Defection – Zaeed Massani
36 years previously…
Zaeed had half the bar to himself.
He nursed his drink territorially, ignoring the feel of the other patrons' eyes on his back. He was armed and armored - hardly in any danger - but all the same the atmosphere set the hairs on the back of his neck straight.
The bar was just a shoddy dive that catered to the handful of local ranchers that hadn't already moved away to escape the CASAI army base a few miles down the road - hardly a warzone. Still, Zaeed was not one to take chances. He was alone, outnumbered, far from help, not to mention still goddamn exhausted. It was not inconceivable that a few pissed-off locals might get the best of him. As a precaution, he'd set his knife on the table next to him in a silent threat to anyone who might mistake him for prey.
He chuckled wearily to himself, taking another swig of the crappy beer he'd been given and hoping it was only beer. It was funny how fast things were changing. To hear some of the older soldiers talk the locals had once been welcoming, even friendly to foreigners.
But that was no more. After almost eight years they were tired of CASAI's war. They were tired of CASAI's soldiers. The fact that Zaeed was technically part of the European Union's shock corps – a visiting foreign ally, not a direct CASAI hire – had long ago become a moot point. They wanted him gone, and with the way the war had been going lately, Zaeed didn't blame them.
He was sick of the war too. Sick of grueling marches in the heat. Sick of bad press and bad news.
Zaeed sighed into his glass, reaching up a gauntleted hand to smear the red dust from his face, a souvenir from his most recent foray east, to where the fighting was fiercest. It caked on thickly, suffocating in its endless quest to burrow into every crevasse he had, to soil his supposedly-milk-white armor to the same oppressive orange hue that dominated the Kalahiri's palette. His hair felt solid with grime – how long had it been since he'd seen a proper comb? Or a mirror?
Or a refill?
Zaeed frowned. He'd finished another drink. "Barkeep?" he growled, waggling the empty cup in the air.
Footsteps approached, but it was not the bartender. A man – a foreigner, like him, and clad in a green-and-white jumpsuit that identified him as one of CASAI's logistics men – slid into the chair opposite him, grinning as he tossed a fresh beer in front of Zaeed.
Finally. "Bout damn time, Vido," Zaeed growled. "Thought you said it was urgent."
Vido shrugged. "We probably have different definitions of urgent," he offered, leaning his feet up on the stool next to Zaeed. If the other bar patrons looked on Zaeed with dislike, they looked on Vido with nothing short of loathing, but Vido paid it no caution. He was unarmed – and half Zaeed's size, to boot – and yet moved with the easy grace of a man who thought himself invulnerable.
"Ain't that the goddamn truth," Zaeed said, setting into his new drink with a grimace. He and the rest of his division had limped into the base earlier that morning, tired and wounded after months of fighting and marching through the desert. Zaeed had had every intention of getting himself a shower, a hot meal, a woman, and a very great deal of booze – in that order – until he'd found Vido's message waiting for him, insisting he trudge a few miles further to meet someplace they wouldn't be overheard.
And so while his fellow soldiers got some much-needed rest, Zaeed had dragged himself to this shithole and its crappy beer and its angry glares without delay, still caked in blood and dust from the march.
Vido, on the other hand, looked to have had enough time to carefully coif his hair. He'd even put on cologne. Prissy bastard.
Vido seemed to read his thoughts as usual. "Cheer up, Buddy," he said. "I have news. While you've been out there screwing around, I've been busy."
"We're not buddies," Zaeed insisted, staring sourly at his mug.
"Oh, please. The beer here isn't that bad."
Zaeed glared at him, then down to the empty table, then back to him. "I note you aren't having any."
Vido shrugged again. "I brought my own," he admitted, tapping a flask at his belt. "But I'm sure if I tried it I'd find the drinks here just as good as the ones in the base." Vido grinned with his usual easy confidence, showing straight white teeth.
It was the same grin Vido had given him when they'd first met. A few months back one of Zaeed's fellow soldiers had snapped and killed a house full of civilians, and Vido had showed up at their barracks to interview the rest of the unit for CASAI's inevitably half-assed investigation. He'd been all smiles (though none of them had quite masked his obvious boredom) as he'd dutifully jotted down their accounts and departed.
Zaeed had thought nothing of it until the next evening when Vido hunted him down in the base's bar and introduced himself. Vido Santiago, he'd said, beaming, of the Santiago family in Rio. He'd grinned that same grin and talked and talked and talked, ignoring Zaeed's every attempt to brush him off. He'd radiated pride as he'd explained that his father was one of the richest men in the western hemisphere - even despite the fact that he'd been disowned from the family fortune. He had told him about the company he was starting on the side, in case CASAI should fail and he find himself jobless. He had even told him - quite unashamed - how he had falsified health documents to keep himself out of combat.
At the time it had seemed like cowardice to Zaeed. Now he wasn't so sure.
Vido simply didn't give a shit what people thought about him. Unless he wanted something - then he was all smiles.
"You bring me something?" Vido asked, all smiles.
Zaeed glowered, but all the same he reached up to his left shoulder and detached the hardbox computer unit stowed within. He slid it across the table without a word.
Vido produced a cable from a hidden pocket and hooked the hardbox up to the strange computer he had built into his left sleeve. Projected holography – omnitools, Vido had said with no small measure of pride in his voice, were the newest craze in the Americas – bloomed from his wrist as the link initialized. All of the tactical data Zaeed's armor had collected in the months he'd been away – tracking coordinates, suit camera feeds, damage reports, scanner results and more – whizzed past Vido's eyes and into his omni-tool. "Zaeed Ambrogio Massani," Vido read off from the screens as the data downloaded, "EUAF soldier ID four eight five five one zero three, division four." He chuckled. "I didn't know your middle name was Ambrogio."
Zaeed grunted, busying himself with his drink and trying not to think about the crime he'd become complicit in – CASAI had made it very clear that his armor and every byte of data its sensors collected were their property, and that they would jealously guard it. Vido had insisted that sharing the combat data with him wasn't technically illegal – he was a CASAI logistics man, after all - but Zaeed knew if they were ever caught they'd (or he'd, at least) be in a world of trouble. But the box of fine cigars Vido had paid him upfront for the data had been a mighty comfort on the march, and Zaeed was a man of his word.
Besides, Vido was almost certainly too smart to sell the data to their enemies. It didn't matter how many documents he forged - if the rebels took the base, Vido's head would be tossed in the sand with all the rest of them.
"Well listen," Vido said once he had finished the download and the hardbox was back in Zaeed's pauldron. He leaned back in his seat looking satisfied, like he'd just finished a big meal. "Did you just spend all that time out there fighting, or did you think about what we talked about last time?"
Zaeed had to grit his teeth to resist punching Vido in his self-satisfied, squirrelly little face. "Quit wasting my time," he snarled. "I thought you said you had news."
"I do," Vido admitted, unconcerned, "but nothing we didn't say last time. We're losing." At Zaeed's stony glare, he sighed. "CASAI is blowing it," he elaborated. "They're starting to balk at the money they're spending. They're not looking for clean solutions anymore, just cheap ones. Effective ones. Civilian casualties are up, soldier casualties are up, and they lost a comm station in Johannesburg to rebels last week." He counted out on his fingers. "Mission they sent to reclaim it accidentally blew up half a block."
"It goes on," Vido said. "Long story short, they're pissing everybodyoff. Even your EU boys are threatening to pull out."
Zaeed frowned. As little as he liked the way the war was going in recent years, he had little desire to return to England - or anywhere in the EU, really. The whole continent had become a bit too posh for his tastes, and the only thing waiting for him there was his mother's family, who probably hated him now after the thing between his parents.
Still... better than dying.
"Can I assume you're seeing the same shit on your end?" Vido asked.
By way of answer, Zaeed reached across the table and snatched Vido's flask from his belt. He took a long draught, relishing the burn of the drink – it was real alcohol, no doubt imported from Vido's home overseas. Worlds better than the swill he'd been drinking so far, or even the booze at the base. He ignored Vido's affronted look and drank deeply.
When every drop was gone Zaeed wiped his mouth across his sleeve and tossed the empty flask back to Vido. "Same shit," he agreed finally, leaning back in his seat. "Speeding up the marches. Made us cover thirty, forty miles some days, in full armor. They're fuckin' up the logistics too, not keepin' us stocked. Unit lost three men to cholera just because they didn't have chlorine tablets on hand." Zaeed shook his head, disgusted. "Careless."
Vido nodded knowingly – as if he had ever walked thirty miles in his life. "They don't care about you," he said, shrugging. "They don't have to. They don't equip you that well, they don't pay you that well. So long as CASAI has enough clout to influence the elections, EU practically hands you to them for free. Tells your folks back home it's about freedom or justice or something. Ready-made excuse for when you go back in a body bag."
Zaeed's mind was thick with thought. He'd met Vido – and his sermons about how badly CASAI was screwing up – six months ago, but the man had only lent articulation and outrage to the niggling doubts he'd been having for years. The higher ups were getting careless, plain and simple. They were costing good men their lives. Zaeed was no coward, but fully a third of the casualties he'd seen in the last year were due to mismanagement – friendly fire, disease, exposure, poor intelligence. He'd made it through relatively unscathed so far – the cholera had hit him in a rare moment when they'd been properly stocked, and the worst injury he'd sustained in battle was a concussion when a grenade had exploded too near the makeshift bunker he'd been fighting in – but Zaeed knew even a very gifted soldier could die all too easily to his officers' incompetence.
Zaeed was no coward, but he had no intention of dying over some goddamn acronyms either.
"The good news is they're going to start hiring mercs next week."
Zaeed's brows rose. "No shit?"
"None," Vido insisted, looking pleased with himself. "They were in talks with a few groups all the way back in October. A-Tech Solutions, Solemnova, AMNKA."
Zaeed shook his head, incredulous. "How can they afford that? You said they were broke."
"I said they were balking at the money being spent, but CASAI's fucking loaded. And even if they weren't, they don't have a choice." Vido leaned forward eagerly, hands steepled in front of him. "That influence I mentioned? It's dried up. People are tired of this war. That's why your EU boys are getting ready to pull you out. CASAI has squandered all the goodwill they had, and so if they want anybody to keep fighting they have to break out the checkbook and admit it's a money war. Nobody cares about the issues anymore, but the whole world wants money, and so as long as CASAI keeps the cash flowing everybody's got a horse in this race."
"And ours is the goddamn lame pony," Zaeed finished for him, rubbing his temples in aggravation.
Vido looked genuinely surprised. "Why, because we're losing?" He waved his hand, unconcerned. "It's alright to be on the losing side, so long as you can survive it. There's a lot of money to be made on the losing side. The losing side is scared, the losing side is tired. The losing side can't afford to shop around." Vido looked positively thrilled at the idea. "CASAI wouldn't even be losing if they'd just admitted it was about money from the beginning." He grinned. "But now they're finally about to hand the war over to the mercs."
Zaeed grimaced, staring at the knife on the table. His head was starting to split - the whiskey he'd stolen from Vido was getting to him. Or maybe it was just that Vido was making so much goddamn sense. "So… what's your point?"
"My point, Zaeed Ambrogio Massani, is that people cry when a good little EU trooper doesn't make it home. They'll put little stickers on their cars and be very, very sad." His smile was wicked. "But you'll still be dead."
Zaeed was silent as Vido rose from his seat, casting a few rands across the table to pay for the drinks. He lingered, staring at Zaeed. "No crying or stickers for mercs, Mr. Massani, but you're an investment. And I guarantee there is nothing CASAI wouldn't do for its investments."
Zaeed had been to a lot of planets in his day. He'd been up to his ass in toxic mud on Baumann 2101, he'd taken a piss off of the edge of the great mercuric chasm on Oronto. He'd tasted the iron gas on Pelach, ridden over the lava traps that covered Deccan-palk's southern hemisphere, set boots on worlds with twice Earth's gravity and worlds with half of it.
But Zorya still held a special place at the top of his list as just about the worst hellhole he'd ever known.
Any planet where the goddamn plant life could kill you brooked little competition.
Zaeed held up a fist. "Hold."
Behind him, the rest of the squad froze.
Around them the jungle hummed with life. It was rough terrain, tangled with tree growth and venom-spined shrubs and pools of hip-deep silt. Even with Jack blasting apart the worst of the snarls, they'd spent almost all the Firestorm fuel they'd brought not on Vido's men but on vegetation. It was excruciatingly slow work, and in three hours they'd only carved themselves a half mile or so into the forest. Eventually they'd lucked onto a game trail – left there by Hraka-beasts, if Zaeed remembered his tracking – but it was slow going all the same. The foliage closed in from both sides, tunneling them in greenery, and with the mud and the droppings and the way the air choked with pollen until it was almost yellow, they were all filthy and miserable in minutes.
And so when Zaeed told them to stop, nobody complained. Shepard, Jacob, and Jack plodded to a halt in the mud, staring at Zaeed for explanation with the expressions of woe and borderline-asphyxiation that everyone on Zorya came to adopt behind their breathing masks.
Zaeed flashed a grin, as much to relish his expertise on the planet's dangers as to show off the fact that he wasn't wearing a mask. "Bulta pods," he said, gesturing down the trail to a trio of long, orange-red plants that sprawled down across their path. He licked his lips, gathering up the pollen that had settled there and spitting it onto the forest floor as he drew his rifle up to his shoulder and took aim. He pulled the trigger.
The bulta pods exploded with a spectacular slurp, turgor pressure sending orange pulp in long trails that spattered across the path to coat the trees in the jungle beyond. The air darkened with spores.
Zaeed grinned victoriously back at the rest of the squad. "Bulta plants can see you," he said, nodding his approval. "Little eyes under the leaves see light and dark. Walk too close to one and it'll explode." He looked back to the remains of the plants – the bases of their seed pods hung loosely from their stalks, dripping orange liquid to mix with the mud and looking uncannily like decapitated men. "Get any of those seeds on you and you're in for a bad goddamn week," he warned, chuckling.
Shepard – his gray armor coated in muddy water and plant burrs – nodded from behind his mask and gave them the signal to continue, gingerly stepping over the spilled bulta seeds as he passed. Jacob followed suit, pausing to bend aside a branch for Jack (who ignored him, stomping straight through the puddle like it wasn't even there).
"I've seen men die from a direct hit," Zaeed said as they continued their trek down the trail, steadily cutting their way towards the refinery Vido was said to be visiting. "Back when the Suns were first running ops on Zorya. Kid named Ezra, took one right in the face. Practically clawed his eyes out to stop the itching. Choked on his tongue right there in the mud." He clicked his tongue at the memory. "Everybody stumbles onto one eventually, but some guys get it worse than others."
"Jesus," Jacob said.
Zaeed chuckled. Zorya was not a planet for the squeamish. He'd never imagined in a thousand years it would be where his hunt for Vido would finally end - Vido rarely showed his face outside of the most affluent fundraisers and certainly not on uncomfortable backwaters like Zorya - but the intel was solid. Hock's parties had come through in the end. Before Shepard and his two little princesses had shot the place up and killed Hock, Zaeed had gotten ample time with the Blue Sun who'd been unfortunate enough to be the organization's representative at the party. The man had been tough and clever but he'd been young, and all Zaeed had had to do was look intimidating and then break his fingers with a wine corkscrew and he was ready to tell him whatever he needed to know.
Vido was on Zorya overseeing a new factory he'd acquired.
Once they'd pulled into orbit, it had taken EDI less than a minute to intercept transmissions that confirmed it.
It was a narrow window - whatever force had convinced Vido to leave the comfort of civilization would not keep him there long - but it was the best opportunity Zaeed had ever had. Zorya was remote, hidden, had relatively few innocents at risk of collateral damage, and when Zaeed had announced his intentions, even Shepard had admitted that the time had come.
"'Course," Zaeed continued, casually slashing a sapling that had begun growing in their path, "that was just for us grunts. Vido practically owns this planet but I doubt he's been here more than a half dozen times."
"Can you blame him?" Jack asked. She was staring dubiously at another plant, a red-black fruit the size of a trash can that loomed precariously overhead. "This place is a shithole."
Zaeed took a deep sniff. The spores tickled his nostrils fiercely, made everything smell like blood, but all the same he could pick up the rotting stench of the fruit, the damp tang of loam, the heady musk of animal urine. Somehow today it smelled wonderful. "It's useful," he said, remembering Vido explaining it to the rest of the Suns like it had been yesterday. "Good position on the trade routes, no government. No competition from colonists." The Blue Suns had gotten their talons into the planet early, back before any permanent settlements had gotten established, and though Zaeed and his men had had to kill quite a few people to do it, they'd gradually shaped the planet into what they needed.
Or what Vido needed, anyway.
"No breathable air," Jack added.
Zaeed snorted. "Breathable air's overrated."
To be fair, the allergens in the air weregetting to him too. He was breathing it straight, unfiltered, and it was wreaking its havoc. His throat was tight, his tongue swollen and tender. His skin itched uncontrollably, his head felt heavy with clouds. The wounds he'd taken on the collector ship had healed enough for him to take off his brace (and even if they hadn't, there was no way he was going to let Vido see him bandaged) but the leg was still stiff and sent jolts of pain up his side with every step.
And yet all the same Zaeed felt fantastic. Younger than he'd felt in years. He was Zaeed Goddamn Massani. He was a goddamn lion, a goddamn beast of a man, sixty years old or not.
He'd been to Zorya many times before – built up some immunity to the constant itching – but even if he hadn't, today was not a day to wear a helmet. Call him a sentimental bastard, but he wanted to look Vido straight in the eye before he killed him. He wanted to see every moment. That was worth a little itchiness.
"Tighten your little mask and man up, Jack," he said. "You're just bein' a pansy because this is the first planet we've set foot on that smells worse than you."
Jack made a gesture that would have been considered uncouth even on Omega. "Fuck off, Zaeed," she said, ducking under the fruit and jogging to catch up, her boots squelching in the shallow mud. "You dirty old fucker."
"I'm Zaeed Goddamn Massani," he corrected her, smiling as he tapped at his bare head just to egg her on. As soon as they'd made planetfall Jack had taken Zaeed's decision to go maskless as a challenge and had, despite his warnings, left her own helmet in the shuttle, determined not to be outshone. She'd started their journey with a resolved snarl on her lips, and for a minute Zaeed had thought she might actually make it. But then she'd started to wheeze as it became harder to breathe. All in all she'd lasted less than five minutes before she'd been forced to double back. She'd been smoldering at him ever since, but with her eyes still tearing up her expression lost its intended effect.
And Zaeed wasn't alone in ribbing her. "Jack's been doing better on the smell thing," Shepard called over his shoulder, grinning. "She actually took a shower the other night. Nearly gave me a heart attack."
"And she's wearing clothes," Jacob added.
Jack's face reddened even further and she tossed the others a gesture to match the one she'd given Zaeed. "Fuck off, all of you," she snarled, but even under an oxygen mask her reluctant smile was impossible to miss. To the ship's great surprise, Jack had turned over a new leaf after returning from Pragia. She'd been eating dinner in the crew deck, had not hit anyone in days, and as Jacob had said, had taken to wearing a black vest overtop her Garrus-bone necklace and the usual strap that protected her modesty (or lack thereof). She'd even stopped shaving – but for the strip of medical coding on the back of her skull her head was now covered in a thin wisp of dark brown fur. And as much as her new attitude was helping things go smoothly on the Normandy, it was helping her even more. Even on Zorya, with the air swimming with deadly allergens, it was obvious Jack was healthier than she'd been in a long time. Her eyes weren't so dark and sunken, and though she still scratched at herself like a mongrel dog, for once it was the planet's fault and not withdrawal from her most recent drug fix.
She looked good. Practically human, but exotic and powerful too. No ordinary human. It was hard not to stare at her as she stomped through the jungle, tearing foliage in her path like a biotic chainsaw.
"Naw, you look good with hair," Zaeed said, wagging his eyebrows at her. It was true – Zaeed wasn't sure how he'd failed to notice it before, but wreathed in the pollen-y air, slicked with mud and sweat, Jack was actually quite the beauty. He knew hitting on her was barking up the wrong tree – she was half his age and a psychopath to boot – but what could he say? He'd always liked dangerous women.
"And you look like a dried up, scarred old asshole."
Zaeed grinned roguishly, unperturbed. "I prefer 'rugged'. Don't pretend you don't like what you see."
Jack stared at him with a mixture of surprise and revulsion.
Oh yeah. She wanted him. Zaeed winked at her.
Jack actually laughed at that. "You're a rugged moron," she insisted, bursting another bulta pod with a quick biotic flick that deflected its payload safely back into the forest, as if to show him she didn't need his guidance to get through the jungle's perils. "Fuck is wrong with you? No helmet, crap gun on your back. I thought you said pack light."
"Jessie," Zaeed corrected instantly, reaching back to where his treasured gun was strapped to his back to tap her stock with one gloved hand. "And I wouldn't leave her behind for anything." No matter how hard it was to breathe, no matter if it meant he had to carry two heavy rifles instead of one to get the job done, Jessie was coming. He'd leave his working gun behind before he left her.
"You named your gun Jessie!?" Jack cackled to herself. "You old fruit."
"Girl I once fancied," Zaeed explained, stroking Jessie fondly over one shoulder. The original Jessie – the one even before the mandolin – had been a girl, he knew, but he remembered little about her beyond her name. At the time she'd been of singular importance to him – he remembered being devastated when his father had moved their family down to Africa, putting thousands of miles between them – but her face, what she was like, all that was lost to time now. Small loss, really – no doubt the girl had just settled down for a contemptibly boring, safe life in the EU. Since then his Jessie – the mandolin and then the rifle – had taken on lives of their own.
Still, Zaeed often wondered if the woman Jessie was still alive, back on Earth somewhere. She probably was – she would be about his age, and probably without all the scars and cigars that he tried so hard to kill himself with. What would she think if she knew he'd used her namesake to claim so many lives?
Would she be happy to know Vido would be the last victim the gun would take?
It had a poetic justice to it. Killing Vido with a gun that no longer worked was impractical - stupid even - but nonetheless it had to be done. Twenty years ago, Vido had left Zaeed with a hole in his head. And he'd left him with Jessie. That thought had often troubled Zaeed. Why leave the gun? He could have taken her, just in case. Why leave your new worst enemy with a gun unless you were sure he was dead? It was a rare moment of sentimentality for the normally-practical Vido. It was like he knew Zaeed would pull through, like he wanted to leave a memento of it behind. Like he wanted the betrayal to hurt, wanted Zaeed to hunt him.
It was like he wanted to die to Jessie.
Zaeed would not disappoint. He hastened his pace through the jungle.
It was a quarter hour later that the smell of gas hit them. The animal trail had all but disappeared, leaving them mired in thick walls of interpenetrating branches. Bultas grew in clumps, their red heads bulging imposingly, waiting for someone to get close enough to ambush.
But they smelled gas, and then smoke, and they knew they were close.
It was sudden when the foliage finally parted to reveal the refinery rising up out of the jungle. Moss-stained gas pipes wide enough to walk through ran above the canopy, held up by greened concrete support towers. Smokestacks belched fire and ash overtop the dozens of steel prefab buildings that had been assembled in their shadow. It was a black and gray island of technology eroding away in a sea of green life.
The facility was old, groaning under encroaching vegetation, its machinery rumbling with disuse. The smell of leaking gas was everywhere - it roiled from poorly-maintained pipes, in spots so thick it was visible, like a shimmering mirror hanging in midair. All the same, Zaeed's trained eyes picked out dozens of firing positions. Murder holes drilled through the catwalk walls, just wide enough to stick a rifle through. Abandoned sniper towers loomed.
"Alright," Shepard whispered, staring at the empty facility from behind a felled tree trunk. "Lots of potential ambush sites. We're going to need to proceed carefully. Jacob, I want you on point. Keep the barriers ready. I'll take the left, Zaeed right, Jack bring up the rear."
"Roger that," Zaeed agreed. They were through the jungle now, and Zaeed was only too happy to let the commander lead the squad. He had better things to do than babysit. The squad scrambled to their positions, guns drawn. Ducking behind a power pylon snaked with vines, Zaeed activated his seldom-used omni-tool with a wave. It gave a quiet ping as he activated the only program he had installed on it and it began scanning for hardsuit signals. Zaeed had had a long and rocky history with technology – computers had never been his strong suit – but even he had been unable to deny the blazing progress that the omni-tool industries pumped out every year. He'd made it a point to buy a cutting edge model every time the edge moved, but it had been forty years and the technological epiphany he'd been holding out for had yet to come.
Still, he'd used the hardsuit scanner to great effect before, and he did so again now, sweeping the tool in the air and ignoring how much he must have looked like a jackass. The omni-tool blatted in the negative – no hardsuits in the area besides their own. Still, Zaeed spent a long moment scanning the looming catwalks the old-fashioned way, just to be sure. His eyes swept the facility for any hint of movement, any potential ambush spot the omni-tool might have missed. Computers were great but nothing compared to using your own goddamn eyes. People that relied on their toys tended to end up dead.
But today, the toys and the eyes agreed. There was nobody there. No welcoming party.
That was good. Vido didn't know they were there yet.
He left the protection of his pylon and turned to head for the entrance.
"They're not here," he growled, not slowing his pace. "And we don't have enough daylight left to tiptoe around." He made for the open gate between two of them support towers, passing beneath one of the sniper's nests.
"You're going to get yourself killed!"
Zaeed shook his head. No goddamn way. His heart was racing in his chest. Twenty years he'd waited for this day, and now he was here. Somewhere in the facility his old partner was hiding out, unaware of the coming danger. It felt like every moment for two decades - every moment of his life - had been leading up to this moment, and now that he was within arm's reach Jessie was slavering for the kill. There was no time for discretion. It was time for his revenge.
He kept walking, hand resting on Jessie's stock.
There was a long pause, but eventually, when no return fire came, he heard the footsteps of his companions joining him. They walked in silence for several long minutes, making their way amongst the feet of the towers, checking each walkway as they went. The rumble of machines was a constant thunder in front of the hum of the jungle, but otherwise there was no sign of life at all, and in time even Shepard seemed to relax a little.
"Does Jessie even fire?" Jack asked as they were passing a trio of enormous shipping containers, still unopened.
She might, Zaeed thought. Jessie had always had a mind of her own – she had a tendency to fire when she wanted, and not when she didn't. She hadn't fired in years, but maybe for Vido the old girl would still have one in her. "No," he admitted sadly. "But there's more than one way to kill a man with a gun." He caught Jack's eye and mimed swinging a bat, a vicious grin on his face.
Jack grinned back.
From behind, Shepard called. "If we can, we're taking him alive."
Zaeed rolled his eyes, turning to look at the commander. Unlike he and Jack, Shepard and Jacob were keeping to cover, darting from shadow to shadow, ducking behind abandoned machines and concrete support struts. They looked like fools. "Oh please..." Zaeed growled. "I've met a lot of bad people in my life, Shepard, and not one of them deserves what I've got in mind more than Vido. If I had-"
He stopped mid-sentence.
There was a sound.
"Go go go!"
As quick as a flash, Zaeed had swung himself behind the nearest cover, eyes scanning for any sign of movement.
Taylor saw it first. "Catwalk, ten o'clock!" he barked.
The refinery lit up with gunfire.
The merc on the catwalk didn't last long. The thin steel railing he had ducked behind was no match for the combined fire of Shepard and Zaeed's assault rifles, and in seconds his shields had shorted and he was sent tumbling from his vantage. His body landed in an armored heap with a whump that echoed across the battlefield.
But then there were more. The sounds of gunfire were quickly joined by the great, booming wail of an alarm klaxon so loud it shook the rust from some of the pipes overhead. Blue-and-white clad men came streaming from every direction, shouting and firing.
"Die!" Zaeed snarled, laughing as he felt his rifle heating up in his hands. He sent a stream of bullets pelting up at one of the upper story exits, catching a half dozen men unaware as they stumbled out onto the catwalk only to die in a hail of fire. "Die you sons a bitches!" Somewhere behind him, Shepard was calling out targets, and the sound of Jack's biotics made the hairs stand up on the back of Zaeed's neck, but he took no notice. All he felt was the kick of his gun, all he saw was the death of Vido's pathetic bodyguards, his former brothers. He roared with rage, watching his shots trace across the steel plating of a pressure silo, through the chests of two poorly-positioned Suns, then a decrepit pipe, and finally into another Sun's neck. "Burn and die!" he roared, his mind red-hot, full of memories.
The Suns were many – Vido had clearly brought no shortage of manpower to protect him – but the years since Zaeed had left had not been kind to the Suns' combat abilities. They'd turned from an elite squad into a mass-manufactured mercenary business that sacrificed quality for quantity, and it showed. The mercs were disorganized and Shepard's squad held their ground. Where the Suns were haphazard and took too long to find cover, Shepard's squad was quick and merciless in gunning them down. Where the Suns wasted time trying to pick off Jacob through his formidable barriers, Shepard could call out priority targets for his squad to polish off with frightening efficiency. The commander shouted each move over the cacophony, directing the squad's fire at each group of mercs in turn. None of them lasted long.
The last merc died as the catwalk he was standing on was yanked out from under him in a torrent of blue energy. He screamed as he collapsed in on himself, crushed like an empty can, until his voice shorted out with a sickening squelch. The catwalk came down, bringing half of a support tower with it in a great rumbling avalanche. Cables snapped and the klaxon stuttered and died.
"Yeah, don't be a pussy, Shepard," Jack said, emerging from her cover behind a forklift. She wiped her sweaty hands on her pants as if nothing had happened. "I've heard of this Vido asshole. He's no fuckin' innocent."
"He'd arguably earned this before we left Earth," Zaeed agreed, tapping Jessie's stock over his shoulder. He turned in a circle, peering through his gun sight at the guard towers they'd left behind them, checking for any hidden snipers. He saw nothing. "But then there was Elysium and Sirona, that massacre on Bonfa, Caleston."
"And the Suns ain't exactly sweethearts on Omega," Jack offered.
Zaeed lowered his weapon, satisfied. He continued his list. "Vido botched a mission on Cenderes, probably killed hundreds with radiation." He tapped his boot in the oily soil. "Even right here on Zorya, quite a few deaths on his hands." More accurately, they were deaths on Zaeed's hands that Vido had ordered, back when they were cleaning out any local leaders who thought to oppose the Blue Suns' ever-growing influence on the planet, but Zaeed didn't bother bringing that up.
Shepard grimaced, his discomfort obvious.
"We fought him back when I was with the corsairs," Jacob admitted, looking apologetic. "Ruyii and Solut Four. Lost good men."
"Cheerleader Junior is right, Shepard," Jack said. "You don't have to fuck up everybody's revenge plots." Jacob tossed her an angry glare, but she ignored it.
"See?" Zaeed said. As they continued their way towards the center of the facility, a shift of movement up near the refinery's loading docks caught his eye, and he lifted his scope for a better view. "Even Taylor agrees, Shepard," he said, squinting through the sights. He saw it again – a fleeting flash of mud-stained blue-and-white up ahead as a man ducked behind cover just a little too late. He smiled grimly. "Vido's gotto go."
"All the same," Shepard insisted. "It'll be worth it to you in the long run to try to take him alive. That's the plan."
Zaeed laughed at that, still scanning the path ahead. Whoever he'd seen had bunkered down. They knew they'd been spotted - they were sitting still, hoping he'd lose track.
He lowered his gun, but held up a hand to signal the squad to stop. He gestured up towards the hidden mercenary, favoring Shepard with an amused grin.
"You're a good man, Shepard," he said, fishing in his pockets, "but I'm way too old for the kind of peace you think I need." It was funny. Zaeed had met Shepard's type before. Shepard liked to be a shepherd, even to men old enough to be his father. Zaeed's fingers finally found one of his incendiary grenades, and he busied himself priming it, pulling the catalyst tab and setting the pin lock as he slid it into the rail on his rifle.
"It'll be worth it, Zaeed," Shepard insisted.
Zaeed shook his head as the grenade initialized and gave a beep. "We'll see what Jessie has to say about that. She might end up beating the bastard's goddamn face in before you can stop her." He raised his gun again and took aim at the low concrete wall he'd seen the man duck behind again.
Jack snickered. "I suddenly like Jessie."
"Course you do," Zaeed agreed, squinting as he lined up his shot. He fired, and knew at once his aim was true.
The grenade traced a graceful arc through the air and exploded directly over the concrete hidey-hole in a gout of white flame. Amidst the flash of the fire a dark figure screamed in agony and leapt for safety, but it was far too late. The incendiary fuel burned quickly, and the man had hardly stumbled a few steps before he collapsed and was still. His body came to rest in the middle of the workyard, trailing smoke.
Zaeed grinned at the smoldering body. Hell of a shot. He turned to regard the biotic, listening to the crackling inferno behind him. "What's not to like?" he asked, and then he laughed harder and more genuinely than he had in a long time.
Jack just shook her head, brows screwed up in confusion. "What the fuck is wrong with you today, Old Man?"
Zaeed sighed contentedly and headed for the entrance. "I'm just having a goddamn good day."
1 hour later...
Zaeed's day had taken a turn for the worse.
Around him, the facility was exploding. The pipe he'd burst had ruptured spectacularly, so loud his ears were still ringing, so hot his exposed face still stung. The explosion had nearly knocked Vido's balcony from the wall - it hung, now, from one mangled corner strut, still glowing red hot.
But the damage was not done. The whole facility had begun to rumble with aftershocks as the fire spread through the pipes or caught onto leaks. Zaeed could already feel the floor starting to tilt, bending at a great crack that had snaked its way across the foundations.
The fire roared.
And over it, Shepard was shouting. "We're going!" he bellowed, gesturing wildly to the access pathway to their left. "Jacob, take point! Jack, get that door open!"
Zaeed almost hit him. "Are you goddamn kidding me?" he roared, grabbing the commander by his armored collar. He gestured up to the scorched balcony door. "Vido went that way!"
Shepard ignored him, tearing his grip away with a strike to the wrist. "We're going, Zaeed!" he shouted. "Those people need help."
"Those people can go jump off a-"
"We're going," Shepard repeated. "Do what you want." He turned to follow Jacob, vaulting over a fallen beam to the corridor down below.
Zaeed watched him go. "You..." His mouth hung open as Jack turned to follow the others. "Jack?" he asked, astonished. "You too?"
Jack turned and shrugged. She looked apologetic enough, but all the same jumped down to follow Shepard without a word. The three of them disappeared into the adjacent building, past flames and bursting pipes and great clouds of acrid smoke.
Zaeed watched them go. "You son of a bitch," he growled. "You GOD-DAMN son of a bitch!" His shout was lost in the tumult. The facility continued to shake. Another explosion sent shrapnel whizzing through the air so close Zaeed could hear it pass, but he made no move.
He stared up at the burning balcony again, where Vido had stood just seconds before.
Then back to the door where Shepard had gone.
He jumped the railing and followed, snarling curses under his breath.
27 years previously...
The Spacer had finally quit struggling.
Fresh blood coated the sandy pit that dominated the middle of the Blue Suns' camp as the Duke continued to press down on his prey. The lion's jaws, still locked around the man's neck, were smeared with gore, strong forelimbs pressed across the man's back as if he might suddenly hop back up after being suffocated.
Zaeed Massani looked on the carnage, idly plucking at Jessie's strings. The mandolin's notes seemed to be swallowed up in the oppressive heat of the blue-white sky. "Duke's in fine form today," he observed.
Stefan Bayard, sitting on an ammo crate across from him, nodded overtop of the pauldron he was trying to bend back into shape. "Oui," he agreed. "He's hungry. Tired of sharing my rations." He stared down at his pet with obvious fondness, grinning. "He's a good kitty."
Zaeed rolled his eyes. The Duke was hardly a 'kitty' anymore. The maneless lion had only been a cub when Stefan had found him in the ruins of the mansion of a warlord whose indiscretions they'd been paid to put an end to, but since then he'd grown twenty fold, with an appetite (and droppings) scaling to match. He was a noisy, irritable animal, prone to biting everybody but Stefan, but all the same he'd become the Suns' unofficial mascot and the men were very fond of him.
Somehow the other two Spacers, waiting their turn in the dirt at the pit's edge did not share that fondness.
"This is torture," one of them moaned, staring down at their dead comrade as the Duke – finally satisfied that he'd won – began to feed, his long tail flitting about contentedly as he dug into the dead man's flank.
Zaeed stared at them. They were a pitiful sight, stripped of their weapons and chained to the front grill of a stolen jeep. They were beaten and bruised, bleeding from a half dozen wounds inflicted in the barfight in the Kroganshead the previous morning or by rocks as they'd been dragged into camp. The bigger one – the one with the broken nose who'd held Zaeed at gunpoint – gazed blearily up at them with unfocused eyes, no doubt still concussed from when Vido had hit him with the barstool.
They'd been foolish enough to mention having a spaceship in a place where spaceships were in high demand, and Zaeed couldn't find an iota of pity for them. "Not torture," he grunted, plucking out a few more notes. "Blackmail, maybe." He pointed Jessie's neck down to the bloody mess in the lion pit. "Showin' you we mean business."
"We already told you everything! Marko's camp, and the ship, and the weapons, and everything!"
Zaeed chuckled. "Yup," he agreed, amused. As tough as they had acted in the bar when they had him outnumbered, faced with a four hundred pound cat all three of them had proven very talkative, and had told them everything they needed to know about where to find the rest of their company and – more importantly – the starship they professed to have. "Key difference being that we don't really care what you have to say."
Stefan grinned. "Don't worry," he told them. "Duke won't need to eat again for… hours, at least."
The two Suns laughed at that – at least until a stitch of pain lanced its way up Zaeed's side and he stopped, hissing. He grit his teeth hard, swallowing the burning sensation in his lungs and trying to hide it from Stefan's notice.
Stefan noticed. "It's probably a broken rib, Zaeed," he said, voice even. He gestured to the mercs with his chin. "These two messed you up more than I think you want to admit. You should let me look at it."
"It's fine," Zaeed hissed, ignoring him. Stefan was the closest thing they had to a doctor, having served as a combat medic with the EU before ultimately defecting to join Vido and Zaeed while they were campaigning with the AMNKA merc group in CASAI's northern front in Sudan. Still, Zaeed had had more than enough of his attention after losing his eye. Zaeed hated doctors.
Stefan seemed to intuit his thoughts, and did not press the issue. It was a well-worn enough argument already. "Have you at least been taking your pills?" he asked.
"What are you, my mother?"
Stefan shook his head. "Zaeed… Mr. Santiago went to considerable trouble to obtain those," he chided. "From Mwembe, no less. Do you want your infection to return?"
Zaeed did not. He'd already gotten used to the foreign feel of the glass eye, gotten used to aiming and fighting by one eye alone – sometimes he even forgot that he used to have two – but the infection had put him in bed for almost two weeks. It had been torture. He grimaced. "I'll take them," he promised.
"And clean those wounds before they scar," Stefan added.
"Don't push it. Scars give me character." He strummed Jessie a few times for emphasis. Stefan just shook his head.
The two of them sat for a time, watching the Duke eat and listening to the frightened whimpering of the captured men waiting for their turn with the lion. Above them, the Kalihari sun beat down relentlessly, sapping all the life out of the desert below, but they'd long since gotten used to it. Far worse was the boredom – even feeding local thugs to a lion got old after a while. The last few weeks had been punctuated by long periods of waiting, and Zaeed and his men were getting restless waiting for Vido to decide their next move. Their war with Mwembe would be done soon enough – the warlord was a power player, but between Zaeed's ruthlessness and Vido's crafty planning the newly-christened Blue Suns had been whittling him down for months. Now they were biding their time, waiting for Mwembe to overextend himself before they drove the knife in, and had moved their camp eight times in the past fortnight, each time daisy-chaining deeper out into the sands to evade Mwembe's scouts. Occasionally Vido was too engrossed in his work to suffer the interruption of breaking down camp and would send Zaeed's team out to ambush the scouts and string their bodies up for their companions to find.
But other than that, there was little to do. Zaeed kept the men occupied as well as he could with various odd-job forays into the surrounding territory while Vido hid in his tent and worked on their next big step. Even after Sudan had folded (and it had folded rather spectacularly), there was still plenty to do on the southern fronts as CASAI scrambled to consolidate its forces in desperate last-ditch bids to hold off rebel movements. The war was all but lost, the world had stopped caring as its focus moved to expanding into the rest of the galaxy, and Vido had shifted the Blue Suns away from CASAI contacts to other clients. Now they were fighting warlords and other defected private armies in the political maelstrom that CASAI's collapse was leaving behind, dozens of smaller wars scattering off as flotsam off of the main conflict.
"Did I miss it?"
Zaeed and Stefan looked to see Dungy – the Suns' youngest member - lope up, squinting in the afternoon sun with his sniper rifle slung over one shoulder. The gurshki letters tattooed down his left forearm gleamed, spelling out the krogan word for 'communal dungpile' – the Suns had convinced him to get the tattoo with the claim that the symbols meant 'unstoppable warrior' as punishment for never bothering to read the 'How To Get Along With Your New Krogan Allies' pamphlets CASAI had been dropping all year. To Dungy's credit, when they'd told him the truth he'd accepted the lesson with dignity and had worn the tattoo proudly – and more importantly, had done his damn homework – ever since.
"Two more to go," Zaeed promised, nodding towards the two prisoners.
Dungpile – who'd gone by Charles Thorngren before he'd been tricked into his unfortunate nickname – bent to peer down into the bloody smear in the lion pit. "Nice," he said, grinning. Dung was a young man – couldn't have been yet twenty, by Zaeed's estimation – with a boy's laziness but a grizzled veteran's tolerance for violence. Nothing seemed to ruffle him in the least. Not as dependable or loyal as Stefan – he'd quit AMNKA to follow Vido for the cost of a night of drinking – but he was a crack shot with his rifle, capable of putting a bullet between a man's eyes from a thousand meters. "This guy barely tried."
"Show some respect, you little shit," one of the prisoners snapped. "That was our friend."
"Was," Dungpile repeated, smirking. He met Zaeed's eye and gestured back to Vido's tent. "Vido wants you, Massani. Job for you, he said."
"Finally got a job for us, eh?" Zaeed asked. It was about time.
Dungpile shook his head. "Just you, I think."
Zaeed's brows rose in surprise. A solo job? That was unusual. All the same, he nodded and rose from his seat, stopping to put Jessie back in her case, reverently loosening the strings and padding the instrument's back with silk rags before latching it up and sliding it into his tent. He cracked his neck and followed Dungpile to the northern end of camp, where Vido's tent stood in the shade of a withered camel thorn tree.
Inside the tent was dark but for the glow of an extranet console and pleasantly cool, its thick canvas blocking out the withering sunlight better than the cheap polymer tents the rest of them had. As usual, Vido was hard at work, his reading glasses on his nose as he worked his way through a pile of datapads that came up to his knee. Vido generally left the day-to-day operations of their company to Zaeed, while he came up with the longer term objectives, and Zaeed did not begrudge him the task. As many hours as Zaeed had spent marching through the deserts or killing rival mercs, Vido had read. He'd read about jobs, he'd read about current events. Poured through material from offworld, reports on human colony progress.
Recently Vido's efforts had been dominated by dreams of space travel. From the very beginning – back when they'd first left CASAI for AMNKA – he'd insisted it was their ultimate direction, but recently it was all he seemed to speak of. A few weeks previously he'd started calling them the Blue Suns and sent them scrambling all across the continent for any lead to a spaceship. Unfortunately, Vido wasn't the only one hoping to get offworld, and once the Alliance had pressganged most of the world's spaceworthy vessels into assisting colonization efforts, finding a private ship was no easy task – the Spacers they'd captured that morning were the closest they'd come so far. Still, when Vido said they needed to get to space, no one argued. No one had challenged him on their outfit's new name, nor exactly why they needed to leave the planet when there was so much work to do on Earth, but it didn't matter. Vido had told them the alien worlds were paved with gold and opportunities, just waiting for humanity to show them how a real mercenary company did it. They'd be rich men, he had claimed, neck deep in money and power and alien women and anything they wanted.
Zaeed knew Vido well enough to know he had a more specific plan than that in mind, but he'd never pressed for it. Vido would tell him when he was ready.
Vido looked up from his reading when Zaeed and Dung parted the tent flaps and stepped inside. "Zaeed. Come in," he said, gesturing. "Anything else from the Spacers?"
"Whole lot of bitching," Zaeed reported, standing by the door. "Nothing more of use."
Vido 'hrmed' to himself, eyes back on one of his datapads. "Looks like what we got was right on the money, though," he said. "Marko Agapov is a merc from Russia. Has connections with shipwrights back home. He might actually have the ship they mentioned."
"Want me to go get it?" Zaeed asked. The Spacers had given them everything he needed to know – Marko's camp was a hundred clicks to the south, just outside of Aroab. Zaeed was confident with a proper surprise attack it would be a simple matter to take it. "I can have a team down there by midnight."
"Not yet," Vido said. "Something else I want you to deal with."
Zaeed's brow rose in surprise. "And give Marko the chance to fly off with his tail between his legs?"
Vido grinned. "Not likely," he said. "I've already sent out a few whispers on the networks. Seems our new Spacer friends are looking to defect, and they've got a ship to sell to the highest bidder willing to take out Marko for them." He smiled wickedly at his own work. "Marko will hear about it before long."
"He won't be happy," Zaeed finished, realization dawning. Vido was an evil bastard, but he was a clever evil bastard. A born manipulator. It was sometimes a wonder to behold him at work.
"He'll be pissed," Vido agreed. "Way too pissed to leave without getting revenge on his wayward men. It'll be a suitable distraction, at least, until we're ready to make our move."
Zaeed nodded. "Alright. Then what's the job?"
Vido pointed to Dungpile. "Dungy here found a pamphlet scouting the west ridge."
"Finally started reading them then?" Zaeed asked, amused. Dungpile nodded sheepishly and Vido laughed.
"It says there's going to be an Alliance humanitarian setup up in Walvis Bay," Vido continued after a moment. "They're going to pass out food and medical supplies to the civvies displaced by all the fighting."
Zaeed grimaced. Alliance in the area was bad news, no doubt about it. The Alliance had been growing in power by leaps and bounds since the end of the First Contact War with the skullfaces. In Zaeed's youth, the multi-national organizations had contributed resources to the Alliance's headquarters in Havana, but no one had known yet what exactly the Alliance was for. Fears of tyrannical global governments made the world wary, and each MNO had been careful to maintain its own army at least as big as the Alliance's, and to contribute only the bare minimum to remain a member state. Now everything had changed – now there were aliens to worry about, and the MNO's had all but tripped overthemselves to give resources to the Alliance in exchange for help securing offworld assets. Humanity had to present a unified face now, and for better or worse the Alliance was that face.
But that didn't mean they had to go sticking their noses into other peoples' business, as far as Zaeed was concerned.
"It's dressed up as a relief effort mostly," Vido said, nodding darkly, "but there will be recruiters there." That was no surprise. The Alliance was expanding like mad, spreading into colony after colony as fast as they could, and they were desperate for manpower to populate all their new worlds. "I want you to go talk to them. Pretend you're tired of the merc life, pretend you're considering joining their grand legion." He rolled his eyes. "Tell them you want to do colony security – they're always trying to find people stupid enough to volunteer for that. See what you can learn about them."
"Anything," Vido said. "Anything at all. What progress they've made. Where they're moving. What colonies they're investing the hardest in. Which ones are safest. Anything at all."
Zaeed grimaced. A fact-finding mission then. Hardly his cup of tea. Still, Vido was the boss for a reason. "You got it," he said, nodding. He gestured over his shoulder to the middle of the camp. "Let me just toss those two bastards to the lion and I'll head out."
Vido stiffened, and Zaeed knew instantly something was wrong. His eyes narrowed.
Vido faced Dungpile. "Leave us," he ordered. Dungpile gave a curt nod and slipped out of the tent without a word, leaving the two friends alone. Vido finally stood, setting his datapad aside. He looked hesitant. "I… planned to let them join us," he admitted.
Zaeed's brows rose. "Those two?" he asked, surprised. "Really?"
Vido held up a hand defensively. "I know, I know. But the Alliance isn't the only one that needs manpower. We're down to twenty men. A ship of any size is going to need enough men to crew it. We're going to need more logistics personnel, more soldiers, more everything. We need to be an all-inclusive mercenary group," he insisted. "At least until we get established offworld."
"No way," Zaeed grunted, crossing his arms over his chest. "There is no way I can work with them."
"The turians – the skull faces – keep a log of all the relevant merc groups on Palaven," Vido said, ignoring him. "Getting on their list is like getting to the big leagues. The galaxy only starts paying attention to you when the skullfaces say you're a real outfit." He stared at Zaeed. "And you need a thousand members to even be considered. We have twenty."
"Twenty men who've all proven themselves a thousand times over," Zaeed protested. "Twenty men who'll follow my commands. Twenty men I trust. We can't be taking in strays." He leaned down on Vido's terminal, staring at his partner with as much severity as he could muster. "You can't lead men who don't trust you."
Vido scoffed. "Nonsense. I do it all the time."
That was true. "Fair enough," Zaeed allowed. "But battle is different. All our boys have proven themselves. Dungy? Stefan? Coati? They do their jobs. They'll watch my back. Those men out there," he gestured outside again, "We just turned their buddy into catfood. They'll be waiting for a chance to betray us. You tell me what you want done with them and I'll do it, but I don't want someone who hates me following me into battle. Shorin' up the numbers isn't worth getting stabbed in the back."
Vido was quiet, thinking. At length he spoke. "You aren't just mad because they beat you up," he said, grinning.
"I coulda taken 'em," Zaeed insisted, not looking away. Jokes aside, he was not inclined to compromise on this point. They'd been very clear when they'd started their association – Vido was in charge of the money and Zaeed was in charge of the men.
Vido sighed. "Alright, Zaeed," he said finally. "I disagree, but if you're right it's your back they'd be stabbing." He returned to his seat. "Kill them."
Zaeed let out a sigh of relief. "Thanks, Vido."
"But just take them out and shoot them, though," Vido added. "I'm sick of the lion's messes."
Zaeed chuckled. "Can do," he said, and turned to leave. He had to get moving if he was to reach Walvis Bay before nightfall. As he parted the tent flaps to leave, though, Vido's voice stopped him.
Vido's voice was quiet. "You hear about Zeta Reticuli?"
Zaeed took a step back into the tent. "Can't say I have," he admitted. "Star name?"
Vido nodded. "That's right. Blue supergiant star they found on the end of one of the relays back in February. Empty system, unclaimed, just a huge star and a few thousand planetoids made of solid platinum. Without qualification the single most valuable mineral deposit ever discovered by mankind, but the star's so bright, any mining equipment sent there is fried in minutes. Alliance called it a lost cause."
Zaeed screwed up his brows, trying to guess Vido's point. "So?"
"So someone figured it out," Vido said. "Some anonymous businessman figured out a thermal shield or something. Proprietary, I don't know how it works. But it let him get established without everything melting." He stared at Zaeed. "Instant billionaire, that bastard," he said. "Overnight he's one of the richest men in the world. In the galaxy." Vido fell silent, shaking his head in disbelief.
"Hence the name Blue Suns, huh?"
"Hence Blue Suns," Vido said, voice quiet. "I think it's fitting."
"Memorable," Zaeed agreed.
Vido looked at him again, back to smiling. "Somewhere out there is our blue sun, friend. Take that for the inspiration that it is."
Zaeed was a big man – of the humans aboard the Normandy, only Taylor matched him, and Taylor didn't wear forty-five kilos of heavy armor on top – but he might as well have been weightless when the krogan tossed him into his room. He hit the ground hard as the door slid shut with a boom, bathing him in darkness.
His head was solid with pain so thick memories seemed to lumber through his mind without any particular conviction. The last hour had been a fuzzy whirl. There was something about attacking Shepard. Then something about being reminded just how protective Jack had become of the Commander lately. Taylor's gauntlet had caught and torn a nasty gash over his left eyebrow, and now his face and neck were coated in a sheet of crusted blood that would have blinded him if his good eye wasn't already swollen shut, buried in seeping flesh that still prickled like fire from Zorya's pollen. Jack's attack had been even worse, pushing the air out of him so hard for a moment he'd thought he'd popped a lung. Now his whole body felt like one big bruise of ruptured capillaries.
Zaeed had not been on the receiving end of an asskicking like that in a long, long time. His body felt every one of his sixty years. It hurt to move, it hurt to breathe, it hurt to think.
But one thought made it through the haze undimmed.
Vido had gotten away.
Zaeed lurched to his feet. His blood seemed to pound in his ears like gunfire and he stumbled, steadying himself against the table as his twisted ankle threatened to collapse out from under him. The effort of opening his smashed eye almost winded him, but red hot fury parted the pain like it wasn't even there.
Vido had gotten away.
Zaeed stared furiously at his surroundings. He was in his room on the Normandy. It was dark – which was unusual enough – but all the same he could make out the wreckage that was left of his personal effects. His room had been ransacked, every one of his crates, his mementos, his cigars and weapons and ammo packed up and removed until only the cot in the corner betrayed that anyone lived in the room at all. He'd been cleaned out.
It wasn't hard to guess why. Shepard must have called ahead from the Kodiak during their return trip, must have told his crew to sweep the room for anything Zaeed might use to make trouble. One glance was enough to tell they'd been thorough, too. His rifles, spare ammo, grenades, shield capacitors – everything – had been taken. Even the throwing knives had been yanked out of the wall.
"Jesus H Christopher Robin in a Can," Zaeed swore to the empty room, grimacing at the pain in his side. Behind him, Jessie was a reassuring weight. He fingered her stock on reflex, staring at the damage. "Goddamn thieves, Jessie. I'm going to kill 'em. I'm going to bloody kill 'em."
But first things first.
He hobbled over to the bulkhead and, steadying himself against the garbage compactor, ran a hand along the hidden ledge behind it. The effort sent a stitch of pain lancing up his side, but all the same Zaeed breathed a sigh of relief when his fingers met the thick fabric of the emergency medkit – the thieves hadn't found it. Zaeed fished it out, pulled out a fresh bottle of bourbon, tore off the top, and drank deeply, desperately, violently, as if he could drown his anger if he finished the bottle fast enough. The booze burned on its way down, and Zaeed felt the shaky strength in his legs giving out. Cradling the bottle in one hand, Zaeed eased himself to the floor under the trash compactor and took another swig.
The quiet pressed in over the just-audible hum of the Normandy's engines, and all that was left was him, Jessie, and the drink.
Thank fucking God he'd been prepared.
Vido had gotten away.
Whether it was the booze or the exhaustion or the concussion Jack had given him back down on the planet, Zaeed's rage seemed to crystallize now. His heart rate slowed. Despite the storm in his head, a quiet calm filled Zaeed's limbs, interrupted only when he shifted to pull Jessie out of her holster and leaned back farther into the corner, listening to the pops of his vertebrae as they settled like an old rusty ship from back when 'ship' still meant water. He set Jessie next to him, hand resting on the familiar coolness of her barrel as he shot back another swallow of bourbon.
He stared balefully at the door – it was locked, no doubt, and with an angry krogan or turian (or even both) waiting outside for any excuse to toss him out the airlock. He couldn't help but snarl at the darkness. It was insulting. They were caging him up like the goddamn krogan. Like he was a bloody animal. Like he could be caged.
Like he hadn't prepared for this sort of thing.
"Goddamn children," he muttered.
Vido had gotten away.
He wondered if the laughter he was hearing was part of the concussion or just the galaxy taunting him, but he knew it was Vido's laugh. Vido had gotten away. It strained belief, even for him who should know better. Hadn't Zaeed seen enough of the galaxy to know this was the only way his showdown with Vido would resolve? People didn't get justice – or even revenge – unless they were very, very lucky. The galaxy loved bad guys like Vido to get away.
But the galaxy hadn't let Vido get away. Shepard had.
Vido had gotten away. And Shepard had let it happen.
That was all there was to it. Shepard had screwed him, screwed all his careful plans to catch Vido. Ruined all the intel he'd so painstakingly gathered. Brought him down to Zorya to get his hopes up and then wasted his time saving a few goddamn miners. Gave Vido the window he needed to escape for another twenty years. Refused to call in the Normandy to shoot the fucker's bloody gunship out of the sky, or just bomb every Sun base in a hundred mile radius. Every step of the way, Shepard had screwed him.
And Zaeed had been so close! The image of Vido's gunship retreating behind the jungle canopies replayed over and over in his head like a cruel joke. It was almost unreal.
Vido had gotten away. And Shepard had let it happen.
The hate was almost paralyzing.
Shepard had taken from him the one thing he really wanted. The one thing. And he suffered no delusions – he would never see Vido again. It had taken twenty years for the bastard to let his guard down enough for Zaeed to find him the first time. If Vido was good at one thing, it was hiding while his minions took the risks. He would make sure Zaeed never got another shot at him. Vido would die an old man, pampered and happy in some hidden mansion somewhere, and Zaeed and Jessie would go to their graves with nothing.
Vido was out of his reach forever.
But the one who'd let him go was not a hundred feet away.
Something had to be done.
His contract had been violated like he was some two-bit merc and not Zaeed Goddamn Massani. Like he was some stooge to be discarded or dismissed without a second thought. It was disrespectful. It was… it was bloody unprofessional, was what it was. Bounty hunting was a dirty business, outlaws buying outlaws to kill other outlaws. Things tended to get messy. Professionalism was the only defense they had – you didn't have to agree with a man's politics to do business, but you damn well had to treat him with respect.
Especially if he was Zaeed Goddamn Massani.
For contract violations on a big job – and this Normandy mission was one of the biggest he'd ever taken – Zaeed would normally shout a bunch, maybe shoot a few expensive toys or personnel for emphasis, and then double his fee and let it be water under the bridge. But the recent fallout between Shepard and Cerberus had left Zaeed wary of where he stood with Cerberus of late. The Illusive Man had only paid him a tenth of his fee up front – non-negotiable, he'd insisted – and with the way things were going the other ninety percent was seeming less and less likely with each passing day. Zaeed had held onto some hope after Miranda rejoined them, but she'd returned a different woman, and when he'd asked she'd calmly informed him she hadn't been in contact with the Illusive Man in days. The money was looking bad. Doubling his fee wasn't going to cut it.
But this wasn't about money anyway. It was about revenge. If a small-time client had done to Zaeed what Shepard had done, Zaeed would have killed them down to a man and made sure everybody knew why. Nobody reneged on him.
Shepard had let things get unprofessional. And when you let things get unprofessional…
Bad things happened.
Shepard had to pay.
Shepard had to die.
Zaeed's side gave a painful throb as if to remind him that he'd already attacked the commander once today. He'd let his fury get the better of him and attacked stupidly. That was what had gotten him in this situation in the first place. As soon as Vido's gunship had winked out of view, he'd turned twenty years of fury on the next nearest target, who had just happened to be Shepard. He'd hardly landed a blow before Jack and Jacob had been on him, smashing him back into the iron grating so hard he'd barely avoided dashing his unprotected brains out.
And now he was on Shepard's ship, surrounded by Shepard's allies. Now he was wounded and half-drunk and unarmed. They'd taken his guns, his knives, probably even found his hidden grenade belt.
But he was Zaeed Goddamn Massani. He'd faced worse odds before, and he'd kicked them in the teeth. Shepard had no idea who he was messing with.
They'd taken his guns, but he wasn't helpless. After they'd beaten him halfway unconscious Jack and Jacob had searched him for hidden weapons, and had relieved him of half a dozen knives, his inferno grenades, a holdout pistol, and even a miniature demo-charge. But they'd grossly underestimated just how many weapons Zaeed preferred to carry on his person. Even delirious, blinded by the blood in his eye, Zaeed knew they'd missed at least three grenades he kept in his pauldron, along with a short razor under his stomach plating and another in the lining of his left sleeve.
Now, if he flexed his left hand, he could just feel the razor's handle pressing up against his wrist.
He imagined how it would feel driving into the commander's neck. He took another deep drink.
He could take Shepard. Shepard was half his age and no pushover, but he was a man who'd learned to fight with four hundred thousand credits of armor and shields and computer shit cradling his every action. Killing with a high-performance gun and a targeting computer was one thing – and Shepard was very good at it – but killing with your bare hands? Bashing another man's brains in with whatever you had in reach, so close you could watch the warmth leave their eyes? That wasn't Shepard's game.
But Zaeed had done it more times than he cared to remember. He'd done it with knives, he'd done it with broken bottles. He'd killed at least a half dozen men with Jessie's stock alone. He'd even done it bare-knuckled.
Zaeed outweighed Shepard by thirty pounds and outwisdomed him by thirty years. If he couldn't take a bottlefed Alliance brat in a fistfight he deserved whatever he got.
He'd have his chance. One proper thrust of the blade could do it, cyborg or not. Shepard would die in a pool of blood at Zaeed's feet. Zaeed had no delusions – he would not have time to relish his victory. He'd join Shepard in death, of course, as soon as the AI told the ship what had transpired. But it would be too late for Shepard. Vido was gone forever, but Zaeed would at least get some measure of revenge.
And Shepard would walk right in, unarmed, and let it happen.
Zaeed shook his head and felt the hidden razor again. It was almost too easy. "He'll come for us soon, Jessie," he said. "Come to talk sense into us." He took another long drink.
Shepard would want to talk about Zorya. He would want to mend bridges. He would believe Zaeed could forgive him, and it would cost him his life.
Vido had gotten away. And Shepard had let it happen. And Shepard would pay.
By the time Shepard made his reappearance, Zaeed had polished off the whole medkit, slept for a spell, then finished another bottle he fished out from the wreckage of one of his supply crates. The alcohol mixed with the simmering anger in a way that didn't quite dilute it, but blurred it until he was lashing out at any random thing he could think of.
And so he was more than ready with a few curses for the room lights when they finally bloomed back to life, so bright they burnt his eyes. He blinked blearily, his head shaking with the sound of heavy footfalls, and forced his eyes open long enough to see Shepard and the krogan staring down at him.
Shepard was out of armor, back in his casuals, freshly cleaned. The punch Zaeed had managed to land on him before Jack and Jacob had taken him down was purpling around the edges of a medigel patch.
The commander did not look amused.
Grunt, plodding in behind him, looked even less so – especially when his gaze landed on the gun in Zaeed's hand. "Move!" Grunt bellowed at a volume that would set a man's head to ringing even if he wasn't hungover. The krogan's blue eyes surged in alarm as he thundered forward to plant himself in between Zaeed and Shepard, his mountainous bulk shielding the commander completely from view.
"He's armed," Grunt growled, teeth bared as he leveled his Claymore down at Zaeed.
Zaeed grimaced at the pain in his head. He didn't bother to lift Jessie in defiance.
From somewhere behind Grunt, Shepard spoke. "Stand down, Grunt. It's safe. That gun doesn't fire."
Grunt's eyes narrowed suspiciously at Zaeed for a moment, as if he'd somehow tricked Shepard into giving the order, but after a ponderous moment he relented and stepped aside, gun still pointedly trained on Zaeed's forehead. "That's Jessie," Shepard said by way of explanation. "Just a memento." Shepard ignored Grunt's dismissive snort, favoring Zaeed with a look that screamed 'see? I do listen.'
Zaeed tossed him a half-drunken 'if you did you'd remember Jessie doesn't need to fire to kill a man' look in response.
"Wait outside, Grunt," Shepard ordered.
"Outside, Grunt," Shepard repeated. "Send the doctor in."
After a long reluctance the krogan obeyed with a final warning growl that made Zaeed's head reel. He turned to plod out the door, muttering to himself.
Zaeed wince at the sound of the door mechanisms sliding aside to admit Dr. Chakwas. The woman had her medkit (woefully free of bourbon) in hand as she gingerly stepped around the retreating krogan's girth. She did not look at Zaeed, her face drawn in a clinical neutrality that didn't quite hide her disgust at being there. If possible, she looked even less amused than Grunt. She said nothing, standing to one side behind Shepard – as far away from Zaeed as she could get.
Eyes still locked with Zaeed's, Shepard pointed to the table. "Up," He ordered.
Zaeed didn't bother protesting. Scattering the nest of discarded bottles he'd made for himself, he hobbled back up to his feet, both hands holding onto the table for purchase. His head whirled at the sudden change in equilibrium, his legs felt like jelly, and he very nearly fell back onto his ass.
Neither Shepard nor Chakwas made any move to help him.
With some effort, Zaeed managed to drag himself up onto the table. It was only then that Chakwas made a move, stepping forward to set her medbag on the table next to him. "Shirt off," she commanded in clipped tones, rummaging through her kit. Behind her, Shepard watched in silence.
Zaeed grunted and obeyed. He felt like he'd halfway fossilized to the floor, his joints and muscles were so stiff and painful. With some effort, he managed to detach the clips that held his pauldron on. He let it drop to the floor with a clatter. The armor on his right arm was next, followed by the chestpiece and belly plates. He was already struggling to remove his armormesh hauberk when his booze-addled mind finally caught up and he paused.
He was supposed to kill Shepard. With the razor. The razor that was hidden in his hauberk.
He looked up, wondering if Shepard or the doctor had noticed his hesitation, but they looked to think it was just soreness making him slow (which, to be fair, was not a hard ruse to believe, considering how Zaeed's muscles felt like cottony agony.) They stood by impassively, watching him struggle.
Zaeed swallowed heavily. He could do it now. Shepard was not a meter away. It would be a simple matter to retrieve the blade while he was pretending to fumble with his shirt, and a simpler matter still to jam it into Shepard's neck and watch him die like Vido should have. It'd only take a few seconds. Zaeed felt the razor's weight pressing into his forearm, tempting him. He wasn't likely to get a better chance.
But then Chakwas took pity on him and stepped forward to help him pull the heavy hauberk and its hidden weapon over his head, and Zaeed felt himself freeze at her touch. Zaeed did not delude himself – he knew he never had any real chance with the woman, and it was probably just the fact that she was the only one on the Normandy his age that had made her image linger for him. Crushes were for children. But all the same he could not deny that he carried some flicker of affection, and the new disgust he could see in her eyes hurt. No doubt she hated him now, and she'd hate him even more once he'd done the deed and killed her beloved commander. He could at least do her the favor of not doing it in front of her.
He let her pull his undershirt off, revealing the myriad of scars that criss-crossed his chest, back, and arms. Gunshot wounds and slashes, pockmarks from shrapnel and clean scalpel scars from a half dozen reconstructive surgeries, and most impressively the enormous scars that covered his left arm like a sleeve and made it so awkwardly stiff that he eschewed armor plates rather than suffer any more loss of mobility.
When his undershirt had been tossed in a heap on the floor to join the rest of his armor, the doctor got to work. She probed none-too-gently at Zaeed's bruised torso, gloved fingers feeling for broken ribs or signs of organ swelling. She listened to his heart and lungs, stared down his throat, shined a painfully bright flashlight into his good eye. She worked in silence, speaking only when she had Zaeed read a set of numbers off of a little datapad.
And she did it all with a look of such contempt on her face. Like he wasn't worth doctoring. At first it made Zaeed burn with shame – he supposed all matronly women wielded shame like a weapon and a doctor like Chakwas probably was a master at it – but as the minutes passed and she still looked at him like he was scum that shame gave way to a familiar anger.
She was dressing the wound over his eye when Zaeed had finally had enough, and batted her hands away from his face. "Enough," he snarled. "Taylor and Jack couldn't beat up a ten year old. Why don't you do something useful and get me headmeds for a hangover?" He indicated his pounding head with a gnarled hand.
Chakwas' pale eyes narrowed in obvious disgust, but she did not answer him. "He's fine, Commander," she said, thrusting her stethoscope back into her bag and closing it with a click. "Fit for duty or discharge. Or the airlock."
Shepard thanked her and she left, leaving the two men alone.
Zaeed restrained another grimace at the sound of the door sliding shut behind the doctor and swiveled on the table to meet Shepard's gaze. Neither of them spoke for a long time, just locked eyes. The minutes crawled by.
Zaeed spent them thinking, as clearly as he could through the haze in his head. He was as hungover as he'd been in a long time – hardly an ideal condition for assassinating a trained soldier like Shepard – but he had had a lot of years to amass his alcohol tolerance. Men who drank had to be able to think drunk, and Zaeed had had a lot of practice. His mind leapt from scenario to scenario, gauging the seconds it would take to retrieve his blade, close the distance between him and Shepard, and do the deed. Shepard was unarmored, thankfully, and so it wouldn't have to be a particularly accurate strike, so long as it was deep. Still, as much as Shepard tried to feign relaxation, leaning back with his arms across his chest in the pose he traditionally used when he was prying into his team's business, Zaeed could see the man was on high alert. He would not let Zaeed get the jump on him easily, and if Zaeed wasn't fast enough, or didn't get the blade in deep enough, it would only take the briefest moment for Grunt to come thundering in to the commander's rescue.
Zaeed would have to get close. Lull Shepard into a false sense of security. He'd only get one chance.
With a groan, he slid off the table, ignoring the way the room seemed to whirl around him. "Doctor doesn't like me much anymore, I'm guessing," he said, trying to sound conversational as he reached for his discarded undershirt.
Shepard made no move to stop him, other than to shake his head. "Tell me a story, Zaeed," he said, finally, as if he hadn't heard.
Zaeed looked at him, confused, as he returned to his seat on the table and threaded his arms back into the sleeves of his undershirt.
"Tell me a story about a man who let his personal bullshit get in the way of the mission," Shepard clarified. His face was stony.
Zaeed grimaced at that – then again at the stiffness in his back as he strained to slip the collar over his head. "It wasn't your mission," he protested. "It was mine."
"It was my men and my ship and my responsibility, Zaeed," Shepard snapped, and Zaeed just scowled. They fell silent for a moment, then "I'm serious," he insisted. "Tell me what happens."
Zaeed sighed. "It usually goes to shit," he admitted, deciding to play along. As much as it pained him to admit it, Shepard was technically right. He'd seen more than a few missions fall apart because people couldn't get their egos under control. But that was not what had happened on Zorya.
"Specifically?" Shepard asked.
Zaeed stared at him, looking for explanation, but for once the commander was unreadable. Did he want Zaeed to say all the gritty details? Maybe a bit about how Stotsky had gone out, bleeding out from the stumps where his legs used to be after he misjudged a rival merc's trickery for genuine affection and tried to elope with her. Or about how the Koraka had lit up like a firework when its jerkoff of a pilot had dropped it too deep into the brown giant's atmosphere and it exploded. "Mission gets compromised," Zaeed said, deciding on simplicity. "Objectives missed." He fell silent. "People die."
Shepard nodded and said nothing, a satisfied look on his face. Zaeed wanted little more than to punch it off, give him a matching bruise on the other side, but he stayed his hand, reaching for his hauberk and the blade hidden within. Again, Shepard made no move to stop him.
"Vido didn't die," he reminded Shepard, wincing as he pulled the hauberk over his head. "The man we were supposed to kill. The bloody goddamn butcher got away to go enslave and kill his merry way. Mission compromised. Thanks to you."
Shepard shook his head. "Thanks to you. You forced my hand when you signed the death warrants of a hundred people just to make a big entrance. Did you really think I'd let that go? Was that honestly surprising?"
"No time," Zaeed insisted, adjusting his armored sleeve until he could feel the blade handle pressed back up against his wrist. "Only way in. Vido would have gotten away."
Shepard shrugged. "So be it."
It took all of Zaeed's strength not to draw the blade and lunge right then and there. "NOT SO BE IT!" he roared, left fist balled so tight the stiff scar tissue on the back of his hand stung. "We had a goddamn agreement!" He rounded on Shepard, his soreness evaporating under a plume of anger as he set into the commander. "I told you straightaway, when we first met. What did I tell you? I'd be a goddamn saint, I'd follow orders, I'd be the best damn merc you'd ever seen. So long as when I found Vido I got a goddamn day off to go shoot him in the head." He roared until he was red-faced. "I upheld my end!"
Shepard looked unimpressed. "And I upheld mine. I even gave you a ride. Gave you Jack and Jacob and myself."
"And then you threw it away for me! Gave up Vido for a few fuckin' slaves! You're a goddamn soldier! How can you possibly be so naive!?"
"Aside from the obvious, I don't like revenge killing," Shepard said, unconcerned even as Zaeed stood just inches in front of him. "I don't like killing to be personal. Not to me, not to anyone."
Zaeed gaped at Shepard, fury on his face as he worked the blade handle up into his left palm.
Shepard barreled on, oblivious. "Your anger clouded your senses, Zaeed," he said, like he was speaking to a child and not to a seasoned mercenary seconds away from killing him. "Made you stupid. Made you forget your priorities. If you'd wanted Vido dead because he was dangerous, if you hadn't made it personal, you'd never have compromised yourself." He stared at Zaeed with a sanctimonious look on his face, as if he expected Zaeed to drop to his knees at the ephiphany.
The blade pressed into Zaeed's hand. He was in range. He could do it.
But he didn't.
"Here's a story for you, Shepard," Zaeed found himself snarling. "One day your quarian and your doctor and the glass-bones kid grab you and hold you down while the turian shoots you in thegoddamn head." He stared at the commander, fury at Shepard and fury at Vido jostling for purchase in his head. "Your best fuckin' friend shoots you in the HEAD over a goddamn disagreement."
Shepard said nothing.
"You'd want to die, Shepard," Zaeed said. His voice quieted as the memory welled up like a reopened wound. Zaeed was a man who could happily spend a whole night reminiscing on past adventures, but what had transpired between him and Vido was a memory he did his best to keep buried. It bubbled to the surface now, though, as fresh and painful as ever. "Christ, Shepard," he said, and he stared down at his feet, winded by the admission. "I wanted to die. Never wanted anything half so much." It would have been so much easier if he had. If the shot had killed him.
The room was quiet.
"But I didn't die," he said finally, looking back to Shepard, eyes hard. "I got shot in the head and I lived. And I want to see if that traitor can do the same. You're goddamn right it's personal, Shepard. I want revenge. And I don't care how good you act, you are full of shit if you think you wouldn't want the same."
Shepard shrugged. "I'd control it," he said. "I wouldn't let it control me."
Zaeed could only stare, mouth agape. He couldn't believe it. The fucking child, the fucking child! How could he stand there and say that with a straight face!? How could he not understand? He lifted a hand to point at Shepard and tried to shout, but the anger did not come. "You're a goddamn child," he said, shaking his head, "you're…" He trailed off, at a loss for words.
That was it. Shepard didn't understand. Zaeed had explained the most important thing in his life and Shepard had just stood there and let it wash over him like it was nothing. He didn't get it. He didn't understand betrayal, or revenge, or evil at all.
Shepard was a child.
Suddenly all of Zaeed's anger was gone. He felt it ebb away in a wash. Now he only felt very old and tired. He sat on the table, hidden blade forgotten.
Shepard kept talking. "I don't expect you to feel the way I do about killing, but I do expect you to be a professional. I expect better from you, Zaeed."
Zaeed stared at his hands.
"I'm going to give you the same choice I gave Cerberus," Shepard continued. "We're heading to Aiea to investigate a shipwreck, but then we'll be heading back to Minuteman Station. You can get off there with no pay." He narrowed his eyes. "Or you can shape up and do your goddamn job."
Zaeed frowned. He flexed his hand again, feeling the hidden blade there. "Or I can kill you and blow up your ship," he said, but his voice sounded unconvinced, even to him.
"You can try, Zaeed."
21 years previously...
Zaeed preferred to measure time in terms of injuries. Medical technology – and the Suns could afford the real stuff now, nothing like the minimum they'd commanded back on Earth – had pushed the limit of what a suitably stubborn man could survive farther and farther, and Zaeed had spent most of his life testing it. Asphyxiation, blood loss, electrocution, practically anything could be fixed so long as you didn't actually die – and there were those who said it was only a matter of time before that barrier was gone too. A broken leg could be good as new in a month, skin grafts took hold in days. Zaeed could take a bullet on Monday and be back in the fight by Wednesday. It had gotten routine.
Two-hundred and eighty-six burns from a red-hot poker would still hurt for a while, though.
Zaeed did not fall when the alien shoved him back into the cell he'd been sharing with Stefan and Dung for the better part of a week (or at least he thought it was about a week - the prison was built deep enough underground that it was hard to tell), but he wanted to. The pain in his arm was intense. The fresh burns all the way up on his shoulder felt like lightning, but not half so bad as where the thoroughness-minded batarians had stuck the glowing poker into the crusted-over burns they'd put on his hand two days ago. Zaeed felt like passing out.
Still, you couldn't let some goddamn four-eyed freak think he'd gotten to you.
Zaeed stayed on his feet, turning to stare defiantly through the cell's slit window until the guard had turned the corner and continued up to the surface, his broad body blotting out the tiny glint of daylight at the end of the slanted corridor that was the prison's surface entrance, far above them. "Yeah, you better run, jackass," Zaeed snarled to himself. The walls – cold, dripping moss on permafrost - swallowed his words.
He took his seat in the slow-moving river of filthy, freezing water that sluiced down the prison's main channel. The cold was mind-numbing, but it felt like relief after the heat of the torture chamber he'd spent the morning in.
Next to him, Dung stirred. "'eed," he mumbled from behind a swollen lip. "You're back."
Zaeed hissed as he settled his burnt arm into the water. The cold stung like knives in his skin, but it was a blessing to know he still had working nerves to feel it. "Course I am," he grunted, carefully dribbling cold mud over his shoulder.
"They torture you again?"
Zaeed sniffed absently, trying to ignore the way his stomach rumbled at the smell of burnt flesh. The batarians had an unusual fixation on his left arm - aside from the injuries he'd suffered when they'd first been captured, they hadn't touched him anywhere else - but on his left arm they'd been very thorough. They'd set their hot poker to the back of his hand again and again and again until there was no more skin to be burnt off, and even then they'd just pared back his sleeve and worked their way up. He'd kept count, shouting out each new burn as they added it, and at two-hundred sixty-eight he was blisters from knuckles to shoulder. It'd be a hell of a scar when it finally healed. For now it seeped and stank and riddled him with agony at the slightest breeze. "Nah," he lied, holding very still. "Goddamn pansies."
Dung shook his head but did not disagree. He had gotten much the same treatment, but so far the batarians' burn marks had only barely made their way up Dung's arm to deface the bottom letter or two of his tattoo. The first time the batarians had tossed him back in the cell with only a half dozen wounds Zaeed had worried Dung had talked, but one look at his face proved otherwise - the boy was pale and scared, but he was a Blue Sun, goddamnit. He was made of sterner stuff than that. He'd last a while.
Zaeed grimaced at that thought and turned to look at the cell's last inhabitant. "Hey Stefan, you still with us?" Dung followed his gaze, a troubled look on his mangled face.
Slumped in the far corner, Stefan held his knees and rocked slowly. He didn't answer.
Zaeed's frown deepened. Cradling his burnt arm against his chest, he crawled across the cell as slowly as he could manage. Every bump made his nerves scream, until he slumped to a seat next to the larger man. "Stefan," He said, slapping him on the back with his good hand as if nothing was wrong, "Buddy. You still here?"
Stefan was shaking. The gash he'd taken to the head when the batarians had boarded their ship had long since stopped bleeding, but Zaeed had seen enough injuries to know it wasn't finished doing its damage. Stefan's eyes had had a glazed, unfocused look to them for days. He had hardly said three words since they'd been locked up. And while Zaeed and Dung had had daily visits to the torture forge to get a little more of their left arms hot pokered off, their batarian jailers hadn't so much as glanced at Stefan, like torturing him wasn't worth their trouble.
That wasn't a good sign.
Still, Stefan did seem to still recognize Zaeed. He lifted his head high enough to meet Zaeed's eyes, and misery seemed to roil off of him like a cloud. "Zaeed..." he mumbled, and his voice was thick. He was tearing up.
Zaeed shook his head. "Nope," he said, patting Stefan hard, like he was trying to knock some strength back into him. "No, no, none of that crying shit. Enough, Stefan. You're a Blue Sun. Show some goddamn dignity."
"Can't help it," Stefan sniffed. He rocked a little faster.
Zaeed smacked him again. "We'll get out of here, you dumb son of a bitch," he insisted. "You know Vido'll think of something." Zaeed had spent the ship ride down to whatever shithole corner of batarian space they'd been dragged to drifting in and out of consciousness, but he had been lucid enough while he was being introduced to his cell to see a manacled Vido being dragged deeper into the prison's depths, no doubt to get whatever special torture regimen the batarians reserved for leaders. It was anybody's guess as to how Vido was faring (or, if Zaeed was being honest, if he was even still alive), but nonetheless he was probably their best hope. If anybody could figure out an escape plan, it would be Vido.
"It's not that," Stefan insisted, staring back into his knees. Tears streamed down his cheeks. "It's Duke-y. He hasn't been fed."
Zaeed looked at him.
"He's a good kitty," Stefan observed, nodding to himself. "Poor, poor Duke-y."
Zaeed rolled his eyes. "Jesus Christ, Stefan! He's a four hundred pound lion, not a goddamn teacup chihuahua. Show some goddamn dignity for him!"
"He's at the base. He misses me."
"Be thankful he wasn't on the ship, you damn fool," Zaeed said. "The batarians would have made him into a throw rug."
Stefan sobbed harder.
"Jesus Christ," Zaeed muttered again, looking across the cell to trade a worried look with Dung. Stefan was losing it. "Just… Christ." Zaeed rubbed at his face with his uncooked palm. The things he did for this damn group. "Listen, Stefan. The lion is on Caleston. He's fine. He's not hungry. He probably..." he paused, thinking, "he probably ate someone at the base already."
"Vosque, if we're lucky," Dung supplied, his usual grin hardly diminished by the fact that he'd lost three teeth to the batarian slaver who'd tied him up when their ship had been taken.
Zaeed forced himself to smile back. "Exactly," he said, patting Stefan on the back. "Your kitty is probably sleeping off all that meat. Let's worry about us here. And Vi-" He paused mid-sentence.
The slosh of boots echoed down the hallway. Zaeed stared through the bars – he couldn't tell the seven guards apart by their footsteps yet, but if the guard schedule he'd pieced together so far was accurate, either Three-Eyes or Baldspot was due. Baldspot liked to spit on them as he passed by but was otherwise past his prime, no real threat, but Three-eyes had – if fewer eyes – twice the sense of the other guards, and Zaeed preferred not to be overheard by him. Hopefully it would be Baldspot.
One of the guards lurched into view.
It was not Baldspot or Three-eyes, and Zaeed's eyes widened a degree as the batarian's bulk filled up the corridor in front of them. This one was Fakebeard, huge and heavy with fur and fat, his shoulders too broad for his little head. He wore a hooded skin coat that smelled like oil and carried one of the harpoon launchers that had killed Strachilde. He was bald from the neck-up but for a quartet of thin, braided locks – no doubt collected from beasts he'd hunted – that hung like wispy beards from silver piercings on his jowls.
Fakebeard stared at them for a long moment, four black eyes glittering in the dim light. That he was the most dangerous of the guards Zaeed was quite sure – and not only because he was the biggest.
Still, he was a goddamn batarian. Zaeed rose to his feet. "I think there's some space left on my elbow, you bloody goddamn jackass," he snarled, displaying the dripping, burnt remains of his arm to the alien.
Fakebeard chuckled, a strange, alien noise, and reached a hand through the window. He shook his voluminous sleeve and three faded green apples rained to the cell floor to plop in the pooling water.
Zaeed picked one up from where the current had caught it between two of the cell bars. The apple was heavily bruised – it looked like it had been frozen and thawed – but near as he could tell it was the real deal. A genuine apple from Earth or one of the luckier colonies. His stomach roared at the morsel – he was so hungry. He stared up at Fakebeard in confusion.
The alien smiled, baring needley teeth, and muttered something in a tongue Zaeed did not recognize. Then, in common, "a gift, humans." With another chuckle, he turned to plod away.
Zaeed hurled the apple with all his might, pain to his arm be damned. His aim was true, and the fruit splattered off the top of the batarian's domed head, spattering him with pulp. The projectile caught Fakebeard midstride and he slipped and toppled with a surprised roar, sliding ten feet down the river of mud that sluiced down into the prison's depths before reclaiming his purchase.
With a floor-shaking roar, the batarian came charging back to the cell, all four eyes whirling in fury and dripping with mud and bits of apple.
"A gift, batarian," Zaeed spat back, leaning out of the alien's reach on the cell's rear wall and trying to hide the fact that his arm felt like it was about to slough off.
Fakebeard stared at him, a hatred so strong that it transcended the species' barrier etched into his face. His false moustache locks flitted in his furious breath as he spat off what Zaeed had no doubt was an impressive display of Khar'shan's least polite vocabulary. Zaeed just stared back until the alien blinked (and blinked and blinked and blinked) and lumbered away, smoldering.
Zaeed slid back to the floor as the batarian's footsteps receded into silence again. Four days – or near enough – they'd been here. They just had to keep it together a little longer, and Vido would come up with a plan to get them out.
"You think it's poison?" Dung asked, and Zaeed turned to see him holding another one of the apples, his eyes filled with a desperate hunger.
It obviously wasn't poisoned – if the batarians had any intention of killing them, they wouldn't do it half so mercifully – but Zaeed knew what the boy was really asking. He shrugged. "Go ahead and eat it," he said, shaking his head. "You don't have to throw it."
Dung gave a little whimper of gratitude and bit into his apple like a starving man. The apple was wrinkled and pitiful, but somehow the boy made it look like a ten course Bekensteini feast.
Zaeed's stomach growled, and part of him regretted throwing his apple at the batarian. Who knew when the next opportunity he'd have to eat would be? And when Vido did come up with a plan to get them out of there, he'd need to be ready with more than the guard patrol schedule. Defiance would benefit him little if he starved in the meantime.
He grimaced and willed his stomach back into silence. He'd made the right call. He had to stay defiant, for the other Suns' sake more than anything. They were his men. He was responsible for them. He was the man who led them into battle, and if he couldn't stay iron under the aliens' torture, there was no waythey could. While Vido came up with a plan, Zaeed would keep them alive. And sane.
Still, Zaeed couldn't help but notice how Stefan seemed not to have even noticed his apple. The man continued his quiet rocking. If things kept up like this, Dung would last a week or two, and Zaeed might make it a month if they gave him some water.
But if they didn't get out in the next day or two Stefan wasn't going to be getting out at all.
Zaeed grimaced. "Hurry, Vido, you son of a bitch."
Stefan lasted three more days.
The day after that, Zaeed and Dung made a break for it.
After so many hours of sitting in cold water Zaeed's legs felt like jelly, and yet his stride was steady as he felt his way through the darkness, trailing his elbow along the permafrost walls as he descended. Warm batarian blood dripped from his hands and the jagged piece of some kind of bamboo he'd fashioned into a makeshift dagger.
Behind him, Dung was panting. "Zaeed... We need to turn around."
"Not without Vido," Zaeed grunted. He pushed on, deeper into the prison. The corridor was almost too dark to see, a straight shot down into the ground with the only light coming from a bank of fluorescents somewhere at its end. This far underground it would be impossible to see one of the guards coming, and even with the two Zaeed had killed while they were distracted taking him out for his daily burnings out of the picture, six remained. They'd run into one eventually. Their only chance was to hear him coming, and so Zaeed strained his ears for the sound of bootsteps over the gentle burble of water.
"They knew he was the leader, Zaeed," Dung tried again. "There's no way he's still alive. Vido isn't exactly the hardest nut to crack..." Dung trailed off. It was generally recognized among the Suns that for all his bravado, Vido was a bit of a coward. He excelled at what he did - he had a better mind and a better education than the rest of them put together - but on the rare occasion he was forced into actual wetwork he tended to fold, and fast. Faced with the hand-burning torture... Even Zaeed had to admit it wouldn't be pretty. "Stefan didn't even-"
"We're checking for his corpse then," Zaeed insisted, cutting him off. The image of Stefan's body face down and cold back in their cell was still fresh in his mind. "If you can't make it, then sit down in the dark and hope a guard doesn't find you. But I am not leaving Vido behind." Coward or not, Vido had saved Zaeed's life a good half dozen times. They were friends and partners and they'd been a fantastic team for years. Resisting torture wasn't Vido's job - it was Zaeed's. All too late Zaeed had realized he shouldn't have expected Vido to get them out of the prison in the first place. This wasn't a brains situation, it was a brawn situation. It wasn't about strategy or tactics, it was about grabbing the nearest batarian and braining him against the wall. That was Zaeed's job.
And if he'd realized that a little sooner, Stefan might still be alive. He would not make that mistake again. "Not ever," he said, and continued his slow descent.
Dung had the good sense not to press the issue further, and followed behind Zaeed in silence.
Zaeed gripped his weapon in blood-slicked fingers. He'd found it on the corpse of the guard he'd strangled against their cell bars. The dry, woody reed was no great blade - as best as he could tell, the batarian had been eating it - but though it had splintered when he'd stabbed it into the next guard's eye socket, it had done the job. Zaeed figured it had one more good stab in it before it was useless.
One more dead guard at most, and that was only if Zaeed could hit the soft tissue in the neck or eyes. If he hit an armor plate they were done for - half-starved and wounded as he was he would never be able to kill a healthy batarian hand-to-hand, even with Dung's help.
But that was what they had to work with. The iron keys they'd lifted off of one of the guards were too small to do any real damage, and with their left arms so badly burnt, neither Zaeed nor Dung could bear the spearguns the two dead guards had carried and they'd been forced to leave them behind. They had to make due.
The light at the end of the tunnel continued to grow as they made their way step by laborious step downward. They moved as quickly as they dared but many times had to slow to a crawl, lest they slip on a patch of wet ice and slide all the way down. Zaeed's heart beat furiously in his chest at each second that passed. In the dim light they were almost invisible - at least to one another - but the corridor was so narrow that sneaking past a guard going the opposite direction would be all but impossible.
He was so relieved when they finally stumbled into the dimly-lit cellblock at the corridor's end that he didn't even care that there was a guard waiting for them. The batarian gave a bark of surprise and raised his gun to fire, but it was a second too late and Zaeed bashed the barrel aside. The gun went off with a fantastic report, the fired harpoon burying itself in the icy soil of the opposite wall.
Zaeed's bamboo dagger found its way up into the batarian's chin, splintering as it tore through his soft gullet to the arteries beneath. An eruption of brown-black blood fountained and the alien dropped to the floor, gurgling in astonishment. He shouted wetly, but Zaeed had struck true and his life ebbed away in a great torrent. In seconds he was still, his blood coloring the shallow water below.
Zaeed threw the splinters aside. "Check the cells," he commanded behind him, spitting a mouthful of alien blood to the floor in disgust. Dung nodded and limped his way down the cell block.
Zaeed toed the dead batarian, praying for a real knife or at least another piece of bamboo, but unfortunately once again the guard had only been carrying the two-hand harpoon rifle. "Goddamn fools don't have the sense to carry close quarters weapons in a goddamn tomb," he snarled, before stepping over to check the crack where the misfired harpoon had embedded itself in the wall. That hope proved more fruitful - with a little effort, Zaeed managed to pull part of the harpoon shaft from its resting place. The metal was cold and jagged, but it was better than nothing.
"Zaeed! Over here!" Dung called, and Zaeed breathed a sigh of relief that the prison didn't descend any deeper. He hobbled past the dead alien down to the far end of the cell block, where the shallow river of mud and water disappeared down an enormous drain with a loud slurping sound. Dung pointed into the last cell in the row.
Inside, Vido was blue-skinned, curled up on the floor in the island of dryness the nearby drain afforded him, and for a moment Zaeed feared his friend had met the same fate as Stefan. "Shit," he snarled. A few fumbling attempts with the keys they'd stolen got the cell door open, and Zaeed grabbed Vido under his armpits, dragging him up to a sitting position. "Vido. Get up," he ordered, slapping his old friend across the face.
Vido's eyes opened and stared up at him. He looked terrible - his arm at least as badly burnt as Zaeed's, his face lacerated and bleeding, his nose smashed - but his eyes were as focused and angry as always. He had not given up.
"Vido... You okay?" Zaeed asked.
Vido shook his head. "I'm afraid I may have told them everything."
Zaeed grinned despite himself. His relief was palpable. "Don't worry about it," he insisted, slapping Vido across the back. "We'll get out of here and come back with the rest of the Suns." These batarian bastards would regret caging them.
Vido nodded weakly. "Stefan?"
Vido nodded again. "Sorry." For a long moment, the three of them were quiet. "Alright then," Vido said finally, reaching out a hand. Zaeed hauled him to his feet, but did not miss the fact that his friend needed to lean up against the wall for balance. "Get me out of here."
That proved to be easier said than done. Vido did his best, but the cold and the hunger and the torture had taken their toll on him, and he could not even make it back across the cell block without assistance. They ended up beginning their long climb back up the corridor to the surface with Zaeed and Dung supporting Vido's weight between them as best they could without the use of their left arms. Zaeed had switched the harpoon bolt to his burnt hand so he could brace Vido with his good shoulder, and the effort it took just to keep his fist clenched was agonizing. Still, he wasn't going to drop his weapon and he wasn't going to drop Vido, so he grit his teeth and bore the pain and his partner alike.
It felt like hours before they'd climbed their way back up to the middle cell block, where Stefan's body and the bodies of the two guards Zaeed had killed in their escape still bobbed in the freezing mud. They did not spare a moment to pay their respects. They were exhausted, but there was no time to rest, and they headed up the main corridor without delay, watching the planet's gray sunlight filter down upon them. Each step felt heavier, more precarious than the one before it, and by the last twenty meters they were crawling on their bellies through the slow creek of cold mud that threatened to push the back down into the prison's bowels.
Day had given way to night by the time they finally made it to ground level. Zaeed gave a last, mighty heave, dragging Vido out of the hole before they all collapsed onto the snow. He very nearly fell asleep right there.
But a niggling thought kept him conscious. It had been too easy. Zaeed had only killed three of the eight guards, and none of the other five had caught them during the hours they spent climbing out. There was no way they could have gone undetected for so long. Something was wrong.
Still, Zaeed blinked up at the gray sky for a long time before he noticed they were not alone.
"Impressive." The voice was deeper than any human's, and Zaeed felt his blood go cold. With some considerable effort he managed to flip over onto his belly. There, standing next to the little wooden bunker that stood guard next to the prison tunnel entrance, were three of the guards, bundled up in heavy cloaks and packed as if ready for a journey. At their feet were the corpses of two others, leaking rivulets of blood that stained the slush below. Fakebeard grinned down at the exhausted humans, his false moustaches twitching in the fog of his breath. "He said disrupt the guard patrols and leave the rest to Massani," the batarian grunted to the two behind him. "Applethrower," he said, gesturing at Zaeed. "Looks like he was right."
Zaeed grimaced and pulled from some hidden font of strength to lurch to his feet. It was even colder above ground than below and the planet's icy wind seemed to cut Zaeed to the core, but he didn't care. He would not die on his belly. He took position in front of Vido and Dung and glared at the trio of aliens, switching his pilfered harpoon bolt back to his uninjured hand.
"You didn't eat the apples?"
Zaeed almost jumped to hear Vido's voice behind him. Vido had risen to a sitting position and was staring at Zaeed with disbelief, apparently unconcerned that they'd been caught. Zaeed shook his head, confused.
Vido sighed wearily. "You would not believe the IOU I had to write to get those to you. How much human food do you think this planet has?" Vido shook his head, rising shakily to his feet. "Zaeed, Dung..." he said, holding out an arm, "meet Kasha, Solem, and Tarka Del'Serah. They will be coming with us."
Zaeed blinked. "What?"
Vido apparently didn't hear him - or perhaps just didn't care - and called one of the batarians to him with a gesture. The alien padded up without complaint and offered Vido a broad shoulder to lean on.
Zaeed's exhausted mind struggled to catch up. "Vido... what?"
"They're coming with us," Vido explained as the batarian helped him limp down the short staircase at the prison base. "I offered them a position within the Suns in exchange for their help escaping."
"Their help escaping!?" Zaeed asked, pointing his harpoon in disbelief. "Goddamn aliens?" Technically the Suns had started accepting turians the previous year, but Zaeed had never minded the skullfaces. They had a code. They followed orders even better than humans. But batarians? He couldn't believe it. "No way," Zaeed snarled, taking a few uneasy steps towards the lead batarian. "Not them. Not him."
"Yes, Zaeed, him," Vido said, exasperated. "Kasha has a ship ready for us a few miles away. Or did you have some other idea of how we were going to get back to Caleston?" Fakebeard - Kasha - smiled smugly at Zaeed, arms crossed over his barrel chest.
Zaeed felt the fury bubbling out of him. "He killed Stefan," he spat, dropping into a wide stance. Stefan had been alive just yesterday when Zaeed had been taken out for his daily torture session. The image of the red smear that was all that was left of his head when Zaeed had returned was hard to forget. "There is no way we-"
"Your friend killed himself, Applethrower," Kasha said with a smirk. "He could not take the pain." He held out his own left hand, revealing a heavily-scarred palm covered in familiar burn marks. "He was weak."
He charged forward with a roar, harpoon held aloft. His legs were suddenly filled with strength and he covered the distance to Kasha in a flash.
Then the batarian caught his burnt wrist and twisted, hard.
Stars exploded in front of Zaeed's eyes as his whole body lit up with pain so sharp he did not even feel himself hit the icy ground, nor the batarian's boot on the small of his back. The agony seemed to fill everything, seemed to sap every last ounce of his will. Zaeed Massani almost cried.
When he could finally muster the strength to lift his head again, everyone was staring down at him. Only Dung looked concerned - Vido just looked... disappointed. "Enough, Zaeed," he said and, with a signal to his batarian helper, he turned to start down the path to where the batarian ship no doubt awaited them.
"Vido... They killed Stefan," Zaeed pleaded.
"Get over it," Vido called over his shoulder. "And stop being such a bigot."
Zaeed was astonished when he opened his door and found Jacob Taylor waiting for him.
He buried his surprise. "What?" he growled, blinking at the bright light of the hallway. He'd hardly risen from his seat since Shepard had left him. It had been a day, maybe two days – he honestly couldn't remember – since he'd spoken to anyone who wasn't a gun. He still hadn't bothered cleaning up his armor since his check-up with the doctor - his mud-speckled pauldron and right gauntlet rested in a heap next to a trio of empty bourbon bottles. He'd wiled away the time he wasn't passed out drunk thinking about betrayal and friendship, about old enemies and new, and it seemed the ship was as content to leave him to his moping as he was to mope.
That he'd eventually be interrupted, Zaeed had had no doubt. But to be interrupted by Taylor?
Taylor didn't seem to see the queerness of that. "Come spot me, Massani," he said, arms crossed across his chest.
Zaeed's eyes narrowed. "What?"
"Weights," Jacob said, gesturing down the hall. "I need a spotter and Tennard and Donnelly are ashore." He stared at Zaeed with tired eyes. "Come spot me," he repeated.
Zaeed almost told him no, almost palmed the door panel and went back to his seat on the floor to mope some more, but something stayed his tongue. Somehow it felt like he'd crammed enough plans for murdering Shepard into the past two days – the chance for a break, to do something physical for an hour or two, was tempting. Sitting on his ass did a man of Zaeed's age no favors. And regardless of what had happened back on Zorya, Jacob was no threat to him. He was unarmored, stripped down to his uniform pants and sleeveless undershirt, but the indentations where his pauldrons dug into the skin were still visible on his shoulders. He'd just come back from planetside. And he wanted to lift weights.
Zaeed searched Jacob's face for duplicity, but there was none to be found.
He wanted to lift weights with Zaeed.
Zaeed's curiosity got the better of him.
"Give me a second," he found himself saying. Jacob nodded and stood by the doorframe while Zaeed tossed off his breastplate and jerkin and pulled on a t-shirt. He smelled rank, no doubt, but Jacob said nothing.
The two men headed for the elevator. The lower deck was quiet – quieter than Zaeed had ever heard it. From his room he had heard the engines power down a few naps ago, had heard the Kodiak making its trips back and forth from the hangar, but now that he was out and about the silence was eerie. There was nothing – no snoring krogan, no pacing bootsteps of Jack down below, no hiss of torches or clink of tools as the engineers repaired some instrument or another. It was deserted.
"Thought the weights ended up spaced," Zaeed observed, peering down into the hangar to the spot where the bench had once been. The hangar, too, was abandoned.
"I have another set in the armory," Jacob grunted, palming the elevator panel to part the doors. "Not as fancy, but it works."
The upper decks were no louder than below, and when the elevator doors opened to the CIC Zaeed found it abandoned as well, the dozens of consoles that lined the walls unmanned, the starmap dim. As he followed Jacob to the armory, Zaeed tried to squint down the hall to catch a glance at the pilot's chair, but it was too far to tell if the kid had left his post too.
"They're planetside," Jacob supplied, reading Zaeed's thoughts. "Planet down there's tropical and Shepard decided to give the crew some beach time before we go back to Minuteman" He shook his head.
Zaeed grimaced. "The whole ship?"
Jacob stared at him warily for a moment – perhaps remembering the fistfight they'd had back on Zorya – but he relented. "Garrus is here," he said finally. "Working on the battery. Joker's up front. A few others."
Zaeed nodded. "Huh," he grunted, frowning. It hardly seemed wise, sending most of the ground team away from the Normandy. Seemed like asking for trouble – if they were really going back to Minuteman Station then the end of their mission was at hand. Everything was at risk.
Though perhaps in a day or two the crew would be heading off to their suicide mission. It was hard to blame them for wanting a little vacation, a last chance to feel a little sunlight on their faces before they flew into death's mouth.
And Jacob was up here. "Not in the mood to relax yourself?" Zaeed asked, watching Jacob pull a retractable weight bench out of one of the armory's wall compartments. Normally he'd assume the man was skipping shore leave to stay with Miranda – he'd hardly left her side since Bekenstein – but the fact that she was nowhere to be seen and that he was hunting Zaeed down for company put a hole in that theory. Jacob didn't answer him, racking weights onto the bar in sullen silence. He flopped down onto the bench and, with a shrug of his broad shoulders, hefted the bar onto his chest.
Zaeed watched in silence. He'd always regarded Taylor as a bit of a pansy, but he had to admit the boy was strong as an ox. Patient, smooth, controlled motions. He lifted the bar like it was nothing, face set in a determined scowl. He finished his set without any help from Zaeed and stood. The men traded places in silence, Zaeed rolling down to lay on the bench. He rubbed his hands together and took hold of the bar. It lifted easily enough, and he brought it down to rest on his sternum for a few seconds.
It was surprising how good it felt to use his muscles again after days in his quarters. Normally Zaeed Massani was not a man to rest on his laurels, and his restlessness had gnawed at him as the hours had trickled by in his room. He'd felt completely spent, laying there on the floor. He'd emptied half of his bourbon supply until the prospect of opening another bottle seemed too insurmountable and he'd stopped. Even sleeping had felt like too much effort. The past twenty years of his life had been rent meaningless in the space of a few hours. What point was there in doing anything at all? But now, with the weights in his hands, he felt energized. He matched Jacob's set and then threw in another two reps in silent challenge. He wasn't young anymore but he was still strong. He hefted the bar back into place.
Jacob added more weight and they traded places again.
They worked in silence, and as the calm quietude of exercise layered in around them Zaeed found himself contemplating his next move. As much as he'd thought about it over the past few days, he'd made little progress.
His money was in danger, and that meant it was time to decide if he was staying.
It wasn't like he had to. Shepard had offered to let him out on Minuteman. From there it'd be a quick shuttle ride to Omega, where work would be plentiful. He was the best merc out there and his services were hotly demanded – it was a rare day when he finished a job and did not have three more waiting for his attention. After a few months on the Normandy he was sure he'd accumulated a healthy backlog, if he'd only bother to check any of the dummy accounts he used to communicate with clients. There would be plenty of selection. Easy jobs, violent jobs. Solo ops or private army work. Nothing so lucrative as what Cerberus had offered him, of course, but plenty of options he could pursue.
Still, the thought of leaving by any means other than by dying in a blazing shootout in the Normandy's lower decks left a bad taste in Zaeed's mouth. This was an interesting job, and it was still possible that Cerberus would come through with his fee. Shepard could have thrown him out on his ass already, or had the krogan kill him, but he hadn't. He'd just given an ultimatum – swallow your pride and stay or get off my ship. Zaeed was a prideful man, but he could eat crow when the situation called for it. Maybe he could forgive Shepard long enough to see the mission through.
"Shepard give any indication as to when this shore leave would be ending?" he asked as he helped Jacob reseat the weights. They were out of plates now, and Jacob was covered in a thin sheet of sweat when he rose from the bench, panting.
"Said a day or two, if I was okay with it," Jacob said, taking his position behind the bar.
Zaeed's eyes narrowed at that but he did not protest. He laid on the bench and grasped the bar. It was getting harder and harder to keep up with Jacob, and the younger man had only managed four reps in his last set. Zaeed would be lucky to get three.
He grit his teeth and lifted the bar out of its socket.
It took all of his strength not to drop it on himself. His arms shook, his face felt like it was burning, and through it all Jacob stared down on him, face dour. Zaeed gave a great heave and got the weight up once, but by the time he'd lowered it back to his chest he was out of steam and he needed Jacob's help to get it back up.
He sat up, winded and red-faced. He was spent.
Jacob sat next to him without a word. The boy looked distant. Zaeed considered himself pretty good at reading people - sometimes it was a matter of life and death - but he wouldn't have had to be to see that something was wrong with Jacob. Something must have happened on Aiea, something that had made Jacob want to put some distance between himself and the planet. Zaeed tried to remember what Shepard had said they were doing on the planet – something about finding a shipwreck.
"You're a tough kid," he admitted, curiosity getting the better of him.
Jacob shrugged, staring out the window. "I try."
"You find your wreck?"
Jacob was silent for a long moment. "Yeah. And my father."
Zaeed nodded as the pieces fell into place. Father troubles. "Ahh. Not... entirely what you expected, then."
Zaeed rose unsteadily to his feet to lean against one of the workbenches. He'd learned long ago that just because he was old didn't mean people cared to hear his advice, but like always he found himself giving it anyway. "Fathers'll do that to you," he said. "My own left me in the middle of a goddamn warzone not six months after my mother abandoned us." It had pissed him off at the time, but he couldn't help but smile at the memory now. Lotterio Massani had been a small, quiet man, tough as nails and with a bleeding heart that'd impress Shepard. A better man than his son in many respects. But he hadn't been able to cut it in the long run. Something had gotten to him – the war, or his wife, or First Contact, or something, and he'd snapped. Zaeed smirked. "Bloody bastard ended up dead in a bar in Barcelona."
"Turns out mine's a rapist." Jacob's voice was quiet. "And a slaver."
Zaeed grimaced. "Sorry, kid."
"I just feel so stupid," Jacob said, shaking his head. "I spent all this time remembering him as a good man, and then I find out he's been alive all this time doing..." He looked like he might spit. "...this."
Zaeed shrugged. "Get over it. It's the way of the galaxy. Good men can be hard to tell." Jacob glared at him like he'd said something wrong, and Zaeed felt a flicker of annoyance. "You're a tough kid, Taylor, but you are far too old to be so goddamn naive," he growled. "You work for Cerberus, for chrissake. People are shit, plain and simple." He jabbed a finger at the younger man. "Even the ones you worship."
"I'm a good man. Shepard's a good man."
Zaeed laughed. "Give it time, Taylor. You see enough shit like that," he waved at the window, to the blue-green planet below, "and you realize good men are just men who haven't been caught yet."
"That's not true."
"You not learn anything from finding out who your father really was? You really gonna let that pass you by like it didn't happen?"
Jacob looked miserable. He cradled his head in one hand, staring at his feet. "It was better when he was dead."
"He wasn't dead. Just not who you thought he was."
Jacob cringed like Zaeed's words had bitten him. "I don't want to talk about it," he muttered, brushing past Zaeed to lay on the weight bench again. He grabbed the bar and throttled it into the air like it was the rapist, like it could undo what he'd seen.
Zaeed could see right through him. He could evade it all he wanted, but Jacob had learned something. Maybe it was the looming suicide mission, or maybe it was just that his father was the last shit he'd needed to see, but Jacob had learned something. Zaeed smiled. "It is true, what I said," he insisted. "Deal with it."
Jacob manhandled the bar up again. "Shut up, Zaeed," he spat through gritted teeth.
Zaeed shook his head and grinned as he watched Jacob try to muscle his way out of it. "Nah, Taylor, you are just too goddamn transparent. It's a damn funny coincidence that the same day you find out your dad's a goddamn raper's the day you come befriend me." He was amused to see Jacob stiffen at the insult.
"We're not friends," Jacob insisted, resting the bar on his chest. He lifted it again, grunting with the effort as it rose once, twice, and three times.
"Why not? I'm not the goddamn raper here."
Jacob let the weight drop with a great clang and sat up, staring at Zaeed with a face twisted in anger. "Shut the fuck up, Zaeed. You set a civilian refinery on fire and then punched Shepard when he called you on it. You don't get to talk about my father being..." He hesitated, not wanting to say it.
"A... Goddamn... Raper?" Zaeed finished for him.
For the second time that week, Jacob hit him. The blow landed below his left cheekbone, right on the bruise the first had left, and Zaeed staggered back into a weapon fabricator, seeing stars. The pain in his face was roaring by the time he'd regained his footing, but he only felt like laughing.
He spat blood and smiled at Jacob, who stood fuming at him, broad shoulders heaving with rage. "You done?"
It was another half hour later, while they were sliding the weight plates back into their compartments in the wall, that Jacob spoke again. "I shouldn't have hit you," he said, voice quiet. "You didn't deserve that. You're not a bad man."
"Yeah I am," Zaeed muttered. He grimaced at his reflection in a polished benchtop, wincing as he probed the spongy double bruise that had blossomed across the unscarred side of his face with one finger. "You got a hell of a right cross, Taylor, even if took two of them," he said, testing the pain. "I look like shit."
He grinned at Jacob. Hitting him had done the trick, and as tender as Zaeed's face felt, Jacob's mood had markedly improved for the second half of their workout. "They always go for the pretty side of my face."
Jacob shrugged, unapologetic. "You did deserve it on Zorya."
"Not one of my finer moments," Zaeed admitted. "Bloody goddamn stupid of me, attacking the commander. Goddamn childish." It hurt to admit it, but he'd been a fool to turn his anger on his teammates, no matter what they had cost him. It was unprofessional. Dangerous. Beneath him. And unnecessary - even if Jack and Jacob hadn't been there to restrain him and he had hurt or killed Shepard, it would have cost him his Cerberus contract and made an enemy out of the Illusive Man. Zaeed normally prided himself on picking his battles more carefully than that. And once the collectors were dealt with, if he still wanted Shepard dead, he could just bide his time until one of the man's legions of enemies put a job out on him and then get paid to do it up right. That was how a man dealt with revenge. Lashing out randomly was for children and krogan.
"And yet here I am, the same day I find out my dad's a... a goddamn rapist... talking to you." Jacob sighed.
"Funny how the galaxy works sometimes."
Jacob nodded. "And the funniest part is that as much as I've hated you, this whole mission you've been straight as an arrow. Never gave me the slightest real reason to distrust you. Might have saved my life, even, on Horizon. And I still hated you."
"Might have?" Zaeed asked, remembering the way the krogan had positively stunk with rage as he'd charged Jacob. If it hadn't been for Zaeed's reflexes and sharp aim, Jacob would have been paste, no doubt about it.
"And yet," Jacob said, ignoring him, "it wasn't until the other day I thought I might have been too harsh."
Zaeed said nothing.
"You followed us," Jacob explained, staring at him. "Me and Jack and Shepard. When you had the choice to go after Vido or save the civilians, you chose to come with us and save them."
Zaeed laughed at that. "You honestly think I gave a shit about a few workers?" he asked, rolling his eyes.
"No," Jacob said, shaking his head. "I think you'd have let them burn. But something convinced you. Something about Shepard, or this mission, or keeping your promises. Something convinced you to do the right thing."
Zaeed frowned. Suddenly, his head was full of anger that he could not quite explain. "Hardly had a choice," he growled, standing up. "There were fifty goddamn Suns between me and Vido." He wasn't sure why he felt the need to argue the point, but something in Jacob's admission made him feel furious. Where did Jacob get off judging his actions? "Leave the goddamn psychoanalysis to Chambers and don't talk about what you don't understand, Boy."
Jacob was undeterred. "Wouldn't have mattered. You're Zaeed Goddamn Massani, remember?"
20 years previously...
Zaeed was furious.
By all accounts he should have been happy. The Suns were growing by leaps and bounds. By the end of the week, they would be moving their base of operations on Caleston to an enormous compound in the mountains, large and defensive enough to protect them from whatever the magistrate might feel like sending their way. A few months earlier their holdings on Zorya had finally started turning a profit, they'd expanded operations into Invictus and Cenderes, and Vido had been hinting that soon they would be setting up a permanent presence on the Citadel as well, a feat which only Eclipse among the major merc groups could boast. They were becoming very wealthy men.
But things were changing. The Suns were getting crowded. Every day they were less an army and more a business. And there were the aliens...
Zaeed was often furious these days.
The rest of the Suns were giving him a wide berth. The warehouse where he'd decided to fume should have been full of men packing up their equipment for the move – there were still many tons of cargo, of drugs and contraband, of weapons and computers yet to load – and yet as soon as he'd stormed through the doors the other Suns had suddenly remembered pressing engagements elsewhere and had scattered.
The news had already spread. Nobody wanted to antagonize Zaeed. Nobody wanted to risk meeting Kasha's fate. Even the batarians – normally so hellbent on proving they were unafraid of humans – had the sense to stay away from him.
Zaeed was almost disappointed at that.
For now the cargo crates would have to do. Zaeed shot at them mercilessly, not caring what valuables might have been inside. Splinters of polymer and steel went flying as he unloaded round after round into any target he could find, anything to spend his rage. The walls shook with the gunfire.
Zaeed snarled as his pistol overheated. Cursing, he ejected the heat sink and reached for a replacement, but his hands were shaking so hard he fumbled and dropped it. It tinged against the concrete floor and rolled away to join all its spent brethren
"Son of a bitch," Zaeed swore, digging in his pocket for another. He was out. "Son of a bitch!" He stared at his feet, trying to pick out the fresh sink.
He was spared the need to swear again by the sound of the door sliding open with a bang. Zaeed didn't have to look up to know who it was – only one man would be bold enough to approach him when he was like this. The catwalks that ringed the room creaked under Vido's footsteps as he descended to the ground floor.
"Screw off, Vido," Zaeed growled, still scanning the floor for his last heatsink. "Don't want to hear it."
Vido said nothing. His footsteps continued, calmly, quietly, until he stopped amongst the pile of discarded clips and Zaeed found himself staring down at his partner's armored boots. Grimacing, Zaeed lifted his gaze enough to meet his Vido's eyes. Vido was stone-faced. He was armored in a set of the blue and white armor he'd recently had the Suns adopt, gleaming and untouched by battle, and unarmed but for a long black case he held in his hands. He was silent, eyes demanding explanation.
"He deserved it," Zaeed found himself explaining. "Four-eyed bastard disobeyed my direct orders. Took his squad and went after a target I told him to let go." Zaeed had spent enough time with the batarians to have learned their feelings on retreating enemies – "no one leaves the battle unwounded" was one of their favorite tenets of their pillars of strength – but when following that tenet meant leaving a whole goddamn flank unprotected... It was bullshit. They were goddamn terrorists. Zaeed did not give Vido a chance to rebut. He whirled on Vido, fire in his eye. "They left the flank open and it got three men killed," he bellowed. Martinez, Gaul, and Ravius. All good men. All dead, now, because the batarians couldn't hold ranks. "I hope I put that bearded bastard in the hospital for weeks."
"Four men," Vido said calmly. "You killed him."
Zaeed's rant died on his lips. Kasha was… dead? He knew he'd hit the batarian hard – he remembered the crunch of flesh against his fist as soon as the gloating fool of an alien had come lumbering up after the mission with a big shit eating grin on his needley face. He remembered the spurt of blood that fountained down the alien's face so thick his beard piercings were lost in the torrent. But dead? He hadn't meant to kill him. "I only hit him, Vido," he protested.
Vido shrugged and walked past Zaeed, gingerly stepping over the piles of spent heatsinks. "Shard of bone into his brain is what Dr. Povoy tells me. Hemorrhaged out pretty fast." Vido said it tonelessly, like he was talking about the weather. His calmness was unnerving.
Zaeed expected Vido would be apocalyptically mad when he found out he'd started another fight with the aliens. In the past months he'd tried – genuinely tried – to follow Vido's lead and welcome the batarians into the fold, but it seemed like everything the monsters did riled him up. Ever since the three brothers had joined (and immediately been made captains as per Vido's promises), more than a hundred batarians had flocked to join the Blue Suns' ranks. Most were ex-slaves or casteless, the scum of the Hegemony. They were vicious and undisciplined and unpredictable, and hardly a mission went by where one of them didn't cause Zaeed a problem. The brothers were even worse – while Tarak was more or less unthreatening, Kasha and Solem seemed to have become drunk with their newfound authority, and had been turning the Suns into their own personal thugs and drugrunners.
And Vido had just let it slide. He'd retreated to his planning rooms – sometimes for days in a row – and communicated almost exclusively through one mouthpiece or another. Even Zaeed – the goddamn co-founder, for Chrissake – rarely saw Vido in person anymore, and these days when he did it more often than not only turned into another shouting match.
But today, mere hours after he'd apparently killed one of the brothers, Vido looked completely unruffled.
It was unnerving to say the least.
"I didn't mean to-" Zaeed started.
"I have a gift for you," Vido interrupted, and set the black case atop a nearby workbench. He slid it towards Zaeed.
Zaeed's eyes narrowed in suspicion, but Vido's face was unreadable as he tapped the top of the case. "Alright," he said, holstering his gun. The case was unadorned but very fine, polished black leather over a steel shell held closed by a trio of gold latches. It was the sort of case you might expect to see at one of the fundraisers Vido liked so much, something more at home on Bekenstein than on a wild, lawless planet like Caleston, but all the same Zaeed couldn't help but be curious. At Vido's gesture, he clicked open the latches and opened it.
It was a gun.
"Wow," he said. He reached into the case and tenderly lifted out the weapon. An assault rifle, it was polished and clean, and yet well-used. It had seen combat before. It was heavily scratched, its forward grip stained by sweat, with a grainy buildup of condensed metal vapor that ran down the barrel. The stock was chipped, and a trio of bulletholes stared out like empty eye sockets from above the handle. "First series Avenger model," Zaeed said. Despite the wear and tear, the gun looked serviceable. "From the Contact war. This is a classic gun, Vido."
"Jessie would need to be," Vido said. He smiled, proud of himself. "I did tell you I'd replace that stupid ukelele eventually, didn't I?"
Normally Zaeed would have corrected Vido – Jessie had been a mandolin, for the thousandth time – but now he was too awed to bother. The mere mention of Jessie's name brought the memories flooding back, memories of the happier times when the Suns had first gotten started that had felt so distant of late. He'd almost forgotten – he'd lost the mandolin a couple years back when they'd been forced to abandon one of their bases in a hurry, and he'd never found a suitable replacement to inherit the name.
But this gun…
"Jesus," Zaeed said. He ran his finger over the rear grip. "New grip and trigger assembly from an Avenger three," he recited, feeling the unmarked steel, clean and smooth compared to the rest of the gun's roughness.
"That gun," Vido said, pointing, "was one of the first guns man ever fired at aliens. She was owned by a Lieutenant Gary Hossle, stationed at Shanxi in the First Contact War with the skullfaces." He tapped at the bullethole above the trigger. "Turian sharpshooter blasted it out of his hand, along with four of his fingers, but not before he'd killed a half dozen of the bastards." He chuckled. "Hossle's family had the handle replaced and put the thing in a bloody museum, but I think a weapon like this has a few years left on her."
"Years," Zaeed agreed. "How'd you get it?"
Vido shrugged. "Hossle's brother pawned it. More or less as is. I just had it cleaned up and put in a case."
Zaeed lifted the rifle to a firing position and stared down the scope. It was simple – none of the targeting VI's common in more modern weapons - but when he took aim at the crate he'd been using for target practice and pulled down the trigger, the shot went true. The rifle roared and the crate exploded into shards. "She's accurate too," Zaeed said, grinning. "Cools quick too. Barely heats at all." He fired a few more shots, listening to the quiet beeping of the gun's coolant systems. He stared at the gun in his hands. She'd never replace the first Jessie, and yet she felt fantastic in his grip, like she belonged there.
He turned to look at Vido, not quite sure what to say. "She's beautiful, Vido."
Vido nodded magnanimously. "I'm glad you're happy."
For a long moment, the men admired the gun in silence. Neither spoke. It had been clear to both of them that they'd been growing apart for a long time now. When they'd first started as mercs their partnership had made sense – Vido did the thinking and Zaeed led the men. But now the Suns numbered more than a thousand, more than Zaeed could reasonably command. Where before they had needed to trust one another to survive, now they needed to be organized. They needed other commanders, they needed logistics, they needed a new fancy home base in the mountains.
The Blue Suns were a business now, not a squad. And they had to adapt or be left behind.
Zaeed sighed as he set Jessie back in her case and took a seat on a nearby box of munitions. He was getting old. His hair was thinning. Maybe he was too old to be punching every batarian that pissed him off. "I'm sorry, Vido," he said finally, and this time he meant it.
"The brothers are furious," Vido said, as if he hadn't heard him. "I had Solem confined to the barracks so he wouldn't come down here and goad you into killing him too."
Vido shrugged. "He's a lot less upset. Probably thinks he'll get all of Kasha's men out of the deal." Of the three brothers, Zaeed had always tolerated Tarak the easiest. He was quieter, more dependable, more human than Solem or Kasha, behaviors that had quickly established him as the most subordinate of the three.
There was another long beat of silence.
"You're on the losing side here, Zaeed," Vido said. "The batarians are staying."
Zaeed grimaced. "I kinda gathered that. But of course, I seem to remember that there's a lot of money to be had on the losing side." He stared at Vido.
"If you can survive," Vido finished, staring back.
"I can survive a lot of shit, Vido," Zaeed said. He shrugged. "I have survived a lot of shit."
Vido nodded. "Killed a batarian with your bare hands today."
Vido sighed again. "You've put me in a position, Zaeed. Kasha's brothers aren't going to take this sitting down."
"Don't imagine so," Zaeed agreed, unconcerned. "Let them come." He had little good to say about the batarians, but he wasn't afraid of them. They were dangerous allies – they were unpredictable and disloyal – but those same traits made them unthreatening enemies. It was the Suns Zaeed worried about – no matter what the brothers did, they weren't about to get the better of him. Let Solem come – he'd smash his face in too. Zaeed wasn't afraid.
But then Vido stared at him, and something in his eyes gave Zaeed pause. "So here is what you're going to do," Vido said, and he was frowning now. "You're going to go to Solem and Tarak and you're going to beg their forgiveness."
Zaeed's brows rose. "The hell I a-"
"And then," Vido interrupted, holding up an armored hand, "you're going to offer Solem your job. You're going to resign from the Blue Suns."
Zaeed's mouth hung open. For a long moment, he didn't know what to say. He just stared at Vido, waiting for his partner to say he was joking, to take it back. "You can't be serious."
Vido ignored him. "I'll offer you a... let's say... six hundred thousand credit severance package," he said, counting on his fingers, "and you will leave peacefully, and you will never contact me or any of the Suns ever again."
Zaeed stared at Vido, shocked. It didn't seem possible. "Vido... you and me founded the goddamn Suns. You can't kick me out." How could he even think that Zaeed would just walk away? After all they'd done? After all the blood he'd spilled - enemy blood and his alike? After all the friends he'd lost? After all the times he'd saved Vido's goddamn life!?
Vido didn't answer him.
Zaeed stared daggers at his partner. "No," he snarled, anger blooming in his chest again. "Fuck you, Vido. I'm not gonna do that."
Vido sighed. "I didn't figure you would."
Zaeed felt a hand on his shoulder. He turned, shocked, to see that six Suns – all armored in white and blue – had filed in behind him with solemn looks on their faces. Mwembe and Dung, Sergey and Courtney, Cole and Solomon. They'd been so silent he hadn't even heard them come in, and they did not speak now.
They were his men, men he'd led into battle dozens of times, men he called friends, and yet none of them would even meet his eye.
He turned back to Vido, who had pulled Jessie back out of her case. He stared at Zaeed, unblinking.
Jessie had taken many forms in her long life. She'd captured Zaeed's heart as a girl, captured women's hearts as a mandolin, and shot a few men's hearts out as a gun.
Now, resting on the bench next to him, Jessie the gun looked her age.
Zaeed took another quiet swig of his drink. His crates had been returned – and with them, the rest of his much-needed supply of booze – but his drinking had taken a quieter intensity now. He sat on the floor next to Jessie, lost in memories of a long and eventful life.
Jessie looked so fragile, so broken in the dim light. Smeared with mud from Zorya and a hundred other worlds, her barrel cracked, her trigger loose with overuse. Where once she'd been pristine and gleaming, now she was a rusted old battle axe. It didn't feel like terribly long ago that she'd been top-of-the-line. The Avenger rifles had been one of the first human designs to use mass effect field-accelerated micro-pellets instead of bullets – a fact he'd once maligned when the surgeons had told him that her pellet had broken up in his skull, its fragments too small to make a proper memento – but now Jessie looked like the relic she was. Obsolete. It hurt to admit it – Zaeed had always fancied his girl as cutting edge, even long after he'd stopped taking her own missions.
Now Jessie couldn't even fire, could only kill a man by battering him into a pulp.
Maybe it was time he put her aside.
Zaeed stole another glance at the open crate next to him. It had been closed for more than a decade now, almost lost to sight and memory, but Zaeed had lugged it from mission to mission, never begrudging the weight. Now he peered into it again.
"Goddamnit, Jessie," he observed, taking another drink. The alcohol was warm in his belly, and made it easier not to slam the lid back on the crate and toss it out the garbage disposal.
Zaeed stared at the mandolin, gleaming up at him from its home in a case in the bottom of the crate. It had been in deep, locked up tight, but now it looked as pristine, as real as when he'd first laid eyes on it.
He'd bought it (not her, not yet) on his fiftieth birthday, after he'd already spent ten years hunting for Vido in vain. By that point he and Jessie had been on dozens of missions together, killed dozens of men, earned and spent millions of credits. They'd carved out a reputation as the most dangerous, the most effective, the best mercenary in the galaxy. It didn't matter that Vido had given him the gun - in fact, it only made him all the more determined that she should be in his hand when he finally ended that miserable bastard's life.
But ten years of searching and finding nothing had worn on him and he'd gone all the way back to Earth to buy himself a mandolin, just so that someday, when Vido was finally dead and gone, he would have someplace to go. He could give Jessie the Gun her well-deserved rest and pick up a new Jessie, a Jessie the Third, a girl he could retire with and maybe try to find his own. He'd never been in love with the idea of retirement, but he'd been fifty years old and a millionaire and the thought of sitting on a chair on a dock somewhere had felt like a nice light at the end of the tunnel.
Now he was sixty and Vido had eluded him yet again. Twenty years, and that light at the end of the tunnel still looked very faint and far away.
Vido had gotten away.
And the worst part - the absolute worst part - was that Zaeed wasn't sure if he thought that was a good thing or not. As he traced his gaze down the grain of the mandolin's hand-carved panels, Jacob's words pounded in his head. Had he let Vido escape? Was it possible that he didn't want to face his old friend? Maybe Shepard was innocent, maybe all this time - all these twenty goddamn years - Zaeed had been sabotaging himself. Maybe he was... afraid.
"Now that's bullshit," Zaeed growled, shaking the thought from his head as soon as it had appeared. He looked over to his gun, grinning incredulously. "Vido shot me in the goddamn head, Jessie. What else can he do to me?"
Still. Vido had been his best friend, and Vido had shot him in the head, had taken everything from him and left him for dead over a stupid argument. Zaeed had seen a lot of awful things in his life, seen death and famine and disease and slavery, and yet it was hard to imagine anything half so terrible as betrayal. After what he'd done, killing Vido wasn't just revenge. It wasn't bloodlust, it was justice. It was self-respect. Shepard didn't understand - couldn't understand - how much Zaeed needed to make things even.
"He's a stupid boy," Zaeed observed, sighing as he slumped back to rest his head against the wall. He pulled Jessie into his lap and closed his eyes, running his fingers along her familiar scars. "Young and stupid." Maybe it was just the booze, but Zaeed felt the knot of despair and anger that Zorya had left in his belly loosening. "He doesn't understand."
But that was just it - Shepard couldn't understand. And it wasn't because he was young, or because he hadn't seen the things Zaeed had seen. It was because he'd never been betrayed. He'd never been through it.
And he never would.
Shepard's crew loved him. The scenario Zaeed had thrown at him a few days ago - the thought of Tali and Chakwas and Joker holding the commander down while Garrus shot him in the head - was patently ridiculous, even to Zaeed. Shepard couldn't even conceive of it.
That was why he didn't understand. That was why he'd insisted on trying to take Vido in alive. In Shepard's mind, somehow Zaeed and Vido were still friends. He thought that some kind of reconciliation was still possible, that Zaeed's anger was just a childish argument that he'd come to regret later when cooler heads prevailed.
It was stupid. It was naive. It had cost Zaeed twenty years of his life, and maybe it had cost him the chance to ever catch Vido.
And yet it was suddenly hard to blame Shepard.
"He's just a goddamn kid," Zaeed grunted again. "But he runs a good ship." He had to admit, he enjoyed working on the Normandy. Shepard had his faults but he let his crew make up for them. He listened to advice. He thought about his actions but he wasn't afraid to act when he had to. And he cared about his mission and his men as much as they cared about him. It had been a long time since Zaeed had had that camaraderie in his own life, but he remembered it like it had been only yesterday. It was a good feeling.
And now those same men and that same commander were down there on the beach, carousing and swimming and trying to pretend they weren't about to head off on a suicide mission.
Zaeed didn't sugar coat it - most of them wouldn't be coming back. He doubted he'd be the only survivor this time, but whatever was beyond the Omega-4 Relay would not be pretty. It'd cost lives. The crew knew this, of course, but he doubted if many of them had really ever confronted such a stark reminder of their mortality before. They must have been scared out of their minds, the lot of them.
Zaeed knew his mind was made up.
He cast one last look at the mandolin and then shut the lid. "Maybe later," he said, smiling at the beat up gun in his hands. He wasn't ready to give up on Vido just yet.
But he could set it aside, for now.
He headed for the hangar.
20 years previously...
Zaeed stumbled into the street, Jessie clenched in his blood-slicked fingers.
Everything was pain. The shot had taken most of the right side of his face, and the wound felt chilled in the afternoon's cool air. Zaeed's strength poured out of his body in a torrent, trailing behind him in a long, crimson smear, and through the disbelief and the anger and the fear Zaeed could feel the blackness creeping around the edges of his mind. The death he'd avoided for so long had finally caught up with him.
And yet he made it to the street in time to see Vido's ship rising from the compound's private hangar, with the rest of the Suns on it. It was all that was left, the only thing that could pierce through the anger and pain left of his head. He did not see the street, or the hovercars that swerved to avoid him as he staggered out into traffic. He did not see the gaggles of gawking aliens. He only saw the ship lift into the sky.
He opened fire, peppering the retreating ship with bullets, but in a flash it was gone.
Zaeed tried to call out. Tried to beg WHY but he could not string the words together and all he managed was a strangled roar of fury and agony.
Jessie kicked in his hands, over and over and over and over.
Rage was a hell of an anesthetic, but it didn't do much for blood loss.
He fell over and blackness took him.
Codex Entry: The Legend of Qoh'hesh and the Batarian Hands
"Never shake hands with a batarian" – retiring Alliance ambassador Clarence Davila, when asked what advice he'd offer his successor.
Though it has been almost two millennia since the batarians made first contact with Citadel races, batarian culture remains only poorly understood by the galactic community. Due to the insularity of the species, clues to batarian history and culture must be gleaned from speaking to escaped slaves and merchants or the warrior-caste slavers that prowl the Terminus Systems. The ritualistic scarring of a batarian warrior's left arm is a tradition that goes back thousands of years, and new research by asari linguists has connected it to worship of Qoh'hesh, a heroic figure from batarian mythology.
According to legend, Qoh'hesh was a batarian gladiator of the moetheth'col slave class who lived in a time when Khar'shan was ruled by thirteen feuding tribes. Despite being a slave, Qoh'hesh was a powerful warrior, so skilled with a greatsword that he was selected to represent his master's tribe in the great Tribal Melee – a deadly tournament of slave fights held by the assembled tribes each year at the foot of Mount Herehth.
Drunk on his many victories and emboldened by his master's dependence on him, Qoh'hesh fell in love with and courted Latesh, one of his master's concubines. Qoh'hesh swore to her that he would win the Melee and use the golden champion necklace that was its prize to purchase freedom for them both, but on the eve of the Melee Latesh betrayed Qoh'hesh to his master, who had his right hand amputated at the wrist as punishment.
But so powerful a warrior was Qoh'hesh – and so strong his rage at Latesh's betrayal – that he fought in and won the Melee anyway, wielding his greatsword one-handed to defeat every opponent sent against him. Standing before the collected tribes, Qoh'hesh cast off his slave collar and replaced it with the golden champion's necklace. He challenged the power of all thirteen tribes and stole away, fleeing to the peak of Mount Herehth, where he built a wooden altar and melted down the necklace in tribute to the Gods. He remained atop the freezing mountain for forty days, praying and awaiting the tribes' response to his challenge.
Though there are different incarnations of the legend, all versions agree that when the tribes finally sent their armies against him to reclaim the stolen gold and reaffirm their right to rule, Qoh'hesh fought with the power of a thousand batarians. He dashed the tribes' armies upon the mountainside one by one, slaughtering entire regiments with graceful ease. Some tellings say that Qoh'hesh died four times on the mountainside, only to reincarnate and resume the fight each, while others insist that Qoh'hesh was protected by the Gods and no blade could touch him. Either way, Qoh'hesh ultimately defeated Khar'shan's armies in forty more days of continuous battle, until only the tribal leaders were left. The leaders – knowing they had been defeated – prostrated themselves before Qoh'hesh and begged his forgiveness. Qoh'hesh instructed them to place their right hands palm-down on his altar and seek forgiveness from the Gods, but when they complied, he sliced their hands off and threw them into the sky to form the constellation of Asoon, a war banner for all of Qoh'hesh's enemies to see.
It is said that Qoh'hesh then proceeded to wage a violent war across Khar'shan that ultimately resulted in the unification of the thirteen tribes and the Thousand Years of Might. Most versions end with Qoh'hesh passing away at a ripe old age, undefeated king of the planet. Though obviously embellished, Qoh'hesh's story is retold as historical fact in various contexts to celebrate batarian resilience, combat prowess, honor, and reincarnation as a means to rise up the social ladder.
Qoh'hesh's legend's influence can be seen in many aspects of batarian warrior culture, but most notably in lending the name and beliefs to the Qoh'col, a specialized class of elite batarian slave warriors. The Qoh'col fight only with their left hands out of reverence to their namesake and do all other tasks with the right. Misusing either hand is considered a grave sin and is punishable by death, and so most Qoh'col keep their left hands tied to their belts when not in battle. Qoh'col warriors' left hands are subjected to extreme tortures from a young age, until they are capable of withstanding enormous pain. Though the Qoh'col are slaves – as Qoh'hesh was – they are the highest slave caste and in most batarian city-states can even take mates and own property. They are largely ceremonial, mostly employed as expensive bodyguards or in gladiatorial matches, but the rare instances in which they have been deployed in battle against alien forces have earned them a reputation for brutality and unstoppable determination. The human colony of Didieri – entirely lost to slavers in 2161 – is believed to have been attacked by a legion of Qoh'col in what was interpreted to be a last defiant gesture by the batarian Hegemony against human expansion.
The Qoh'col and their beliefs are revered by most batarians, and the tradition that the left hand is reserved for fighting carries through most batarian cultures. Injuries sustained to the underside of the left arm, including the palm, heel, and fingertips, are considered badges of pride - signifying bravery and strength - and many batarians imitate the Qoh'col tradition of ritually scarifying or tattooing these areas. Injuries to the top of the left arm, by contrast, are shameful, and are seen as evidence of submissiveness.
A/N: I return, yet again! As usual, pardon the slowness. I am slow, but I am determined. More still coming. As usual, thanks to my betas, readers, reviewers, etc.
I must apologize to everyone who reviewed chapter 25 to whom I did not respond. I normally try to answer every single signed review, but I dropped the ball this time. I did not mean to be rude.
How funny was Zaeed in Citadel DLC? "Don't tell him, 'e won't understand" is one of my favorite lines in the whole trilogy. Hilarious stuff.
Chapter 27 shall feature the return of my all-time least favorite character in Mass Effect.