Parting Ways II
The one relief that Samara had in her adult life simply would not come. No matter how hard she tried, sitting cross-legged on the floor of the empty terminal in Dashta Station, her mind would not focus. The sutras she spent half her life memorizing and upholding were not forgotten, but seemed as meaningless and empty now as the disused departure lounge she inhabited. Clad in her immaculately kept body armor, she felt as worn and beat down on the inside as her surroundings, with its abused carpet and rows of chairs facing windows long obscured by graffiti. Though she deliberately sought out an abandoned part of the station for its solitude, she had never in her life felt so alone.
But that was her choice.
When the Commander entered the starboard observation lounge, Samara was sitting in the middle of the deck as usual, but it took him a second to realize what was different. The usual blue-white aura of biotic energy was nowhere to be seen, and the asari did not say his name when he approached. She had to look over her shoulder to see who it was, and then she turned back towards the star field in the window beyond.
As Shepard was prone to do, he took a seat next to her on the floor. He grunted as he lowered himself, still sore from days of combat, opting to bend his knees up in front of him instead of Samara's preferred lotus position. "I'm not even a twentieth your age. I don't know how you can still sit like that."
Samara smiled but said nothing. The two of them watched glittering stars drift by the window in silence.
"Missed you in CIC," Shepard said.
"I heard the eulogy over the intercom. I'm sorry I wasn't there to pay my respects in person."
"You still filed a departure plan with Miranda, though."
"That was your request, was it not?"
"It was," Shepard said. "Just in case things turned ugly with the Council. Couldn't help but notice you didn't leave any way to contact you once we get everything sorted out."
Samara's eyes dropped to the deck. "I have been a Justicar for nearly five hundred years. I began my journey to atone for the crimes of my daughter. And in my time serving the Code, I never once had any doubts or misgivings that this was my calling."
Shepard looked out the window. He knew what was coming.
"My oath to you is at an end," Samara continued, "Because of the Code, if I stay, I may be forced to kill the only people I've ever come to think of as my friends. Including you, Commander."
"Samara... Have you ever thought about life beyond the Code?"
She gave him a piercing look. "Not a single day goes by when I don't think of my daughters on Thessia, who have chosen a life of exile because of who they are... because of what I made them. Or of Morinth, who chose another path, again, because of what I made her. By the Code, none of that matters. What I think does not matter, because of the path I have chosen. But I will remember of all of you here, and remember you fondly."
Shepard sighed. In their entire time together, in the worst of circumstances, even while Morinth breathed her last breath in her face, Samara's eyes held an otherworldly tranquility derived from a source he knew he would never understand. But now, Samara's eyes were ringed with exhaustion and sorrow. For the first time, the Justicar was far from at peace with herself.
Samara closed her eyes and tried to return to her meditations. "May the goddess bless you in your journeys."
Shepard's hands clenched over his knees as he gave her a lingering look. "I'm sorry."
"This is not your burden to bear, even though it is your nature to assume it. Now, please go. I need to be alone with my thoughts."
"Well. All I can say is thank you for helping me. We couldn't have done it without you."
When she didn't reply, he got to his feet and stood in the open hatch. He looked over his shoulder at the ancient warrior who sat like a stone Buddha on the floor, and the hatch sealed behind him.
In the the deserted departure lounge on Dashta Station, tears cascaded down the cheek of the Justicar for the first time in over five hundred years.
Shepard's voice echoed around the engineering sublevel as Jack flipped through page after page on her datapad. Dashta Station was a perfect departure point. Deep in the Terminus, funded by a conglomerate of private companies and mercenary organizations, it was known for not keeping detailed records about those who passed through its gates. Shepard wanted them off the ship? No problem. She couldn't have asked for a better location to part ways.
"Before we get underway," Shepard droned on over the comm system as he addressed the rest of the crew in CIC, "there's just one last thing we need to cover, maybe the most important item of all. With everything that's been going on since we've been back, there just hasn't been time. Since we're all here now, I think it's important that we make time."
Jack rolled her eyes as she leaned back in her bunk, momentarily forgetting her pad. Most important thing, she thought. Bullshit. He's got a direct link to the Illusive Man. And instead of working out a plan to spear the bastard's organs and serve them up as kabobs, he's gone right back to putting his lips around the biggest organ he's got. Go fuck yourself, Shepard.
Shepard continued, unaware of his below-decks detractor. "Two days ago, we lost four of our shipmates. Ranjet Vargese, Roger Goff, Kenneth Donnelley, and Thane Krios. I don't think it will come as a surprise to anyone here that each of them died while performing volunteer duty away from their regular stations. But when the collectors attacked that day, two of them gave their lives so that the rest of us could fight on.
"They were just about as different as two men could be. Everybody knew Kenneth, of course. One of the initial crew of the new Normandy, he participated in her trials and acted as chief engineer until superseded by Tali. His only comment upon hearing he was being replaced was that the new Chief's curves were as lovely as the ship they would tend together."
Laughter echoed over the speaker. When it died, Shepard spoke again. "Kenneth loved the Normandy and his crew, which is one of the reasons he chose to save her, and us, instead of himself."
Jack lowered her pad. Kenneth was pretty cool for a Cerberus puke. A bit of a pussy when they first met, though. He was afraid to come down below decks after she set up shop there, and for the first few weeks he and Gabby sent Tali down if they needed anything because they knew the quarian wasn't afraid of her. But eventually, they ran into each other, and he showed no fear. Even better, one day she overheard him describing her to his engineering pals as they passed through the corridor above.
"She's quite the badass," Kenneth said. "Which is funny because her ass ain't bad at all. Not to mention the rest of her..."
Jack smiled. Kenneth wore the Cerberus uniform, but she could tell he had no idea what they were about, him or his girlfriend Gabby. Their boss sure did, though. Jack knew from the start that Tali had no love for Cerberus, and the kill numbers the quarian put up against them earned her immediate cred... But the longer she listened to the Normandy's two young engineers, the more she knew they were all right. Not that she would ever tell them, of course.
Shepard continued. "He was just one man, but I'd say he accounted for fully a third of the character on this ship. And if he were here right now he'd probably kick me right in the 'daddy bags' for being so maudlin, instead of concentrating on the things about him that mattered most. Like his regular games of Skylian Five, or his creative, if under-appreciated contributions to Gardner's 'Weekly Culture Cuisine' themes, or repeated attempts to to start the first annual Miss Normandy competition. For the record that wasn't thwarted by Miranda or me. Garrus put a stop to it. Not because it was sexist, but because the title eliminated him from running as the most beautiful person on the ship."
The comm pickup registered more laughter in the CIC, followed by the turian's distinctive lilt. "Perfection can't be limited to a single gender. Kenneth could never accept that."
"'Preciate you speaking up on my behalf, Garrus," Jacob interjected, which earned another round of laughter.
Jack grimaced at the Cerberus operative's interruption, but even that was a result of the man's ego, not his affiliation. Jacob was the least fun person on the Normandy by a parsec, but even he wasn't a true believer. She couldn't count the times the former marine backed her up in a fight, even though his biotic skill was shit next to hers. The fact he knew his way around an assault rifle as well as Shepard helped.
"All joking aside," Shepard picked up again, "he did a lot more to keep this ship running than mind the power panel. And he's going to be missed for all of it."
There was a pause, and the microphone barely picked up murmured agreements and more than a few throats being cleared.
"And Thane Krios... Most of you didn't have the pleasure of knowing Thane, and it probably wasn't from a lack of trying on your part."
Jack thought briefly about the frogman. The two of them weren't especially close, but in a firefight, Thane could outshoot even Vakarian at range and how many times had that saved her ass? Just like Jack did, Thane isolated himself in his makeshift quarters, only coming out when Shepard had a job for him. The rest of the ship might as well not existed for either of them.
"I know he came across as distant and reserved but he wasn't unfriendly. Because of who he was and how he lived his life, personal connections were something he just did without. But between missions, he allowed me a glimpse into his private world, and I found a man anyone would be proud to call a friend. He was deeply philosophical and spiritual, which was odd considering his profession, and he had a way of putting things in perspective like no one else I've met. If you asked him, he'd say he had no friends. I can't speak for anyone else, but I can safely say he was wrong. He was my friend, and his loss is something that will stay with me for the rest of my life."
Jack listened to Shepard talk and wondered briefly what he, or anybody else for that matter, would say about her if she were killed? Did it matter?
"Now you are all aware that Thane hoped to reunite with his son at the conclusion of our voyage. What no one outside of Doctor Chakwas and myself knew was that he was never going to make it. He suffered from a rare respiratory ailment that was slowly killing him during his entire time on this ship. It was his wish that he spend his last hours doing something meaningful with his life rather than to waste away in a bed in the infirmary."
Jack let her head fall back against her pillow. The lizard did look a lot greener than usual lately, she thought. She'd seen and heard him hacking up a lung several times on the collector base, but like everyone else she thought it was from the piles of rotting corpses they found in that place. She found it hard to keep from losing her lunch herself, so she didn't give it a second thought.
"He could have opted for a painless, peaceful death in bed. Instead, he refused treatment, even painkillers, and took a post in engineering to free up more skilled resources for repairs elsewhere. He didn't know that decision would ultimately decide not only his fate, but all of ours. After the explosion that took the lives of our friends, he survived long enough to restart the ship's reactors which allowed us to make the jump back home. He died of his wounds moments later.
"Ordinarily, to say someone died for his ship is the highest praise a captain can give. But in this case, it would be an injustice, for both Thane and Kenneth. They didn't give their lives just for this ship. Even the lives of the shipmates they died to save, that which both of them held so dear, were insignificant compared to what's at stake. The reapers are coming. They knew that we battle for something far more important that goes beyond any individual's needs or wants. We're battling for existence, and for the chance that everyone, everywhere can go on living."
Jack rolled her eyes. Here he goes again, she thought. Shepard just can't resist a good speech.
"That's what they gave their lives for. That's the standard they have set for all of us. It's for the future we fight. It's for tomorrow we die."
"Off!" Jack shouted. The audio feed from the CIC faded to nothing. She flung herself from her bunk and stuffed everything she owned into a faded green knapsack. The fact that the entire process took less than a minute made her feel worse than she already did.
The restroom on Dashta smelled of feces, vomit, blood and semen from half a dozen species and any normal visitor would have tried to keep her trousers and jacket from touching the puddles that stained the floor. But this particular human stripped them off haphazardly, letting her clean coveralls and jacket drop wherever they happened to land without a care. She did take the time to stuff them into an overloaded trash bin that looked like it hadn't been changed in a month, along with a ball cap and sunglasses.
She thought briefly about keeping the shades, but she didn't want any reminders of her time aboard ship. She looked at her reflection in the scarred, distorted mirror. Her tats still showed clearly from her belly up to her razor-smooth scalp, her chest barely covered by thin straps of leather that ran behind her back and around her neck. She pursed her lips at her reflection.
"It's good to be back," Jack said, and slapped open the door leading to one of the station's main corridors, ready to see what opportunities Dashta held for her. The only souvenir worth keeping from the Normandy was the Carniflex Phalanx pistol tucked in the back of her trousers.
"Damn," Shepard muttered and looked around for some kind of marker to tell the party where they were. The dim, dingy brown corridor was strewn with all manor of litter and detritus, all bathed in flickering sodium lights. "You'd think a station hurting for business as bad as they are would make navigation a little clearer. Where the hell is it?"
Legion pointed behind them. "Normandy is docked in bay twelve. The creator vessel Giraf is in bay ninety-three. This docking spire begins with terminal one-one-six. It is probable we have traveled beyond our intended destination."
Tali looked up and down the deserted corridor as Shepard stepped back the other way and checked his watch. With all the goodbyes outside the Normandy's airlock, they were already ten minutes behind schedule. He shook his head. "Be nice if they labelled these damn things. Or had a working VI somewhere."
Legion cocked its head. "We do not believe maintenance is a priority on this station. We have already logged twenty-two class-B and above infractions of established organic safety measures. And thirty-seven Class-A sanitary violations."
Shepard tapped Mobile Platform Two on the back as he stepped past it. "Make a note of that, would you Blue?"
"Of course, Shepard-Commander," the geth said and registered the violations.
"OK I see a number," Shepard said, pointing down the previous corridor. "Seventy-three is two gates down. This must be it."
"Keelah, I hope so," Tali said and glanced about. "Why isn't there anyone here?"
"Can't say I blame them," Shepard said. "I'm here and I wish I were someplace else. Gerrel sure picked a nice spot for the drop off."
"It's the closest port to the Fleet," Tali said. "It was this or Omega. You want to go back there?"
Shepard shook his head and kept walking. Tali and the two geth followed closely behind, and for a little while no one said anything. Shepard had been unusually quiet the entire journey through the station, distracted almost. Tali could tell it wasn't the state of the station that was making Shepard tense, or even the recent troubles with the Council. It was that even after everything they had been through together, almost a third of the Normandy's compliment were leaving and not coming back. Some out of circumstance, but others by choice. Having watched him so closely, she knew which departures he took personally.
As they walked, she tried to think of a way to make him feel better. "I didn't get a chance to tell you... I really appreciate what you said about Kenneth. I think it really helped Gabby to hear it coming from you."
Shepard stopped, causing the small convoy to halt in front of an airlock that had been welded shut after some former disaster had gone unrepaired. A flimsy drop-down gate that had been smashed to pieces hung limply from the ceiling in front of it. He smiled at his engineer. "Thanks. You may have been the only one who was listening to me."
"We listened, Shepard-Commander," Legion said.
"As did we," Blue said.
Shepard started moving again. "I hope that means all three of you will be coming back."
Tali walked quickly to catch up to him. She wanted to stop and give him a hug, pat him on the back and tell him that the others were fools for leaving the Normandy, that there was no force in the universe that could keep her from coming back to her ship and to him... but she knew that's not what he needed to hear. "Feeling sorry for yourself, are you?"
Shepard glanced at her, surprised, but he did not break stride. "Little bit."
"Everyone has to choose their own path, Shepard. At least that's what you always tell me. Have you been lying to me this whole time?"
"I would never lie to you. I make it a point never to cross anyone in charge of my life support."
"Good," Tali nodded. "You've learned the most important lesson for a Captain. Don't piss off your chief engineer."
Shepard laughed, which is exactly what Tali was hoping to hear. He winked at her. "That's why I keep Garrus around."
Tali gave him a look.
Shepard grinned. "He's coming back, you know."
"I know." Tali sighed. "I just can't catch a break."
Shepard chuckled again and kept walking. Tali kept in step beside him, with the geth close behind. "Most of us are," she touched his arm.
Shepard stopped suddenly, and she turned to see why. He was smiling at her again, along with a glint of hope in his eye she thought she might not see again. "Thanks," he said. "I needed that."
Tali turned away, flustered. "Well you know, Garrus thinks the world of you, and Mordin too... And even though they're Cerberus, Jacob and Miranda-"
"Contact," Legion announced, looking ahead of them. "Single target, bipedal organic, bearing zero-zero-zero, range one-six meters and closing."
Shepard and Tali whirled to face the interloper, the first they had seen on the station, their hands reaching reflexively to the weapon packs stowed on their backs. The figure, clad head-to-toe in well-worn but otherwise impeccably kept red scale armor, stepped from an open gate with his hands raised. His face was obscured by a translucent mask, his head by a similarly colored veil, but Tali recognized the figure immediately.
"Kal!" Tali shouted.
"Reegar!" Shepard elongated the second syllable to a howl.
Kal'Reegar bowed slightly, his hands still in the air. "Request permission to approach, ma'am!"
Tali squealed and bounded up the corridor to give her friend a hug. He kept his hands in the air the whole time, but there was no mistaking the joy in his eyes. He offered an armored glove to Shepard as he approached while Tali continued to strangle him. "Commander."
Shepard shook Reegar's hand and most, if not all, of his doubts about this mission faded away. "Goddamn, I thought we'd never find you guys. Good to see you!"
Tali stepped back and looked back and forth excitedly between her friends.
"Glad you made it, Shepard," Reegar said. "This is not the best deck to be wandering." His demeanor turned much more serious as a pair of geth platforms approached behind the human. But that softened somewhat as he recognized the one with badly welded armor and gaping hole in its chest. "This must be Legion."
"Affirmative," Legion's head flaps cycled.
"He's happy to see you," Shepard said. "That's about as good as it gets with them."
"Right," Reegar said, not trying to hide his skepticism. Though he'd known of Tali's talking geth for some time, he'd never actually heard one speak. He still wasn't quite sure what to think of it. Next to the damaged geth stood a shiny blue platform, smaller in stature, a model he'd never seen. It's flashlight eye scanned him continually, which made him uncomfortable. "I see you've picked up another one."
"Uh, yeah," Shepard said, stepping aside and holding his hand out to Platform Two. "This is, uh..."
With perfect balance and posture, Platform Two stepped forward, tilted its head back slightly, arched its back, and clasped its fingers in front of it. "Kal'Reegar vas Neema," Instead of a harsh synthesizer, its voice was that of a young quarian woman speaking perfect, non-translated khelish. "I am Chil'Darre vas Normandy, a terminal of the geth."
Shepard's jaw dropped, but his surprise was nothing compared to Tali's as she listened to the sentient machine give itself a name with perfect enunciation in the birth tongue of her people. It wasn't that any decent voice synthesizer couldn't do the same, but to hear it from the mobile platform after all this time...Blue extended its arms wide to Kal'Reegar in a gesture any quarian would make several times a day. The geth's central camera even flickered in time like the end of a quarian's mask as it spoke in its perfect voice. "Keelah se'lai."