Was this a bad idea?
Yes. Probably. Definitely.
Was Zha going to stop, turn back and leave it be?
No, she was not. Her body felt like it weighed twice as much as it was supposed to and the rain was beating against her hard, doing its best to push her down, but she was showing no signs of stopping. She was going to do this, it was time for her father to meet the mechs that meant so much to her.
This was not going to end well. Yet she was still doing it. Wouldn't be the first time Zha had screwed up just because she couldn't stop.
"Like I said, a crewmate of mine got taken a while back," she shouted over the roaring rain. "There was this asari, it was whole big affair. She took most of my team, save for me and two of my teammates. The problem was that they really actually just wanted the one that remained with me and wanted to exchange the rest of the crew for them."
Zha wasn't sure if her father could hear her over the rain, but he was close and his eyes looked sharp. He hadn't tried to cut in yet, though, so that was a pretty clear indicator that he wasn't listening.
"I… I made the deal, even though I said I wouldn't." She slowed down her pace a little, feeling sick all over again. "I didn't want to. I didn't. I need to get them back, but… I don't know how. I was thinking about hiring some thugs to do it for me, but I don't have that kind of money and… and…" Zha trailed off. There was no point in telling him this. He wasn't going to stay long after seeing her crew anyway.
Zha hastened her pace and drew her Omni-tool closer, opening the communication channel.
"Scribble, I'm coming back to the ship. Dad's coming with me. So… just… be prepared, okay?"
"I'll tell the others to go into the cargo hold."
"There's no need," Zha said and looked at Fha. The man had caught up to her and was walking next to her. And he'd heard the exchange loud and clear, looking puzzled by Scribble's words. "Get them all lined up near the door. We're going to be making introductions."
The line was silent for a beat before Scribble answered.
"Are you sure, Zha?"
"As sure as I'll ever be!" she squeaked. No, she wasn't sure about this, not really. But she was not turning back now. They were almost at the ship, a few more steps and they would be on the docking bay. "I'm almost at the airlock. We'll be there soon."
"Of course, Zha." Scribble didn't say it, but Zha could hear it from the unspoken words. The AI didn't think this was a good idea. And Scribble was right. This was a terrible idea on so many levels. It wasn't enough to deter her, though.
They made it to the ship without the sky itself falling on their heads, which in itself was a surprise. Zha was feeling like she was drowning in her suit and her father wasn't looking much better, water seeping into the outermost layer of his suit, staining it darker than it usually was. Zha walked the steps up to her ship and opened the space side door. Zha stepped in, water dripping from her boots onto the previously dry airlock area. She gave a cursory glance at her father. The man had followed close behind and was now standing next to her in the small space. The door closed behind them and Zha could no longer see the expression on Fha's face, but his stance was rigid, preserved. He was worried.
He was about the get worse.
The airlock hissed around them, checking the pressure and after a while the other door opened as well. Fha looked at her, questioning her wordlessly, but Zha didn't turn to face him. Instead she stepped out, giving a mocking bow to let her father in.
Zha could tell the exact moment her father spotted the crew. What remained of her mechs had gathered near the door like she had asked and they were waiting patiently for their guest. Lucky was standing tall with Niner perched carefully on his shoulder. The maroon mech was swaying slightly, letting out small sounds of distress. Next to them, VI-18 was sitting on its haunches like a valiant canine companion to the odd duo. Fha gasped loudly and stopped on his tracks, his back growing rigid.
"What… What is…?" He reached for his sidearm.
Zha didn't let him make much of a move before she was standing between the man and her mechs.
"You will not draw your weapon on my crew," she boomed, voice louder than she had anticipated. "You are here as our guest and you will not harm a single one of them. Do you understand me?"
Fha stared past her, eyes locked on the mechs, most likely on Lucky. The poor mech had started chirping a bit louder now, looking like he was prepared for combat. Zha turned her back on her father and put her hand on Lucky's shoulder, mumbling that everything was alright and no one was here to hurt them. She wished her father wouldn't make a liar out of her.
Zha turned back around to face her father, who had temporarily lost his ability to talk.
"So," she said uncertainly and lifted her arms to point at her mechs unnecessarily. "This is my crew. This here is Lucky," she patted the mech's shoulder. "And that over there is Niner. He's a real lifesaver. VI-18 doesn't have a proper name yet, but I'm, uh, working on it. And then there's Scribble, of course. Um. Say hi, Scribble."
The main AI was silent for a long stretch of time and Zha was worried that she wasn't going to say anything at all. She coughed uncomfortably.
"Nice to make your acquaintance, sir," the AI said, sounding awfully muffled.
Fha was quiet. He had barely moved since spotting the mechs and he was keeping his mouth shut like he was never planning to let another vowel out. Zha shifted a little, moving her feet around. To be honest, she had expected a far more explosive response. She had hoped for it. Had craved for a real chance to get angry. But the man was just staring. And it was leaving her empty.
"…Dad?" she asked carefully.
"This?" Fha said. "This is your crew? Really?"
"Well… yes? I mean, I know you don't approve, but – "
"And when you said one of your crewmember had been taken, you meant another mech?"
"Well, in a way – "
Fha'Ora breathed a long sigh, his shoulders dropping down like a heavy weight had been lifted off of them.
"Thank the Ancestors," he said, sounding like he was smiling. "I thought you were actually in trouble."
Zha stared at him. "What?"
"When you came to me looking all distraught and told me that one of your crewmembers had been kidnapped by some asari, I actually thought that this was serious! You should have just told that you needed money to buy a new mech, you shouldn't have scared me half to death for something like this, Zha!"
"Something like this?" Zha repeated. "Something like this?! Dad! A member of my crew and my friend has been kidnapped by a group of madmen! I need to get them back!"
He sighed and shook his head. "You were always attached to your mechs. Even when you were little. I get it, you build them, you love them. But this is just too much, Zha, I won't – "
"No! Shut up, dad! Just shut up!" Zha shouted and held onto the sides of her helmet. "You don't understand! You never have! This is my crew! These are my creations! And if you're not going to take this seriously, then you can get off my ship."
This had not been what she expected. This had not been what she wanted. Zha had thought she was going to get high and mighty, to see the man crumple. But here he was, looking down at her. This wasn't at all what she had wanted!
Fha opened his mouth to say something, but Zha just lifted her hand sharply to silence him.
"You know what? No more secrets. Let's just get it all out in the open, why won't we? Lucky here," she barked and nudged the mech closer with more force than she had meant. "Well, he's an AI. How do you like that? Yeah, he's an AI. That I built!"
Fha's eyes narrowed but he still refused to give Zha the reaction she wanted. He crossed his arms and stood up taller, like he was preparing to lecture her. He didn't believe her! He thought she was lying! Zha grit her teeth together.
"And that's not all. Oh-ho-hoo, no. Not even close. Scribble, the voice you heard before? An AI as well. And guess what? She's usually in charge of the whole ship. How's that sound to you, old man? How's that for mechs?"
"Zha, stop – "
"No! No, I won't stop, because – "
"That's enough!" Fha shouted louder, his voice booming in the ship's interior. "I don't want to hear another thing. You're making a fool out of yourself and I'm tired of it. You're doing yourself any favors, Zha."
He still wouldn't take her word for it? Was that it? Where was the screaming and shouting Zha had been looking for? Right now she was to only one fuming and it was far from satisfactory.
She was feeling emptier and emptier. Like every word said was sucking her dry.
She would have preferred the fighting, to be honest.
"That's… it's not…" she tried, but the right words weren't coming out. She didn't even know what the right words were. There probably even weren't any. Zha's shoulders dropped, her head felt heavy.
What the hell was she even doing?
"Well," Zha croaked. Her head dropped down and her eyes were stinging. Even her words were hollow now. "If that's what you think."
Fha uncrossed his arms and took a step closer. He was reaching his arm again, that damn arm. Zha flinched out of his eay.
"I guess this was it, then," she continued. "I guess I didn't need your help in the first place."
"Zha – "
"No, dad, just… just give me a moment to think. Just go."
He looked like he was going to protest, he was still looking to put that damn hand on Zha's shoulder like that was going to fix everything. But he didn't get to reach Zha, not with VI-18 moving to stand between them and shoving its head against his thigh, nudging the man towards the airlock. Fha flinched at the touch, his eyes narrowing behind his visor. He stepped away from the mech to avoid further contact. VI-18 cared little about Fha's apparent discomfort and kept on shoving him towards the airlock. Maybe it was doing it on its own accord, or maybe Scribble had put the mech to it. Didn't matter. Zha felt tired. It was over then, she guessed. She was done for. Should have known better than to expect this planet out of all the places in the Galaxy to wield answers to impossible questions.
Fha'Ora was guided back to the airlock and the door swung shut. Or it would have, had Lucky not stopped it, grabbing a hold of it and forcing it back open. Fha turned to look at the mech, then at his daughter.
"Let the man go, Lucky. He can't help us," Zha said, her voice hollow.
The mech didn't let go of the door.
"Let the man go, Lucky," Zha said with a little more force.
"No," VI-13 answered. The mech reached out for Fha's arm, grabbed it and attempted to pull the man back in.
"Zha! What is this? Tell your mech to let go of me immediately!" he barked, attempting to wrench free. Lucky wasn't relenting, though.
"Help," it said slowly, clearly, looking at the man.
"What – ?"
"Lucky!" Zha grabbed hold of the mech, making it drop hold of her father. "That's enough! If he doesn't want to help us, then he won't. Come on, we're leaving."
Lucky let out a loud screech, not loud enough to hurt, but enough call attention to it. Zha bit her tongue, then shook her head.
"I know," she said. "Come on, buddy. It's over."
Fha was staring. He was staring at Lucky with eyes as large as saucers. He turned to look at Zha, then back at the mech. His eyes narrowed.
"Is this some sort of a trick? If it is, it's not funny," he said.
A trick? Zha groaned. Unbelievable.
"Just get off my ship, dad. I have a rescue plan to make. The last time I tried, things went from bad to worse, so maybe this time I'll… think it through better."
Something seemed to be clicking in Fha's head, pieces fitting in together neatly. He took a step back, his eyes going wide again. He stared at Lucky and suddenly there was real terror there.
"That's an AI!" he shouted.
Finally. The man was yelling. For once it seemed like things were going as predicted. Fha reached for his weapon again, managing to pull it out this time. He couldn't get to Lucky, though, with Zha standing between the two.
"I already told you to not threaten my crew. They are my creations, my children and you will not lay a hand on them," she declared, fists held tight at her sides. Never again was she going to let this man hurt her mechs.
"Are you serious?" Fha shouted. "AIs? And that other one, that voice. That's an AI as well?"
"Like I said."
"And I can confirm it," Scribble doubled, sounding uncertain whether or not she should raise her voice at all.
Fha looked honest to goodness ready to pass out from his confused anger and fright. He backed away until his back hit against the space side airlock door.
"What is this?" he gasped out. "Tell me this is a joke."
"A joke? What? That I have a mech crew? That they are all synthetic and some of them are even AIs? No, I can assure you, dad, that it's no joke. I built most of them myself. There used to be… more." Zha felt bitter. Not the feeling she had expected, but it was there anyway, lodged somewhere between her throat and the acids of her stomach. "Are you proud of me now, dad? Keeping up the family tradition? I can just tell how happy you are to see that you stomping my first mech wasn't enough to squash my talent!"
"Do you have any idea how dangerous this is?" Fha asked. He wasn't shouting. He just sounded about as tired as Zha felt. "These AIs with you? And that one, that voice. How much control does it have over your ship?"
"That voice has a name, dad. Scribble. And we'd all appreciate if you used it. And to answer your question… well, Scribble used to have the entire ship under her control. So if she'd wanted to take this ship, fly into space and open he airlock doors to hurl us out, she could have done that any time she wanted."
Would you look at that? Apparently that didn't help Fha's mood one bit. Zha smiled under her mask and the smile was crooked.
"Would it help if I told you that I built them into AIs accidentally? That I had no idea how advanced they were until just a little while ago? It happened here, actually. On this planet when I was last visiting. Oh, the memories."
She could practically imagine the blood disappearing from Fha's face.
"That… that is…" The man couldn't finish a sentence.
"Zha," Scribble spoke, the ship rumbling under them. "I think you've said enough. This isn't helping."
No, it really wasn't. Zha had thought that she would feel better saying these things out loud, but she didn't. Her stomach was still an empty pit, and she was feeling just as shitty.
She looked down at her feet. Then back up. Zha drew in a steadying breath and faced her father. The man wasn't looking at her, too busy keeping Lucky in his sights.
"Look, dad… I'm sorry. I knew that nothing good could come out of letting you in and meeting my crew, but I did it anyway. And that wasn't nice from my part. But you were going to find out sooner or later. And this is how things are now. Have been for a while. So maybe this is for the best."
"No," Fha said breathlessly. "No, I…" He didn't seem to know what to say.
Well, lucky for him, Zha knew what to do.
"Lucky," she said quietly and moved away from the airlock. "Close the shipside door and let my father out. We're done here."
Fha turned to look at her, about to say something. He didn't get a word out, though, before Lucky shut the door between them, cutting him off. Zha could hear the other door opening and for a moment there was silence. When the space side door closed again with a heavy thud and the inner door opened only to reveal a small puddle of water, Zha let all air out of her lungs. She sat down on the floor, her helmet between her hands and breathed heavily.
That went as well as she'd thought. And she had finally managed to break what remained of the flimsy connection she'd had with her father. No more messages from him, no more conflicting feelings. It was over now, just like she had wanted.
Then why didn't she feel any better?
"I'm sorry, Zha," Scribble spoke. "This wasn't what I had in mind when I suggested coming here. I'm sorry."
"No, I… This is my fault," Zha said, rubbing the sides of her helmet. It really was. But she wasn't feeling the relief she'd hoped she would afterwards. "I guess I'd kind of been hoping to do this for a while now. It's over now."
"Do you want us to leave? I can have the others prepare for a takeoff."
No. She didn't want to leave. Not before a solution would fall into her lap. Zha had come here to find a way to get AI775 back, but the only thing she had gotten out of it was more grief. She didn't want to leave. Zha didn't want to do anything. She squeezed her helmet, fingers curling against it.
"What am I going to do now?" she asked in a small voice. "What can I do? There's nothing! There's nothing left."
The crew had nothing to say to that. Scribble couldn't come up with any solutions either. This had been her idea and now that it had failed, they were all alone again.
Maybe it was time to give up. Maybe it was time to come to terms with what she'd done and how there was nothing she could do to undo that.
Niner scuttled closer to her, climbing to sit on her lap. Zha put her hand on the mech, feeling the familiar shapes of her tiny mech and stared at the wall in front of her. The floor was cold and unyielding under her.
She couldn't give up. She just couldn't. But Zha was exhausted, lonely and lost. And answers weren't just popping up all on their own, no matter how hard she hoped for them.
Zha must have stayed on the floor for an hour at least, absentmindedly petting Niner. The mech had shut down a while back, but Zha didn't mind. Anything to keep her hands busy. She just didn't have it in her to get up. Like she kept on running out of batteries.
Lucky came around every now and then as if he wanted to say something, but he never did. He would stand awkwardly near her, fidget a little, then walk off into the cockpit for a while. Poor thing. Zha would have to look into upgrading his vocabulary at some point soon. Lucky had the intelligence for it, he might even be able to put it to good use.
The sun was setting by the time Zha finally managed to gather up enough willpower to get to her feet and get moving. It ended up being hunger that motivated her enough to rise up from the comfortable rust and dust of the floor. Zha lifted Niner off of her with care and placed the little mech on her bed, where it could safely remain offline. Nodding with satisfaction, Zha made her way to the kitchen and pulled out a vacuum packed meal and a sanitized straw. Then she made her way to the cockpit with her meal and plopped on the pilot's chair.
"Scribble… are you there?"
She wanted to say that the AI hadn't been there a while ago, but kept her mouth shut.
"I don't know what to do," she whispered, turning the liquefied nutrient paste in her hands. "My head is empty, Scribble. What am I supposed to do now?"
The ship hummed around her, the ventilation system exhausting a gust of air.
"I'm sorry, Zha," Scribble said. "I do not have a solution for you."
Of course not. Had she had one, she would have no doubt shared it with Zha already.
"Have you… considered," the AI started out carefully.
"Have you considered that maybe you should leave the geth where they are?"
Zha held tighter onto her meal.
"What?" she demanded. "This again? Scribble, I already told you that wasn't an option. Just because you're scared… just because we're all scared doesn't mean we can just… leave it be."
"I cannot see a solution to your problem that would give us great chances of survival. None of us want to see you hurt and we would rather not put ourselves needlessly at risk either."
"You know that's not what I meant."
"It's what you said," she muttered and slumped on her seat. Zha reached for her nutrient paste again, sticking the straw in and inserting it into the small port in her helmet. The taste wasn't anything special, the cheapest of the cheap rarely had the luxury of tasting phenomenal.
"I've thought about it too, Zha," Scribble said, speaking in softer notes than before. "And I've come to a decision. Whatever you choose, we will comply. We will follow you and do out best to keep you safe. We would even if we weren't artificial."
"Scribble, I – "
"But I beg of you, Zha. Reconsider. Maybe we shouldn't go after the Overseer. Maybe we should leave it be. Go back to the way things were before."
"Maybe," Zha echoed hollowly. She could hear the logic behind the words and hated herself for it. "But AI775… they're only there now because of me."
"They followed after you to the ship even after you gave them a chance to leave."
"Yeah, but that's my point exactly. And… and they asked me to shoot them if the Overseer got them. They… I let them down, Scribble." Zha licked her lips, turning her eyes down on her lap and to what remained of her dinner there. She wasn't feeling that hungry anymore. "And I don't think I can go back to the way things were before. I… I don't want to. I've made some shitty decisions as of late and it's my fault."
"Zha," Scribble tried to cut in.
"No, it really is," she raised her voice. "Not all of it, sure, but a pretty big chunk of the blame falls on me, no matter how much I try to tell myself otherwise. I was selfish. I was scared. And AI775 had to pay for that."
"I see." The lights dimmed down around Zha. "If that is your decision, then I will do my best to help you. Are you going to go back to the Overseer?"
The man had offered her a job. She dug into her pocket and pulled out the card he had given her. It had gotten quite badly beaten in her care, dirty with oil and crumpled a bit, but it still had the Overseer's contact information. She had a way back to the ship. But no plan beyond that.
"The last time I went there without a plan, everything went to shit," she chuckled humorlessly. She turned the card around in her hands, as if a solution was about to pop out from behind it. "Maybe second time will do it?"
Scribble didn't say anything, but she didn't need to. The idea was pretty much crap either way. She closed her eyes, breathing long and deep breaths through her nose.
Her Omni-tool let out a soft ping. Zha flinched. The screen had lit up with its orange glow, indicating that someone had just sent her a message. Zha's fingers hovered over the device, uncertain if she even wanted to know what it was. But in the end, curiosity won her over.
It was a message from Fha. It wasn't what she had expected, to be honest. She had been sure that the man would never ever want to have anything to do with her again. Ever. But there it was, a message from Fha'Ora, shining bright and bold in the darkness of the ship.
Zha's fingers were uncertain over the message, hovering, but not quite touching. Did she really want to know what the man had to say? She had no idea what he actually wanted.
Well, there was only one way to find out. She tapped the message, opening it up.
It wasn't long, but there was nothing weird about that. Always strict to the point, her father was.
Zha, come see me at the bar we met in a few hours ago. I wish to speak with you.
Okay. Not at all what she had expected. The fact alone that he still was willing to talk to her was a miracle in and of itself, but to invite her back there this soon? It weirded Zha out and she was uncertain what she wanted to do about it.
Well, she had two options, to be honest. Either she could leave Gavannah again, denying herself the satisfaction of closing things off for good or she could go and meet her father. Neither of them felt that good, to be honest. It was all about choosing the lesser of two evils.
Five minutes later Zha left the ship with Lucky in tow.