They drive for hours. Hours upon hours in blinding heat, the desert reflecting the light like liquid mercury. The maintenance vehicle keeps going but Jinaya feels a vibration building up in the frame, accompanied by a screeching noise from the air condition unit.
"I don't know how long this thing will last," Jinaya yells at Grunt over the noise of the car and the air conditioner.
"Can you see the tower?" Grunt still sits backwards and relies on Jinaya to look ahead. Something he is not happy about, judging by how low he has his headcrest drawn over his eyes.
"No, not yet. I can hardly see anything." The car jumps over a bump she has seen too late and she hits her chin on the machine housing. "Ouch."
Grunt rubs the back of his head.
"Do krogan get headaches?" Jinaya asks.
"If you keep driving like that..."
"At least we're — "
The ground disappears. In the endless sea of yellow sand, the dune they're driving over ends in a cliff and the car tips over the side and skids down. The door breaks away with a screeching sound and the cabin fills with sand until the car stops its tumble, sand filling it up in a steady trickle.
The silence is deadly. The engine died when the car tipped to the side and with it the air condition unit. Instantly the heat encloses her like a fist. Every breath burns in Jinaya's lung and her skin seems to shrink around herself. What remains of free room in the cabin, heats up like an oven.
Jinaya looks around, looking for Grunt but she is alone.
"No," Jinaya says, as if she can convince the desert that it is in the wrong. "Grunt?" she yells. "Grunt, where are you?"
Hot wind blows sand into her mouth and she coughs. She tries to yell again but her throat burns, her mouth is dry, her lips are chapped and taste of blood and the only noise leaving her is a croaky whimper. "Grunt."
She kicks against the sand to get out of the deformed cabin until her feet find purchase on the engine and she pushes herself upward. The burn of the sun gets even worse when she is out of the meager shade of the cabin. It feels as if her skin will go up in flames any moment. The pain overpowers everything else and only when she tries to stand up, she realizes that her foot won't hold her weight.
Crawling is all she can do but what is the point? She is alone, in the desert, no shelter anywhere and she can't even walk. The heat will kill her before any help could be there, even if anybody actually knew that she is out here.
"A great escape," she tries to say but it only comes out as a whisper. Another cough rattles her, dry and tasting of blood. She falls forward, not caring that her face is in the sand. Maybe she should dig into the sand, let it suffocate her. Maybe that would be an easier death than being grilled alive in this merciless light.
Something grabs her by the waist and lifts her up. "Jin. Jinaya, come on."
She opens her eyes, squinting against the white light, to find her vision filled with a krogan head. "Grunt?"
"You're expecting any other krogan here?" Grunt picks her up and cradles her to his chest, using his own body to shade her from the sun. "Come on, we have to go."
"I can't," Jinaya croaks.
"I got you, just tell me where to go."
"I don't know..."
"I'll just keep going this way."
Jinaya strains her neck to look for the tower but there is only glaring white sand around them. "I don't know..."
Grunt runs, holding Jinaya to his chest as if she weighs nothing. His feet drum against the endless sand in a steady rhythm.
"I'm sorry," Jinaya whispers.
Grunt's answer gets lost in the noise of her own blood rushing as darkness closes in on her.
"Hey, Jin, wake up. You have to drink something."
Something wet touches her forehead and eyes. It feels like the sweetest caress. She opens her eyes, expecting the blinding light but is greeted by gentle, dim light and air she can breathe without burning up from the inside. She tries to speak but it only makes her cough.
"Sit up." She gets pulled into an upright position, an arm wrapped around her to hold her up. Blinking, she looks up and recognizes Grunt, looking at her with concern.
"You have to drink this," he says and holds a bottle to her lips.
Jinaya winces, her lips hurt, they feel like raw flesh.
"I've put medi-gel on your lips, it'll get better," Grunt says. "But you have to drink this."
Jinaya takes the opening of the bottle between her lips and lets Grunt tip it up, swallowing the sour tasting liquid until the bottle is empty. Her head lolls back, exhaustion dragging her down, but she can feel the liquid energizing her. Grunt holds her close to his chest and only now she realizes that he doesn't wear his armor. She can hear his hearts beating when she lays her head against his chest.
Her throat feels better and her tongue isn't swollen anymore. She dares to speak, her voice still raw and sandpapery. "Where are we?" The room has a curved wall on one side and two doors on the other.
"One of the towers," Grunt says, his hold on her not loosening. "You were right, it wasn't even far away."
"You carried me."
"You were injured."
Another voice chimes up. "The heat almost killed you." An asari comes into Jinaya's vision. "You owe your life to this krogan." She hands another bottle to Jinaya. "I've never seen such a loyal krogan employee. Drink that one slower."
Jinaya takes the bottle and drinks a small sip. "Grunt is my friend, not an employee."
"Well, that's even better," the asari says and disappears through a door.
Jinaya takes another sip. "Tell me what happened."
Grunt blinks once but his blue eyes never leave hers. "You were unconscious. I'd seen something in the distance, just hoped that it was one of the towers. The sun, the heat..." He raises his massive hand and traces his thumb along her cheek with the lightest touch. "Your skin cracked. I thought you were going to die."
Jinaya puts her hand to her cheek, following the line that Grunt traced. She can feel the slightly raised remains of an injury, knitted together with medi-gel. Her hand ends on top of his and she holds him there. He lays his palm against her cheek, his hand covering the whole side of her head.
He swallows. "They gave me medi-gel for you."
"Who are they?" She keeps pressing her small hand on his.
"They live out here," Grunt says, angling his head so that one of his wide set eyes has her in focus. "And they don't like the city people. Especially not the police."
"So we're safe here?"
"At least for now." Grunt's thumb draws tiny circles at the corner of her lips. "But if there's a price on our heads..."
"We shouldn't stay long."
"No, you shouldn't."
They both flinch at the voice of the asari coming from the open door. Grunt's hand drops from Jinaya's cheek and he pulls her closer, as if he wants to shield her from an attack.
"I'm not gonna hurt her," the asari says to Grunt. She peers around his massive shoulders and grins at Jinaya. "You got yourself a very protective friend there." She points at the bottle. "Drink up and then I'll show you the tunnels."
Jinaya sits up. She blushes when she realizes that she is naked and practically draped over Grunt's lap and hurries to sit to untangle herself from his hold. "Where are my clothes?"
Grunt points to a pile at the side. "The fabric burned into your skin... you needed a lot of medi-gel." He looks down her back and then quickly looks away.
"I get you some clothes," the asari says.
"I'll pay you for everything," Jinaya says.
"How? You don't even have an omni-tool?"
Jinaya stares at the empty socket on her arm. "I don't know yet but..." Hopefully they still have the credit chits from the drone but she isn't even sure if Grunt or her were carrying them.
The asari laughs out. "It's alright, none of us has omni-tools. We'll figure something out that you two will do for us and then we're even." She leaves through one door, loudly climbing down metal stairs.
Grunt still has his hand on her back, a solid support that she can lean against. "What do we do now?" she asks.
"I was hoping you'd know."
"Maybe we can stay here?" Jinaya wonders. "The message said to stay in hiding for a few days."
"No," Grunt shakes his head. "Verlia said that they have to leave the tower. Something about the season."
The clanging of boots on the metal steps draws their attention to the door. The asari, Verlia, comes in with clothes draped over her arm. "We can keep the temperature in this tower down for a few days but not permanently. You were lucky that we found you at all, the next maintenance for this tower is another cycle out."
"You do the maintenance for the atmospheric shield?"
"Yes, one of the jobs that Nos Astra people don't want to do." She hands Jinaya the clothes and a pair of sturdy shoes. "I know you're running from something, you don't have to tell me what. Everyone here has a secret." She turns to a metal door in the wall and throws some switches. The constant hum, that Jinaya has not even noticed to be there, stops. Silence spreads out, followed by heat that instantly begins to wrap around them.
"Come on," Verlia says. "We have to get out of the tunnels before the flood."
Jinaya zips the boots closed and hurries over to Grunt, who already waits at the door. He closes the door behind her and follows her down metal stairs. "Here," he says, handing her the small gun she had carried. "I cleaned it."
"Thank you. I thought she disarmed us."
Grunt shakes his head. "She did at first. I only told her that we had to leave Nos Astra and she just grinned and handed the weapons back."
"Well, as she said, everyone has secrets. She may have reasons to avoid Nos Astra too."
The air around them gets blessedly cooler the deeper they climb down. Light bands in the walls guide their way, bright enough to see where they step but just pale lines going into the far distance once they reach the end of the stairs. Several groups of people are visible in the tunnel only as shadows, hidden between the sparse lighting that paints circles of light on the floor of the tunnel.
They walk fast but not in panicked urgency. Everyone seems to know where they're going and how much time it will take.
"What flood were you talking about?" Jinaya asks their guide.
"The water supply system for Nos Astra. It's ancient." Verlia checks her omni-tool again and urges them to go faster. "There used to be glass domes over the settlement, back in the day, and the collected moisture was channeled to the cooler parts of Illium's deserts and rained down. The sand cleans the water as it drips into underground basins and every ten cycles, these tunnels get flooded to transport the water back to Nos Astra."
"But Nos Astra doesn't have a glass dome."
"Still the same system, the water condenses on the mass effect fields just the same."
"That's a weird method," Jinaya says. She can make up at least three scenarios on the spot how that kind of water treatment wouldn't remove bacteria or indigestible nano-sized substances.
"As I said, it's ancient. The water plants in Nos Astra treat the water further but it all relies on these tunnels. And if we don't hurry, we'll drown." She leads them around another corner and Jinaya notices that nobody else is with them anymore.
Jinaya looks over to Grunt and he nods almost unnoticeable. She has gotten pretty good at reading his facial expressions and that the other people in the tunnels took another way has not escaped his notice.
"Here we are," Verlia says and points to a ladder leading up into a narrow tube. It looks barely wide enough for Grunt to get through.
"Where does this lead?" Jinaya asks. She's painfully aware that Verlia could lead them into a trap and they couldn't do anything about it.
"One of the rain areas," Verlia says. "There's a maintenance shed with some supplies, where you can stay for a few days."
Jinaya climbs up first, if Nos Astra police waits for them at the top, she'd rather know sooner than later. Behind her she hears Grunt scraping along the metal walls of the tube. The ladder ends at a circular trapdoor with a glowing access panel at the side and a glittering mass effect field stretched over it.
"The passcode is 377843," Verlia calls up. She is hidden behind Grunt but she climbs up too.
Jinaya enters the passcode into the panel and the mass effect field disappears. The trapdoor rises up and Jinaya is momentarily blind from the blazing sunlight outside. She feels for the edge of the access hatch and pulls herself out. Squinting she takes in her surroundings. Trees and grass grow all around her, a stark contrast to the sand of the desert a little further out.
"No boots on the ground, as far as I can see," she whispers to Grunt when he climbs out.
"They could be hidden," he whispers back. His eyes flit around, looking for threads.
Verlia comes out of the hole and puts on a cap to shield her eyes. She gestures to them to follow her and leads them through tall grass to a small building, barely larger than the unfortunate maintenance vehicle that took them out here into the desert.
Jinaya looks around. The green area sits like an island in a sea of sand and the sun beats down mercilessly all around them. But above them, a mesh of tubes and a shield above it, protect them from the heat and harsh light that they can still see outside of the perimeter.
"This is where they rain down Nos Astra water?"
Verlia nods. "When the sun goes down. And you don't want to stand out here then." She looks at Grunt. "Well, maybe you can. But not you." She points at Jinaya. "Nos Astra has gotten so bad with pollution, the atmospheric water is toxic now."
"Hardy plants," Grunt says with an appreciative nod towards the grass.
"Indeed," Jinaya says. The grass cuts painfully into her skin and she makes sure to find a path through where it doesn't reach her.
Verlia opens the door to the shed. "As you can see, these are our very best luxury accommodations."
Jinaya looks past her. The shed contains a control interface with some old monitors, a cupboard to the side and a bench that might be long enough for her to sleep on it. "Wonderful."
Verlia shrugs and looks towards the sky. "It'll get dark soon. Stay inside when it rains and in three days, I'll be back to get you."
"Thank you for your help," Jinaya says.
"One day you can do something for us," Verlia says. "That's how we do things out here." She turns and leaves, walking back to the hatch and pulling it close as she climbs down.
As soon as the door locks, Grunt sprints out there, Jinaya following him a bit slower, still avoiding the hard grass.
"You still know the passcode?"
"377843," Jinaya says.
Grunt types the numbers into the access panel but it only beeps annoyed at him. "Not working."
"She got us trapped."
Grunt's headcrest pulls further down in a frown. "Yes, we can't go out into the desert and this was our only exit."
"Do you trust her?"
"No," Grunt growls. "She may not be friends with the police but I'm sure some other people would also love to pay for us."
"You mean like the original buyers."
"Yes." Grunt stands up again and looks towards the sky. The sun sits low at the horizon and is rapidly sinking. "Let's get back to the shed."
Jinaya picks her way through the grass, hissing when yet another leaf cuts into her skin. Just as she steps over the doorstep of the shed, water starts sprinkling from the mesh of pipes above them. The first few drops hiss when they hit the hot ground, instantly rising up as vapors but soon water falls like a tropical rainfall and the ground turns muddy.
"I wish I could let it rain on me, I have dust and sand in places..." Jinaya says. She draws a breath and wrinkles her nose. "Goddess, it smells like the exhaust of a chemical plant."
She closes the door and takes the two steps to the bench, sitting down on it. Grunt has settled on the floor and Jinaya wouldn't trust the bench to hold his weight so she doesn't ask him to come up to her. Instead she slides down on the floor too, leaning against his solid weight.
"Aren't you tired?" Grunt asks.
"Yes," Grunt admits after a pause.
"I wanted to thank you," Jinaya says and puts her palm on his cheek. "For saving my life."
"I am krogan, it was nothing."
"Narc," Jinaya curses, "it was definitely something." Tiredness gets a hold on her and she crawls up on the bench and stretches out on the slim cushion. Her eyes are falling closed but an idea springs up in her. "You know, you could go out there, even during the day and— "
"I'm not leaving you alone," Grunt says and his tone allows no argument.
Jinaya falls asleep before she can thank him for that.