AN- Thanks to Reikson for the help, support and assistance.
"Those idiots!" Shepard screeched as she stomped out of the comm room.
Behind her, Kirrahe empathized with her. "I wish that I could have been of greater help, Commander, but I can only speak of what I personally witnessed. And I was... otherwise engaged... while you had your... conversation with this Sovereign."
Shepard looked at the Captain. Then she sighed. "If I hadn't heard it, if I hadn't talked to it myself, heard the hatred in its voice, its contempt for all of us... I might not believe it myself."
"At least you've been given leave to deal with the matter." Kirrahe shrugged. "That's something, at least."
Shepard snorted, "Obviously, you were hearing a different conversation than I did." she sneered. "The Asari Consul treated me like I'm a problem child, while the Turian Councilor... it's like he wants to blame me for everything that goes wrong in the galaxy. And the Salarian... he did nothing, just like he always does."
Kirrahe blinked, as he realized something. "Ah. I see that you've never dealt with Salarians much, Commander."
"Sorry, outside of a few shopkeepers on the Citadel..." she muttered apologetically. "...not really, no. Is it important?"
"Salarians speak on multiple levels." Kirrahe explained. "We often give physical cues that convey social meanings that are important to the content of the conversation. There's a level of actual speech and a level of misdirection, with subtle meaning and vague implications."
Shepard looked so confused that Kirrahe sighed and cut to the chase. "It would take hours to explain all of the nuances to you, but the crux of the matter is that you were given leave, by the Salarian Councilor at least, to deal with the matter as you see fit."
"Wait, the Salarian Councilor?" Shepard was mystified. "He barely talks and when he does, he's vague as Hell and he does that ALL THE TIME."
"...So that the Council can continue to have plausible deniability should your operation... go south, as you humans say. Or if your actions cause... shall we say... greater then desired disruption."
"But they freak out whenever I blow something up or wreck something or unleash a centuries-old extinct species on the galaxy!" Shepard exploded. "Are you saying that they really expect me to do that stuff?!?"
Kirrahe nodded. "Spectres exist to enforce the will of the Council in situations where direct Council involvement might be undesirable or even prohibitive. I have no doubt that you were made a Spectre specifically because you've demonstrated an ability to... get the job done, without having your hand held."
"Well, that's one way of putting it." Shepard shrugged, now defused.
"A normal solder could never do what is required of a Spectre, because a Spectre must often interpret orders and missions parameters... creatively."
"...and this works for them? So that if I ever screw up enough that they have to deal with me?"
"Another Spectre would be sent to deal with you, as you were sent to deal with Saren. Anything else is just window dressing for the sake of appearances."
"No offense, Kirrahe, but they have to know that this system is going to come back and bite them in the ass, right?"
The Salarian commando shrugged. "This is why I prefer the relaxed pace of the STG. Nobody cares about what I do. In fact, people are encouraged to pay as little attention as possible to what the STG does."
"Thank you for clearing that up for me, Captain." Shepard muttered, with only a touch of sarcasm.
"You're welcome," Kirrahe deadpanned. "I look froward to working with you again someday, especially if you still have that Quarian with you."
"We got lucky there. She happened to be on her pilgrimage, so she was available. I take it that she impressed you."
"What that woman could do with the resources that we often have to work with in the STG... I could increase operational efficiency by twelve, maybe even fifteen, percent."
"I'll let her know you said that. She'll appreciate it."
"Incidentally, Commander, I've taken the liberty of recommending Lieutenant Alenko for the Salarian Star. If he does receive it posthumously, he would be the first non-Salarian to be honored as such. Indeed, it is considered an honor just to make the list of prospective recipients."
Kaiden's words rang in her head. "I took an oath, ma'am. I... I have to live with my conscience."
Shepard sighed. "The Lieutenant was a brave and honorable man.""Are you crazy, Alenko? Sovereign's too close! I can't risk bringing the Normandy back to get you!
"Well, if you're right, then I guess I'll see you in Hell, ma'am."
" ... I regret losing him." Shepard continued, For the most part, she really did miss Alenko.
She'd met many people who talked a good game. But when the bullets started flying, they became everything they claimed to despise. Alenko was refreshing, being one of the precious few she'd met who was willing to back up his words and thoughts with concrete action. It was just annoying that he'd felt forced to show his moral fiber by blowing himself to Kingdom Come back on Virmire.
"A grim reality that we all must face." Kirrahe grunted in agreement.
"Everyone of us is expendable if it accomplishes the mission. You, me, Kaidan..." Shepard paused. "Still, I wish it hadn't gone down that way. I feel like I've lost a brother." Much to her surprise, she found that she really did feel that way.
"The mark of a good leader is that they treat their troops like they are of one blood, of one clan."
The Captain's words seized Shepard and she took a deep breath. "Incidentally, Captain, I found some of your men inside the base. I, uh... I had to..." Shepard paused."Ma'am, are you sure about this? I mean, just mowing them down, that just seems a little..."
"...no, Lieutenant, it's a lot."
Kirrahe held up a hand, "Lieutenant Imness managed to make it to our rendezvous area after you released him. His report was... disturbing."
Shepard snorted. "Disturbing? That doesn't even begin to capture what I saw in there, Captain."
"What you did down on Virmire was no small thing, Commander. I do not doubt that the Council would disapprove of most of your choices. Then again... they made you a Spectre so that you could do the jobs that they pretend are unnecessary."
"...and this war isn't over. Saren is going through the Mu Relay, even as we speak. He's searching for Ilos."
"Well, you've only a few days, perhaps a week at best, until he finds it."
"A few days?" Shepard was mystified.
"You mentioned in your report that your Doctor T'soni aided you in translating the visions and locating the planet Ilos." Kirrahe explained. "I can assure you that Saren is considerably more paranoid. I doubt that he sought outside help, so I suspect that he is working out the location of Ilos on his own, with only the Beacon's visions to guide him."
Shepard began giggling. Then she collapsed in outright laughter. "That idiot!" she sputtered. "No wonder it's taken him so long to get to Ilos!"
When Kirrahe frowned quizzically, she explained, "There were two messages in that beacon! And a few dozen worlds between them! If he's working from those, it'll take him a long time to stumble across the right combination!"
It seems that Xander was right again. Sometimes the universe did indeed hand you a gimme.
Xander and Tali toiled in silence. The Quarian would cast sideways looks at him every few minutes. Eventually, Xander suddenly spun around and activated his omnitool's flashlight, shining the light over his face and giving himself a ghoulish appearance.
"BOO!" he screamed, just as she turned to look at him again.
Tali yelped and staggered backward, managing to not fall on her butt. Of course, she got annoyed at his laughter.
"That never gets old." Xander chuckled.
"The first time you did it it was funny." Tali drawled, in the accented voice that her helmet's translator gave her. "But repetition IS breeding a certain amount of contempt."
"That means we'll soon be entering the stage where it becomes parody, thus making it funny again." Xander quipped.
Now Tali was lost. "What?"
"Comedy has rules, Tali. They're as old as time and as sacred as religion. Repetition in comedy breeds contempt, followed by parody. It'll become funny again, exactly because it's so familiar, so that you laugh at the fact you laughed at it once."
"So if I modify your hardsuits' rebreather so everything smells like refuse, then it will not only be funny the first time, but will eventually be funny because you can't change it back?" Tali asked impishly.
"Absolut- wait, what?" Xander sputtered, cutting himself off in mid-sentence.
"Now this is a aspect of human social interaction that I am looking forward to testing." Tali declared.
"Ohh, a prank war, then?" Xander teased, assuming a mocking version of Sovereign's voice. "I am the vanguard of pranksters; the pinnacle of pranking evolution."
Tali snorted, and Xander marveled anew at how much he enjoyed hearing that sound coming from her specifically. Probably had something to do with the way the helmet modified the sound.
"Tali? Can you bring up that workstation, that you've been using, for a second?" he asked. The feisty Quarian nodded as she walked over to her work station and desktop.
"...and that OSD that Shepard gave you?"
"You mean you're going to-" Tali began.
"Yup. I had an eye-opening conversation with the boss recently, and I realized something." He began tapping away at the station's keyboard. Not looking at her, he continued, "It's none of my business if you hate the the Geth. Like it or not, you've got reasons for that. So I've gotta trust you."
"Xander... why do you..." Tali groped for words. "Why do you think of the Geth as you do? I mean, they're machines. Broken machines, at that."
"Tali, I get it." Xander sighed. "The Geth killed millions of Quarians before driving you guys out of Rannoch."
Then he sighed, tapping several panels on his screen. "But you were trying to wipe them out," he added. "...which you only did, AFTER you couldn't figure out a way to enslave them again."
"What does that have to do with me?"
"That's my point," Xander grunted. "YOU didn't create the Geth to be a slave race. YOU didn't try and wipe them out afterwards. YOU are just trying to survive and make life better for your people. That's all that you've ever been interested in. I was making the same mistake that I accused you of making."
She cocked her head to one side, not getting it. Xander sighed and tried to explain. "I've been thinking of all Quarians as a single unit, instead of thinking of you, Tali. You're my friend and I should trust you. I'm sorry that I took so long to realize that."
He then pointed his omni-tool at the screen and several programs on both started synching. Tali watched as the Geth data began decrypting themselves, and she looked at the terabytes of data, her eyes widening. This wasn't just some junk data that she was examining. She could see command strings and archived command coding going back centuries, a digital representation of the Geth's neuropathic evolution.
"I've seen some pretty screwed up things in my lifetime. My real lifetime, I might add. I've seen what hatred and fear can make people do, and I guess that I just didn't want to be responsible for making the galaxy any darker." Xander sighed.
"But the thing is, the galaxy's plenty dark already. If helping you complete your pilgrimage makes it brighter, then... hey, helping you understand the Geth is a small price to pay, right?" he offered, smiling weakly.
"If I can ask... how old are you? I mean, really?" Tali ventured.
"I'll be two hundred and two this year. My birthday comes right around Armistice Day, it's the only way I remember it anymore."
"Does it hurt when you die?"
"And you could always do what you can do now? Fixing things, and that sort of work?."
"Well, I used to be Mister Fetch-and-Carry, but I eventually worked my way up to Mister Fix-It. But if you mean tearing apart a Mass Effect engine core and rebuilding it? No, that... I only picked that up in the last thirty years or so."
"It's odd..." Tali mused aloud. "...but if I had hundreds of years of extra life, I think that I would've done much the same with it."
"Yeah, well... that would be one reason I'm helping you decrypt your data. Dawn would've liked you. You and her would've been total BFF's; best friends forever."
"You still think of her?"
"All the time. I mean, two hundred and one years? Not a big deal when you're hanging around a guy like Wrex. Dude's like eight hundred, and Liara'll live to be a thousand! But I only had about fifteen years with Dawn."
"What happened to her?"
"A stroke. She went quick, just like her Mom." He leaned against the console, smiling wistfully. "Funny thing, she spent years worrying if she was really her mother's kid or not. And in the end, when the doctor told her that the brain-thing was hereditary, you'd think that he'd given her a pass to Disneyland instead of telling her that she was going to die."
"She died happy then?"
Xander nodded. "A hundred sixty-eight years is a long time to be without the person that you thought you were going to spend the rest of your life with. She was the one who convinced me to go back to school. I guess that all the studying was a way to... to keep her alive, I guess."
"Well, I owe her my life several times over, and my people owe her a debt that we will never be able to repay." For a minute, Xander thought that Tali was ready to cry. "You and Shepard... you have no idea what being on this trip has meant to me. What it's meant to be treated... most people see Quarians, and they just want us to go back to our fleet and disappear. But you and Shepard... you treat me like a member of the crew. As an equal."
"Shepard treats you the way she does, because you're valuable to the mission." Xander grinned. "I treat you like I do because... hey, who doesn't need a obsessed gear head in their lives?"
"I'm not obsessed!" she squawked indignantly.
"Says the girl who's been working on a secret project for weeks now!" he teased. "Half the guys think that it's a new weapon and the other half think that it's a... well, never mind what they think! Guys stuck on a boat get weird ideas, especially when there's a hot chick involved."
Tali blushed, or at least Xander assumed that she was blushing.
"What is it with human males? You're all like varren in heat."
"Tali, that's just being mean." Xander reproached her, sounding offended just before deadpanning, "To the varren."
"Besides, Xander, it's not a weapon. At least, not entirely. And it's definitely not... that other thing." Xander was now pretty sure that she was blushing under that helmet of hers. "I saw those repair drones that the Geth use to maintain some of their equipment and got inspired."
She tapped her omni-tool and Xander watched as a solid-light construct flared into being. It was pink and made odd chattering sounds. Tali reached out and petted the thing affectionately. It reacted to her touch by making a purring noise.
At the amused gaze that he directed at her, she added, "I call her Chiktikka. Chiktikka vas Paus."
Now Xander grew curious. "You named your repair drone?"
"Chiktikka does more then repair things," Tali protested. "It also has a combat function."
Xander snorted and turned to the floating construct. "You wouldn't hurt a fly, would you? You cute little- GAHHH!" his sudden exclamation was caused by the drone producing a surging bolt of power that lanced through him.
"What the Hell was that?!?" he roared, turning on Tali.
"Sorry, she still isn't used to other people yet..." Tali apologized. "Let me just try and turn her off..." and began tapping at her omni-tool.
At that point, the drone stared chasing Xander around engineering, firing stinging bolts of lightning at him.
"Tali, come on!" Xander yelled. "This isn't funny! Get it to stop!"
"I'm trying!" Tali shouted back, trying to keep herself from giggling and thankful that he couldn't see her controlling the drone. She'd eventually let him go, but the vanguard of all pranking had to be taught that she, Tali'Zorah nar Rayya, was the pinnacle of pranking evolution.