Steve: (pleased) I inspire you? That’s… amazing. Thank you! It’s wonderful to know I have a positive influence on someone. I’ll do my best to live up to it.
James: You’re an inspiring dude, Esteban. Though I wonder, were they inspired to be a badass pilot like you? Or just a procurement specialist? Eh?
Steve: (incredulous snort) “Just” a procurement specialist? There is nothing that is not badass about being a procurement specialist, Mr. Vega. If you’ll recall, it was my connections that got us some decent tequila, and it’s my skills that let us keep our Blasto underwear circuit running even in wartime. It may not be as action-packed as piloting the Kodiak into hot zones, but my procurement skills are just as important to the war effort.
James: True enough. We’ve probably donated enough just from Blasto underwear to build a cruiser by now.
Steve: (smug) Exactly.
James: All right, all right. You’re badass, Esteban, and it’s no surprise you inspire people. You know I was kidding anyway, man. Hell, you inspire me.
Steve: (touched) Why thank you. Now, how about the rest of this question? How long have you been such a beefcake?
James: Well, I’m naturally pretty wiry, but it-
Steve: (interrupting him) Sorry, hold on. Wiry?
James: Yes, wiry! That’s a legit word to describe guys who are muscly but not really bulky. You’re wiry, Esteban!
Steve: (smirking) I know. It’s just… not a word I’d think of to describe you, Mr. Vega. To be honest, I picture teenager-you as a slightly smoother, less scarred and tattooed version of contemporary-you.
James: Well, exactly. I’ve always been into working out and staying fit, so by the time I enlisted when I was sixteen I was pretty solid for a guy my age. I thought I was ready for the training, and I was, but it was still a challenge. Lots of the recruits who weren’t in the kind of shape I was had an even tougher time. There were a few in my training group, including me, who’d been working out and eating right since puberty, and after a while we noticed that we had an edge. I was young and cocky at the time… way cockier than I am now, if you can believe that-
Steve: (muffled snickering)
James: No, seriously. If you think I’m full of myself now, you should have met me then.
Steve: I did, remember? On Fehl Prime.
James: Ohhh… yeah. See, you know! One of my sergeants used to wonder how I lugged my ego around without an eezo core.
Steve: (now laughing openly) Sounds about right.
James: Anyway, when the training was over everyone who’d lasted through it had been whipped into shape. Most of us, but not all. Me, I was a big shot, even compared to the other buff guys and girls who’d been the top scorers with me. I liked that. I liked being just a little bit stronger, a little bit faster than everyone else. So I thought that if I wanted to stay the best, I needed to keep working out, get beefier. Be a tank.
Steve: You must have run into people who used illegal enhancements.
James: I sure did. Steroids, implants, illegal gene mods – it’s all out there for anyone who wants it. I won’t lie, I considered steroids for a while, but I was lucky. My first CO was interested in fitness like me, and she was in fantastic shape. None of us grunts could beat her in hand-to-hand. She knew what was what, so I decided I should talk to her about my options before I did anything. And thank god I did. I didn’t outright tell her I was thinking about illegal drugs, but she knew – she’d seen plenty of others like me make the wrong choice, and more importantly she’d seen what happened to them because of it. So she set me straight. Told me horror stories about what happens to the guys who get hooked on the stuff, showed me some educational vids. I was convinced.
Steve: I almost don’t want to ask, but what does happen to those people?
James: For one thing, a dishonourable discharge and a permanent black mark on your record. For another thing, cancer, sterility, mutations, life-long illness, maybe an addiction or three. And that’s the least of it. Awful, awful stuff comes with black market cybernetics and unregulated genetic tampering. What some people voluntarily do to their bodies… it’s scary, man. Horrifying even. Especially in hindsight, given what the Reapers are doing to us right now.
Steve: You don’t mean-
James: Yes I do. I saw pictures and vids that gave me nightmares. I even knew a few marines who took that path. They wanted to be better than the best – nothing was ever good enough. They wanted perfection. And at the end, they looked more like husks than people. I’m not even kidding.
(Steve shakes his head silently with a disturbed expression on his face.)
James: Something else my CO taught me – all the modern technology we have, mass effect fields and gene mods and cybernetics, it all comes with a price. Mostly that price is using it responsibly. Some of it is the consequences of not using it responsibly. So she made it clear to me that if I wanted a career in the Alliance, and if I wanted to be the best I could be without sacrificing my health or my body or my ideals or my friendships, then I needed to keep it legal and keep it safe. The rules are there for a reason. I took her advice, and she got me in touch with all the best people the Alliance has for this type of thing – personal trainers, doctors, geneticists. I got a few extra gene mods apart from the normal Alliance package, so my muscles are slightly better at using the protein and vitamins I eat, and they take longer to fatigue. My lungs are slightly more efficient at blood oxygenation under duress and my myostatin is suppressed so my muscles can get bigger, within healthy limits. And I have a cardio-regulator implant that monitors my heart and my blood oxygen levels. It sends out little kicks of various enzymes and hormones now and then to give me an edge in high-stress situations, like combat. It has built-in limits it won’t go over, and if I’m close to going over a limit or if my body is taking more strain than it can heal in a reasonable time, it sends a warning to my omni-tool.
Steve: Huh. That’s pretty impressive. I take it you still have to work out to maintain your current muscle mass?
James: Yep. And to entertain you, of course.
Steve: (smirk) Obviously.
James: Got beefy, gotta stay beefy. Once upon a time it was just so I could beat up mercs and pirates and fight krogan and have raw sex appeal, but now I do it so I can throw cannibals at rachni and punch brutes to keep them off Loco while he’s having epic biotic fights with banshees and Collectors.
Steve: (dryly) Uh huh. Or you could, you know, shoot them.
James: Hey man. I’m not saying I don’t prefer to shoot them. I got implants and gene mods for that too, courtesy of the Alliance. But sometimes a brute gets pissed and keeps coming no matter how many Graal spikes I launch into its face, so I gotta punch it around a bit to teach it who’s in charge. No?
Steve: No, of course you’re right. The Reapers need a reason to be scared of us, and you fit the bill, Mr. Vega.
James: Damn right. Now that I’ve given you the crash course in the dangers of illegal body enhancement, how about you? Maybe after the war’s over? It would take longer for you, because I got all my tech when I was younger and still growing, but you could be a tank just like me if you worked hard, Esteban. Hell, you have chest hair, you could even be a legit bear.
Steve: (smiling) As appealing as the idea is, I’m fine with my current level of beefiness. I’m more into bear-hugging than bear- …being. Shepard, though – he’s always expressed admiration for your muscles. I bet you could convince him to become a bear. Then I’d have two teddy bears to keep me warm at night. I could be the meat in a bear sandwich! I’d be the happiest guy in the galaxy.
James: This is starting to get sexy. (shuffling toward his workbench) I’m gonna go over here before I get too interested and can’t concentrate.
Steve: (affecting a pout) Aww… well, you know where to find me, Jimmy boy.
James: Sheesh, Esteban, not while we’re on duty.