Has it really been that long? Marcus ran a hand over his fringe as he stood in the cockpit, looking over the instrumentation on the console in front of him with a dizzying feeling of vertigo, surprised at what they were saying to him, with their blinking orange light that was telling him frankly that yes, it had been that long. Hadn't it felt even longer at times?, his mind whispered, those desperate times when he'd nearly lost the battle for survival on this frozen rock? He cringed as he thought, a year...a whole year...
He turned slightly to take in the corpses of the slavers that had tried to take him captive. This was a tiny ship, even smaller than his old vessel, not sleek like the Mark II, but old, rusty, ramshackle parts just thrown together. He wondered how it was even spaceworthy. The men that had flown it here, to 'rescue' him, had thought him easy prey, to be taken and sold to some mining colony or something similar. He clenched his fists as he recalled the hope that had filled him painfully at the sight of the small ship landing outside his camp. The rush of warmth at the first sight of people after being alone for so long with only a beast and a geth that for the most part was silent to conserve energy. He remembered the anger that had eclipsed the hope when he realized that the too friendly faces that greeted him with sweet words had hidden a ravenous avarice that only the coin gained from selling him into slavery could satisfy.
The first shot that had him diving for cover, the scream of one of the men as his furry companion leapt for him, taking him down under the animal's bulk easily. Marcus remembered feeling slightly nauseated at the sound of crunching bone that split the night air. There was a flurry of movement as he shot and was shot at and dodged and survived as he'd learned to do over the long, lonely months, moving purely on instinct, and he came to slowly, finding himself kneeling on the deckplates of the ship, the last slaver's throat in his hands, his too long, too sharp talons piercing the salarian's slender neck nearly to the bone, blood spilling in rivers over his fingers as he choked the life out of the man.
Blood that even now caked and dried on his talons, he looked down at it, grimacing in disgust. He shook himself free of the recollection for now and looked around. There was very little here, they must have been very poor slavers. He supposed he should be glad that they hadn't been more competent or he'd have been chained and tossed in their hold by now. Turning on his heel briskly, he began searching for useful items. Most of the weapons were old, not as old as the ancient sniper rifle he had been using, but at least they had plenty of ammo, a bit of currency and some things that were tradeable.
Too bad there hadn't been a turian among them. What he wouldn't give for a pair of boots, anything better than the tattered and knotted rags he used now. He went and packed up Ushal and his things from camp, flicking his mandible at his beastly companion, who yawned and stood, padding to his side as he made his way out in the snow. He dropped a hand into that soft warm fur, "Caesar, it's time to say goodbye."
The pair made their way to the crash site of his ship, its bones having long ago been stripped of anything useful. It was now a twisted heap of metal, gently rusting in the frozen wasteland. Marcus stood before the cairns that covered the bodies of his brother and his shipmate, head bowed reverently. Heart clenching painfully in his chest, he crouched with a sigh and spoke, voice harsh from disuse, "Paulus, I...wish I could take you both with me. Take you...home. Spirits, I wish it had been me. It should have been me..."
He looked up at the stars twinkling up there in the firmament, thinking about how often he'd found himself here, saying these words, "I'll make it right. I swear I'll make it right, whatever it takes."
"And when it's done, I'll..." He didn't say the next part aloud, it wasn't a promise to his brother, who he knew would be angry at what Marcus intended to do, but to himself. Paulus wouldn't want that, wouldn't want to be the reason for that and shame ghosted up Marcus' spine. He fought the feeling back. There was no other outcome for him, no dreams but the one and once it was fulfilled, once justice was served, he would be empty and free to escape the horrors of his life. He stood and looked back down at his brother's last resting place, "Spirits, I miss you. Goodbye, Paulus. Hope to see you soon."
Silently, the pair walked back to the slaver's ship where it squatted outside the mako that had been home for many months and he stopped before the ramp, turning to Caesar, "I suppose this is goodbye as well-"
The beast cocked his head at the turian as he walked past him and into the ship, yawning hugely as he plopped down onto the deck, rolling onto his back. Marcus' browplates lifted in surprise and shook his head at the furry animal, "I can't take you with me, Caesar."
One golden eye focused on him and he thought he saw laughter dancing in its depths and he shook the fanciful thought free. That eye slid shut and Caesar started rumbling deep in his chest, clearly intending to stay exactly where he was and that startled a short laugh out of Marcus, who threw his hands in the air helplessly, "Fine, have it your way. Don't know how I'm going to hide you from port authority when we dock at the Citadel. I'm sure there's all sorts of regs regarding dangerous carnivores roaming about. Ushal?"
He activated the gauntlet with its glowing orb, bringing it up eye level. There was short hiss as the comms opened and the geth who inhabited the ball spoke, "Marcus, have we secured passage with the transport?"
"There was a problem. They weren't exactly...friendly."
There was a long pause and then the geth spoke, "I assume it's safe to speculate that they are dead?"
Marcus scratched his fringe, browridges drawn down, "Yes..."
"And we have the transport?"
"Yes we do. System's up and primed for liftoff. This old junker won't have an interface."
"It is regrettable, but unimportant. Splice this interface into a console and I will access the extranet for information. Logically, the next step would be to acertain the state of the galaxy."
"Yes, I had the same thought." He moved to the console, and made the connections with swift, sure movements. "What do you think has happened since we...?"
"That data cannot be extrapolated at this time." Marcus left the geth to commune with the machine and went to batten down all the hatches, checking systems and eventually found himself in the pilot's seat, staring at the controls before him with something almost like trepidation. Now that the moment had come to get off this rock that had been home for so long, he was almost reluctant. His life had been simple here, there had been no worries beyond surviving til the next day. Now he was faced with a vast unknown, what was out there waiting for him? For them?
Ushal spoke from where he rested on the console, "The extranet has been...changed. It is rigidly compartmentalized and many geth are guarding the access ports."
"What does that mean?"
The geth spoke again, his tones almost unsure, "I am not certain. I have been unable to download any data from the news feeds. The geth are blocking me from the collective. They are asking for an authorization code."
"Which we don't have. Great." Marcus sighed. Things were never simple, would never be again, "The geth won't even speak to you?"
"Apparently, they think I am not geth. Something is wrong. I have asked about Rannoch and they do not answer."
Marcus ran a hand over his fringe, and said with some hesitation, "Is it possible that some of the geth have turned traitor?"
"Unlikely in the extreme. No geth would give over the information the Shepard cultists seek, not even before the time of the Heretics had we reached consensus so quickly on any single matter."
"The...Heretics?" Marcus frowned, puzzled.
"There was a schism in the geth collective that led some of us to come to the conclusion that the Reapers were divine beings, machine gods. Our ranks were split over the decision to assist the Reapers in annihilating the organic races or staying uninvolved. Eventually, we were all shown the truth and we joined Shepard in defeating the Reapers."
He thought about it for some time while his hands worked the thruster controls, the module lifting off ponderously. Snow flew in all directions as he ascended above the terrain, taking one last look toward his camp, the downed Normandy SR-1 before the clouds obscured his vision. He achieved orbit in a matter of minutes and the white planet below spun tranquilly, unaware of his absence. He wondered if the rest of the galaxy was just as unaware. If his sisters lit a candle for him and his brother on high holy days. It might be safer for Marcus Vakarian to remain dead, might make it easier to feel around the current situation. Idly, he spoke, "Ushal, what is the truth? The one that was shown to the geth?"
The glowing orb that held the geth's consciousness whirred gently from where it sat, his hesitation immediately grabbing Marcus' attention. What had been a casual inquiry now triggered Marcus' innate curiosity, was the geth reluctant to answer? Why would he feel the need to be? Marcus pondered as he waited and after what seemed like an eternity his mechanical voice drifted to where the turian plotted a course to the nearest relay, "Marcus, there are things I am not free to divulge, even to you. Even after all you have done to save us, for which you have my gratitude."
He felt a twinge of anger at this, but it subsided, "Better that I don't know, so it won't get tortured out of me later. If I get caught or something."
"My concern precisely. I can give you this, though it is a poor gift after all you've done for me." The geth paused and then continued in subdued tones, "There are no gods."
Marcus shivered as the words rolled over him like a deeply resounding knell and he felt a touch of awe then, just a touch. Some piece of him heard the truth in the simple phrase yet it was also incomplete and instead of being comforted, he only felt...unsettled. He shook the thought free for now, there were more immediate concerns to take care of, like how he was going to get this junker halfway across the galaxy. He set the autopilot and leaned back, letting his mind work out plans and more plans but without knowing the situation out there, it was next to impossible to find an angle in which to exact his revenge. He would just have to wait and watch and hope that when the opportunity presented itself, he would be ready.
The transport limped into comm range of the Citadel and Marcus vowed to get rid of the failing thing as soon as they docked. Surely some merchant on the Presidium would buy it, if only for scrap and maybe he'd get enough to outfit himself in something more than rags and what clothing of the slavers he'd been able to modify to fit his tall turian physique.
Marcus flipped open the comms, "Transport-41A to Citadel, requesting permission to dock."
There was a long pause, he peered at the sedately spinning space station and noted all the warships that surrounded it, imagining all those guns swinging to target him. There was easily half a fleet here, and he tensed as the cold reply rolled through the speakers, "Citadel to transport-41A, you will dock at bay 23 and submit to a search. Failure to comply will result in your immediate destruction. Do not attempt to flee."
Marcus swallowed to moisten his suddenly dry mouth and leaned over the microphone, "Transport to Citadel, understood."
He maneuvered the ship clumsily into place, noting as he did the scorch marks that ran the length of the station. It had clearly seen battle, he could only hope that the council was still in charge, that he hadn't inadvertently put himself back into enemy hands. He stood by the airlock, unarmed and waited as it cycled. He found himself staring down the barrels of many rifles, the sound of loading heatsinks filling the small space.
He lifted his hands slowly, presenting himself as harmless as possible. The leading officer, a turian wearing the familiar blue armor of C-Sec stepped forward, his eyes cold, "Alone?"
Marcus nodded, "For the most part."
The officer's eyes narrowed, "Search the vessel. Every nook and cranny."
The men stomped about the small ship, tossing bunks and emptying lockers and Marcus nearly panicked as he remembered Caesar, but one by one the men returned, emptyhanded, reporting nothing unusual and Marcus almost sighed in relief. The animal must have found somewhere to hide, though where such a big beast could on this tiny ship was an interesting question. The leader turned back to him, omnitool up and scanning, "Where is your identchip, Mr. ...?"
"Cicero. Marcus Cicero. And I lost it." Marcus was a common enough name and his father's surname probably wouldn't raise any red flags in their systems.
"Explain." Said the man impatiently, eyeing him with suspicion.
Marcus rubbed his neck nervously, opting for a version of the truth, minus certain revealing facts, "I was marooned and some slavers decided I looked like a payday. But I escaped, killed a few of them, this was the first place I thought to go."
"If you were taken by slavers, where is your control collar?" The man seemed almost bored now and the surrounding officers relaxed marginally. Unwisely, to Marcus' mind, if he had intended violence, he saw several ways to incapacitate these men and lose himself on the Presidium before any stationside authorities were any the wiser.
"I...escaped before they could put one on me." The officer was staring intently at his omnitool and Marcus was sure he was monitoring his pulse and breathing to see if he was lying. So he kept to convenient halftruths as the questions kept coming, one right after another. One of the junior officers leaned in close to his superior and muttered, holding up the glowing orb that contained Ushal and Marcus forced himself to relax.
The turian snorted, "Why do you have a geth here?"
"I rescued him from the slavers." Technically true, if they'd taken him then they'd most likely have taken the geth too after searching his camp.
"Why would you do such a...generous thing? Maybe you were planning on selling the geth yourself. Maybe you heard about the reward the Shepards are offering for the capture of any of these orbs."
"Listen, I've been out of the world for a time. I don't know about any reward." He clenched his fists at his sides, trying not to imagine scenarios in which he could take down all of these men in a matter of minutes, how good it would feel to take out his confusion and frustration on these fools. He gritted his teeth and forced himself not to spit his next words, "If you doubt my story, ask him yourself. Plug him back into the comms."
After a tense moment, the officer nodded to his subordinate. They fiddled with the primitive interface and stood away as the console lit up. The C-Sec officer addressed the ship at large, "Geth, is what this turian's saying true? Did he rescue you from slavers?"
Ushal replied, his mechanical voice smooth and even as it always was, "I owe him my freedom. He speaks the truth."
The turian harrumphed and cocked a hip, muttering, "Just another damned barefaced refugee."
Marcus started and resisted reaching up to touch his own face. How had he forgotten to paint his face? It had been so long since anything other than survival had occupied his thoughts. But that something so...basic had slipped his mind was alarming. He trembled slightly. Maybe he was farther gone than he'd feared.
"Geth, there is conclave of your people at the embassies. If you wish it, I can have some of my men take you there." There was genuine worry in the man's tone and Marcus watched him shift from foot to foot.
"Unnecessary, I trust Marcus to escort me there." There was doubt in the set of the turian's jaw as he turned back to Marcus.
Scorn as he took in the raggedy clothes, the officer sneered, "All weapons are to be stowed in the lockers at the base of the ramp. No exceptions. I suggest you get your business sorted out quickly and get this heap of shit off my station. Keep the orb hidden if you travel in the commons or the wards, or he's likely to get snatched and sold on the black market."
Marcus caught at the officer's arm as he turned and then held up his hands as the man swung a hostile glare on him, "I just-please, tell me what's going on. I've been out of touch for a very long time."
Something in his tone must have finally gotten through the man's bubble of hostility, because the officer stopped and appraised him with something close to pity in his gaze. Eventually, he answered, as he shouldered his rifle, "We're at war."
'At war' wasn't a phrase you used when the opposition was trifling thing. It meant that victory wasn't a forgone conclusion. Marcus reeled back in shock. Had this conflict gone on for this long? He needed to find out more, needed to get out there and see what the hell was going on. With a sinking feeling, he realized that it was going to be even more difficult than he'd imagined to find Aleia and avenge his brother's murder.