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Ascension (13/?)


The Second Movement


Ziehen


In the early days of the Alliance, before the SSV Everest had become the first dreadnought in the fleet, the defensive strength of the humanity had rested on a group of twelve cruisers known collectively as the Geneva-class. From 2157 until their decommissionings in the late '70s, they had been the mighty arm behind the human expansion. The Hyderabad was the most famous of these, and so, a dozen years later, when the committees were looking for names for the new Medina-classes that would, once again, serve as the stick for the Alliance's "walk softly" policy in the Skyllian Verge, they christened the flagship the SSV Hyderabad-B. Under the command of Captain Richard Pierce (a man who could trace his family involvement in the military, by war, back to Operation: Cast Lead, though no one had determined exactly which side it was his forebears had fraught for), the Hyderabad was assigned to patrol the Alliance-Batarian border. The first one hundred eighty-nine days out of spacedock, the ship seemed to personify the dreams of the men who had designed her, who had seen the destruction at the Siege of the Citadel and vowed never again.

On the hundred ninetieth day of its first tour, the Hyderabad was attacked by three Batarian interceptors at the midway point between the Tereshkova and Hong systems of the Armstrong Nebula. One hundred seventy-nine of its three hundred eleven member crew was lost; Captain Pierce, as well as the CoS and CMO, were among the fallen. It was later determined by an investigative team that, had the the late Chief of Security had been preforming his duties, he would have known that the strange sensor readings the Ops Officer, Lieutenant Allis Nordin, had picked up in the moments before the accident were a new kind of cloaked mine he'd received a report about two weeks before. The late Lt. Collins never passed that report along to the other senior officers. The late Lt. Collins had never even read the initial report. He'd also been amongst the first to die when one of the cloaked mines attached to the cruiser next to one of the more important power relays on 3-deck, causing life support to cut out almost immediately to the five decks it served. Only the members of first watch in the secure areas (the ones whose redundant systems were located on decks above and below the blast zone) at their posts on the bridge or in the command centre or in the heavily shielded engineering had survived.

A month-long retrofit at Arcturus Station had fixed the structural issues but, sitting in the officer's lounge of the Hyderabad, she knew the problems that led to the warship being caught unawares in the first place remained.

Warship. Shepherd almost snorted at the thought. Yes, the cruiser was the most heavily gunned thing out there - she'd taken a look at the specs for the Medina-classes and, while her understanding of tech could be compared to your average eighth-grader's knowledge nineteenth century Russian literature, even she could tell that, for it's size, the thing was practically a-bristle with turrets, cannons, and (her personal favourites) a pair of two hundred twenty-two metre guns that could accelerate a fifteen kilo slug to point eight percent the speed of light. Apparently, the news-vids had gone crazy when pics of the ship were released and, while, officially, no word had been said on their yield, anyone with a background in physics and access to good enough vids could make an educated guess. Or so she'd been told. Physics, like most the sciences, was one class her school in Lumière Sainte had never exactly gotten around to.

There were a lot of things the school had never gotten around to teaching. Océane had tried...

...and she tried not to think of Océane Nageena Shepherd, a.k.a. Servicewoman First Class Margot Neela, whom Pontar Sul's med-tech's had determined was most definitely not the mother (or, as she'd had carefully explained to her, father, as the donor of genetic materials in Asari reproduction should properly be called) of the young Renisa E'ste, lately of Ilium. No, the girl's donor parent was most definitely a human whose ancestors were Western European, mostly, with at least one grandparent each worth of Middle Eastern and South Asian , but that human wasn't Océane.

It was someone much closer to Helene than that.

That was another thing Shepherd was trying her best not to think about but, sitting in this overly decadent officer's lounge while waiting for the basic mission brief to be over, so she could get down to the heart of the matter. But she was sick and tired of thinking about the Reapers and the Collectors and the threat they proved to the galaxy, and so she let her Operation XO handle the background briefing and was allowing herself to gaze thoughtlessly out the window at the lazily-drifting stars. Gazing thoughtlessly, though, seemed to be a harder skill to master than Samara had made it seem, and her mind kept on straying back to this Renisa E'ste, her dead mother, Alisa, and her plotting aunt, Aniela.

She didn't know much about biology, but she knew enough to know that cousins like her and Océane shared about a quarter of their genes. The only people she'd be more closely related to would be her parents, her brothers, and (though she was a little uncertain on this one) her uncles. They had all been dead since '70. Renisa had been conceived in '78. She certainly wasn't the child's father, so...

Shepherd wasn't too sure she liked the implications of that thought, and quickly forced her mind elsewhere. It was hard, her mind sluggish from the fifteen hours of sleep she'd managed to cobble together over the past fortnight, but she managed in time to turn what senses weren't concentrating on the engine cleaner the Hyderabad called coffee elsewhere... She'd forgotten how foul coffee aboard warships could be...

She remembered once, in early '80, one of her first interactions with then-Commander Anderson aboard the São Paulo. That cruiser had been Warsaw-class, smaller, with only two hundred souls, half of them marines. Anderson had been the company commander – the marines' OIC – and she'd been fresh out of N7 school, attached to the cruiser's third strike group. After eighteen months on Arcturus Station, she was having trouble sleeping now that she could see the stars moving out her bedroom window, and so, after several days, had given up trying. She'd gone to one of the conference rooms to sit and, well, do anything but think about being in space and how much she missed her early days at Sidon, before her superiors had realized she was wasted on grunt security work and browbeat the XO of the Argincourt to take her on. Instead of finding an empty room, though, she'd found Anderson, struggling to keep awake through another day's worth of paperwork. The moment she saw him Shepherd had ducked back through the door, unwilling to face what she expected was yet another senior officer who thought she was nothing more than a publicity stunt, someone the brass could feed to the media so the realities of the Blitz could be ignored, and considered everything from her Star of Terra to her slot at N7 school as undeserved. He had seen her, though, and invited her in. He'd talked to her, person to person, like no one had since Océane, and shared his personal stash of coffee to boot. Before the month was up, he'd put her in charge of her strike group. At the end of the first year, they were calling her his protégée. By the end of his tour, when they'd given her his job and moved him to Châlons, he'd done more for her and meant more to Shepherd than her own father... She'd never told him this... God, she should have told him this. She hoped he knew. She would tell him, one day, after the Reaper threat was over after, so that, if she died, he'd not have to bear that weight.

With a sigh and another great effort, she pushed her thoughts off of coffee and death and ran a finger under the collar of her uniform.

Her uniform.

Shepherd should have been happy the Alliance had reinstated her. She should have been thrilled that her grandstanding to the Council had paid off and that she wasn't going to spend the rest of her life as an outlaw from Citadel space. She should have been beyond ecstatic that they'd named her CO of the Hyderabad and placed Kaidan's Masada under her as part of what the brass was optimistically calling Operation: Ragnarök. She should even have been happy (and admittedly was, most of the time) at the thick, woollen material of her service uniform, which had helped cutback on the number of layers she needed to keep from feeling like she was freezing all the damn time. But a damn service uniform was the last thing she needed at the moment, God-damn the rules and God-damn the regulations about what was considered appropriate wear for flag officers. Because they just had to go and make her a flag officer now, to keep up with the little charade the brass was spreading and no one actually appeared to believe that she'd been doing some sort of undercover work in some undefined place for the past two years and had done it so well (which was to say, more quietly than she usually managed things, with no bombs or wars or news coverage of any sort) that she'd earned a promotion out of it.

"Major?"

It took Shepherd a moment to realize that Kaidan had finished addressing the eleven new senior officers that, despite all good reasons to the contrary, were under her command now, and that he was trying to get her attention. Major indeed. She'd been dead when they'd made her a Staff Commander and, now, wearing the three gold bars of an O-6, she felt like she hadn't quite earned the right to be called Major, or even anything at all.

It made her less than happy when she remembered, after studying the service records of the officers in front of her, that most of them probably didn't deserve their ranks either. From the Hyderabad, only Commanders Singh and Travers – her XO and CoE respectively – seemed to have skills and experience needed for a cruiser posting, let alone one that was going to rate the hazardous duty pay this one was going to. Commander Ye, Lieutenant Jurado, and Lieutenant Nordin seemed capable enough, but were as much the victims of the Navy's need for bodies as the rest and, in better times, should have been at least a rank lower. And Lieutenant Reed... if she'd ever been that young, Shepherd didn't know how her COs had stood it. It was the same problem on the Masada, where even Kaidan was billeted above his comfort level, with his XO, Commander Kruger, the only one she felt might've still held her position if this had been two years earlier.

She set down her coffee and stood, straightening her heavy jacket as she did in a way that was already becoming habitual. Kaidan offered her a small, amused smile at that and took the seat she'd just vacated. To her surprise, he even took the coffee she'd left perched on the arm (and made a face at the taste of it, but drank it none the less). It reminded her of Normandy, the original Normandy, in that comparatively blissful month between the Siege and Alchera, and she found herself blinking back tears.

Lack of sleep was obviously turning her into a fool. Obviously. The past was the past was the past... and the future was waiting for her at the end of this briefing, if these children playing at being soldiers hadn't shit themselves before she finished explaining their mission.


Their mission, should they choose to accept it, was suicide, pure and simple. He had told them, in the most plain and un-exaggerated language he knew, exactly what Saren had done two years ago and what the Collectors had been doing since. He had done his best to take the panic that he'd felt just reading the Normandy SR-2's reports and ignore it; done his best to ignore the haughty glares the ex-Cerberus operative Miranda, here in her official capacity as "civilian contractor," had been shooting him from the get-go from her position by the door. He'd even managed to (mostly) ignore the almost painful look of loss that Shepherd was hiding from everyone else by sitting apart from the people who, in other times, would have been her hand-picked and most trusted officers.

That didn't, however, change the fact that they weren't their - her, he quickly corrected - trusted officers, or even picked beyond the fact that they'd been what was available seven months previously when the Hyderabad had deployed. Nor did it change the fact that these men and women, like the three hundred one elsewhere on the cruiser and the forty-seven waiting for him on the Masada, had no choice but to accept their part in Operation: Ragnarök. Or the fact that none of them seemed to have believed a word he'd been saying.

It was up to Shepherd now.

She did not disappoint.

"I know you think I'm crazy," she began without hesitation. It was only from long study and experience and memories a saner man would have tucked away two years ago that he noted everything about her that screamed how uncomfortable she was to be addressing this group. It wasn't nerves - it was never nerves - but he could tell she was tired, physically and mentally. Had it been two years earlier, he would have gone up to her the moment the conference ended and cajoled her into going to bed by whatever means necessary and she would have, eventually, remembering how poorly she seemed to take care of herself, thanked him for his concern, as if it should be surprising that anyone might care for her. But now the most he could do for her was make jokes about her uniform, and even that was hard when you looked down and took into account the number of ribbon bars under the pair of stylized crests that marked her as both Spectre and N7. And then, when you had gotten over that combination, another pause was necessary when you realized that her yeoman had figured out how to place both Stars of Terra that Shepherd had on the uniform, and that, in addition to the fact that the medals had to add at least five kilos to the jacket, the woman who wore it was not someone you wanted to see angry. Or, he reflected, crazy.

He thanked whatever deity might be listening that he was the only L2 on this mission and one of only five biotics, minus whomever Shepherd had on the Normandy, aboard either ship. All but a first lieutenant were stationed on the Masada with him, where he could keep an eye on them.

If he didn't go crazy first, that was. It had nearly been a week since Kershing had given him his "assignment," but he'd still not found a way to tell Shepherd about the Commandant's machinations. There were plenty of good reasons for this, not least among these that, between suddenly finding himself in charge (for real, this time) of a frigate and the repair teams crawling all over Normandy, he'd scarcely seen her since the day she'd threatened the Council with a PR shit-storm. And this was something he most definitely did not want to breathe word about on insecure channels. The cynic in him wouldn't have put it past the brass to have bugged Hyderabad and the realist knew with certainty that their repair crews had done the same to Normandy. No, he couldn't breathe a word of it until he could speak to Shepherd alone, away from any surveillance equipment, and it was anyone's guess when that would be. Though he and the senior staff of both Alliance vessels were on the cruiser now, it was only for this briefing. It was the first time he'd seen her in days.

When they'd left the Citadel twelve hours before, her only order – over the comm at that – had been to keep up, and Joker had eventually lead them to the Pax system of the Hades Gamma cluster, where he parked them in L2 orbit of the planet Veles and the meeting was called. He couldn't say he didn't understand her reasoning, but, God, it felt terrible to be out of the loop, to be trusted even less then the Hyderabad's XO, Commander Singh, seemed to trust her. He'd seen the look Singh wore before. Hell, it was the same look Kaidan would have given Kershing and his ink-monkeys if he thought he could've gotten away with it. It irked him to see that look directed at Shepherd...

Which reminded him of the main reason he'd been avoiding the new Major: the insanity she provoked in everyone she met, which would progress until you could no longer remember the person you'd been before she'd crossed your path, was coming back. It was stupid, it was pathetic, and several other things besides, but he'd not felt as awkward and uncertain as a teenager as he did around Shepherd. Oh, the solider in him respected her, considered her unequivocally the best marine he'd ever seen, and would (and had) follow her into hell if she asked it... but the one the part of him that remembered that, for all she stayed the same, she was no longer the person that had made her Anderson's hand-picked successor. That person would never have blackmailed the Council, or, when the brass wanted her to pick a crew to replace the ex-Cerberus on Normandy, told Admiral Gerges- Well, needless to say, he'd not been aware anyone's face could loose colour so quickly. He knew that she wasn't exactly as she had been, but, God, she was so close to it that made it-

The only solution, he'd decided, was to pretend like nothing had ever happened between them, that they were merely soldiers who'd once served together and now found themselves serving together again. Which, he always carefully reminded himself, was how it was bound to have ended up, even if Alchera hadn't happened. And if it was hard to squelch the concern he felt for her, or the distaste he felt at the Marine Commandant's plans for her, or the unreasonable rage that rose in him at the memory of said Commandant's use of her first name, it was his problem, and Shepherd was burdened enough without having to deal with a crazy ex-lover who couldn't quite remember he was supposed to be ex.

Which brought him to the real reason he hadn't told Shepherd about Kershing or his "debriefing" with Beijers and Gerges: Kaidan didn't trust himself to be alone with her. Whether it was his own L2-caused insanities or the magical web of charisma she wove, it as better for everyone involved for him to just keep away. When he got the chance, he could bring it up to one of the med-techs she had on Normandy – Doctor Chakwas or the Salarian he'd heard was aboard, Professor Solus – and get them to give him just enough to keep Kershing happy without betraying anyone...

It would be easier, admittedly, if he had an idea why Kershing wanted the knowledge. The only practical application for the medical knowledge was to bring people back from the dead. Sure, there were probably bits and pieces of it they could use more practically – a new method for organ regeneration, perhaps – that Cerberus had developed on its own that the Alliance could use, but the tech for reanimation couldn't just develop in a microcosm overnight. There had to be thousands of people working on all parts of the project – from organ regeneration on up, to whatever else Cerberus had done to her to bring her back – that could be more easily gotten. This, Kaidan assumed, meant that, whatever reason Kershing had for wanting the knowledge, it wasn't medical. It had to do with the resurrection itself and that, to Kaidan, meant only two things: either the Alliance had someone they were willing to foot the bill to bring back, or someone out there was looking for a way to reverse the process.

Which gave him another good reason to tell anyone but Shepherd what he'd been given the Masada to do.

"Miranda over there assures me that that's not the case – and, believe me, she has a vested interest in my sanity. I can give you more data, show you more vids, and tell you what really happened at every battle and on every planet and beyond every mass relay until I'm blue in the face, but I know that none of you will truly believe me until you see the truth with your own eyes. So I am going to have to ask you to trust that the Alliance and the Council knew what they were doing when they assigned you to this mission. The Reapers are out there, waiting in dark space for a gateway to be opened for them back into our galaxy. We don't know much about them, though I suspect, given their proclivities, they were once like the Geth, built to serve organics before attaining sentience. Those creators, whoever they were, tried to destroy the Reapers, and the Reapers destroyed them instead; for countless millennia since, they've allowed more civilizations and species then we can imagine to reach this point, to find the mass relays and evolve until they decide that they can go no further and commit something so far beyond mere genocide that there are no words in any language to describe it. If we are too late, if they are allowed to activate one of their master relays, it won't just be humanity they destroy. They will hunt every last one of us – human, Turian, Salarian, take your pick – down until each and every one of us are dead; they will raze every planet we touch and rape the wreckage for every centime they're worth, until the only thing left of humanity will be what remains of our genome in those of us they collect to turn into the latest additions to their slave pool.

"But we will not be too late. This time, we know they're coming." Her voice rose with passion; both her hands fell, open-palmed, to grasp the edge of the conference table, "We – humanity and the Council – we defeated their armada at Citadel. We spurned their slaves at Horizon. We denied them our genes beyond Omega 4. We have done what no other civilization has managed to do before. We will stop them.

"This is how."

Shepherd pulled a data disc from her pocket, then and slid it into the reader built into the desk. He didn't know if anyone else caught her look of relief when it worked or recognized it for what it was, but he did. The eleven seated around her seemed to be caught up in their own little worlds, their faces betraying mixtures of fear and determination, disbelief and resignation, anger and comprehension. One or two – Commander Travers and Lieutenant Reed, both part of Hyderabad's compliment – had the same look of dawning horror Kaidan fancied he himself had worn throughout Shepherd's conversation with Vigil on Ilos, and he knew they were convinced, others – Hyderabad's Singh and his own XO, Commander Kruger – seemed to be more sceptical than ever, while the rest were somewhere in between. (It seemed a universal constant that the higher up the food chain you put someone, the harder it was to change their minds. Singh, as far as he could tell, had been shooting dark looks at his CO since the moment she'd stepped aboard for the sole reason that she believed Sovereign to have been anything other than a Geth dreadnought, and Kruger had been doing the same to him, albeit with rather more feminine subtly.)

The Major noticed his amusement at her technical naïvety and gave him a Look before gesturing at the galaxy map that hidden holo-projectors had placed in the air above the table. "The Council was kind enough to provide us with the locations of all the relays they deactivated after the Rachni Wars, relays from which no exploratory team has ever returned, and every other relay that, for one reason or another, has never been mapped." She pressed something on her omni-tool, and several hundred (if not more) of tiny coloured dots sprang up throughout the starfield. Another command, and sections of the map turned space white – the portion of galaxy controlled by the the Asari Republics, - and the stars and, in most cases, the marked relays within it, disappeared from those parts of the map; others turned yellow – the Salarian Union - or purple – the Turian Hierarchy, – with the same phenomena happening within. While this was happening, some of the marked relays outside the coloured quarters – the dark blue ones – faded away, until only two score dots remained. Seven were within Council territory. The rest fell into one of two categorizes: either on innermost edge of habitable space, before the distortions caused by the galactic core made further exploration difficult, or else on the fringes of the galactic disk.

In the silence that lingered as Shepherd lowered her omni-tool, Kaidan found himself unable to do anything but grip the now-empty cup he held. He couldn't remember drinking the coffee. He barely recalled that the cup had been here when he'd sat down and that he'd taken Shepherd's seat. He knew the situation should have been hopeless, yet felt a stirring of (of all things) hope within him. The Commander's eyes lifted and found the Major's. She had no idea she was doing it, but she'd done it again, and the net she'd cast was tightening.

"I've collected the best and brightest the galaxy has to offer aboard the Normandy. They're working on some ideas on how to destroy the relays once we find them... But, first, we have to find them. We're working on the idea that the mass relays have to be larger or otherwise more powerful than normal to connect to partners in dark space or the galactic centre. Normandy's SO was able to pick up some... unusual readings during our jumps through the Omega 4 relay and from it's partner near the core. I'll let Mordin give you the details, Lieutenant Reed," she addressed Hyderabad's science officer, "so I don't bungle the explanation, but, for various reasons, these twenty-two relays are known to be different than other primary relays or there is so little data on them that we wouldn't know if they've ever even been activated without going and taking a look. Which is what we're going to do. Now, I know that none of our ships are exactly science vessels, but it's going to take time to make something that could take out a relay, so we're going to kill two birds with one stone and upgrade your systems while we do some... investigation. Since Hyderabad seems to have it's armoury in hand, I'm going to start by sending Garrus over to you," Shepherd found and caught his eyes again, delaying for a moment he might have imagined before turning to her own officers, "to get the Masada's battery up to par. Tali – my engineer – has some ideas for Hyderabad's engines-"

"Say no more," Commander Travers interrupted (and if he caught the look Commander Singh shot him when he did, he paid it no mind). "I've heard of the wonders these Quarian machinists can do; we'd be delighted to have her."

Major Shepherd graced him with a smile before removing her data disc from the reader. "Then I'll schedule the upgrades to begin at 0800 tomorrow. I suggest everyone get some rest while you can; it's going to get crazy fast once things get going. Dismissed."

Almost as one, the eleven stood, Kaidan's own four coming to meet him so they could head as one to the shuttle that was waiting to take them back to Masada as Hyderabad's disappeared in ones and twos, its Lieutenant Nordin practically running out as she rushed to relieve the senior enlisted officer on the bridge, while he saw Commander Travers quietly cajoling Lieutenant Reed and Doctor Piesse into joining him in the mess for a late night snack.

As Kaidan and the others – Commanders Kruger and Lapierre, Lieutenant Oosterkamp, and Doctor Greene – made to follow Travers out, Shepherd held out a hand. "Hang on a sec? Singh, I'm going with Miranda and Alenko to the Docking Bay; I've not had a chance to check out the lower levels since coming aboard. Care to join us?"

Commander Singh, who had been moving as if to use the exit on the far side of the room and, barely pausing, replied in the negative with a hauteur that reminded Kaidan all too well of Ambassador Udina.

"Your loss," the Major sighed, and gestured towards the door.

Their party was halfway out when both Miranda and Shepherd paused, the latter offering stiff and incomprehensible, "Khalsa so-i jo nindaa ti-aagay," in reply to whatever it was her XO had said, and remained quiet for their journey to the lift. It, like Kershing's use of her first name, bothered him more than he cared to admit.

Eight floors later, Kaidan, against his better judgement, found himself asking, "What the hell was that about?" which startled her enough that she answered.

"He called me a bemajhab – an apostate. I was merely reminding him that heresy is in the eye of the beholder."

"Is he-?"

"From Mindoir?" she gave a small laugh as she keyed in an entry code to docking bay three. "No. I'm pretty sure he's not L'onzième Gourou either, just a traditional Sikh. I'm curious to see how much energy he wastes on it before he realizes this bulkhead has more religious feeling than I do. Think I'll get Donnelly to start a betting pool on it." She sighed and offered her hand. "Didn't get a chance to congratulate you earlier. From a twenty-year-old marauder to a new Granada in less than a month. At this rate, they'll have you commanding the Yushan before the year's out."

His hand went to the back of his neck, praying the heat he felt there wasn't translating into a blush. "I'm not so sure. You know how things stall up after Thanksgiving, and it's already mid-November."

"Is it?" She seemed to be trying to remember something. "Oh, yes. You'd think it'd be the two years I end up missing the most, but, no, it's the twelve days that keep on throwing me. By Easter then, you think?"

Kaidan realized she was still holding out her hand and, feeling warmer still, took it. God, how could she still do this to him? It had been two years – two years, three months, and twenty-eight days, to be specific. He should have gotten over this. He should've moved on. Letting go, "If the mission's done by then, we'll see."

"We'll try for Easter then. Never understood the holiday myself, but those who do, I understand, like to be home for it." Easily, in that way she had, she offered her hand to the officer beside him. "It's usually in April, isn't it, Lieutenant Oosterkamp?"

Nervously, "It'll be 9 April next year, I think."

"Five months then, give or take. Have any family, Lieutenant?"

"Just the parents, ma'am."

"On Earth?"

"On the Faroe Islands – the north Atlantic, between the UK and Iceland."

"Never been to Earth... What about you, Commander?" She turned on Lapierre, "You from Earth?"

"Spacer. The family ran trade between Sol and Demeter; my sister and her husband still do."

"Engineer. Should've known; most of you seem to be spacers."

"Not Jim – that's Commander Travers, ma'am. He's the best engineer I've ever seen, and he's from Virginia. Served with him on the Saratoga three years back; the man can do wonders with an FTL. Managed to take us to point eight seven the speed of light for six hours running once. It was... amazing. Thought I'd died and gone to heaven."

"Bryon!" his ship's doctor interrupted, elbowing the engineer in the ribs, "Think before words spew out of your mouth, please." Greene rolled her eyes at Shepherd. "Men."

"If I remembered anything of being dead, I might mind. But since I keep on forgetting myself that I was, it's no big deal. Just try not to bruise him too badly; we're going to need him before this is all over."

With a shrug, Doctor Greene climbed into the shuttle after Lapierre and Oosterkamp. "I can always patch him back together again when I'm done."

Shepherd turned to Kruger next, offering a hand and a congratulations – apparently his XO's promotion to Staff Commander had only come through two weeks before – but the woman walked past it without a word, following the CMO inside without giving any indication she'd seen the Major at all.

"I'll talk to her," Kaidan told her, inexplicably reminded as he did of his mother, Lian, saying similar to his father after so many teenage confrontations in the years when his parents were still together. And now, his mind also seemed to remind him, he wasn't talking to either parent. He'd never even met his half-sister, Te Min. She'd be turning eighteen early next year. It was so strange, to have all these people who once meant so much to him – who were supposed to mean so much to him – that no longer did. If he died, Lian and her new family certainly wouldn't care; his father probably wouldn't either. The only people who might would be some of his friends from previous postings, and he hadn't made many of those at Caleston or Cambacérès with the place his head had been in. A thought, telling him that Ash had a mother and sisters who missed her, crawled up from the dark place he kept it and ones like it. It refused to go away, whispering insidiously that, despite what Shepherd might've said about him being an officer and a stable L2 and invaluable to the Alliance, she'd chosen to save him because of their relationship. Now, it was telling him, he didn't even have that; his life should have belonged to someone else.

Shepherd only sighed.

With nothing else to say, he climbed into the shuttle and took the seat nearest the door. He could hear her talking to Miranda, who would pilot the shuttle to the Masada before taking it back to Normandy, talking quietly with Shepherd before climbing in. He thought he heard Shepherd asking how their new guest was settling in and if they'd been able to find everything they needed on Noveria. Kaidan could even have sworn he heard Miranda, in her blunt Australian way, mention something about a bomb, but he couldn't be sure. Still, it was only after the ex-Cerberus agent had taken her place and gotten take-off clearance that Kaidan remembered the one symptom that had been constant among all the cases of biotic-induced madness in the late '60s: paranoia.

TBA