Urged by my friend Wanderer to write this little diddy. I love Exalted, love Mass Effect, so I figured what the hell. Hope some of you enjoy. I know there's a bit of likewise fiction being posted here and there, but eh, may as well join the bandwagon with my mediocre writings. Wanderer also has a few companion pieces. Again, enjoy! Cyclical Frankly, Commander John Shepard scared the piss out of everyone onboard. To many serving on the Agincourt, the commander of marines was someone to be feared. Sure, he was typical career military: trim, corded with muscle, guarded eyes, and something falcon in his gait, much like all N7-qualified specialists. Naturally someone you watch yourself around. But what’s more, Shepard was something to be feared. Like an asari matriarch or a blood-crazed Krogan. But even these generalizations were not enough, only simplifications to put minds at ease - trying to make small the unnaturalness of the man. Which made it even worse when he’d check in on them; same good-natured smile and old-hand gravitas he had been known for before Elysium, disarming them all. Making them wonder. Everyone in the Systems Alliance - maybe everyone in Council Space - had seen the vids from Elysium. Seen what this man was capable of. Doubt clouded everything about him now. The critics could - and did - say what they wanted, that the Alliance found a new rung for distastefully twisting events for propaganda. And yet, no one could decide what was true, rumors ran rampant surrounding riots breaking out in Illyria when Alliance investigators began suppressing Shepard’s part in the battle altogether. Citadel media outlets called the leaked footage ‘the most shameful Alliance act of disinformation since Sidon.’ Suffice to say, the images of Shepard, bloody and alone on the streets of Illyria would have been dramatic enough on their own. Several surveillance drones had been dispersed by the local Marine contingent as the pirates had advanced on Illyria during the early stages of the raid. So had over a dozen media drones, transmitting in all frequencies. They caught the anomaly in perfect high definition. In media res, we witness Shepard running full out in silent pantomime, leaping over toppled piles of rubble that had been monuments, never ceasing in his mad dash behind steel-and-glass porticos withering to dust under heavy fire. A column apple cored in seconds. Sparks sing from the dented steel. Nothing touches him, perhaps only ripping at what’s left of the leather jacket on his arms. Slivers of glass, each sketched out brilliantly by the gold aura spilling out from him, pulse and shift like aurora. He returns fire, short, controlled bursts with his service pistol while on the run. Outraged volleys returned from receiver - cut short with a blink-and-miss snapshot. Even doubters have a hard time not being awed by the three wide-angled cuts of Shepard gunning down no less than nine raiders on the Aenean Way in a span of twenty-one seconds (time stamps triply confirmed after the battle), cutting through their barriers and leaving their twitching, smoked bodies behind him. Never once stopping for breath or true cover. Never once missing a shot. Fifty seconds into the clip now, a raider infantry fighting vehicle lumbers through the cratered intersection two blocks ahead of Shepard. Unable to miss the golden light pouring from him, it reverses, stops, and levels its accelerator downrange at the obvious threat. Great reefs of pulverized concrete dust erupt as it fires, once, twice in succession. Clear misses, each one. Shepard has simply leapt aside with a dancer’s grace - not losing any speed - legging it up a fallen lamp post, and begins quite simply to leapfrog his way from post to post toward the IFV. Leaping five meters from light fixture to light fixture each and every time. Landing perfectly each and every time. Never wavering for balance. All fire ceases from the IFV. When Shepard lands atop a post just thirty meters from the intersection, looking for all the world like an old weather vane their fire returns, panicked and continuous, trying to cut down all the lamp posts. Storefronts and banks and all the glassed arcades around Shepard belch glass, smoke, and fire from impacting tungsten rounds. Wheels churn asphalt as the IFV’s driver puts the vehicle into reverse, trying to keep its distance from Shepard. Too late. From the all-seeing eyes of the drones, tiny, antlike men begin spilling out when Shepard - unfocused and glowing as brightly as the noonday sun by this point - hammers down atop the IFV, wrenches a hatch open, tossing a grenade into the crew compartment before leaping off. Despite the tremendous light emitting from his body, he vanishes into a nearby building, and save for the glow, isn’t seen again. As if commenting on his departure, the visual drifts lazily over the IFV. The grenade’s detonation is dimmed, only a brief magnesium flare from inside the IFV. Smoke begins to billow and trace electrical fires pour from deployment hatches in the rear of the vehicle. A lone batarian raider wreathed in flames crawls halfway out, hammers his fists desperately on asphalt, and grows very still shortly after. This and seemingly a dozen other scenes like it took place planetside over the brutal thirteen hour raid on Elysium. By the time the Second Fleet had pushed enemy ships out of system and launched relief operations, the slavers on the ground, decimated, largely gave up. Save the odd holdout or two in the attacked cities, Elysium was back in Alliance hands. Thanks in no small part to the anomaly. In some circles, the appellation has become Shepard’s new rank and title. Reactions came swiftly. Alliance Command initiated media blackouts with a vengeance, but not enough. Even with several popular media sharing sites being taken down on trumped up (yet still true) infringement charges, others based in Council Space crippled by ‘thrillkill hackers,’ the footage endured. Custom designed viral hunter-killer programs couldn’t flush out all the seeds in the bowels of the extranet. Word-of-mouth, OSD hand-to-hands, memes, and flash-spam on political forums keep it moving, changing. And as always, following the cause: exposure. New recruits boarding the Agincourt are shown the recordings, taken from the extranet, that have been secreted away in the crew cabins. Between sleeping shifts, off-duty crew gather in twos and threes to watch the video, study it, sally theories on Shepard’s abilities, or deride the entire thing in the long-held tradition of ‘bad movie night’. Betting pools amongst the marine contingent have reached over a thousand credits on who, if anyone, could beat Shepard in the sparring ring of the ship’s gym. Not a single taker has stepped up since Rucker - an eight-year veteran, N7 grade - took a dive after a minute long spar. It was like a perfect play, they had moved like machines. But one far more precise than the other. Shepard later said with that dogged smile of his, “I didn’t want to hurt him. Slowed myself down a lot. He did really well, though, so don’t knock him.” Scared them all, he did. Two notions were shared aboard the Agincourt: John Shepard may be the new galactic joke among critics, but he was the new galactic boogeyman among the believers. ******** “Congrats, Motor, you’re a baseless skeptic. Look, you’ve seen him working out in the free weights and shit, but that’s nothing.” Mendez whispered, his evening meal all but forgotten. All the better, others would later comment. Cheney’s cooking was a special sort of war crime that ‘night’. Everything was relative in the depths of space. Especially one’s perspective, in all things. Mendez firmly sat in the believer camp - he’d been part of the ground teams that had cleared out Illyria after the Blitz. The pain still lingered in his back, the docs had replaced so much. “So what? Proves nothing. Maybe he’s amped on cybernetics or some shit? There’s always a bigger fish, ‘sall I’m saying. The Alliance has probably been making this kind of crap for years. Guys like Shepard get caught on camera, Alliance makes some really ridiculous adjustments, boom. Discredited and back under the rug.” Motor said, speaking through a mouthful of reconstituted bread. “Oh, yeah? You know my record, right? How I got half of my lower body replaced?” Mendez said, leaning forward to fix Motor with an even stare. The lights buzzed overhead. The ship’s machinery hummed. No one spoke. Even as Motor sallied another point, Mendez was already growing distant. Slipping back. The others looked away or at their food. More than the things he’d seen, though, Mendez remembered well the smell: the strange ozone of burning wires, the barbeque-sweetness of skin cooking under torched ceramic, and the stand out: opened bowels. Batarian shit smelled just as awful as human shit. Despite the later horrors (and wonders), the op had commenced rather smoothly after drop: Recon units swept through suburbs silent as ruins before moving into the city proper. The maglev stations were secured by landed units of Marines backed by drones and orbital fire support. Checkpoints were set up. Stragglers from the 155th were relieved by fresh troops from orbit. Light armor platoons and company strength infantry units gathered on the soccer pitch of Grissom Stadium in preparation for retaking Illyria. And yet all seemed peaceful, life remained the colonial dream. Nary a pockmark from accelerators or missile crater - unlike the once-pristine city. The skyline was chewed by cannon fire, all cracked and smoking, looking like some broken reef from the safe shores of the suburbs. Colonial Administration 1, pride of the Aenean Way, broken in half and leaning like some lonesome ship run aground. The signal to advance was given. Chaos was their signpost and guide: a burned out Mantis gunship amidst the ruins of a corner park, two shot up, empty slaver ‘cattle wagons’ sitting on the I-3 highway, the distant clatter of gunfire, the still fresh corpse here and there. Mendez and his squad were approaching the Demarque District, keeping low behind the gargantuan profile of an M35 when the first mortar pop reached their ears. There! Above the builds, twin parabolic shimmers arcing up and up and... “Smarty! Move, move!” someone shouted, men scrambled for cover. Then the first harpy shrieks overhead. Heat-seeking, 120mm air-burst shells coughed above the avenue, peppering the M35s and men with tungsten spittle. Asphalt churned like puddles in rain. Men screamed and died, shattered and holed by lethal hail. Mendez took a four-inch-long sliver of tungsten in the back, tossed him to the ground like a doll. The pain blinding, everything bled of color. Barriers gone, suit alarms droned in his helmet, screams from men meshed and overlapped in some unholy chorus around him as if he wallowed in some charnel pit. The dull thump of a Mako’s hydrogen cells erupting shook the street, threw Mendez up in the air and slammed him down again. His armor’s automated trauma suites activated, applying pressure on his shredded torso and utilized a nozzle on his lower back to administer medigel and saline. Medigel did little to stop the pain. Secondary systems kicked in with precisely measured doses of morphine released to ease the overwhelming pain. Everything was suddenly so calm and, miraculously, he felt well enough to turn over. He did, instantly regretting ever attempting it, and watched torn fleshy snakes sally out of a grapefruit sized hole in his stomach. ‘Oh, God,’ he said. That’s all he remembered saying. Blood and grit painted his torso like strange gelatin. Mendez felt nothing now, suit tightened like a vise to keep his blood pressure up, could hardly move at all save for his shoulders and head. The street was an altar of mewling flesh and weeping prayers. Edmonton’s arm, his Gunnery Sergeant, lay a foot away, fingers twitching, trying to pull triggers that were gone. Some of his company had simply vanished, charred pieces lie in scattered tableaux. A burning wheel slowly loped over debris toward him, blocking out the world. He coughed and coughed, trying to blink away the sheet of blood cowling his visor. I’m gonna die, Mom. Just like you said. The sky braced the leaning towers above. Overwatch drones flitted quickly between them: raider and Alliance alike. Hummingbirds. They always reminded him of hummingbirds, deadlier by far, and quick, and manic; pirouetting around one another in a strange little dance, each trying to shoot the other down. Growing weaker by the minute, Mendez laid there, conscious only due to some reserve of will. Lids morphine heavy, he wanted sleep. But he could still hear. The surviving Mako unloaded on something with the steady electric cracks of its main gun splitting air. Tracers cut the sky into strange patterns. The ground shook. ‘Tank! Fucking tank!’ someone, Cromwell maybe, shouted from nowhere. New threat warnings blinked in his visor, relayed from a hummingbird somewhere above: Burning up the I-3 at full throttle, the only surviving piece of raider armor, an old Bor’Isaam Longeye, came hot and hungry. In olden days, the Longeye was called so because when it bringing its murderous weapons to bear, the crews needed more and more powerful optics to see their retreating foes. As in the past, so in the present, grandfathers tell their children. In an age when armored warfare as humans knew it was scarce, the Longeye was a terrifying throwback. Centuries old in design, but vitally useful, old Longeyes still prowl the battlefields. Once, they were simply anti-space platforms used to shoot down sub-orbital ships. Imagine the designers joy in discovering their weapon performed exceedingly well in anti-armor warfare as well. Proximity warnings trilled in Mendez’s ear. The entire I-3 canyon bloomed with broad spectrum radiation. Longeye was hunting. Marines and light armor make the best meals. The street emptied of souls, save the surviving Mako desperately putting rounds downrange, trying to make a dent in the Longeye’s armor, disable one of its four outrigger drive pods, score the armor, anything. Kinetic barriers flare, collapse against the repeated punishment of the faster firing accelerator. But Longeye armor is made of sturdier stuff, 155mm slugs crumpling uselessly against inches thick sheets of woven carbon plating. With almost lethargic grace, the Longeye’s main gun took aim, backhanding the Mako with a 250mm executioner that closed the space in a microsecond. Hypersonic rounds powerful enough to kill sub-orbital frigates tore through the Mako’s barriers like it was the morning mist. A tremendously bright, rapidly expanding plasma bloomed where the Mako’s forward compartment - its crew - had been. The whole frame rippled as the round passed through, breached hydrogen cells ripped the vehicle apart a second later in fiery spectacle. The slug’s passage whipped Mendez’s body, the ensuing sonic boom created a vacuum tearing air from his lungs. The cloven wheel was finally tossed away by the explosion of the second Mako. Front row to the killing field, Mendez watched the Longeye’s immense bulk stop one hundred meters to his left, methodically picking targets and levelling the block. The geography of the street changed very quickly, very loudly in collapsing frontages and masonry. Chips of stone and dust rained over him. A choking fog settled in the streets. IFF tags blinked out here and there in his cracked HUD, but the majority of the company remained, filtered out of the block, trying to gain advantage on the tank. It would just take time. Sitting there in Agincourt’s galley, Mendez remembered looking down at his stomach, the ruin of lower body there for the world to witness, and nodding to himself. This is good, he had thought. Good. Greasy membranes of medigel covered his wounds, looking like pond scum had grown over his organs. Med-alerts screamed in his helmet, already tuned out by the continuous shots from the Longeye. Pissing metal. Accepting death was something Mendez never thought - to this day still didn’t think - would come so easily. Having one’s bowels splayed across one’s lap brought new perspectives. But at least that tank would die with him. Survivors clamored over the mil-net on the hook, calling air support, orbital support, armored support; soon anything with firepower would be keyed in to a laser-designated Longeye when some fool found the vantage point. It would just take time. Fucking sun in my eyes. Gimme a break... The dust began to settle. He blinked against sudden, tremendous light, the ringing in his ears subsiding enough to realize the Longeye had stopped firing, that his medical harness had shut up. Finally, you fucking harpy. Then the Sun moved. At some point, it was there, standing over him, looking down at the broken thing he was. A grim face beaten out of bronze, it seemed. The Longeye went silent. When the Sun finally moved, it moved like a man, looked like a man. Just cut out in white lines and light, comic books made real. Superman carried an assault rifle and honestly, he looked like hammered shit. Through glowy chic, Mendez saw caked blood, pattern burns, carpets of bruises, some nasty looking gunshot wounds, but the Sun didn’t care. Fuck, no. He stared a tank down. Tank blinked first, too, with a 250mm wink. Sun sidestepped it so swiftly light vanished from the world. Blinking tears of pain and drugged awe away, Mendez witnessed the beginning and end of the first and only man versus supertank showdown in Alliance history. Scooping an discarded EOD trooper’s Mantis, the Sun drew, and fired on the run. The gun’s bark caromed off skeletal skyscrapers, fell back in on itself in waterfall roars. Bang. Sparks flew, an outrigger billowed smoke, something inside it went off like a grenade, skewing the Longeye to a asphalt-trenching stop. Its turret traversed, but the Sun was already running, echoes of gunfire uninterrupted as this-this man, Mendez realized, crossed three lanes in four strides. His road became the wall and his asphalt the only miraculously untouched panes of glass on the street. The barrel of the Mantis glowed like a brand. Fountains of sparks popped around the tank’s hatch, bullets shattering the hardened communication blisters. Only silence, now, was the crew’s native tongue. Another micropellet hollowed cleanly the eye of a laser rangefinder nestled in the shadow of the main gun. Precision, somehow, was winning out against four centuries of tank design. Blind cannon shots gutted the building behind him, shattered his perpendicular marathon and brought him back to earth. Shockwaves never touched him. Light enveloped him, pulsed like a heartbeat, brilliant corona-white and alive with an icon Mendez couldn’t make out. Something great and thrashing and watchful. Oppressive heat from the burning Mako fuel cells squeezed sweat from him, made all the worse by the actual noon sun hanging overhead. Static crackled in Mendez’s headset, but he didn’t listen, eyes fixed on the titanic battle nearby, the absurdity of it. And he could barely focus on it for the lingering pain and chill knitting deeply into his muscles. Still he watched. Watched as a solar flare grew, boiled, and launched itself from cracked walls, across four lanes of highway, meteoring over the mired tank. A gleaming jewel fell from the flare’s ephemeral tail, magnetically hugging the chassis. Mendez’s HUD logged the targeting beacon with an unconscious wink, relayed it to the hummingbirds and straight into the active mil-net. Blind and wavering, the tank oblivious to this new hitchhiker. All that mattered was the kill. The tank commander’s remote-controlled accelerator whipped back and forth spitting rounds as the Sun fell just short of the horizon, rolling down broad stairs out of sight into Dench Plaza. Static sheared at Mendez’s ears, made him nauseous. That terrible stretched feeling before vomiting. A voice broke through, ‘All units on the Aenean be advised, this is Sigma 4-3 on station. We have target lock on enemy tank. Attack run imminent. Repeat: attack run imminent, hold tight.’ Not seconds later, there rose a sound like children screaming in a tunnel rattling off the corridor skyscrapers. The roots of his teeth itched. Somewhere, the whipcrack of air parted by supersonic velocities. Desperate not to die, Longeye spat chaff canisters into the air like children’s firecrackers. Terrific pops sent slivers of aluminum and plastic shimmering into the air, arms wide open to confuse inbound air-to-ground. Hellbent for cover, the Longeye gunned the engine. Shredded tread spat out from outrigger, the tank growled, steel spallings spewed across the median as the tank clearly advanced in another direction. Sloth-slow Longeye lumbers away from the direction of vanished Superman, belching clouds of chaff. Everything in those squealing treads transmitted desperation. The Buggers were dead spiders riding, and knew it. The chaff, while outdated, proved effective, one missile from the Mantises careens through the cloud, gyroscopes rapidly taking over confused guidance systems, straight into the leaning body of Colonial 1, its wounds gushing floors of glass and concrete onto the street below. The second and third missiles dove for the target as programmed, only to blow through the countermeasures, burying deep into the earth, detonating. A seam opened in the road as the missiles’ contact fuses ignited milligram eezo charges that told gravity to turn a blind eye, paving the way for eighty kilograms of shape charged hate serving up uro-titanium slugs that’d have torn into the tank like it was made of butcher paper. The street cracked like an eggshell; great plumes of earth and chunks of macadam the size of pitcher mounds leapt into the air. Like a blessing, none of it touched Mendez, and the medigel kept any new grit from entering his wounds. A shriek overhead as the last missile came roaring hot from Hell - and found its target. Centuries old, venerable armor designs being what they are, one can pack all the countermeasures and modern ECM suites one wants into the old mare. Packed and fed until the muscles are barely contained by the frame. A frame that was built with the long view in mind and forged according to traditional stand-up symmetric warfare. And still all of these engineers across all multitudes of species never truly addressed the enemy that attacks from above. The missile bats chaff aside, came thundering down onto the tank, turned the once stately plaza into a cauldron of fire. Deaf, half bled-out, and beaten beyond recognition, Mendez was laughing - laughing! - at the absurdity of it all. The light returned shortly thereafter. Standing there above him, blinding him even as his radiance began to fade. Just a man. Just a fucking man. Beaten, burned, and smiling. Bloody spittle glassed his lips. He spoke to Mendez, and said nothing. Mendez’s ears filled with a chorus of dying ear cells. He couldn’t move anymore and felt as if he was falling way back- -doped up--screaming- -dying- -choking- And that’s when he heard him - on the edge of everything - as the world began washing out. The Sun became a man became indistinct. Smoke enveloped them from the burning tank. He heard the distant cracking of popping wires. The Sun said to him: “Help’s coming, kid. Look at me. Look at me. Don’t fall asleep.” ******** “You know, Mendez, the more you tell that story... I dunno, was he shining that much last time?” Motor said, gently chiding. All around the table, quiet and attentive, the rookies looked at Mendez as if he were some solitary idol they’d come across in a thirsty desert. Mendez breaks his morbid reverie, rolls his shoulders in that macho moto-bullshit ‘fuck-do-I-care’ manner all Marines in his unit adopted. He hated their attention. “Whatever. I was there, helmet cam caught a lot of that, too. Granted, SAICOM scooped that up while I was in surgery.” He slapped his stomach, felt nothing of the hollow thud. “They can keep it. I’ve always had a good memory.” He sipped the glass of water. He missed drinking beer, even soda. The new kidneys couldn’t take it. Being able to properly slouch, Mendez missed that too. “You weren’t there, plain and simple. They can’t chain him to the ship - much as they want to. There’s something different about him. Not in that conspiracy nonsense you’re spewing, either. Talk to him sometime, there’s something strange going on in his head. Even for an officer, he’s really aloof, nonchalant. Like nothing can touch him.” “I get that from him, too.” Branco said from his quiet corner of the galley. Scratching his chin, he shrugged at the sudden attention. “It’s like he’s not even all there sometimes. I was in the medbay getting my leg checked out after that fall in the gym. Shepard comes in apologizing, joking as he does...and dragged the doc off to the side when she was done with me. Says he has really weird dreams now, like he’s walking in Prothean ruins, I couldn’t hear him. Had to jump ship when he realized I was still there.” “Stranger and stranger, folks.,” Mendez said, rolling the perspiring glass between his palms. “I don’t think anyone knows what he’s become. And maybe we shouldn’t. A man who can take on a tank head on with a just a rifle and come out on top? No, I don’t think we really need to know. “He spooks me. Saved my life, but I promise, Motor, I’m more terrified than I am reverent of the man. If he’s still a man.” ******** Frankly, Commander John Shepard scared the piss out of himself. He sat alone upon the soft sheets of his bed, staring at a point of space somewhere between himself and the wall. The smell of stale air assailed him. The sound of the ship’s engines rattled the bulkheads. A sharp microwave ringing the only true disturbance of peace. Illustrations of unknown places, unknown - but familiar - faces, wars fought in sweltering heat scrawled across his vision the past few hours. These episodes came on like deja vu; an errant phrase or scent could bring one on. Sleep made an strange, nearly Roman-like arena of his mind. Great stepped pyramids, steps clad in the rusted patina of long dead sacrifices. Dead languages murmured in his sleep. So vivid and surreal, these dreams, but tinctured by indelible truth. Despite being just that, dreams, they hearkened to something painfully structured, lived. It wore at him. Ever since the change, these visions descended upon him. Sleep meds did little to help. In the first weeks, they strengthened to the point Shepard was there. Walking in bodies not his own, of either gender. Waking up in his quarters became the opposite - reality the dream of the dreamer. Waking in this spartan set of quarters when life had just been luxuries unimaginable. Equilibrium was hard to find. Then, suddenly, it all petered out. Despite that, despite brushing it off as some sort of momentary psychosis, the memories - they were that much, he was certain - lurked in the recesses. Waiting, always waiting. Time and again, he smelled lilac and jasmine of an old lover’s skin, ghosting from nowhere. Afterimages of slender arms wrapped around his chest. Something comfortable bloomed behind his eyes, and gooseflesh crawled down sweat-glassy limbs. Much as he did now. His arms and armor were under lock and key, as per SAICOM’s directives. Not that it mattered, Shepard knew. He alone knew what he was capable of. A mass accelerator and layers of ceramic-fiberweave were so much bells and whistles. Weeks of trials to measure the extent of the change, said as much. Shepard exceeded their wildest expectations - his own - outperforming Olympic athletes with ease and long standing Marine Corps records by a factor of two. Even now, despite sweat-greased skin and the stink of sweat, four straight hours of exercise did absolutely nothing to tire him. And it showed. Medical specialists had muttered about the impossibility, poked, prodded and made their puzzled noises. In the end, they threw their hands up in frustration. Better that way, he supposed. Only Shepard knew the truth - that he held back. The tank shot, dodging a shell going several times the speed of sound at point blank range, he had told them, was dumb luck. Happenstance and economy of motion saved him. Despite footage proving otherwise, they took him at his word. What else could be done? Interrogators banged their head against the wall of his own confusion. It wasn’t as if he’d hidden this newfound power in a secret sleeve, something only to be drawn in his greatest time of need. He never was that great a magician. Still, they kept an eye firmly on him. The Alliance brass, SAICOM, the Council, anyone with an interest in golden glowing men. Media included. At least the Brass weren’t in the habit of shoving camera drones in his face. He blinked away ghostly images and dour thoughts. Returned to the world. Sat in contemplation. Before the change, he’d never given meditation a second thought, but now, everyone once in awhile, it worked wonders in calming the storms inside. There now stood a room in his mind, an archive and retreat. Elysium was in the past now. The losses haunted and hunted him until no inner refuge was left. So he accepted them, internalized it, every death a lesson. Lessons to be taught anew. Innumerable paths opened up in his mind. The hospital stink of recycled air bled away. He closed his eyes and let go. Time slipped away. All thought turned to a trickle and the only thought became motes of dust in the room of his mind. Only one he cupped in the palm of concentration. A single moon orbiting a dead planet. Two years of intel gathering had lead to this moment. Ships were assembling even as he withdrew from the world. Retribution was more than called for, though something in him didn’t savor it. There would be more lessons here, Shepard knew. Worse than he what he dreamed, that much was certain. His people relied on him, even if they feared him. Which they did to a man. That needled at certain baser prides, inflamed them from time to time, but it wasn’t something savored. Never in his career had he wanted to be feared by his troops. He was as human as they were. Wasn’t he? Dreams painting illustrations of torrid high fantasy may set him more on the tier of crazy, but still human. He withdrew from the room, back into the world, stepped off the bed, and looked at the small mirror set above his desk. Something he’d installed himself after their last liberty. The Vainglorious God, the newest moniker he’d earned. Ah, well. Let them have their names and their jibes. Any platoon or company and anon had nicknames for their superiors. A moment’s concentration and something like an electric buzz thrilled his limbs. The nuclear bright sunburst appeared on his forehead as it always did. He stared at it a long, long time - right up until general quarters - rolling the same vexing question around. What am I?