What Goes Around
Kal'Reegar did not return the geth's arms-open gesture, but instead stared blankly at the mobile platform after giving Tali a wary glance. "You teach it that, ma'am?"
"No," Tali said and shuddered in her suit. Not only had the geth taken a quarian name, it referred to itself in the singular. She couldn't tell which she found more unsettling. She had gotten so used to Legion's mechanically precise mannerisms and synthesized voice that when Mobile Platform Two arrived speaking and acting the same way, she assumed it was the only way they would communicate. This, however, was unnatural.
Though Shepard was more intrigued than uneasy like the quarians next to him, he could definitely detect the shift in mood. "It mentioned that it had been programmed for diplomatic relations, but this is the first we've seen it in this... mode."
"Huh," Reegar kept staring at the machine, frozen with its arms outstretched. He took a deep breath. "Keelah'selai," he said, and the geth lowered its arms.
"Reegar!" barked a voice from the open gate leading to the docking tunnel.
"Out here, sir," Reegar called back.
A pair of quarians emerged from the gate. The leader had a relatively plain beige suit and a dark brown faceplate surrounded by a striped green head scarf. Behind him followed a taller, thinner man in a dark maroon suit with shiny gold trim. Shepard's gaze dropped instinctively to the sidearms holstered on their belts. Elanus pistols, he could tell, but not the specific models without seeing their barrels. Precautionary weapons, he thought. Not enough to start trouble, but enough to provide cover in the event something went wrong. Given that these were probably the first geth they'd seen up close, he couldn't blame them.
"Why haven't you brought Tali'Zorah and the geth aboard-?" The beige quarian stopped when he saw the small party standing outside the companionway, including not one but two geth, and a human.
Platform Two moved past Reegar and again extended its arms as it faced the new arrivals. "Captain Alix'Carn vas Giraf, Consul Amista'Rilos vas Rayya. I am Chil'Darre vas Normandy, a terminal of the geth. Keelah'selai."
Both of the quarians stared at it with wide eyes. Alix'Carn squinted behind his mask. "How do you know who we are?"
Platform Two clasped its fingers in front of it, hands pointed downward in a gesture of trust and supplication as Shepard had seen Tali do uncounted times. "I cross-referenced your biometrics, voice print, and enviro-suit accoutrements against a database of known quarian individuals."
The pair of quarian officers bristled. Kal'Reegar's eyes narrowed, and even Tali tensed at the geth's declaration. Shepard also winced. None of the Citadel species took it well when they found the geth had been quietly observing them for several years. He couldn't imagine the quarians would like it any better.
Platform Two must have sensed the increased stress its response had caused. Its voice was calm, almost soothing. "I assure you no quarian networks were penetrated to obtain this data. This information is freely available in various publicly accessible social networking and consumer marketing sites."
Shepard couldn't help but feel slightly sorry for the geth. They were programs designed to share information, and were doing just what geth always did. That they had practically instant, on demand recall of the entire extranet was both impressive and imposing, but they hadn't used it maliciously up to this point. The fact they admitted it so frankly was proof of that. But it was an ability that had no organic comparison, and to a species that had been nearly exterminated and regarded the geth as the enemy, it had to be even more frightening. Even Tali, who had been so excited about the prospect of negotiations continuing now stood silently with her arms crossed with her eyes cast down at the grungy deck below. Was she having second thoughts?
Captain Carn certainly was. "I am not letting those things on board my ship. And certainly not delivering them to the Migrant Fleet!"
"Hold on, now," Shepard held his hands up.
Kal'Reegar nodded. "I agree, sir, this is a mistake."
"Quiet," Rilos snapped. "Both of you. Captain, need I remind you that you are under orders from both the Conclave and the Admiralty Board itself? You will deliver Tali'Zorah and the geth as directed."
Reegar glared at Rilos while Carn shook his head resignedly. "No, you do not. But I want to go on record as saying that I think this course of action will endanger the Flotilla."
Captain Carn pointed to Legion. "Tali'Zorah. Bring that one aboard. Leave the other one behind."
Before Tali could speak, Shepard moved forward. "Uh, that one's name is Legion. And," he forgot what Platform two called itself, "Blue's coming too. We all are."
Carn looked at Tali, anger evident in his voice. "Who is this?"
Tali cleared her throat. "This is-"
"I'm Commander Shepard of the Normandy."
The captain's expression softened as he turned to face the human. "Commander. My apologies. I didn't recognize you. It's an honor to meet you."
Shepard nodded, relieved at the quarian's lightened tone. "Formal introductions got a little off track there. Pleased to meet you, too, Captain. And Consul Rilos, was it?"
Rilos' voice, deep and authoritative, lacked both friendliness or contrition. "Yes, Commander. You don't remember me, do you? On the Rayya, after Tali'Zorah's trial? You threatened to rip my mask off when I attempted to escort you from the chamber during your tirade in front of the Board."
"Oh yeah," Shepard said and crossed his arms, now much less cordial. "Nothing personal, I just hate getting slime on my armor. It never comes off."
"Ah, I see you still prefer antagonism to diplomacy."
"There was nothing diplomatic about that trial."
"All your outburst accomplished was to promote confusion and disunity in our fleet. It was completely improper!"
"Oh no," Shepard smiled. "It was completely proper, given that the Admirals were trying to railroad my chief engineer. Not to mention secretly advance their personal agendas while excluding the Conclave and quarian population as a whole."
"Damn straight," Reegar muttered. Captain Carn nodded in agreement. Not a single member of the Conclave came out in support of the Board's attempt to shut them out, excepting those on the staffs of the Admirals themselves... of which Rilos was one.
Shepard touched his chin with a forefinger. "And, correct me if I'm wrong, but all the board's dirty dealings were posted on an extranet forum and are now part of the public record. Proving everything I said about them during my closing statement one-hundred percent correct." He took a step towards Rilos. "Which means you can dispense with the righteous indignation and hurt feelings because we're coming along, end of story."
Rilos' eyes squinted shut. "Commander Shepard, this is a private matter between the quarians and the geth. Your presence is neither needed, nor wanted. Tali'Zorah, you and your platform will board the Giraf immediately. Reegar, if anyone, or any thing attempts to board, you are to use all necessary force to stop them. Is that understood?"
Reegar stiffened. "Sir, my mission is to personally escort Miss Zorah back to the fleet. My orders come from Admiral Gerrel himself. Beyond that, your authority over me is limited, sir."
Shepard gave the marine a nod before turning back to the quarian consul. "And your authority over me is non-existent."
"Commander," Tali said, stepping between them. "If I may. Captain Rilos, Commander Shepard is here at my request, and at the request of the geth. If they are not permitted to board, we are returning to the Normandy."
Rilos looked back at Carn, then to Shepard. The human looked equally surprised at Tali's interjection.
"You will return to the fleet empty handed," Tali summarized. "And will have to inform both the Board and Conclave of your failure."
Rilos waved a hand at her. "You think because you are the daughter of an Admiral that gives you some sort of authority over these proceedings? Your exile has not yet even been overturned, and you presume to to dictate terms of these negotiations? Go back to that... zoo you call a ship and let the adults handle this."
Shepard looked down and massaged the knuckles on his right hand. In his mind, the Consul was about to get the beating he deserved at Tali's trial. But Tali stayed in front of him, her voice still measured and serene.
"No, Amista," Tali said his first name as if he were a treasured friend. "It's your presumptions that are invalid. The geth are our guests on the Normandy, and we have promised to provide the safe passage to the negotiations. A key part of that security is the presence of Commander Shepard as an escort. Chil'Darre, is that an accurate assessment of your wishes as the geth delegate?"
Mobile Platform Two nodded reverently. "I could have not voiced it more eloquently, Tali, thank you. Captain Rilos, despite his aggressive tendencies, the geth view Commander Shepard as a stabilizing element in a situation extremely susceptible to miscommunication that could lead to unwanted hostility. In the same spirit that Alliance mediation was vital to open negotiations with the Migrant Fleet, I ask that the Commander and his attaches may accompany my delegation to guarantee neither side is taken advantage of by the other."
Rilos stared at the blue geth, mouth agape behind his mask.
"In short," Platform Two concluded, "If Commander Shepard and Legion are not allowed aboard, we must politely decline at this time."
Rilos' gaze turned to the battered, war-torn geth standing to the opposite of Shepard. The synthetic being must have noticed, because it responded but in a harsh, synthesized tone. "We concur with this assessment."
For a long moment, quarian, geth and the sole human all looked at one another. The only sound was the low hum of the station's over-worked, under-maintained air circulation system.
"I have to clear this with Fleet security," Rilos said and turned on his heel. "Carn!" he barked, and the captain of the Giraf followed with a sigh.
"Rilos!" Shepard shouted at the pair of quarians as they entered the docking tunnel. "Let them know we're rendezvousing with the SSV Shenyang. Because it's from there that my 'zoo' is going to expect to hear me call... and I guarantee you don't want them coming to look for us."
The pair disappeared into the docking collar, but not before Rilos gave Sheprard a final, disgusted parting look. Shepard thought briefly about the outcome had he gone through with his initial plan. Knowing from Tali how hard those enviro-suits were, he debated if taking a swing at Rilos would have been worth a broken hand.
"Well I feel better about this now," Tali didn't try to hide her sarcasm.
"Yeah, me too," Shepard said. "They were totally planning to cooperate." He turned to the blue geth. "What do you think?"
Platform Two's head flaps expanded slightly. "If they agree to our terms upon their return, I am willing to proceed."
"Yes, but with one caveat."
Shepard looked at Tali, who still looked slightly spooked at Platform Two's perfect diction. "What's that?"
Platform Two rubbed its chin with perfect mimicry. "Even if they agree to take us to the Alliance ship, there is no guarantee they are telling the truth. In that eventuality, Mobile Platform One will be unable to compromise the geth collective, and this platform will self destruct. However, my concern is that you and Tali may suffer dire consequences."
Shepard looked again to Tali, who nodded her assent. He had a hard time breaking her gaze as he spoke, but he finally did. "Don't worry about us. They're the ones that need to worry about dire consequences if they double-cross us. Right now, it's your call."
"We must move forward," said the blue geth.
"All right then," Shepard said as he glanced back to the waiting docking portal. "If they accept, we go." He looked at his watch as he touched the transponder in his ear. "And the sooner the better. Normandy, do you copy?"
"Loud and clear, Commander," Miranda replied.
"How are we looking?"
"Ten minutes past our scheduled departure. But so far, no Alliance or Citadel contacts in system."
"There is another problem, though, Commander."
Shepard steeled himself. "What is it?"
"The Moorage Office has notified us we have exceeded our contract and are subject to their hourly rate. It is quite exorbitant."
"Put it on my tab," Shepard said with a shake of his head.
Having watched the entire exchange in almost complete silence, Reegar moved to stand in front of Tali. "Pretty impressive, ma'am, if I may say so."
Tali rolled her eyes. It wasn't that she didn't appreciate his admiration, but she had dealt with Rilos' kind too many times not to know how to put him in his place. "Rilos is an idiot. He was always trying to suck up to the Admirals, especially my father. He keeps hoping for appointment, but they think he's just an opportunist. And they're right."
"You always did have a good grasp of what was going on with the brass."
"Thanks, Kal," Tali smiled and shifted sideways so she could see the entire group. Then he saw Shepard looking at her, with that funny little grin on his face. Ordinarily, her first instinct would have been to look away, because any time he made eye contact with her, she pretended something else caught her attention. But this time, she looked back, and his grin was followed with an approving nod that made her skin flush.
Shepard turned to the marine. "Your new Captain, Carn, was it? Seems like a decent man."
"No sir," Reegar said. "Carn's not my CO. Like I said, I was specifically attached to this ship by Admiral Gerrel to make sure nothing happened to Tali. After this, I go where they tell me."
Tali slapped the marine gently on his shoulder pad with the back of her hand. "Please, I can take care of myself."
"Yes ma'am," Reegar said. He looked at the floor. "But you know just as well as I do the Admirals have their heads up their asses. Uh, ma'am."
Shepard nodded toward the pair of geth. "Look, if you're here because of them, I promise she's as safe with them as she is with you or me."
Reegar's tone was polite, as always, but then the marine had the same composure when calling out an enemy position for destruction. "Of course, Commander."
Tali looked at the empty docking passage. "Maybe it wasn't the geth that the Admiral was worried about."
Shepard crossed his arms and eyed the two geth, who scanned him expectantly in return. Rilos' reaction to his presence was enough to make him want to call the deal off, but the geth wanted to proceed. "You think we can trust Gerrel?" he asked the quarians.
"Yes," Tali said. After everything Han'Gerrel said to her on that one call, all she wanted to do was see him face to face and thank him in person. It wasn't her own reputation that was at stake, though, it was her father's. Overturning her own conviction was the first step to clearing his name. "I do."
"Yes, sir," Reegar said after Tali finished. "He's a good man. Hell of a soldier. Always does what's right by the fleet. Always has. If he says it means negotiating with the enemy, then it's the right thing to do."
"Okay then," Shepard said, and took a few steps up the corridor to look into the empty docking arm. He checked his watch once more. They were now almost fifteen minutes behind schedule. The longer they tarried, the greater the chance Citadel intelligence would be able to track down the Normandy and its departing operatives. He kicked aside a plastic water bottle and snapped his fingers rapidly into the base of his fist as he began to pace. Come on, he willed his quarian hosts, let's get this show on the road.
In the middle of an abandoned promenade, Jack shoved the last bite of a super-fun sized Galaxy bar into her mouth and washed it down with a gulp of lemon-lime soda. She'd made sure to leave Normandy with a full belly, but as active as her metabolism was she could hardly go an hour before the hunger pangs kicked in. While the sugary snack and drink weren't the most nutritious, they still had valuable calories and tasted a damn sight better than the ass-on-tray Garner served in the mess.
She threw the empty bottle aside and emitted a loud belch that echoed up and down the deserted corridor. If any of the shops were still doing business, they weren't open now. Graffiti-covered shutters and doors lined the hall, and only the overheads illuminated her way. On any other station this size, she'd be elbowing her way to cut through the crowds, but not here.
Someplace has got to be open, she thought. Dashta was a haven for low-lives. Even if the honest stores couldn't keep their doors open, there was always somewhere in a place like this to have a good time... if you knew where to look. As much as she enjoyed a good soda, she definitely needed something a little stronger to whet her desires and christen her rebirth into the world of the free.
She passed a darkened service corridor next to a planked-over club called Temptations and heard muted conversation punctuated by stifled laughter. She paused a moment to let her eyes adjust to the dark and she stepped in, feeling the comforting prod of the handgun tucked in her waistband... It wasn't near as satisfying, though, as the flash of blue that sparkled about her, providing just enough light that she could see the group of addicts at the other end... and they could see her.
There were five of them, two human, two batarian, and an asari. One thing Jack knew was that if humans and batarians partying together, it was going to be a good time. The asari was just a bonus. All were clad in armor in various states of readiness, from the asari who had successfully donned every piece of protection save for her helmet, to one of the batarians who was passed out on his back on top of a pair of trash cans wearing one shoulder pad and his boots. All of them turned toward the glowing biotic with bleary eyes.
"Wow, she's sparkly," the human male said in an airy voice. He was a younger kid in his early twenties, wearing half his armor, the irises of his eyes wedged wide by whatever chemicals were coursing through his system.
A girl wrapped and arm around him. She was about the same age and wore only faded camo pants, a black concert-T and jacket. She eyed Jack from head to toe, a look of disgust on her face. Jack always liked the effect her wardrobe had on the jealous types.
The girl scoffed, "A bit chilly for that, isn't it?"
"The ink keeps me warm," Jack said with a shrug. The younger girl pushed up a sleeve, revealing plain, unblemished skin. She shoved the fabric back down and pulled her boyfriend tighter.
"You here for the party?" the conscious batarian said from behind four drooping eyelids.
"I'm always looking to party," Jack said, and she meant it. Or she thought she did. In her time before got hauled off to Purgatory, she'd gone on every galactic trip available. Hallex, red sand, creeper, g-shok... As long as it got her high or it mixed well with vodka she was game. Though since her time on the Normandy, she hadn't touched any of it... She'd needed to keep her wits about her on a Cerberus boat. They weren't going to take her because she was in some hallucinogenic haze. But out here in the sticks, what would be the harm?
The asari nodded at her. "So, what, you use like an L2? L3?"
"What the fuck does that matter to you?" Jack said. "I'm more interested in what you're using right now... and if you got any more?"
The asari's eyes flickered in the dark. "Maybe. What will you give me for it?"
The human boy squinted through his own blurred eyes in the dim light. He knew running into a human biotic was rare enough even with his drug-addled brain, but the bald head and pale skin covered in tattoos finally registered. He tried to stand up, fumbling for the rifle mounted to his back, but it was on the ground in front of him. "Holy fuck, it's Subject Zero!"
By the time the semi-concious batarian uttered a confused "huh?" and the asari managed to struggle to her feet, Jack lunged forward and grabbed the man's neck, sending a pulse of energy through the palm of her hand that overloaded every synapse in his head like lightning through a cheap circuit. Before his body struck the ground, Jack spun on the asari and batarian, her hands flung outward. They spiraled into the air surrounded cascades of blue and white energy, just high enough for Jack to grab their dangling limbs and smash them to the floor. The short fall, however, was nothing compared to the same bio-electric shock endured by their human friend when Jack took hold, and their bodies hit the ground with a sickening thud.
Jack whirled on the girl now, silencing her scream with a jab of her head against the corridor wall. She closed her left hand around the girl's throat, and reared a glowing blue fist over her shoulder. The harsh glare produced two sharp points of light in the center of each of the girl's terrified eyes.
"How the fuck you know who I am?" Jack hissed. Behind her, the surviving batarian, still stoned, snorted and shifted on his side.
"Please, I'm not with them," the girl gasped.
"And who are they?"
"I don't know! I swear! I never seen them before! They came to the station a few hours ago. Them and their friends..."
Jack tightened her grip. "They're looking for me?"
"They're looking for a bunch of people! The ones that got off that ship that just pulled in a little while ago-"
Jack's entire body flared with energy. "Where are they now?"
Tears streamed down the girl's face and sparkled from the bright biotic glow. She started talking rapidly, which was exactly what Jack wanted. "They're all over the station, hiding. Dozens, maybe a hundred of them. A bunch of them are in Temptations right now. Look I just live here, I swear. They said we all just needed to stay out of the way and it'd be okay..."
Jack's grasp tightened around the girl's neck. She didn't even need to use biotics to kill her, she knew. Strangulation would kill her quickly enough, or with enough torque on the right axis, vertebrae would begin to snap. But she let the young girl slip into unconsciousness and Jack dropped her to the floor.
"Dammit," she cursed herself. There was a time when you would have painted the wall with the bitch's insides, she thought. Now look at you. She knelt down and quickly removed the girl's shirt and slipped it over her head, covering her tattooed torso. In a matter of seconds, the jacket took care of the distinctive markings on her arm. She ran a hand over her stubbly head.
Moving over to the dead human, she pulled the man's dirty gray t-shirt over his arms and head and tied it on as a makeshift do-rag. It wasn't the best disguise, but it would keep her from getting made as that bald chick with all the tattoos long enough for her to get the hell off of Dashta. She paused long enough to make sure the girl was still unconscious along with the batarian on the bins before she skulked back to the main corridor. She passed the club's service entrance on the way and without a sideways glance walked casually past.
Back on the Normandy, when she found they were going to Dashta, she made a point of memorizing the layout of the station, timetables for the local shuttles, locations of all the active terminals. Even though she skipped out on Shepard's farewell bullshit and rebuffed his pathetic attempt to find out where she was planning to go, Kelly had been kind enough to send her the station info. Jack had a good shot of catching the next shuttle to the salarian port on Erinle if she hauled ass.
Thinking of Kelly made her slow her pace. Fuck her, she thought. Fuck all of 'em. They get what they deserve for flying the flag. She stopped at the end of the access way and peeked around the corner. The main corridor was quiet and deserted, just like she left it.
But what about Grunt? He's pretty cool. Hell, he even likes you. And Garrus? Got that stick up his ass, but he's saved you how many times with that sniper rifle of his? And Mordin, helping out with your implants all the time along with the Doc, coming down to talk to you when no one else does other than you know who... Jack closed her eyes, then opened them to look behind her. The side door to Temptations was just five meters behind her. The empty corridor, though, was right there. All she had to do was walk.
But she couldn't. She'd spent the better part of a year fighting beside those people. She'd been fighting her whole life. But never for anything, she thought. There was never anything in worth fighting for. Not like now.
Slowly, reluctantly, she turned back for the door. Surprisingly, when she tried the access panel, it slid open to the dimly illuminated kitchen area of the club. A batarian wearing light blue riot gear stood up from his chair when she entered, cradling a Mattock rifle. He squinted at her shirt and jacket. "What do you want?"
"Got a smoke?" Jack asked. Blue Suns, she realized. The batarian obviously recognized her outfit as belonging to the girl she'd mugged, but had a hard time telling one human from another. He fished in his combat webbing, produced a pack and tossed it to her. She nodded her thanks, and made a show of patting down her pants pockets. The batarian held up a lighter, and lit it when she stepped forward.
"What's going on out there?" the Batarian asked.
Jack waved a hand dismissively after taking a drag on her cigarette. The alien weed burned her lungs. "They're all hyped up. Buncha lightweights."
"Goddamn it," the guard said. "I told Concho to keep 'em straight out there."
"Yeah," Jack jerked a thumb over her shoulder. "He's face down in a garbage bin."
"That stupid son of a..."
Jack leaned against the railing. She knew she wouldn't be able to flirt with four-eyes, but she recognized boredom when she saw it. "So what are you guys doing here, anyway? Concho and his little buddy zoned out before I could get a straight answer."
"You ever heard of the Normandy?" The Batarian leaned back in his chair when the human shrugged. "Yeah, well, it's been a big thorn in our ass for months now. Wrecked dozens of shipments, torpedoed a hundred deals. Killed who knows how many guys across Eclipse, the Suns, the Pack, everybody... We got a tip that they'd be pulling into Dashta today. So guess who's sitting all nice and pretty down at the end of your docking bay?"
Jack looked thoughtfully at the ceiling, then jabbed her cigarette at the guard with a grin. "The Normandy."
"That's right. And we're all here to give them a big hello."
Jack passed her smoke back to the Batarian, who lifted up his faceplate to smoke it. She wondered how many all of them meant. "So what are you waiting for?"
"Don't know. When it's time to move in, they'll tell us."
"So, you guys, like, bounty hunters or something?"
"Today we are."
"Dead or alive, something like that?"
The batarian laughed, all four of his eyes squinting tightly. "Oh sweetheart, there's no mercy today. Not with these people. Payday only happens for confirmed kills. There's a lot of big money to be paid out, and a lot of people who wanna get paid."
"Wow," Jack said, trying to suppress the rage building inside of her. "So, how many-"
Just then, the serving door to the club swung open and a figure wearing infantry-grade battle armor stuck its head through. "Yo!" the armored woman called out and held out her hands in front of her. "We move in ten. Let's saddle up!"
The batarian handed the cigarette back to Jack, who put it back in her mouth in spite of the alien's saliva coating its tip. He took a step toward the door.
Jack stood as well. "You want me to go get 'em?"
"Yeah," the guard said gruffly. "Go wake their asses up. Dumb fucks'll sleep right through it. We need their guns."
"Right," Jack said and opened the door.
"Hey!" the batarian shouted, making Jack freeze in the door. She looked back at him.
The guard now stood in the open serving door, through which Jack saw a dance floor filled to capacity with soldiers checking their weapons and armor. "Be sure to get your ass back in here afterwards," he told her. "Cuz I'm telling you, it's gonna be hell on the docks real soon!"
Jack waved and let the door slide shut behind her. In the access way outside, she turned toward the main hall and strode quickly away. Her mind raced. Where was the rest of the squad? How long until they found the bodies in the alley? How the fuck did they find out the Normandy would be here? And most importantly, how can you warn the ship? She hadn't bothered to take a communicator with her when she left, because she wasn't coming back.
By the time she finished that thought, she was running as fast as she could.