Jacob watched as Shepard paced, her face set with the kind of concentrated focus that preceded a mission. She swung her shoulders, settling her armor in place as she thumped back and forth across the floor of the armory. In front of him, a display showed an array of settings and readouts from her armor. On the other side of the worktable, the geth adjusted something on Shepard's shotgun. Jacob found himself imagining the whir of machinery was its way of humming to itself.
"How's that?" Jacob asked.
Shepard stretched her arms up and rolled them back, pushing the armor's flexibility to the maximum. She threw a punch into the air, then stepped back. "I don't know, it still feels tight."
"I'll open it up another notch, but you're going to loose support if we go too much further."
"Shepard-Commander," Legion said, "requested modifications are complete." It held the strange geth shotgun out to her. A square box containing a small mass effect generator was clamped along the bottom- a tuner programmed to simulate weapon recoil without having to fire a live round.
"Thanks, Legion." She took the weapon and raised it to her shoulder. "Plugged in?"
"Yeah, go ahead," Jacob said.
Shepard pulled the trigger, causing the gun to jolt back in imitation of the real recoil. She tried it a few more times, miming aiming the weapon at phantom enemies while the geth watched. "Yeah, now it's a little soft," she declared. "Can you tighten it some more up across the front instead of the shoulder?"
"Can do," Jacob said. He keyed a few commands into the interface which set her armor's power assist system. The bulky armature was one of the major reasons Jacob no longer felt at ease in heavy armor. Even with a lot of tinkering, it was never quite the second skin of impact gel.
"Shepard-Commander, deployment to Bahak is imminent," Legion said. "You have not chosen a team."
"I know, I was ordered not to take any of the crew with me on this mission. I'm doing this on my own."
Jacob raised an eyebrow at the word 'order'. Why she had accepted a mission from Admiral Hackett, of all people, was beyond him. Legion was silent for a moment, its head plates shifting slightly. He'd never before seen such appendages on other geth. They looked like the kind of dubiously useful aftermarket appendages some people felt the need to add to their gravcar.
"This platform could accompany Shepard-Commander," the construct said. "By current organic standards, we are classified as equipment. Therefore, it would not contravene mission parameters."
Shepard stared hard at the construct, then burst into a laugh. It startled him, all the more because Jacob realized he'd never heard Shepard just laugh like that. A free and easy sound, short though it was.
"You know," she said, "it's almost tempting."
Legion's vanes flicked upward.
"But I can't," Shepard said. "You're not equipment, Legion, you're part of my crew. And besides, I made a commitment, and I have to stick to it. I appreciate the offer, though."
If it was capable of feeling disappointment, the construct showed nothing of it. Instead it turned and walked out the door. Jacob wondered if they shouldn't teach it to salute, just so it had some way of concluding a conversation with anything other than jarring abruptness. Lingering for social niceties didn't seem to be in its repertoire.
"Creative interpretation of rules," Shepard murmured. "Now that's interesting."
"How do you trust that- them, Commander?" Jacob asked.
"Good question. Maybe I shouldn't, but I never sensed any kind of ulterior motive from them."
"Even though it's wearing a piece of your old armor?"
Shepard shrugged. "Yeah... I know. I can't even get a straight answer out of them about why. But you know what? I don't think they know why. Because if they did, I think they'd tell me."
"That makes no sense."
"Come on. Can we really claim we always know why we do what we do?"
"All right, guess I have to grant you that one. But still, I just don't know, Commander."
"Neither do I, not really. But we can't afford another war, so I have to give them the benefit of the doubt. I was able to do that for the rachni, I should extend the same to the geth. There's one thing I'm pretty sure of, though. They may have come by it in a different way, and they may be brand new to it, but they are sentient. And that puts us on the same side when the Reapers roll in."
When. Not a nice thought. For a while, it had been something of a comfort to imagine it was possible the invasion might come long after his own lifetime. Now that seemed not only unlikely, but a wild overestimate. Jacob adjusted the armature's recoil compensation and indicated for Shepard to try again. She mock-fired the gun a few more times.
"Better," she said, rolling her shoulders.
"Shepard," Jacob said, "you sure this isn't..."
"Or a way to get rid of you."
"I don't think that's Hackett's agenda."
"I am now. Liara was digging through the Shadow Broker's files. She showed me some very interesting things. Would you believe the old bastard's been keeping the Alliance off our backs this whole time?"
The surprise must have been written plainly on his face, because she chuckled.
"That Alliance catch and interrogate order?" Shepard went on. "It's on the books, but no one was assigned to actually carry it out. In fact, Hackett's been stonewalling any attempt to dedicate resources to it." She shook her head as if she couldn't quite believe it either. "It's all politics."
"Nothing ever changes."
"Maybe not, but the least I can do is try to find his friend for him. And on top of that, this person might have discovered evidence on the Reaper invasion."
More evidence to fall into oblivion. "That really going to help?"
"The admiral of Fifth Fleet is asking me to do this, not some fringe conspiracy loon. Yes, I'd like the Council to get their heads out of their asses too, but at least someone in high command is taking it seriously."
She unclipped the recoil tuner from the shotgun and handed it back to him, then began feeding cold sinks into her belt.
"Sounds like you'd go back to the Alliance," Jacob commented, stowing the tuner.
To his mild surprise, she had to stop what she was doing and consider it for several seconds. "I'm not sure, but I probably would. If I belong anywhere, I think it was there."
"Even after the way they treated you while you were- after Alchera?"
"I don't think we can confuse the PR division with what the Alliance is really about. PR are a bunch of marketing goons. Sometimes I have to remind myself of it too, because none of the actual marines I've worked with are like that." She pointed at him. "Case in point."
"It's all going to be the same song and dance, though."
"They try, Taylor. The Alliance has a lot of problems. A lot of problems. But there, I know the rules, and I respect them. And I'd take their problems over Cerberus' 'rules' any day of the week."
He shifted his weight. It was difficult to meet her gaze. "At least the Collectors are dead."
"Three cheers. We only had to sell our souls for it." The bitter edge was back, all the more noticeable now that it had been absent.
"Shepard, we didn't pull any of the crap we saw on Pragia or Aite."
"No, but we still rode on it. It's in this ship and our weapons." She cocked her head. "And where do you think all that miraculous technology that brought me back to life came from? It's not exactly off-the-shelf, is it?"
Jacob winced. It had seemed so easy to just leave Cerberus behind, but she evidently didn't see it that way at all. Not when she carried some of it along with her.
"So yes," she said, "I'm going to do this mission for Hackett, and for my reasons and my reasons alone. It'll be good to do something without putting anyone else in the line of fire. Without dragging all of this along with me." She waved a hand at the ship at large.
He nodded, not sure what he could add. He liked to think his reasons and motivations were clear-cut, easy to explain. But every time he talked to Shepard, everything got complicated. I'm really one to talk about leaving things behind, not with those damn bugs still crawling around my head...
"EDI, how far out are we?" Shepard said.
"Twelve minutes to FTL deceleration, Commander."
"Thank you." Shepard picked up her helmet and cycled the atmospheric seal. "Would you go back to Alliance, Jacob?"
It was his turn to stop and think. What surprised him more than anything was the realization that he'd never even considered the question since leaving. It seemed absurd. He'd never gone back to anything in his life- he'd always moved forward.
"I shouldn't have gone on that last mission, Commander," he blurted.
Shepard stopped fussing with the helmet and regarded him. The tension in his chest spiked as the silence stretched out. She'd pushed him hard after the Gernsback... and he'd shut her down. Now, like any good fighter, she'd changed her tactics. This time she was waiting him out. He could see it, see the challenge in her steady gaze. You started it, you finish it.
He straightened and unconsciously clasped his hands behind him at parade rest. "I wasn't fit for duty. I put the mission and personnel at risk."
"I'm guessing this isn't a medi-gel kind of problem."
"Don't think so, ma'am. Still... dragging the Collectors around."
She nodded. "When we're done here, I expect you to report to Doctor Chakwas, marine."
Shepard holstered her pistol, then considered the racked heavy weapons. "Did you adjust the output on the Arc Projector?"
"Yeah, upped the amperage. You can set the charge time to compensate, but don't burn out the capacitor or else it's a lot of dead weight."
"Good. Batarians I can deal with, but I'll take this in case they invested in a mech."
"Giving up on stealth already?"
Shepard rolled her eyes. "Being quiet is not my strong point, so I think I'll assume the worst." She pulled the Arc Projector off the rack and clipped it to her back, then paced another circle to settle everything into place.
"Not looking forward to visiting the doc," he admitted.
Shepard's tone softened. "I know. But don't make the mistake I made- deal with it now."
She didn't push this time, and the tightness started to ease. He smirked to himself. Of course, he'd been given an order, not a suggestion, so he didn't exactly have much choice. He suspected that was very much deliberate. And maybe, in a strange way, it would make it all easier. He suddenly wished someone had issued such an order after Eden Prime... or that he'd been in any frame of mind to obey it.
The door to the CIC cycled open to admit Garrus. He was looking over maps on his omni-tool, flipping through display panes with agitated swipes of his hand. "Shepard, I don't like this. Are you sure you can't take anyone with you?"
"I am. But that doesn't mean you can slack off, Garrus. I'm putting you in command while I'm groundside."
Jacob could almost hear the thump of the turian's brow-plates bouncing off the ceiling. "Me? In command?"
"Just 'till I get back, so don't go emptying my drawers just yet."
"Oh, well, I... yes, Commander."
Shepard patted him on the shoulder. "Stay on your toes. I'm predicting a tight rescue on this one."
The turian chuckled weakly, though perhaps there was a hint of relief laced in with it. "If it happened any other way, Shepard, I'd think you were starting to slack off."
The first clue that something was in the wind was when the Nara diverted to the Citadel instead of Arcturus station. The second was when Kaidan received orders he would be debriefed in person. At the Citadel. All he could do was shrug when his marines asked him what was going on, then go back to trying to decide what to tell his superiors about the run-in with the Spectre. He hated having no answers.
The third was when he arrived to find the trunk containing his dress blues as well as non-critical personal odds and ends waiting for him at the Citadel. That's when the real nervousness set in, the feeling that the tension growing in the fault line under his feet was about to change the landscape. Then they let him stew in it for two days while the brass sorted out whatever bureaucratic delays there were that always seemed to crop up. Just when Kaidan was starting to think his off-the-record mission would truly go unrecorded, a new ship showed up at the Citadel.
The Everest, flagship of Fifth Fleet. Wickham speculated that it was a public show of force designed to attract attention to Alliance military readiness now that the Collector threat had apparently vanished and the batarians were acting up. There were more rumors coming out of the Terminus than he could keep up with, but news of the Normandy SR2 was scarce. After having been spotted on Illium, the ship seemed to have vanished.
In retrospect, the final clue should have been self-evident, but as he made his way through the Alliance Citadel cent-com toward his assigned debrief meeting, Kaidan still faintly hoped he was wrong. That hope died when the door opened. Standing behind a desk that more resembled a massive stone funeral bier than a workspace, Admiral Hackett himself waved the commander inside. Kaidan walked in and saluted.
Hackett nodded to him. "I'll keep this brief, Commander. I've read your report. Do you have anything to add?"
"No, sir. It's all there."
"So you're sure the sensitive data is dealt with for good?"
"Yes, sir. I wiped it myself. Goto's interest was the memories contained on the greybox, not the data her partner stole. I found no evidence that it was copied before deletion."
"Fine. You're to remove any reference to the... incident with the Spectre from your report, then submit it to Captain Silah. She's getting impatient."
"Yes, sir. May I ask why?"
"It's not relevant to the mission, nor, for whatever reason, Spectre Krannas' appraisal of your abilities in the field. Let my people look into it, otherwise, it didn't happen."
"I don't understand. What appraisal?"
"Commander Alenko, your name is being submitted to the Council for admission to Citadel Special Tactics and Reconnaissance."
Kaidan's mouth fell open.
A smirk crinkled Hackett's thick scar. "Get the shock out of your system now so you don't spend too much time gawking in front of Ambassador Udina. No need to give that weasel any more reason to grumble, he's having a hard enough time submitting anyone who served with Shepard as it is. You can see the man's blood pressure shoot up every time her name is mentioned."
The room seemed to have lost its texture, and Hackett loomed very large. "Sir, what... why me?"
"We need another Alliance Spectre, and I need someone who's ready to investigate the potential Reaper threat without a lot of pissing and moaning. I'm trusting Anderson on this. He suggested it, and Rear Admiral Tennyson backed him up. Tennyson tells me you did some off-books work for him on a couple of occasions, though he declined to elaborate. Your experience is starting to pile up, Alenko. You're not the straight-arrow you used to be."
"No sir, I suppose I'm not," Kaidan managed.
"But you've still got your head screwed on straight. That's what I care about. You'll still be an Alliance officer, just like Shepard was."
Is, Kaidan's brain automatically corrected. "And... Commander Shepard? Was she reinstated as a Spectre?
Hackett held up a hand. "Don't remind the Council of associations that might put your candidacy at risk. Shepard is another matter. Leave her to me."
There were any number of implications riding on those words, all of which were a stark reminder of Tennyson's description of Hackett- he knows how to play the game, and it means he doesn't show all of his cards to anyone. The commander shifted his weight, trying to organize thoughts sent skittering in all directions. He couldn't decide if he was happy or appalled by the news.
"I'm sorry, Alenko," Hackett said, "but I'm not going to let you refuse this."
Kaidan swallowed hard. "No, sir."
"Good man. Go make sure your blues are in good order. We're going before the Council tomorrow morning."
"What kind of logistics am I going to be dealing with? Ship? Team?"
"That's being decided. Just keep your mouth shut for now. This is strictly classified until we get the Council's blessing."
Kaidan was grateful his muscle-memory could execute a decent salute without too much intervention from his higher functions. The admiral returned it, and Kaidan turned on his heel and left, the lingering daze flowing along with him.
Spectre. They can't be serious.
The new reality hadn't set in much further by the time he'd made it past the security checkpoints out to the Presidium. The entire trip consisted of a lengthy internal argument between the side of him loudly proclaiming the collective insanity of the entirety of Alliance command, and the other, which kept pointing out that he was already up to his neck in covert fire-extinguishing anyway, so why not get a new badge and some danger pay out of it?
For a while, he just walked, letting the sights and sounds of the Presidium wash over him. Some time had passed before a concerted effort on the part of his comm system finally prodded him into realizing he'd received a message. He opened his omni-tool. It had just arrived, but the sender field was suspiciously blank. Kaidan raked a hand through his hair. He wasn't sure he could handle any more shocks at the moment. But curiosity won out, and he opened it. It turned out to be plaintext, and quite short.
Spectre Krannas has been seen in the vicinity of the Emporium as of 13:05:27. Ask her about Quadim, that should get her talking.
The message was signed the ever-informative A friend.
"Are you serious," Kaidan muttered, staring at the amber holopane. Were Hackett's 'people' that fast? He closed the display and leaned against the planter next to him. A pair of salarians walked by, punctuating their conversation with emphatic gestures. For a moment, Kaidan was faintly resentful. Why was everyone else allowed to be so oblivious that an argument about omni-gel flow variance was the most intense part of their week? He could hear Shepard's voice in his head, picture the exchange with perfect clarity; he'd suggest this might be a trap, and she'd say yeah, it probably is. Then she'd go anyway. Every single time.
Because that's what a goddamn Spectre does.
He indulged himself in a long-suffering sigh and headed to the transit station. It was a short, tense ride to the Presidium's shopping quarter, a place he hadn't set foot in since before Saren's attack. Once there, he scanned the crowds. Though it was less densely populated than the Wards, there was no shortage of turians. Time ticked away. Kaidan started to wonder if he was going to fall into the embarrassment of missing his mark because of the old saw of how hard it was for humans to tell the aliens apart.
But no. Perhaps because he'd had such a good look at her face while she had her gun up his nose, Krannas was impossible to miss when she marched out of the Emporium, another turian in tow.
I could still walk away. But then the Spectre would disappear somewhere back into the galaxy, and Kaidan would never know. And never know if she'd show up again one day, once again intent on his life. He squared his shoulders and walked toward her.
Krannas was dressed as she'd been on her ship, in the dark formal-looking suit. Any doubt that he'd identified the wrong pair evaporated when she noticed him coming and stopped in her tracks. Beside her stood a male turian in a dark blue suit, the points of his fringe poking out from under a long-sided hat. One of the points was missing. Her second, Kaidan realized. The former criminal, Tarlo. He glowered at the human from under his plated brows, mandibles low enough to show his teeth.
"Spectre," Kaidan said. "I need to ask you about Quadim."
Krannas' eyes bulged and her mandibles flared wide. "Where did you hear that name?"
A new rush of nervousness flushed up Kaidan's back. He folded his arms and said nothing, hoping she'd fill in the answer in her own mind. Let's see if I can play this game.
"Iridan," Tarlo rumbled, "vater arh volanas."
That odd language again. Kaidan wondered idly if it was an actual language, obscure enough to be left out of his translator's extensive library, or a kind of code they specifically invented to foil those selfsame translators. Tarlo shifted, as if he intended to move toward Kaidan, but Krannas stopped him with a raised arm and a sharp word.
"No," she said, changing languages. "Perhaps... perhaps it is time."
"Are you sure?" her second asked.
Her head cocked slightly. "No, but all orbits come around."
"You have met with your admiral?" Krannas asked Kaidan.
"Then you want answers to your questions."
Kaidan nodded, casting a wary glance at Tarlo. The turian glared back as if he could peel off the human's skin by sheer will alone.
"Come then." Without further ado, she turned on her heel and marched away, forcing Kaidan to trot along to catch up. Tarlo grumbled something, but stayed where he was.
Krannas didn't seem to be armed, though Kaidan was sure her high collar concealed an amp. He would have to rely on the fact they were in public to deter whatever ulterior motives she might still harbor. She didn't go far, much to Kaidan's relief. He followed the Spectre out of the plaza and into one of the many ornamental gardens that abutted the central water reservoirs of the Presidium. High hedges and a few trees cut off the view to the main promenade, creating a small oasis.
"Do not think too ill of Tarlo," she said, turning. "Life has been harsh to him. Now tell me, what have you been told of Quadim?"
"No more games," Kaidan said. "You first."
The Spectre clasped her arms behind her back and wrinkled her nose. "Nothing I told you was an... untruth."
Untruth. The way she growled out the word reminded him of just what most turians thought of lies. "But you can play games just the same," he challenged. "Why did you want me dead?"
She looked away.
"Is it humans you don't like?" Kaidan pressed. "Or human Spectres?"
"Nothing so base," she sniffed. "No, it is you I hate. And I hated you long before I even knew who you were." She stooped and lifted the hem of her pant leg. Strapped just below the spur was a sheathed knife, which she unlatched and pulled free.
Kaidan tensed, watching her carefully. Her movements were deliberate as she straightened, rolling the sheath over in her fingers. The tension changed to alarm, a slippery feeling sliding along his nerves, prickling dark energy static. At first, he couldn't figure out where the sharp feeling came from.
"I see you recognize it," she murmured. The click of the knife coming free from the sheath rang in the quiet air. The teeth along the back made a particular sussuration as they slid along the edge of the sheath, a sound that sent his memory tumbling back some twenty years.
"Is that the same..." he said.
"Yes." She turned it over slowly, letting the light travel down the surface. It was nicked from use, but the edge was perfectly honed. Just as it had been when Vyrnnus had thrust it in Kaidan's face.
"He was... your brother?" Kaidan guessed.
"Closer than blood, human." Her eyes flicked up, meeting his over the burnished edge. "We four lived and breathed as one, from the moment we could tolerate an amp. A single spirit in four bodies. We were Cabali."
A cabal. He knew so little about the turians' biotic traditions, only as much as any human knew. "I didn't think a cabal ever split," he ventured. It was a guess, but he hoped a reasonable one.
"The First Contact War demanded different paths. Artal Vyrnnus was the eldest of us, and he was awarded command of a dreadnought. A great honor. But he was... different after Armistice. The Quadim mission was the last our Cabal fulfilled as one spirit." She regarded him with a narrow stare. "What... do you know?"
Kaidan folded his arms. "I just want answers."
"A game indeed," she said, mandibles flexing. "Very well. After Quadim, Artal left, and would no longer answer us. This," she twisted the knife in a sinuous pattern, tracing a series of cuts into an invisible enemy, "was all that came back to me from human space. Artal's body was taken by the Hierarchy. They said he was given the rites, but that's all I knew of it." The flow stopped with the knife outstretched, then she stepped back into a tight stance, blade hugging her forearm.
"I served for years without knowing the truth," she said. "Life continued. Then I was made a Spectre, and certain avenues of information opened up to me. The Shadow Broker likes to keep lines open to the Spectres."
"You must be frequent customers," Kaidan said.
She gave a soft hiss. "The wise are not. Three years I served before the hole grew too deep and I gave in to the temptation. The Broker was more than amenable. You will find, as a Spectre, the first request is negotiable. In my case, I promised a repayment in kind when I procured intelligence the Broker would find valuable. At long last, I had Artal's killer's name. At first, I was content with a name alone. It was enough. I could not abandon my duties, so I bided my time.
"My patience was rewarded. The human called Donovan Hock grew too powerful, too successful for the Citadel to abide any longer. His weapon sales were destabilizing the Azatean conflict. He was out of reach of your Alliance, and so it was decided that Special Tactics and Reconnaissance would... deal with him. I was given the mission." Her head turned, meeting his gaze. The light coming off the lake made her eyes very green. "It was all the justification I needed to to request specific help from Alliance ranks."
"Human help for a human problem. And someone who had worked with a Spectre before."
"Rather elegant, and not a whisper of suspicion."
"If I caught a stray round on the battlefield, it would be great deal easier to explain away than an assassination."
Krannas made a sound that might have been amusement. "As I began my investigations, the Shadow Broker contacted me and advised me that Hock had perhaps acquired a valuable piece of intel- data that would serve as a repayment for my debt. The Broker was growing impatient, so I agreed. It seemed to me that all the plates were fitting together."
"You had your chance, but you didn't take it. What happened?"
She looked out over the lake, rolling the knife hilt in her hand. "I... In the years since my Cabali's death, I imagined his killer in all kinds of ways. I knew you were one of the ones designated L2. I imagined you were one of those wretched creatures mewling for compensation, taking hostages and killing for sport. A failure. A stain begging to be wiped away. Surely, I thought, the galaxy would be made better without you in it."
Kaidan clenched his jaw against the hackles rising, the old L2 argument begging to be fired up. A distraction. She wouldn't care about a biotics history lesson. Stay on target, marine.
"Even when I found out you were a soldier, I thought surely your spirit would be tainted with Artal's death. It would show. But you came onto my ship an officer, decorated by your military. One of those that fought Saren Arterius himself."
"Not some criminal."
"I hesitated. But after we found Goto, I was resolved. I told myself I would let Goto lead us to the greybox, then kill you. It would all work so perfectly, and I would be free... and Artal Vyrnnus too."
She trailed off, her thumb running idly across the back edge of the blade as she stared across the water. The Presidium's artificial day had no central source of light, so the water reflected the projected blue of the sky ring above. It was pretty enough, but it didn't match the glitter of an actual sun.
"It was those damnable files," she hissed finally. "After we found Goto, the roots of doubt had set in. They ate at me. So I read the files the Shadow Broker had given me more thoroughly. You already know what they contained.
"The First Contact War was a shock not just to the Hierarchy, but to all those who served. We styled ourselves the strength of the Citadel, and yet this new species, headstrong and foolish, drew so much blood. When next I heard about Artal after Armistice, I was told he was working with humans. This made no sense to me. But it does now, oh yes. It was all there, in those cursed files!" Krannas lashed out suddenly, making Kaidan jump. The knife sang, caught a flash of reflected light, and buried itself halfway into the trunk of the ornamental tree ten feet from him. A smattering of small blue-green leaves trailed out of the tree's shuddering crown.
"And there it is! The great Artal Vyrnnus, enraged by his failures, goes among his enemy. And how does he choose to vent his rage?" Krannas flung up her hands. "By terrorizing alien children! I did not want this truth. Children! Now, what would you call that?"
Kaidan met the turian's seething gaze as steadily as he could manage. "I'd call it pathetic," he said.
"Pathetic!" Krannas snarled. "Yes, pathetic. A good word, it has the bitter sting of truth to it! Tell me, Commander Alenko, what is the worse thing- to lose a brother, or to know that the universe is better for his loss?"
"I... don't think I have an answer for that."
She walked over to the edge of the pool and peered into the water. To Kaidan's surprise, she leaned over and plunged her arm in up above the elbow, then withdrew it, dripping. Between her fingers was a small stone, glittering with silvery specks. Droplets of water pattered into the grass at her feet as she peered at it.
"I won't lie," Kaidan said, "I hated him. But I didn't want it to happen the way it did."
"He deserved it," she hissed. "And you... You rely too much on those below and above you, and your biotics are unfocused, without claws. But none of these things make you deserving of death."
She lifted the stone up to the light. After a moment, she shook her head and spoke softly, "I know, irrevocably, that Citadel space is made better because my Cabali's killer yet lives. I can hate you for it, but it is a plain truth. I... will not be ruled by hate as he was."
Kaidan let the silence stretch out. There was a reflexive urge to apologize floating around the back of his head, but it seemed trite, and above all dishonest. He'd never imagined a moment like this happening, nor that it could resolve itself like it now seemed like it would- with a harsh kind of acceptance.
"Why did you submit an evaluation of me to the Alliance?" he asked at length. "Were you testing me?"
She shook her head. "No. Your ambassador and your Alliance learned their lessons well with Anderson and Shepard. The notion of your candidacy was not put to me until after the mission against Hock. They simply seized an opportunity I created. If the mission had gone poorly, then nothing more would be said of it. But it didn't, and their case is already made for them when they present your candidacy to the Council. Cunning, really. Unconventional, but nothing about human participation in Council affairs has been. Your species has a flair for ignoring tradition."
"But... everything with Vyrnnus..."
She waved a hand. "I was asked to offer an evaluation of your skills. I did so. You did not run to your Alliance for help when others would have, instead you found a way to locate those that stole the greybox, and fought on despite even the loss of your biotics. This is what was important. Personal matters between us are irrelevant."
"I don't know what to say."
"Save your thanks. I have not made your life easier, nor longer."
"You're not the first person to observe that Spectres don't die of old age."
"They prefer it that way."
"The Council. After a career of service, it is preferred that we... martyr ourselves to the cause. Always, this has been."
"Because they know too much?"
She shrugged. "In part. As time goes by, it becomes more and more tempting to... take things into your own hands. Make decisions that are not your place to make. Fix things that are not your place to fix. Some serve many, many years before such thoughts take hold. Others, not so long."
"That sounds like the trap Saren Arterius fell into."
"Resistance to such thoughts ends up defining a Spectre's service, Commander Alenko." Her gaze bored into his. "More than your marksmanship, your biotic strength, your ability to solve problems, any of these. Indeed, for all his strengths, Spectre Arterius failed in this most vital thing. Tell me, is it true? What Commander Shepard said about Sovereign?"
"Would you believe me?"
Her eyes narrowed for a few speculative seconds. "I would."
"It's all true. And the invasion may be a lot closer to actually happening than any of us think. The Collectors... were most likely part of it."
Krannas lowered her head. "I feared that answer."
"I think the Council fears it too."
"Then they are worse fools than I thought. They will doom us if they do not face it."
He smirked. "Maybe you'll have your revenge after all, if I'm to be a Spectre."
Krannas made a hissing cough, the laugh of a turian making no attempt to mimic the human sound. "Perhaps," she purred. "Now, you have your answers. I will... leave you."
"What about that?" He pointed to the knife still sticking out of the tree.
The Spectre stepped toward it, then stopped, rubbing the pebble vigorously between her fingers. "Do what you will with it," she said finally, tossing the sheath to the ground. "Keep it, destroy it, I care not. I no longer want the weight." She backed up several steps, as if afraid the knife would leap out of its own accord, then whirled on her heel. As she passed Kaidan, her predator's head turned just enough to catch his gaze. "Do not rush to meet my revenge... Spectre. If Spectre Shepard is correct, you will be needed."
She left without another word. Chewing his lip, Kaidan turned and stared hard at the knife in the tree. He wasn't sure he even wanted to touch it, but he couldn't just leave it there. He walked over and yanked it free, then scooped up the sheath. It seemed very light, but cold. The alloy did strange things to the light that hit its surface, and it made gooseflesh prickle along his arms. He jammed it back into the sheath. A strange blend of emotions swirled in his head. Once again, he wasn't really sure how to feel. I no longer want the weight. He bounced the knife up and down, considering. Then walked back out to the promenade.
Through the passing crowds, on the other side of the walkway, two figures standing still caught his eye. It was the Spectre and her second. They were talking, heads close together, and to Kaidan's surprise, their hands were clasped between them. As he watched, Krannas leaned forward and touched her forehead to his. Then they parted and headed on their way.
More than just a second, it seems. Then again, turians didn't have rules against such things. Tarlo's behavior made a sudden sense- she must have confided all this to him- to share the weight she shook his head and kept walking. Within a few minutes, he'd spotted who he was looking for- a bored-looking human C-Sec officer standing guard by an intersection. He approached and without preamble, thrust the sheathed knife toward her.
"Officer," he said. "C-Sec has weapon dump protocols, right?"
"Yes, I- We do, but..." she sputtered, taking it. She looked him up and down, taking in his uniform and staring a little long at his face. "Sir! Is this evidence?"
He almost laughed. "No." It was half a lie, but the crime was two decades old. "Call it contraband if you like. Just make sure it gets destroyed, will you?"
"Yes sir! It'll be gelled before shift change, sir!" She saluted, too crisp to come from a civilian. She'd served. She probably recognized him.
"Thank you, officer." He returned the salute, then walked away.
The breath Kaidan hadn't realized he was holding came out in a rush. A risk had paid off again. But how long would his luck hold? He rubbed at his temple. He'd always preferred the cautious approach. It seemed like the single stone that had started rolling when he'd accepted a posting on this new ship, the Normandy, had three years later grown into an avalanche carrying him along. There was no stopping it. Being a Spectre would demand more risks, especially if it meant investigating leads on the Reapers. There would never be, he realized, anything like a standard mission for him again. His future was now more than ever paved with wall-to-wall uncertainty. Secrets, politics, gray morals- a place where rules weren't the solid foundation anymore.
How in hell am I supposed to do this? He was starting to feel light headed. Doubts crawled over doubts until the upward sweeping curve of the Presidium threatened to throw off his balance. He spotted a bench through the passing pedestrians and headed for it.
Safely planted out of the way, a creeping familiarity suddenly hit him. He sat across the from the plinth that had once housed the Relay 'statue' that had catapulted the Mako halfway across the galaxy. He leaned back and tried to remember what it had looked like when they'd crawled out of the beached Mako. He clearly remembered his ears popping when the door had opened, such was the air pressure difference between Ilos and the Citadel. That, and the burning smell and reddish light scalding the silver and blue Presidium.
He popped open his omni-tool and weeded through the files until he found the encrypted partition that contained the reconstruction of Shepard's music and assorted data. He wasn't sure what he was expecting out of it, nor even sure if Shepard hadn't had a backup of her own somewhere. He knew, deep down, that even against a mountain of fears, the little flame of hope was still stubbornly burning.
More than what was contained in the files, he could honor what Shepard was fighting for by... facing this. She must have felt all these things too. As his nerves started to settle, he was suddenly relieved he'd gotten rid of Vyrnnus' knife before he'd given himself the opportunity to rationalize keeping it. The files were weightless, but they somehow weighed more than any length of alloy steel.
I'm carrying enough.
And so begins the countdown to the endgame.
Beta services once again provided by Lossefalme, who is due much credit for her willingness to come along with me after all this time and swat me on the wrist for passive verb usage.
Thank you for reading and commenting!