"What do you mean 'the Council won't help'?" James seethed between clenched teeth at the holographic image in front of him. "Damn it, Shepard! This all seems pretty familiar, don't you think?"
The holographic projection of Sarah Shepard sighed deeply, straightening out the creases of her uniform. "I know, James. But it's not the same thing, and you know that. This is the Alliance' problem, and we have to solve it ourselves."
"I thought the whole god damned point of the Galactic Council was cooperation, common defense..." he grumbled, reining in his frustration as he realized he was spewing it at the wrong target.
"It is," Shepard continued "but the Verge isn't strictly Alliance territory, or within Citadel space; we can't expect them to come running simply because we've taken it upon ourselves to protect unaffiliated human colonies."
"What about Khar'shan?" James asked darkly after a moments pause "Do they have anything to say for themselves?"
"They're denying all knowledge, and we're inclined to believe them. The Hegemony is in no state to wage war. We thought they might have supplied the colonists, but their fleet's still holding in the Harsa system."
James scowled and his voice grumbled as he raised his gaze towards his former CO "What are our orders, Admiral?"
Sarah eyed him for a moment. They'd been through a lot together, and the absurdity of the fact that he'd once been in charge of guarding her as a prisoner still made her chuckle, much as it had when he served under her all those years ago. He was the right man for the job, there was no doubt about that. He was a veteran, battle tested and an N7 operative; hell, she trained him herself. Still, she never liked sending people on dangerous missions unless she happened to be leading the charge herself, a few more stripes on her shoulder hadn't changed that, and the fact that her daughter would now be one of them didn't make it any easier.
"The fleets are holding defensive positions around the core colonies, Elysium in particular." she began after a moment "We'll move on the disputed systems eventually, but you know the drill, it could take some time."
"He who wants to protect everything, protects nothing..." James mused.
"Exactly" Sarah nodded approvingly "That's why we need you. With the new core, the Narva is the fastest stealth ship in the fleet. We need you to run disruption and interference behind the lines. Supply lines, communications... anything, you find a soft spot and you hit it! You prick that needle at the beast and you bleed it dry."
James face contorted into a devilish grin as he spoke. "Now we're talking."
"Yeah, I thought you'd like it..." Sarah chuckled "But more importantly, we need answers James. Find out who's supplying the Republic. We need to cut them off, we'll eventually win even by attrition, but it will be costly."
"Oh, and James..." Sarah began, leaning in closer with a worried look, James could hear the hesitation in her voice.
"Don't worry, Lola" he filled in "I'll keep her safe."
A weary smile crept over Sarahs face "Thank you, James, and good luck. Shepard out."
- - -
The pungent smell of gun oil and solvent tickled her nostrils, she let the thin cloth dance over the metal casing as she held it up to her eyes, studying its now perfectly reflective surface intently. With a light purr of contentment she slid the piece into place, watching it glide smoothly and quietly until it locked into position with a familiar clicking sound. She reached out over the workbench and grabbed the final piece, the bench was a small island of light in the dimly lit hangar, it's orange light reflecting in the oil giving it the hue of dark amber. She leaned back in her chair and rubbed the metal absentmindedly as she listened to the soft hum of the engine.
"Spring cleaning?" a voice filled with mirth chirped behind her, the owners footsteps drawing closer across the metal floor.
"More like therapy." Shia chuckled without turning around.
Amherst strolled up beside her and rested against the side of the workbench, glancing down at the nearly reassembled weapon. "M-5 Phalanx" she nodded in reserved admiration "Very nice. Though I much prefer the shooting to the cleaning."
Shia looked up from her polishing and looked at Amherst with distant eyes. "I loved building model ships when I was a kid, this is kinda the same thing... you know, only with more metal and grease." she said with a smile, weighing the metallic piece in her hand.
Amherst let out a light laugh. "So, how's the leg, Corporal?"
"Doing alright, ma'am" Shia replied "Doc cleared me for duty this morning."
"Good, we're going to need you able and willing."
Shia sat pondering for a moment before she spoke again. "So, with the Chief gone... you'll command the unit?"
Amherst sighed as she shifted her weight slightly "Technically, but I suspect the Captain will take the lead himself. Never known an N7 to sit on his ass. You know him, right?"
"Yeah" Shia nodded "He served with my dad, you know, during the war."
"Shit, walking out of that mess still able to hold a gun, has to be a tough son of a bitch."
"Tough as they come." Shia confirmed with a laugh "He's a good guy though, level headed... for the most part."
"I guess we'll find out." Amherst mused "That's actually why I came to find you, Captain's briefing us tomorrow, 0700. You didn't confirm the message on your omni-tool."
Shia froze as she realized her mistake. "Hell, I tuned the- I'm sorry ma'am, I'll-"
"Relax Shepard." She chuckled "Just make sure you get some shut-eye so you're not late."
As she watched Amherst exit the hangar through the elevator, Shia slid the final piece of her pistol into place and balanced it firmly in her hand. She smirked lightly as she mused to herself. "Yes ma'am."
She entered the quarters as silently as she could, assuming Jani would already be asleep. She couldn't remember the last time she slept in her bunk on the crew deck, but she was far from complaining. As she slid down under the covers, she felt her lover stir in the darkness next to her.
"Sorry, didn't mean to wake you." she whispered softly.
Jani groaned lightly "I thought you decided to sleep in your bunk or something."
"Never again" Shia giggled "I just lost track of time down in the armory, I have to be up again in five hours..."
"Something going on?" Jani asked, a hint of worry in her voice.
Shia sighed and rolled over to face her. "Yeah, mission brief... I might be going out again."
Jani cupped Shias cheek in her hand "You ok?"
"I guess... I mean, I want to get back to work. But as dumb as it may sound from someone in the military, I never really expected to find myself in the middle of a war."
"I don't think anyone ever does." Jani replied soothingly "Just promise me you'll be careful, ok?"
Shia kissed her deeply before she responded. "I promise."
- - -
The air in the briefing room was thick, a sense of excitement mingling with a tint of fear as the team waited for their new commanding officer. Everyone at the table had seen action in one way or another, even Shia, though still wet behind the ears, had earned herself a level of respect for her actions during her first mission. But special operations was a different matter entirely, and none of them knew exactly what to expect, finding the mix of pride and honor of serving under an N7 operative and the apprehension of being on unfamiliar ground hard to reconcile. Even Amherst, usually a calm and collected woman, was nervously polishing off her fifth cup of coffee. The group was pulled out of their collective fidgeting as the door hissed open to reveal James entering the room at a steady pace. Before they could rise to attention, James waved them off with his hand and a casual "As you were". He wore a tight fitting shirt, his tattoos crawling the length of his arm to emerge at the base of his neck like black flames caressing the skin.
He cleared his throat as he took up position at the end of the table "I assume you've all read the preliminary and that you're up to date on the nature of our mission?" he asked. The question was largely rhetorical, yet he smiled as nods met him from across the table. "Good. Now, we've receive reports of a batarian installation on Goreth... It's what you'd call a hellhole, hot and mucky, previously believed to be uninhabited. We're likely dealing with a small base, but there's been a significant level of QEC traffic from the planet since the invasion began. The brass wants us to check it out, gather what intel we can and disable whatever it is they've got down there."
James looked over his team to gauge their reactions before continuing. "I'll take a small team and go in quietly. Amherst, Shepard, think you're up for it?" he said, his eyes locked firmly on the two women.
Shia shot Amherst a quick glance, the older woman giving her a mild nod. "Yes sir." they answered in unison.
"Alright" James exclaimed "Hendricks, we'll need a stealth drop, after which you pull back to the ship, we can't risk exposing our presence. Once the mission's complete, we'll call for extraction. Understood?"
Hendricks simply nodded his response, his jaw clenched as if stifling a protest. He didn't like to leave his team behind, even when he understood the logic behind it.
James allowed his lips to form into a smirk. "Good, you have your orders. You're all on standby, ETA is roughly two hours. Scramble your gear. Dismissed."
As the group filed out of the room, Shia felt a lump form in her chest. No shuttle on standby... She knew what it meant, and given their new role in the conflict, she might have expected it. But there was a finality about it that made her cringe, Either get it done or you're not coming back. For the first time in a long while, she had to admit to herself that she was afraid.
- - -
The team watched the shuttle disappear against the murky sky of Goreth. The clouds, much like the air itself seemed to be shifting in various shades of brown against the sagging yellowish canopy of the jungle. The heavy rain that fell over them did little to counteract the oppressive heat, the world seemed locked in a perpetual cycle of accelerated evaporation and precipitation; the rain instantly evaporating from the ground only to fall again as it reached a certain altitude. Shia felt sick as the thick mud closed around her boots, and with each step a thick stench of decomposition rose from the muck beneath her. Hellhole... she repeated in her mind You sure know how the pick 'em, James.
Shia and Amherst converged on James in a small clearing of exposed bedrock, grateful to leave the slippery ground behind.
He brought up his omni-tool, detailing the route to the target.
"One click southwest." he seethed "We don't have any information on the structure itself, only the location of the signals, so move cautiously. I'll take point."
"As long as we get out of this crap I don't really care if we have to share a roof with a bunch of pissed off batarians." Amherst scoffed, earning a soft chuckle from Shia and James.
"Alright then, we're moving out." James ordered, motioning his rifle towards the end of the clearing.
Progress through the trunks was slow and arduous, as they slipped, tripped and tangled their way through the muck and the dense vegetation. Shia thought back to the end of basic, and Davids ranting about the heat and the humidity on Benning. She had to contain her mirth as she imagined the poor guy toppling over, resigned to his fate as soon as he stepped off the shuttle on this rock. After a good couple of hours, Shia had trouble determining exactly how long, they reached the edge of a large clearing, a metallic structure clearly visible in its center.
They propped themselves up against the wall of the large circular structure, the large transmitter towering above them. They moved slowly along the circumference looking for a break in the sleek surface to invite them in. As they reached the far side of the structure, the unmistakable outline of a ramp gave them their opportunity. As they closed in on it, James could see the outline of a guard in the shadows by the large door, the glowing glass eyes of his helmet peering out into the distance. He held up his hand for them to stop, alerting his team to the enemy presence.
He studied his target carefully, the world around him faded as his eyes focused. He could see it, a pattern of movement emerge and he began to move. Eyes locked on his enemy, he signaled his team to hold their position. Shia and Amherst could only watch as the bulky figure closed the distance with speed and efficiency, amazed at how such a large frame could move so quietly. As he reached the top of the ramp, the guard still turned away, he reached his arm around his neck as the omni-tool flickered to life. In one fluid motion, the fabricator produced it's glowing blade, and James plunged it deeply into the mans side. The guard let out a garbled, gurgling hiss as James lowered his limp frame to the ground.
He motioned for them to approach. Shia stared at the lifeless form lying before her. The efficiency and grace of the brutal act had taken her aback, fascination and revulsion tearing at her being, she slowly turned away. She had seen people die before, she'd even shot people herself; but this was different, it was close... personal. James firm hand on her shoulder pulled her from the storm in her mind, he looked at her understandingly and gave her a small reassuring smile.
"Alright" he said with a deep exhale "We're going in."