comfort.”  He cleared his throat.  “I told you so,” he said.  “I told you so.  I’m older and wiser, and you still won’t listen to me.  Give me that.”  He snatched the omnitool from my hand and chucked it into a corner of the room.  “From now on my word is law in this hut.  Neither of you may speak unless I expressly speak to you.”

“Kiss my grits,” I snapped.

“Feisty Ken, but too little too late,” Commander Anderson said.  “Now shut the hell up.”

.....

The next morning we were taken out of the hut into the main building, and to what looked suspiciously like a television studio.  “Well, it doesn’t look like I’m going to be executed yet,” Commander Anderson said softly.

“Happy day,” I said sarcastically.

For the next fifteen minutes batarians fussed around us, seating us in certain positions, then moving us to other positions, all the while complaining about lighting and the bruises on our skin.

“Ken,” Commander Anderson hissed.  “What are they saying?”

“Well, this one is complaining about the fact that you have dark skin, whilst this one is saying that Commander Jupiter’s skin is too pale to make her a good television personality, and that one is saying that my freckles make me look dotty.”

“Dotty, huh?” Commander Anderson asked.  “And you’re blonde.  How are you going to ever get a girlfriend?”

“Excuse me whilst I die of laughter,” I said boredly. 

“That happened to me when I first saw your face,” Commander Anderson said.  “No, your only hope with a lay would be to get a girl drunk, go out with a blind girl, or go out with a mentally disabled girl.”

“I’d go out with Shepard,” Commander Jupiter said.  “If she grew a foot and had her mouth sewn shut.”

At that moment there was a buzz of activity.  A camera and three white boards were placed in front of us, each one with our names written at the top, and a ton of dialogue and stage directions.  “Read what’s written on the boards,” the person who was clearly the director said.  “We are going live over Council airwaves in one minute.”

He scampered off.  “We’re doing this live?” Commander Jupiter asked.

“Big mistake,” I said.  “Follow my lead.  We’ll make these spiders rue the day they ever took us prisoner.”

The director took his place behind the camera.  “We are live in five, four, three, two, one,” he said.  A red light flashed above the camera.

“All together,” I whispered.  I cleared my throat.  “You see before you Commander David Anderson, Commander Luna Jupiter, and Lieutenant Jane Shepard,” I said clearly.

“The batarian Hegemony has tortured us and made an example of us,” Commander Jupiter said at the same time.

“If you, the Alliance, do not surrender in seventy two hours, we will be executed live on television,” Commander Anderson said with us.

“Hold it,” the director said, waving his arms around like he was directing traffic.  “What are you doing?” he asked us.

“Reading our lines,” I said innocently.

“You’re supposed to read them one at a time,” the director said, sounding desperate.

“Oh,” I said.  “Well, why didn’t you say so?”

“From the top,” the director said.  “Lieutenant Shepard?”

“Are we still live?” I asked.

“Yes, we’re still fucking live, please read your lines,” the director shouted.

“Alright, don’t blow your eyes out now,” I said calmly.  “Just an aside, my last name is spelt A-R-D, not H-E-R-D.  It’s an easy mistake, anyone could make it.”

“It’s spelt A-R-D on the board,” Commander Anderson said.

“Whoops, so it is,” I said.  “That’s my bad.”

“Forgive Ken,” Commander Anderson said to the camera.  “He’s mentally retarded.”

“Anderson’s just jealous, cos he’s not a blonde like me,” I said.

“Don’t insult my people, Lieutenant,” Commander Jupiter said.

”Read your fucking lines,” the director screamed.

“Right,” I said.  I squinted at the board.  “We’re prisoners.  Bad things happen.  Shit is gonna fucking fly.  Commander Anderson’s Prince Alfred got infected the other day, and the Seattle Sorcerers beat the Ontarom Giants twenty six fifteen yesterday in biotiball.  And for the weather we go to Luna Jupiter who will tell us all about the fashion faux pas that happened at last night’s charity event.  Luna.”

Commander Jupiter squinted at the board.  “I can’t read protha,” she said flatly.

“It’s written in human,” the director squeaked.

“I know it is,” she snapped.  “I’m not stupid.  I can tell when something is written in English and when it’s not.  I’m just telling you I can’t read protha.  Right, let’s get to the acting side of things.”  She cleared her throat and put on the best elcor impersonation I had ever seen.  “With deep fear and resentment: the batarian Hegemony has tortured us and made an example of us.”  She then switched to a hanar.  “This one has been shot in the leg, whilst these others were tortured to determine how these ones got through the batarian line.”  Just as swiftly she turned to vorcha.  “Aargh, we maintain silence, but batarians find out soon our secret.”  She then switched to a salarian impersonation.  “Suggest Alliance finds alternative solution or soon will be in big trouble.”  She returned to her normal voice.  By this stage it was becoming very difficult for me maintain a straight face.  “Right that’s me done, can I go back to my cell whilst Anderson finishes up?”

“No,” the director snapped.

“Sixty seconds, before the Council works out how we hacked the channels,” one of the technicians said.

“And now sports, and Admiral Mikhailovich was seen leaving the chambers of the asari consort, Shaira,” I said quickly.  “For more on the story, we go to David Anderson.  Take it away, David.”

“You want me to talk about how the Alliance needs to surrender to the batarian Hegemony?” Commander Anderson asked.

“Yes,” the director snapped.

“So, you want me to say how, if the Alliance doesn’t surrender to the batarian Hegemony in seventy two hours sol we three will be horribly executed live on television?” Commander Anderson asked.

“Yes,” the director repeated.

“Fuck off, do it yourself,” Commander Anderson snapped.

At that moment the red light blinked off.   “We’ve lost the feed,” the technician said.

“Take them back to their hut,” the director snapped.

The moment we’d been unshackled in our hut and the door had slammed behind us the three of us burst out laughing.

“That was inspired Shepard,” Commander Jupiter said, wiping her eyes. 

“You killed me with your accents,” I said.  “Where did you learn them by the way?”

“Citadel television ads,” she said.  “Anderson, your fuck off was brilliant.”

“Yeah well, you realise we’re going to be punished for this?” he asked.

“Who cares, in seventy two hours we’re going to be dead,” I said.

.....

Sixty eight hours later I wasn’t feeling nearly as philosophical about the situation.  “How do you reckon they’re going to do it?” I asked.

“Probably classic bullet in the head style,” Commander Anderson said.

“Shepard, you’re religious,” Commander Jupiter said.

“Oh God, please not this now,” Commander Anderson said.

“Yeah,” I said.  “Why?”

“Well, what do you believe happens to us after we die?” Commander Jupiter asked.

“Catholics believe that a number of things happen to your soul,” I said.  “Best case scenario is that you end up in heaven, which is full of naked ladies playing harps, fluffy clouds and people who have only done good things in their life.  The other end of the spectrum is hell, where you’re forced to shovel shit among fire and brimstone for the rest of eternity with all the other wrong-doers in the galaxy.  It’s kind of like being in the army actually.”

“Heaven sounds dull,” Commander Jupiter mumbled.

“Yeah, well, I’m probably not headed there,” I said.  “I’m either going to hell or purgatory.”  I got up and stretched.  “I need to confess,” I said.  “Do you want me to confess anything for you two?  I don’t mind.”

“Yes,” Commander Anderson said.

“Yeah?” I asked, surprised.  “What?”

“I confess that I’ve come to hate you, Ken,” Commander Anderson said.  “I confess that I detest your guts and liken you to the smelly deposits my children used to put in their nappies.”

“Right,” I said.  “Commander Jupiter?”

“Your god doesn’t like my kind,” she said.

“Atheists?” I asked.  “You can’t exactly blame Him.”

“No, lesbians,” she said.

“Uh huh,” I said.  “The Bible is a jolly good read, but I wouldn’t believe everything written there.  It also says that crops shouldn’t be mixed, and you shouldn’t work on the Sabbath.”

.....

After I’d confessed, Commander Jupiter came over to me.  “Can you tell me the rest of the joke?” she asked.  “I’m dying soon and you haven’t finished it yet.”

“What’s this?” Commander Anderson asked.

“Galaxy’s longest joke,” I said.

“Oh God,” Commander Anderson mumbled.  “Fire at will, Shepard.”

“Thank you so much,” I said sweetly.  “’The man sat stunned for a minute. Here he was, sitting in the middle of the desert on some strange stone that should be hot but wasn't, talking to a snake that could talk back and had just bitten him. And he felt better. Not great - he was still starving and exhausted, but much better - he was no longer thirsty. He had started to sweat again, but only slightly. He felt hot, in this sun, but it was starting to get lower in the sky, and the cool stone beneath him was a relief he could notice now that he was no longer dying of thirst.

’"I might suggest that we take care of that methanol you now have in your system with the next request," continued the snake. "I can guess why you drank it, but I'm not sure how much you drank, or how much methanol was left in the wiper fluid. That stuff is nasty. It'll make you go blind in a day or two, if you drank enough of it."

’"Ummm, n-next request?" said the man. He put his hand back on his hurting shoulder and backed away from the snake a little.

’"That's the way it works. If you like, that is," explained the snake. "You get three requests. Call them wishes, if you wish." The snake grinned at his own joke, and the man drew back a little further from the show of fangs.

’"But there are rules," the snake continued. "The first request is free. The second requires an agreement of secrecy. The third requires the binding of responsibility." The snake looks at the man seriously.

’"By the way," the snake says suddenly, "my name is Nathan. Old Nathan, Samuel used to call me. He gave me the name. Before that, most of the Bound used to just call me 'Snake'. But that got old, and Samuel wouldn't stand for it. He said that anything that could talk needed a name. He was big into names. You can call me Nate, if you wish." Again, the snake grinned. "Sorry if I don't offer to shake, but I think you can understand - my shake sounds somewhat threatening." The snake gives his rattle a little shake.’”

“Christ, this joke is going to kill me,” Commander Anderson muttered.

“Deal with it,” I said. "’”Umm, my name is Jack," said the man, trying to absorb all of this. "Jack Samson.”

’"Can I ask you a question?" Jack says suddenly. "What happened to the poison...umm, in your bite. Why aren't I dying now? How did you do that? What do you mean by that's how you work?"

’"That's more than one question," grins Nate. "But I'll still try to answer all of them. First, yes, you can ask me a question." The snake's grin gets wider. "Second, the poison is in you. It changed you. You now no longer need to drink. That's what you asked for. Or, well, technically, you asked to not be thirsty any more - but 'any more' is such a vague term. I decided to make it permanent - now, as long as you live, you shouldn't need to drink much at all. Your body will conserve water very efficiently. You should be able to get enough just from the food you eat - much like a creature of the desert. You've been changed.

’"For the third question," Nate continues, "you are still dying. Besides the effects of that methanol in your system, you're a man - and men are mortal. In your current state, I give you no more than about another 50 years. Assuming you get out of this desert, alive, that is." Nate seemed vastly amused at his own humour, and continued his wide grin.

’"As for the fourth question," Nate said, looking more serious as far as Jack could tell, as Jack was just now working on his ability to read talking-snake emotions from snake facial features, "first you have to agree to make a second request and become bound by the secrecy, or I can't tell you."

’"Wait," joked Jack, "isn't this where you say you could tell me, but you'd have to kill me?"

’"I thought that was implied." Nate continued to look serious.

’"Ummm...yeah." Jack leaned back a little as he remembered again that he was talking to a fifteen foot poisonous reptile with a reputation for having a nasty temper. "So, what is this 'Bound by Secrecy' stuff, and can you really stop the effects of the methanol?" Jack thought for a second. "And, what do you mean methanol, anyway? I thought these days they use ethanol in wiper fluid, and just denature it?"

’"They may, I don't really know," said Nate. "I haven't gotten out in a while. Maybe they do. All I know is that I smell methanol on your breath and on that bottle in your pocket. And the blue colour of the liquid when you pulled it out to drink some let me guess that it was wiper fluid. I assume that they still colour wiper fluid blue?"

’"Yeah, they do," said Jack.

’"I figured," replied Nate. "As for being bound by secrecy - with the fulfilment of your next request, you will be bound to say nothing about me, this place, or any of the information I will tell you after that, when you decide to go back out to your kind. You won't be allowed to talk about me, write about me, use sign language, charades, or even act in a way that will lead someone to guess correctly about me. You'll be bound to secrecy. Of course, I'll also ask you to promise not to give me away, and as I'm guessing that you're a man of your word, you'll never test the binding anyway, so you won't notice." Nate said the last part with utter confidence.

’Jack, who had always prided himself on being a man of his word, felt a little nervous at this. "Ummm, hey, Nate, who are you? How did you know that? Are you, umm, omniscient, or something?"

’Well, Jack," said Nate sadly, "I can't tell you that, unless you make the second request." Nate looked away for a minute, then looked back.”’

At that moment the door of the hut opened.  “Against the wall,” a batarian soldier said.

.....

We were marched through the town of Montenegro.  I’d never been there before, and saw that before it became wartorn, it had been a beautiful town.  Now though, it was full of dilapidated buildings, craters and homeless people.  As we marched, the residents lined up on either side of the road, whether they were ordered there or came of their own volition I don’t know, and watched silently as we walked.  I knew I would never forget the faces of the children as we marched, their eyes older than their age.

We were taken to a field approximately five miles outside of Montenegro, where we were reunited with Commander McDougal and Major Craz.  “Who knew it would be your ugly mug I’d see in my dying hours, Angus,” Commander Anderson said to Commander McDougal. 

“Very funny, David,” Commander McDougal said.

We were given spades and told to dig a trench.  It was close to the middle of the day, and the sun was sweltering down.  As we dug, a camera crew set up around us.  All four my companions looked terrified, and it seemed that Commander Jupiter was close to tears.  And for some strange reason, I felt nothing.  I had spent my life terrified of death, but on this particular moment, at the time of my death, I felt nothing.  That’s when I decided to sing.

I’d heard of soldiers in near-death or death situations singing the Alliance anthem.  I decided I didn’t want to grace the Alliance with that, so I sang the song that appeared in Snow White and the Seven dwarves. 

“Hie hoe, hie hoe,” I sang.  “It’s off to work we go.”

Commander Anderson joined in on the second verse, and by the third verse the other three were singing along.  After ten repetitions it got old, so we stopped.  Commander Anderson then sang, “My friend Billy had a three foot willy,” after which Commander Jupiter sang the electro-funk song, “Happiness is here.”

Thereafter we sang, “We hate the spiders,” to the tune of “We are the champions.”  Thankfully, the trench was deemed deep enough, for my repertoire was fast running out.

We were ordered out of the trench and made to kneel down on the edge.  I was the third in the line.  Major Craz and Commander McDougal were on my left.  Commander Jupiter and Commander Anderson were on my right.  I could feel Commander Jupiter’s arms trembling as we raised our hands and interlaced them behind our heads.

“It’ll be ok,” I said.  “A bullet to the head.  You won’t feel anything.”

Commander Jupiter nodded.

The Kamprad walked down the line.  “You see, Lieutenant Shepard, I also keep my promises,” he said.

“Gloating to a dying woman is kind of a dumb thing to do,” I said.

He scowled and turned to the camera crew.  “Are you ready?” he asked.  They nodded.

The director stepped forward.  “Live in five seconds,” he said.  I looked up at the camera and saw the red light blink on.

A soldier stepped up to Major Craz, put his pistol against the back of Major Craz’s head, paused and pulled the trigger.  Commander Jupiter flinched as Major Craz toppled forward into the trench.  The soldier moved on to Commander McDougal, who’s teeth I could hear chattering.  The gun fired again, and Commander McDougal fell into the trench.  The soldier moved to me, and I felt the barrel of the pistol part my hair and rest against the back of my head.  Now I was scared, but I kept my face calm as I looked past the camera crew at the horizon.

There was a loud explosion and I felt the pistol leave the back of my head.  I looked behind me and saw the soldier suspended in mid-air.  At that moment my instincts overtook my judgement and I pushed Commander Jupiter over, and rolled forward into the trench, landing face first in the sand.

It was all over relatively quickly.  There were a number of shots fired, fewer screams, and, finally, the sounds of some loud-voiced officer giving orders.

“Lieutenant Shepard?” a voice said above me.

“Right here,” I said, lifting my face.  “I’m the one biting the dust.”

I was helped out of the trench by a humourless biotics division soldier.  “Are you alright, ma’am?” she asked.

“On a scale of one to ten I’d say I’m subpar, but thank you for asking, soldier,” I said.  “Are Anderson and Jupiter alright?”

“Alenko, you may have ruined my dramatic death spectacularly with that stunt, but I’m glad to see you,” Commander Anderson’s voice came loudly across the field.  Alenko?  Oh no…

“Where’s Ken?” Commander Anderson asked.

“Killed in action,” I called in a disguised voice.  Kaidan turned towards me and his face broke into a grin.

“Hey Janey,” he said.  He started towards me, only to have his path blocked by Commander Jupiter.  “Ma’am,” he said respectfully.

She punched him hard in the face and pointed the pistol she’d picked up from a batarian soldier’s body at his head.  “B-boy,” she said.  “I’ve waited twelve years for this moment.”

“You seriously had nothing better to do with your time?” I asked, moving carefully towards her.

“B-boy?” Kaidan asked.  “You were with the Baywaters weren’t you?  You and your brother.  You’re Cherry Slice.”

“Yes, and you killed one of our own, Jee-Tog,” Commander Jupiter said.  “I’m finally preparing to repay that debt.”

“What’s happening here?” Commander Anderson asked, moving towards us.

“Look, I was ten at the time,” Kaidan said.  “Your boy was coming at me with a knife.  I was just trying to stop him, I didn’t mean to kill him.”

“I don’t care what you were or weren’t trying to do,” Commander Jupiter snapped.  “If I’d killed a Red, you’d be going after me.”

“Commander Jupiter stand down immediately,” an officer with the biotics division squad said, coming over.

“No I wouldn’t,” Kaidan said.  “I’m not with the Reds.  I’ve even moved out of Seattle South.”

“Bullshit, the Reds are blood in blood out, same as the Baywaters,” Commander Jupiter said disbelievingly.

I forced myself between them.  “Look, that’s enough,” I said.  “Alenko here saved our asses.  We owe him a little more respect than this.”

“Shuttle’s on its way in,” one of the biotics division soldiers said.

“Look, you can shoot me and then kill him over my dead body, because that’s the only way it’s going to happen,” I said to Commander Jupiter.  “Sorry ma’am, that’s the way it is.”

She gave a low growl.  “You’re lucky I like you, Shepard,” she snapped, lowering the gun.

“Thanks,” Kaidan said to me as the shuttle landed.

“You’re welcome,” I said.

In the shuttle, the commanding officer of the biotics division squad explained what had happened.  Alliance Intelligence had hacked into the PoW camp’s communications channel through my omnitool, which, to my knowledge, was still lying in the corner of our old prison hut.  Through this they had been able to work out an exact location of our execution site.  The Joint Military Council had sent in biotics division to rescue us, due to the ability to place biotic barriers around themselves and thus be more immune to weapon fire than most soldiers.

“Well, thank you very much for the rescue,” Commander Anderson said.  “I was about to see Ken’s lack of brains splatter the earth.  If you’d drop me off on my ship?”

“We’re not taking you back to your ships,” the commanding officer said.

“Where are we going then?” I asked in alarm.

“Rest camp in Elysium,” the commanding officer said.

“Not another bloody rest camp,” Commander Anderson mumbled.

There was silence.

“I was at Del Sol at the same time that you were at ICT,” Kaidan said, breaking the silence.  “We were frequently in the same room at the same time.  Why didn’t you try offing me then?”

“I never saw you at Del Sol,” Commander Jupiter said.

“Of course you did,” Kaidan said.  “I was the best student in my year that year.  I went by the nickname Charles Manson.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Commander Jupiter said.  “I never saw you.”

“Don’t worry about it, Kaidan,” I said.  “She doesn’t remember me from Del Sol, and I was her assistant.”

“You weren’t my assistant, Shepard,” Commander Jupiter said.  “My assistant was this short kid.  Name was Samuel.  Chadwin.  Something like that.  I can’t really remember to be honest.”

“Ouch,” Commander Anderson mumbled.

Kaidan smiled at me.  “How are you doing?” he asked.

I shifted uncomfortably.  “Oh, you know,” I mumbled.  “Well, I guess.  I mean, I nearly died, but this is certainly not the first time I faced death.”

“Good,” Kaidan said.

“But, um, thanks for the rescue,” I continued.

“You’re welcome,” Kaidan said.

“Why the hell is this so uncomfortable?” Commander Anderson asked, scowling at the two of us.

“Mind your own beeswax,” I mumbled.

.....

I was in that rest camp for a ridiculous six weeks.  During this time I saw various shrinks (all of whom pointed out my use of humour as a defence, but were unable to come up with any new enlightenments about my behaviour), various doctors (who remarked on my asthma, height and lack of genetic enhancements), and various shell-shocked soldiers.

In my second week at the rest camp, I received a vid call from Jason.  “So, you’re alive,” he said brusquely.

“Um yeah,” I said.  “Hello, little brother, good to see you again.”

“You don’t think you could’ve sent an email?” he snapped.  “I almost had to watch you get executed on television.  Do you have any idea what that’s like?”

“I can only imagine,” I said.  “And, I did send an email. You probably didn’t get it yet because of all the com traffic.”

“Whatever,” Jason mumbled.  “Where are you anyway?  Still on Skyllia?”

“Well, I yes, can’t, yes tell you, yes,” I said.  “How’s school?”

“I graduated last week, Shay,” he sighed.

“And I missed it,” I groaned.  “God, I’m so sorry Jason, I forgot.  I was planning on being there, but this whole prisoner of war business got in the way.  How was it?”

“Well, I came top of my year, not that it matters,” Jason said angrily.  “Auntie Jen was there.”

“Of course,” I sighed.  “Sorry, Jason, really.  I’ll make it up to you.”

“It doesn’t matter, Shay,” he said impatiently.  “I start working with Dranne Incorporated on Noveria next month, in IT.  Oh, did you hear Ash’s getting married?”

“Well, she asked me to be her maid of honour,” I said.

“You in a dress and high heels?” Jason snorted.  “Can’t wait to see that one.”

“You and everyone else,” I said. 

“I guess, I’ll be seeing you in December then,” Jason said.

“I guess so, what?” I asked.

“The invites went out last month,” Jason said.  “Wedding’s December sixth.”

“She just got engaged, what the fuck is she rushing this for?” I asked in alarm.  “Is she trying for the shortest engagement in the history of the galaxy?  Where’s the wedding happening?”

“Cape Town apparently,” Jason said.  “From what I could pick up on The Network, she wanted to have the wedding on Freedom’s Progress, since that’s where they both come from, but the weather got them down.”

It rained every day on Freedom’s Progress.

“I need to run,” Jason said.  “I’m going to a party soon.  Need to get ready.”

“Going with anyone special?” I asked.

He rolled his eyes.  “I’m on the salarian homeworld, Shay,” he said.  “They don’t do courtship here.”

“Good, at least that way I know your virtue is still intact,” I said.  “Stay safe.  Oh, by the way, I need a new omnitool.”

.....

In my sixth week at the rest camp I received my papers saying I would be posted back to the Everest within the next week.  I went to bed a happy soldier.  After what felt like only a few hours I was shaken awake.

“Wha-?” I groaned.  “What time is it?”

“Half past six sol,” a voice said.  “Get up.”

I squinted at the person standing above me.  “Ash?” I asked. 

“Shut the hell up,” someone in the dorm shouted.

“The spiders are attacking,” someone else cried.

“Get dressed,” Ash said.  “I’ll meet you outside.”

“Ugh, you’d better have coffee with you,” I mumbled, getting out of bed.

Fifteen minutes later I went outside.  “You know, I was having a lovely dream of being asleep,” I said.

“I know,” Ash said.  “It sounds like a nightmare.  That’s why I woke you up.”

I hugged her.  “Not that I’m really complaining, but why the hell are you here at this ungodly hour?” I asked.

“Foresters is having a sale that starts at 0800 hours,” Ash said, starting to walk.  Foresters was a chain that made dresses.

“So?” I asked.

“So, I need a nice white dress and you need a purple or yellow dress,” Ash said.  “You heard I’m getting married in four months.”

“I heard, and I have to ask what the hell you’re thinking,” I said.

“I’m thinking that I almost saw you die on galactic television, that I spend every day seeing civilians die, that I love this man and I want to spend the rest of my life with him,” Ash said.

“You’re on the ground during air raids now, huh?” I said.  “How is that?”

She rolled her eyes.  “Lovely,” she said.  “The body parts raining down on me make me want to stand up and sing.”

“Alright, no need to get all sarcastic,” I said.  “So, purple or yellow huh?”

“They’re complementary colours,” Ash explained.

“I know that,” I said.  “The thing is both those colours are uncomplimentary to me.”

“Nonsense, I think you’d look gorgeous in a purple dress,” Ash said.

“Red and black are the colours I look best in,” I continued, ignoring her.

“Those are the N7 colours,” Ash said.

“And?” I asked.

“Nothing,” Ash mumbled.

.....

There was already a long queue outside of Foresters.  “Bugger,” Ash said.  “I hope they don’t all take the Gucci handbags.”

“I thought this was wedding shopping,” I said.

“Even a bride needs a handbag, Jane,” Ash said, rolling her eyes.

“Of course she does,” I mumbled.

She slipped her arm through mine.  “So, how are you doing?” she asked.

“I’m ok,” I said.  “Tired of the rest camp.  I can’t wait to get back to my ship.  How are you?”

“Terrified,” she admitted.

“Why are you terrified?” I asked in alarm.

“Well, given the stress of my new posting, I’ve been doing a lot of comfort eating,” Ash said.  “What if I’ve gained so much weight I can’t fit into any of the dresses?”

“What?” I asked in surprise.  “Ash, you’re as gorgeous as ever.  Besides, what have you been comfort eating on?  This is an Alliance world.”

“Fruit and nuts for the most part.”

“Yeah, you can’t get fat off of that,” I said.  “Are you sure you aren’t terrified of something else?  The fact that you’re getting married to a bloke you’ve known for less than a year.”

“Shut up,” Ash said.  “You’re just jealous you aren’t getting married.”

“No I’m not,” I said.  “Mainly because I’m never getting married.  I mean face it, I’m yet to be presented with a marriage that actually works.”

“What about Kaidan’s parents?” Ash argued.  “They’re pretty happily married.”

“Fine, one marriage,” I said.  “Against the other five billion.  Let’s do a roll-call.  The Andersons are divorced, despite having three children together.  My own parents: my mother was scared shitless of my father, who used me and my brothers and sister as a punching bag.  My grandparents, where my grandfather is an abusive alcoholic.  Your parents: both your parents cheated on their spouses to have you.  The Hacketts.  Oh, and Gary Santiago got divorced from his husband recently.”

“Who’s Gary Santiago?” Ash asked.

“Dude who plays Alvin in Alvin and Bim,” I said. 

“Well, who cares what you think Jane,” Ash said.  “I’ll be involved in the second marriage that you see that’ll work.”

The other soon-to-be women in white were staring at the two of us, most likely because we were dressed in our uniforms.

“They probably think marines can’t be romantic or something,” Ash said when I pointed this out.

“Well, based on empirical evidence they can’t,” I mumbled.

“What about you and Kaidan?” Ash asked.

“Are you kidding?” I asked.  “This is me and Kaidan you’re talking about.”

The doors opened at exactly eight o’clock and we all trooped in.  “So, who’s the happy bride-to-be?” a sales assistant asked, coming over to us.

“Her,” I said, pointing to Ash.

“Of course,” the sales assistant squealed, clapping her hands together.  I pulled a face.  “And this must be your flower girl.”  She smiled kindly at me.

“I’m twenty three,” I said, annoyed.  “This whole ‘mistaking me for a child’ thing was kind of funny when I was a teenager, but I’m in my twenties now.”

“Don’t mind her,” Ash said.  “She’s cranky because she’s stuck in the rest camp for another week.  Besides, Jane, when you’re forty, you’ll still be mistaken for a twenty year old.”

“Yeah, knowing my luck I’ll probably gain fifty pounds and go grey, so that everyone thinks I’m seventy,” I mumbled.

“So, what can I do for you?” the sales assistant asked.

“Well, I need a wedding dress, and we need to look at bridesmaids dresses as well,” Ash said.

“Wait, dresses?” I asked.  “Who else is sharing my role?”

“You’re my maid of honour,” Ash said.  “I’ve asked Inga and Sara to be my other bridesmaids.  They are my sisters after all.”

“Follow me,” the sales assistant said.

.....

“No,” I said.  It was two hours later, and we were still looking at wedding dresses.

“No?” Ash repeated.  She was dressed in a dress with a very tight bodice, puffed sleeves, and a skirt that puffed away from her in a dome.

“You look like a meringue,” I said.  “I mean, you look delicious, but most people tend to be scared of giant deserts walking towards them.”

“I think you look gorgeous,” the sales assistant said.

“Nope,” I said.  “You definitely look like a meringue.”

“Constructive criticisms,” the sales assistant said, glaring at me.

“Listen, lady, I’m the BFF here, not you,” I snapped.  “I know how Ash rolls.”

“So what kind of a dress do you reckon she needs?” the sales assistant asked impatiently.

“Girl’s got curves,” I said.  “And the most amazing legs I’ve ever seen on a woman.  Ash, show her your legs.”

“I’m not showing her my legs, Jane,” Ash said.

“Ok, she’s not showing you her legs,” I said.  “Get her a dress that shows off those features, instead of a dress that looks like it’s trying to hide the fact that she’s fat or pregnant.”

The sales assistant scowled and flounced off again.  “Thanks,” Ash mumbled.

“Don’t worry about it,” I said. 

.....

An hour later we finally had the perfect dress for Ash, after which it was my turn.  Unfortunately, none of the bridesmaids dresses actually fit me, but we did pick out a nice enough purple dress that would be customised to fit my body.  We left, satisfied with our day’s work.

“I’m starving,” I mumbled.

“Come on,” Ash said.  “Let’s go for Tacos.”

We ran into Commander Anderson at the restaurant.  “Well well, Ken, taking your girl for a stroll around town?” he asked.

“Well sir, he’s not very good at it,” Ash said.  “Took me to a strip club, then tried to persuade me to give it up.”

Commander Anderson shook his head sadly.  “That’s not the way to do it, Ken,” he said.  “Speaking of, I hear congratulations are in order, Williams.  You’ve found some poor boy who’s willing to tie the knot with you.”

“Yes sir,” Ash said.  “We haven’t actually met, but he seems a decent sort of lad.”

“Congratulations,” he said, and shook her hand.  “I will definitely be there.”

“You will?” Ash asked.  “I just sent the invitation so that you didn’t feel left out.”

“Of course I’ll be there,” Commander Anderson said.  “I want to be there to wish you and this Adam van Rensburg, the famous lawyer, luck on your journey into the future.  Ken, you’re returning to the Everest next week, aren’t you?”

“Yes sir,” I said.  “When do you go back to the Tokyo?”

“Also next week,” Commander Anderson said.  “Apparently I have a new tech expert that I need to train up.  Joy of joys.  Well, good to see you again, Williams.  Shame I can’t say the same about you, Ken.  Sayonara.”

We found a table.  “Why did you invite him?” I asked.

Ash shrugged.  “I like him,” she said.  “Why do you care?”

“Well, mostly because he hates my guts,” I said.

She snorted.  “He doesn’t hate your guts, Jane,” she said.

“Well, he doesn’t particularly like them,” I said.

“Probably true, but at least he’s never kept that a secret from you,” Ash said.  She grinned.  “Thanks for today, Jane,” she said.  “It was fun.”

Chapter Text

 

We caught a shuttle at four o’clock sol time back to the Everest.  Despite the ungodly hour, the CIC was bustling with activity.  One of the sailors caught sight of us.  “Officers on deck,” she bellowed.

“What the hell is going on in here?” Commander Jupiter mumbled, as everyone sprang to their feet.

“Commander, thank Kalahira you’re back,” Kasuumi, who was standing closest to us, said.

“Operations Chief Dranne,” Commander Jupiter said.  “What the hell is going on?”

In answer, Kasuumi looked towards Commander Jupiter’s station.  It was occupied by a tall, dark haired woman with an abnormally long nose.  The woman saw us staring at her, and got languidly to her feet and came towards us.

“Who’s she?” Commander Jupiter asked Kasuumi.

“Commander Agira,” Kasuumi, who on closer inspection looked exhausted and miserable, said.

Commander Agira reached us.  “Commander Jupiter, Lieutenant Shepard,” she said, with a smile that didn’t reach her eyes.  “Welcome back.”  She extended her hand to Commander Jupiter, who ignored her.

“I see the Alliance didn’t waste any time replacing me,” she said instead.  “How long have you been here?”

“Almost a month now,” Commander Agira said.

Commander Jupiter scowled.  “We were released over a month ago,” she snapped.  “Where’s Lieutenant Jupiter?”

“He’s currently on Grageran Station,” Commander Agira said, smiling pleasurably.  “I believe he’s being charged with attempted treason, blackmail and attacking a superior officer.”

Commander Jupiter’s mouth dropped open.  “Never mind that right now,” I said quickly.  “Chief, what’s going on?  Why is everyone awake?”

Kasuumi looked uncertainly at Commander Agira.  “Good to see you in one piece, Lieutenant Shepard,” Commander Agira said calmly.  “Answer, the lieutenant, Dranne.”

“Ma’am,” Kasuumi said.  “We’ve all been put on five day stand-to.  This is our fifth day.”

“The entire crew?” Commander Jupiter asked in shock.

“Yes ma’am,” Kasuumi said.

Commander Jupiter turned to Commander Agira, her face livid.  “What the hell is wrong with you?” she snapped.  “Where the fuck did you get that N7 designation, the extranet?”

“Well, you were clearly sleeping when they were teaching you basic protocol,” Commander Agira said icily.  “I’ve never seen a more undisciplined group of soldiers.”

Commander Jupiter ignored her, and climbed onto Kasuumi’s chair.  “Everyone, you are dismissed,” she called.  “Get some rest.  I expect you all back at your stations no later than 1200 hours.  Someone please notify the engineers.”

I had never seen the CIC empty so quickly.  “How dare you undermine me?” Commander Agira hissed.

“How dare you undermine my men?” Commander Jupiter snapped.  “What if they needed to be sent on a mission?  They’d be working at lowered capacity because they hadn’t slept in five days.”

“I’m in command here,” Commander Agira said.

“No one’s relieved me of my command yet, and until that happens, I’m the commander of the Everest,” Commander Jupiter said.  “Lieutenant Shepard, to your station.  I need to find out exactly how much our trip to Montenegro cost us.  After that I need you to do a full inventory of the ship’s stocks.  I expect both reports on my desk by no later than 0900 hours.  Dismissed.”

“Aye aye ma’am,” I said.

“As for you,” Commander Jupiter said, turning to Commander Agira.  “Get the hell out of my CIC.”

“This isn’t over, Jupiter,” Commander Agira said coldly.

“Oh yes it is,” Commander Jupiter said.

.....

Later that afternoon, I was sent into the conference room by com officer Bharesh.  Commander Jupiter was waiting inside.  “Admiral Mikhailovich wants to debrief us,” she said angrily.

“Um, right,” I said cautiously.  “You do know we’re not each other’s favourite people in the galaxy.”

“Don’t care, Shepard,” she snapped.  “Set up the link, Bharesh.”

“Yes ma’am,” com officer Bharesh said.

Admiral Mikhailovich appeared on the QEC screen.  “Commander Jupiter, Lieutenant Shepard,” he said.

“What the hell is going on?” Commander Jupiter snapped.

“I beg your pardon?” Admiral Mikhailovich asked, affronted.

“I’m barely gone a month and you’re replacing me with some psychotic witch?” Commander Jupiter asked.  “Do you want to tell me what this is about?”

Admiral Mikhailovich glared at me.  “Don’t look at me, sir,” I said hastily.  “I’m just here to be debriefed.”

“Alright, Commander Jupiter,” Admiral Mikhailovich said.  “You know your brother has neither the rank nor the ability to command a group such as Company 6.  Commander Agira is the only N7 I could find on short notice.”

“Right, well, I’m telling you now sir, with Shepard as my witness, I’m not stepping down,” she said.  “These are my men.  They listen to me.  You’ll have to arrest me.”

“Noted,” Admiral Mikhailovich said.  “Speaking of, you’ve heard your brother’s in a bit of a pickle.”

“Yes sir,” Commander Jupiter said. 

“Good,” Admiral Mikhailovich said.  “Is there anything you want to say, Lieutenant Shepard?”

“Yes sir,” I said.  “I’d like you to seriously consider surrendering to the batarians.”

“Very funny, Shepard,” Admiral Mikhailovich said.  The screen went black.  So much for our debriefing.

“I wasn’t joking,” I mumbled.

“What am I going to do, Shepard?” Commander Jupiter asked.

“Well, you could get Antonio or Dranne to duff her up and then space her,” I suggested.

“That’s not funny,” Commander Jupiter said.

“Why does everyone think I’m joking?” I asked.  “I’m not joking.”

“Right,” she said, giving me a strange look.

“Well, on the bright side, you still haven’t been relieved of your command,” I said.  “And if push comes to shove, you can drive a wooden stake through her heart whilst she’s asleep in her coffin.”  I waited.  “Ok, that time I was joking,” I sighed.

“Where is she sleeping though?” she murmured.  Commander Agira had spent the morning marching up and down the crew deck before dismissing herself and going to bed. 

“Oh, if she’s in my cabin, she will pay,” Commander Jupiter snapped.  She ran out of the conference room, with me in close pursuit.

“What exactly are you planning on doing?” I asked as we climbed the ladder to the upper deck.

“To show her the way to the airlock,” Commander Jupiter snapped.

She opened the door to her cabin, to reveal Commander Agira sleeping peacefully in bed.

“Right, that’s it,” Commander Jupiter snapped.  She pulled the covers from Commander Agira.

“I’m trying to sleep, Commander Jupiter,” Commander Agira said, sitting up.  “I have barely slept in five days.”

“Whose fault is that?” Commander Jupiter snapped.  “Get out.”

“This is the commander’s quarters,” Commander Agira said quietly.

“And I’m still the commander of this ship,” Commander Jupiter said angrily.

“Well, so am I,” Commander Agira said.  “No one’s relieved me of my command yet.”

“You’re still in my bed,” Commander Jupiter shouted.

“You can always sleep in that bed,” Commander Agira said, pointing at the XO’s bed.

“That’s Skye’s bed,” Commander Jupiter said obtusely.

“Yes, and he’s in prison,” Commander Agira said.  “In fact, given the nature of the charges placed against him, he’ll be lucky if he ever gets to leave the prison.”

“For the love of God, how old are you two?” I asked tiredly.  “It’s a fucking bed.  Grow up.”

Both commanders turned to stare at me.  “You are right of course, Lieutenant Shepard,” Commander Agira said at once.  “I don’t mind sleeping in the XO’s bed.”

“Uh right,” I said, surprised and suspicious of the sudden change of heart.  “I’m leaving now.”

I needed someone to tell me exactly what was going on.

.....

“So, you have returned, have you?” Carlotta asked, pulling herself out from the gun battery.

“Your excitement is underwhelming,” I said sarcastically.

“Yeah, yeah, shut the fuck up,” Carlotta said.  “Is Commander Jupiter with you?”

“Well, not at the moment,” I said.  “I think she’s busy declaring war on anyone with the last name ‘Agira’.  What the hell’s been going on around here?”

“Ah, so you’ve met the biggest bitch to walk this ship since, well, you,” Carlotta said.  “Is she leaving now that you two are back?”

“No one’s relieved her of command, so she’s refusing to step aside,” I said. 

“Fuck,” Carlotta said.  “Ok, well, she shows up a month after you lot leave, and at first it’s all fine and dandy.  She seems nice enough, I mean as COs go.  Then one day, Sobana fucks up in a training exercise, and Agira flips out.  Loses her mind and beats the crap out of Sobana, then threatens to shoot us all if we tell anyone.  So that’s pretty much how it’s been since then.”

“She can’t do that,” I said in outrage.

“Smurfette, wake the fuck up and smell the eezo,” Carlotta snapped.  “We’re in space in the middle of a war.  Hackett hasn’t been around in ages.  She can pretty much do whatever she wants.”  She sighed and shook her head.  “I lived for sixteen years in an abusive household.  I don’t want my daughter to grow up in the same hell.”

“And Lieutenant Jupiter?” I asked.  “What happened to him?”

Carlotta snorted.  “Stupid idiot,” she said.  “After he got your call, he contacted the Joint Military Council and said that if they didn’t launch a rescue operation, he’d go to the batarians and give them all the intel he had on the Alliance.”

“Wow,” I said.

“Yeah,” Carlotta said.  “In case you hadn’t noticed, the Jupiters are big on family.”

.....

That evening they played Commander McDougal’s funeral on television.  Cat must have gotten leave to attend it, because the camera focused often on her face.  She was dry-eyed, her face expressionless.  I wondered what she was thinking, whether she blamed me for her father’s death.  On her right sat a red-haired young man, who I assumed was her brother.  On her left was her mother, who was also dry-eyed, but who looked furious.  I had no idea whether Cat’s parents were married, but I knew that Cat had spent six months of the year with her father and six months of the year with her mother.  Cat’s brother was dressed in civilian clothes, so I guessed he wasn’t in the military.

“There goes one of the biggest cunts to traverse this galaxy,” Zaeed murmured as Commander McDougal’s casket was carried to the hearse.

“That’s quite disrespectful,” Ismaeel said quietly.

“It’s the truth,” Zaeed snapped.  “He put me on a one hundred hour stand-to for messing up on a communications test.”

“Come on, Masaad, I bet that isn’t all you did,” Nina said.

“Well, I did swear his mother,” Zaeed admitted.  “Doesn’t change the facts that he was a complete fucking bastard.”

“You never do anything wrong, do you Masaad?” Terrence said.  “It’s called a narcissistic personality type.”

“Who asked for your input, you fucking ginger twerp?” Zaeed asked coldly.

“Commander McDougal hated me,” Kasuumi said.

“Why’s that?” Joey asked.  “I mean, apart from the fact that you flit around invisible and eavesdrop on private…moments.”

“Jacking off in life support isn’t all that private, Carboletti,” Zaeed said. 

“I can’t believe you told him,” Joey mumbled, going scarlet.

“I didn’t,” Kasuumi said, throwing Zaeed a curious look.

“Wow, I was just taking a guess there,” Zaeed said.  “I wasn’t actually being serious.”

“I guess McDougal hated me because I’m part alien,” Kasuumi said.

“I knew it,” Zaeed said angrily.  “Fucking racist bastard.”

“You do realise you’re disrespecting a superior officer?” Commander Agira asked coldly.

“Commander, he’s dead,” I said, stepping in.  “I doubt Commander McDougal cares anymore.  If you want, the men can apologise when they next see him.”

I waited in anticipation for the inevitable stand-to.  I didn’t get it.  Instead, what I got was a horrible smile and an “of course you are right, Lieutenant.”

Wait what?  Everyone except Commander Jupiter, who was determinedly looking at her left foot, turned to stare at Commander Agira.  “What are you all looking at?” she asked coldly.

.....

It continued like that for the rest of the week.  Commander Agira and Commander Jupiter continued to fight for control of the ship, with me, for some reason, caught in the middle.  Commander Jupiter refused any contact with Commander Agira, preferring to rather send me as a messenger if there was anything that she needed.  Commander Agira in return treated everyone except me like crap.  For some odd reason she treated me with a respect that bordered on ass-kissing, almost as though she was sucking up to a superior.  And I knew it wasn’t in my imagination, the others had noticed it too.

“Hey, Shep,” Nina said.  “Go ask your girlfriend if we can get more ammo clips.  We’re about to run out.”

“She’s not my girlfriend,” I snapped.

“Yeah?” Nina asked.  “Then why the hell is she treating you like the Messiah?”

“She doesn’t,” I insisted.

“She does,” Zaeed said from where he was busy pretending to write an operations reports.

“Who asked you Masaad?” I asked.  “What are you even doing?”

“Writing an operations report,” Zaeed said.

“You haven’t been in the field since Commander Jupiter and I got back,” I said.

“So?” Zaeed asked.  “I have a backlog.”

I rolled my eyes.  “Anyway, I intensely dislike Agira as much as you, Ruben,” I said, turning back to Nina.

“I don’t intensely dislike Agira, ma’am,” Nina said.  “I hate her.”

“Hate is a strong term, Chief,” I said mildly.

“My dad was a mullah,” Zaeed said.

“Your dad was a miller?” I asked in surprise.  “Didn’t you come from Shanxi?  That’s starship parts.”

“A mullah, you deaf bint,” Zaeed snapped.

“Don’t push it, private,” I said.

“A mullah is a wise counsellor, or a teacher in Islam,” Zaeed said.

“I thought you weren’t religious,” Nina said.

“I’m not,” Zaeed said.  “My parents were.  Anyway, my dad was a wise counsellor, taught the religious kids in our town Arabic and the Koran.”

“Is this going somewhere Masaad, because some of us actually do have work to do,” I said.

“It would if you stopped interrupting me,” Zaeed said.  “Anyway, as the saying goes, behind every successful man is a successful woman.”

“Sure, that old, sexist saying,” Nina said.

“Wait, how can a teacher be successful?” I asked.  “They don’t earn much.”

“Money isn’t a measure of success unless you happen to be incredibly shallow, Shepard,” Zaeed said.

“Yes, well you’re a successful loafer on a private’s pay,” I said. 

“My father had a one hundred per cent pass rate, and Islam Weekly voted him the best Muslim in the Asalamabad region,” Zaeed said.

“Ok, he was pretty successful,” Nina said.  “I take it your mother was even more successful.”

“Indeed,” Zaeed said.  “She was often known for coming up with wise and witty sayings.  You know the saying: where there’s eezo, there’s an economy?”

“Who doesn’t?” I asked.

“She invented that saying,” Zaeed said.  “She also invented the saying a stitch in time saves nine.  She was busy sewing a patch on Nine, an old family friend’s, underwear.  You see, Nine named his underwear Time, owing to the fact that they were a particularly old pair of Y-fronts.”

“That’s balls,” I said.

“Ok, I made that one up,” Zaeed said.  “Anyway, the saying she’s most famous for was ‘two N7s on one ship is asking for trouble’.”

“Oh my God,” I said.  “I can’t believe I just wasted five minutes of my life listening to this crap.  You must be the stupidest person in this galaxy.  I’ve met vorcha with more intelligence than you Masaad.  You make trained pyjacks seem smart in comparison.  You are officially banned from talking around me.”

“Is there a problem?” Commander Agira’s voice asked softly from behind me and I jumped.

“No ma’am,” I said.  “Uh, Ruben just asked me to ask you for permission to order more ammo clips.  It seems we’ve almost run out.”

“Of course,” Commander Agira said.  “We can’t let the ship run out of ammo clips.”  She studied us for a few moments.  “Are these soldiers keeping you out of work, Lieutenant?” she asked at last.

“No ma’am,” I said again.  “If anything, I’m, uh, keeping them out of work.  Telling them stories about my father.  He was a miller.”

“Funny, I thought he was in the army,” she said.

“Oh God, this tour is going to kill me,” I mumbled.

“What’s that, Lieutenant?” she asked.

“Nothing ma’am,” I said.  “Just displaying psychosis.”

She laughed.  She didn’t know I wasn’t joking.  “Walk with me,” she said.

She’s going to space me, I thought.  My stupid big mouth had finally killed me.

“Back to work,” I told Zaeed and Nina.

“Aye, ma’am,” Nina said, speeding off. 

“Wait, Gunnery Chief,” Commander Agira said.  I could literally feel Nina’s eyes roll.  “I think it would be better if Private Masaad and Gunnery Chief Ruben waited here so that you can finish your conversation when you get back, don’t you?”

“Not really,” I said.  “Masaad has a backlog after all, it’s important that he gets back to work.”

“That’s what I thought,” Commander Agira said.  “Wait here, you two.”

“Aye aye, Commander,” Zaeed said, practically spitting venom.

I looked over my shoulder as I walked away and mouthed, “Belayed.  Get back to work.”

.....

Commander Agira took me into the conference room, shutting the door neatly behind her.  “So, Lieutenant, how are you doing?” she asked me.

“Um,” I said, taken surprise by the question.

“I’m glad to hear that,” she said.

Since when did um mean anything positive?  “You do realise I didn’t actually answer the question?” I asked.

“You’ve been through quite a lot in your young life span, haven’t you?” she asked, clearly not hearing me.  “I mean, you’re only nineteen-“

“I’m twenty three,” I interrupted.

“Yet you’ve seen more things than most of our seasoned veterans,” she continued.

“Sure, I guess,” I said, really not sure of where this conversation was going.

“And I can see it so clearly,” she said.  “You and I, we’re alike.”

“We are?” I asked.

“You see it too?” she asked excitedly.

“I said, we are?” I said, emphasising the question on the ‘are’.

“I know, I heard you the first time, Lieutenant Shepard,” Commander Agira said.  “You are as ambitious as I am.  You wish to make it all the way to the top.  Think about it: Major, Commander, General.  Who knows, maybe even Admiral.  You have that potential.  Admiral Jane Shepard.  Doesn’t that sound good?”

“Um,” I said, deciding that that was by far the safest answer.

“But you won’t get there if you keep siding with Luna Jupiter,” Commander Agira continued.  “She’s stuck in the old ways.  I know it.  You know it.  Admiral Mikhailovich knows it.  Heck, a senile vorcha grubbing in the sewers for a scrap to eat knows it.  She’s old and she’s past it.”

“She’s not that old,” I said.

“Admiral Mikhailovich told me this when he posted me here to this ship to help you,” Commander Agira went on.  I debated asking to be dismissed while she continued this conversation with herself, but decided against it.  She was quite a bit taller than me, and not in a nice way.  “Admiral Mikhailovich knows how far you can go, and he knows I’m the only CO in the fleet that can help you get there.  That’s why he sent me here.”

Privately I thought the only reason Admiral Mikhailovich would’ve had sent her was to do me in, but again I kept this to myself.

“Well,” I said for variety’s sake.

“And you know this too,” she said, clearly not giving a damn about me or my opinion.  “That’s why you’ve come to me for help.  You know I’m the only one who can get rid of Luna Jupiter and her old ideas.”

“If this is your idea of reverse psychology, it’s a good thing you became a soldier,” I said, unable to stop myself.

Commander Agira opened her mouth, and the door to the conference room slammed open.  “There you are, Shepard,” Commander Jupiter said.  She glared at Commander Agira.  “What the hell are you doing in here?” she snapped.

“Just having a chat with young Lieutenant Shepard,” Commander Agira said.  “Such an amazing woman.  That was such an enjoyable conversation, wasn’t it Lieutenant?”

“Um,” I said, reverting to my old favourite.

“Oh Jane, the same to you,” Commander Agira said.  “See you around, Jupiter.”  She left.

“She does know you didn’t actually give her an answer, right?” Commander Jupiter asked, looking concerned.

“Our entire conversation consisted of her saying stuff, and me saying ‘um’, which she interpreted as something random, so no, I doubt it,” I said.

“Really?” Commander Jupiter asked, trying and failing to sound disinterested.  “Um, what did you talk about?”

“What a shit commander you are, how you’re holding me back, and how I’m more likely to make it as an admiral if I was on her side, whatever that’s supposed to mean,” I said.

She snorted.  “You?” she asked incredulously.  “An admiral?”

“And why not?” I snapped, nettled.

“Sorry,” she said.  “Er, what did you say?”

“Um,” I said.

“Don’t be coy,” she said angrily.  “If you’re changing sides, just say it.”

“No, that’s actually what I said,” I said.  “Um.  And what’s this ‘changing sides’ business?  You’re the better commander, my childhood hero, and a pretty nice person, if you discount the fact that you have a temper like a krogan in a blood rage.”

She grinned.  “Thanks Shepard,” she said, surprising me with a hug.

“Ok,” I said uncomfortably, patting her arm.  “Let’s take a breath.”

“Sorry,” she said, stepping back.

“You wanted to see me?” I asked.

Her face sobered.  “We have a situation,” she said.

“I always get this pang of anxiety whenever you say that,” I said.

“Well, this situation affects everyone,” Commander Jupiter said.  “You know that there has been a huge outcry since our ‘execution’ was aired on television.  People, including Terra Firma party and a number of other parliamentarians, have called for the resignation of Prime Minister du Plessis.”

“I didn’t know that, actually,” I said.  I’d been spending most propaganda hours either asleep or very close to it.

“Well, it’s been happening,” Commander Jupiter said.  “Anyway, today, at midday sol, Prime Minister du Plessis announced his resignation.”

I sat down.  Jan du Plessis had been the prime minister of the Alliance for eighteen years.  I’d been five when he’d first secured the position.  I hadn’t known any other prime minister.

“Holy crap,” I said quietly.  “What’s going to happen?”

“Well, the deputy Prime Minister, Elsebeth Merein will be finishing the term, but I’m not sure who’ll take over the leadership of the ADP,” Commander Jupiter said. 

“Why are you telling me this though?” I asked.  “Why the secrecy?”

“Well, the new prime minister is going to need a defence committee to advise her on the best course of action with this war,” Commander Jupiter began.

“And you think you’ll be asked to be on this committee,” I finished.

“Yes,” she admitted.  “Promise me, lieutenant, that if I leave this ship, you’ll look after the men, make sure Agira doesn’t hurt them.  They’ll follow your lead, I know it.”

“What makes you think they’ll listen to me?” I asked.

“They respect you,” she answered.  “More importantly, every single person on this ship loves you and would die for you without a second thought.”

“They seriously need a hobby then,” I said.  She raised her eyebrows.  “Ok, I promise, they’ll come to no harm whilst you are away.”

“Good,” Commander Jupiter said.  “Thank you, Shepard.”

.....

Early the next morning, as I was doing the month’s proposed budget, an announcement came over the intercom.  “At this moment, at 0900 hours sol, the new prime minister, Elsebeth Merein has been sworn in,” Commander Jupiter announced.  The Alliance national anthem was playing in the background.  “What follows is her inauguration speech.”

There was a crackle and then Elsebeth Merein’s voice came over the intercom.  “It was with a great deal of sadness that I see the reign of Prime Minister Jan du Plessis come to an end,” she said.  She sounded very convincing, even though she had been Jan du Plessis’s deputy ever since he became prime minister.  “Under his great leadership, humanity has prospered.  The Alliance has the fifth-strongest economy in the galaxy, an embassy on the Citadel, the best combat armour in the galaxy,” she was really scraping the barrel here, “the galaxy’s strongest cricket team,” mainly because we invented the sport, “and some of the richest, most influential individuals in the galaxy.” She paused, no doubt to give all the patriots in the galaxy the chance to cheer fanatically.  Looking around at my fellows, I saw more than a few shining eyes and wide smiles.

“Unfortunately, not all is well in the Alliance,” Elsebeth Merein continued.  “The first issue being the Skyllian war.  To you, my fellow humans, I make this promise: by the end of this year, we will have the batarians grovelling at our feet.  We will make them regret that they ever threatened our safety.”

The CIC burst into cheers.  Great, another leader who didn’t really care whether we lived or died.

“The second issue is poverty,” she continued. 

“Lieutenant Shepard to the conference room,” someone interrupted her.  “Lieutenant Shepard to the conference room.  Thank you.”

“That’s weird,” I said.  “I wonder if whoever that was is a relative.”

“That was actually for you,” Joey said.

“Right,” I said.

There was nobody in the conference room.  “Hello?” I said uncertainly. 

“On the QEC,” com officer Bharesh said. 

“Thanks,” I said.  I switched the QEC on to reveal Analyst Valencio.  “Hey, it’s you,” I said.  “Long time no see.”

“Whatever,” he said.  “Firstly, congratulations, you’ve been promoted to staff lieutenant.”

This took me by surprise, but I was quick on the return.  “Finally,” I cried.  “The power I’ve been waiting for all my life.”

“Shut up, please,” he groaned.  “Secondly, and I can’t believe I’ve actually been ordered to do this, but you’ve been requested to come to Seattle and present yourself to Parliament within the next solar week.”

“Ok,” I said.  “Why?”

“The Prime Minister has personally requested you to be put onto her new defence committee,” he said, pulling a face.

“Wow, she’s crazier than I thought,” I said.

“That’s what I said too,” Analyst Valencio said.

“No need to be so rude,” I said.  “I suppose I’ll see you in the next week.”

“More’s the pity,” he mumbled.

.....

The reactions to my announcement that I was leaving were varied.  “But-but, I thought I’d be the one going to Earth,” Commander Jupiter said in dismay.  I didn’t find this very supportive.

“Yes, she’s leaving again,” Carlotta said excitedly.  That wasn’t very supportive either, but at least I expected it.  Most of the others of Company 6 seemed disappointed and vaguely worried.  This was both unexpected and unsupportive.

Later that afternoon whilst on a smoke and coffee break in the smoker’s lounge, I contemplated the fact that I would be serving as one of the advisors to the new prime minister.  My name would have been presented to her by the Joint Military Council, but for once I couldn’t see what their angle was. 

“Congratulations, Lieutenant,” someone said from behind me, breaking my reverie.  It was Commander Agira.

“Thank you, ma’am,” I said.

“I knew you’d go far,” she said.  “I’m proud to have helped you reach this point.”

“Well, I’ve only known you for a week, but whatever floats your boat,” I said.

“That’s exactly my point,” she exclaimed.

Wow.

We sat in awkward silence for a while, until she said, “I heard somewhere that you’re the best shot in the Alliance.”

“Ah, must have been pathological liar Liam,” I said.  “He’s always telling stories.”

“I’d love to see you put on a little show before you left,” she said.  “It’d be good for the men to see some true skill.”

Why not?  It had been a while since I had the chance to show off.  That evening, after parade, everyone of Company 6 (apart from Commander Jupiter, who claimed to have a headache) gathered in the hold to watch me show off.  First I shot at a few targets, and when that got old, Commander Agira threw tennis balls for me to shoot at.  When I hit twenty in a row, everyone burst into applause.

Commander Agira then positioned herself against a wall, and balanced a tennis ball on her head.  “Go on, Shepard,” she said.

I was reminded of the DP I had gotten in my first year of training, after Admiral Greyling had tried to get me to shoot a tennis ball off of one of my fellow grunt’s head.  Then I had been terrified of hitting him.  Now though, I was confident in my abilities and I easily shot the tennis ball off of Commander Agira’s head. 

“Brilliant,” she said.  “Absolutely brilliant.  You see, marines.  This is the kind of talent we need.”  Her eyes lit up.  “Let’s shake it up a bit,” she said.

She went over to where Rochelle was standing next to Carlotta and took Rochelle’s hand.  Carlotta grabbed Rochelle’s other hand.  “What the fuck do you think you’re doing with my daughter?” she hissed.

“Let go, Antonio,” Commander Agira said. 

“Like fuck,” Carlotta snapped.  “You let go.”

“I won’t ask again,” Commander Agira said.  When Carlotta still didn’t release Rochelle’s hand, Commander Agira punched Carlotta hard in the face.  Carlotta fell backwards and hit her head hard against the corner of a packing crate. 

“Mama,” Rochelle cried.

“Hush, child, your mother is fine,” Commander Agira said.  There was absolute silence in the hold as she put Rochelle against the bulkhead and balanced a tennis ball on her head.  “Go ahead, Lieutenant,” she said.

“Ma’am,” I said flatly.  I looked at Rochelle’s tiny face, and I felt ill.

I walked to where Carlotta was slowly sitting up.  I held my left hand out to her, helped her up, and gave the pistol to her.

“Do you want to do the honours, Lieutenant Antonio?” I asked tonelessly.

She took the pistol from me and nodded.  Commander Agira realised what was going to happen as Carlotta raised it, and twisted her body.  The bullet that would have hit her in the chest buried itself instead in her upper arm.

Carlotta dropped the gun and ran over to Rochelle, pulling her into her arms and burying her face into Rochelle’s hair.  “Khan, Brown, get her to the med bay,” I said, my heart pounding.  “Van Richte, get Commander Jupiter.  Just tell her Commander Agira’s been hit, don’t say anything else.”

Ismaeel and Terrence helped Commander Agira up.  “You’ll pay,” she said coldly to me.

“Probably,” I sighed. 

“Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck,” Carlotta was whispering.

“You’re not allowed to say that word, Mama,” Rochelle’s muffled voice said.

“Antonio, you need to pull yourself together,” I said.  A vague plan was forming in my mind. 

“Fuck, motherfucker, fuck,” Carlotta continued.

“Lieutenant Antonio,” I snapped.  “Pull yourself together.  You’ll be ok.”

“I’m about to be arrested and sentenced to death,” Carlotta snapped, glaring up at me.

“You aren’t,” I said.  “You’ll be fine, but only if you calm the fuck down.”  Carlotta stood up, but continued to grip Rochelle’s hand tightly.

“What are we going to do, Jane?” Joey asked.

“Follow my lead,” I said.  “Try not to act like this is news to y’all.”

“What the fuck is going on in here?” Commander Jupiter bellowed, walking into the hold.

I took a deep breath.  “I shot Commander Agira,” I said.

“What?” Commander Jupiter asked in surprise.

“What?” Carlotta echoed.  I glared at her.

“It was an accident,” I said.  “I was doing a training exercise with my pistol. She was throwing tennis balls, and, uh, one of my shots were off target and hit her in the arm.”

“And what happened to Antonio’s face?” Commander Jupiter asked, nodding at Carlotta’s broken nose. 

“I-uh, she slipped and hit her face against the bulkhead,” I said, hating how feeble the story sounded.

“Uh huh,” she said.  “Is this true, Corporal Sobana?”

“Yes ma’am,” Nkosi said unconvincingly.

“I don’t believe it,” Commander Jupiter said.  “I want to believe it.  I want to believe you accidently shot her, Lieutenant Shepard, but I know you don’t miss.  You don’t miss, and, if you do, you don’t miss that badly.”

“I did miss that badly, Commander,” I said.

“We’ll see,” Commander Jupiter said.  “I’ll be reviewing the video feed of this area of the ship.  We’ll soon know the truth.”

Fucking big brother.  “Yes ma’am,” I said, my heart sinking.

She left.  “I’m sorry,” I muttered to Carlotta.

Carlotta nodded.  “That must have been the lamest story anyone’s ever come up with,” she said.  “I suppose I should go pack.”

.....

I wasn’t sure exactly what the punishment would be for lying to a superior officer and aiding and abetting the shooting of another superior officer, but I was certain my time on the Everest was fast drawing to a close.  Instead of going to the mess for dinner, I went onto the observation deck, to have one last look at the stars.

Carlotta joined me.  “Any new ideas?” she asked.

“I would suggest running away, but we’re in space,” I said.  “Where’s Rochelle?”

“Maya’s looking after her,” she said.

“Is she ok?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Carlotta said.  “She doesn’t really understand what happened.  She thinks it was a game.”

“How’s the face?” I asked.

She scowled and winced.  “Painful,” she said.  “I’ve had worse though.”  We sat in silence.  “Why?” she asked.

“Why what?” I asked.

“Why did you lie for me?” she asked angrily.  “You didn’t have to, especially since your career is looking up again.  You could have told the truth, gotten off free and easy, and with that pendeja wrapped around your finger.”

I stared out at the stars.  “I still owe you for helping me two years ago,” I said.  “I don’t know what I would’ve done if you hadn’t been there for me.”

“Well, I guess we’re even now,” she said.

“Officer on deck,” one of the sailors on duty on the observation deck called, and Commander Jupiter walked over to us.

“Shepard, Antonio,” she said.  “I’m glad I found you two.  I wanted to tell you that a virus caused the ship’s internal cameras to malfunction at around the time this…incident happened, so we are forced to accept your version of events.”

“I-a virus?” I asked.

“Yes, Shepard, a virus,” she snapped.  “Now, I don’t want this sort of thing to happen ever again, is that understood?  This is going to cause enough trouble as it is.”

“Yes ma’am,” Carlotta said.

“Thank you,” I said.

.....

I arrived in Seattle seven days later, and was met at Seattle Spaceport by Analyst Valencio.  “Lieutenant Shepard,” he said.  “I wish I could say it was a pleasure.”

“The feeling is mutual, believe me,” I said.  “Learn any new jokes since we last saw each other?”

“Yes, I heard one recently,” he said.  “Which totally overrated, boring and annoying officer has just been promoted?”

“I don’t know, which?” I asked.  He raised his eyebrows.  “Ouch,” I said.  “You know, I heard a few good ones on Taetrus.”

“Can you walk and talk?” he asked.  “The car’s this way.”

“Asking me to multitask, hey?” I asked.  “Ok then.”  We started walking.  “How many humans does it take to activate a dormant mass relay?”

“If I ignore you will you shut up?” he asked.

“Wrong,” I said.  “Six hundred and two.  Six hundred to vote on it, one to ask a salarian for technical help, and one to request a seat on the Council afterwards.”

“Word of advice,” Analyst Valencio said, unlocking the car.  “Don’t tell the prime minister that joke.”

“Noted,” I said.  “So, where’s my new digs?”

“In Parliament,” he said.  “Now, I’m to tell you the correct etiquette for meeting the prime minister.”

“Oh God, this ought to be boring,” I said.  I put my feet up on the dashboard.  “Ok, go for it.  Do your worst.”

“Always refer to the prime minister as Madam Prime Minister,” Analyst Valencio said.  “Be polite.  Avoid swearing, bad jokes and disrespect of any kind.  Never remained seated in her presence unless she sits down first or says you may sit down.  When you first meet her, you shake her hand, give a slight bow of the head, and then step back.  Any questions?”

“So, I refer to the prime minister as ‘yo bitch’, am as rude as possible, swear like a trooper (which, by the way, I am), tell all my best jokes, sit down for a rest when she arrives and give her a high five when I first meet her?” I asked.

“The Joint Military Council put your name forward to be on this committee,” Analyst Valencio said.  “Don’t make them regret it.”

“I will,” I said.

“And the admirals would like to see you as soon as you arrive,” he continued, not hearing or not caring about my comment.

“Can’t wait,” I said.  “In fact, to celebrate, I’ll put it into my diary.  Freddie.”

“Greetings, minions,” it said, popping out of my new omnitool.  “How can I enslave you?”

“It’s my VI,” I explained to Analyst Valencio, who was eyeing Freddie with a certain degree of trepidation.  “Freddie, mark in my diary that today the Joint Military Council wished to meet with me.”

“Why?” Freddie asked.

“It’s for emphasis,” I said.  “Now, vamoose.”  Freddie vamoosed.  “There,” I said, grinning at Analyst Valencio.  “All done.”

.....

The defence committee was to be staying in The People’s House (the incredibly ironical name for the president’s house in Seattle).  We were not, under any circumstances allowed to leave the premises of The People’s House unless we were on our way to a meeting at Parliament, and, if for whatever reason, we needed to leave the premises, we had to be accompanied by a member of the Secret Services.  Analyst Valencio told me this, as he parked the car in the underground skycar lot of The People’s House.

“You will now be taken to your room, where you will change into your formal wear,” Analyst Valencio said, marching across the skylot and through a door into an elevator.  “After that, at approximately 1000 hours you and the others of the defence committee will meet with the Joint Military Council for a briefing, after which you will take a skycar to Parliament to have your first meeting with the Prime Minister.”

“A hot bath would be nice first,” I said.

“The Alliance is in crisis, and all you can think about is having a bath?” he asked incredulously.

“I have my priorities straight, bub,” I said.

The elevator doors opened to show a beautiful, (most likely) fake wooden panelled corridor.  “Looks a bit like my grandmother’s place, if she had money,” I said. 

My room was the third on the left.  Analyst Valencio showed me in, then left.  My room was huge, with large windows that could easily have fitted three of me standing on their shoulders.  I had a king sized bed with a pretty patchwork quilt depicting a rather alarming scene of carnage on the battlefields of the First Contact War.  Peaking behind the door of what I thought was the closet showed an ensuite bathroom with a hot tub.

“I’ve died and gone to rich person heaven,” I said aloud.  There was a knock on my bedroom door.

“Ken, you in there?” a familiar voice called.  Of course, I should have expected this.

“It’s open,” I said.

Commander Anderson came in.  “Good to see you again, boy,” he said, nodding at me.

“Really?” I asked in surprise.

“God no,” he said.  He nodded at my shoulders.  “I see you have a new bar there, proving yet again that the admirals are nothing more than a group of scared boys.”

“Well, they made you commander, so I suppose this is just a tiny step in the wrong direction in comparison,” I said.

“Ooh, Ken, finally discovered that those round things between your legs are a pair of testicles,” Commander Anderson said.  “So, I’m in the room next door, which means that you need to keep it down if you think you hear the monster under the bed.”

“Noted,” I said.  I folded my dirty laundry and placed it neatly in the laundry chute.  One of the domestic mechs would pick it up eventually.

“I love how spacers never waste time in settling in,” Commander Anderson remarked, watching me unpack my duffle.  “So, Ken, you haven’t asked me what’s new.”

“Well, I assumed that the answer would be that you’d thought up a new insult for me, which I would then have to endure, so I decided against it, sir,” I said.

“That is just not true,” he said in scandalised tones.  “Go on, ask what’s new.”

I sighed.  “So, Commander David Anderson,” I said.  “What’s new?”

He smiled modestly.  “Well, you know that ship we’ve been building with the turians?” he asked.  The construction had started when I was sixteen.  There had recently been a news report to say that the construction of the ship had been mostly completed.

“Sure,” I said.  “They’re fighting about whether the ship will join the Alliance fleet or the Hierarchy fleet.  What about it?”

“The turians have kindly allowed us to get the ship,” Commander Anderson said.  “It’ll be joining the fifth fleet in August next year.  And…drumroll please.”

I glared at him.  “No,” I said.

“Fine,” he said.  “I’ve been asked to command it.”

I wasn’t sure why exactly he was telling me this.  “Congratulations,” I said.  “So, you’ll be leaving the Tokyo.”

“Hell yes I’m leaving the Tokyo,” Commander Anderson said.  “If we actually manage to get the Alliance to surrender, she’ll go back to patrolling the Argus Rho cluster.  Do you know what’s there?”

“Sure, Zhu’s Hope,” I said.

“And what happens on Zhu’s Hope?” Commander Anderson asked.

“Root crops and-,” I began.

“Nothing,” Commander Anderson interrupted me.  “At least this new ship will be sent to somewhere exciting.”

“Right,” I said.

“And, do you know what this means, Ken?” Commander Anderson continued.

“You’re the Alliance’s new bone?” I asked.

“No,” Commander Anderson said impatiently.  “This’ll officially be the best ship in the fleet, and whoever is in command of it will have to be the best office in the Alliance.”

“Are you kidding me?” I asked.

“Now, don’t be jealous Ken,” Commander Anderson said.  “I understand.  I also get to pick my own crew.  It’ll be the cream of the crop.”

“It’s ten dickhead,” Freddie said, popping out of my omnitool.  “You need to meet with the Joint Military Council.”

“Damn, I wasn’t done with gloating,” Commander Anderson said.  “This way, boy.  Don’t forget to salute when you arrive, or else the admirals will be cross.”

.....

The way the defence committee worked was thus: two officers in each division of the army (i.e., marines, naval, artillery, air force and biotics) was asked to join, usually in the event of a change of leadership during wartime.  They would then sit in the committee along with the admirals, the prime minister, the deputy prime minister, the treasurer, the head of the Department of Colonial Affairs, the head of the Department of Human Affairs and the head of the Department of Defence for a period of two weeks and provide the prime minister with as much advice as possible on the best course of action of the war.

The rest of the officers on the committee were already waiting in the boardroom when we arrived.  I didn’t recognise all of them, but I few of them I knew.  Flight Lieutenant Jeff Morreau, who was shorter than I was and had to walk with the aid of crutches and leg braces owing to a brittle bone disorder, was considered the best pilot in the Alliance.  To his right sat a very blonde, pale man dressed in an artillery uniform, who I recognised as Captain Welmud Schmidt, captain of the Two Fifty Two Heavy Artillery Unit.  Next to me sat a swarthy man with a scar across his face.  He was Captain Jean-Marc Valje, captain of the SSV Dunkirk.  As I looked around the room, I was struck by the sickening realisation that I was not only the only woman, but also the youngest person there.

“Ken,” Commander Anderson hissed, poking me in the ribs.

“Ow, Jesus, what?” I snapped.

“Joker is going to be my pilot,” he whispered.

“Joker?” I asked.

Commander Anderson nodded at Lieutenant Morreau.  I wondered why he was called Joker, as he looked like someone very unlikely to laugh or tell any jokes.

“And I’m going to ask Lieutenant Alenko to be part of the marine forces,” he continued in an undertone.

“Kaidan?” I asked in surprise.

“He’s my new tech expert,” Commander Anderson said.  “He’s very good actually, but then he was the best in your year at Del Sol.”

“I’m surprised you noticed,” I mumbled, scowling.

“Maybe I’ll ask Williams too,” he continued, ignoring me.  “I’ll have to change her designation though.  That might be difficult.  Huh, maybe Antonio, although she’ll need to have a serious attitude change.”  He saw my face.  “You’re not expecting me to ask you, are you Ken?”

I snorted.  “No,” I said too quickly.

“Good,” he said.

At that moment the door swept open and the admirals swept in.  We all jumped to attention.  “As you were,” Admiral Hackett said and we sat down again.

“Good morning, gentlemen,” Admiral Mikhailovich said.  “Welcome.  Perhaps before we begin, each of us should say who we are and which ship we serve on.  Joker, if you’ll start us off.”

Weird.  Admirals didn’t usually use nicknames.

“I’m Flight Lieutenant Jeffrey Morreau,” Lieutenant Morreau said.  “I’m the commander of the flight deck on the SSV New York.”

“I’m Flight Lieutenant Winston Magalesha, and I fly Fighter Jet two three seven in the second fleet,” the dark-skinned man next to him said.

“My name is Major Bruce Carraway, and I’m the commander of the Thirty Third Biotics unit,” the prematurely grey-haired man seated next to Lieutenant Magalesha said.

“My name is Staff Lieutenant Tsepho Moshoeshoe, and I serve on the Twenty Eighth Biotics unit,” the man next to Major Carraway said.

“Commander David Anderson, and I’m the commander of the SSV Tokyo,” Commander Anderson said.  I was next.

“I’m sorry, I can only give name, rank and number,” I said.

Admiral Mikhailovich scowled.  “Shepard,” he said coldly.

“Staff Lieutenant Jane Shepard, and I serve with Company 6 Marine Corps Scout Snipers on the SSV Everest,” I said quickly.

“Captain Jean-Marc Valje,” Captain Valje muttered.  “I’m the captain of the SSV Dunkirk.”

“I’m Captain Mario Estavez, and I’m the captain of the SSV Rasputin,” the man next to Captain Valje said, grinning at us.

“My name is Captain Jasper Johnson, and I command the Fifty Second Medium Artillery Unit,” a red-haired, freckled man said.

“I am Captain Welmud Schmidt and I am the captain of the Two Fifty Two Heavy Artillery Unit,” Captain Schmidt said.

“Excellent,” Admiral Kahoku said.  “We’re happy to have you all with us.  Each and every one of you were asked here because you are the best officers in your corps.”

“God, this is a bad day for the marines,” Commander Anderson mumbled.

“You will be meeting with the prime minister later today for the first time,” Admiral Foster took up the narrative.  I wondered idly if they practiced talking like this before meeting with us.  “I trust you’ve been adequately briefed on the best way to address her?”

There were murmurs of ascent.  “Yo, bitch what’s up?” I muttered.  Commander Anderson snorted.

“Is there a problem, marines?” Admiral Mikhailovich asked sharply.

“No, sir,” Commander Anderson said sweetly.

“Now, this war is costing the Alliance a fortune, which we sadly do not possess,” Admiral Hackett said.  “Worse than that, it is costing us too many lives.  We’ve lost a third of the Alliance’s military force to this war.”

“Maybe this should have been considered before this war was started?” Lieutenant Moshoeshoe said coldly.

“True enough, and we told the former prime minister of this when he first considered declaring this war,” Admiral Foster said.  “He didn’t…heed our advice.”

“No kidding,” Captain Johnson said.

“I was posted to Skyllia two years ago,” Captain Schmidt said.  “My team is not the same as the one I first started with.  They’re all dead.”

“We’ve all lost team members, Schmidt,” Admiral Barishka said.

“That being said, you also need to remember that humanity doesn’t surrender to aliens,” Admiral Mikhailovich said.

“Are you kidding me?” I asked incredulously.  “You just said we need to end this war, now you say we don’t surrender.  How the hell else can we end this war if we don’t surrender?”

Admiral Mikhailovich scowled at me.  “Lieutenant Shepard,” he said.

“I mean, what’s more important, human lives or human pride?” I asked.

“I agree with the boy,” Commander Anderson said.  “There is no way we can win this war.  We have too few men left, and the enemy is too deeply entrenched.  Our only option is to surrender, and surrender now.”

“And then what, give the batarians Skyllia?” Major Carraway asked.

“There are other worlds we can colonise,” Captain Valje pointed out.

“Sure, and explain that how exactly to the people living on Skyllia?” Lieutenant Morreau asked.  “Dear folks, I know you’re all psychologically scarred by the war that you’ve recently experienced, but now we’ll scar you some more by uprooting you and moving you to a new planet?  Come to think of it, Elysium is the only city we still have.  Everyone else is stuck in batarian territory.  We won’t be able to get them out.”

“I was in Montenegro a couple of weeks back,” Commander Anderson said.  “The people seemed well enough.  I don’t think the batarians are hurting them any.”

“I like the way you are all debating this,” Admiral Barishka said.  “But maybe this sort of talk should wait until you’re with the prime minister and the other ministers?”

“Agreed,” Admiral Mikhailovich said.  “The car will pick you all up at half past one, lunch is served in the dining room at twelve.  Dismissed.  Shepard, if you would stay behind?”

I pulled a face.  No doubt this would be his moment to threaten me with death.

Everyone else filed out.  When the door slammed shut behind Lieutenant Morreau, he turned to me.  “Don’t bother sir,” I said.  “If I fuck this up, you’ll throw me into the brig where you will fight very hard to have me put to death.”

“You can only speak when I give you permission to speak, Lieutenant,” he snapped.  “Now, inviting you here was not my idea.”  I resisted the urge to say obviously.  “But other members of the Joint Military Council seem to have a great deal of respect for you.”  He glared at Admiral Hackett, who scowled.

“I tend to command respect,” I said.

“However, if you step one toe out of line, I’ll arrange for a little ‘accident’ to happen the next time you go out on a mission,” Admiral Mikhailovich snapped.  “You are too much bloody trouble, Shepard.  Your escapade in that Prison of War camp was a bureaucratic nightmare for the Alliance.”

“So, what, you’d have preferred it if Commander Anderson and I were executed in galactic television?” I asked.  A realisation dawned on me.  “No one on my squad would allow a ‘little accident’ to befall me.  Is that why Commander Agira is on the Everest?”

“Commander Agira is on the Everest because the ship was missing a commanding officer after Lieutenant Jupiter showed his true colours,” Admiral Barishka said coldly.

“Lieutenant Jupiter was trying to protect his sister, who is his only family, just by the way, you pompous prick,” I snapped.

“Enough,” Admiral Mikhailovich snapped.  “You have been warned, Shepard.  Now get out of my sight.”

.....

I went back to my room, and turned the television on.  There was nothing good on, so I took out my datapad and opened it to my place in Neverwhere, the twenty first century sci-fi book I was reading.  I had barely read two pages when there was a knock in the door. 

“The only way you’re going to make friends is if you actually stop being such a wallflower and go out and talk to people, Ken,” Commander Anderson called.

I opened the door.  “There are perks to being a wallflower, sir,” I said.

“Just shut up, and come,” Commander Anderson said.  “What did old cranky pants with you this time?”

“The same old thing,” I said.  “To threaten me with death if I didn’t toe the line, et cetera.”

“I wish he’d make good on his threats once in a while,” Commander Anderson said.  “Instead he seems to keep on promoting you when you scarcely deserve to be in the army in the first place.”

“Where are we going?” I asked, ignoring him.

“The rec room,” Commander Anderson said.  “Everyone’s hanging out there.”

“And you want me there because…?” I asked.

“Everyone can be impressed with the wit and speed of my insults aimed at you,” Commander Anderson said.

“Of course,” I mumbled.

.....

The rec room was big and beautiful.  A large, flat screened television was set against one wall, whilst a football table and a pinball table was against the opposite wall.

“Hello baby,” Captain Johnson said coming over.

“Good bye, ginger,” I said.  I turned to Commander Anderson.  “Is there anyone decent here, or am I going to spend my time here in my room?”

Commander Anderson didn’t answer, most likely because he was bent double with laughter. 

“I could join you in room, if you like,” Captain Johnson said, I think he was trying for seductively.

“If that happens, my foot would join your face, and not in a kinky way,” I snapped. 

“Damnit, Anderson was right,” Major Carraway said.

“I am not eleven, and I am not a boy,” I said angrily.

Everyone gave me a strange look.  “Ken, I told them you have the smartest mouth in the galaxy,” Commander Anderson said in a strained voice.

“Right,” I said.

Thankfully, at that moment a distraction arrived in the form of a tall, beautiful woman with auburn hair and large green eyes.

“Ah, Greta, perfect timing,” Commander Anderson said.  “You’ve just saved Ken here from a lifetime of mortification.”

“Too late for that,” I said.  “Have you seen how tall I am?”

“Ah yes, Joker has finally found someone shorter than him,” Commander Anderson said.

“Very funny,” Lieutenant Morreau muttered.

“Wow, that must be the first time you’re the punchline on that joke,” I said.  “Who’s the bird, Anderson?”

I swear to God, Commander Anderson almost cracked up then and there.  “The bird, Ken, and I don’t appreciate that misogynistic tone by the way, is my com officer, Greta Stalone,” he said.  “She is unarguably the best com officer in the Alliance and makes the greatest coffee in the galaxy.  Greta, meet Ken, the bane of my existence.”

“Nice to finally meet you,” Greta said, shaking my hand.  “I’ve heard so much about you from the commander.”

“Greta, I warn you not to continue that line of thought unless you want to spend the rest of your career cleaning the latrines,” Commander Anderson said.

“I must say I’m kind of nervous of meeting so many high-up officials in one day,” Flight Lieutenant Magalesha said.

“Please, there’s nothing scary about meeting politicians,” Commander Anderson scoffed.

“Only because you’ve met so many it’s old hat to you,” Captain Estavez said.  “For the rest of us it’s a pretty scary thing.”

“What do you mean?” Commander Anderson asked.

“Do I have to spell it out?” Captain Estavez said.  “You’ve won so many medals you probably jangle when you wear your blues.”

“Yes, I know,” Commander Anderson said unmodestly.

“It’s just a bunch of politicians,” Lieutenant Moshoeshoe said.  “What’s the big deal?”

“Spoken like a true biotic,” Captain Johnson said.  “What’s the big deal?  No one save Commander Anderson has ever seen one in the flesh.”

“I met the president of Tiptree,” Lieutenant Morreau offered.

“Really?” Captain Valje said.

“Yeah,” Lieutenant Morreau said.  “It’s not every day that a severally disabled kid graduates top of flight school and becomes the best pilot in the fleet.”

“I’ve also met a politician,” I said.  “It was when I was eleven and my dad was posted to Shanxi for a couple of months.  I got to meet the assistant of the assistant of the junior undersecretary of the Minister of Defence.”

“Must have been a big moment for you, kid,” Major Carraway said.

“I’m twenty three,” I said tiredly.

“Yeah, but you look like you still wear pigtails and pinafores on your off-day, so I’m going to go with kid,” he said.  The others laughed.

.....

Lunch was like nothing I had ever experienced.  Raised on army food, I had grown accustomed to barely-substantial meals.  However, on this day, and every one of our days in Seattle, we were treated to roast beef, roast vegetables, soups, Yorkshire Puddings, quiches, and delicious-looking, egg-filled deserts that I was unable to enjoy.  Commander Anderson however very kindly told me just how delicious they were. 

“You know, you remind me of my older brother, and not in a good way,” I snapped as he dug into a delicious-looking custard cream.

“Is it my fault you were too bloody proud to have the genetic enhancement to have that shit cleared up?” Commander Anderson asked.  “No.  Tough titties to you then.”

After lunch, we were taken to the Alliance Buildings in a stretch limo with a blue light brigade.  This was a first for me.  It seemed that this would be a day of firsts.

“Is there any champagne on this bird?” Captain Johnson asked. 

“Ah yes, Johnson, that’d be a good way to prove to the PM that artillery soldiers are stupid, useless, and should be locked up,” Commander Anderson said dismissively.

“Shut it, you jarhead,” Captain Johnson snapped.

“Ken, what am I about to say?” Commander Anderson asked me.

“How the fuck should I know?” I asked.  “I’m not psychic.  I can’t read your mind.  And even if I could, I’m not sure I’d want to.”

“You trained under me for two years and lived with me for three months, you’re telling me you can’t hazard a guess?” he asked.

“Do you two want to find a room in this limo and see if you can work the sexual tension out that way?” Captain Johnson asked.

“Wait, I think it’s coming to me,” I said, holding both hands up.  “Um, come on brain.  Wait, yes.  Is it push-ups?”

“Good guess,” Commander Anderson said.  “Now, Johnson, you really do have an unfortunate name, and if you had served under me or trained under me, I would have named you either penis or meat and two veg.  I would also like to take this opportunity to point out that I am of a higher rank than you and therefore demand some respect.  I want you to bare this in mind when I ask the following question: how strong are your arms?”

“Yes sir,” Captain Johnson said, gulping.  “Sorry sir.”

“Apology accepted,” Commander Anderson said.

.....

The Alliance Buildings had very much been modelled after the old American Houses of Parliament, the so-called White House.  Dome roofed and, well, white, it was built on the top of Capitol Hill, so that it had a beautiful view of the city of Seattle, when it wasn’t hidden under a layer of smog.  On this particular day it was, so I missed out on the beautiful view of the city of Seattle.

A group of secret servicemen took us to the situation room, a room filled to the brim with N1s analysing the crap out of data that nobody really cared about.

“I can’t wait til I have my own command and can walk into my CIC and say ‘what’s the situation’,” I said.

“Ken, the day you get your own command is the day I leave the fleet,” Commander Anderson said.

“It could happen,” I said.  “I am a staff lieutenant now after all.”

At that moment the politician members of the defence committee along with various personal assistants and undersecretaries walked in, led by Saul Hendricks, the Minister of Defence.  We all stood to attention.  I half-expected the national anthem or Chariots of Fire to start playing as Rhiveshan Moodley, the Minister of Finance, Maria Raul, the Minister of Human Affairs, Linda Mitshali, the Minister of Colonial Affairs, Sibusisu, Magamela, the new Deputy Prime Minister, the speaker of the house, Robert Muller and finally, the Prime Minister, Elsebeth Merein.

She was quite tall with mousy hair and blue eyes, her face seemed older than her fifty three years. 

Admiral Hackett immediately sprang into ass-kissing mode.  “Madam Prime Minister, it’s such an honour,” he said.

“Admiral Hackett,” Elsebeth Merein said, holding her hand out.  Admiral Hackett shook it as though he was touching something fragile and extremely valuable.  “I take it these are the military members of the defence committee.”

“Indeed,” Admiral Hackett said.  “May I present them to you?”

“Please do,” Elsebeth Merein said.

“Admirals,” Admiral Hackett said, nodding to the other admirals.

“Madam Prime Minister, may I present Commander David Anderson, the commander of the SSV Tokyo, and Staff Lieutenant Jane Shepard, of Company 6 Marine Corps Scout Snipers on the SSV Everest,” Admiral Mikhailovich said.

First Commander Anderson, then I shook the Prime Minister’s hand.  “Nice to meet you, Lieutenant,” she said.

I couldn’t remember the protocols that Analyst Valencio had told me, so I sort of bobbed my head, and said, “You too, Madam Prime Minister.”

“You’re the only woman here,” she said, examining my companions.

“Yes, Madam Prime Minister,” I said.  “I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’m probably just window-dressing, since you’re the first female Alliance Prime Minister.”

“Lieutenant Shepard,” Admiral Mikhailovich said in a low voice.

“Right,” I said.  “Good luck for your reign, Madam Prime Minister.”

“Thank you, Lieutenant,” she said.

Commander Anderson nudged in the ribs as the others were presented.  “What?” I hissed.

“I dare you to say something snarky to the PM,” he whispered.

“How old are you, six?” I whispered back.  “Besides, Admiral Mikhailovich would probably kill me.”

“Why do you think I want you to do it?” he whispered.

When the Prime Minister had shaken hands with Lieutenant Moshoeshoe, she invited us to sit down.  “Thank you for joining us,” Robert Muller, the speaker of the House, said, standing at the foot of the table.  “We are proud that so many of humanity’s finest could afford the time to leave the frontlines to help us out here.  Before we begin, a few announcements.  Ambassador Udina will not be able to join us today, as he only arrived last night and has yet to settle in properly.”

What a wuss.  I arrived this morning and I had managed to settle.  It seemed the ambassador had grown soft whilst living on the Citadel.

“Secondly, we will break for tea at four PM sharp this afternoon, and continue again from five PM until eight PM,” Speaker Robert continued.  “For the rest of the week, we will begin at eight AM, break for lunch at one PM, and finish the day at five PM.  You will see on the green datapads in front of you what the schedule for each day is.  Finally, the blue datapad in front of you contains a waiver.  We need each of you to sign it to say that you have agreed to sit on the committee and will not reveal anything discussed in here to anyone outside of this room.  Will you sign it now please, and Tsepiso, will you collect the datapads please?”

I scanned the waiver, but it didn’t seem to contain any clauses where I gave my body to science, so I signed it.

“Then, before I turn the table over to you, Madam Prime Minister, I would just like to say that, for obvious reasons, this room is not under surveillance, but all the areas in the People’s House are being recorded,” Speaker Robert said.

In other words, we’ll be watching you.

“Thank you, Mister Speaker,” the Prime Minister said.  “And thank you to all of you who joined us.  It should be no secret to you why you are here.  My predecessor, Prime Minister Jan du Plessis declared war on the batarian Hegemony in late 2177.  It is now seven years later, and our stale mate continues.”

Well, actually they were whipping our asses, but now wasn’t the time to point this out to them.

“We have asked you here on by-law fifty chapter twelve in our constitution states that when a new Prime Minister is elected in a time of war, two officers from each corps gets asked to form the defence committee to advise parliament on the best course of action,” she continued.  “We, well, we need your help.”

Good start, but what was next?

Captain Schmidt vocalised it for me.  “Respectfully, Madam Prime Minister, what do you want from us?” he asked.

“You’ve all served on the front,” the Deputy Prime Minister said.  “You know what it’s like there.”

Talk about being stuck between a rock and a hard place.  At this point I was literally biting my tongue to stop the sarcastic remarks from coming out.

“Before we begin with the soldiers, Madam Prime Minister, Minister Moodley has prepared a report that he would like to share with us,” Speaker Robert said, getting to his feet.

“Of course,” the Prime Minister said.  “Minister Moodley, if you will?”

“Thank you, Madam Prime Minister,” Minister Moodley said, getting to his feet.  He was a thin, balding, nervous-looking man.  “As you will see on the green datapad in front of you, there is a financial report from last quarter.”

I opened the datapad.  By now I was adept at navigating budgets, and I felt my mouth drop open as I read.

“As you can see we are approximately twelve and a half trillion credits in debt with the Council, and a further trillion credits in debt with the Asari Republics,” Minister Moodley said.

“Yeah, uh, what is up with that?” I asked, unable to stop myself.

“Shepard,” Admiral Mikhailovich said in a low voice.

“Sorry, sir, but this is a good form of torture for me,” I said.  “Forcing me to listen to people talk and not giving me the chance to make some badass comment.”

“If only that worked on Spiders,” Minister Hendricks mumbled, and there were titters around the room.

“I’m warning you Shepard, one more word, and you’ll get a time out,” Admiral Mikhailovich said.

Time out?  Whatever happened to the days I was threatened with death?  “Yes sir,” I said.  “Sorry sir.  Won’t happen again.”

“As I was saying, the Alliance cannot afford to get into any more debts,” Minister Moodley said.

“What happens if we do get into more debt?” Minister Mitshali asked.

“We lose our embassy on the Citadel, and by extension, Council protection,” Minister Moodley said.  “As you are all no doubt aware, if you don’t have Council protection, you are effectively an enemy of the Council, like the krogan and the yahg, which gives Council species the right to reclaim any colonies that are in their territory.”

“How many colonies are in Council territory?” the Prime Minister asked.

“At least four,” Minister Mitshali said.  “Bekenstein is directly in Council space.  Shanxi and Akuze are both in turian space, and Nevos is in salarian space.  An argument could be made for Terra Nova, Horizon and Eden Prime, as they are very close to asari and salarian space, but I think that they are over the borders.  Of course, if we lose Council protection, our territory would be considered Terminus Space, which would naturally be problematic.”

“Thank you, Minister Mitshali,” the Prime Minister said.  “Minister Moodley, if we were to end this war, how long would it take to repay these debts?”

“It’s hard to say, Madam Prime Minister,” Minister Moodley said.  “Several years, perhaps several decades.  However, compromises can be made with the Council.”

“Such as?” Minister Raul asked.

“Well, if we were to get a human on the Council, or into the Spectres, a large portion of the debt to the Council will be considered to be paid off,” Minister Moodley said.

For some reason, everyone turned to glare at Commander Anderson, who sighed loudly.  “I’m not having this discussion again,” he said, tiredly. 

“Commander Anderson has made his position on this topic known,” Admiral Mikhailovich said.

“Let us consider this matter closed then,” Speaker Robert said.  “Minister Raul, haven’t you prepared a report for us on the human reaction to the war?”

Minister Raul’s report consisted mainly of how humans were unhappy with the war.  Again, I could have easily have told the Parliament this myself.  I began to wonder if I had maybe gone for the wrong career.

“There have been talks of an uprising,” Minister Raul said.  “It seems that the change in governance has placated the people for now, but if there is an uprising, well, we just don’t have the manpower to contain it.”

“Can’t we contain it now?” the Prime Minister asked.  “Before the uprising starts?”

“Respectfully, Madam Prime Minister, if we were to arrest every single person who spoke out against our methods, the prisons would be full,” Minister Raul said.

Her report was followed by tea, then a report by Minister Hendricks, who said that the Alliance’s military strength had been reduced by a third since the start of the war.  I was beginning to wish that I had rather stayed on the Everest.  Finally, at quarter to nine, we were dismissed, and flown back to the People’s House.

“Jesus H. Christ, I fucking hate politicians,” Captain Valje muttered in the car ride home.

“I kept fantasising about supper,” Flight Lieutenant Magalesha said.  “What do you suppose it’ll be?”

Supper turned out to be a tomato soup and fresh baked bread.

“It’ll be difficult to go back to army food after this,” Captain Estavez remarked.

“We could always AWOL,” Captain Johnson suggested.

“Yeah, that’s a good way to get better food, go on the run from the Alliance military police,” I said.

“Poor Ken, you were really struggling in there today,” Commander Anderson said.  “I could see you biting down all the bitter, sarcastic comments.  How do you feel now?”

“Give me a chance to make some more bitter, sarcastic comments, and I’ll be as good as new, sir,” I said.

.....

After supper, the men all crowded around the terminal to vote for the most beautiful woman in the galaxy from a list of a thousand on the extranet, whilst I settled down to watch an episode of Alvin and Bim.  Unfortunately, it was a rerun of the wedding episode, which a) I had already seen about ten million times, and b) reminded me of a happier, more innocent time when I didn’t have a scarred face and did have a boyfriend, so I turned the television off, and joined the others at the terminal.

“Ah Ken, decided to let your boner rule your thinking after all,” Commander Anderson said.

“Whatever,” I sighed.

The screen showed a pretty young asari maiden with the name of Maeren S’nismu.  “She looks pretty,” I said, proving my point.

“’One hundred and eighty two years old, the daughter of two asari, Maeren is a back-up dancer for singer Kaya Valsen, as well as a part-time student of the Armali University on Thessia, where she is studying asari family law,’,” Major Carraway read.  “’Maeren is a fun-loving, gentle-hearted maiden who enjoys reading, walks on the beach,’ as if, she’s one hundred and eighty, ‘and a good party’, that’s more like it.”

“Her nose is off centre,” Lieutenant Morreau said.

“So, she looks sort of natural, and not totally plastic then,” Captain Schmidt said.

“Do you want to vote for her, Schmidt?” Major Carraway asked.

“Fuck no, she’s an alien,” Captain Schmidt said.  “I’m just saying we can’t discount her based on the fact that she has an ordinary nose.”

“Wow, this is quite insulting,” I said.

“Shut it, Lieutenant, no one asked you to join,” Captain Johnson said.  “Right, who’s next on the list?”

It was a beautiful young woman, with dark hair cropped around her ears, big green eyes and pale skin.

“Phwor,” Captain Valje said.  “She’s gorgeous.  Who the hell is she?”

“’Danielle Schere, age nineteen, grew up on the planet of Bekenstein, in the Widow system next to the Citadel,’,” Major Carraway read.  “’A model for the human brand, Coco Chanel, Danielle has been a beauty queen since she was four.  Danielle is fond of the band, the Mass Effectors, and has attended all their concerts.’  Well, she’s got my vote.”

“And mine,” Lieutenant Morreau said.  “Magalesha?”

“Christ no,” Lieutenant Magalesha said.  “Kasuumi Dranne for life.”

“You know, she serves in my unit,” I said.  “She’s a real pain in the butt.  Good card player though.”

“Go to the next page,” Captain Estavez urged.

The next page showed a picture of me dressed in my formal blues.  There were loud shouts of laughter.  “Hey, Lieutenant, does she look familiar?” Captain Johnson asked.

“Read what it says,” Captain Schmidt urged.

“’Second Lieutenant Jane Shepard is a twenty three year old woman serving with the Alliance Special Forces,’,” Major Carraway read.  “’Whilst not being a conventional beauty, this space-born soldier more than makes up for it for being a feisty little firebrand.  Known for such things as killing thresher maws and being the youngest ever officer, Jane is reported to also have a soft side, enjoying reading, and listening to music from the human twenty first century.’”

“That is patently untrue,” I said, blushing.  “I’m not a feisty little firebrand.”

“You are something to look at though,” Captain Estavez said.

“We won’t say what kind of a something though,” Lieutenant Moshoeshoe said.

“I don’t know,” Commander Anderson said.  “The scars…”

“You said they added a year,” I said.  “And you said I’m a boy.  This is a competition for the galaxy’s most beautiful women.”

“Ken, that gorgeous piece of skirt on the terminal is not you,” Commander Anderson said.  “You are blonde, short and nothing like this woman.”

“Oh what’s the use,” I mumbled.  “I’m off to bed.”

.....

The next morning (after a boring breakfast of muesli whilst everyone else enjoyed an English breakfast), we were taken back to the Alliance Buildings for another round of boredom with the politicians.

Ambassador Udina had by this stage gotten over the terrible journey in the lap of luxury from the Citadel, and was in time to give us a report on what the Council thought about our state of warfare which sounded alarmingly similar to the reports given the previous day.  Finally, after his report, the committee moved on to asking us about our experiences on the front.  I went first, probably keeping with the parlance of an age long gone.

“You were in a prisoner of war camp for a week?” Speaker Robert asked.

“Yes sir,” I said.

“It says in your field report that you were tortured for information on Alliance outposts in batarian territory on Skyllia,” he continued.

“Yes sir, it does,” I said.

“Is it the truth?” he asked.

“Do I need a lawyer?” I asked.  “It feels like I’m on trial here.”

“Just answer the question, Lieutenant,” Admiral Mikhailovich said.

“Yes sir,” I said.  “It is true, I was tortured for information on Alliance outposts.  I would like to say, for the record that I did not crack under the torture, and our outposts are safe.”

“What form of torture was administered?” Speaker Robert asked.

“I was beaten and shocked with a cattle prod,” I said. “Once again, I did not crack, and our outposts remain safe.”

“Was anyone else tortured?” Speaker Robert asked.

“I was kept separate with Commanders Jupiter and Anderson, so I have no idea what happened to the rest of my party,” I said.  “I believe Commander Anderson was tortured prior to our arrival, but they left Commander Jupiter well alone.  For the third time, I didn’t crack under the torture, even though I really wanted to.”

“I’m curious though,” Commander Anderson interrupted.  “Yesterday you mentioned Alliance torture methods of batarian prisoners.”

“Commander Anderson, your turn to speak comes later,” Speaker Robert said nervously.

“Of course, Master Speaker,” Commander Anderson said smoothly.

Something hard pressed down on my foot.  “Ow, Jesus Anderson,” I snapped.

“Why do I bother?” he groaned.

“Oh, right,” I said.  “What torture methods are employed by the Alliance on batarian prisoners of war?”

“Why does it matter?” Minister Hendricks asked.

“I don’t know, I just think that since we both have inside knowledge on their methods, we might be able to assist with refining our methods,” I said.

“Madam Prime Minister, pay no heed to these two,” Admiral Mikhailovich said.  “Shepard, shut up.”

“What is the harm in her asking these things?” the Prime Minister asked, looking confused.

“I know we have a facility on Grageran Station where a few dozen batarian soldiers are held,” I said.  “Can’t we make time tomorrow to visit the station?  It’s a two hour journey.”

“I was there last week, there’s nothing to see,” the Prime Minister said.

“Well, then there’s no harm in us going there,” I said.

“Alright, Lieutenant Shepard, have it your way,” the Prime Minister said.  “We’ll cancel Ambassador Udina’s talk on the next step.”

“Aw no, really?” I said.  Admiral Mikhailovich gave a loud cough.  “I mean, thank you, ma’am,” I said hurriedly.

.....

At lunch time, I was called before the Joint Military Council.  Expecting a telling off for my insolence earlier that day, I was somewhat surprised when Admiral Mikhailovich said, “You shot Commander Agira.”  Commander Jupiter’s report must have finally gotten through.

“By accident,” I said.  “I was doing a training exercise, and she, uh, got in the way.”

“I’ve seen vids from when you were in training, and you never missed,” Admiral Mikhailovich said impatiently.  “Almost never missed anyway.”

“Yet I did,” I said.  “I must have been having a bad day or something.  Anyway, there it is.  I missed.”

“You’re lying,” Admiral Mikhailovich said.  “I know it.  Unfortunately I can’t prove it, because the surveillance footage has inexplicably gone missing, conveniently at the exact same moment that you shot the commander.  What the hell is going on on that ship?”

“Ask him,” I said, pointing my chin at Admiral Hackett.  “It’s his ship.”

“I wasn’t on board the Everest at the time of this…incident,” Admiral Hackett said.  “The ship was under the command of Commander Agira when I left.”

“And when we came back, Commander Jupiter wanted her ship back,” I said.  “Obviously.  No one formally relieved her of her command, so the ship was still hers.”

“Enough,” Admiral Mikhailovich said.  “That’s irrelevant.”

“No, it isn’t,” I insisted.  “The ship’s gone crazy, because no one knows who the hell’s in command any more.  As for the me shooting her part, well, it’s unfortunate, but I have apologised for it, and there’s nothing more I can do about it.  Now, please threaten me with death so that I can go eat.”

“What makes you think I’m going to threaten you with death?” Admiral Mikhailovich asked, looking confused.

“Well, it’s sort of what you do,” I said.  “Before you ask, yes you are that predictable.”

“Get the hell out, Lieutenant,” Admiral Hackett said. 

“Sir,” I said. 

As I was walking out the door, I heard Admiral Mikhailovich say, “What are you going to do about her, Stephen?”

“Why me?” Admiral Hackett asked.  “She’s in your corps.”

“She’s on your ship, and she’s going to kill that entire platoon off if we’re not careful,” Admiral Mikhailovich said.

The door shut behind me.

.....

I sat down next to Commander Anderson and helped myself to some stew.  “Where were you?” Commander Anderson asked.

“Being threatened with death for shooting Commander Agira,” I said sulkily.  “Well sort of.”  Commander Anderson’s jaw dropped open.  “What?” I snapped.  “Oh, it was an accident.”

“One thing at a time,” Commander Anderson said.  “Agira’s still kicking?”

“Oh, she’s kicking all right,” I said bitterly.  “Why, do you know her?”

“She was my XO for a while,” Commander Anderson said darkly.  “Nasty piece of work if you ask me.”

“Why?” I asked.  “What did she do?”

“Killed off a lot of soldiers for one thing,” Commander Anderson said.  “Remember back in seventy seven when my squad was killed off?  That was due to a decision she made.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“This was back when we were sort of still in the running for this war,” Commander Anderson said.  “Not like now, since you’ve joined the fleet.  And that wasn’t a dig at you.  The Alliance has become so desperate for cannon fodder, they’ll literally take a one-legged hunchback, provided he knows how to hold a rifle, and sometimes not even then.  Anyway, we were tasked with infiltrating an enemy compound and stealing a bomb.”

“A bomb?” I asked, laughing.

“Don’t laugh, Ken, it doesn’t suit you,” Commander Anderson said.  “Yes, a bomb.  You might not have noticed but the batarians have us sort of outmatched when it comes to firepower.  The hope was that if we stole the bomb, Alliance R&D would be able to examine it and come up with similar technology.”

“I take it you failed, since we’re still out matched by batarian tech,” I said dryly.

“Don’t be dry, Ken, it doesn’t suit you,” Commander Anderson said.  “Yes, we failed, but not in the way you think.  I gave the in-field command of the operation to Agira, who was a major back then.  Stupid mistake.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Don’t be confused, Ken, it doesn’t suit you,” Commander Anderson said.  I rolled my eyes.  “I gave her command because she seemed a vaguely competent CO back then and, I figured, if she turned out to be really good, I could recommend her for ICT training.  See, I didn’t think she would kill the entire squad off.  She’s really manipulative, but at the time, I thought she was for the most part, a decent gal.”

“You can say that again,” I said with feeling.  “But why was it a stupid mistake?”

“I know Jupiter doesn’t, but most COs have three rules on their ship,” Commander Anderson said.  “It can be anything, no singing during work time, no shouting of ‘commander on deck’, that kind of thing.  It’s our way of maintaining control, and of making sure that we don’t go out of our bloody minds.”

“I’m remembering that ‘commander on deck’ thing for when I have my own command,” I said.  “It’s going to happen.  Admiral Mikhailovich can only hate me for so long.”

“Never going to happen whilst I’m in the fleet, Ken,” Commander Anderson said.  “Anyway, my rule number one is ‘no one takes over my command unless I am physically incapable of going out in the field’.”

“That’s neat,” I said.  “What are rules two and three?”

“Something along the lines of ‘orders’ and ‘push-ups’,” Commander Anderson said.

“Once a PT instructor, always a PT instructor, eh?” I said.  “So what happened with Agira?”

“Well, she does really well, actually,” Commander Anderson said.  “Follows protocol, establishes infiltration lines, all of that.  Unfortunately, it’s a lot harder to carry a giant bomb out of the compound without being detected, and, well, they are detected.  She gets them into a defendable room, and orders our old technical expert to set the bomb off.”

“What?” I say in astonishment.

“Yeah, like I said, total nutjob,” Commander Anderson said.  “The man had some sense, and refused, so she shot one of the servicemen.  She shot five more of them before the tech armed the bomb.  It killed everyone in the base.”

“Everyone except her,” I said.

“Well, yeah,” Commander Anderson said.  “I’ll tell you one thing though.  If she’s all normal-looking, it’s due to a shit-load of plastic surgery, because that woman was a mess when they pulled her out.  Her own mother didn’t recognise her.”

“How did she survive?” I asked.

He shrugged.  “Maybe she cast a spell, or perhaps she jumped on her broom and flew away,” he said.  “Or she asked her old friend Lucifer to help her out of this tight spot.  Most likely, it was a combination of luck and sheer will-power.  I mean, you managed to survive a thresher maw attack.  A stubborn enough person can survive just about anything.”

“What happened to her after that?” I asked.

“She was in hospital for a long time,” Commander Anderson said.  “I visited her from time to time.  I don’t know why, probably to understand what went wrong, how I didn’t see it coming.  Maybe it was because she was the only one left of that squad.  Fuck, but was that squad brilliant.  We’d served together for close to five years without losing a single man.  We were probably the strongest, closest squad in the Alliance.  After she was discharged, I lost track of her.  I figured she’d be court-marshalled and executed, but I guess not.  Why is she on the Everest?”

“She replaced Lieutenant Jupiter as commanding officer whilst we were out rescuing you,” I said.  He looked confused.  “Didn’t you hear?” I asked.  “He blackmailed the Joint Military Council to get them to interrupt our dramatic execution sequence.”

Commander Anderson started laughing.  “Jesus fucking Christ, that’s why I love the army,” he said through laughter.  “You will never find morons like that in any other profession.  He blackmailed the fucking Joint Military Council?”

“Yup,” I said, amused.

“Of course, the Jupiters are all about family,” Commander Anderson said.  “I take it Commander Jupiter didn’t take too kindly to being replaced?”

“That’s an understatement,” I said.  “The groundside war is nothing compared to what’s happening on that ship.”

“So, who shot her?” Commander Anderson asked.

“Me, remember?” I asked.  “I did tell you earlier.”

“Yeah, I remember you said you did it by accident,” Commander Anderson said.  “Describe this accident to me.”

I narrowed my eyes.  “I was doing a training exercise, sort of like clay pigeons,” I said.  “I missed one shot and hit her.”

“Ok, so who really shot her?” he asked.

“I did,” I repeated.

“Ken, I remember you doing clay pigeons at Del Sol,” Commander Anderson said.  “Fuck, I remember you almost beating the pants off of the best shot in the turian Hierarchy with only one hand because you’d burnt the other.  You rarely missed, and when you did, it was certainly not enough of a miss for you to hit an innocent bystander.”

“Well, this time I did,” I said.

“Holy crap, your Jesus had nothing on you with martyrdom,” he mumbled.  “Fine, have it your way.  Pass the potatoes.”

.....

The next morning we boarded a ship called the Atlas for Grageran Station.  I had personally never been to Grageran Station, but it was the largest prison facility the Alliance had.  It had been built in the year 2025, originally to be used as a habitat for very rich people wishing to get away from Earth.  After Faster Than Light travel and Mass Relays were discovered, rich people decided they’d prefer to live on colonies, and Grageran Station became depopulated.  Someone then decided that it would be a good idea to keep all of humanity’s worst criminals apart from rest of humanity.  It was quite a sound strategy, as the number of escape attempts from the space station were zero.  There were however, no execution facilities, but since people liked a good execution as the morning’s entertainment, all executions took place back in Seattle.  I sometimes wondered whether we’d evolved at all since the eighteenth century.

It was a two hour journey from Earth to Grageran Station, during which we were briefed on the correct protocol for interacting with the prisoners.

“Who thought I’d be hanging out with spiders on my off day,” Captain Johnson muttered.

“I’m seeing you on my off day, Johnson, yet you don’t see me complaining,” Commander Anderson said.

We were greeted at Grageran Station by an incredibly chipper warden.  “Hello, hello, hello,” he said cheerfully.  “My name is Anh Phan, and I am the chief warden here.  Madam Prime Minister, it’s such an honour to have you here.”

“Thank you,” the Prime Minister said.  “It’s an honour to be here.”

“Welcome to Grageran Station,” Anh Phan continued.  “We are the Alliance’s largest prison facility, with the capacity to house up to fifty thousand inmates, although we are rarely full to capacity.  Each prisoner is housed in a single cell that is approximately five feet by three feet.  They are in these cells for twenty three hours a day, the additional hour being used for exercise and showering.  Your personal assistant said you’re here for the batarian soldiers we have here?”

“That is correct,” the Prime Minister said.

“Follow me please,” Anh Phan said.  “We have about forty five batarians here.  They are all officers, and were sent here because the Joint Military Council felt they might be able to provide us with information on the war.  Admiral Mikhailovich, it is good to see you again.”

“Mr Phan,” Admiral Mikhailovich said politely.

“Any results?” Captain Schmidt asked.

“Some,” Anh said.  “The batarians are incredibly…loyal to their Hegemony.  They don’t give information up to easily.”

I was feeling increasingly uncomfortable, although I was unsure of exactly why this was.  “It’s strange though,” Anh was saying.  “For all their loyalty to the Hegemony, we have not been contacted for the release of these prisoners, and some of them are high-ranking.  Here we are.”

We had reached a large metal door that looked like it belonged in a dungeon.  Or a bank.  Anh pressed his ID bracelet against a scanner next to the door, and the door swung open with a loud creaking sound. 

The first thing I was aware of was the smell of excrement and vomit.  Behind me I heard one of the ministers (I think it was Minister Raul) gagging.  I followed Commander Anderson into the room.

“Jesus Christ,” he mumbled in an awed voice.

The room was large with a high roof.  Approximately twenty guards patrolled the room.  There were about thirty five batarian soldiers in the room, all of them naked.  And the room was absolutely silent.

It took me a while to understand exactly what I was seeing.  One of the classes we’d taken at Del Sol had briefly described what the methods of sensory deprivation were, and how exactly it was administered.  In this room, there was a high wooden platform, where a group of prisoners stood on the very edge.  Against the far wall was another group of prisoners, who were standing on their toes and had their fingers pressed against the wall.  Another group sat on their hands in the middle of the floor.  They had dark goggles over their eyes and headphones over their ears.  Closest to the door, a group of batarians were standing on stools with hoods over their heads and nooses around their necks.

One of the guards came over.  “Sir,” she said.  “Subjects two zero four, three ten, and four three seven expired during the night.”

“Alright, well space the bodies,” Anh said.  “See if there was anything valuable among their belongings.”

“Yes sir,” the guard said and returned to her post.

I looked around at the faces of my companions.  Some looked horrified at what they were seeing.  Some, like Commander Anderson, weren’t revealing anything.  Others looked satisfied, even gleeful.  “That’ll teach the spiders,” Captain Johnson whispered.

“Don’t fuck with humanity,” Major Carraway mumbled.

“Satisfied?” Admiral Mikhailovich asked us harshly.

“Yup,” Commander Anderson said.  “Let’s get the fuck out of here.”

The others turned to walk away.  That’s when I realised that if I left, if I walked away from what I’d seen and pretended it had never happened, I would not be able to live with myself.  “Ken?” Commander Anderson asked.  They had reached the door.

“No,” I whispered.  I cleared my throat.  “No,” I said louder.

“What’s the matter now, Shepard?” Admiral Mikhailovich asked.

“This is wrong,” I said. 

“Get off your fucking high horse, Shepard, this is war,” Admiral Mikhailovich snapped.  The prisoners that could, were slowly turning towards us.

“No it isn’t,” I said.  “I was a prisoner of the batarian Hegemony, and, whilst it wasn’t exactly the most comfortable stay, it wasn’t an abattoir like this place.”

“You were tortured,” Admiral Kahoku started.

“Not like this,” I said quietly.  “I swore to defend humanity when I signed on.  I didn’t promise to allow this.”

“Shepard,” Admiral Hackett said in a surprisingly gentle voice.  “Let’s talk about this back on Earth.”

I hesitated.  Whilst I was firmly of the opinion that what I was seeing here was wrong and very much against my own morals, I was also coming to the realisation that no one was stepping up to side with me.

“We’d better,” I said at last.

.....

We silent on the trip back.  A skycar took us from Seattle Spaceport to the People’s House.  “We need to meet,” Commander Anderson told the other officers.  “Meet in the lounge in ten minutes.”

“What if we don’t?” Captain Johnson snapped.

“You’ll be duffed up good and proper,” Commander Anderson said.  “You don’t want that.  I may be shorter than you, but I’m pure muscle.”

“Can I sit this one out?” I asked.

“Oh no, Ken, you started this, you can damn see it to the end,” Commander Anderson said.  “Ten minutes.”

…..

Ten minutes later I found myself in the lounge, sitting between Lieutenant Morreau and Captain Schmidt.  Commander Anderson marched in soon after, scowled at all of us and said, “Right, Ken, you’ve stolen my thunder.”

“What the fuck are you talking about?” I snapped, not in the mood.

“Do you honestly think I would have confronted the Joint Military Council, the Alliance Parliament, the Prime Minister, and the Alliance in general in public?” he asked.  “Have you learnt anything I taught you?”

“Whatever,” I said.  “This doesn’t matter right now, you can berate me later.  What are we going to do now?”

“Why should we do anything?” Major Carraway asked. 

“Holy mother, I know biotics don’t have a moral compass, but surely even you can see that what’s going on in there is wrong,” I said. 

“I agree with Carraway,” Captain Johnson said.  “This is war.”

“Which is all the more reason we need to be the better people,” I said impatiently.  “There is only a very thin line between war and barbarism, and I’m afraid we crossed that line today.”

“Are you always this self-righteous?” Captain Johnson asked.

“Are you always a moron, or is this just a special day?” I snapped.

“Simmer down,” Commander Anderson said boredly.  “And the boy’s right, Johnson.”

“Come on, Commander,” Captain Johnson said.  “They kept you prisoner.”

“And they didn’t do anything half as bad as that to any of us,” Commander Anderson said.  “They could’ve, it would have made for a more dramatic cinematography, but they didn’t.”

“Back in the nineteen thirties, the Germans imprisoned millions of Jews, homosexuals and gypsies, and tortured them, just because they could,” I said.  “Sorry to bring this up, Schmidt.”

“It’s alright,” Captain Schmidt said uncomfortably.

“In the late eighteen hundreds British soldiers put Afrikaans women and children into concentration camps during the South African war, and barely fifty years later the South African government implemented Apartheid where non-white South Africans were subjugated to all kinds of hell,” I continued.  “In the early twenty first century, my own people, the Americans imprisoned and tortured thousands of Arabs, just because they were at ‘war’ with the Arabian countries, separated children from their families in their own country because of fear.  We all agree that that was wrong, no?”

“Of course,” Captain Johnson said.

“What makes this any different then?” I asked.

“Well, they’re aliens,” Captain Johnson said.

“So?” I asked.

“Humanity needs to look out for its own first,” Captain Johnson said.

“But-,” I began.  “Oh, what’s the use?  You’re a fucking coward, a racist and a moron.  What do the rest of you think?”

“Shepard, I’m your superior,” Captain Johnson spluttered.

“Blow it out your hole,” I snapped.

“Johnson, take a seat,” Captain Estavez said quietly.  “What do you reckon we should do?” he asked me.

“We can’t let this continue,” I said.

“Agreed, but what should we do?” Captain Valje asked.

“We’re in a unique position of power here,” I said.  “We are all here because we are apparently the best officers in our corps.  We can use that to our advantage.”

“See, I don’t know,” Lieutenant Morreau spoke for the first time.  “It sounds like you want to threaten the Alliance Parliament.  No good can come from that.  Also, I hope you’re aware of the fact that this conversation is being recorded.”

“Yeah, I know,” I said.  “I hope the Prime Minister is watching this, so that she can know exactly what I think about this.”

“So, what do you suggest, Lieutenant?” Commander Anderson asked.

“I’ll remember just how strongly you backed me up, Anderson,” I snapped.

“Yeah, yeah, get to the point, short stuff,” he said.

“We ask for an audience with Parliament and the Joint Military Council,” I said.  “We say that we want them to stop the torture of batarian prisoners of war.”

“And what if they tell us to screw off?” Lieutenant Magalesha asked.

“We say we’re not prepared to fight for a people that allows that kind of treatment of its enemies,” I said.

“What if they call our bluff?” Captain Schmidt asked.

“They won’t,” I said.  “At least not with you lot.  I imagine Admiral Mikhailovich would perform a touch-down dance at the prospect of having me leave the marines, but I can live with that.”

“Alright,” Captain Valje said.  “Let’s do it.”

At that moment there was a loud explosion.

.....

The source of the explosion was a few miles away from us.  “What the hell was that?” Commander Anderson mumbled.

Captain Valje ran to the window.  “Looks like it’s in the city centre,” he said.  “I see a lot of smoke.  Nothing in the sky.”

“We should armour up and report to duty,” Captain Johnson murmured.

Five minutes I was armoured up and reporting for duty in the basement of the house.  Admiral Mikhailovich, Admiral Hackett and Admiral Kahoku were waiting for us next to a couple of Makos.

“Reporting for duty sir,” Commander Anderson said, saluting.

“Good, but it’s not what you think it is,” Admiral Mikhailovich said.  “It doesn’t seem to be an invasion.  We don’t know what it is.”  He went to the wall and opened a locker.  “Grab weapons and BOLs,” he said.  We each picked up a rifle and a BOL from the locker.

A few moments later an artillery soldier rushed in.  “Ready and able, sir,” he said.

“Excellent, Bombardier,” Admiral Kahoku said.  “Saddle up, everyone.”

We climbed into the back of the Mako and it jolted off.  “Ken, since you somehow managed to miss a clay pigeon and hit a whole other person instead, I don’t want you fighting anywhere near me,” Commander Anderson said. 

“Actually, it was a tennis ball I was aiming at,” I said.

“Somehow that makes it seem worse,” Commander Anderson mumbled.

“Yes, but at least I broke her serve, har har,” I said.

“That was an awful joke, Ken,” Commander Anderson said boredly.  “You ought to be ashamed of yourself.”

“But it’s my only line,” I said sadly.

“Shut up,” Commander Anderson snapped.

“I haven’t fired one of these since my last review,” Captain Valje murmured.

“When was that then?” Captain Schmidt asked.

“Well, my next one’s at the end of the month, so, yeah, about five years?” Captain Valje said.  He cast a nervous glance at the admirals.  “I probably shouldn’t have said that,” he decided.

“Ya think?” Lieutenant Morreau asked.

“Ken, I’ve changed my mind,” Commander Anderson said.  “I’ll use you as the world’s smallest human shield, and if you feel like breaking another person’s serve, will you try for Admiral Mikhailovich?  I want to win Wimbledon this year.”

“Steady, Anderson,” Admiral Mikhailovich said, scowling.

“If I have to shoot anyone, I’ll end up breaking every bone in my arms,” Lieutenant Morreau said morosely.

“But on the positive side you’ll be out of active duty for however long it takes your arm to heal,” Lieutenant Magalesha said cheerfully.

The Mako lurched to a halt.  “Alright, let’s get out,” Admiral Kahoku said.

We climbed out.  We had arrived at a main street in the centre of town.  “That’s where the Earth branch of the Fishdog Food Shack was,” Captain Estavez murmured.  “This wasn’t an invasion, this was a terrorist attack.”

A young lieutenant wearing sapper gear came over.  “Admirals,” he said, saluting smartly.  “Permission to give report.”

“Go ahead,” Admiral Mikhailovich said.

“Preliminary examinations indicate that the explosion had two different points of origin,” the lieutenant said.  “The explosion took out the two shops on either side of the restaurant as well.  We’ve evacuated everyone to beyond the barricades, and our team went in approximately two minutes ago to make sure there are no other explosives in the area.”

“Good work, Lieutenant,” Admiral Mikhailovich said.  “Back to your post.”

“Aye aye, Admiral,” the lieutenant said, and rushed off again.

“You lot, man the perimeter,” Admiral Kahoku said.  “Commander Anderson’s in command.”

“Thank you, sir,” Commander Anderson said.  He turned to us.  “Right then, you maggots,” he roared.  We all jumped.  “There’s a perimeter that needs to be manned, so let’s go man it.”

“Now isn’t the best time for that sort of thing, Commander,” Admiral Hackett said.

“Yes, sir,” Commander Anderson said.  “Come on.”

.....

We manned the perimeter until after the sun had set, and all the commuters of the shops on the street had gotten bored and gone home.  Apparently a third explosive device had been discovered by the sappers, and had to be disarmed.

I tried to look impressive whilst I manned the perimeter, but I quickly realised that when you were four foot eleven and weighed ninety pounds, it was very difficult to look impressive at anything, except maybe beating a feather up.

“I now realise why you’re a sniper,” Commander Anderson said at one point.  “You’d look ridiculous as a front-line soldier.”

“But I’d make an excellent child model, don’t you think?” I asked.

“You need good looks for that,” he mumbled.

The admirals had long since retreated to the comfort and luxury of the People’s House, and it was finally one of the sappers who came over and told us that we could go.

“Everyone,” Commander Anderson called, sounding important.  “Back to the truck.”

The Mako was gone.  “The admirals must have taken it,” Major Carraway said in disgust.  “This is a pickle.”

“A pickle?” Captain Johnson asked in amazement.

Commander Anderson made a noise in the back of his throat.  “Let’s walk,” he said.  “It’s not that far.”

“You do know Seattle’s not the safest place in the galaxy, especially not at night,” I said.

“Ken, we’re armed and dangerous,” Commander Anderson said.  “We’ll be fine.”

We’d barely walked fifty metres when Captain Estavez said, “Fuck it, I’m calling a cab.”

“Are you kidding?” Commander Anderson asked as Captain Estavez went over to unlock a couple of cabs parked nearby.  “Fucking navy, they’ve got no fucking stamina.”

“We’re wearing heavy armour and we’re at least five miles away from our destination,” Lieutenant Magalesha said.

“You wouldn’t last five minutes in the marines, any of you,” Commander Anderson said.  “That includes you, Ken.”

“Yet here I am,” I said sarcastically.

“The snipers don’t count,” Commander Anderson said.  “All you do is climb tall things and shoot people from range.  That’s hardly heavy lifting.”

“Speaking of heavy lifting,” Captain Schmidt said.  “In the artillery we build barricades, move cannons, move shells for cannons, fire the cannons, and drive Makos.  Trust me, sir, you wouldn’t last a second in the artillery.  If it weren’t for us, you’d all be space fodder.”

“Well, have you ever tried throwing enemy soldiers around with your mind?” Lieutenant Moshoeshoe asked.

“Have you ever tried infiltrating an enemy camp and lay explosives without being detected?” I asked.  I paused.  “Neither have I, but still it must be incredibly difficult.”

“Cabs are unlocked,” Captain Estavez said.

“Joker, you’re my driver, and I want Ken, Moshoeshoe, Schmidt and Valje with me,” Commander Anderson said authoritatively.  “See you rotten eggs back at the house.”

As it transpired, Lieutenant Morreau was not the greatest driver.  “I thought you were the best pilot in the fleet,” Captain Schmidt said, his hands over his eyes.

“I fly a frigate, not a skycar,” Lieutenant Morreau snapped, swerving so that he narrowly missed a bus stop.

“I’ve changed my mind, Morreau, I don’t want you to pilot my new ship anymore,” Commander Anderson said, sounding ill.

“Hey, the New York hasn’t been crashed yet,” Lieutenant Morreau said, screeching to an almost halt to avoid on-coming traffic.  “In fact, it hasn’t even been hit, or narrowly missed.”

“Probably because the batarians thought it wasn’t worth the bull-look out,” Commander Anderson cried.

“Could you slow down?” I asked in a high-pitched voice.  “My life is flashing before my eyes really fast at the moment, and I don’t want to miss the first time I ate ice cream.”

Thankfully we made it back in one piece, only to be met by an irate-looking Admiral Mikhailovich.  “Why the hell didn’t you call to say you were done so that we could send the Mako to pick you up?” he snapped.  “Don’t any of you have brains?”

“I did, sir, but Anderson stole it,” I said.

“That’s why I came away empty-handed,” Commander Anderson mumbled.

“Get upstairs to the drawing room,” Admiral Mikhailovich said impatiently, choosing wisely to ignore us.  “The Prime Minister is waiting.”

.....

“’This is a message to all aliens threatening Earth’s safety’,” the man on the television screen said.  “’What happened today was just a taste.  The Alliance may have failed in protecting humanity, but Cerberus will not.  We will defend humanity ruthlessly, and without mercy.  Any alien who attempts to hurt humanity in any way will be dealt with efficiently and effectively.  You have been warned.’”

The screen froze on his face.

“This message went out over the nine o’clock news,” Minister Hendricks said.  “As you can imagine, it has caused quite a stir, and there are reports of lynching and rioting in cities where there is an alien presence, most notably in London where there is an asari restaurant, in Hanshen on Noveria where Dranne Incorporated is, and in Harapan on Shanxi where there is a turian outpost.  Naturally, we’ve dispersed troops to deal with them.”

“Terra Firma has already jumped on this opportunity to do more rallying,” Minister Magamela said.  “We need to deal with this now.”

“My brother works for Dranne Incorporated,” I said quietly.

“Confirmed, Madam Prime Minister, that is the Illusive Man,” Greta said.

“Thank you Greta,” the Prime Minister said.

“The Illusive Man?” Lieutenant Magalesha asked.

“Andreas Paulapolous,” Minister Raul said.  “He’s also known as The Illusive Man.  He’s believed to be the leader of the terrorist group, Cerberus.”

I looked back at the television screen.  The Illusive Man seemed somewhat short and slight, with dark features and alarmingly pale blue eyes.  They looked almost unnatural, as if he’d had surgery to put them in.

“Madam Prime Minister, you need to get on the news channels immediately and make a statement saying you do not agree with Cerberus or its principles,” Admiral Mikhailovich said.  “Ambassador Udina, you also need to get on all Council channels saying the same thing.  We’ll need you to speak to the Council and convince them that the Alliance had nothing to do with this.  Fishdog is a salarian business, it should be quite difficult.”

“You’re right,” the Prime Minister said.

“Then you need to surrender,” I found myself saying.  All eyes turned to me.  I shifted uncomfortably.

“Humanity doesn’t surrender to aliens,” Ambassador Udina said coldly.

“Well, you can’t exactly say ‘humanity doesn’t endorse the killing of aliens’, then say ‘humanity doesn’t surrender to aliens’,” I said, realising too late that I was digging myself the galaxy’s deepest grave.  “Those two don’t exactly sit well together.”

“Shepard,” Admiral Mikhailovich said warningly.

“What are you really trying to say?” I asked, ignoring him.  “’Humanity doesn’t endorse the killing of aliens unless we’re the ones doing the killing?’”

“Shepard, that’s enough,” Admiral Barishka said.

“Let’s look at this objectively,” I continued, ignoring him too.  “We continue this war, we lose Council protection, Cerberus continues bombing Council species for us, and the Council eventually declares war on us.”

“Shepard I’m warning you,” Admiral Mikhailovich shouted.

Still, I ignored him.  “I mean, come on,” I said.  “The Council species are…drumroll…the asari, who are the strongest biotics in the galaxy, the salarians, who are the smartest species in the galaxy, and the turians, who have the best military in the galaxy.  Their allies are the volus, who are super rich, the elcor who are seriously huge, the hanar, who are not very exciting, and the drell, who have one of our largest investors among them.  If push came to shove, they could always call on the krogan, like they did when they were fighting the rach-wah!”

Admiral Mikhailovich picked me up under the armpits and marched me across the room.  He opened the door, and pushed me bodily out of it, slamming the door loudly behind me.

How humiliating.  I hadn’t been removed from a room like that since I was twelve. 

Five minutes later Commander Anderson was led out of the room by Admiral Mikhailovich, who looked as though he was about to blow a gasket.

“Don’t come in until you’re ready to apologise,” he snapped.

He slammed the door again.

I looked at Commander Anderson.  “Well, sir, if you asked me, I’d say my father is alive and well and sitting in that room,” I said.

“What a bunch of over-pretentious pricks,” Commander Anderson snapped.  “Lives are at stake.”

“What did you do to warrant being sent to the naughty chair?” I asked.

“You know, Ken you can sometimes over-labour a joke,” he said impatiently.

“I am aware,” I said.  “So, what did you do?”

“I agreed with you,” Commander Anderson said.

“That all?” I asked.

“Well, I may have called Admiral Mikhailovich a pussy who’s too afraid to give his real opinion and only wants to look good for the prime minister,” Commander Anderson admitted. 

“You did what?” I asked in astonishment.

“Yup,” Commander Anderson said.  “Time in the brig for sure.”

“Well, I guess now is not the best time to talk about batarian prisoners,” I said.

“Tomorrow’s another day, Ken,” Commander Anderson said.  I opened my omnitool and dialled Jason’s number.  “What are you doing?” Commander Anderson said.

“Trying to call my brother,” I said, trying not to sound too worried.  “He’s a programmer in Hanshen for Dranne Incorporated.”

“I’m sure he’s ok,” Commander Anderson said reassuringly.  “He is a human after all.”

“A disabled human that studied with salarians and is working for a drell,” I pointed out.

It took more than two hours to get through to Jason.  No one came to check up on us outside, no doubt because they were all too busy trying to kill humanity off.

“Lo?” Jason’s voice sounded in my ear when I was about to give up.

“Oh my God, Jason is that you?” I gasped.

“Shay?” he asked.  “Where are you?”

“I’m on Earth,” I said.  “Jason, are you ok?  Are you safe?”

“I’m fine,” Jason said.  “They evacuated us.  We’re in a safe place.”

“Thank God,” I said, almost tearfully.  “Holy Mother, I was worried Jason.”

“No need,” he said calmly.  “I’m fine.  They got a hold of some of the alien staff before the soldiers could stop them, but I got out safely.”

“Jason listen to me,” I said.  “You need to get off Noveria.  Go to Tiptree, go stay with grandma and grandpa for a bit.  Just get away from there.”

“No,” Jason said.

“What?” I asked.  “Did you just say no?”

“Yes,” he said stubbornly.  “Noveria’s my home, and these are my friends they’re threatening.  I’m not leaving.”

“Jason Shepard,” I said sternly.  “You need to get off of that planet, you hear me?”

“Shay, I’m not a kid anymore,” he said.  “You don’t get to tell me what to do.”

“Jason,” I began.

“Shay,” he sighed.  “You’re not the only one who gets to fight.”

“Jason, you little-,” the connection cut out before I could finish what I was going to say.  “Fuck, fuck, fuck,” I shouted.

“Is he ok?” Commander Anderson asked.

“For the moment,” I said dully.  “He’s not leaving Noveria though.  He wants to stay, because Noveria’s his home, and his friends are being threatened.”

“I see ‘annoyingly selfless’ is a character trait of all Shepards, not just you,” Commander Anderson said.

“Yeah,” I sighed.  I sat down on the step again.  “Please God, I know You’re busy protecting soldiers and stuff, but if you have time, protect my little brother,” I whispered.

“Come on, Ken,” Commander Anderson said.  “Let’s go to bed.”

“What, just leave?” I asked.

“I have no intention of apologising, and I’m sure you don’t either,” Commander Anderson said.  “And I know Mikhailovich is too stubborn to call us back in without an apology.  Let’s go catch some shut-eye.”

I sighed.  “Yeah, alright,” I mumbled.

Needless to say, I didn’t sleep very well that night.

.....

The next morning I was woken up at around half past four by someone shaking me.  “Lieutenant Shepard?” a worried voice asked.

“It’s Jane until I’ve had my first cup of coffee,” I mumbled.

It was Greta.  “There’s a situation,” she said.  “The Prime Minister needs you in the situation room at the Alliance Buildings ASAP.”

“When did you start waking people up for the Prime Minister?” I asked, getting out of bed.  “What’s going on?”

“Can’t say ma’am,” she said, her face expressionless.  “All I know is the Defence Committee needs to assemble now.”

“Alright, thanks Greta,” I said.

She saluted and dashed out.

Half-an-hour later I was in the situation room.  “Your jacket’s inside out,” Commander Anderson told me.  “And your trousers are back to front.”

“I’m not used to putting my blues on at half past four in the morning,” I explained.  I supressed a yawn.  “Is there coffee?”

He nodded at the table, where a delicious-looking breakfast was laid out.  “Good to know in a crisis, humanity knows what its priorities are,” Commander Anderson said.

“What’s going on?” I asked, helping myself to cereal.

He shrugged.  The Prime Minister and the other ministers walked in and we all stood up.  I thought she looked remarkably alert for a woman who had gotten very little sleep the night before.

“Thank you for getting here at such an early hour,” she said.  “You may be seated.”

We sat down again.  “Joker, pass the marmalade,” Captain Johnson said.

“What’s the situation?” Commander Anderson asked.

“This morning, at approximately one AM sol, the batarians started a strike against Alliance forces in the Attican Traverse,” Minister Hendricks said.

“So, they’ve been doing that for seven years now,” I said.  “What makes this so special?”

“There’s a new kind of weapon that the enemy is using,” Admiral Hackett, who looked like he hadn’t had any sleep at all the previous night, said.

“Uplink established, Madam Prime Minister,” one of the techs said.

“Patch it through,” the Prime Minister said.  “This vid was taken off of the external cameras of one of the ships in the battle.”

One of the giant vid screens lit up to show the system of the Attican Traverse.  The clip itself was short, maybe fifteen seconds long, but was long enough to show an Alliance cruiser get blown up in a bright red flash.

“What the hell caused that?” Captain Valje asked.  “I didn’t see any shell or projectile.”

“Preliminary analysis shows that the explosion is caused by a light device that works through a process of optical amplification based on the stimulated emission of electromagnetic radiation,” Admiral Mikhailovich said.

“English, damn it,” Commander Anderson said.  “I didn’t get up before the crack of dawn on an off day just to have Wikipedia quoted at me.”

“A laser,” Lieutenant Morreau said.

“A laser?” Captain Johnson echoed.

“We’re not sure, but yes, that is that is what this appears to be,” Minister Hendricks said, sounding more than slightly worried.  “An incredibly high-powered laser that’s capable cutting through metal at range.”

“Ok, not to sound stupid, but a laser is just an extremely powerful light, right?” I asked.  “How does it work in a vacuum?”  Admiral Foster shook his head pityingly at me.  “No?” I asked.

“If anything, a laser is even more powerful in a vacuum,” he said, vaguely patronisingly.  “There are no particles in a vacuum to diffract the photons on the laser from its original path, thus making it more powerful.”

This didn’t make any sense to me, but I nodded and said, “Of course, you’re right.”

“Where did they get this kind of tech though?” Captain Schmidt asked.  “We don’t have it.  Heck, the Council doesn’t have it.”

“We don’t know,” Admiral Kahoku said.  “As far as we know, no species has this kind of tech yet.  We’ve experimented with laser-powered weapons, but we haven’t developed one accurate enough or powerful enough to take out an entire ship.”

“What was the outcome of the battle?” Captain Johnson asked.

“It’s still carrying on as far as we know, but we’ve lost ten ships already,” Admiral Barishka said.  He too looked exhausted.

“I need to get back,” Commander Anderson said at once.  “Alenko and Marikain can’t do this on their own.”

“We’re sending you back this afternoon,” Admiral Mikhailovich said.  “All of you.  But first we need to solve this.”

“What do you mean solve this?” I asked.  “It’s not like we can wave a wand and make the nasty batarians disappear.”

“We received a message from the batarian monarch demanding our surrender,” the Prime Minister said.  “He said that this was the smallest of their plans, and if we don’t surrender to them we’ll regret it forever.  He also said he’s willing to negotiate who gets to hold on to Skyllia if we surrender now.”

“Well, that seems simple enough to me,” I said.  “When will this war be over?”

“I can’t just surrender,” the Prime Minister said.

“Why not?” I asked.

“General Williams is the only human to surrender to the aliens,” she said.  “I can’t just set this precedent.”

“Look, I know General Williams’ granddaughter, and trust me, his surrendering hasn’t made her any less gung-ho,” I said.  “In fact, she’s probably this nuts because he surrendered.”

“Shepard,” Admiral Mikhailovich started. 

The Prime Minister held her hand up.  “Let her speak,” she said.

“I’m all for fighting unbeatable odds,” I said, surprised and slightly alarmed that I had been given a spot in the limelight.  I cleared my throat loudly before continuing with my speech.  “I mean, look at me, I was born with unbeatable odds, yet here I am, still fighting.  The danger comes though when you’re too ornery to give up that you start hurting yourself and those around you.  There’s nothing wrong with giving up sometimes,” I said softly.  “It shows that you’re smart enough to know that you’re beaten.”

There was absolute silence in the room.  “The thing the Council species admires most about the human race is the fact that we are stubborn enough to keep going when our odds are stacked,” Ambassador Udina said.

“I thought it was the fact that humanity looks out for its own before anyone else,” I snapped.  “Look, whose side are you on anyway?”

“Humanity’s, Lieutenant Shepard,” Ambassador Udina said.  “Unlike you it seems.”

“If you were really on humanity’s side, you wouldn’t endorse the continual loss of arguably innocent people for the sake of saving face to the Council,” I snapped.  “And this isn’t just about humans dying anymore.  We’re turning into a group of scared cowards that hide behind locked doors and fire nuclear bombs at aliens because they’re different to us.”

“Enough,” the Prime Minister said.  “Saul, order the release of the batarian prisoners of war.  That’s a good enough compromise for now while I try and figure out what to do next.”

“There may be a way for me to get the Council on our side, Madam Prime Minister,” Ambassador Udina said.

“Do what you can, Ambassador,” the Prime Minister said.  “Thank you all for your help.  You may go.”

“What?” Captain Estavez asked.

“You need to pack, Captain,” Admiral Kahoku said.  “You fly back to Skyllia today.”

.....

I was always kind of disappointed that I never got to make my ‘I’m pissed off for the torture of batarians’ stand, but I was proud that I stood up for what I thought was right in front of the most important people on the Alliance.  That afternoon, I boarded a ship back the Attican Traverse, where, I was almost certain, a slow, gruesome and painful death awaited me.

Chapter Text

“It’s about bloody time you got here,” Carlotta snapped as I stepped out of the shuttle in the hold of the Everest.  “Have you gained weight?”

“I ate quite a bit, so it’s likely,” I said.

“Thank fuck, because I was beginning to worry you’re pregnant again,” she said. 

“Yeah, that’s right, tell the entire ship,” I mumbled.

“Well, you look like a woman now, at any rate,” she said.  “So, how were things in the big bad capital?”

“Boring, and I learnt that all politicians are morons,” I said.  The Prime Minister had still not surrendered, and I figured that if she hadn’t by now, she was unlikely to ever.  “How’s the ship?”

“Oh, she’s fine,” Carlotta said.  “She’s not the one who has to put up with the terrible wars of Agira versus Jupiter.”

“Are they still at it?” I asked.

“I swear to God, Agira is the spawn of the devil and should be experimented on to see if she really has a soul,” Carlotta said viscously.  “And she’s making my life fucking hell because, well…” she trailed off uncomfortably.

I opened the door and allowed her to walk through first.  “You know Mikhailovich asked me what happened?” I asked.

“What did you say?” she asked, still sounding uncomfortable.

“Well, the truth,” I said.  “How it was an accident and all.”

“Ugh, I can’t believe I owe you one,” she mumbled.

“Don’t worry, we’re even now,” I said.  “Where the hell is everyone anyway?”

“The artillery teams are all on the ground, and the rest of the crew is in the CIC,” Carlotta said.  “I was given leave to greet you so that I could punch you in the face.”  She looked at me.  “I’ll just tell her I wasn’t in the zone.”

“Right,” I said.  “Were y’all in the battle?”

“Yup,” Carlotta said.  “It only ended twelve hours ago.  We’re still up because the wicked witch of the east wasn’t happy with our performance for some reason.  Artillery units received new orders soon after and were deployed.”

We arrived in the CIC, where everyone looked absolutely miserable.  “You’re back,” Commander Jupiter said, coming over.  “Thank god.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I wouldn’t recommend Seattle as a holiday destination.  Too much smog.  Why are you still awake?”

Commander Jupiter scowled across at where Commander Agira stood at the CIC.  “She officially relieved me of command under section twenty four,” she said.  Section twenty four was basically the mutiny clause where a commanding officer could be relieved of command under special circumstances.

“Citing?” I asked.

“Coddling the men,” Commander Jupiter said.  “It was a whitewash, the others are all too scared to oppose her.”

“Yeah, I tried,” Carlotta snapped.  “One lone voice doesn’t go that far around here.”

“So, what rank are you now?” I asked.  “Major again?”

She shrugged.  “I suppose,” she said.

At that moment, Commander Agira seemed to notice me, for she came over.  “Ah, Lieutenant Shepard,” she said.

“’Sup,” I said.

She punched me hard in the arm. 

“Ah, Jesus,” I said.  “What the hell?”

She punched me again.  “Feel that, lieutenant?” she asked quietly.  “Now imagine that, a thousand times worse.  That’s what it felt like when that little slut,” she nodded at Carlotta, “shot me.”

“I would hardly call me a slut,” I said.  “Three people does not a slut make.”

The next punch hit me in the jaw.  “Come on, seriously?” I asked from the floor.  “Carlotta hits harder than you.”

She kicked me before Luna pulled her off of me.  “Stop it,” she snapped.  “I will not have you harm my people in any way.”

“They’re not your people anymore, Jupiter,” Commander Agira said, laughing.  “They’re mine.  And I can do whatever the fuck I want with them.”  By this stage a crowd had gathered.

“Not whilst there’s still air in these lungs, you can’t,” Luna snapped.

I got back to my feet and stared hard at Commander Agira’s face.  “Huh,” I said in wonder.

“What is it, Shepard?” she snapped.

“I was wondering how much of your face is plastic,” I said.  “I’d say about, what, ninety five per cent?”

“What are you talking about?” she snapped.

“Ninety eight?” I asked.  “That much?  That explosion must have really torn you apart.  The one that killed your entire squad off.”

She punched, but this time I blocked it.  “I’d keep away from flames if I were you, Agira,” I said quietly.  “You don’t want to melt now, do you?”

She scowled, and backed away.  “Everyone, back to your stations,” she shouted.  “And Shepard, you’re on stand-to.”

.....

I was on stand-to for six days in total.  Every day Commander Agira would stop by and find something wrong about how I was presenting myself.

“Stand up straight,” she ordered the first day.

“Pardon me, ma’am?” I asked.

“I said stand up straight,” she said.  “You’re slouching.”

“That’s because I got a world of weight on my shoulders,” I said, smiling winningly.

“Stop trying to be funny,” she snapped.

“I don’t try,” I said.  “I just do.”

She smiled unpleasantly.  “Another day for you,” she said.

The next evening she came by again.

“Your tie is skew,” she said.  “Straighten it.”

“Yes ma’am, Commander Agira ma’am,” I said sarcastically, straightening my tie.

“Were you being sarcastic there?” she asked coldly.

“Oh no, ma’am,” I said sarcastically.

“I think you should stand guard another day, lieutenant,” she said.

“Oh dear,” I said sarcastically.

The third day when she walked by me I was whistling without a care in the world.

“Why are you whistling?” she snapped.

“I haven’t a care in the world, ma’am,” I said cheerily.

“Maybe you’ll have slightly more of a care in the world if I put you on another day’s stand-to,” she said coldly.

“Oh come on,” I said in frustration.  “What for?”

“How is you whistling aiding the war effort?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I said.  “How is you trying to break the morale of every single person on this ship and being a total bitch in the process aiding the war effort?”

“Did you just call your CO a bitch?” Commander Agira asked quietly.

“Oh no,” I said in mock horror.  “Uh, yeah, I did.”

“Two extra days of stand-to,” she said.  “And you’ll keep getting days added on until you learn to keep your mouth shut.”

“That’s never going to happen,” I said.  “And if you want to do a battle of wills with me, you’re welcome to try.  Fair warning though.  I will beat you.”

“We’ll see, Shepard,” she said, smirking.

.....

In the end, I won, although by default.  “You need to report the conference room,” Com Officer Bharesh said, coming to where I was standing guard.

“On whose authority?” I asked. 

“Commander Agira’s,” she answered, a bitter twist in her mouth.

“Yes, I won,” I said tiredly.

“Don’t celebrate too soon,” she said.

All the marines serving on the ship were gathered in the conference room when we arrived.  I went to stand between Carlotta and Luna.  “What’s going on?” I whispered.

Luna shrugged.  “I’m rarely in the loop these days,” she murmured.

“Ah, thank you lieutenant for finally joining us,” Commander Agira said, looking up.

“Yeah, sorry I’m late,” I said in a mock sycophantic tone.  “I was on duty for the last one hundred and forty hours.  An interesting aside, I did that math in my head like five seconds ago.  Does anyone have a coffee for me?”

“Here,” Joey said, handing me a can. 

“Tipari?” I asked shuddering.  I tended to avoid energy drinks if I could help it, as, for some reason, they did not seem to agree with me.  I suspected I had the wrong temperament for high doses of caffeine.

“Trust me, you’re going to need it,” he said.

“Thank you,” Commander Agira said.  I opened the can and took a loud sip.  “As all of you know, the enemy forces are stalking ever closer to Elysium, the one Alliance-controlled area on the planet of Skyllia.”

I took another loud sip.  “Holy mother, this shit tastes like fucking ass,” I said loudly.  “What the fuck do they put in here, foot of newt?”

“Shepard, unless you want to meet the same sticky end as your parents, I suggest you shut the hell up,” Commander Agira said.

“Ok, a number of things,” I said.  “Firstly, the same sticky end?  The Hugo Greyson was shot down over in the Krogan DMZ, so we’d have to rewrite our orders and mosey on down there.  Secondly, what does my parents’ death have to do with anything down here?  Thirdly, you don’t scare me any home slice.  You’re probably the worst commander this galaxy has ever experienced, and that is saying a lot since I served on Akuze, where every single shit soldier served.  In fact I’m surprised Masaad wasn’t posted there.  Fourthly, and lastly, what the fuck kind of stupid threat is that to make?”

There was dead silence in the conference room as everyone’s eyes darted between me and Commander Agira as though they were watching a particularly violent and speedy tennis rally.

“You think I’m a crap commander?” she breathed.

For some reason I was not scared of her, and I couldn’t decide why that was.  “Mm, yeah, I do,” I said.  “I mean, come on.  You got a squad that you were in command of killed.  No, no, wait, you killed a squad you were in command of.  It wasn’t a bad decision that you made, or bad luck, superior fire power or bad timing that did it, it was you.  Then, you come onto this ship, pretty much torture the crew, threaten their safety, and have the commander who is actually good at her job forced out.”

I was expecting to be arrested right on the spot.  Instead, Commander Agira smiled unpleasantly.  “Right then, I’m going to bed,” she said.  “Shepard, you’re in charge.  I expect field reports from everyone within two hours of your return.”

“Wait, what?” I asked.

“I believe you are merely stupid, not deaf, Shepard,” she said.

“No, wait you can’t put these people’s lives in my hands,” I said.  “For one thing, I’m not a trained N7.  For another, I’m a fucking lieutenant, for God’s sake.”

“I’m sure you’ll manage, Shepard,” she nearly whispered.  “After all, I’m the worst commander in the history of the galaxy.  You can’t do worse than me.”

“But I’m not a commander,” I said, but she was already out the door.

Luna nudged me.  “They need to be briefed,” she whispered.

I took another sip of Tipari.  “I need a mission brief,” I said.  Kasuumi chucked one my way.  “Thanks Dranne,” I said.  “You look nice by the way.  Green suits you.”

“Bite me, Shep,” she snapped.

“Whoa, what’s with the chilly willy, Chief?” I asked.  The caffeine was really starting to affect me.  “You can’t be sad to see the back of her.”

“Dranne’s lost the spot of most beautiful woman in the galaxy,” Zaeed said, sounding highly amused.

“Bad luck, Dranne,” I said unsympathetically.  “But second isn’t all that bad.”

“She came fourth under that Danielle Schere and two asari maidens,” Ismaeel said.  “Congrats on your fiftieth place, by the way, Shep.”

“Sweet,” I said.  “I’ve never come fiftieth in anything before.  Right, to work.”  I scanned the mission brief.  “Ok, well, ladies and gentlemen of the marine corps, it looks like we’re to assist in the digging of trenches outside of the town of Elysium, right around here.”  I pressed a button on the terminal, hoping to bring up a map of Elysium.  Instead what I got was a picture of a naked woman with Commander Agira’s face superimposed over her own. 

“Right, that’s not the map of Elysium,” I said in confusion.  I saw Zaeed and Terrence giggling.  “Masaad and Brown, would you care to help me out instead of sniggering like a group of twelve year olds?” I snapped.

They jumped to attention.  “Yes ma’am,” Zaeed said.

“Sorry ma’am,” Terrence mumbled, scurrying to my side.  A map of Elysium and its surrounding areas appeared on the screen.

“Thank you,” I said.  “Ok, so we will be digging our assault here at position X.  Position X is also the rendezvous and the drop-off points, so there is really no need for us to be there except for the fact that the Alliance is short on men.  Everyone will take basic deuce gear, so leave those sniper rifles and porn mags at home chaps.  ETA is in two hours.  Any questions?  No, good.  Now, we should all know who our partners are…”

“What about me?” Nina asked.

“What about you what?” I asked in return.

“Sorry,” Nina said.  “What about me, ma’am?”

“No, I meant what do you mean by saying what about me?” I asked.

“Right,” she said.  “Commander Agira was my partner.”

“Oh,” I said.  “Well, um, we’re not expecting trouble, but if we do get any, you partner up with Lieutenant Antonio, and I’ll, you know, go it alone.”

“Aye, aye Commander,” Nina said.  She blushed.  “I mean, Lieutenant, ma’am.”

“Does that count as a promotion?” I asked.  Everyone stared at me.  “Never mind,” I sighed. “Let’s get to the shrink.  As the new CO, I get to forgo psychological sessions, right?”  Luna shook her head.  “No?” I asked.  “Then what’s the point of being commander?  Dismissed.”

.....

I went last, hoping that Dr Verusha wouldn’t have the time to see me after the one hundred and fifty odd marines she had to see before me.  Sadly, I was wrong.

“So, how are you doing, Lieutenant?” she asked.

“Oh, you know,” I said.

“No I don’t,” she said.

“What kind of a mind-reader are you then?” I asked impatiently. 

“You seem quite hostile,” she said.

“And you seem quite nosy,” I said.

“You know, I could easily say that you seem stressed and shouldn’t go on this mission,” she said, her tone even. 

“You’re kidding, you can’t do that,” I protested.

“Would you like to test that theory?” she asked.

“Alright fine,” I said.  “I haven’t slept in six days or so, and I just drank an entire tin of Tipari, which seems to be reacting strangely to me.”

“You’re not exactly convincing me, Shepard,” she said.

“I’m fine honestly,” I said.  “And so is Spock.” 

“Spock?” she asked.  I pointed to where he was standing.  “There’s no one there,” she said, looking concerned.

“There isn’t?” I asked in surprise.  She shook her head.  “Haha, just messing with you,” I laughed.  Spock glared at me.  “Sorry,” I mouthed.

“So, any worries about this mission?” Dr Verusha asked, frowning slightly.

“Not really,” I said.  “I mean, it’s just digging holes in the ground, it isn’t like I haven’t done before.  And the only real danger there is that I become ripped like the Incredible Hulk, which wouldn’t necessarily be such a bad thing, am I right?”

“Alright then, lieutenant,” Dr Verusha said.  “You may be off.”

.....

The shuttle dropped us off at position X, where another group of marines were already busy digging.  It was pouring with rain, and the trench they had already dug was almost entirely filled with water.  “Marines of the SSV Everest reporting for duty, sir,” I said, going to the man who looked like he was in charge.

“I was expecting Commander Amelia Agira,” he said.  “Where is she?”

“Her ego took a fall down the stairs, so she’s busy nursing it back to health,” I said.  “I’m her stand-in, Lieutenant Jane Shepard.”

“There’s a major over there,” he said, nodding at Luna.  “Why isn’t she in charge?”

I shrugged.  “Beats me,” I said.  “But good question.  Where to?”

“Collect shovels over there and start digging there,” he said pointing.

“Aye aye sir,” I said.  “Men,” I said, turning to my troops.  “And women,” I added.  “Collect…shovels.  Forward…march.”

We collected our shovels from the pile.  “Now, we all remember what we were taught about trenches,” I said.  “Ten feet deep and six feet wide.  Now…dig.”

It was hard work.  The ground was already muddy, and stuck to the shovels as we pushed them into the ground. 

“The last time I dug a trench, I was digging my grave,” I said.  “I wonder whose grave I’m busy digging now.”

“That’s a cheerful thought,” Luna mumbled.

“Yeah,” I said.  “I don’t think Tipari agrees with me much though.”

“I don’t think Tipari agrees with anyone really,” Luna said.  “I’m surprised you’re still standing.”

“So am I, believe me,” I mumbled.

At close to midday sol, the man in charge, whose name I realised I didn’t know, came over and said, “We need people to dig sand-bags.”

I was busy crashing badly, and it took me a few seconds to fully understand what he had said.  “Right,” I mumbled.  “Um, Antonio, Ruben, Carboletti and Khan, fill sandbags please.”

“Aye aye,” Nina said smartly.

This exercise turned out to be equally ridiculous, as the mud started squeezing through the burlap bags as soon as they were sealed. Eventually, at around sundown, when I was literally sleeping whilst digging whilst standing up, the shuttle came in to pick us up.

“See you tomorrow,” the man in charge said.

“Right,” I mumbled sleepily.  “Wait, what?”

“We’re going to be doing this for a while,” he said.

Great.  From defence committee member to trench digger.  Back on the ship I wrote an operations report that said, “dug a hole,” and dropped it off on Commander Agira, who appeared to be missing-in-action’s desk.  I knew I was going to be in trouble, but I didn’t really care.  Thereafter, I went straight to bed, and didn’t get up until Nkosi blew reveille the next morning.

.....

The rest of the week was spent digging trenches outside of Elysium.  Commander Agira, no doubt annoyed by the fact that no one had managed to die in the perilous task of digging trenches, allowed me to continue leading the command of more trench digging, whilst she stayed in the comfort of her bed.

“I hate her,” Nkosi said one day, wringing her beret out.  “I wish she was dead.”

“That’s a little harsh, isn’t it, Sobana?” Joey asked.  “Can’t you just wish she has a huge tax return or something?”

“What the hell would the point of that be?” Maya asked.  “She’d still be our commander.  Can’t we get Commander Jupiter back?”

Luna forced a smile.  “It doesn’t work like that, van Richte,” she said.  “And it’s Major Jupiter now.”

“Fuck that,” Zaeed roared.  We all jumped.  “You’re the only commander that I’d even consider taking orders from.  And stop being so fucking fatalistic.”  He chucked aside his spade, which was still nice and clean, four hours after we’d landed.  “I say we stage an uprising.”

“Are you kidding?” Ismaeel asked.  “We’re still recovering from the uprising the Alliance has just experienced.”

“I agree with Zaeed,” Kasuumi said.  “From now on, I’m not following any orders from that squint-eyed bitch.”

“Ouch,” I mumbled.

“I wasn’t talking about you, Shep,” Kasuumi snapped.  “Who’s with us?”

“Hell yeah,” Carlotta said.  “She tried to kill my daughter.”

“For the record, I probably wouldn’t have hit Rochelle,” I said.

“Whatever,” Carlotta said.

“No, wait guys,” Luna said.  “You can’t do this.  She’ll destroy you.”

“Some things are worth fighting for, ma’am,” Joey said.

“I don’t trust Agira to look after me in the field, especially since it appears we’re building the set for a remake of Watership Down,” Terrence said.

“All for one, and one for all,” Zaeed said with enthusiasm.  “That’s another saying my mother invented.”

“That’s a load of bullshit right there, Masaad,” Nina said.

“Don’t ruin it for me, chief,” Zaeed said.  He turned to me.  “What are the orders, ma’am?”

“Er, what?” I asked.

“Orders,” Nina said impatiently.  “If we’re going to mutiny against Agira, we need someone else to tell us what to do.  We can’t do this ourselves.”

“Why not?” I asked.  “You’re all free, thinking, mostly intelligent apart from Masaad, individuals.”

“This is the army,” Maya said, waving her hands about with feeling.  “We need someone to set us on the right path, or we’re in trouble.”

“’Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold’,” Terrence quoted.

“I’m almost certain that that’s not what the poet meant when he wrote that,” I said.  “Why me?  Why not Jupiter?  She’s led us for how long without losing any of us?”

“No,” Luna said.  “You’d be better than me.  Agira’s made this personal for me.  I’d just end up doing something stupid.”

Everyone continued looking avidly at me.  “Right,” I said.  “Um, back to work for now?”

They all saluted and got back to digging.  Apart from Zaeed who sat down and lit up a cigarette.  “Masaad?” I said.  “That includes you.”

“It’s my tea break,” he said.

“It’s your tea break when I say it is,” I said sternly.

He scowled.  “Oh fine,” he snapped, chucking the cigarette down.

Well, that was easy enough.

.....

The trenches were finished that evening, and the next morning it was business as usual on the Everest.  I contented myself with writing payslips for everyone on the ship, and writing funding reports for the Joint Military Council.  I also received an email from Ash saying that her fiancé was in Elysium for a week, and asking if I could possibly meet them for breakfast to discuss wedding preparations.

I went to Commander Agira’s station, already suspecting what the answer to the question would be.

“Pardon me, Commander,” I said politely.

“One moment,” she said, not looking up from her terminal.  I waited.  Eventually she looked up.  “Dranne,” she bellowed.

Kasuumi came listlessly over.  “Commander,” she said with barely concealed venom in her voice.

“Where’s the mission brief I requested?” Commander Agira snapped.  “I asked for it by midday.  It is now quarter past three.”

“I haven’t written it yet,” Kasuumi said coldly.  Oh God no, not now.

“Why not?” Commander Agira snapped.  “Didn’t I say it was important?  Are you fucking dense, girl?  All that invisibility causing your brain to leak?  Or is it a frog thing to not understand orders?”  Frog was the derogatory term for drell.

“I didn’t write the report because I hate your guts, I think you’re a shite commander, I wish you’d die, and no one in Company 6 is going to listen to you anymore,” Kasuumi hissed.  “Commander.”

“Oh really,” Commander Agira said coldly.  She punched Kasuumi in the face, breaking her nose.  “Not so beautiful anymore, are you?  Whose fucking orders are you following then if not mine?”

Kasuumi looked at me.  I smiled uncomfortably as Commander Agira turned to glare at me.  “Dranne, back to your station,” I said.  “Start writing that brief.  How long will it take you?”

“Two hours at least,” Kasuumi said.

“Right, well have it on Commander Agira’s desk by 1630 hours,” I said.  “Dismissed.”

She saluted me.  “Aye aye, ma’am,” she said sweetly and went back to her station.

“Antonio hasn’t worked on the guns all day, I’m waiting on inventory lists from Ruben, duty rosters from Carboletti, and operations reports from Masaad, van Richte, Sobana, Brown and Khan,” Commander Agira snapped, turning to me.  “You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?”

“Yes,” I said.  “You treat a person like crap, it only takes so long before he snaps.  I’m not sure why they’ve chosen me as their leader, but they have.”

“Shepard, get them back to work, before I have them all charged with mutiny,” Commander Agira said coldly.

“Right,” I said.  “Can I get some time off on Friday?”

“No,” she snapped.  “Get back to work.”

I went over to the intercom and told everyone in Company 6 to start working.  I wasn’t certain how I felt about the fact that I was now in charge of the squad.  Scared, I decided.  I had not the rank, the training or the experience to command anything for more than a few hours a day.  I was annoyed at how easily Luna had given up her command of the ship.  I thought that she would want to work harder to keep the rest of us out of harm’s way.

.....

Later in the week, the ship was involved in two more space battles.  Fortunately, we were able to make it out physically unscathed.  However, the fleet lost a number of other ships.  Still no surrender came from the Alliance, and I came to accept the fact that this war was to be fought until the very last human soldier was left standing. 

The riots on Noveria, Earth and Shanxi had pretty much abated.  I received an email from Jason at some point saying that he had returned to work, with an additional security force at the corporation.  All in all, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something terrible was brewing.

On Friday, I went to Commander Agira’s station.  “Pardon me, Commander,” I said.

She sighed and looked up.  “What is it, Lieutenant?” she asked coldly.

“Ma’am, the food supplies have arrived in Elysium, but there’s trouble with the shuttles,” I said, smiling sweetly.  “They won’t be able to make it through to us.”

“How urgent is this?” Commander Agira asked.

“Ship’s catering corps say that we’re on our last supplies,” I said.  “We have enough to last the weekend maybe.  I have a solution though.”

“Let’s hear it,” she said.

“If I took our shuttle to Elysium, I could pick the supplies and bring them back,” I said.

She frowned, clearly trying to find some flaw in my plan.  “What if we need the shuttle for a mission?” she asked at last.

“Well, then there are the other five shuttles to choose from,” I said.

She sighed.  “Fine,” she snapped.  “Take Carboletti, and be back by midday.”

“Thank you ma’am,” I said.

.....

“So, what are we going to Elysium for?” Joey asked as I flew the shuttle towards Skyllia.

“Food run,” I said. 

“Right,” Joey asked.  “And what’s the other reason?”

“My friend Ash is getting married and her fiancé’s in Elysium,” I said, smiling at the fact that after so long, Joey still knew me so well.  “She wants me to meet him.”

“Wow, married huh?” Joey asked in amazement.  “I guess we’re reaching that age, aren’t we?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “It’s weird to think of actually.  I’ve known Ash since we were kids.  It’d be like if I found out you were getting married.”

Joey laughed.  “There’s no chance of that happening,” he said.  “So how was it on Earth?  I haven’t gotten the chance to ask you yet.”

“Earth was, you know, Earth,” I said, frowning slightly.  “The defence committee was incredibly frustrating, but unfortunately I can’t tell you about it because it’s classified and big brother is watching.”

“Right,” Joey said.  “Fuck you big brother,” he called.

“Joey,” I laughed.

“How’s Jason?” Joey asked.  “He’s working on Noveria now, right?”

“Yeah, for Dranne Incorporated,” I said.  “He’s good.  Loving the work.  And you?  How’s your family?”

“They’re good,” Joey said.  “Talia’s working eezo mines on Illias.”  Illias was a region in the asteroid belt around Terra Nova.  “My mom is trying to get me to get you to come visit us on Ciro the next time you take leave.”

“Huh, that’d be weird,” I said uncomfortably.  “I haven’t been back to Ciro since we moved when I was a kid.”

“Trust me, it hasn’t changed,” Joey said.  He laughed self-consciously.  “My mom got seriously over-excited when I wrote her that you were serving on my ship,” he said.  “She told me that if I didn’t ask you to marry me, she’d disown me.  I think she was joking,” he added thoughtfully.

“Joe,” I began.

“Listen Jane, it doesn’t matter,” he said.

“I know, but still,” I said.  I hesitated, trying to frame what I wanted to say into coherent words.  “You’re important to me, and well, I’m sorry for hurting you.”

“We were kids,” Joey said, no doubt for the benefit of big brother.  He shrugged.  “Neither of us knew what we were doing.  But for the record, getting over you was one of the toughest things I’ve had to do.”

“I know, it’s just,” I began.  “God, I was a mess.  You know, looking back, I’m surprised I let myself get into that kind of situation.”

Joey, to his everlasting credit, didn’t ask what had happened.  Instead, he said, “Well, whatever it was, you managed to get through it well enough.  No permanent damage.”

“Shrinks when talking about PTSD say things like ‘no visible damage,’,” I said.  “I think that’s more applicable here.”

.....

Ash was already waiting for me at a small corner restaurant on the older side of Elysium.  Sitting next to her was a muscular man with mousey brown hair.  They were talking quietly to each other when I walked into the restaurant, and I paused for a moment.  Ash looked up and saw me.

“Jane,” she said, getting up and hugging me.

“Hey,” I said.  “You been waiting long?”

“No, we only just got here,” Ash said.  She turned and touched the mousey-haired man’s shoulder.  “Jane, this is my fiancé, Adam van Rensburg.  Adam, this is my best friend and maid of honour, Jane Shepard.”

He stood up.  “Nice to meet you, Jane,” he said in an alarmingly deep voice that sounded a bit like the motor of a bike.  “I have heard so much about you.”

“Uh, yeah, nice to meet you too,” I said.  “And I’ve heard a bunch about you too.”

“Really?” he asked.

“Uh, not actually,” I said.  “Ash and I’ve not really managed to have much one on one time together.”

The waitress came and I ordered a hot chocolate and a chicken pilaf.  “So, how did you manage to get leave on such short notice?” Ash asked.  “I didn’t think you’d be able to.”

“I didn’t,” I said.  “I’m allegedly here to pick up food supplies.”

“Oh Jane,” Ash said, covering her mouth.  “You’re going to get into trouble.”

I shrugged.  “Maybe,” I said.  “I can’t exactly skip on the opportunity to meet the man who’s stealing you away from me.”  I nodded at Adam.  “How’s it going?”

He frowned at me, clearly not understanding my insanity.  “I did warn you about this, liefling,” Ash said.  “She’s a bit crazy.”

“You said you wanted her to do a speech at the reception, right?” he asked.

“Oh boy, Ash, are you sure?” I asked. 

“I love you like no one else, Jane,” Ash said.  “You were a sister when I had none.  Of course I want you to make the speech.”

“But think of all the history,” I said sardonically.  “I mean, there are eleven years’ worth of stories to tell here.”

“One day you’ll be getting married Jane, and I’ll be able to return the favour,” Ash said, smiling sweetly.

“Not likely, little lady,” I said.

“You won’t get married, Jane?” Adam asked, sounding confused.

“She doesn’t believe in marriage,” Ash explained.  “She says it’s a fuck up.”

“I thought you were religious though,” Adam said, turning to me.

“So, the two aren’t mutually inclusive,” I said.  “I mean, they mostly are, but not in my case.  It also seems that I’m at a disadvantage, as Ash has clearly told you a lot about me, but I know nothing about you.  What do you do?”

“I’m a criminal lawyer,” he said.

“No shit,” I said.  “Successful?”

“I make quite a bit of money, yes,” he said.

“I meant, do you get a lot of people off?” I asked.

“A fair amount, yes,” he said. 

“Adam was Finnegan O’Cahn’s lawyer,” Ash said. 

“Huh,” I said.  I thought for a moment.  “So, basically, if I am accused of killing a lot of people, you’re the one to call.”

“I suppose,” Adam said uncomfortably.

“How old are you?” I asked.

“Twenty eight,” he said.

“So, you were seventeen when Ash left Freedom’s Progress,” I said.  “You were kind of the cute rocker, or in your case, rugby player, that she had a crush on, but never dared speak about.”

“Ja, no, maybe,” Adam said.

“I warned you that she’ll spend a fair portion of the time insulting you,” Ash said.  “She’s really hard to please.”

“Got that right,” I said.  “So, how are wedding preparation’s going?”

“Well,” Ash said, jumping on the change of topic.  “Everything’s going according to plan.  We’ve even found a baker who can make a special egg-free cake for you.”

“Cool,” I said.  “How did you two meet up again?”

“I went to Nuwe Begin for a holiday, just before I was posted here,” Ash said.  She was clearly getting a bit frustrated with my behaviour.  “We bumped into each other there.”  She took his hand.  “I guess you could say it was love at first sight.”

Oh gag.  “Clearly, since you didn’t give yourselves a chance to catch your breath before deciding to get married,” I said dryly.  “I take it you’re blowing your inheritance on this, Ash.”

“You only get married once, Jane,” Ash said.

“That’s the Catholic ideal, Ash, but life doesn’t always work like that,” I said.  I turned to Adam.  “What’s your opinion on the anti-alien riots we’ve had recently?” I asked abruptly, like an interrogator in a crappy television series.

“Um,” Adam said.

“I think it’s about bloody time,” Ash said.

“You would, Ash, and I wanted his opinion, not yours,” I said.

“Well, um,” Adam said, clearly caught between wanting to impress me and wanting to impress Ash.  He threw her a panicked look.

“Jane, a word,” Ash said, coldly.

I followed her into the bathroom.  “I know I’m being aggressive, but come on, a man who stands for nothing politically will not stand up in the sack,” I said.

She glared at me.  “Jane, I love him,” she said.

“After only six months?” I asked in amazement.

“Why, how long do you think a person should wait before declaring love?” she asked.

“Well, depends on the person,” I said.  “Someone like me, ooh, forever, maybe longer.  For you, well, three to four years.”

“I know you take pride in being an unfeeling harpy-,” she began.

“Ouch,” I mumbled.

“But I don’t want to live my life without emotion,” Ash said.  She sighed.  “I only wanted you to meet him because you are the single most important person in my life, and your opinion is the one that matters most.”

I felt guilty then.  “Sorry, Ash,” I said.

“It’s alright,” she said.  “I know you’re trying to look out for me.  You can make it up by organising my hen party.”

“I thought I had to do that in any case,” I said.

“Yeah, but now it has to be good,” she said.  She sighed.  “Come on, our food’s probably arrived by now.”

I touched her arm.  “Just because I don’t say the-the L-word, doesn’t mean I don’t feel it,” I said quietly.  “I just think that saying it leads to too much complication.  Too much of it is open to interpretation.”

“I know that about you, Jane,” Ash said.  “And I love you too.  We’re sisters.  Forever.”

.....

November: Zaeed

I can always tell when something bad is going to happen.  My mother used to call it my sixth sense.  I grew up on Shanxi, which was in turian territory until I was a teenager.  On the day of the Liberation of Shanxi, I knew that that day would be the worst in my life, and I was right, for that was the day I lost my entire family to an air-raid.  On the day I lost my eye, I woke up knowing that my life was going to change completely.

I am feeling that feeling today.  I speak to my partner, Kasuumi, about this.

“What do you mean something bad is going to happen?” she asks.

I like Dranne.  She’s gorgeous, smart and no nonsense.  Sort of like my mother actually, if my mother was the most beautiful woman in the galaxy.

“It’s a feeling I get,” I say.  “You know the saying sixth sense?  My mother invented that saying to describe this flash of intuition I get.”

“Your mother didn’t invent the word ‘sixth sense’, Masaad, it was invented by a twenty first century television series,” Brown says, going past.

“Ok, you having a flash of intuition is a cause for concern, but can you be a bit more specific?” Dranne asks.  “What kind of bad things are going to happen?”

“How the fuck should I know?” I snap, getting impatient.  “I’m not a bleeding psychic.  I just know bad things are going to happen.”

“Yes, but when?” Dranne asks.

“I don’t know,” I say.

“To whom?” she asks.

“I don’t know,” I repeat.

“Where?” she asks.

“I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t fucking know,” I shout.

“Arashu, stop fucking shouting,” Dranne snaps losing her temper, something that tends to happen to the people around me.  “Unless you have something concrete to tell me, I can’t help you, so please go away and let me write this mission brief in peace.”

“Who’s the brief for?” I ask.

“Mr None of your business,” Dranne says.

“What’s the mission?” I ask.

“Classified,” she says.

“When’s it happening?” I ask.

“When the commander says it is,” she says.  “Now, please go away Masaad.”

I leave.  She is mostly useless to me anyway.

.....

I go into the rec room to see if I can catch some of Rosa’s amazing adventure (what?  It’s a great programme.  Don’t judge me).  The rec room is empty, and I settle myself on the couch.  Now, the only thing missing was a beer and a sexy, half-naked woman.

“Hey,” a voice says behind me.  It’s Khan.

Well, he’s Muslim, so there won’t be any beer involved, and he’s not a woman, but he is topless.  I guess you could say that one out of three isn’t that bad a score.

“Hey,” I say.  “Do you want to watch?  It’s just started.”

“Sure,” Khan says and sits down next to me.

I like Khan.  He’s super religious, but he’s also a lot of fun.  Sort of like the kids from back home.  Better yet, he speaks Farsi, although his dialect is slightly different to what we spoke in Asalamabad.  We tend to get on very well.

“How are you doing?” he asks.  “Agira was pretty hard on you the other day.”

I shrug.  “After all this time I’m kind of used to people beating the shit out of me,” I say.  “My first day of active duty, my CO beat me unconscious.”

“Oh,” Khan says uncomfortably.

I sigh impatiently.  People always tend to get uncomfortable in my presence, when all I’m trying to do is be honest.

“I have this horrible feeling that things are going to get a lot worse for us,” Khan says.

“You too?” I ask excitedly.  “I’ve been feeling like that for the entire week.  I got that feeling before the accident that lost me my eye, and the day before my parents died.”

“Prayer usually helps me when I feel like this,” Khan says.  “But not this time.”

“Prayer shouldn’t help ever when you feel like this,” I say.

He clicks his tongue.  “Your father was a mullah,” he says.  “You would have been raised with an understanding of the Koran.  Why don’t you believe in God?”

“Yeah, my dad was a mullah,” I say.  “Unfortunately, it didn’t help him when the Alliance landed in Asalamabad.”

“I heard stories about what happened,” Khan says quietly.  “Your parents died?”

“My father had a paper version of the Koran,” I explain.  I’ve never told anyone this story before, but for some reason it feels right to tell it to Khan.  “It was his most treasured possession.  When the raid started, we got to the shelter in time, but he realised he had forgotten the book at home.  He went to fetch it, and when he didn’t come back, my mother went after him.”

“And that’s why you decided Allah doesn’t exist?” he asks.

“Well, them going back to get that holy book didn’t help either of them any,” I say.

He smiles.  “It doesn’t work like that,” he says.  “I think you know that.”

I shrug.  “Whatever,” I mumble.  “Hey look.  Rosa’s been kidnapped.”

.....

That evening I dig out my fez and prayer rug and go into the tiny room behind the rec room.  Evening is apparently when all prayer times coincide, for Shep is kneeling in the corner thumbing a rosary, and Ruben is kneeling in the other corner, chanting under her breath.

Khan is standing at the foot of a worn prayer rug, his eyes shut.  He is chanting the ‘Allah-u-Akbar’, but he looks up when I lay my rug out next to his.

Sometimes, extenuating circumstances call for special action.

.....

And back to November: the Skyllian blitz

“Where the hell have you been?” Maya asked impatiently the moment Joey and I stepped out of the shuttle.

“Fetching food so we don’t starve,” I answered.  “Why are you down here?”

“We’re in trouble,” Maya said.  “We need you upstairs.”

“What’s going on?” I asked, not liking the expression on her face.

“You’ll see,” she said.  “Just get upstairs.  They need you too, Carboletti.”

.....

The whole of Company 6 was gathered in the conference room.  “What’s happening?” I asked, walking in.

“What the fuck took you so long?” Commander Agira snapped.

“Fresh air, good food and close friends,” I said impatiently.  “Van Richte said we’re in trouble, what’s the matter?”

“This vid was pulled off of a camera in Montenegro,” Luna said.  “We’re still trying to figure out what it means.”

A grainy image appeared on the screen, showing a shuttle on a street in Montenegro.  A group of batarian soldiers stepped out of the shuttle and led a large group of humans out and onto the street.  The soldiers got back into the shuttle, which flew off.

“But, why?” I asked.  “I don’t understand.”

“Apparently this is happening in all the settlements in batarian space,” Commander Agira said, her expression stoic.  “All the people in the vid have been positively identified as residents of Montenegro.  It seems that they were taken prisoner by the enemy, but are being released for some reason.”

“Intel also says that the Alliance is being given one last chance to surrender,” Luna said. 

I rubbed a hand over my face.  “The batarians aren’t just releasing these people out of the goodness of their hearts,” I said.  “They’re up to something.  Is there anything about these people that the batarians could be using against us?”

“Nothing so far,” Kasuumi said.  “All genders, all ages, a mix of nationalities, religious and agnostics.  They seem to be ordinary people from Skyllia.”

“Did the batarians say anything else to the Alliance?” I asked.

“Unknown,” Commander Agira said.

“So, what does the Alliance want us to do about it?” I asked.

“Nothing yet,” Kasuumi said.  “We’ve been told to ‘stand by’ for orders.”

“That sounds like fun,” I mumbled.  “Alright, then I guess we’re standing by for orders until further notice.  Is there anything else?”

“Nothing for now,” Commander Agira said.  “Dismissed.”

Everyone looked at me.  “Y’all don’t need to wait for me to say the same thing,” I sighed.  “Dismissed.”

.....

After that, everyone was on edge.  We received absolutely no intelligence after that as to what the situation was, but there was a definite electricity in the air.  And I wasn’t sleeping well.  Old nightmares that hadn’t bothered me since I was a teenager were suddenly back again. 

Then, suddenly, two weeks later our orders went crazy.  Maintenance of all gear was ordered.  Terminal programmes were updated.  The shuttles were completely revamped by our shuttle pilots, and the engineers were ordered to do a complete scrub of the ship’s engines.  Something was definitely up.

I was ordered to hold an observation post behind batarian lines until I was relieved, and I therefore spent four lonely nights sitting at the top of a hill, staring out over the batarian army.  I didn’t sleep a wink, and made sure that I had my rifle in my hand at all times.  The rain didn’t abate, and at night, the sheer number of batarian soldiers that I could see was terrifying. 

I was relieved by two young recon scouts from the SSV Wellington.  When I got back to the Everest I wrote my report, then went to bed.

.....

There is a little girl.  She is two and she is dying from a hole in the chest.  She was in the wrong place at the wrong time, that is all, and now she is going to pay for our mistake.  I’m carrying her in my arms, Carlotta has her hands on the child’s chest.  We are trying desperately to get her out of the firing range of the batarians, but this is proving difficult because they seem to have us surrounded.  And the girl keeps screaming these gut-wrenching screams that make me want to vomit.

.....

“Shepard,” a voice said urgently.

I sat up.  “What’s going on?” I asked sleepily, rubbing my eyes.  It was Carlotta.  The ship’s siren was going off, and Com Officer Bharesh’s voice was on the intercom, telling everyone to report to battle stations.

“We need to report to the shuttle now,” Carlotta said.  “Come on.”

We rushed down to the shuttle bay.  Nina chucked a BOL and a rifle at me.  “Grab your armour and head to shuttle two,” she shouted.

I pulled my armour out of my locker and lugged it over to the shuttle.  The rest of Company 6 was already in the shuttle.

“We’re all in,” Luna yelled at the pilot.  “Let’s get going.”

“What’s going on?” I asked as I changed into my armour.

“The batarians have started bombing all the major towns on Skyllia,” Commander Agira said tonelessly.  “That’s why they were releasing those prisoners, so that they could kill them.”

“Wouldn’t they have been shot down by the GARDIAN guns?” Carlotta asked.  She looked anxious, and I remembered that her family was in Paz Nuevo.

“They’ve got some sort of tech that disrupts the motion sensors on the guns so that they don’t pick the batarian ships up,” Kasuumi said.  “Loads them with garbage data.”

“Where are we headed?” I asked.

“The Alliance still has control of Elysium, and by God, we will hold onto that town,” Luna said sarcastically, rolling her eyes.  “We’re headed for the trenches.  Do they still train you in trench warfare at Del Sol?”

“Some,” I said.  “Not much.”

“Batarian ships are also targeting the fleet with those laser thingies,” Commander Agira said.  “I think it’s safe to say that this is the end of the Alliance.”

We looked at each other.  I tried to think of something inspirational and positive to say, but I was too tired. 

“Well, it hasn’t been the worst life,” I said instead.  “At least if I’m dead, I can rest.”

“No,” Luna said firmly.  “This is not the end.  We’ll live through this and have another badass story to tell our families.”

“Oorah,” Zaeed said with feeling.

Luna turns to me.  “Shepard, do you mind finishing that joke off now?”

I smiled tiredly.  “Tell you what, ma’am,” I said.  “If we make it out of this alive, I’ll make sure to sit down and tell you the rest.”

She grinned.  “I’ll hold you to that, Lieutenant,” she said.

.....

We were in the very front line of trenches and we could literally see the batarians’ line a few hundred metres away from our own barbed wire fence.  No-Mans-Land was basically a mud bath with a few shell-holes for variety’s sake.  The noise was such that it was impossible to think, almost impossible to hear each other.  In training we were taught to tell the difference between all the kinds of guns and rockets.  I decided that whoever decided that that should go into the curriculum was clearly optimistic to the extreme.  Firstly, to be able to discern individual sounds in the barrage would need super-sonic hearing.  Secondly, it didn’t really make a difference.  A bullet in the head was a bullet in the head, whichever gun it came from.  Thirdly, who cares?

The shuttle dropped us off directly in the trench.  The trench itself was calf-high (knee-high in my case) in mud that felt like it was threatening to suck you down with each step, and the duckboards were almost completely under water.

“Fan out,” Commander Agira ordered.  “Stick to your partners, and keep a watch on the enemy lines.”

.....

The first twenty four hours went well for us.  We were aware of the other squads next to us losing people, but we didn’t lose anyone.  We exchanged fire with the batarian front lines, and whenever the batarians attempted a crossing, we were able to take them down.  Shells were launched over us at an almost continuous rate, but they landed among the heavy artillery units behind us.  Sleep, or rest of any kind was impossible, and a medic brought us stimulants which we were to take every six hours to keep us alert.  I soon learnt that, whilst the stimulants kept me awake, they also kept me incredibly wired, so that I was pretty much bouncing on the spot.

Luna was revelling in the whole situation.  “This sort of reminds me of the gang wars against the Reds, when I was a kid,” she shouted in my ear.

“Gangs had skills in trench warfare?” I shouted back.  I popped up and fired a few rounds in the general direction of the batarian line.  “You were very sophisticated.”

“Fuck no, Shepard,” she shouted, pulling the pin out of the grenade she held in her hand and tossing it over the edge of the trench.  “I’m talking about the atmosphere, the ambiance.  The explosions, the dead people.”

“Sounds like a dream childhood,” I shouted.  “As a matter of interest, what was the purpose of that grenade?  There weren’t any batarians anywhere near it.”

“It was to remind them that we do indeed have grenades,” she shouted.

Carlotta, who was on my other side, laughed.  “This just in, batarian number fifty three just shat himself because of that grenade, ma’am,” she shouted.

“And so he had better, because there is more where that came from,” Luna shouted.  She laughed loudly.

Something exploded a few feet from where we were, and a couple of sandbags came loose and slid into the trench.

“Jesus,” Luna shouted.  “We need to get these back.  Brown, with me.”

“Aye aye,” Terrence shouted, and they climbed up to the lip of the trench.

“Shepard, hand me the bags,” Luna ordered loudly.  “The rest of you, cover our asses.”

“I’m in command here,” Commander Agira began.

“Then start fucking commanding,” Luna shouted.  “Shepard, the bags.”

I started handing the sandbags up to her and Terrence, and they placed the bags against the wall of the trench.  A bullet zipped past Terrence’s ear and hit the sandbag next to his head.  He started laughing.

“Jesus fucking Christ,” he laughed.  “If I’d been an inch to the left, I’d be dead.  I have to be the luckiest man on this planet.”

There was a loud explosion and I was flung backwards off of the duckboard, landing hard in the mud.  The sandbags dislodged themselves again, and landed on top of me, pushing me into the mud.

I lay there, deafened and stunned, trying to orientate myself, until a pair of hands pulled me out from the mud.

“Lieutenant,” Nina shouted.  “Are you alright?”

I gulped air into my lungs.  “Yeah,” I croaked. 

She pushed her water bottle into my hands, and I drank it down.  The rest of the squad was picking themselves up off of the floor of the trench.  “Where are the others?” I asked.  “Are they ok?”

“Getting this fucking bastard off of me,” a voice screamed.  “Get him off me now.”

It was Nkosi, who was trapped under the body of another of the squad.  Maya and Ismaeel rushed to pull him off her.  It was Terrence.

The mercy perhaps was that he wouldn’t have felt a thing.  The shell had ripped him apart completely.  His death was instantaneous.

“Where’s Jupiter?” I shouted.  “Where is she?”

It was Carlotta who found her, half-buried under a pile of sandbags.  “She’s still breathing,” Carlotta called as Joey and Ismaeel pulled the sandbags off of her.

Carlotta and I turned her around.  My stomach lurched.  “God,” Carlotta whispered.

Luna’s helmet had been blown away, along with the left side of her head, from her left eye socket to the top of her head.  White matter poked from the hole, which quickly turned pink, then red, and foam dripped down her face, to her chin.

How was she still breathing?  Her remaining eye was open, and rolling around in her socket, but somehow I knew she wasn’t seeing us.

I choked down the bile rising up my throat.  “This is Company 6 Marine Corps Scout Snipers,” I screamed into my radio.  “Major Jupiter is down and Private Brown has been killed.  We need a medic.  Repeat, we need a medic, ASAP.”

It took a very long time for Com Officer Bharesh to come on the radio.  “Copy,” she said in a very small voice.  “Medic is en route.”

“Copy that, Company 6 out,” I said. I turned to the others.  “The medics are on their way.  Orders, Commander.”

Commander Agira’s face was white as she raised her rifle.  For some strange reason I thought she was going to shoot me, but instead she pointed it down at her left foot.

“No,” I started to say, but the rifle had already gone off.  She collapsed, her entire left foot blown away.

“Fuck you, fuck you, you fucking selfish bitch,” I screamed, losing my head completely for a second.  I took a deep breath and tried to calm myself.  The stimulants and my general exhaustion weren’t helping with my mood.  “Commander Agira’s down,” I said into my radio.

“Lieutenant,” Carlotta said quietly.  “We need orders.”

Of course, I was the next highest rank.  I was now in command.

“Keep your eyes to the front,” I said wiping a tired hand over my face.  “Proceed with orders given by Commander Agira.  Sobana, van Richte, stabilize Commander Agira, and try to keep Major Jupiter alive until the medics arrive.”

“Aye aye ma’am,” Carlotta said.  “You heard her, everyone.  Eyes to the front.”

“Ruben, partner up with Antonio,” I added.  “I’ll go it alone.”

“Yes ma’am,” Nina said, and went to stand next to Carlotta.

The rest of the day brought little change to the state of the warfare, except the fact that I was aware of the squads around us dying out.  Half an hour after the explosion had hit us, the meds arrived to take Luna, Commander Agira and Terrence away.  Night fell, and with it came a fresh thunder storm.  The weather didn’t deter the batarians any however.  In fact, they seemed to bomb us with renewed vigour.  My ears were getting tired from all the noise.

At around five AM sol, when there appeared to be a lightening around the edges of the sky, Com Officer Bharesh said into my radio, “Lieutenant Shepard, come in.”

“Go ahead,” I said.

“I have Admiral Mikhailovich on the line,” she said.  “He wishes to speak to you.”

“Patch him through,” I said.

There was a crackle and Admiral Mikhailovich’s voice said, “Lieutenant?”

“Yes sir,” I said.

“How are you holding up?” he asked.

I couldn’t believe the question.  It could only be asked by someone who was sitting comfortably on his ass whilst soldiers died in droves for him. 

“How am I holding up?” I repeated slightly hysterically.  “Well, the weather has been raining rain and shells.  I’m pretty much up to my neck in fucking mud.  I’m down three men including the two officers that are higher up than me.  So yeah, I’m dandy.”

“You know Shepard, in times like this, the answer is usually fine,” Admiral Mikhailovich said.  “It’s quicker.”

“What do you want sir?” I asked.

“We’ve managed to create a break in the enemy lines,” Admiral Mikhailovich said.  “We need someone to cross No-Man’s Land and hold it.  The break is in your area, and you have the biggest squad left.”

“You need us to cross No-Man’s Land,” I said.

“Yes, and then hold the position, no matter the cost,” he said, his voice void of emotion.  “We are sending a courier with explosives you can set up on your perimeter.  We recommend that you get it done before dawn.”

There was maybe half an hour to go before the sun rose.  “Understood,” I said quietly.  “Anything else?”

“Notify us when you’re getting ready to go across, and we’ll tell the other squads to limit fire as much as possible,” he said.  There was a pause.  “Good luck, Lieutenant.”

“Acknowledged,” I said.

I went back to my position next to Carlotta.  “What’s happening?” she asked.

“They want us to cross,” I said, nodding at the wasteland that was now pretty much made up of shell holes.

“They-they what?” Carlotta spluttered.  “We’ll be ripped to pieces before we’ve crossed our own wire.”

“I know,” I said. 

“They’re fucking crazy,” she continued.  “You do realise this right?”

“I know, ok?” I shouted, frustrated.  “Everyone gather around.”

The others ducked down next to me.  “What’s going on, Shep?” Zaeed asked quietly.  “Are we going home?”

I smiled.  “No, not yet,” I said.  “The admirals have a special task for us.  They’ve created a break in the batarian frontline and they want us to go across and hold it.”

“They want us to cross that?” Maya asked, a horrified look on her face.

“Yep,” I said.  I looked at all the faces of my squad.  I was losing them, I could see it.  I decided to lie.  “Admiral Mikhailovich said that they’ve disabled enough of the enemy forces for us to make it safely across.  They’ve asked us to go because we’re the best and the largest Alliance force left.  They need us if we have any hope of defending Skyllia.”

There was a long pause.  “When do we go?” Nina asked. 

“A courier is coming with explosives,” I said.  “Khan, Carboletti, I need you two to carry them across.  We’ll leave as soon as they arrive.”

The courier must have been on the slow train or something, because the sun had risen by the time he’d arrived.

“What the fuck kept you?” I snapped.

“I’m sorry ma’am, I got lost,” he said apologetically.

“You know that I now have to cross that in broad daylight?” I asked.

“I’ll sing at your funeral, ma’am,” he said. 

“I’ll sing at your funeral way before you sing at mine,” I said.  “Now get going.  You have another squad to go and kill off.”

“Yes ma’am,” the courier said and scampered off.

“Everest, come in,” I said.

“Everest here,” Com Officer Bharesh said. 

“Notify Admiral Mikhailovich that we’re waiting his go to proceed with the plan,” I said.

“Aye aye,” Com Officer Bharesh said.  “Everest out.”

I waited.  “Lieutenant Shepard, come in,” Com Officer Bharesh said.

“Go ahead,” I said.

“Mission is a-go,” she said.  “Repeat, mission is a-go.  Good luck.”

“Acknowledged,” I said.  “Company 6 out.”  I turned to my squad.  They were watching me expectantly.  “Let’s go,” I shouted.

We climbed over the lip of the trench and walked the five hundred yards to our barbed wire.  Nkosi and Maya held the strands apart for us to crawl under, then Carlotta and I turned to hold the wire open for them.  I pulled Maya through, and turned to help Nkosi through, only to see her fall.  She didn’t get up.

I took a deep breath.  “Company 6,” I shouted.  “Forward.”

It soon became abundantly clear that I had been lying, when the bullets started raining around us.  I continued to bellow instructions regarding our formation which were pretty useless in the grander scheme of things, as the ground was so full of craters the formation wouldn’t have held up even if it tried.  And I continued to try and sound hopeful for my squad, even though it took everything I had in me not to break into a run, even as they began to fall around me.

Nina was the first to fall.  A bullet to the mouth as far as I could tell.  It was instantaneous, I was later told, but I long since gave up believing everything the Alliance has told me.  Next, Ismaeel stepped on a mine.  He was blown away, and the mine threw the rest of us down.  I was the first on my feet, and I was relieved to see Kasuumi, Zaeed, Maya and Carlotta get to their feet.  Zaeed helped Joey to his feet and we started off again.

We reached the enemy wire, and I was still walking.  Why was I still walking?  Part of me was grateful, but there was another, smaller part that felt (and still feels) that it would have been easier, less painful to have been shot, to die on the battlefield that morning.

Maya and Kasuumi parted the wire, and I motioned for Zaeed and Joey to go through first.  Carlotta went next, then I did.  Carlotta and I helped Kasuumi through, but as Maya ducked under, the back of her armour got caught on the wire.  Carlotta and I struggled with the barbs, but it seemed that the more we pulled at them, the deeper they worked their way into Maya’s armour, until they’d cut through the ML and the UL and were cutting into her back.  Maya reacted as any cornered animal would.  She panicked.

“Van Richte, stay still,” Carlotta shouted as Maya wriggled and flayed, making a weird keening sound.

“Shepard,” Kasuumi screamed.  “We need to move.”

I hesitated.  “Nuh, nuh,” Maya stuttered.

“Get to the trenches,” I ordered.  “You too, Antonio.”

“But,” Carlotta began.

“Move it,” I snapped.

I bent and started tugging vainly at the wire again.  The barbs had by now cut through my own armour and into my fingers, but I didn’t feel any pain.  Maya was silent again, but her eyes were wide with terror.

“You’re going to be ok,” I whispered.

The first bullet hit her in the soft part of her armour where her arm met her shoulder, and she gave a loud scream.  Still more bullets hit her, on her chest, her arms, her legs.  Some rebounded and hit me, others penetrated her armour.  None of the bullets that hit me got through my armour, and I didn’t feel the pain from the broken ribs and collar bone until later.  Finally she was still, upright only because of the wire holding her up.

I ran to the trench and jumped in with the others.  I noted that the trench, which was thankfully empty, was in as poor a condition as our own trench, but I had very little chance to take everything in as I noticed that everyone was gathered around a prone figure.

“What’s happening?” I asked.

“It’s Carboletti,” Kasuumi said.  “He got hurt in the explosion.”

Hurt was the incorrect term to describe Joey’s condition.  Hurt implied there was a chance of recovery.  Both Joey’s legs had been blown away at the knees, and the water that he was lying in was red from his blood.  Zaeed had already tied a tourniquet around the left thigh, and was busy on the right.  Joey’s eyes were open, his breath was ragged.

“Joey,” I whispered, falling to my knees next to him.  “Joey, it’s me. Can you hear me?”

“Janey?” he breathed.  I took his hand.  He clung to it, his fingers entwined with mine.  “Janey, please, I can’t die yet.  Please.  I’m not ready.”

Tears pushed at the back of my eyes, but they wouldn’t fall.  “Joey,” I began.

“Please Janey, I don’t want to die,” he repeated.  “Don’t let me die.”

Zaeed’s hands slipped on the tourniquet, and he started tying it again.  “You’re not going to,” I said, telling yet another lie in the long list I’d told that day.  I cleared my throat.  “You’ll be ok.  You’re going to wake up somewhere warm and safe, and everything will be fine.  I promise.  You’re not going to die, do you hear me Joe?”

“I want…want to live,” he whispered.  His eyes were fluttering now.  It wouldn’t be long.

“You will,” I promised, but he didn’t hear me.  Zaeed swore as the tourniquet became undone again and started trying to tie it again.

“Leave it, Zaeed,” Kasuumi said.  “It’s over.”

“No,” Zaeed bellowed.

“Zaeed,” Kasuumi began.

“No,” Zaeed said more quietly.  “We can do chest compressions, restart his heart.”

“It won’t work, Zaeed,” Kasuumi said.  “He’s lost too much blood.”

I stared at Zaeed, seeing a different side to him.  I could almost see the man who was a father, who loved his children, who had a wife that he, in his own way, adored.

“We’re not dead yet,” Kasuumi continued.

That woke me up.  “Use the duckboards to form barricades on either end of the trench,” I said.  “I need to call this in.”  I had an idea.  “Freddie,” I said.

The VI popped out of my omnitool.  “Ooh, it’s all wet,” it said disdainfully.  “So, not dead yet, huh?”

“Hopefully for a long time yet,” I said.  “I need you to monitor our position and notify me of any batarian forces approaching.  We’re pretty much surrounded on three sides, so you might have to fly pretty high.”

“Can’t you do it yourself?” Freddie asked.

“Do you see wings on my back?” I snapped.  “Now go.”  He floated upwards, disappearing into the rain.  “Come in Everest,” I said.

“Everest here,” Com Officer Bharesh said.  She sounded exhausted.

“This is Company 6,” I said.  “We have successfully crossed the No-Man’s Land and have occupied a trench in the enemy’s territory.  Gunnery Chief Nina Ruben, Service Chief Giuseppe Carboletti, Corporal Ismaeel Khan, Corporal Maya van Richte and Private Nkosi Sobana have…have all been killed.”  There was a long pause.  “Everest?” I asked.  “Do you copy?”

“Copy,” Com Officer Bharesh said quietly.  “Hold position.”

“Copy that,” I said.  “Shepard out.”

.....

The batarians occasionally sent soldiers out to try to disable us.  Thanks largely to Freddie, but also some excellent recon skills displayed by Kasuumi, we were able to keep them back and maintain our position.  At some point, Freddie was shot down.  I would be able to reboot him, but it would take time, and I needed to have my omnitool plugged into a terminal to do this.  In order to compensate for this, I started sending Kasuumi, in invisibility mode, to monitor the lines, and she was able to give us some pretty accurate data.

At midday all the guns stopped firing.  “What’s going on?” Carlotta whispered.  We’d withdrawn from the barricades we’d created and were pressed against the wall of the trench.

“Don’t know,” I whispered back.  “Maybe it’s a ceasefire.”

The silence continued.  It appeared almost to be echoing, so silent was it in comparison to the guns and explosions.  At some point, I tried to contact the ship, but was given a terse order to ‘hold position and cease all radio contact’ from Com Officer Bharesh.

With nightfall the silence got even more terrifying.  It was raining so hard we couldn’t hear anything beyond our own trench, and I was too scared to send Kasuumi out on her own to check on the batarian line.  At some point close to midnight, I heard Kasuumi, who was pushing herself against the trench wall next to me whisper something.

“What was that, Dranne?” I whispered.  She shook her head, but continued to murmur.  Among the words, I heard her say ‘Kalahira’.  Kalahira was the drell goddess of death and oceans.

I’d tried praying myself, but for some strange reason, all the prayers that used to come so easily, didn’t spring to my tongue.  Instead I had passed the time counting my breaths.

I nudged Carlotta.  “What would you be doing right now if you hadn’t joined up?” I asked quietly.

“Oh, I’d probably be having a night of jolly good fun with my father,” she said sarcastically.  “I’d bring the beer, he’d bring the condoms.”

“Sounds like fun,” I said.

“It nearly was,” she said.  “How about you, Masaad?”

“I’d probably be in bed, watching Shopping with the Stars or something equally banal with the missus,” Zaeed answered.

“I’d be working as a super model somewhere,” Kasuumi said.  “Either that, or in jail.”

“I thought you already were a super model, Dranne,” I said.

“I was,” Kasuumi said seriously.  “Actually that’s why I joined up.  At least I didn’t have to weigh a certain amount to be able to work.  And also my father found out I was using my spare time to steal things, so he kind of forced me to join up, saying he’d lock me up if I didn’t.  How about you, Shep?  What would you be doing?”

“Wait, what?” Carlotta asked.  “You stole things?”

“Yes yes, I’m a bloody kleptomaniac,” Kasuumi said impatiently.  “That kind of thing doesn’t go well with a man that has a reputation to maintain.”

“So, if you’re a kleptomaniac, it means you steal things compulsively, right?” Zaeed asked.

“Exactly,” Kasuumi said, grimly.  “I’m pretty good actually.  Safes, vaults, picking pockets, you name it, I do it.”

“So, all that shit that’s been going missing over the years…” Carlotta trailed off.

“Fuck,” Kasuumi mumbled.

“You little shit,” Carlotta said in anger.  “You stole my ring.”

“Well, I couldn’t help it,” Kasuumi said.  “It’s a compulsion.”

“Compulsion, smalshin,” Carlotta said, her voice getting louder.

“Antonio, shut the fuck up,” I hissed.

“That ring belonged to my mother,” Carlotta said softly.  “It’s the only thing of hers that I have.  You’d better hand it over.”

“Kalahira, I don’t have it with me,” Kasuumi snapped.  “Do you honestly think I’d bring something as valuable as that with on a mission?”

“I don’t know what the inner workings of a kleptomaniac are,” Carlotta hissed.

“Look, I’ll give it back if we survive this, ok?” Kasuumi said.  “I promise.”

“Whatever,” Carlotta snapped.  “At least now I know not to leave valuables lying around when you’re nearby.”

“That’s smart advice for anyone,” Kasuumi said impatiently.  “Shep, if you weren’t a marine, where would you be?”

“Working as a street sweeper on some backwater colony probably,” I said, yawning.  “I never finished first grade, so there was no real chance of me getting into any kind of academy or university.”

“Which would have been better?” Carlotta asked.

“Well, right now the street sweeper, but on any other day, I’d tell you that despite all its bullshit, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be than in the army,” I said.

“Trust me, this is better than a night alone with my father,” Carlotta said.  “Fuck, this is better than a minute alone with my father.”

Kasuumi shrugged.  “For me it’s a tie,” she said.  “Although, given this season’s fashions, I reckon this is a damn side better.”

“Was that a joke, Dranne?” Zaeed asked excitedly.

“Merely an observation, Zaeed, don’t get happy,” Kasuumi said tiredly.  “Tell you one thing, if I get out of this alive, I’m going to buy myself the largest box of chocolates I can find and eat it.  Fuck the consequences.”

“Damn right, Chief,” I said.  “Take a stand.”

We were silent for a bit.  “Christ, I’m tired,” Carlotta murmured almost to herself.  “I hope they’re looking after Rochelle on the ship.  She must be giving them hell, I haven’t put her to bed three nights in a row.”

“I’m sure she’s fine,” I said soothingly.  “They wouldn’t risk your wrath should something happen to her.”

.....

At about half past two sol in the morning, the much-awaited call came.  “Company 6 prepare for extraction,” Com Officer Bharesh said.

“Copy,” I said, but no further instructions regarding a rendez vous point were relayed.

About ten minutes later Com Officer Bharesh said, “You need to fire a flare so that the shuttle can find you.”

“Won’t that alert the enemy to our location?” I asked apprehensively.

“No,” she said shortly.

Very well then.  I pulled my flare gun from my BOL and shot it upwards at the dark clouds that were still above us.  Five minutes later the shuttle appeared above us and dropped a ladder for us to climb.  I had Zaeed, Kasuumi and Carlotta climb ahead of me, Zaeed with Joey’s body hoisted over his shoulder.  Despite the fact that they made it up safely, I half expected to be shot off of the ladder as I climbed.

“Everyone’s aboard,” I said once I was inside.

“Roger, lieutenant,” Lieutenant Epple said.  “Strap in.”

“Are you taking us back to the ship?” I asked suspiciously.

“Yup,” he said.  “The war’s over.  We won.”

I found this hysterically funny, and proved this by bursting into hysterical laughter.

“What’s so funny?” he snapped.

“We won?” I gasped.  “We fucking won?  How the fuck did we do that?  They were beating the pants off of us.  They had laser fucking guns and ninety four per cent of Skyllia.  How the fuck did we win that back in three days?”

“Well, technically they surrendered,” Lieutenant Epple said.

This made me laugh even louder.  “Why, our incredible show of military strength had them scared?” I gulped.  Tears were running down my cheeks, so great was my mirth.  “They were terrified witless and shitless by the tenacity and stupidity of the Alliance Military?”

“No, apparently the Council stepped in,” Lieutenant Epple said.  “The batarians’ laser gun thingy violated a clause in the Treaty of Farinx, and the Council said that their strategy of releasing human civilians onto the planet only to shoot them down was inhumane.  They said that if they didn’t surrender to us, they would step into the conflict.  They surrendered about fifteen sol hours ago.  We didn’t pick you up sooner because it took this long for the Hegemony to withdraw all their forces from the planet.”

I suddenly felt bone tired.  “Looks like you have an appointment with a giant box of chocolates, Dranne,” Carlotta said tiredly.

“Yup,” Kasuumi said.  She took her helmet off, lowered her hood and ran her fingers through her dark hair.  “Looks like I do.  And by Arashu, Amonkira and Kalahira, I’m going to keep it.”

 

Chapter Text

Luna: July 2184

After everyone has left the conference room for the shuttle, I walk back into the CIC and stand on my chair.  “Could I have everyone’s attention?” I call.  Everyone looks up at me.  “Lieutenant Shepard and I, as well as ten of Major Craz’s squad are going on deployment.  We may be gone for some time.  Until we return, Lieutenant Jupiter and Captain Helmike will be in charge.  Behave yourselves, listen to them, and we’ll be back before you know it.”

“Ma’am, yes ma’am,” everyone says.

I am scared, so damned scared that we will not be returning from this mission, especially given how the admirals have just addressed us.  If this really was a suicide mission, do I honestly have the guts to order nineteen other soldiers to their deaths?  Then again, do I have the guts to disobey a direct order from the Alliance Joint Military Council?

Skye is waiting for me when I step off my chair.  “How are you feeling?” he asks.

I shrug.  “Nervous, you know?” I say.

He nods.  “Yeah,” he says.  He hugs me tightly.  “You’d better stay safe, Luna,” he says in a muffled voice.

“Don’t worry,” I say, smiling sadly.  “I’m not going to leave my ship in your hands.  You’ll end up blowing it up.”

“I wish I was going with you,” he says, stepping back.  He brushes a loop of my hair out of my eyes.  “I don’t trust Shepard to look out for you.”

“Well, I’m glad you aren’t coming with,” I say.  “Love you, Skye.”

“Love you to, Luna,” he says.  He glances over to where Phadme is busy working.  “Are you going to say goodbye?” he asks.

I nod, kiss his cheek and go over to where she is.  “Phadme,” I begin.

“Now remember, you need to keep radio silent,” Phadme says, not looking at me, her voice unnaturally high.  “You don’t want the enemy to work out where you are.  Once you have Commander Anderson, signal us, and we’ll send a rendez vous point.  And above all…” she dashes tears from her face.

I take her soft hands gently into mine.  “Phadme, listen,” I say gently.  “I’ll come back safely.  I promise, ok?”

She nods, although the tears are still falling.  “Then we should get married,” she says.  She laughs, blushing.  “Sorry,” she says quietly.  “It’s a stupid idea.”

I smile.  “I’m game,” I say.

“I think two kids, you know, one boy, one girl,” she says.  “A house on Ontarom, or Earth if you’d prefer, but I somehow think you wouldn’t.  A dog, you know, a golden retriever.  We could name it Fido, or Rover, something like that.  Are you going to write this down?”

I touch her cheek.  “I’ll remember,” I say.

.....

And back to: November to December: a funeral, a wedding and a proposal

We returned to the ship, where all our injuries were treated.  On top of enough shrapnel being removed from our bodies to start a small metal factory, the four of us also had several broken bones from where we were shot, blown up or otherwise harmed in the line of duty, as well as a gunshot wound that Carlotta had received in the crossing that she had treated herself in the field without the rest of us noticing.  After this, as the highest ranked officer of Company 6, I debriefed Carlotta, Kasuumi and Zaeed, an emotionally draining process as it meant I had to relive the deaths of our squad mates three times before my own debriefing.  The commanding officer of a squad is usually debriefed by her Executive Officer.  As Carlotta was the next highest ranked officer in the squad, this duty would have fallen to her, but I excused this of her.  There was no need for her to have to put up with my own emotional bullshit. 

Later that afternoon, as I was attempting to write my field report, Com Officer Bharesh came over to me.  “Admiral Mikhailovich is on the QEC for you,” she said.  Her eyes were red and she looked as though she’d been crying.

I didn’t have the energy or the will to go through another sparring match with Admiral Mikhailovich, but I knew I would have to face the music at some point.  “Thanks,” I said.  “I’ll take it in the conference room.” 

Com Officer Bharesh nodded and returned to her station.  I got up and slowly made my way to the conference room, where Admiral Mikhailovich’s face was already waiting impatiently for me on the QEC screen.

“Admiral,” I said, saluting.

“Lieutenant Shepard,” he said.  “I trust you’re well?”

“Honestly sir, no I am not,” I said.  “And I don’t give a crap about the ‘fine’ bullshit either.”

“Yes, well, I just wanted to call to tell you personally that the Joint Military Council is extremely proud of you,” he said.

I wasn’t expecting this.  “I-what?” I asked, floundering for the appropriate response.  “The entire Joint Military Council, or just the majority?”

“No, Shepard, the entire Joint Military Council,” Admiral Mikhailovich said.  “You made the Marine Corps proud out there.”

“I got all but three of my squad killed,” I protested.

“Shepard, your rank is staff lieutenant and your designation is N6,” Admiral Mikhailovich said.  “You are twenty three and have served on only two squads in your career.  We threw you into a mission that we would normally give to only the most hardened of N7s.  That you got anyone at all out alive is something truly remarkable.”

“But you hate me,” I said.

“I do,” Admiral Mikhailovich said.  “But I am big enough to acknowledge when you’ve done a good job.”  He sighed.  “I don’t agree with your methods Shepard, and Lord knows I dislike your personality, but you get the job done, and people look up to you.  I’ve been in the marines long enough to appreciate that.”

I was thoroughly confused now, but I said, “Thank you, sir.”

“I’ll send the codes through in a minute, but I want you to order the ship to Ekhaya on Freedom’s Progress,” he said briskly.  “Commander Jupiter has been admitted into a hospital there, and I think you should all be there.  We’ve released Skye Jupiter to be with her.”

“Really sir?” I asked in surprise. 

“Yes,” he said.  “He was sound in his judgements, even though his actions were somewhat…rash.  We aren’t going to punish him for that.”  He breathed out heavily through his nose.  “Take care, Shepard.  You’ll hear from us soon again.”

“No doubt,” I said quietly, but the screen was already blank.

I went back to the CIC and put the command codes through to have the ship fly to Freedom’s Progress.

.....

The three-day period from the tenth to the morning of the fourteenth of November, where the batarian ships rained bombs on all the Skyllian settlements that they had in their control became known as the Skyllian Blitz, a time where almost two million humans were killed by the batarian Hegemony.  More than seventy five per cent of those humans were soldiers in the service of the Alliance military.  As few as fifty thousand batarian soldiers were killed in action, making the Alliance’s victory all the more remarkable. 

Apparently the Council had first requested that the Hegemony removed their forces from the Attican Traverse, and, when they refused, gave them the ultimatum of removing their ships, or risking the Citadel forces providing reinforcements to the Alliance troops.  Clearly the batarians could see the risks of angering the Council, and therefore agreed to the cease fire.  As it was, the batarians lost their embassy on the Citadel as punishment, which meant that all batarian territory was now a part of the Terminus Systems, and the batarians were now officially an enemy of the Council.

The next few months were a very odd time to be a human.  We’d gone from being generally disliked and hated by the other species to being the star child in the galaxy.  Our tenacity, hot-headedness and   bravery, traits that previously were said to be our weaknesses, were now being lauded.  Humans were invited onto alien talk shows, to join alien businesses, and there was talk of a human embassy opening on Palaven, the turian homeworld.  There was even talk among human politicians of a human joining the Council, although most viewed this as premature.  All members of the Alliance Military that had served in the Attican Traverse during the war were sent to rest camps whilst the Citadel forces covered our lines.

It was strange and difficult to be on the ship at that particular time.  With only four of us remaining from Company 6 and less than half of the other marine squads serving on the ship having made it out, the ship was decidedly empty.  All non-essential tasks were suspended, and I found myself suddenly forced to find something to occupy me, so that I wouldn’t have too much time to think.  I ended up where I always did when I was unhappy: back on the shooting range.  My hands were badly cut from the barbed wire, and four of my ribs as well as my collar bone were broken, but I didn’t let that stop me.  Sometimes I thought what Commander Anderson said about me was right.  I was a martyr.

.....

The day before we landed on Freedom’s Progress I received two emails, one stating that I had been promoted to the rank of major (a shocker in itself, as this would again make me the youngest human ever to receive this rank), and perhaps even more surprisingly, inviting me to return to Del Sol Academy to take part in training for the N7 designation.

To be invited to do Interplanetary Combatants Training was an honour in itself, as only an N7 could recommend you for the training.  Even if a soldier didn’t receive the N7 designation, the fact that he underwent training, no matter how briefly, looked good on a résumé.  I couldn’t imagine which N7 thought highly enough of me to recommend me for the training.  In the end, I decided that it must have been Commander Agira, back when she was trying to get me to side with her.

It was raining when we landed in Ekhaya.  “You know something?” Carlotta asked rhetorically, glaring at the sky.  “I’m sick to fucking death of the fucking rain.”

“Then you wouldn’t survive a day on Kahje,” Kasuumi said.  “It rains there every day.”  Kahje was the hanar homeworld, where the drell also lived.

“Yes, which is why you live there and I don’t, Dranne,” Carlotta snapped.  “So are we going to the hospital or what?”

“I guess we are,” I said.

.....

Lieutenant Jupiter was sitting by Luna’s bed.  I’ll admit, in the past I was afraid of him, particularly because he seemed adept at knowing exactly what people’s weaknesses were and exploiting these weaknesses.  On this day though, I found I wasn’t scared of him at all.  He was just a man.  His sister was dying, and he was scared.

Carlotta surprised me.  She went right up to him and gave him a hug.  I admired her for knowing what to do and for holding it together, as, to be perfectly honest, I would rather have experienced a thousand Skyllian Blitzes than be in that hospital and witness Luna die.

Lieutenant Jupiter clung to Carlotta like a man cut adrift.  When he broke away from her, he nodded at the rest of us.  “Dranne, Masaad, Shepard,” he said.  “I heard you were the only ones to make it out.”

“Yeah,” Kasuumi said.  She smiled weakly.  “I’m still trying to figure out if this is a miracle or not.  How’s she doing?”

Lieutenant Jupiter turned away.  “Not good,” he said.  “She’s still unconscious.  They’ve done tissue regrowth and implanted cybernetics to compensate for the damaged neural paths.  They’re talking of growing her a new brain, but I don’t want it to come to that.”

I moved to stand next to him and looked down at Luna’s face.  They’d bandaged the damaged part of her skull, for which I was relieved.  They’d shaved her hair off, and as she lay there, she hardly resembled my old commander.  At that moment she looked young, like a little girl.

“She’d be glad that you all came to see her,” Lieutenant Jupiter was saying.  “You all meant so much to…to her.”  His voice cracked.

“Hey,” Carlotta said, going over to him and rubbing his back.

“I’m sorry,” he said, wiping his face. 

“You don’t need to apologise,” Carlotta said.  “When’s the last time you slept?”

He shrugged.  “I get my sleep,” he said.  “I don’t want to leave her alone for too long.  We never had anyone but each other before we joined up.  I don’t want her to wake up alone.”

“You won’t be alone,” I found myself saying.  We’ll stay with you.  Won’t we?”

“Yeah,” Zaeed said.  “Yeah definitely.  You don’t have to do this alone.”

Lieutenant Jupiter nodded and turned back to the bed.

.....

After that, we all took it in turns to sit by Luna’s bed with Lieutenant Jupiter, who only ever left the bedside to go to the bathroom and to eat.  Meanwhile, Luna got worse by increments.  Slowly but surely, her brain was rejecting the new tissue and cybernetics.  To my surprise, on the second day, Com Officer Bharesh appeared at the doorway.

“I’m sorry I’m late,” she said softly.  “I couldn’t face it before.”

I wanted to ask, “Face what?” but Lieutenant Jupiter said, “Of course, Officer.  She’d have wanted you here.”

Com Officer Bharesh pulled a chair up to the bedside and kissed Luna on the forehead.  When I talked about this later to Kasuumi, Zaeed and Carlotta, they didn’t seem surprised.  I decided I must have been asleep the previous year or so.

On our third day on Freedom’s Progress, I went to the hospital to relieve Zaeed, to find the doctor in the room, explaining that there had been a total rejection of the new tissue.
“We can grow her a new brain,” the doctor said.  “Keep her alive on the machines until it’s ready.  It should take about six months.”

“No,” Lieutenant Jupiter said tonelessly.  “I don’t want that, and I know my sister wouldn’t either.”

“There is very little chance of rejection of the new brain, and the side effects are minimal,” the doctor said.

“Even so,” Lieutenant Jupiter said. 

“Well, I’m afraid that’s our only option,” the doctor said.  “Major Jupiter isn’t going to wake up without a miracle.  The only reason she’s still breathing is because the machines are keeping her alive.”

“There is another option,” Lieutenant Jupiter snapped.  “You say the machine is keeping her alive?  So shut it off.”

“But-but,” the doctor said.  “Then she’ll die.”

“I know she will,” Lieutenant Jupiter said impatiently.  “But it sounds like she’s dead either way.”  He sighed and touched his sister’s face.  “Give me two days to…to say good bye.  Then we switch the machines off.”

“Very well,” the doctor said at last.  He gave the number of a lawyer and of the hospital psychologist to Lieutenant Jupiter, then left.

“Why don’t you want the brain transplant?” Zaeed asked quietly.

“You can’t regrow memories,” Lieutenant Jupiter said shortly.

It was true.  The only major side effect to a brain transplant was the fact that it was impossible to regrow memories, meaning that the transplantee, whilst being physically present was psychologically different.

“If it is true, and our experiences shape who we are, then the person that wakes up wouldn’t be Luna,” Lieutenant Jupiter continued.  “If that is so, my sister is as good as dead, and she’d be better off if I switched the machines off.”

.....

After Zaeed had left, Lieutenant Jupiter turned to me.  “Why, Shepard?” he asked me coldly.

I immediately tried to think of any recent wrongdoings.  “Er, why what, sir?” I asked.

“Why is she the one dying?” he asked, a note of desperation in his voice.  “She’s a good person, a kind person.  Everyone loves her.  She doesn’t deserve to die.”

“I don’t know,” I said quietly.

“Why is she the one dying?” he repeated.  “Why her and not me?  I’d do anything, give anything for her to wake up again and be my sister, the only person in the galaxy that I love.  If I had to die, so that she would live, I’d do it.  I’m sure you’ll agree that I am more than a fair exchange for my sister’s life.  Everyone prefers her in any case.  Why is she the one dying?”

“I don’t know the answer to that,” I said after an uncomfortable pause.  “I like to think that people get left behind because they still serve some purpose, but I have no idea if that’s true.”

“That’s bullshit and you know it,” he snapped.

“I’ve been left behind so often now, I have to believe something,” I said tiredly.  “Even if it’s bullshit.” 

.....

The next day I ran into Commander Agira in the hospital corridor.  She was being pushed down the corridor in a wheelchair by a nurse and was flanked by two heavily armed members of the military police. 

“Lieutenant Shepard,” she said, apparently delighted to see me.

On another day, the sight of her would have filled me with rage, but I was too tired for any kind of emotion.  I wasn’t surprised to see her.  The hospitals on Skyllia were full to brim.  Other colonies were being forced to pick up the slack.  It was just my misfortune that she and Luna happened to have been sent to the same hospital.

“Commander,” I said.

“I’m glad to see you at least made it out alive,” she said.  “I knew I was making the right choice by ducking out of that little skirmish.”

I looked scathingly at her.  “You know, you’re so full of hot air, it’s a wonder you don’t float away,” I said.

“I know you hate me, Lieutenant, and I don’t blame you,” she said.  “You must believe me, everything I did was to benefit you.  You and the rest of Company 6.  I’m not a very good leader, and if I hadn’t…stepped down for you, you’d have lost many more soldiers.”

“Then why?” I asked.  “Why did you fight Commander Jupiter so hard for control of the ship, if you knew you weren’t up for the job?”

“How else was I to know I’d made it?” she asked quietly.  She heaved a deep sigh.  “Ah well, it doesn’t matter either way.  As soon as my new foot is grown and attached, I’m up for a court-marshal, and, unless there is something seriously wrong with the galaxy, an execution.  I’m not even sure why they’re bothering to grow the foot, as I’m not likely to be using it for very long, but there you have it.”

“It’ll probably make for more dramatic television, having you walk up the stairs to the electric chair rather than have you wheeled up,” I said.

She considered this.  “Hm,” she said.  “You may be right.  After all, how do you know if you’ve truly made it?”

“I have to go,” I said.  “Commander Jupiter’s dying.”  I waited.  “You truly didn’t care about any of us, did you?”

She frowned.  “What do you mean?” she asked.

“Nkosi Sobana, Maya van Richte, Ismaeel Khan, Terrence Brown, Nina Ruben and Joey Carboletti are all dead,” I shouted.  Everyone in the vicinity turned to stare at us, and the policemen moved forwards.  She continued to stare at me.  The fight in me was replaced by a hollowness.  “Never mind,” I said quietly.  “I won’t any more breath on something as futile as you.”

I turned and walked away.  “You’ll miss me, Jane Shepard,” she called.

“Not from this distance,” I whispered under my breath.

.....

At some point, on Luna’s last day, I found myself alone in her room.  For someone accustomed to dolling out death or witnessing death on a daily basis, I was lost in this situation where this death was so peaceful, so calm and without violence.  I usually found myself standing as far away from the bed as possible, either at the window, overlooking the town, or by the door.  But on this day, when I was alone with her, I felt myself drawn to her side.

There had been absolutely no change in her expression since we had arrived.  It was as if everything that had made her her was gone.

I touched her hand, almost expecting it to be cold, and was therefore surprised when it burned so hot under my hand.

“Wake up,” I whispered.  She did not wake up.  “Please,” I whispered.  “Please, you have to wake up.”  She did not wake up.  “Luna,” I began.  “Commander.  We need you.  Your brother needs you.  I-,” I found myself unable to speak.  I cleared my throat.  “Please just wake up,” I pleaded.  “You can’t die yet.”

She did not wake up.

“If you wake up, I’ll tell you the rest of the joke,” I bargained desperately.  “Remember, I promised?  If we got out of Skyllia alive, I’d tell you the rest of the joke.  All you need to do is wake up.”

She did not wake up.  I touched her forehead and moved back to the window.  The rain had cleared up outside and the sky was a clear blue.  It was going to be a beautiful day.

.....

On the twenty sixth of November, 2184, a mass funeral was held for the soldiers of Company 6 on Arcturus Station.  As I came to understand it, there were two mass funerals a day on the military base until the middle of January the following year. 

The day before the funerals, I met with the families of our dead squad mates individually.  As harrowing as it was, I am still glad I did it.  Through their eyes, I was able to witness them as different people.  Maya, who wanted to be a painter, but never believed that she was good enough to get into an art academy.  Ismaeel, who used to get up in the middle of the night to comfort his sister after she had a nightmare.  And Nkosi, who never knew her father, but dreamed of searching the galaxy for him, and one day finding him.  All this I learnt, and more, and I began to appreciate how little we actually know of a person, and how what we see of them is only one tenth of what they truly capable of.  The hardest family to see was the Carboletti family, perhaps because I knew him better than I had the rest of the squad.

I remembered Joey’s father, Mr Carboletti, from my childhood, as being a giant of a man, with a booming voice.  On this day, he seemed tiny, shrunken even, turned prematurely grey from the loss of his oldest child.  He cried through the entire conversation, and it was only Mrs Carboletti, a diminutive, foul-mouthed woman who did the talking.  Next to her, Talia, Joey’s younger sister, who had grown into a gorgeous young woman, sat pale and silent.

“I’m sorry,” I said quietly.  “I should have been able to save him, somehow.”

Mrs Carboletti shook her head impatiently.  “I know you did all you could for my boy,” she said.  “You already gave him so much.”

“What do you mean?” I asked. 

“Before you joined his squad, Giuseppe was so…lost,” she said her voice trembling slightly.  “After he met you, he changed.  He was more alive, more purposeful.  I don’t know how you did it, but you made him whole again.”

We spoke a few more moments.  As they were leaving, she turned to me.  “I know you’d tell me the truth,” she said.  “Did my boy…did Joey…was it quick?”

I thought of Joey, the boy who was my childhood friend, the man who offered his love to me without expecting anything in return, the man who begged not to die.

“Yes,” I lied, my tongue heavy from all the untruths I’d been telling recently, all the lives that had been lost because of them.  “He never felt a thing.”

.....

The seven coffins were draped in Alliance flags.  After the member of the Ministry of Post Life (a poor replacement for priests) finished his sermon (which I could remember nothing of.  It probably wasn’t important in any case.  Just something about sacrifice and death), Kasuumi, Zaeed, Carlotta and I folded each flag up and handed it to a member of the person’s family.  Then Joey, Nina and Ismaeel’s coffins were moved to the side of the room to await transportation to their planets where they would have a more religious ceremony.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered as the other coffins slid, one by one, into the crematorium.   “Good bye.”

.....

It was a strange thing for me that, even after everything that had happened in the past month, a thing such as a wedding could exist, yet a week after the funeral, I found myself on Earth, helping Ash prepare for her wedding.

Ash met me at the Cape Town Space Port.  The moment I stepped through the arrival gate, I was nearly flung off my feet as she threw herself at me.

“Holy Mother, Ash, aren’t you ever going to learn that I am almost a foot shorter than you and can’t withstand the brunt of your weight like that,” I said, laughing.

“I’m happy to see you, Janey, what’s wrong with that?” she asked.  She kissed my forehead.  “Are you ok?” she asked, stepping back and looking me up and down.  “You look like you’ve lost quite a bit of weight.”

“I probably have,” I said.  “I think you also just rebroke my ribs, but it’s fine.  If I was wearing a corset, it’d probably be to my benefit.”

“You’d look horrid in a corset,” Ash said.  “Come on, the car’s waiting up front.”

“How’re you doing?” I asked once we were in the car.

“Stressed,” Ash said.  “The catering group we’d hired fell through, so we’ve been forced to hire someone else at the last minute and great expense.  You?”

I shrugged.  “Ok, I guess,” I said.  “No worse than normal.”

“You have to be the most resilient person in the galaxy to still be going on after all this time,” Ash said.

I laughed.  “Well, at least I’ve got that going for me,” I said.  “Although if the caterers cancelled at the last minute at my wedding, I’d flip my shit.”

“I thought you said you weren’t ever going to get married,” Ash said.

I rolled my eyes.  “You’re missing the point, Ash,” I said.  “So, who else has arrived?”

“Anderson, Kaidan and…,” she trailed.

“And who?” I asked.

“Well, Kaidan’s girlfriend,” she admitted.

“Kaidan has a girlfriend?” I asked in shock.  “Since when?”

She shrugged.  “I’m sorry, Jane,” she said uncomfortably.  “I didn’t know he had one until he introduced us.”

“Why are you sorry?” I asked blankly.

“Well, won’t it be weird for you?” she asked.

“Nope,” I said.

“You’re a strange woman,” she mumbled.  “At least I know you have a fantastic hen party planned for me.”

My heart went cold.  I’d forgotten all about the damned hen party.  “Uh yeah,” I said uncertainly.  “Yeah.  You’d better hang on to your socks, Williams.  You’re in for the best darn hen party in the history of the galaxy.”

Ash laughed.  “Jane, relax,” she said, grinning.  “I know you haven’t had the chance to organise me a hen party, what with being on the front lines and whatnot.  I’ve gone and organised the party myself.”

“But that’s not right,” I said, frowning.  “I’m your maid of honour.  I should be the one organising the party.”

“It’s no bother,” she said.  “Besides, knowing you, it would have been an…interesting party.”

“I was thinking the movies,” I said.  “I think there’s a new action film, Day of Days showing.”

“I rest my case,” she laughed.  “Oh, by the way, I’ve been promoted.”

“Holy shit, really?” I asked.

“Yup,” she said proudly.  “Gunnery Chief.  I’m the first Williams to make it past Serviceman First Class since General Williams.”

“Congratulations,” I said.  “That’s a big deal.  You must have really impressed the admirals.”

“Either that or they’re seriously low on promotable servicemen,” Ash said.  “Anyway, I’m being transferred to some colony somewhere after the honeymoon.  I only wish my mom and my granddad were here.  This’d be something for them to be proud of.”

“Ash, let me share some wisdom I’ve gained over the years,” I said.  “At some point we need to let the mistakes of our parents go and start living our own lives.”

“Ja, I know,” Ash said.  “I just miss them a lot at the moment.  Especially my mom.  I wish they were here to see me get married.”

“I know,” I said.  “If it means anything, they’re probably watching.”  She gave me a strange look.  “From heaven,” I said.  “Come on, Ash, as a Catholic I have to do at least one conversion a year, or they take away my badge.  Work with me here.”

“I don’t know, Jane, the idea of my mother watching me at all times is a bit frightening,” Ash said innocently.

“I’m sure she closes her eyes for the nawty bits,” I said.

.....

It was a little awkward being introduced to Kaidan’s girlfriend at Ash and Adam’s pre-dinner, as no one but Ash knew about the true nature of Kaidan and my past relationship.  After an uncomfortable pause, Kaidan said, “My very good friend,” when introducing me.

“From the waist up,” I added in case she got the wrong idea. 

“Jane,” Kaidan groaned.

“What?” I asked, slightly defensively.  “It’s true.”

Lisa, Kaidan’s girlfriend was gorgeous, tall, with long dark hair and green eyes framed with dark lashes.  “Nice to meet you,” she said.  “Kaidan speaks of you often.”

“Yes, well, I’m interesting to talk about,” I said.  “There are a variety of topics, for instance, my height, my asthma, my childhood or my military career.  All four those topics promise for tales of romance, violence and excitement.”

“See, Leas, I wasn’t kidding when I said she talks a lot of crap,” Kaidan said.

“Yes, but now that I’ve been promoted, it’s the crap of a high-up, soon-to-be N7 that I will be talking,” I said.

“Shit from a king and shit from a pauper smells like the same shit, Jane,” Kaidan said.

“Not technically,” I said.  “You’d have to factor in diet and-,”

“Is that the dreaded voice of Ken I hear?” Commander Anderson asked, coming over.  He looked me up and down.  “Good to see you in one piece, boy.”

“Likewise,” I said.  “You lived to be on the frontlines at the end of two major wars.”

“Pray there isn’t a third,” he said.  He looked Lisa up and down.  “So, you’re Alenko’s piece of skirt,” he remarked.  “How the hell does he manage to pull all these sexy women when he looks like God’s gift to ugly women?”

“Uh,” she said.

“This is my CO, Commander Anderson,” Kaidan said.

“Soon to be the commander of the newest ship in the Alliance fleet,” Commander Anderson said, shaking Lisa’s hand.  “The only role yet to be cast on my ship is that of the Executive Officer.”

“I would have suggested Commander Agira, except she’s going to be executed soon,” I said, winking at him.

“You’re not funny boy,” Commander Anderson said.  “Why don’t you stand in the corner and think on your sins whilst the grown-ups talk.”  I scowled and started off to where Matilda Michel was busy chatting to Suang Kim and Jason.  Commander Anderson stopped me and took the champagne glass from my hand.  “And drinking whilst underage.  Alenko, you should know better.”

“Yes sir,” Kaidan said, looking inexplicably guilty.  “Sorry sir.”

“Apology accepted,” Commander Anderson.  “Now, Ken.  Over to the corner.”

I joined in Matilda, Jason and Suang.  As I looked around the room filled with faces I knew and many more that I didn’t, I realised something.  My friends and what was left of my family were perhaps the most important things in my life.  I didn’t know what I would do without them.

.....

I spent the morning of the wedding with Ash and her two half-sisters, Inga and Sara, in something I soon grew to consider as hell, even though many women seemed to consider a version of heaven.  I am of course talking of beauty parlours.  Every single part of my body was buffed, scrubbed, plucked, trimmed and made-up.  Well, not every single part.  Specific parts were buffed, scrubbed, plucked, trimmed and made-up.  Whatever.  My point has been made.  Ash seemed to revel in it.

“You look beautiful, Jane,” she said when the three of us were in the car on the way back to Ash’s hotel room.

“No, I don’t,” I said.  “I look like a boy in drag.  Ask anyone.”

“You have long hair and boobs,” Inga, who was the same age as Ash, said, looking me up and down.  “How can you be a boy?”

“I don’t know, but everyone seems to think I am,” I said.

Back at the hotel we put our dresses on.  Inga, Sara and I were dressed in identical purple floor-length dresses with killer-high high heels that I had the feeling would tip me over by the end of the night.  Our hair was done in remarkably identical elaborate buns.  I say remarkable because the process had seemed intricate and looked almost impossible to replicate. 

When Sara had done the zip up on Ash’s dress, the three of us let out involuntary sighs.  “Wow,” Sara said.  “You look amazing, Ash.”

The dress was white and silver and fell down to her feet.  It was form-fitting, showing every curve.  The sleeves hugged her arms and ended at the wrist.  Her hair was done in ringlets around that framed her face, and a veil was attached at the back of her head that rea