The Spectre is back
(followup to The Spectre has arrived)
Prologue: Ideas need time to grow
What is the most resilient parasite? A bacteria? A virus? An intenstinal worm? … An idea. Resilient, highly contagious. Once an idea has taken hold of the brain it's almost impossible to eradicate.
It has been a long time since we watched this movie, but the phrase is still true.
It had been creepy how easy it was to place a new idea into our collective minds. A single sentence had been enough to start discussions and wild planning. There was no way to unmake the idea.
You can ignore ideas, say that they are not realistic, laugh about them because they are too crazy. But nothing helped, in the end we decided that the idea was fitting well to our long term plans and started working.
It took us more than a year to develop a basic plan and to refine it enough to make it possible and useful. Like anything, the project started in a new instance of the Grid. This wasn’t like designing a small drone on your experimentation desk, it was much more complex and interesting.
In late 2016 we began to upgrade Jenga properly for our new project, we needed a fitting place to work on it. Half a year later, the work started.
It was crazy to try something that large, but that is what Fenspace and Catgirl Industries is about. Dream the big dreams and continue to push the limits forward.
The unlikely letter
“Shepard, get to your damned post box. You got mail!”
Shepard looked up to the half open door of his small office at the White Tower, wondering what was going on. He switched on the screen on his desk and refreshed the status of his email inbox.
He stand up and left his room, going right over to Andy ‘Nanoha’ Cramers office, looking through the wide open door.
“Whats going on, Chief? My inbox is as empty as of an hour ago.”
Andy sometimes had this need to shout at people, he needed to make sure to learn what this was about soon. Or there was going to be much shouting.
Andys tail flicked in amusement as Shepard appeared at this door, even through her face showed a bit annoyance. It was generally better to trust her tail rather then her face. But then again with such an attractive face it was hard to pay attention to the tail. And looking anywhere else lead to much shouting...
“I said post box, not mail box. You should notice there is a small difference between the two, but if you do not, I can explain it for you.”
“Chief, I have been working here for more than two years.” Shepard replied carefully. “In all this time I have never seen anyone having a post box. I have picked up parcels and cargo for my team more than once in the freight section. Sorry, I don’t know anything about a post box.”
Andy frowned, through she grinned mentally as she enjoyed making Shepard navigating through an invisible mine field.
“You got one now,” she noted and gave him a hard look.” Its in the break room, get that damned thing and tell the guys at security its not my fault.”
Shepard blinked a few times.
“NOW!” Andy added a bit louder and Shepard hurried out of the room.
A few minutes later he was back in his office with a shoebox on the desk. Someone had written ‘Shepard’s Postbox’ on it with a black permanent marker. He opened the box and stopped.
In the box was a small paper envelope made out of high quality paper. It was sealed with some kind of wax and had the words ‘to John Shepard, White Tower’ on them.
‘Who the hell is sending paper mail these days,’ he wondered and called the com number of the security team. The speaker on his phone clicked a few times as his call got redirected, then one of the AIs of the group opened the line.
“What the hell do you think I should think about this kind of joke Shepard” the AI spit out.
“Sorry?” Shepard replied, “Maybe you could tell me what the hell is going on today?”
The AI sighed.
“Shepard, you know the deal... you don’t make our life hard by going crazy about someone looking at your mail and we make sure you never have to deal with spam and viruses.”
“Yes?” Shepard slowly had an idea what this all was about and began to grin.
“Do you have any idea how much fuzz we had because of your letter? Automatic virus detection? Training the SPAM filters? Or even looking for a denial of service attack? How are we going to do this jobs if people start sending real letters?”
“Tell the guys that I’m sorry, but I have no idea what this letter is about,” Shepard said, carefully trying not to laugh. “I will personally take responsibility for the security of this letter and scan it for any kind of malware.”
“You better,” the AI said and just cut the line.
Shepard laughed and took the letter out of the box, finding a small note below it in the process. ‘Scanned for biological, chemical, atomic and handwaved threats. Not scanned for SPAM.’
“Seems security WAS busy with this thing” he said and carefully broke the seal on the letter. “Now lets see whats inside.”
Shepard sat brooding over the letter.
He had been puzzled that someone actually sent him a real letter, but he never had expected to get a Christmas card.
Hello Mr. Shepard, Catgirl Industries would like to invite you to our 2018 Christmas surprise party week. I you don’t want or cannot attend, sent us an email.'
‘What the hell is a Christmas surprise party week?’ Shepard thought, ‘do they think I have nothing to do?’
He had to admit that he had spent his last two Christmas days at the White Tower, volunteering for doing duty on those days to give a few friends with family the chance to get free.
He was also wondering why he got the Christmas invitation, especially because he got it from the catgirls of Jenga. His first visit on the station had not been one of his brighter moments.
“I would have thought the catgirls would be the last people in the solar system inviting me to a party, especially on Christmas,” he murmured, then he took the letter and went to his boss office.
As he arrived at the door of Andy’s office, the catgirl was already looking at him.
“Boss, I spoke with the guys at security, they should not worry you anymore,” Shepard said and held up the letter in his hand, “but there is something I would like to talk about.”
“Anything interesting in the letter?” Andy asked.
“Its a Christmas invitation from the catgirls at Jenga” he explained, putting the letter on the desk in front of him. “They have invited me for a party A party week as they call it.”
Andy raised an eyebrow.
“A party week invitation?” Andy wondered and then smirked a somewhat evil smile.” Something I should know about you and Jenga? A lover you forgot to mention?”
“Boss, I have no clue why I get this invitation now. I had no contact with Catgirl Industries since I joined Space patrol, that was more than two years ago.” Shepard shrugged helpless.
“There is only one way to find out what is going on there Shepard.” Andy replied with a smile. “You take a week or two leave from work and go there!”
“Are you sure boss?” Shepard asked, “You know, we have this strange case going on at the Jupiter trojans, I might need to...”
Andy just cut him off.
“I’m putting someone else on the case. You need that vacation, John. And no ifs or buts, you’ve not taken one for the last two years and you are close to breaking up on us. They guys in security are not the only ones to complain about you straining their nerves. And everyone got enough to do already without you making work harder for them.”
“Do I really need to mention that incident in the Mess Hall? I never took you for a Pastafarian...”
Shepard opened his mouth and closed it again. His boss was right, he hadn’t taken much leave from work in the last two years. There had always been something to do and no real place to go for vacation.
Andy nodded with another smirk.
“Better. I expect your request for leave this afternoon, do yourself a favor and don’t skip it. One week minimum. But better take two.”
Christmas with catgirls
For the first time in years Shepard was not wearing one of his two armors while outside the White Tower. Neither he did carry his assault rifle or even his pistol with him.
‘If Jenga gets attacked I can just go back to my car and rearm. No need to worry about it.’ he thought as his car stopped in one of Jenga’s parking slots. But he still felt strangely naked.
‘Maybe I should keep the pistol on me’ he thought for a moment before crushing that thought quickly. ‘Damn, I really have worked too much in the last years.’
The air flew into the parking compartment and the light on the inner door finally switched to green. The door opened and two well known people were coming in to greet him.
“Welcome to Jenga Shepard” Cathy said with a smile, “We hoped you would find some time to get here.” Behind her the holographic avatar of Cortana was standing in the airlock.
“Thank you for the invitation, I hope you can imagine how surprised I was to get it.” Shepard said with a light smile on his own as he shook Cathys hand to shake it. “You raised quite a stir at work with it, especially the AIs at mail security were puzzled how to scan it for any threats. Your delivery method was quite incompatible with their normal scanners!”
Cortana and Cathy laughed hard.
“Oh dear, I never thought about this” Cathy admitted, “I hope you got it sorted out in the end. We just wanted to get you to the party, not to cause any trouble.”
Shepard shook his head. “Do not worry about it, they were all a little bit annoyed, but got over it quickly. Especially after I told them that I would look out for any malware.”
Cortana looked thoughtful for a moment. “I wonder if a QR-Code based computer worm would work, have to look into it next year” she said, suddenly noticing that both Cathy and Shepard were looking at her avatar.
“Hey, I still like to keep my l33t hacking skills up to date for defense” she quickly said, “I would never use something like this in a letter!”
“Of course you would, but most of your hacker friends don’t even have a postal address” Cathy said with a chuckle, then turning back to Shepard. “Lets get out of this airlock, the party is waiting for us.”
“I’m curious about one thing through,” Shepard said as they left the hangar Module, “why did you sent me this invitation? The last time I was here I tried to rob the station from you, that was pretty stupid and... ‘renegade’.”
Cathy just smiles.
“John Shepard, what do you think does the word ‘surprise’ in your invitation means? I think you just asked one of the few questions I will not answer right now.”
“I hope you don’t see this strange white and red buttons flash up in your vision” Cortana added with a mischievous grin.
Shepard blinked in surprise and laughed hard.
“Oh dear, I am away from well known paths for a few hours and already fall back into my old behaviour. Just promise me to hit me on the head if I do it too much!”
“I am sure you know what happens to naughty boys when they meet Santa Claus,” Cathy remarked, leading the group through the corridors of Jenga. Shepard could hear some Christmas music from ahead.
The went through another airlock and entered a large room, filled with all kinds of Christmas decoration. There was a huge fireplace at one wall, lots of cushions and low couches were distributed around the room.
But Shepard’s attention was drawn to the center of the room where a incredible huge Christmas tree was standing, full with all sorts of decoration and glittering lights.
Shepard looked left and right and felt something ‘click’ in his mind. ‘Room height roughly six meters, tree height at least 20 meters. That doesn’t mix well.’ he thought.
He nodded to Cathy.
“You have a really nice Christmas tree” he said honestly, “I would not have expected Catgirl Industries to celebrate it at all.”
“Oh, you like the tree” another catgirl replied happily, “you should have seen the one we had last year. It was a fractal tree, you could dive into it for hours without feeling bored.” The catgirl looked over Shepard. “I am Lisa, happy to meet you... hmm... John? … Shepard?”
“John is okay, I am on vacation. Nice to meet, too, Lisa!”
Lisa beamed at Shepard and hugged him.
“Then welcome to our Christmas party John” she said, leaving John a little bit puzzled. He dropped on one of the couches, noticing that Cathy sat down next to him.
“Lisa is a member of the group that designed our tree this year” Cathy explained, “but we really have to get you some Grid gear later, so you can see the larger tree in cyberspace. They made a really nice one.”
“Yes, its a nice tree... holographic projector tech?” Shepard asked curiously.
“Yes, same as the fireplace on the wall. Getting a real tree of this size would have been horrific expensive, and we would have to skip our design competition for the tree. But the decoration of the room is real, we will just recycle it just before Sylvester.”
“You don’t keep it for next year?”
Cathy shook her head.
“With a space station full of crazy engineers? No way we would reuse the same decoration twice.”
Shepard sat on a large pillow close to the holo tree nipping on a drink he got from one of the catgirls. It surprised him a bit that he enjoyed this Christmas party that much.
Shiara was sitting next to him, one arm still around Shepards waist. They had talked quite a lot about all the small things the catgirls had done over the last years for their security.
Shepard was still getting used to the fact that the catgirls here liked to hug or lean into each other quite a lot. It was a far from the few catgirls in Section 6. Especially the Chief...
Right then he was looking to another catgirl closer to the tree, who give a small number of shiny stars to a group of Exocomps, which quickly moved out and put them into the tree.
‘Crazy idea to give a small drone a holographic star to put it into a holographic tree, but its suitably crazy for this evening’ Shepard thought, and he nodded to the catgirl with a smile. She grinned back at him and whispered something to one of her Exocomps, which quickly raced up into the tree to recover one of the small stars.
Shepard starred on the shiny thing that the Exocomp put in front of him. A bright blue glowing star as large as his hand with six rays was floating half a meter away from him, slowly rotating in the air.
“That must be the best holographic projection I have ever seen” he murmured and reached out to it, only to stop a little bit shocked when he felt some glass surface of the stars ray.
“Ohh!” Shiara said besides him, “That must be one of the Christmas stars Jerry has been working on in the last weeks. I heard about them, but they became really nice!”
Fascinated Shepard carefully gave the star a little push, which made it to spin slowly around one axis. “I was sure this thing was just part of your holographic projection, how did she get it floating?”
“Jerry created the first batch of Eezo in a little lab accident,” Shiara explained and grinned. “She still does crazy things with it, I assume this one has a tiny Mass Effect core inside.”
“Its really beautiful” Shepard said and carefully parked this star between himself and Shiara in the air.
Shiara starred at the little star and extended a finger towards it. “May I touch it?”she asked, still looking like hypnotized at the blue light. “Its yours, it seems you got an early little present.”
“Sure,” Shepard agreed, watching the catgirl carefully giving the star another push to make it rotating faster.
“If she ever can get these things moving, they might become the ultimate plaything for normal cats” she said and chuckled.
“Only for normal cats?” Shepard wondered and gave Shiara a wink.
“I think that will depend on how fast they can move!”
Shepard chuckled, but then he became more serious.
“Maybe this party is a good place to apologize for my behaviour when I first came to Jenga. I am still sometimes feeling guilty about it.”
Shiara shook her head. “Just don’t do it.”
“What do you mean, I got here and tried to take over the station. Even more, I tried to take command of all of you and your work!”
“So what? It didn’t worked, it never had a chance to work. But you came here with a dream and we killed that dream, that’s a horrible thing. Fenspace is built upon dreams.”
Shepard stayed silent, he had not expected this kind of reply.
“That’s much better. You don’t have to worry about it, no one is angry about what you did. Believe me.”
Shepard was just about to answer as the music volume was turned down a bit and a lot of rumoring filled the room.
‘Ohh... catgirl Santa Clause is coming to Jenga’ Shepard thought with a big grin.
A catgirl in a plushy red and white Santa Clause costume had entered the room, carrying a large sack on its back.
“That should be made a fixed rule to Fenspace. Fenspace Santa Claus is a catgirl with skimpy top, short skirt and boots in red and white fur,” Shepard muttered, making some of the catgirls nearby snicker.
Shepard watched as Santa Clause now slowly made its way through the room to each catgirl, talking with the catgirl in question and finally giving out some small present. He would never have guessed that there was something to make a room of nearly hundred catgirls to sit and wait. It seemed to be a wonder.
After waiting quite some time, Shiara had finally got her own present, a small memory stick as large as a small stamp. Shiara quickly put the stick into a small computer and looked at the data, then squealed delighted and hugged the catgirl Santa Clause hard.
The catgirl with her large sack on the back turned to Shepard. “So there we have our naughty visitor. I hope you have been well-behaving since your last visit?”
Suddenly it was pretty quiet in the room. Shepard blinked a few times in surprise, then he grinned.
“After my leave from Jenga I decided to become a cop. Good cops cannot be too well-behaving, otherwise they would have to let the bad guys win.”
The catgirl thought about this for a moment and nodded with a light chuckle.
“Yes, I think I can agree to this. I even have a present for you, but its not in my sack. You will have to wait for a little bit more time.”
That made Shepard curious, why did they had a present for him? He looked to his right, only found Shiara grinning. In fact, quite a lot catgirls in the room were grinning, only the distraction of more present distribution slowly changed that.
‘Something strange is going on here,’ Shepard thought, ‘they know something and I don’t. But I am involved in some way...’
Finally every catgirl had got its present and Santa Clause was coming back to Shepard.
“I think this is a good time to make a small tour on the station, don’t you agree?” she said with a grin.
Shepard shrugged and stand up. “Why not, its a long time since I was here!” he tried to reply calmly.
“Ahh, at least we got you curious about what we are up to,” Shiara said with a grin, “just follow her, you’ll like it.”
Shepard gave up to make sense out of the catgirls.
“Lets go... and yes, I am curious!”
As the walked to one of the doors, he noticed that eight other catgirls also had stood up and were meeting them.
“You get your present late too?” he asked with a smirk.
One of the catgirl grinned back and nodded.
“Yes, in a certain way. But you are still the surprise guest.”
The Santa Clause catgirl lead the group through several corridors into a different part of the space station, away from the Hangar where Shepard had parked his car. The other eight catgirls were still with them.
Another airlock opened in front of them and they entered a very long glass-covered gallery. Beyond the glass was just darkness, but Shepard got the feeling to stare into a huge room. At two points a staircase was going down, suggesting that the room was deeper than the gallery too. And then there was this strange feeling of deja vu.
‘That must be the huge Module they built two years ago’ Shepard thought. ‘We should have asked them what it was about a long time ago!’
The Santa Clause catgirl stepped besides Shepard and put an arm on his shoulder.
“You have been a very naughty boy, leaving us alone with this crazy idea floating around. Ideas can be dangerous, you should keep an eye on them. But we managed to work it out, I hope you will like it. Merry Christmas John Shepard.”
Slowly the light in the gallery dimmed and one by one flood lights in the room in front of them began to activate. The silhouette of a ship began to appear in the hangar, A long narrow shape with four wings at the end, colored in black and white.
Shepard’s mind seemed to lock up as his eyes stared out into the hangar, trying to comprehend what was there in front of him.
Reading the large white letters of the ships name again and again.
“Careful, you’ll trip over your own yaw,” one of the catgirls joked after a long silence, and Shepard managed to get out a single word.
“You left us with your idea more than two years ago, we had a lot of work to do, designing the ship, building this huge hangar for it, making it real. But it was a good time.”
“And we didn’t even had to ask some random Turians to help us. Everything we needed was bought in Fenspace or built in this hangar. Wanna go inside?”
Shepard just nodded. There wasn’t anything in the universe that would prevent him to get at least a look at the inside of this ship.
The inner airlock finally opened, letting Shepard and the catgirls aboard the ship. Shepard entered a long corridor, but they quickly arrived at the front of the ship.
‘Bridge room’ thought Shepard, quite different to the games’. He looked through the room, from the pilot seat at the front back to the consoles in the back of the room.
“I see you had to redesign a couple of things” he said with a grin and one of the catgirls nodded.
“Yes, we had to. We went for a ship with a smaller crew, but we still wanted it similar to the Normandy SR-2. Comfortable enough for long missions but small enough to get a good mass-to-speed ratio. Unfortunately the bridge design did not worked out as in the game.”
Shepard smiled. “Small crew you say? I see a bridge with seven seats here, that is not small!”
Another catgirl chuckled.
“The core crew is four shifts with two catgirls each, one pilot and one engineer. Plus the captain of course” the catgirl explained, “but it can also carry up to six more persons. But there is someone who would like to meet you I think.”
A simple holographic avatar appeared on the table.
“Hello, Commander Shepard” the AI said, which made one of the catgirls sigh, “welcome on board the Normandy. I am EDI, the ships AI.”
Shepard looked a little bit suspicious to the catgirls and back to the AI.
“I thought Catgirl Industries doesn’t like creating new AIs?”
“There are no rules against children” one of the catgirls replied before EDI could answer, “just ask Cortana and Serina about it.”
Shepard grinned about the thought. Years ago, he had assumed that Cortana was one of EDIs sisters, only to learn that EDI did not exist in Fenspace. Now this wasn’t true anymore it seemed.
“Nice to finally meet you EDI, good to know you are around this time,” he said and looked left and right. “I hope I will get a tour through the ship, right?”
“Of course you will get a full tour, that’s why you are here at the moment” EDI replied and laughed. “The ship just got finished two weeks ago, you are the first person outside the company who has the chance to see it.”
With this, the catgirls and EDIs avatar lead Shepard through all the rooms of the Normandy, happily talking about all the small and large features they had integrated into the ship.
“And with this we end our tour at the engine room,” a catgirl said as they entered a huge room with a blue glowing Mass Effect core floating in the center.
“It contains both the ships two fusion reactors and the Mass Effect core including support systems. Together with the four ion drives they can hit 11 percent lightspeed, more than most ships of its weight class!”
Shepard nodded impressed.
“You really did a good job with your first spaceship, even if some Fen out there will be worried that it is a warship, not some company craft,” he said with an approving tone.
The catgirls shrugged.
“Who cares what the rest of Fenspace says? Space is dangerous, we wanted something with teeth and claws. And of course building a Normandy as a freighter would have been a disaster!”
‘That attack must have really shaken them up,’ Shepard thought.
“Yes, it would have been a tragedy. Not sure Handwavium would have allowed you to do it” Shepard agreed. “But there is still one important question to be asked. Why do you tell me about all of this?”
The catgirl in front of him sighed. “Lets say we have a small problem with the ship.”
“What sort of problem?” Shepard asked suspiciously.
“The ship has some quirks. It does not want to accept anyone from the company as the commander. We have tested some systems and they all do not work within the expected parameters. Its like driving with an engaged handbrake!”
Shepard suddenly got an idea what could be going wrong.
“We have thought about this for a few days, the solution was obvious, Shepard. And the fact that EDI called you ‘Commander’ is supporting our suspicion.”
Shepard shook his head. “I can’t and will not just leave Space Patrol for the Normandy. Its a great ship and I would love to fly it, but it would not be right.”
The Santa Clause catgirl nodded. “We know and we did’t expected you to do it. We have a different idea.”
Shepard blinked a few times in surprise. “What?”
“We want to lease the Normandy to Space Patrol, together with a full core crew of eight catgirls. We will still get the technical data while you are using the ship in your job and we will be allowed to withdraw it if you should decide to leave Space Patrol. Its a fair compromise we think.”
Shepard suddenly felt like he would get firm ground under his feet again. He would not be sent away, they would let him have the ship. He stepped forward and hugged Catgirl Santa hard.
“That must be the best Christmas I ever had!” he noted with a large grin blooming on his face. “First Catgirl Santa and now my Normandy...”
Shepard had still needed some hours to have a good look at all parts of the Normandy, but finally it got late and they had all decided to continue together next day. Shepard was glad his cabin on the Normandy was there.
When Shepard woke up in the morning, it took him just a few seconds to recognize the unfamiliar ceiling. He closed his eyes again and smiled.
‘It wasn’t a dream... or maybe it was, just a good and true Christmas one’ he thought.
He took a quick shower and left his cabin, heading for the central bridge of this ship, where EDIs avatar was already waiting for him.
“Good morning, Commander. I hope you enjoyed your first stay on the Normandy.”
Shepard smiled. “In one word: YES!”
“I am happy to hear this. If you want a breakfast, you can take a look at the kitchen down one level. But I suggest you join the catgirls in their breakfast on Jenga.”
Shepard nodded. “Good idea, do you know if anyone of the Normandys crew is already awake?”
“I will ask Cortana about it, most of them are used to getting up early. Just follow the Exocomp, it will bring you to the Cafeteria.”
One of the small drones appeared next to Shepard and ‘looked up’ to him.
‘More crew’ Shepard thought and nodded.
“Lead the way” he said, and both of them left the ship. It was still early morning on Jengas clock, but there were already quite a few catgirls in the corridors.
“Commander Shepard, good to see that you survived our little surprise for you” one of the catgirls in the Cafeteria said as Shepard entered the room.
“Yes, I did... best Christmas I can remember. How many of you were not informed about the surprise if I may ask?”
The catgirl chuckled.
“You mean if there was anyone not informed? I don’t think so, the Normandy was the largest and most difficult project we did in the last years, most of us were involved in some way.”
That gave Shepard a lot to think about.
“May I ask you something?” he said while sitting down with his breakfast.
“Sure,” the catgirl replied and leaned back with her cup of tea.
“Why did you built the Normandy? I don’t think that you wanted to do me a favor.”
“You left an idea behind. We played around with in in the Grid, to see how a ‘real’ Normandy could look like. And we had a lot of discussions if it would be possible at all. Or if WE would be able to build one. In the end, there was only one way to determine who was right.”
Shepard wasn’t convinced.
“I don’t believe that was the only reason.”
“But it was the important one. The other thing which kicked of the construction was the attack on our station. We wanted a craft we could send anywhere without fearing our friends would be attacked, a craft that would punch an attacker on the nose.”
The catgirl sighed.
“You can imagine that some of us were not happy about the Quirk we got, but in the end we convinced the rest that it was your ship. And that we would build another one.”
“I am sorry about the Quirk” Shepard said, “I really did not wanted to steal your ship.”
“Forget about it, it was a cool project and we learned a lot. We will build another one, and this one will be ours!”
“Same features as the current one?” Shepard asked with a smile.
“Maybe some improvements, some design decisions had to be finalized early, but now we have a chance to do better. And maybe get an idea how to refit the Normandy of course!”
Just in this moment three catgirls Shepard had met yesterday appeared on the table and sat down too.
“Good morning Shepard, I see you rise early,” one of them noted with a smile.
Shepard nodded, taking the time to drink his tea.
Everyone settled down to enjoy the breakfast, but one catgirl had a question.
“Do you have something in mind to do with the Normandy?”
“We need to test the ship, but I would like to do so without anyone noticing it. The Normandy can be a nice surprise for some of the bad guys out there, I don’t want to spoil it.”
All the catgirls around the table grinned about this thought.
“That should be no problem, Jenga is currently not that close to any of the mayor traffic hubs, so the Normandy should be able to slip out without anyone noticing,” one of the Catgirls finally replied. “At least unless we activate the Transponder code.”
“The Normandy isn’t officially registered yet,” another catgirl added smirking, “so the new transponder code would be noticed by someone.”
“We’ll find a way to do it. Transponders are not that important away from the mayor traffic lanes, at least as long Space Patrol or Great Justice is informed.”
One catgirl grinned. “I think we got that covered. So where do you want to go?”
“Lets finish breakfast first, I’ll decide when we leave the hangar” Shepard said and grinned. “Enjoy it, I doubt the kitchen on the Normandy is as good as this one.”
“You know what they say, the morale of a crew raises and falls with the food. And we wouldn’t want to have a couple of catgirls with a low morale, would we?” one of the catgirls answered.
Shepard looked towards the open airlock a last time and then back to the eight catgirls on the bridge. Two of them even had to stand.
“Last chance to back out, ‘cause I don’t want any complains later.”
The catgirls grinned.
“Can we get the ship out now?”
“Primary crew to your stations and get me a status report!”
A catgirl hurried away from the bridge towards the lift and the engine room entry one deck below, another one sat down in the pilot seat at the tip of the room.
After a moment a holographic display opened on the central Holotable and a catgirl appeared.
“Commander, this is Engineer Kira. Main reactor starting up from standby, expecting full power in 60 seconds.”
Shepard raised an eyebrow, which made the catgirl chuckle.
“Sorry, we did a lot of training on the Grid the last year and a status report like this just sounded cool.”
“We will have a lot of time to work something out, ” Shepard replied with a grin, then he turned his attention to the pilot in front of him.
“Maya, open the hangar and take us out, nice and slowly,” he ordered.
But the catgirl did not react, making Shepard blink irritated.
“Maya, are you asleep?”
“No, Commander Sheppard. Do you think we are finally ready for leaving the hangar?”
“You overheard that I told you to leave the hangar?”
“When did you do this Commander?”
“Just a few seconds ago?”
Now it was time for Maya to look irritated.
“You did?” she asked carefully.
Shepard nodded and smiled.
“Maybe you really just didn’t hear it, it happens. Would you now get us out of the hangar, please?”
The catgirl nodded and quickly turned around, her handy flying over the consoles in front of her.
“EDI, is there a place where I could watch us leaving the hangar?”
The holoscreen in front of Shepard activated itself to display a three dimensional image made by an external camera.
“The screen is your best option Commander, since the Normandy has no windows. Its a warship, and windows are just another phrase for a hole in the armor,” EDI explained.
Shepard just nodded, looking at the hangar doors slowly open. He had been dreaming about this scene for his whole life.
‘Not any more dreaming, there is work to do’ he thought and turned to Maya again.
“Maya, plot a course towards one of the uninhabited sections of the Main Belt, I want to do some tests without too much prying eyes.”
“Aye aye Commander” Lisa replied.
Slowly the Normandy left its place of birth, accelerating out into the inky blackness of space.
The Normandy was racing through the Main Belt at nearly 9 percent lightspeed, but contrary to popular believe there are no rocks streaking past the ship on both sides.
Shepard was concentrating on the output of the holographic monitor, after a series of test they were pushing the ship right to its speed limit for the first time.
“Plotting our next turn, increasing engine output to maximum” Maya stated.
She was sweating, racing with a ship of the Normandy’s size through the belt high speed had been a ride, but doing it again at more than thirty thousand kilometers per second was hard. Especially because Shepard had asked EDI to add a couple of thousand more asteroids as simulations to make it challenging.
‘Hit the wrong rock head on and we are all history. But I can do this, I have done this in a lot in simulation, just keep breathing and do it!’
Shepard was already thinking about the coming tests.
“EDI, as soon as we are on full speed, get your drones back into the hangar. I guess you have found a few nice rocks we can use for target practice?”
“Yes, Commander. We can test the weapon systems as soon the next run is over. I have already send the coordinates over to Maya.”
Shepard smiled as he watched the icon of the Normandy to continue racing along the track he had set through the asteroid field.
“Engine room. Kira, give me a status report.”
The face of the catgirl appeared on the holographic screen.
“Mass Effect core and ion drives at full thrust, we reached a peak at 11.03 percent lightspeed. The system is heating up, but everything is still in expected levels.”
Shepard nodded and turned back to Maya.
“How about maneuverability at full thrust? Do we have the shaking thing fixed?”
“Yep, its better now. Looks like the imbalance between the two ion drives is worked out. I still would like some tests about turning the ship with only one ion drive through.”
Shepard grinned about those ‘power sliding’ tests, he still could hear Kira complaining about the stress to the Normandy’s frame, but the ship had survived it well enough.
“We will do more tests until we are certain it does work as you say. Better we to do repairs now then having to do them happen during a real mission!”
Shepard watched the rest of the engine tests silently, but then he began to grin.
“Time for our weapon tests! Are you sure that we have only have solid rounds for the main gun?”
One of the catgirls sitting on a console on the left nodded.
“Yes, only solid rounds for the moment. But I don’t think you will be disappointed.”
“Okay, then lets do it, get the drones out and select a target.”
‘Only solid rounds for the moment, good to have a ship with its own lab’ Shepard thought as the the drones left the ship and his monitor switch to the picture of a small asteroid.
“Oculus one and two in position, awaiting orders Commander” Maya said, her fingers already over the remote control of the first drone.
“Fire!” Shepard ordered, and the asteroid on the screen was bathed in a bright light. Her watched as the red laser beam slowly began to carve a gap into the stone.
“Good enough for a Fen car,” he said with a smirk,“ Let the second fire now!”
A second red laser beam joined the destructive work of the first one.
‘I don’t think we will need more firepower that this on any mission,’ Shepard thought, but there was still one last test to do.
“Stop the drones lasers and fire the main gun!” he ordered.
For a moment Shepard could feel a vibration below his feet, then the rock on his screen was hit and shattered.
“Ouch, that gotta hurt” he said.
With the technical tests done and the Normandy floating near an asteroid, Shepard tried to decide what to do.
The ship had succeeded most tests. There were some rough edges on ship and crew, but those could be solved in time. The important question was if he would be allowed to use the ship at all.
The Chief was a fan of solid, robust and reliable things. Considering that she came into space with an Apollo and the main ship to deliver one of the FESWAT Teams happened to be so rugged that they had yet to fail somewhere.
Shepard wasn’t sure how Andy would react to the idea to test a new kind of ship at Space Patrol.
There was only one way to find out.
“Maya, plot a course back to Jenga, cruising speed. Time to get the ship home.”
But the catgirl did not reacted.
For the fourth time today.
Shepard blinked a few times. Something strange was going on. At first he had thought it was a joke, but Shepard did not believed that Maya was stupid enough to repeat it over and over until he would just get her out of the pilot seat.
‘Something is blocking my commands. A quirk maybe?’ he thought, trying to think about anything that wasn’t fitting the idea from the games. Then he grinned.
“Joker, plot a course to Jenga, cruising speed!”
“Aye Aye Commander!” Maya said with a chuckle.
Shepard leaned back as the ship accelerated, thinking ahead to the talk he would have with Andy. The chief was tough, but not unreasonable, so they would find a way not to turn away this gift to Space Patrol.
“I don’t think the Chief is at the White Tower during Christmas. As soon as she’s back, we’ll fly to the Tower so I can talk with her about the Normandy.”
One of the catgirls scratched her head.
“Do you think there’ll be any trouble with leasing the ship to Space Patrol?”
“Oh, I think there will be lots of trouble. First the Chief is no fan of experimental or not field-tested hardware. Second the ship has a crew and an AI who are not part of Space Patrol. And I am sure the Chief will think about some other things too.”
Shepard could feel that the catgirls were suddenly worried.
“Don’t get me wrong, I think we will get the problems out of the way, but not today. And we should not pretend the problems do not exist, that would be not realistic.”
“Lets go home.”
Shepard nodded. He was starting to like this vacation.
The White Tower
Andy Cramers phone rang.
‘New Year’s Day, back at work and the phone is ringing’ Andy thought with a smirk.’ Just another day at the office.’
“Chief, here is perimeter security. We just got a ship on our scopes heading for the White Tower. I think you should be notified about it.”
“Because Commander Shepard is on board the ship. And the transmitter the ship just activated says the ship is called ‘Normandy’.”
The phone threatened to fall from Andy’s fingers, but she only for a moment, while her facial expression changes from a smirk to a frown.
“Shepard,” she muttered under her breath, with the phone only picking up unintelligible mumbling.” Isn’t he even able to take a vacation without getting himself into trouble?”
She breathed in deep for a moment.
“I want scans of it and two of the Star Clippers watching it, before I’m allowing that ship to dock. If its Shepard and a ship named ‘Normandy’ it spells trouble. You know Shepard.”
“Yes, ma’am,” the other side said and hung up before Andy could say anything more, leaving her to steam at being called ‘ma’am’.
Moments later Andy stood up and made her way towards the main hangar, grumbling along the way about Shepard, brigs and zip ties.
“Standby Star Clipper is just launching, second one will take a few more minutes” he heard the voice of the hangar master from the communicator.
“Scan results incoming Chief,” came the voice of one of the Perimeter Security operators of Section One. ”Unknown aerodynamic ship frame, most likely custom built, 63 meters long. We register a strong Mass Effect field, working as engine and shield system, but we can also see two other engines on the wings, currently inactive. Ship is at least partly radar stealthed and has no windows. Two small visible weapon turrets, one large and one small airlock. Transponder registry code is CI-200 Normandy.”
‘Mass Effect field?’ Andy thought.
“Great, the kitties are involved...” she muttered with a sigh. “No surprise when they have invited him...”
“Chief, we are being hailed by the Normandy. Its Commander Shepard.”
“Put him through,” Andy noted and waited for the telltale click over the connection that signaled that she was put through to the connection to Shepard. Then she waited for his first words.
“White Tower, here is Commander Shepard on the Normandy, could you please connect me to Chief Cramers?”
“Shepard!” Andy yelled into the communicator. ”Can’t I even send you away to take a fucking vacation without you messing it up?”
“I am sorry Chief, I did not know more about my vacation than you did. But it seems I got a nice Christmas present I would like to talk about with you, in person if possible.”
“Christmas present? Are you drunk on egg nog or something? That is more then just a Christmas present!”
“No Chief, I am not. I can even show you a picture of Santa Clause. Its quite a strange story, but I think you will understand whats going on. Shall I come over with my shuttle to the White Tower or do you want us to land?”
Andy breathed in deep. Considering CGI, she had a good idea what the Santa would look like.
“If its a sexy catgirl in a sexy little number, I do not need to see it because I see that every time I look into a mirror,” she said with a growl, eve through she was about to laugh out loud, but that would ruin her image.
“You will dock and than we will talk,” she said, keeping up the light growl. “Alone!”
“Normandy will proceed to dock with White Tower. Shepard out.”
The Normandy slowly floated into a large hangar bay of the White Tower, carefully aligning its airlock with the Towers one.
“Airlock connection established, atmosphere pressure one hundred percent” the hangar master announced. “Shall I call the two Star Clippers back?”
“No,” Andy, who had now reached the hangar, noted. “We’ll call them back when we are done here.”
The airlock opened and Shepard appeared behind.
“Good to be back home Chief, that was the craziest Christmas I ever had” Shepard said and stepped out.
“I’m sure,” Andy noted dryly and looked behind the man who was the bane of her existence more often then not. There was a second airlock, and two catgirls behind him looking out of the airlock Shepard had just left.
“I said that I wanted to talk to you alone...”
“Do not worry Chief, they are part of the crew, they agreed to stay on the ship while we two are talking.
“Bending the rules already,” Andy muttered and then hooked a finger into Shepards collar to pull him after her and into another, currently unused, airlock nearby. Another finger then pushed a button to close it for privacy.
“So what is the deal with that ship?”
“Do you remember what I told you happened when I first visited Jenga? The last thing I did before I left was to apologize, that I just was delusional enough to believe they would build me a Normandy. It seems the idea to build a ship similar to the one from the Mass Effect games stuck.”
“And they are just giving it to you out of the good of their hearts...” Andy noted sarcastically.
“Please let me finish, Chief. They finished the ship a few weeks ago, but it did not worked very well. A number of strange quirks that prevented them from doing a full tests. They reasoned that the first Normandy, which they built after the two ships of the games, was unfortunately not a ship that would accept any captain. So they invited me to test this hypothesis...”
“The ships AI recognized me as the captain of the ship the moment I entered. We did a number of technical tests of the ship during the last week, and it works very well. As long as I am in command, at least. So they propose a compromise.”
“Okay, what does that have to do with Section 6 and why should I allow you to keep it?” Andy then asked coldly.
“They will lease the ship to Space Patrol, we will get a crew for it and they will even cover maintenance or upgrades. But they want the technical data about how the ship behaves so they can do better in the next one.”
“Think about it Chief. This ship is much more modern than anything we have. Its well armed, its stealthy and its able to do long range operations on its own. It has its own on board repair options and a large hangar. And its for free.”
“The problem is that we know that the Clippers work. They work very well and are easy to maintain. You have to give me more than that.”
“I don’t think we need to worry about maintenance, they have 24 Exocomps in the ship that can do most maintenance jobs together with the AI. And it is much faster than our Clippers, which gives us new options for quick response operations. We might be even able to give CI feedback whats missing and they might integrate it later!”
Actually Andy had long since made up her mind. The Normandy was a good way to keep Shepard out of her hair for longer times at once. And it was always good to have a highly mobile Operative Team out there not based on the White Tower. Much better to have them on the move and able to get into action when needed.
“Just to be sure you understand, if you disagree I will tell them and they will have to find another way to make the ship work. I will not throw away my position at Space Patrol just for a ship.”
Something suddenly stuck Andy.
“Well armed? The ship only got two lasers...”
“Oh, it seems you missed the spinal mount 88mm coil gun. Nice thing, just between first and second deck, Mass Effect boosters inclusive,” Shepard replied with a smirk.
“Spinal mount? What were the cats about to do. Fight a war?”
“I think they are in this mindset since the raid on Jenga a few years ago. I have tested the coil gun in the Main Belt, it will shoot two holes in nearly all ships the bad guys have. And then there are the two combat drones...”
Andy could feel that Shepard was enjoying the exposition a little bit too much.
“Okay, stop it,” she noted icily. “Just shut up and let me think. And do not even think of talking before I allow it.”
With that she let him just hang there, while she took her sweet time to let him stew, while she pretended to think about the whole thing.
A few times she pretended to say something, but to then stop herself for thinking a little more. It was after the third time that Shepard started to sweat a little.
Then she took a deep breath.
“You,” she said and pressed a finger onto his chest waiting for a moment to let him sweat a little more,” will get the ship. BUT...”
Holding up a finger she continued.
“I will watch you like an eagle. You screw this up and I will give the ship back to CGI. And you will be put into Logistics and never see it again. Am I clear?”
Shepard swallowed and nodded slowly.
“Yes, Chief. There is just one other thing I would like to mention. We have to think how we integrate the crew into our missions. At the moment they are not even part of Space Patrol, and they will learn a lot about us.”
“They won’t be part of Space Patrol,” Andy noted. “But rather a sort of temps. They will get payed, they will be part of operations and briefings, but not part of Section 6.”
“What do you think about creating a new status as a deputy in Space Patrol?”
“Didn’t I say that, smartass?”
“Was not sure about that Chief. But Space Patrol gives it a formal name and procedure, other Sections might use it later too. I think a lot of Fen would understand the procedure, especially in the Jupiter system.”
Shepard smirked. “Exactly... the wild west of our solar system!”
“I don’t want to deal with this. Go up to Section 1 and get them to deal with this. It is their job and I don’t want any more paperwork. Now get out of my hair. I got actual work to do.”
“Yes Chief, I will!” Shepard said and then he grinned.
“Oh, just one thing Chief. The Normandy is connected with an FTL link to the Interwave. So no communication delays to the White Tower.”
Andy gave Shepard a glare.
“Don’t even think about developing some Colombo quirk or I make sure that there will be delays.”
“Peace Chief, you know me. I work well in an independent group, I don’t need to call home every few minutes like Ensign Jones.”
“At least Jones does not generate paperwork. Because when you call home, it means trouble and doubles my paperwork.”
“I will do what I can Chief.”
The button of the air lock was pushed again and opened, allowing Andy to walk out and away from Shepard and the hangar in her usual way, after dealing with Shepard. Grumbling and her cane impacting on the deck plating a little more forceful then needed.
“And now get to Section 1 and have them deal with those cats.”
Shepard just smiled and left for the Administration area. There were some paper jobs he liked to do. And he knew that others wouldn’t like the paperwork he created for them.