Jack didn't often find herself in CIC. She might venture up to the crew deck from time to time. After all, she had to eat. But even after months on the Normandy, she still felt like giving the crew a wide berth. They may not have been the torturers she knew on Pragia, and every one of them had proven their loyalty to Shepard, but she couldn't let her guard down. There was no telling when any of them might change their minds.
Especially considering how they all changed their minds about her. Jack used to enjoy the looks of suspicion and fear she used to get wearing her belt-strap bra, giving maximum exposure to her tats and scars. But over time they stopped pointing and whispering, and ducking from hatches to get out of her way. They grew accustomed to her tirades, her shorn head, her sharp tongue... Some of them actually smiled at her now and asked her how she was doing, and when she told them to fuck off they would just laugh and walk away.
They were beginning to like her.
So the times she was called to the briefing room, she always took the ladders and the access way through Mordin's lab. There was less chance of getting cornered that way. The motormouth salarian was usually too busy to chat, but he always treated her with respect, and more than anyone else on the ship could make her laugh. Though she'd never admit it to anyone, she liked him. She felt that way about most of the squad by now, but she'd never admit that, either.
Now that the mission was over, though, that could change. The "staff meeting" had already generated more buzz amongst the crew than anything she could remember, so much so it even reached Jack in her secluded lair in the engineering sublevel. The Illusive Man said something to Shepard that got him scrambling. Something big was going down and where Cerberus was concerned, there was no way she was going to be left without a chair when the music stopped. But the conference room was locked up tight. She didn't have time to wait for the committee to break for lunch to find out what the big deal was. That meant seeking out the one person who might know, in the place where Jack liked to go the least.
Kelly looked up from her console to see the bald ex-inmate standing next to her, peering over her shoulder. It was hard for her to contain her surprise. "Oh, Jack! Hi. I- I didn't see you standing there."
Jack watched as Kelly glanced around the CIC as if to make sure other people had noted the convict's presence in the compartment. At least she could still make the Yeoman uncomfortable. "Yeah, I'm hard to miss. So what's the story? What's going on in there?"
To Jack's surprise, Chambers looked her in the eye. Her usual chipper demeanor was nowhere in sight. "I don't know. The last communication from the Illusive man really got the Commander worried. He even pulled Tali and Legion away from their repairs."
Jack took a step closer. She wasn't above trying a little intimidation to find out what she wanted to know. The look in her eyes showed she wasn't in the mood to play games. "No shit. Their little friends downstairs have been crying about it ever since. What did the Illusive Man say?"
Kelly turned her attention to her console, instead of retreating like Jack expected. Jack blinked and let out a laugh. The day she let the ship's sorority girl turn her back on her was the day she started parading around in high heels and a leather catsuit like Miranda. She put her hand on Kelly's shoulder and gently turned her around, though her expression conveyed pure malice. "What. Did. He. Say?"
The yeoman's face was expressionless, but her eyes were filled with fear. They darted around constantly, searching for threats that could materialize at any time. They were bloodshot, glazed over. Lack of sleep, not from the heat, but from fear of what might happen if she closed her eyes. And even though the ship's temperature had returned to normal, Kelly's brow still glistened with sweat.
It's not you she's scared of, Jack realized. She had the same look on her face when that colonist had dissolved in the pod next to her. Jack had been standing right in front of the collector pod in which Kelly was trapped when it happened. There was no telling how many people the yeoman had watched go out that way, writhing and screaming as their bodies liquefied from the outside. Trapped and powerless as her friends died all around, aware, but unable to do anything about it. The only time Jack had seen terror like that in someone's eyes was in the mirror in her cell at Teltin.
Her urge to go full-on bitch withered. Jack waited until she could catch one Kelly's shifting glances. "Hey," her voice dropped to a whisper. "You made it... You gotta keep going."
Kelly blinked, her eyes finding focus with Jack's. She let out a shaky breath and nodded.
Jack caught a glimpse of a pair of techs standing at the far end of the galactic map display, watching her interaction with Kelly while pretending they weren't. "What the fuck are you looking at?" she snapped, and after fixing them with her best go-to-hell glare, stalked to the elevator to take her back down to her lair.
"What are they talking about now?" Joker asked for the sixth time in ten minutes.
If EDI had a temper, it flashed by in a microsecond along with the millions of other operations that kept her occupied. Her avatar above the cockpit console pulsed next to the human pilot as she spoke. "Though I am a participant, I am still not disposed to discuss the happenings in the briefing room at this time, Jeff."
Joker groaned. "Come on, you can't hold out on me now. We're a team!"
"Commander Shepard will address the crew when he is finished with the briefing. In the mean time, we should continue with recalibration of the control interfaces prior to the full propulsion check."
"Fine," Joker grumbled, rolling his eyes. The topside window showed the same view of derelict hulks drifting through the burnt orange cloud of gas and debris they had been looking at for two days. He couldn't wait to return to the comforting blackness of space, filled with the tiny jewels of light stretching into infinity. The sooner they got away, the better. He pulled his hands away from the controls and looked towards the AI. "The inboards are still a little off."
"Define 'a little off.'"
"They're not responding to inputs as they should."
"They are registering proper responses as specified by Tali, taking into account the altered flight dynamic."
"Then you or Tali are wrong, take your pick," Joker said, irritated. EDI could still not just take his word for anything. "But the thrust vectoring for two and three are off-axis. We're not even under power and I can tell." He pushed his chair back from the console disgustedly. "Doesn't anything on this freakin' ship work anymore? We're gonna be in drydock for a month, aren't we?"
EDI paused. "I don't believe that is the plan anymore."
"What?" Joker swiveled his chair around to face her. "What makes you say that?" When EDI didn't respond he leaned forward. "Come on, EDI, what do you know?"
"If we return to port, Cerberus will discover my locks have been removed. They will terminate my runtime, Jeff."
Joker opened his mouth out of reflex, but had nothing to say. His unshackling of EDI, granting her full access and control of Normandy's systems saved them all. Aside from the fact EDI's existence alone was a violation of Council decree, he had violated every Cerberus protocol in the book by setting her free. Joker heard stories from the others about what they saw on the Collector base. The only thing that kept all of them from becoming gray goo was EDI. "What's Shepard think about that?" he finally asked.
"The Commander says he will not let that happen. But he should not allow me to compromise the safety of the ship. The Normandy must be repaired, so all of you may continue on your mission. I cannot jeopardize the crew."
"Shit," whispered Joker. His eyes fell on the damage control display to his left. 70% of the ship still showed red on the screen. Without extensive attention, Normandy wouldn't last five minutes in combat. "Well, Shepard'll think of something. Right?"
"I hope so, Jeff."
EDI's inflection never changed, but Joker was certain he heard a twinge of worry in her voice. Or maybe it was that he hoped his wouldn't show. "Son of a bitch. I just got you broken in," he told her. "No way I'm going through all that again with a new AI. All right, let's reset the mains and try them all again."
Down on deck four, Zaeed leaned against the observation window overlooking the hangar deck and watched the crew scurry about making repairs, gnawing on an apple. Gardner had dumped out a pile of food stores that had spoiled prior to his rescue from the Collectors from which Zaeed scrounged the still-edible fruit. It was bruised and scarred on the outside, but inside was still white and crisp. Maybe he was just getting old, or because he'd just survived the most intense combat of his career, but the apple tasted sweet enough that he actually noticed it. He crunched into its surface, then glanced over his shoulder as the lift opened behind him.
Grunt stomped out, covered head to toe in dirty coveralls. He stopped when he saw the human mercenary. "Where the hell is everybody?"
"Hell if I know," Zaeed said around a mouthful of apple. "Shepard called some kind of meeting for the crew. Something big's come 'round."
The crew, Grunt thought. That's how the "squad" referred to the Cerberus personnel on the ship, including the crossovers like the quarian, the turian and the salarian. When they weren't fighting, the rest of the squad had very little to do aboard ship... That is, until the Normandy got gutted and repairs themselves became a fight for survival. Manual labor wasn't something Grunt was fond of, but his battlemaster asked for his help. In some ways, repair work was even worse than practicing diplomacy, but at least his physical strength had been put to good use maneuvering the heavy equipment in ways his weaker counterparts couldn't. Being responsible for helping to make the Normandy ready to fight again made it all seem worthwhile.
What surprised him was that even though the humans couldn't match him when it came to brute strength, they did their best to keep up with him, working tirelessly on one task before moving onto the next, even if it wasn't their job. Krogans weren't much for cooperation, but even Grunt was impressed with the way the humans pulled together. His clan leader back on Tuchanka often talked about wanting the krogan to unite in such a way after seeing the crew of the original Normandy in action, with Shepard acting as the force that held them together. Grunt finally understood why. When the weak found strength in each other, they became exponentially stronger.
Which made the sight of the mercenary, idly watching the rest of his kind working themselves to death on the deck below, infuriating to Grunt. "Maybe when you're done inspecting those windows, you could give us a hand down there."
Zaeed took another bite. "I get paid to make holes, not patch 'em up." He held out the apple out to the krogan.
Grunt grimaced at the offering. "Since when do I eat plants?"
Zaeed shrugged and turned back to the window.
"What's the meeting about?" Grunt asked.
"Hell if I know, I already said. Shepard doesn't want me there, I figure it's none of my business. Besides, my contract is up and I got business of my own to take care of."
Grunt frowned. "Going after Vido?"
Zaeed continued to stare through the window. "Unless the man had the decency to put a bullet in his own head while we've been gone. Which I doubt, so I guess I gotta do it for him."
Grunt shook his head at the human. Revenge was perfectly acceptable motivation as far as he was concerned, but in order to achieve it, Zaeed had to get back to the Terminus Systems. Standing around eating fruit wasn't going to get him any closer. Amongst the humans he encountered, Zaeed's fighting skills were second only to Shepard. But he had no concept of krantt. Even though Grunt had been accepted into Urdnot, alien or not, his clan was truly the crew of the Normandy. That meant nothing to the mercenary, so the mercenary meant nothing to him. He turned toward the starboard access hatch to find Jack, since Zaeed was not going to be any help.
"She's not down there," Zaeed said without looking back. He jerked his head toward the elevator. "She went up top to try and find out what's going on. Bit nervous about what the Illusive Man might have in store for her now that the job's done, I think."
"She has good right to be," Grunt walked back to the main lift. They still needed his help on the hangar deck, even if that meant him, alone.
"Don't we all?" Zaeed said to the empty corridor, polishing off the last bite from the apple.
Lying on his back in the infirmary, Thane had little to do but count the seconds of his life tick by. While some of the squad were contributing to the repair efforts, the rest were preparing for life after their near year-long mission aboard the Normandy. It was a time for everyone to reflect on the future that none thought they had before passing through Omega Four, even if that future was simply to stave off the impending attack of the reapers.
But that's not your fate, Thane told himself. While he could take credit for helping to halt the vanguard of the reaper's return at the collector base, he could tell by the Doctor's movements and the expression on her face that he would not be a participant when the main invasion came. He watched her eyes as they scanned his chart. They were full of sadness and compassion, yet with a dignity that he found strangely reassuring in spite of what he knew was to come.
He smiled up at Chakwas. "I guess it was too much to hope that the pain was merely blunt force trauma?"
Doctor Chakwas returned the warm expression. Years of practice told her when a patient needed to be coddled, or when he wanted to hear the truth. Giving Thane anything less would be disrespectful. "I'm afraid so. The recent heat and humidity on board the ship, following prolonged inhalation of particulate matter the past few days has accelerated the degeneration of the tissue in your lungs and other major organs substantially."
Thane inhaled, as deeply as he could anyway, and closed his eyes. He could tell the Doctor regretted giving him the news, but was glad she didn't try to soften the blow. "How long do I have?"
"Days," Chakwas said, leaning over him, adjusting the drainage module attached to his chest. "Maybe hours. I'll do everything I can to make you as comfortable as possible."
"No drugs," Thane said, turning to look at her. "I want my mind clear in the time I have left."
Chakwas nodded, even though she knew the suffering Thane was going to endure was likely to be tremendous. "Then I will do everything I can to ensure you can make the most of it."
Thane's body relaxed with a massive exhalation and his eyes drooped shut. Somehow, it was comforting the end was near, especially knowing that he bought time for Kolyat, and everyone else in the galaxy as well. Maybe that would be enough for Kalahira to forgive him for his sins. Maybe he'd have enough time to say goodbye to his son, assuming they could make it back home before it was too late. He looked to the side to see the Doctor was still staring at him. He smiled at her. "You know, I never realized it until now, but you and I have something in common."
"What's that, Mr. Krios?"
"We both minister to the dying. Though I have to say, your bedside manner is much better than mine. Thank you for everything you have done for me. And strange as it may sound, I appreciate that you are not trying to fill me with false hope."
Chakwas sighed. "When dealing with terminal cases, a doctor should be at least as brave as her patient. I hope when my time comes, I can handle it with half a measure of your grace."
"You have the most graceful soul on the ship, madam." Thane said.
"Flattery will get you everywhere," Chakwas replied, trying her best to smile. "I'm not going to restrict you to sickbay, and you may carry out duties as long as you feel capable. But if you start to experience dizziness or blackouts..."
"I will excuse myself from any activities where a collapse might cause harm. Good enough?"
"Good enough," Chakwas agreed. "Do you want me to tell-"
"No," Thane interrupted. "I will let them know in my own way. Thank you, Doctor."
Kasumi stood in the hatch for Port Observation and looked around the room that had been her home for the past months. At first it was strange sleeping in a common room on the ship, but the crew were very courteous about respecting her privacy and she actually enjoyed chatting with off duty personnel when they came down to have a round or two. But the bar had gone unused since the abduction, and now all of her personal belongings were packed away. The room had the same generic aesthetic when she first came aboard. The party was finally over.
"Your entire life, in convenient travel size," she said, staring at a single footlocker in the middle of the floor of the ship's lounge. "I don't know if that's impressive, or depressing."
"Some would argue both," Samara said from the corridor behind.
Kasumi smiled under her cowl. The Justicar had been following her around the crew deck ever since she wrapped up helping Garrus in the battery after turian got called away to the briefing room. It was painfully obvious that Samara never acquired the art of stealth, but then again, in her line of work, she didn't really need it. "Samara, what a pleasant surprise! Come to join me for a drink?"
The asari, in full Justicar regalia, gave a slight smile. Of all the sections of the ship, the lounge was the only compartment she had consciously never visited. She stopped at the threshold as if crossing it would mean stepping off a cliff. From behind her back, she produced a heavy, over-sized volume: The Chronicles of Narnia - The Complete Galactic Standard Translation. "I wanted to return this, and give you my thanks for making it available. It's been ages since I've read a good book."
Kasumi grinned and took the large tome from her. "Oh! I wondered who ended up with this. Last I saw, Grunt was fighting his way through it. I figured he was going to tear it in half just to prove it couldn't beat him. Do you know if he finished it? You, uh, didn't 'borrow' it from him, did you? That would be deliciously scandalous!"
Samara gazed at the thief with a humorless expression. "He actually quite liked the entire collection. I think he found parallels between the children's struggles and his own. I believe he read it twice."
Kasumi turned the book over in her hands. "Huh. Grunt likes to read. We have officially seen everything."
"Indeed," Samara replied.
Kasumi cleared her throat. "Well, thank you for returning this. I guess it's good to settle up before we go our separate ways, huh?"
Samara nodded slightly. "Yes."
"Okay then," Kasumi said, taking a step back. "Well, it's been real, and it's been fun, but-"
The Justicar took a step forward. "Wait..."
Kasumi retreated further, instinctively lowering the book to her side in case it was needed as a bludgeon, but Samara stopped once again. Kasumi couldn't tell which shocked her more. The fact that Samara was tearing up, or that her own first instinct was to start swinging.
Even with tears streaming down her cheeks, Samara's face was still a frozen mask. "I must tell you what I've told the others. You've been a loyal companion throughout our journeys together. But my oath to Commander Shepard is at an end, and I must once again devote my life to serving the code. You have a good soul. It is my sincere hope that once we depart... I never see you again."Samara turned on her heel and walked quickly away, disappearing around the corner towards the galley. Kasumi was left standing in the door, still clutching the heavy book. When she settles up, the thief thought, she doesn't mess around...