The Rounds II
Shepard's footsteps echoed in the empty Life Support Control Room, not quite masked by the cyclic thrum of the ship's nearby mass effect generator. He passed through the short corridor lined with duct work into the main compartment, now empty save for the small table and two chairs in front of the window overlooking the engineering compartment. The simple folding cot once secured in the corner was missing, as was the personal arsenal formerly on display on the port wall, both as absent as their owner. Miranda had taken custody of what few personal effects had been left behind to get them on their way to Kolyat. Jacob had secured the incredible array of weaponry in the armory. That done, there was no evidence that Thane Krios existed at all, except for a body in the morgue.
Shepard walked around the table and sat in the far seat as he had done countless times before. In many ways, talking with Thane was like talking with Samara. Their beliefs were radically different, but their individual spirituality provided both of them with serenity even during the worst of calamities. Did they ever talk to each other? Did they ever share the philosophies that they shared with him? They were the most reclusive members of the squad, coming out of their quarters only when on a mission, even choosing to eat in solitude most of the time.
The rest of the crew reciprocated with Samara. They gave the her a wide berth, not wanting to upset her sensibilities, living in fear of revealing a minor infraction that might come back to haunt them when the mission was over. But Thane had no such air of doom hanging over him. The only way someone on the Normandy could end up in his crosshairs was if they were contracted to do so, and Shepard held Thane's contract. Even then, Shepard could count one one hand the times Thane joined in the random parties on the ship or group excursions for R&R, and even then he'd always sit on the periphery and watch.
Shepard closed his eyes. Kalahira, Goddess of Oceans and Afterlife... If you're out there, one of my friends just showed up on your doorstep. He was going to take a shot at living the good life when we got done here but the universe had other plans. Give him a good spot on the beach, along with his wife. He earned it.
Shepard leaned back in the chair with a sigh, and jumped in the seat when he saw a figure in the chair across the table looking back at him.
"Hey Shep," Kasumi said, resting her chin on her hands on top of the table.
"Goddamn it," Shepard said through clenched teeth. "Will you please stop doing that!"
Instead of a firing of a glib quip, Kasumi's looked with concern from beneath her cowl. "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine, I-" Shepard was determined to finish the sentence with more than an awkward shrug. "I was on my to talk to you, and out of habit... I turned in here. I did the same thing not twenty minutes ago in the lab, looking for Mordin."
"Ah yes," Kasumi sat up straight. "Making the rounds."
"Yeah, I suppose you could call it that."
"It's what we all call it. We always know when you're on the move. You start with Joker, then Mordin and Jacob. When deck two is clear, it's onto Samara, to here, then to me, Miranda on the port side, over to see the Doctor and Legion, and then on up to Garrus in the battery. Unless there's something more pressing is demanding your attention, of course. We can always tell something bad's about to happen if you mix up the order. Heaven forbid you go down to deck four right away. That's never never a good sign. But when you follow your regular pattern, deck by deck, two-three-four, we know we can all look forward to some pleasant chit-chat." Kasumi cleared her throat. "Whether we want it or not."
"Hey, what's that supposed to mean?"
"Aww," Kasumi reached across to pat Shepard's hand. "You know I'm kidding. If we don't want to talk to you, we always have plenty of time to hide."
"Wait, you hide from me?"
Kasumi gave a coy smile. "Would we do that to you?"
"Yes! All of you! That or suddenly get busy. It's all starting to make sense. How much time can you people stay in the same place and not finish what you're doing? 'In the middle of calibrations,' my ass! Am I really that predictable?"
"You can set your watch by it. Or you could, if you still had it."
Shepard fought the urge to look down at his wrist where Kasumi touched him moments before. When she leaned forward, he'd watched her the whole time and paid particular attention to her hands. Certainly she couldn't have removed his omnitool without him feeling it, could she? "Don't change the subject. I want to hear more about how all of you dodge me."
"You want to look, don't you?"
"Don't need to."
Shepard leaned back, his hands behind his head, trying not to be obvious as he felt around his wrist with his other hand. He felt the omnitool's reassuring shape and smiled. "Positive. You didn't get it. You're just trying to psyche me out, and it's not going to work-"
Before he could finish the final word, a black rectangle made of worn leather arced over the table and landed directly in front of him. Without looking down, he picked up his wallet and slid it into his lap, then put his hands behind his head as if nothing happened. Kasumi fluttered her eyelids innocently. "You do this to everybody, right? Or is this just more special treatment for your Commander?"
"Of course not! I never steal from my friends!"
Shepard held up his wallet. "What the hell do you call this?"
Kasumi pointed at him. "I only took that because you keep telling everybody I do. If I'm going to keep taking the blame, I'm going to at least have the enjoyment doing the crime."
"Uh huh." Shepard cocked his head. "So you've never stolen from anyone on this ship?"
"Ever broken into anyplace you shouldn't have?"
Shepard stared at Kasumi. And kept staring at her. "You sure?"
"Okay," Kasumi rolled her eyes. "I've never been caught."
"Yes, you have," Shepard said. "Because I know who caught you."
"Ah," Kasumi said. "So he ratted me out. What a tattle-tale."
"Only that it happened. He didn't give me the details no matter how hard I pried. He said it was a matter professional courtesy."
Kasumi smiled sadly. "Thane was a true gentleman."
Hearing the drell's name made Shepard remember where he was, and his eyes drifted around the empty room. They finally settled on the thief across the table from him. "So what happened?"
"Well," Kasumi settled in her seat to get comfortable. "As you know I loan out my books. They're not just for show. They're meant to be read. So one day I heard from Gabby who heard from Tali who heard from Garrus," she took a breath, "who heard from Kelly that Thane was having trouble sleeping, but that he didn't want to take any sedatives. So, Kelly suggested reading. Now Thane's a philosophical guy, right? And I happened to have a copy of Zen and the art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a classic by the way, and I figured he might enjoy it."
Shepard leaned forward. "So, what, you loaned it to him and had to steal it back?"
"No, nothing like that. Now, before I perjure myself any further... what's the statute of limitations for breaking and entering on this ship?"
"That's for the captain to decide. Got something you want to tell me, Kasumi?"
"How about Garrus's door, huh? Have you contributed?"
"Don't change the subject. Spill it."
"Fine, I throw myself on the leniency of the court. I do feel the need to elaborate, though. In all honesty, I have never taken anything from anyone on this ship. That's the truth."
Shepard winced. "Yet the security logs indicate someone has been in every single compartment of this ship without authorization, at least once. Some places an embarrassing number of times."
"Well... The window in the armory has one of the best views on the ship."
"Uh huh. So which side of the window were you looking from?"
"I'm not willing to confess to anything specific just yet. Now it's true, I may have done some unauthorized exploration from time to time, but that's just to keep my skills sharp. But honestly, Shepard. I've never taken anything. Not once. It wouldn't have been right, not after all of you made me feel so welcome here. Seriously, you don't steal from family."
Shepard was preparing to call up EDI and begin reviewing security feeds to prove Kasumi wrong, but upon hearing what Kasumi thought of the Normandy crew he stopped. "Then what were you doing?"
Kasumi shrugged. "Leaving things behind."
"What, like what you used to do with those roses?"
"Nothing so blatant as a calling card this time. That would have aroused suspicions, not to mention the hopes of several very lonely people on the ship. So, it might be a piece of candy in someone's pocket, because who doesn't love unexpected pocket candy? Or a box cookies on the cabinet in the crew quarters, or just an anonymous sticky note saying 'you look nice,' if someone was having a bad day."
"Hmm. So, random acts of kindness?"
"Exactly. There's a lot taking going on in the universe without anyone giving back. I like to balance things out."
Shepard looked thoughtful. "You ever break into my quarters?"
"I make your bed from time to time. Clear the empty beer cans from your table. Seriously, could you be any more of a bachelor?"
"Wait. Just how many times have you been up there?"
"Not important. Back to the story. So anyway, I'd been here maybe a month, enough time to get the lay of the ship, figure out who went where and when... But the gentleman living in this particular suite never seemed to leave unless it was to eat, to go to the bathroom, or to take off in a shuttle with you to go twist someone's head off. And reading his dossier, I knew I was in for a challenge. And I was determined to pull it off while he was in here. That was part of the game.
"So, A month later, I'm ready to make my move. I come in, the same way I did just a few minutes ago by the way, and see Thane sitting at this table exactly where I am now. His back is to me and he's deep in meditation, absolutely still. Statues look like they're swing-dancing compared to him. I leave the book under the pillow of his cot and make my exit. He didn't move a micrometer the entire time. I get back out to the main corridor and I'm home free. I open the door to the lounge... and Thane's standing on the other side of the hatch, holding the book out to me."
"Oh, wow," Shepard laughed.
"Freaked. Me. OUT. And he just stood there, staring at me, like he knew exactly when I'd open the door."
"So what did you do?"
"I gave him one of these," Kasumi pointed to herself as she flashed a very guilty smile, "and said 'Hi-iiiii!'"
"What did he do?"
Kasumi cleared her throat and sat up straight. When she spoke, her voice was as low and raspy as she could make it, her face devoid of expression. "Miss Goto. I believe you dropped this in my quarters."
Shepard laughed, hard.
"I was mortified. I hadn't been busted like that in a long time, and I mean a long time, and I've never once had my mark throw it back on me in such a cordial way. Normally, there are more sirens involved."
"Right. So I try to explain. What else could I do? I tell him what I was doing and why I was doing it and he looks at me and says," Kasumi lowered her voice once more. "'I see. I appreciate your thoughtfulness. But in the future, should you wish to loan me another book, I would prefer you use the door.'"
They were both laughing now, and Shepard actually had to cough in order to catch his breath. "Sent you a message, didn't he?"
"He certainly did. But it never came up again. And I never tried again."
"Smart girl. So how did he do it?"
"To this day, I haven't figured it out. There's no air duct, no conduits, no anything that leads directly from this compartment to the lounge. I'd already looked. Either he got by me when I opened the hatch, or he traversed no less than sixteen meters of crawlspace with three junctions in the time that it took me walk to the lounge." Kasumi looked up. "Either way, Thane, wherever you are, whatever you're doing now... I tip my hood to you, sir."
Shepard looked down at the table, fond memories of his friend fighting against the thought that he would never be coming back. Then he looked up to see Kasumi watching him again, a reassuring smile on her face.
"I'm glad you came in here," Kasumi said. "I needed to get that off my chest."
"I'm glad I could help clear your conscience." Shepard cleared his throat. "So I understand you changed your mind about staying? I don't know if I can give a known felon free run of the ship."
Kasumi cocked her head. "You're cute when you try to play hard to get, but I already talked to Miranda and she said you were going to beg me not to go."
"Fine," Shepard climbed to his feet, a little annoyed that Miranda couldn't keep her mouth shut. "I guess you can stay."
"Thanks, Shep," Kasumi said and stood as well, her arms outstretched.
Shepard returned the hug, and immediately thought of the wallet in his pocket. "Watch your hands, Miss Goto."
"How do you know I'm not just reaching for your butt?"
"Because my butt's not the one you're after."
Kasumi took a step back. "Hmm. True. Speaking of which, I fumbled my gun when we came back aboard. It took a nasty spill."
"You dropped it?" Shepard stared in disbelief. "You?"
"I know, right? For a thief, I can sure be clumsy. I'd better go to the armory and make sure it gets a thorough inspection."
"Right. Because military grade weapons are known for their fragility."
"Safety first, Commander."
Joker's voice echoed over the ship's PA system. "Uh, Commander?"
"What is it, Joker?"
"Getting reports of large, heavy objects being hurled into the corridor from the Port Cargo Hold. According to EDI's feed, it's Grunt doing the hurling..."
"Shit," Shepard muttered.
"Uh oh," Kasumi said as she followed Shepard to the elevator. "A Deck Four Detour. You need backup?"
Shepard shook his head. He was looking forward to talking to Garrus about his new shrine, but it would have to wait. "No, I got this. Grunt's working through some new feelings is all."
"Oh. Well, be careful Shep," Kasumi said through the lift's closing hatch. "Remember, if he throws you, tuck and roll!"
As the elevator descended, Shepard braced himself for what was coming next. Everybody on the ship had personal problems at one time or another. When stressed, sometimes a person's brain wasn't as quick as his instincts, allowing impulse to take over. The problem was Grunt's first impulse was usually to destroy the source of his frustration, and if it wasn't available, the nearest thing within range. But it had been a long time since the giant krogan threw a truly dangerous temper tantrum. In fact, Grunt had grown to be a lot like Wrex, preferring to make horrific threats in a calm voice that could be even more unnerving than facing down the barrel of a gun.
When the elevator door opened to Deck Four, the corridor was deserted. A two-meter long storage crate lay on its side on the deck to his left. The lid had snapped off and ended up leaning against the wall, with hundreds of foil ration packets spread out in a trail leading back the the crate. Grunt's door indicator glowed red. Shepard could override any lock on the ship, but he tried to respect his crew's privacy, and he wanted to lessen the chance of catching another cargo crate with his face. He touched the holo panel and it chimed to announce his presence and show himself to anyone standing on the other side. "Grunt, it's Shepard. You okay in there?"
"Uh," Grunt's voice came through the intercom. "Just a minute." A series of heavy shuffles and a loud bang followed.
"Grunt, you're not going to be able to clean it all up in time. I'm right outside. Open the door."
"Yeah, just a minute."
The hatch opened and Grunt, in full battle armor, filled the opening, trying to block Shepard's vision and act normal. Thick blood oozed from a gash in the middle of his forehead. "Shepard."
Shepard walked through Grunt and not around him. It was a deliberate game of chicken, a dominance check to see how the krogan would react. Though he didn't dare show it on his face, Shepard was relieved when Grunt jumped out of the way to let him pass. Whatever was wrong, Grunt still respected the established pecking order. Beyond, what used to be neat stacks of cargo crates had been scattered across the floor like giant building blocks. "Aw, Grunt!"
"I'm gonna clean it up!" Grunt held his hands up in front of him in a calming gesture. His left hand was swollen to twice the size of his right.
"Wait, did you break your hand?"
Grunt squinted at his left hand, then hid it behind his back. "Maybe, I don't know."
"Let me see it," Shepard pulled up the krogan's thick wrist and examined the bruised limb. His knuckles were scraped and bloody, and the skeletal structure showed definite deformation. The whole time, Grunt stared at the floor. Shepard shook his head. "We're going to need Doctor Chakwas to take a look at that."
Grunt pulled his hand away and turned away. "It'll heal."
"That wasn't a suggestion." The krogan did not turn around. Shepard walked around in front of him. "Grunt?"
Grunt turned his head to avoid looking Shepard in the eye. The bloody patch on his forehead glistened in the lights. Somewhere, one of the scattered cargo pods had a dent the shape of a krogan cranium.
"I hate to do this to you," Shepard said. "But we need to talk."
Grunt growled. "I know this isn't what you expect of me. But you don't know what's expected of me. I represent the best of my people. I was engineered to fight the hardest, be the strongest. I. Am. Krogan." He looked down at his broken hand. "Or I'm supposed to be. But look at me now. Punching walls because of a female. One who couldn't even sire my offspring!"
With a mighty roar, Grunt hurled himself at a nearby bulkhead and slammed his right fist into it with all his might. The bulkhead, designed to withstand the stress of interstellar flight, did not budge, and a sickening crack erupted from Grunt's fist instead. Shepard watched with his jaw hanging as the krogan held up his right hand in front of him.
Without a word, Grunt turned his back against the wall and slid down to sit on the deck, his legs shoving away piles of loose cargo. "I'm pathetic. Weak."
Shepard took a cautious step toward Grunt, then sat down across from him on an overturned crate. "No you're not. You're just confused. Believe it or not, this happens to everybody."
"Not to krogan," Grunt said. "Not to me. Death isn't something to be feared. Only dying poorly. And she went out fighting to her last breath, the way I knew she would. I should be happy for her."
Shepard blinked. He'd come in prepared to explain the differences between men and women, the psychology of human relationships, and to carefully ween Grunt away from attaching too much emotion to a relationship barely a week old. But this wasn't about Inez Peralta at all. Peralta was alive and well.
Grunt was talking about Jack. In the entire time Grunt had been on the Normandy, the entire time he'd been alive, they'd never suffered a casualty. What was the right thing to say? Any other member of the crew would need a shoulder at a time like this. Would a krogan accept that? Or would he prefer a fist? Grunt just sat on the floor, staring at his broken hands.
"I tell you," Shepard said. What he was about to say sounded callous to his own ears. "She made them pay for her. There must have been twenty bodies outside her position."
Grunt looked up.
"Yeah," Shepard continued. "I bet the first guy through the door never knew what hit him. Couldn't even tell you what species he was. He was just a cinder."
"Ha!" Grunt grinned. "She always did like 'em well done."
For the next five minutes, Shepard went into gruesome detail about the remains of Jack's attackers on Dashta, even going so far as showing footage from his helmet camera as they approached. By the end, Grunt was back on his feet, laughing maniacally as he looked over Shepard's shoulder, but Shepard felt absolutely cold inside. He cut off his omnitool before the replay reached the point where they found Jack. He didn't think he could stand to see it again. "It was a good fight, Grunt."
"Good fight," Grunt repeated. But seconds later, the smile faded from his face. "One that any krogan would be proud of. So why don't I feel happy about it?"
"Because she was your friend. And you've never lost one before."
"Krogans don't have friends. Only krantt, and clan."
Shepard flashed back to Tuchanka, almost a year before, when a living wall of red pushed through the royal guards to shake his hand, at a time when he needed it the most. "I beg to differ. So what was Jack to you, then?"
Grunt stepped back toward the wall. "Crew."
"All right then. Crew. So which one of these crates was for Thane?"
"Which one of these crates did you bust open for Thane? He's dead too, remember? And three others. Which ones did you sacrifice for them? They were all your crew mates. So you must have done this for all of them, right?"
The krogan looked around the compartment at the ruined cargo containers and their contents scattered all over the deck. He stood as still as a statue as he pondered the question. "No."
"Why do you think that is? What made Jack different?"
Grunt wanted to start swinging again, Shepard knew, because self-examination was his least favorite exercise. Instead, he took a deep breath. "She was the only one who ever came in here to visit me. Other than you."
Shepard climbed to his feet to face the krogan. "So what did you two do together?"
"We played games. Watched vids. She taught me how to draw. One time we made a maze out of the boxes, and then a fort. Sometimes she'd bring me food, when she didn't feel like going topside but didn't want to eat by herself."
"Did you like that? When she came to see you?"
Grunt looked away, but finally nodded.
Shepard stood. "There's nothing wrong with admitting it, Grunt. And the sooner you do the better. It's not shameful. It's not a sign of weakness. She was your friend. And you miss her."
Grunt turned back to the wall, his head hung low.
"I do too," Shepard said.
"Really. So do you want to tell your battlemaster that he's weak?"
Shepard nodded. "How about your clan leader? He's my friend."
Grunt scowled like he was fighting off a headache, but then his bright eyes flashed the way it did when a new concept took root in his brain. Ideas were sometimes the hardest thing for the krogan to wrestle with, but conquering a new idea still counted as conquest. But as quickly as Grunt's expression brightened, it faded again as he looked down at his shattered hands. "She's never coming back."
It took all of Shepard's effort to keep his voice steady. "No. She isn't."
Grunt sighed, then flexed his hands, which made Shepard flinch at the sound of the bones grinding against one another. He nodded. "I should probably get these looked at."
"Good idea, Grunt."
"Umm," Grunt looked around the compartment. "Sorry about this."
"Don't worry about it," Shepard said reaching up to Grunt's shoulder and guiding him to the hatch, stepping over piles of debris. "I'll talk to Blue, see if we can't borrow a few platforms to help clean up."
"No," Grunt shook his head. "I meant... for disappointing you. I know this isn't what you expect of me."
Shepard gave him a pat on the shoulder. "You're doing fine, Grunt. You're doing just fine."
Back in the central corridor, they found Zaeed Massani, wearing threadbare longjohns and armored boots, hunched over in front of the elevator in the midst of the scattered combat ration packs. He stood up at the sound of the hatch opening, a gray duffel bag draping from one hand. "Seems like we had a bit of an accident here."
Shepard walked over to face the mercenary, a stern look on his face. "What's in the bag, Zaeed? It better not be what I think it is." He held out his hand, and Zaeed reluctantly handed over the duffel. Shepard reached inside and felt at least a dozen of the foil ration packs at the bottom. He pulled a handful out and his eyes filled with anger when he read their labels. "Hoarding lasagna? Really?"
"Listen, Shepard," Zaeed took a step toward him, "I get 'omelette with ham' one more time on a drop, someone's gonna die. I shit you not."
"It's a random draw-"
"Bullshit. Eight out of the last ten times I've gotten yellow puke in a bag. That, or those goddamn carbon-fiber burritos. That shit makes Gardner's swill taste like ambrosia. Even the krogan won't touch it, will ya Grunt?"
Shepard turned to see Grunt bent over now, trying to load the crooks of his arms up with as many rations as he could with his broken hands. "Grunt!"
"Huh?" Grunt stood straight and foil packs rained down on his feet. "Well he's taking them!"
"No he's not! Nobody is!" Shepard dumped the duffel bag on the floor. "Drop them, Grunt. All of them!" He punched the button to the elevator and called into the air. "EDI! Have Blue send some platforms to the main corridor on Deck Four. They are to inventory and re-pack some cargo that broke loose down here. And I want to see count when they're done."
"Aye, Commander," said EDI's disembodied voice.
"And if there are any discrepancies," Shepard tossed the bag back to Zaeed, "the responsible parties will find themselves on a ham omelette diet in perpetuity, even when they're aboard ship!"
Zaeed stared with dead eyes. "You got a black heart, Shepard."
"What do you care anyway, Zaeed? You're not staying, remember?"
The elevator chimed and the door opened. Zaeed took a step toward them. "Yeah. About that. Got a minute?"
"I gotta take him up to the infirmary," Shepard said. "I'll be right back."
Grunt gave Shepard an embarrassed look. "I can make it."
Shepard hesitated but saw true remorse in the krogan's eyes. "All right, you go straight there. And if you give Chakwas attitude, I'll know."
Shepard stepped out to the corridor and followed Zaeed through the hatch to Starboard Cargo. They worked away their way around a wall of crates to Zaeed's own living area at the fore end of the compartment.
"Hang on a second, looks like it's done," Zaeed said and dropped the empty duffel and stood at his workbench in front of an array of parts from his Mattock rifle. He pulled the barrel and receiver from a specially-built fabricator designed to restore firearms.
Like Thane, Zaeed was allowed to have personal weapons outside of the armory. For Thane, it was a spiritual concern. He needed to be one with the instruments he used to kill. For Zaeed, it was in his contract. The mercenary never let anyone touch his weapons. He always stripped, cleaned and reassembled his own equipment personally, and stored them in lockers to which only he had the key. It wasn't that he thought the Normandy crew lacked the skills to maintain their weapons. He just didn't trust one that had been cared for by anyone else.
"So what's with the krogan?" Zaeed said as he worked. "He hit puberty again or something?
"No, nothing like that," Shepard didn't want to go into details, so he decided to change the subject. "Doesn't Jessee get jealous when she sees you flaunt other women in front of her like that?"
Zaeed handled the Mattock rifle like a lover as Jesse looked on in silent vigil from the back of the workbench. Forgoing the use of an omnitool, Zaeed inspected each component by sight, holding them at every angle in the light, peering down the bore of the barrel before sliding every piece back together. "Nah," Zaeed said. "She knows she's my gal. It's like the first time you fall in love. You compare every girl afterwards to her. And no matter who you run into later in life, the first one always stays your first."
"Never figured you for a romantic."
"Only when it comes to my weapon, Shepard," Zaeed reached out and gave Jesse a pat. "Even a good woman can still end up killing you. A good weapon will always keep you alive."
"That's beautiful. You ever thought about writing greeting cards?"
"Well now that you mention it," Zaeed leaned against the workbench, "One time in the Caleston Rift I took on this job..."
Shepard sighed and sat on a stack of crates. If there was anything that Zaeed couldn't relate to a past experience, no one on the Normandy had found it.
The old mercenary's eyes grew distant. "Pirates had been harassing the refueling stations out at Thrivaldi, and Tangeeli Corp was paying out big time to bring 'em down. I'd linked up with Hanzo's Blade, a merc group out of the Kepler Verge. Rank amateurs, really, looking to make a name for themselves. Not one of 'em over twenty-two, barely knew the meaning of suppressing fire. Charge first, plan later. The Traverse is full of kids like that. Would never have accepted the contract except that when you've got that many people charging in front of you, there's less chance a slug will find you in the back, and I knew enough about these pirates that I could take them out myself with a sufficient diversion.
"Anyway, the night before the raid, we're sitting around on the station getting prepped and the Blades are busy talking up how much arse they're going to kick. You know the type. Put a gun in their hand and they think they're death incarnate, but shove it in their face they start crying for their mamas. Anyway, there's this one kid banging on her omnitool, madly working on some kind of schematic. I figure she's working on an assault plan, trying to figure out the best way in to keep as many of her idiot friends alive so they could actually live to spend some of the bounty. So I go over to see if I can give her some pointers."
"And?" Shepard asked.
"The bitch was editing her personal extranet site. We're gonna crack a hard target in less than five hours, and she's updating her goddamn blog. And I'm looking over her shoulder, reading this shit, and she's bragging how a poem she wrote just got bought by some big name greeting card company. But the company chose the wrong font, and somehow that transformed the artistry of her verse into something pedantic and trite. She let me read it, and I gotta tell you, there's not a font in the galaxy that could have improved the shit that poured from that woman's fingers.
"It was a mercy to sentient life everywhere that she bought it on initial contact. They all died in that first wave. The thing is, the pirates weren't much better. Their mothership had shit for internal defense. I torched their docks and refueling facilities, and all Tangeeli had to do was send some interceptors to clean up the raiders that came back starved for fuel and looking for a place to dock.
"So while I was waiting for pickup, I went through their data stores looking for more intel. Damn if I didn't find a pirate's omnitool filled full of the same third-rate drivel as that bitch who came with me. He was even trying to sell to the same goddamned greeting card company. Small universe, eh Shepard?"
He inspected the reassembled rifle as he talked. "Ended up collecting the whole bounty by myself. I gotta tell ya, what I do pays better than greeting cards, and apparently, keeps you alive longer."
"Can't argue with logic like that," Shepard said. "It's tough to switch careers this late in the game, anyway. So what did you want to talk to me about?"
For the first time Shepard could recall, Zaeed actually looked surprised. He sighed and picked up a screwdriver and twirled it by its handle. "Is it true what I'm hearing? Your time with Cerberus may be up?"
"It's not definite, but the possibility is there."
"And you're off to make peace between the bots and the bucket heads?"
"I wouldn't put it exactly like that, but that's the plan."
"You got storm clouds on the horizon, Shepard. Might not be a bad idea to have some firepower backing you up in case things go south. The Illusive Man's not gonna take kindly to you leaving the fold. Not to mention all the bad blood between the quarian and geth. Never know what might go wrong, who might come looking to settle a score. After three hundred years, not everybody's gonna just roll over and play nice."
"It's crossed my mind."
"Yeah, well," Zaeed began straightening the repair equipment on the bench. "Someone's gotta watch your back. Don't get me wrong. You got a good crew here. Taylor? He's a good soldier. Solid as they come. Lawson? Crackerjack operative if I ever saw one. Vakarian's cool under fire, got reactor coolant running in his veins. Zorah can put things together as fast as she can blow 'em apart, and the bot? I can't think of many living men I'd rather have fighting at my side in its place. And the tank-bred can spreads on the hurt like jam on toast. But you're down six now that the Professor has taken leave. I think the squad could use some shoring up."
"You saying you want to stick around?" Shepard said, pretending not to already know. "What happened to going after Vido?"
"The man will die on his own, especially after the beating we gave his boys at Dashta. He doesn't need my help now. But you still do."
"Is that right? Because if we break from Cerberus, there isn't going to be anyone signing your contracts anymore. How does that factor in?"
The old mercenary looked thoughtful, then nodded to himself. "More to life than a paycheck, isn't there Shepard? I've been doing this my whole life. The truth is after the Suns I never found a group I wanted to run with before. Or maybe I never had anyone who wanted to keep me with 'em. Either way, I'm starting to think it's less about salary and more about the benefits."
Shepard grinned. "Whoever told you that was a smart guy. You know, you sold me. I think we can squeeze you back into the roster." He extended his hand.
"Good," Zaeed returned the shake with a single pump. "One condition. No more goddamned ham omelettes."
"Oh, so you want to negotiate after we shook on it? I'll make you a deal. Next time you get the omelette, we'll swap. But if I get it too, you'll just have to suck it up."
"Maybe I can trade off with the dextros. Sure, I'll spend a week on the can, but at least it will taste better."
"Yeah, good luck with that." Shepard laughed. "So, anything other than cuisine we need to cover?"
"Nah, that does it."
"Welcome back, Zaeed."
"Thanks, Shepard. I mean it. Come back later. I'll tell you about Maskim Xul. Talk about the worst food I've ever had to eat..."
Shepard exited to the main corridor and a pair of standard geth platforms were already hard at work sorting and re-stacking the ration packs in their container. He waved to them, even though they didn't wave back. It just seemed rude not to acknowledge them. He'd have to thank Blue for their help when he got to Engineering. He turned left through the nearby hatch, but instead of walking back to talk to Tali and the geth, out of habit turned down the stairs to the left.
"What the fuck do you want," Jack said, lying on her back in her cot in the corner of the lower storage bay. Used to being perpetually under-dressed, she wore only a pair of camo trousers. Bandages from Dashta covered her arms and torso as she held a datapad in front of her face.
"Feeling better?" Shepard asked.
Jack held up a middle finger on her good hand without looking at him.
"I'll take that as a yes."
"Get the fuck outta here," Jack snapped. "I told you I don't want to talk."
Shepard sat down on a crate that faced her cot with a wide smile. "When has that ever stopped me?"
"You got that right." When Jack glanced over and saw Shepard had planted himself down next to her she threw her pad at the end of her bed and rolled over to face the wall. "Oh, goddamn it."
"Jack. Jack?" Shepard thought about reaching out to roll her back over to face him, but that might just earn him a painful jump start. He leaned back with a sigh. "Got news for you. We're done with Cerberus. We're heading in to the Citadel."
Slowly, Jack looked over her shoulder. "Bullshit."
"The Council's granted us amnesty, and full pardons for the entire crew. For everyone. Clean slates."
Jack turned her head back to the wall, her eyes open and vacant. "You'd better not be lying to me."
"I'm not. Miranda's in the briefing room right now, giving her initial deposition. C-Sec and the Alliance already have operations underway to seize anything with ties to Cerberus. But they're going to want to talk to all of us when we get to the Citadel. Especially you. You up for it? Gonna be quite a show."
All Shepard got was a mute nod. There was only one other thing to say, probably the one thing Jack truly needed to hear. "It's over, Jack."
The bald con pulled her legs and arms to her chest. Her shoulders heaved as she lay curled up on her bed, sobbing, making the intricate tattoos across her back stretch and contract. Shepard watched her, but did nothing. Interrupting her catharsis was the last thing he wanted to do.
"Commander Shepard?" Joker's voice echoed over the ship's PA once again.
"Perfect timing," Shepard shook his head. "What is it, Joker?"
"We're twenty minutes out from Raheel-Leyya and we've just received a message from the quarian Conclave, from a Captain Wylo. He's requesting permission to send a delegation over to discuss the negotiations after we arrive."
Shepard looked back at the cot and blinked. Jack faded to nothing. Unlike with Thane, no one had been down to secure Jack's makeshift quarters since her death. A rumpled sheet, a small pillow and a half-dozen empty snack wrappers and soda cans lay scattered in the one corner. Jack had nothing else to leave behind.
"I'm on my way," Shepard said and stood from the crate. He looked down at the cot one more time and noticed a sharp white corner sticking out from beneath the pillow. He reached down and pulled a folded piece of paper from beneath. To Commander Shepard was scrawled across the outside. Since Jack never regained consciousness after returning to the ship, she must have left it before running out at Dashta. He opened up the note to read.
Thanks for nothing - Subject ZeroShepard stared at it for a long time. He let his hand fall to his side and crumpled the note into a small ball. He was about to drop it, but instead slid it into his pocket before walking slowly up the stairs to the main deck and the waiting elevator.