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Ascension (12/?)


Variations on a Theme


Brigadier General William Allan Kershing was not a pleasant man.

No, Kaidan thought, resisting the urge to look heavenward, that wasn't quite right. Will as his friends called him, and he was the sort that was gregarious by design rather than nature, and as a result he had rather more friends than man of his position and personality was wont to have was the very model of a gentlemen soldier right out of the days of imperialism, when the warships they manned used wind and sail to navigate the oceans of Earth. He was known to be unfailingly polite, unwaveringly by-the-book, and unerringly on the rise, though no marine had risen above his current rank since the Alliance Navy had been formed. He was young for a flag officer he'd only been thirty-two when they'd promoted him to his current rank and appointed him Commandant of the Alliance Marine Corps, though there was no doubt in any of the brass' minds, apparently, that he would have naturally come to hold his current position with time. The Brigadier General was also said to be highly intelligent, having at some point during his many tours of duty (in which he'd served aboard nearly every dreadnought in time, most of which he'd important positions on) attained advanced degrees in both interstellar affairs and astrometery. It was said he could speak all three Turian dialects, could take out a target from one-and-a-half miles on a windless day, and had once taken three shots to the chest, required twelve hours of surgery to repair the damage, and was seen running in the C-Sec gym less than an Earth-day after coming out of the anaesthesia.

Kershing was, in short, the ideal of what an Alliance officer according to the brass should be.

Personally, Kaidan hated him. Not, of course, that the majority of the man's subordinates didn't feel exactly the same way. Kershing was, it appeared, amazingly likeable, but only if you didn't report to him. Not for the questions his colleagues were asking either anyone in their positions would have done the same, confronted with the decision on whether or not to let but for the, well-hidden, sense of smugness behind them.

"Are you telling me, Commander," said one of the men Rear Admiral Ushio Beijers of the Twenty-Third Scout Flotilla, if Kaidan placed the moustache correctly, in a tone that betrayed severe distaste, "that you believe this cock-and-bull story of Shepherd's?"

Having spent most of his career being addressed this way by men who assumed 'biotic' was another word for crazy, mentally deficient, or (one of his personal favourites, though the person who'd suggested it had been quite drunk at the time) a psychic sleeper agent who would, at some point, be reactivated by Turians whensoever they chose to finish what the First Contact War had started, Kaidan was able to ignore the less-than-subtle undertones and respond with the difference a solider was supposed to show a superior. "I admit to being... sceptical myself, sirs, but, after spending some time with Commander Shepherd, I cannot deny that she is..." Though he had spent the better part of the last four days explaining this very thing to Kershing or, more specifically, to Beijers and Beijers's direct superior, Admiral Nashwa Gerges of the Fourth Fleet, while the Kershing's adjunct, Staff Lieutenant Echevarres, scowled and took copious notes, - he still didn't know the words to describe what was little more than a feeling. Telling one's superiors that one was certain of the identity of one's former CO because she felt like the same person, he had decided, was not likely to be a winning argument. At great length, and with a sense of profound resignation, he finished, "...exactly as you might expect, given her history with the group."

Gerges, though the less talkative of the senior officers, latched onto his phrasing. "History, Commander?"

He'd been a Commander ever since Alchera. He should have been used to the title by now. He wasn't.

And now it seemed that, for possibly the twenty-eighth time since this series had begun four Citadel days before, when he'd received a message on his omni-tool in the middle of what his body insisted was the night for him to report to the Commandant's offices in a re-purposed C-Sec annex ASAP, he was going to have explain himself all over again. With a sigh, "She died over Alchera and was brought back to life by an organization that'd tried to kill her themselves more than once. That's-"

Rear Admiral Beijers piffled. "It seems to me that the news of Commander Shepherd's death was greatly exaggerated."

Four days ago, they'd called him in on pretence of gathering his assessment of Shepherd's mental condition prior to reinstating her. Three days, twenty-three hours, and twenty-two minutes ago, he'd realized that reinstating Shepherd wasn't their intent at all. At first, he'd merely thought it was an attempt to sandbag her: prevent her from returning to the Navy. That was all right, he supposed; stupid, but understandable given the circumstances. Most governments tended not to recruit people who may or may not have been involved in terrorist activities, even if only peripherally. By the second day, however, he realized that at least one of the brass, Beijers probably, had every intention of seeing her cashiered out of the Spectres as well if he could find a way and hidden away on a nice backwater colony (if she behaved 'reasonably' to his demands; the alternative, it would appear, would be a private room in a mental institution back on Earth) where her predilection for telling the truth could be safely contained. Kaidan assumed it was a power-play on the Rear Admiral's part like Kershing, he had been made a flag officer in the aftermath of the Siege but, unlike Kershing, Beijers wasn't the young-but-brilliant type you could forgive his unhappy promotion; rather, it seemed like Beijers' only talent was longevity, and had been promoted only because he'd been the senior-most captain, age wise, when the Navy had found itself with more openings than it had trained men.

Gerges, however, had a good ten years of service even on Anderson. Like most military minds of her generation, she had been an explorer, joining up with the fledgling International Space Agency that had preceded the Alliance Navy by some dozen years, when Earth's nation-states had been struggling to get along even that much in the turbulent time before Prothean tech was discovered on Mars and humans had learned they weren't alone. She had joined for the dream, he was sure. Everyone from that far back had joined for the dream. Strange new worlds and all of that. And then she'd found out the final frontier was a lot more crowded than anticipated. And a lot more dangerous. The ISA quickly ceased to be the last refuge of scientists and researchers longing for a peace Earth had, even now, yet to truly achieve and become what every military eventually became: a place of soldiers, and of war. Not that he knew any specifics on the Admiral. For all he knew, she could've been as military as they came, whatever the holovids made her generation out to be. But he did know that she was on the far side of sixty and starting to look the part; that stop-loss measures had been put into effect at the highest-echelons of power; and that, from the way the Admiral kept fingering the pendant of a necklace otherwise hidden under her dress blues, Gerges might actually fear Shepherd being brought back into the fold.

If it had been anyone but Shepherd, he would've called the very idea ridiculous... but the woman was chaos given legs, and things followed in her wake that were rarely considered beneficial or politic to the people in charge.

And Kershing continued to stand at parade rest off to the side, in a partitioned area off the small conference room Kaidan and the others occupied, eyes never leaving the half-dozen or more vid-screens and the silent, flickering images displayed on each. Occasionally, for no readily apparent reason, he would turn up the volume with wave of his omni-tool, and the sounds would drift into the room where, ostensibly, Kaidan was being debriefed, and his questioners would go silent and motion for him to do the same until the moment had passed. He'd not said one word to anyone during the four days Kadian'd spent in his office and yet, inexplicably, Kaidan knew that, whatever Gerges and Beijers' personal interests in Shepherd's re-enlistment might be, Kershing was the man in charge. He didn't want her back, and would, it appear, continue down this line of action until Kaidan gave him a reason to justify his refusal of her application, despite the dip in recruitment the Alliance was suffering.

It was for this reason and this reason alone Kaidan hated the man. It was a simple, almost primal hate. Shepherd had prevented Sovereign from destroying the Citadel. She had destroyed a Reaper-in-the-Making. She had not joined Cerberus. She had not betrayed anyone. She had not lied. Anyone who disliked her had to be the enemy; the idea that anyone on their side could not want her was absurd to him: even on Horizon-

And he was being an idiot again, and the handful of hours he'd spent with Shepherd was all it had taken. It had been one thing to see her on Horizon, hidden from closer inspection by both concealing armour and the cloying presence of all the dead and lost about them, but it was another thing entirely to spend a handful of hours alone with her, being allowed to hear every personal and potentially destructive word her lawyer had to say, able to see beyond certainty that she was the same person, body and soul, that she was exactly the same as she was before. Except of course-

Except that she was no longer his. That she'd never been his, or he hers, or anything of that nature. Whatever they'd had, it'd long been lost, however much she seemed to be unchanged from that last moment he'd seen her on the original Normandy, checking the seals on her suit as she turned away from him and ordered that he evacuate the crew, that relationship was over, and he was a fool to want to try, well, whatever it was they had again. The only sign he'd been given that she might think of him differently than any other solider who'd served beneath her was in Pontar Sul's office, when she'd typed her Spectre security codes into the fourth pad she'd been given and told him to find whatever he needed for the re-enlistment form while she sat there, obviously lost in thought. He knew her well enough to know that, normally, when she allowed herself to remember (which, admittedly, wasn't often, or so he felt), it was in dark, secluded places where no one could see her pain. She'd even spoken to him of Océane; he'd the idea that she'd not so much as said her cousin's name since the Blitz. In the end, however, Shepherd was just a friend, his former CO. That was all.

Even if he had put himself down as her next-of-kin when, after a long pause, she seemed to have forgotten the question entirely, caught up in the memories of those who she should have been able to list instead.

"With all do respect, ma'am," he said, his tone bordering on court marshal, he knew, but he couldn't take this any more. "you don't know the hell what you're talking about."

Straight-laced as they came, Gerges let slip an, "Ana aasifah?" which would have, had been thinking about it, caused him to pause more than the words themselves. The Alliance Navy in particular the brass made a point of speaking the lingua franca; some sort of misplaced way of making the humanity seem more unified than it was while also serving to alienate some of the more separatist human interest groups. Like Shepherd's family, he dimly thought in the recesses of his brain currently not involved in his display of righteous fury. Or, rather, suppressing what could easily become a display of righteous biotic fury. No matter what else happened, he had to remember he was a biotic. Biotics could not get angry, could not allow themselves to loose control. Loss of control was dangerous. People could be injured, killed even.

He breathed deeply before trying more calmly, "Talk to her. Ask her something, anything. She can barely remember that two years are have passed for the rest of us no one could fake that level of confusion, or-"

"Is she unstable?" Beijers asked with something akin to glee.

"Hell no."

The Rear Admiral bristled, and this gave Kaidan a sick sense of satisfaction himself.

Then came a new voice, friendlier than one would've expected and with what might've been a slight southern lilt to it, saying simply, "Good."

Kaiden, Beijers, and Gerges all spun in their seats, turning towards the screen-filled alcove from which Kershing was now emerging. He'd never heard the Brigadier General speak before, outside of the occasional news-vid and, while his tone bespoke the calm, gentleman-solider persona he'd obviously worked so hard to cultivate, there was something about him – perhaps the fact that, impeccably pressed dress uniform and all, he looked a to be in better shape than Kaidan himself was, or maybe the slight and rather disconcerting shine to his shaved head – that was hard and cold, like military men of a distinctly different era. His skin was darker than was usually seen these days, since globalization had seen to it that few parts of Earth were farther than a few hours from anywhere else, though a pair of ice-blue eyes and a deep brown pencil moustache betrayed his mixed ancestry. He was neither tall nor short, neither smiled nor frowned as he entered the room proper, and appeared to have no opinion of any sort as to the goings on of the past few days, though they had, seemingly, been called on Kershing's order.

The man had only said one word to him, and already Kaidan found his loathing of the man growing. What kind of man just stood there and let one of his soldiers (albeit several rungs down the ladder) be debriefed by his superiors without comment, watching news-vids as if-

Anger wasn't going to help him now. He had to remember that. But he'd have felt a hell lot better if Kershing showed some emotion – any emotion – about the whole situation.

He didn't. Though he continued on what, in another person, might be called an affable southern drawl, none of the seeming emotion in his words quite reached his eyes. "I'll be completely honest with you, Commander Alenko," he said, coming to parade rest behind a chair towards the middle of the table, his hands clasped behind his back in a way that made Kaidan wonder if the man ever relaxed, even around his friends, "I think Commander Shepherd's ideas concerning the disappearing colonists and machine intelligences are a load of horse shit." His words belayed anger, frustration, even a touch of private amusement, but the could be talking about the environmental controls for all his features seemed concerned. "If you've read what the Alliance has managed to pull together about Mindoir and those 'Eleventh Guru' Sikh radicals that run the place, you'll see they're no more than another group of xenophobic nativists content to wrap themselves in a patina of religion until one of them finds the balls to pull another stunt like they did at Hellas Pantina in '58. But," a suggestion of distaste in his tone, not one whiff of humanity reaching his eyes, which continued to stare straight at Kaidan, as if hoping he'd look away and not notice what was so clearly not there to be seen, "whatever her personal issues, I won't deny that Helene gets the job done."

It took a moment for Kaidan to remember that Shepherd had a first name and that, occasionally, people used it – and in that same moment, he noticed a shadow of something cross the Brigadier General's features, though it passed so quickly he half-thought he'd imagined it. After all, if anger couldn't cause a reaction in the man, the mere mention of Shepherd's name shouldn't-

A dozen ideas had already formed before he clamped a lid on his thoughts and forced them fully aside as he continued to listen to the Commandant. It shouldn't matter if Kershing had once counted Shepherd among the ranks of his devotees at all, if that was even what the look was about. She was personable. She had to have friends. It shouldn't bother him in the least if she had any, and it wasn't his business at all if she'd once upon a time done something as asinine as form a friendship – or more-

He pushed the thoughts further aside. It wasn't any of his business. It wasn't any of his business in the least. And he was probably wrong anyway. It could have been distaste for the way Shepherd got things done, which was, most assuredly, not by the book. It couldn't been anger at what he was being forced to say. It could've been anything at all.

But why then had he used her first name?

Kaidan did not like the implications at all.

"We've decided to give the Passchendaele to Captain Nichols, as intended."

"Aye, sir." That was to be expected. It looked like he'd be spending another few months shadowing Anderson. At least the Normandy was, for better or for worse, a privately-owned ship and the Navy couldn't take it away from Shepherd... Maybe he'd even discovered just how far an L2 could go, and he should resign his commission before they forced him out... Maybe Shepherd's offer of joining up with her and her team was still open; now that Cerberus was out of the picture...

"There's a Granada-class frigate on its way here from the Yandoa shipyards, fresh off the assembly lines. We're calling it the Masada: four decks, sixty-two Javelin torpedo launchers, crew compliment of forty-seven, minus the senior staff, and it should be one hell of a mover. The Hyderabad is bringing its XO and CMO from Arcturus. She'll be here in five days."

"Sir?"

"We're giving you the Masada, Commander. I may think this whole charade is nothing more than a religiously-fueled delusion, but the Council has asked us to help Commander Shepherd on her mission – and the Fleet Admiral agrees with them." There was another shadow, a longer one, at the mention of the Commander-in-Chief of the Alliance Navy, but at this point Kaidan was too stunned to make anything even of that. They were giving him a ship, but why? All the same reasons he'd shouldn't have ever been put in charge of the Passchendaele remained the same. "The Masada and Hyderabad were both slated for the Fourth Fleet, but Admiral Gerges," he inclined his head towards the woman, "has generously allowed us to put them under Shepherd's command – for now.

"Since we're being completely honest, Commander Alenko, I'm going to tell you to your face that I don't like the idea of a biotic being put in charge of starship, especially one whose been involved with the... borrowing of two different frigates against explicit order, but Shepherd trusts you and so does Anderson. So we're going to give you Masada to keep Shepherd happy and your going to smile and let Commander Krueger run things. Do we have an understanding, Commander Alenko?"

Kaidan nodded, still trying to figure out what game Kershing was playing. One didn't need four days of intense questioning, after all, to tell someone they were giving them a frigate, and one of the new Granada-class ones too. There were two others in the class, the Granada and Saragarhi, and he remembered all of the issues that had arisen during their launches, most of them involving experimental weaponry that might or might not exist. You didn't give command of a heavily-armed frigate like the Masada or a more-heavily-armed cruiser like the Hyderabad to a person you thought might be telling tales, no matter what the brass might say. Not without expectations of your own.

The other shoe came an instant later, from Gerges herself, and with significant emotion in her voice. "Your only task is to obtain the records on how Cerberus resurrected Commander Shepherd and return with that information – and whatever technology relating to the process you can find – as soon as possible."

The Second Movement: Ziehen