A man had to have his pleasures, especially when he'd signed up for a bloody suicide mission, and one of Zaeed Massani's was a nice cigar, all the way from the homeworld. He propped his feet on his desk, covered in a disassembled rifle, and inhaled deeply.
Yeah, that hit the spot.
"Mr Massani, Cerberus regulations prohibit smoking aboard the ship due to fire hazards," EDI chirped from the walls.
Could've done without the programmed stalker.
"Not Cerberus," he grunted, "and a man's gotta have his ways to unwind." One good thing about being put down here on the engineering deck was getting out from under Lawson's attention. Shepard wouldn't say anything about his smoking - or his drinking - so long as he didn't start any fires and turned up sober when she needed him. She knew what battles to fight. Lawson on the other hand…
"There are a myriad of relaxing activities possible aboard that don't have a risk of catastrophic fire or have carcinogenic effects on the human body," the AI insisted.
Zaeed scoffed, "Cerberus put some bloody mothering code into you or something?"
"My crew being at optimal efficiency is important," there was almost inflection in that. Could an AI be annoyed?
"Tell Shepard on me then," he said disinterestedly, taking another draw.
The AI didn't reply. Zaeed exhaled and watched the smoke curl towards the ceiling in a slow spiral. It was good to have his own space, even if he had to deal with a nosy computer. He didn't have to deal with the bunk beds, the bunk mates or having to keep all his kit in one locker.
The crew deck of the Normandy wasn't always the most bloody cheery of places anyway. The whole lot of them - the Cerberus crew, the ground crew - had been holding their collective breaths after Jack and Miranda had almost pasted each other, and Shepard had taken Jack's side - a fact the biotic liked to remind the crew of.
Zaeed had half expected either a mutiny or a marooning, depending on who came out on top. But nothing had happened. Hell, he'd seen Miranda and Shepard having lunch together the day before, which was a attempt to show unity if he'd ever seen it, and Shepard - who dug in her heels whenever Cerberus made a request of her that wasn't 'go here, kill bugs' - had agreed to a detour to drop off the captured freighter.
Zaeed wasn't paid to deal with all of this crap. The sooner they could get back to shooting bugs the better. Not that he opposed the odd detour to shoot Blue Suns.
A fuckin' mutiny in a Blue Suns company, that was what Vido had reduced them to. He'd turned them from professionals into slavers, gangsters and mutineers.
He let his thoughts wander off in a pleasant daydream of shoving Jessie's muzzle down Vido Santiago's throat and pulling the trigger. He lent back in his chair enough it creaked, cigar hanging loosely from two thick fingers.
He was startled out of his reverie by a loud crash in the passageway outside, followed by a shout that cut off abruptly.
"What the bloody 'ell…?" Zaeed ground out his cigar and grabbed his rifle with one hand.
Crewman Rolston spluttered and twisted in Grunt's grip - the krogan had pinned the mechanic to the bulkhead with one huge hand, his blue eyes alight with a deep fury.
"Let me go, you fucking animal-" Rolston squawked, pushing ineffectively at the huge, muscled arm.
"Hey!" Zaeed didn't point the gun at Grunt - not yet. Trying to shoot down a krogan in these close quarters was a fool's game, and despite himself, he was kinda fond of the boy. "What's goin' on?"
And he didn't really care for Rolston anyway.
"He attacked me!" Rolston yelped, "Get him off me!"
Grunt growled lowly. "I am the blood of Shiagur - not an animal!"
"I was just-"
"Rolston," Zaeed said flatly, "shut up." The man's jaw closed with an audible click. "Grunt, let him go. Shepard won't like it if you kill him."
Grunt fixed him with the glare of one bright blue eye. "If I wanted to kill him, he would be dead."
"Yeah, that's bloody obvious." Grunt could crush Rolston's neck with one hand.
Grunt let go and stepped back. Rolston stumbled away from him, face pale and sweaty.
Zaeed regarded him. "Get to the medbay."
"I'm going to get the Commander, she needs to get rid of him-"
"Just bloody go," Zaeed said tiredly. Bloody idiot would provoke Grunt again and they'd be back at square one. "EDI's probably already alerted Shepard."
Grunt snarled under his breath and stomped back to his cargo bay turned cabin, footsteps heavy and echoing as Royston scrambled for the elevator. The door hissed shut behind him - and Zaeed had the sudden, strange image of him slamming it behind him if he could. A krogan would probably break a bloody door doing that.
Shepard wasn't long. She stepped out of the elevator looking harried, a scowl splashed across her features - unarmed, if a biotic could ever be said to be unarmed. "Grunt attacked Rolston?"
Zaeed shrugged, slinging his rifle over his shoulder. "Yep."
"Fuck's sake," Shepard breathed out, "Just what I need."
"Bunch of people like this on one ship," Zaeed fixed her with her good eye, "there's gonna be fights. This ain't the Alliance anymore. Half the time I'd say you should just let 'em have it out, sort it out themselves, but not the best idea with a krogan and you're a bloody fixer anyway."
"We can't work as a cohesive unit if we're all trying to kill each other."
Alliance types. All the buzzwords about discipline and cohesion. "Yeah, yeah."
"He in his cabin?"
"Yeah. Thought you wouldn't like it if I let him splatter our only shuttle mechanic."
Shepard frowned over at the closed door. "He was doing so well too." At Zaeed's smirk her gaze sharpened, "What? He's a teenager. A really big one, but a teenager. Someone's gotta let him know how shit works, and all Okeer filled his head with was old battles. And in any case, I woke him up and no one else is going to look out for him."
"Never pegged you as the motherly type, Shepard."
"I'm not - oh fuck off, Zaeed." Shepard knocked on the cabin door with a dull thud. "Grunt! It's Shepard. Can I come in?"
The door lock flicked to green.
Shepard stepped through, Zaeed on her heels. "What was that all about, Grunt?"
The young krogan paced, his fists curling at his sides. "Rolston...insulted me...thought you would protect him."
SHepard's forehead creased, "I don't want you to hurt him, but if he's being inappropriate you need to tell me."
What, would she have them sit down and sing Kambaya until Rolston agreed racism is bad? Zaeed smothered the scoff that wanted to escape.
"You don't understand. Something is wrong." Grunt's posture was wound tight and agitated, his blue eyes flicking around the room.
"I feel wrong," he swung around, glaring out the window and down into the cargo bay, "tense. Like I want to kill with my bare hands - but it's not my choice. I just want to-"
The front of his still fusing crest slammed into the plexiglass, cracks spiderwebbing across the window.
"See? Why do that?" He sounded almost plaintive. "I don't like this. I should control my anger, not have it control me. That's what both of you have said."
Bloody hell, I did not sign up to parent a fuckin' krogan.
"It could be medical," Shepard tore her eyes from the cracks in her ship with a grimace, "will you let Mordin and Chakwas have a look at you?"
"Salarian…" Grunt's eyes narrowed dangerously, "they are enemies. They inflicted the Genophage."
"Mordin works for me," Shepard said firmly, "he's not your enemy."
"This is your command?" Grunt asked, distaste in his voice.
Shepard's expression softened. "No, Grunt. I won't order you to do it. Your body is your own, but he is knowledgeable and he might be able to help you. I'll be in the room if you want."
"Fine." The words were grudging, but they came.
Zaeed turned for the door. He still had a cigar to finish.
Mordin made sure the door was shut behind him before focusing on the commander, waiting in the mess hall outside the medbay. There were dark shadows below her eyes. Shepard had achieve some emotional equilibrium, but still not sleeping? Would recommend sleeping aids if continued. Sleep deprivation had negative impact on human cognition, emotional well-being.
"Grunt physically well," Mordin replied. "No alarming results. Could be behavioral or mental disorder due anomalous upbringing, Okeer's interference in development, genetic factors. Warlord more interested in physical 'perfection' than offspring's well-being."
"Great," Shepard sighed.
"Still, possibility that krogan disease or other condition. Krogan very insular after Genophage-"
"Wonder why," Shepard muttered.
Mordin cleared his throat. "Insular. Traditional shamans and medical practitioners do not share knowledge with outsiders. Most krogan of Grunt's age still on Tuchanka, part of clan. Know as much as any off Tuchanka, but not everything."
"So maybe a clan will know something?" Shepard frowned.
"Yes. But convincing to help aliens and clone krogan…problematic. Will not speak to us at best, respond with violence at worst."
"An old friend of mine went home to Tuchanka," Shepard said slowly, "and took the chiefdom of Clan Urdnot. He'll help me."
Chief of Clan Urdnot? Urdnot Wrex, self-proclaimed warlord. Many worried amongst Council, dalatrasses. Wrex had already united most of Ruzal continent, looked close to becoming 'overlord' in truth as well as name. Dangerous.
And Clan Urdnot territories were close to where Maelon had been last seen.
Shepard nodded to herself, looking thoughtful. "I'll have Joker plot a course. CDEM won't stop a Spectre's vessel. And hopefully Wrex doesn't think I'm an impostor and try to shoot me or something."
She turned to go.
"Shepard," he burst out before he could second-guess, "Wish to ask personal favour, if heading to Tuchanka."
Shepard stopped, expression turning wary. "Yes?"
"Former teammate - former student, Maelon, captured by krogan in Clan Weyrloc territories. Possibly dead already, but wish to confirm. Request break from duties to attempt rescue mission or confirm death."
"Genophage project, yes."
"We'll look for him," Shepard promised and something in Mordin's chest untightened. Shepard had strong moral code that conflicted with Genophage update, believed punishment should not precede crime - failed to see big picture. Mordin had - feared, that would prevent her from agreeing.
"Thank you," he said stiffly, "Appreciate it."
The shuttle shuddered as it punched through Tuchanka's atmosphere. The sky - or what Shepard could see of it through the Kodiak's viewing screen - was a cloudy grey, thick with dust. As she'd hoped, CDEM hadn't given them any difficulties, and Clan Urdnot had agreed they could land at their capital. So here they were: Tuchanka, in search of answers for Grunt and a missing salarian scientist.
Privately she didn't think that this Maelon was long for the world, if he wasn't already dead in a ditch somewhere already. She'd brought Grunt, Samara and Garrus - she'd told Mordin she'd ask Wrex about Maelon and they'd work out what to do from there. Coming into a krogan camp with a salarian scientist unannounced...well, she didn't want to start a firefight with Wrex's people. Bringing a turian was probably pushing it as it was.
The shuttle dropped below the cloud cover, and the broken bones of an ancient krogan city stabbed out of the haze - great blocks of concrete and spars of steel jutting out of cracked soil and rock.
Grunt stared at the imagery, still as a statue in his grey-slate armour even as the shuttle bucked and shook. "This is Tuchanka? Land of Shiagur and Kredak? It's nothing but a pile of rubble."
Shepard glanced at him. "Your people are still alive, though."
"My people," he said slowly, as if testing out the words.
"Warlord Okeer didn't instill memories of your homeworld in your mind?" questioned Samara, sitting sedately on one of the benches.
"Nothing with any bite," Grunt growled, watching as the shuttle dropped further and further. Patel was quiet - not a great sign, since she was only quiet when the flying was difficult.
Shepard really hoped they didn't end up a smear on an ancient krogan skyscraper.
"Landing beacon is here, ma'am," Patel called back, "putting her down."
The Kodiak settled onto the landing pad, sheltered from the wind that had battered the aircraft as they'd descended.
"Take her back up to the Normandy and I'll radio you when I need you back," Shepard said, resting a hand on the back of the pilot's chair.
"Aye ma'am." Patel didn't at all seem put out by the order.
"Sending away our only way off planet, huh?" Garrus flicked his mandibles in amusement.
"It's Wrex," Shepard argued.
"It's not Wrex we've got to worry about."
Garrus' prediction came true as they stepped off the shuttle and they found themselves staring down the barrels of two shotguns clenched in the hands of Urdnot warriors.
"The clan chief said we could land," Shepard raised her hands in front of her. She could feel a murmur in the gravity field around her - Samara was coiled to act.
The biggest of the warriors lowered his rifle and examined Shepard with one large, yellow eye. He was an older krogan, she guessed, though not so old as Wrex, with deep grooves carved into his crest from past injuries.
"I will take you to him. Don't wander off. Someone might eat your turian."
"Wouldn't recommend it. Us turians are terribly stringy," Garrus shot back.
The warrior ignored him and they found themselves being shepherded into the Urdnot camp as the Kodiak lifted up behind them with a familiar thrum. The Urdnot camp had been carved out of the ruins of the city around them, and concrete crunched underneath her feet with every step.
And everywhere - krogan, more than she'd ever seen in one place, and all of them looked like adult men. There wasn't a woman or a child to be seen.
"There," one of the warriors grunted, pointing, "Go there."
A dais rose above them, built from the same ruins and on the throne she could see a familiar form and the hint of a red crest. Wrex. Something in her chest leapt. She'd missed the old bastard - she could only hope he had a better reaction than everyone else besides Garrus and Tali.
There were guards, of course, and she found her stopped by one held-out hand large as a dinner plate. Of course.
"Halt," the guard rumbled, "you must wait until summoned."
"Look at Wrex," Garrus' voice held a hum of amusement, "all powerful and important."
"Too important for us," Shepard agreed with a quick smirk in his direction.
Then Wrex looked over, and their eyes met. He surged off his throne, physically shoving aside one of his supplicants. "Shepard! My friend."
The guard stepped aside just in time for Shepard to find herself seized in a bear hug that made her ribs creak, and made something inside her relax.
When Wrex put her down and stepped back, she was most definitely not tearing up.
"You look good for dead, Shepard," he told her, "I should have known the Void couldn't hold you."
"I'm not sure it did really let go," the admission slipped out. She hadn't expected to feel safe on Tuchanka - but this was Wrex, her friend, her brother in arms, krannt and he was happy to see her.
His expression was solemn. "You're standing here. That's what matters. Now come on. We've got a lot to discuss."
Two Years Previously
The Hollows echoed with Urdnot Wrex's footsteps as he entered the cavernous central chamber. Here the charred bones of his ancestors, two of his brothers and most of his krannt were interred.
The price for a long life was living when others died. It was a long list of names attached to faces that got blurrier with every decade that passed.
If Shepard had been a krogan, he would've brought the body here, to the place where his ancestors had congregated and he would've laid her there in the middle of the chamber, on the pyre he and her krannt had built with their own hands. After, the krannt would've gotten out a barrel or two of ryncol and told stories of the enemies she'd brought them.
But Shepard hadn't been krogan, and there was no body to burn. The void itself had swallowed her, and her warship had been her pyre. It itched at Wrex's plates. She should've been around when the Reapers came - the enemy she was born to fight.
Footsteps broke through his thoughts and he looked up, his guards shifting - and then relaxing. Once, to kill someone on the sacred ground of the Hollows would have been unheard of. Then Wrex's father had called him here and it'd ended with Jarrod dead on the ground at his feet.
But the krogan now coming down the stairs weren't here to fight. The Urdnot female clan leader, accompanied by two younger Urdnot women, both of them armed and wary.
Urdnot Uta was very old, the oldest of the female Urdnot elders, and her her crest was cracked and discoloured by time but her amber eyes were as sharp and quick as ever. When Wrex had been younger it had felt like Uta could flay a man down to his bones with that glare, leaving his deepest thoughts bare for her to peruse.
"Chief Uta," he said respectfully.
She examined him. "I hear you have taken back your lordship from Wreav."
It hadn't been particularly difficult - he hadn't even had to kill his brother. Wreav was an idiot and had only led Urdnot because of the absence of anyone smarter or stronger. He had the brute strength to make other krogan fear him, but none of the sense to use it.
Perhaps he ought to kill Wreav. A few of Wrex's krannt had urged him to do so before Wreav launched an inevitable attempt at regaining his throne - but even an idiot could have his uses.
"There is an enemy coming," he told her, "an enemy greater than any our people have ever faced before."
"These 'Reapers'," she acknowledged, pacing towards the centre of the room where the pyres were lit. The air still smelt of smoke and death from the last ceremony. "You think you are the clan chief to lead Urdnot in this great war?"
"The Overlord," he said quietly, firmly.
"Bold," Uta's expression was impassive, "you mean to conquer the other clans?"
He shook his head. "The krogan are disunified, fighting each other for scraps of our former glory. Our home system is occupied. Unnecessary bloodshed weakens us as a whole. If we continue as we are, we will end as bones in the dust. No. I have a plan, but it requires your partnership."
"Speak then," there was still no indication of Uta's thoughts in her gaze.
"I will move my capital to Turlak for now, and declare the Kelphic Valley neutral ground. There is land fit for farming deeper in the Valley - there your clan can settle properly, and we will invite the other female clans to come as well, to raise their children in safety." With his warriors based in the ruins of the old city, they could guard the entrance to the Valley from the plains.
"And their men?" she asked pointedly.
"They will be welcome as well, so long as they give a hostage as proof of goodwill, and don't fight within neutral ground." The krogan had seen enough subjugation. He wouldn't shy from war, but no longer could it be the first option rather than the last.
Uta was silent for a long moment and then she nodded, "I will send envoys to the others - but there will be many to oppose you, even within Urdnot. They will attempt to kill you, as Jarrod did."
"They will change," he told her, "or they will die - at the Reapers' hands or at mine."
And he would build a new world for his sons and daughters on top of their bones, and one of those children would bear the name of the human who'd become krannt.
Galactic Strategy Command Recommendations on Tuchanka 2185:
CLASSIFIED TOP SECRET
From: Krogan DMZ Intelligence Division, Galactic Strategy Command
To: Primarch Assembly Distribution List
RE: Recommendations on current political and military situation on Tuchanka 2185
1. Over the past twenty-four months the political situation on Tuchanka has rapidly changed with the ascendency of the large Clan Urdnot, based on the continent of Ruzal. In this time frame several smaller clans have either been absorbed or have sworn fealty to Urdnot, with an increasing trend towards centralisation of political and military decision-making.
2. This change has been largely driven by Urdnot Wrex, a former mercenary and contractor known for participating in the Battle of the Citadel. Wrex is estimated at least seven hundred years old, and is known for battle prowess and intelligence. After returning to Tuchanka post Battle of the Citadel, Wrex quickly outmaneuvered his political rivals to claim leadership of Clan Urdnot before beginning a process of unification with other clans.
3. Urdnot Wrex has knowledge of the alleged 'cure' for the Genophage created by rogue Spectre agent Saren Arterius in 2183 and has widely disseminated this information.
4. Clan Urdnot and its allies have begun what appears to be a process of standardising an armed force, with warbands disbanded in favour of mechanised infantry companies based on clan affiliation, and utilising 'Tomkah' infantry fighting vehicles.
5. Limited industry has been created within Urdnot Coalition territories. There appears to be capability for the manufacture of farming equipment, small arms, land based artillery and some vehicles, but there is no indication of any attempts at ship-building or the manufacture of large scale mass accelerators at the current time.
1. This division is aware that Dalatress Linron, head of government of our allies the Salarian Union, has requested the execution of a Spectre mission on Tuchanka aimed at assassinating Urdnot Wrex. The hopes of this proposal is that with the death of Urdnot Wrex the nascent Urdnot Coalition will collapse. We oppose this recommendation as it is unlikely that the coalition would collapse as Urdnot Wrex has an adult brother. Although inferior in intellect, Urdnot Wreav has sufficient support from amongst other Urdnot clan warriors that he could easily impose his leadership on the coalition. In addition Urdnot Wrex is moderate by krogan political standards and has shown no intent to attack Citadel Council space, whereas Urdnot Wreav has repeatedly called for a second Rebellion. Rather than eliminating the threat of an organised krogan military, Urdnot Wrex's death would likely radicalize the Urdnot Coalition in terms of anti-Council sentiment.
2. While the development of a dominant political and military power on Tuchanka is a threat worth continued and intensive monitoring, while CDEM continues to maintain orbital supremacy over Tuchanka and the Krogan DMZ, the Urdnot Coalition remains a negligible threat to the Hierarchy.
3. For this reason we recommend an increase in Hierarchy resources allocated to CDEM, including the assignment of HIS teams to monitor the Urdnot Coalition and develop a deeper understanding of their military capabilities. In addition, efforts to diplomatically isolate the Urdnot Coalition from the Systems Alliance may be necessary due to Urdnot Wrex's connections to members of the Alliance military and his role in the Eden Prime War.