Naturally I ordered Joker to head straight for the Citadel, it being essentially next door. Once I’d changed back into my BDUs and thrown my armor in the wash I thought I’d visit Jacob. Hopefully his little display in the shuttle bay had only been an aberration.
When I walked into the armory, he turned from cleaning my sniper rifle. “What were you doing, bashing mechs to death?” he complained good-naturedly.
“That may have happened once or twice,” I laughed. “We were rather outnumbered.”
He set the Viper to one side. “I’m glad you came down,” he said gravely. Ah, crap, I thought, he’s going to bring it up.
Instead of mentioning the last time I’d seen him, however, he started to tell me about his father. I smiled and nodded as he blathered on about how they weren’t close but he’d been a good man, blah blah blah. It turned out Jacob actually had a point, however, and he finally came to it.
“My father disappeared nine years ago, along with the entire ship on which he was serving. This morning I received an encrypted, anonymous message telling me that a distress signal from the Gernsback had been picked up three days ago.”
Damn, that was a pretty good plot twist. “And you want to go investigate?”
“I know we have a lot on our plate,” he said, “and I put my relationship with my father behind me a long time ago. But if there’s a chance he’s still alive…”
What the hell, why not? “Send the coordinates to Joker and we’ll check it out,” I promised. We’d been marking time between Collector sightings anyway, making no progress toward stopping them permanently. They hadn’t tried to abduct a colony since that confrontational afternoon on Horizon so there wasn’t much to work with as far as new clues.
I left Jacob and went to visit Joker. “Can you check on the possibility of a package delivery at the Citadel?” I asked him. The leer he gave me only brought a smile. EDI might be transmitting conversations and video to TIM when key words came up but I sincerely doubted she’d been trained to interpret facial expressions and how appropriate they were to the context. I certainly hoped she hadn’t or we were in serious trouble.
Even if she had there was nothing specific enough in the question to give away anything significant. “Sorry, Shepard,” he answered, sounding anything but. “The package is held up in customs halfway to the Veil.”
I made a face at him. “What, you’ve got a tracking number?”
“Nah,” he laughed. “I checked while you were sipping bubbly with the hoity toity of the pirate world.” We both grinned at that image. “And I uploaded those great stories you made up to some vid sites. You’re a big hit, Commander.”
He couldn’t be serious. He absolutely couldn’t, because the idea of me broadcast to half the galaxy, in that dress, from whatever bizarre vantage point Kasumi had had, making up stories to explain some still-livid scars, made me want to vomit. And kill him. And then vomit some more.
I chose to ignore him rather than give him a reaction and chose to address our AI instead. On my request, EDI cancelled our trip to the Citadel and headed for the Gurnsback’s distress beacon.
Joker sent something particularly explicit and nasty to my personal terminal in retaliation for asking the ship to act without him but Chambers opened it first, naturally, and was still transfixed by the time I got to the galaxy map. I deleted it without even looking at the screen. Whatever it had been, Kelly harassed poor Grunt for days after watching it.
The remains of the Gurnsback stood out clearly against the sky, half-rotted and broken from where the shuttle landed on the lush jungle world. Local fauna had long colonized the wreckage on the shore and decorated the wide-open rear of what appeared to be mid-ship where it tilted in the ocean waves. My sensors reported that a balmy, sweet breeze tickled the vines and tendrils drooping over a few visible consoles.
“No wonder they didn’t call for help,” I said while Jacob made noises of disbelief. “It’s beautiful here.” Then I thought of Virmire. Pretty didn’t mean harmless. Just about anything could lurk over that placid horizon.
We quickly found the distress beacon, much degraded by the salt air in the years it had sat unused. It didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know except that Jacob’s dad had been made acting captain as all higher-ranking officers had been killed in the crash and that it had sat, broken and inactive, until only recently. The few working datapads and consoles on the wreck itself didn’t tell us much more.
I was sweating in my helmet and the beach looked terribly inviting but Jacob was hardly going to wait for me to have a quick dip when he knew his long-lost father was hanging around somewhere. It turned out to be a lucky thing I kept my armor on: a few steps farther down the strand some guys in ragged uniform scraps started taking potshots at us.
Generally I don’t take kindly to that sort of behavior so we killed off the lot of them. I felt kind of bad about it, though. Apart from their guns they posed no threat to our fully-armored and –armed squad. Of course they started it.
Once that was done we followed a sort of trail up and into the continent’s interior. Some ditzy woman started yelling at Jacob that he had “his” face and that “he” had promised them the sky. One presumed they referred to Jacob’s father. Neither of us understood this promise—plenty of sky showed above, dotted with fluffy clouds and looking serene. Hell, it was even blue.
Something had badly damaged the woman’s brain, given that they don’t let such flaky people become officers on ships like the Gurnsback. Whatever it had been had affected the rest of the ladies that huddled behind her. When Jacob tried to talk to them they scattered like pigeons, squawking indignantly. Finally the first woman handed me a datapad with the answers.
“Ho-ly shit, Jacob,” I said, distracting him from coaxing some agitated woman out from behind a rock. “Beautiful place but don’t eat the food.” He glanced down and the lumpy fruit she’d handed him and shot me a quizzical look. “According to this, it degrades mental function. That’s what happened to these people.”
He chucked the thing into the shrubbery and wiped his hands on those skin-tight pant legs. The ladies were watching his movements closely. They stayed well back but crept in to surround us. I kept reading.
“Apparently your dad has developed some pretty nasty habits,” I said apologetically. I handed the datapad to him and he took a look through what I’d seen. Acting Captain Taylor had run a petty fiefdom here, with the women turned into a confused harem by their unfortunate diet. The men had been winnowed down to followers and exiles, with the untainted food hoarded for the few willing to go along with the plan.
“This can’t be right,” Jacob said. His whole face contracted in confusion and anger. “What kind of person would set up a system like this?”
My estimation of my crewmate went up a few notches. I saw no sign that he was in any way envious that his father enjoyed total rule over a bunch of cowed and available women, keeping all of the weapons and supplies for his own comfort. He looked furious and a little sick but all I saw in his eyes when he looked at the half-nude women in the remains of their uniforms was pity.
“Let’s go find out, Jacob,” I said. The ladies parted to allow us to move forward, several still babbling about the sky. It seemed a few memories still clung to their degraded minds. “Then let’s get these people evacuated.”
Ronald Taylor had not failed to notice our landing. As we rounded another curve along the path several mechs popped out to stop us. When they fell a voice called over speakers hidden in the brush to either side. I wondered if they’d played a part in frightening and confusing the women. Jerk.
“Thank goodness you’ve come,” he said. “The mechs have malfunctioned and the remaining officers are trapped in here!” Jacob made a disgusted noise. Hell, his dad even sounded a bit like him. This was going to be one ugly reunion.
We took out the rest of the mechs and then some more guys popped up and started shooting at us. Unlike “Captain” Taylor, whom we could see in the distance hiding behind some crates working at a console, these men looked as ragged as the ones that had attacked us on the beach.
I signaled Jacob to wound, not to kill, and he nodded, relieved. These guys didn’t seem too clear on anything but the desire to shoot anyone that looked healthy and with our mess being run by the ever-inventive Gardner Jacob and I were looking rather healthier than we should. I made a note on my omni-tool to institute more-regular exercise regimen on the SR-2 before the Cerberus folks couldn’t squeeze into their catsuits any more.
When the shooting had stopped Taylor the senior had stood, staring out over the sea from his perch as though he hadn’t a care in the world. We disarmed what I figured were rebels and made our way to where he had been hiding. “I really owe you one for stopping those men,” he said. “I think they reprogrammed the mechs, somehow. They were trying to kill me so they could shut down the beacon.”
I coughed a “bullshit” and said, “Yeah, I can see how well-protected it is, three kilometers away, out there on the beach and all. You want to explain to me and Mr. Taylor here why no attempt was made to repair or activate it for nine freaking years?”
“Taylor?” he asked, turning. “Jacob?! Ah, shit.” His face fell. He tried the refuge of all those caught with their fingers in the proverbial cookie jar. “This isn’t what it looks like.”
The Taylor men had a bit of a disagreement about whether a commanding officer should shoot dissenters and hoard resources, not to mention the ethics of screwing a harem full of women who can’t quite remember why they shouldn’t have to submit. The elder contended that protocol dictated the senior officers retain control and that he’d only done his best. The younger countered that his father was a sick bastard who had only called for help when his food supplies had run short.
While they argued I contacted Joker and asked him to arrange a pick-up for the survivors. With luck regular food and medical care could reverse their cognitive problems. EDI confirmed that a nearby transport ship was en route which left only one loose end dangling.
“Jacob,” I said firmly, “please go check the remaining supplies and see about distributing uncontaminated food to the women. I’m going to have a little chat with your father.” To make my intent clear, I unclipped my pistol. If the younger Taylor wanted to stop me now was the time. Instead he moved off toward crates piled nearby, sparing one considering look and the slightest of nods before he busied himself facing the other way.
Ronald Taylor stared at my hand and wasted a glance of mute appeal on his son’s resolutely turned back. He spluttered some rationalization for his actions, still protesting his innocence and good intentions.
I shot the lying bastard right in the eerily-familiar face. Jacob winced but didn’t object. We both knew prison would be too easy a punishment for the sort of abuse to which he and his “friends” had subjected those women. Nine years of degradation visited, under his authority, on at least a dozen women had cost them more than even the rest of his life in a cell could repay. In this case, acting as judge, jury, and executioner sat fine with me.