Shia gestured for her team to spread out in the small clearing as the shuttle quickly made its way back towards the staging area. She took in the scene, meticulous and thorough as her eyes wandered over bushes, the high grasses and the large ferns that spread like a thick blanket over the jungle floor. The air became quiet and peaceful as the sound of the shuttles engines died down in the distance, only the light breeze and the soft chirping of insects breaking the silence. The team slowly went over the perimeter, and one by one they gave her the sign of all clear. Satisfied, she called them over to her and brought up her omni-tool.
"Ok, let's do a rundown" she said softly, a few quick commands on the amber device bringing up a small map "Tower should be roughly 2 kilometers south of our position. We'll move single file, I take point and Dave, you shore up the rear. Mia, you cover the left flank. Aaki, you take the right." They all nodded in agreement.
"Great" David said, coking his head back slightly "This mean we can talk now?"
"Go ahead" Shia sighed
"Good. It's fucking hot out here, seriously!" He exclaimed
"Yes Dave, it's hot in the jungle. Any other bright observations?" Mia replied mockingly "You didn't seem to have a problem with it back at camp."
"That was dry heat, this place's so damp we might as well be going for a swim. It's like Kajhe out here!"
"I think the hanar might disagree with you on that" Aaki teased
"So, what? You hate water?" Shia joined in
"I grew up on ships, nice and dry"
"Yeah, and once we graduate basic you get to go back out there, along with the rest of us. So how about we focus on the mission?"
"Fine, but if I get attacked by leeches it's on you"
Shia chuckled at her friends antics and signaled the squad to move out.
- - -
The group made their way south. They were making good time, the ground under the dense ferns was surprisingly clear, save a thick, wet coating of dead leaves. They moved quietly, infiltration style, low profile. Having been on the move for just over an hour, they started hearing the faint sound of gunfire in the distance. The exercise was obviously in full swing as the other teams made their advances. It was a coordinated attack procedure, their squad, Echo Four, being sent in as an infiltration unit to disable enemy communications. Shia thought it was fun, and fitting, never having developed her fathers affinity for going in guns blazing.
Shia actually liked guns. Going shooting with her dad had been one of her favorite pastimes growing up. Still, the sound of gunfire was disconcerting when not in a strictly controlled environment. This wasn't a live fire exercise, thank the goddess, but the simulation slugs still packed quite a punch. Not that one would be injured, but it was still something one liked to avoid if possible. She worriedly rubbed one of the contact simulators on her chestplate. Best not to think about it. "If it can't kill you, don't fear it... better yet, fear nothing at all, it'll just makes you stupid", as grandma would say.
Making their way up a small rise, they noticed the foliage thicken steadily, and they now found themselves looking over a large clearing. The intended target towered high over the canopy by the treeline on the far side. Shia threw up a clenched fist, signaling her team to hold their positions. She was surprised at the light levels, the moonlight lit up the clearing quite well, the tower gleamed intensely in the light, giving of a bright silver sheen. So much for the cover of darkness, or any cover for that matter. Unless we skirt arou... her thoughts were savagely interrupted by a sudden burst of gunfire coming from the opposing treeline by the tower. "Shit! We've been spotted. Cover, now! Suppressing fire!"
- - -
Shia was panicking. She wasn't afraid, well aware that the rounds being fired were harmless. But she was desperate to prove herself, and it would appear that her first stab at command wouldn't turn out so great. Now that their presence was known, advancing would be next to impossible. Even if they retreated now, there would probably be casualties, not to mention the objective being bust.
"Holy shit!" David chuckled as he ducked back behind cover after releasing a barrage of imaginary bullets across the clearing
"What the hell do we do now?" Mia chimed in
"I dunno, Idunno, let me think" Shia snapped back, obviously stressed
"Better make it fast" David scoffed "They're going to flank us soon"
She thought back to her training, running scenarios in her head. None were any good, either loose the team or loose the objective, neither sat well with her. A good performance review meant a choice assignment, and she didn't much feel like serving the coming months guarding the hold on some freighter.
"Damnit!" She exclaimed as she struggled with her decision "There's no choice. Dave, Aaki, you hold this position and lay down covering fire. Me and Mia will flank left and try to skirt around them."
"What?" David objected "There's no way we can hold them off for more than a couple of minutes"
"I know, with a little luck that's all we'll need"
"But this will fuck up our score! Badly!"
"Hey!" she locked eyes with him "It's mission first. If we fail, the whole operation fails. I'm squad leader, whatever the outcome is, the consequences are mine" she surprised herself with the tone of her voice. Assertive, it had authority. David glanced at the ground for a moment, then met her gaze once more
"Good. Mia, let's go"
- - -
They darted quickly behind dense bushes, the sound of the firefight taking place behind them ever present as they quietly but swiftly made their advance on the tower. Shia was annoyed, even a little bit pissed at the situation. How's it fair to pit recruits with 3 months training against officers anyway? For a moment she wished that she'd never come here. She wanted to be back home, lounging on the couch, watching one of those old earth vids that her dad loved so much. It had been their thing for years, every Saturday, bad vids and Chinese take-out. Nothing to prove... no risk of letting anyone down she thought. She tried to shrug it off, berating herself for complaining, If it was easy it wouldn't be a challenge, now would it? Get your head in the game damnit, the worst that can happen is that you fail an exam! C'mon!
They reached a large boulder perched at the base of the tower, both women struggling to control their heavy breathing from the fast pace. Shia gripped her M-5 tightly, peeking carefully towards the clearing. She could see five soldiers taking up defensive positions, they were all firmly engulfed in the battle, laying down heavy fire towards Davids and Aakis position. She spotted a team slowly flanking the position, moving in between burst of fire from their friendlies. Textbook tactic she scoffed to herself.
"Mia" She hisses as she turned around, trying to draw her teammates attention, she jerked slightly when she found the deep blue eyes already firmly fixed on her.
"Five, a few meters out from the ramp. Another two trying to flank Daves and Aakis position"
"So what do we do?" Mia asked
"Sneak attack, as long as they're focused on the others, we should be able to get past them undetected. Once we get up there, you set to work disabling the comms. You're ten times the tech I am. I'll cover you."
Mia nodded "Sounds good"
"Ok, let's go"
Shia looked out from cover one last time and then darted out towards the tower. It was no more than 40 meters away, but just as they started out, the gunfire fell silent. Shit, they got them. She felt a sudden urge to stop dead in her tracks, but she fought it and pressed on. Halfway there She could hear Mias footsteps close behind her, glancing over into the clearing to see her enemies make their way towards her friends now silent position.
They reached the ramp undetected, slowing down to avoid making too much noise as they made their way up the sleek metal surface. Why does everything have to resemble a tin can? Might as well start ringing a bell or somethin. Shia took point, making her way carefully towards the control panel located on the far side of the structure. As she turned the corner of the walkway at the top of the ramp, she was met by a gritty and scratched chestplate and a pair of very startled brown eyes. Shia instinctively raised her sidearm and fired off two rounds at her enemy.
The armors contact simulators, detecting the point blank range, ignored it's programmed impact reduction that was to simulate shielding and promptly sent two lightly painful, but harmless shocks into the body of it's wearer. The man cringe slightly and looked up at his assailant. Shia almost burst out laughing as she met the gaze of her victim as she noticed it was Lt. Graham, normally the units communications and cryptography instructor. He gave her a sharp look, one that said, in no uncertain terms, Was that double-tap really necessary? She mouthed at quiet sorry, turning around to face Mia just as she heard the first round being fired from the soldiers out in the clearing.
"Down!" she shouted as she pressed herself against the the solid railing of the walkway, suddenly quite grateful for it's bulky tin can design. They had obviously heard her shots, not surprising, but she was still caught off guard.
"Mia, get to the control panel! Go!"
"I'll cover you, signal me when you're done"
Shia laid down fire, trying to buy her squadmate as much time as possible. Her cheeks flushed a deep purple hue, she was tired, nervous and warm, the sudden jerk out of the combat mentality caused by seeing the face of one of her teacher, only to be thrown right back in again had taken it's toll.
"Mia, status?" She cried into her headset, feeling that maintaining radio silence was rather redundant at this point.
"Nearly there... just need a few more minutes" came the crackling response.
"You don't have it. Get it done!" she could hear only static.
"There, got it!"
Shia sighed with relief, firing off a last burst at the approaching forces before reaching down to her belt and firing off a read flare to signal the friendly forces that the objective had been completed.
Just glad we don't have to worry about fighting our way out of here too She thought, just as Mia came up behind her and gave her a reassuring tap on the shoulder.
"Hey, you alright?" She said, smiling warmly
"Yeah, just a bit tucker out I guess" Shia chuckled
"Uh huh, that was quite a run"
"So Serviceman, was that double-tap really necessary?" Lt. Graham interrupted them, shooting Shia a stern face.
"Sorry about that sir... just kinda... happened" She responded, slightly nervous as to where this was going. The Lieutenant eyed her for a moment before bursting out in a light laugh.
"Don't worry about it. You kids did good"
"Thank you sir... Lost half my squad though, probably shot our score to hell in the process"
"I wouldn't worry about it, there's more to an operation than just numbers. Don't assume anything until after your debriefing"
Shia nodded, not entirely convinced. "C'mon, let's gather everyone up, shuttle will be here soon" The Lieutenant continued, offering a hand to help her up.
Shia took it gratefully, swinging to her feet
- - -
Shia had trouble focusing. Ashley Williams was in the front of the room giving a rundown of the exercise and it's execution, what went right and what went wrong. Shia was running a thousand different scenarios in her head, wondering what she should have done differently. Could I have done anything differently?
She shrugged as she panned back in, catching the final part of the speech
"...ults of the final personal evaluation will be sent to your omni-tools at 1130 hours, along with your next assignment. Now, I know that you're all stressing about this, so to put your minds at ease, let me just say that everyone in Echo Company passed the final examination. So, no need to fret. Look on the final evaluation more as feedback than anything else" An audible sigh of relief swept through the room "The commencement ceremony will be held on the main quad at 1500 hours. Have your gear packed, transports will be waiting to take you to either Arcturus Station or the Citadel, depending on your active ship placement." Ashley paused briefly to collect herself "On a personal note, I'd like to express my deepest gratitude to all of you for your service. It's been a great honor to serve as your CO, and I wish you all the best for the future. Dismissed!"
The recruits filed out of the room slowly, many stopping to thank their commanding officer personally. Shia hung back a bit, waiting until the room was clear, save for herself and her aunt.
"Captain?" She began, sounding more insecure than she'd like
"No need to stand on formality Shia, you're all but off duty anyway" Ashley smiled at her
"I-I wanted to talk to you about the..." she paused, unsure whether to continue
"About the mission?" Ashley filled in
Shia nodded her response, locking eyes with Ashley
"What about it? You went in, got the job done, saved the day" She said happily
"It's just that I made a decision that I'm not so sure was right. At first I was worried about the score, but now it's more about... I don't know, about the Implications of it I guess?"
"You mean that you lost people?"
"I left half my squad out in the open as bait, so we could flank their position. I knew it would mess up the score but I did it anyway"
Ashley smiled widely as she listened "Shia... I assigned you that particular objective for this exact reason. You did what was necessary to complete the mission, you put the mission first. That's what we wanted to see." She paused briefly "And about the score... I would have preferred that you waited for the evaluation, but you didn't mess it up. Your entire squad all ranked in the 90s."
"What... but how? Why?"
"It's not always about the numbers Shia. You ended up in a messy situation, you got out of it. Both you and your squad were willing to sacrifice to get the job done. That's worth something."
Ashley walked over to Shia, taking a seat beside her in the front row. After a moment of silence she continued "I'm going to tell you something that I've never told you before. Not because I'm ashamed of it, but because I didn't want to bore you with my old war stories"
"You know I love your stories aunt Ash" Shia teased
"Yeah yeah. Anyway, when I was just a little bit older than you, I got my first command. We were out in the ass-end of nowhere on a colony world" She paused, Shia could tell that she'd tensed up significantly "Then... We were attacked... I lost the entire unit. Backup arrived, and I ended up joining that outfit instead, set to hunt down the ones who attacked the colony." Ashleys mood was more somber now. Shia could detect sadness in her voice, but didn't interrupt.
"We found them, eventually. We fought hard, and we believe we had them cornered when it all went south. We got stretched too thin, and the enemy armed a warhead. In the end, our Commander was forced to make a decision, to either save me or one of the other officers in the outfit who had gotten pinned while taking an enemy stronghold. In the end I lived... and he didn't.
Shia stared at her aunt, unsure what to say
"I know for a fact that this decision haunted the Commander... Still does, we speak of it from time to time. But I also know that she regrets nothing, a choice had to be made, it was either save one or save no one." Ashley paused, looking deep in Shias eyes
"You have to be aware of the fact that hard choices might be required. Out in the field, you're not fighting for a score, you're fighting for your life. You learned that lesson last night, and we learned that you're capable of making difficult choices under stress"
Her smile had returned now, and she stood up and stretched her back, as if to let the bad energy and the difficult memories run off her.
"You did good, Shia. I couldn't be more proud of you." She said, embracing the young asari in a tight hug
"Just promise me something" She continued
"Never doubt yourself"
Shia smiled and hugged her aunt again "I won't"
- - -
Shia tapped her omni-tool as she strapped herself to her seat, bringing up her evaluation and her new order again, while starting some music to drown out the hum of the engines firing up. She was excited, albeit a bit sad. None of her team were going to her destination, so she'd be starting from scratch in that department. Still, it was excited. She scrolled down, having no real need to review the evaluation after her talk with Ashley, she arrived at her active ship placement orders. "Serviceman Shiala J. Shepard, you are requested and required to report to the SSV Narva, Ground Forces, Citadel" She could barely contain her excitement. If she was honest about herself she'd admit that she was probably equally excited about her week of shore leave and to visit the Citadel, as she was her new post. She hadn't been to the Citadel for 10 years, and last time she was there it still hadn't been completely rebuilt after the war. Besides, she had been 8 at the time, and she was sure the place was a lot more fun when you could party. She leaned back in her seat as the transport broke orbit, drifting of in her own thoughts as the engines shot the vessel towards the relay.