Thursday, September 13, 2390
The Rack & Pinion Public House
By the afternoon of the day after the Ragnarök, the keenest edge had worn off most people's appetite for partying, even in the Golden City. Not everyone had called it a day yet, but most of the gatherings that were still happening had wound down to quieter, more intimate affairs than the full-bore survivor carousing that had marked the night before.
This was particularly true at places like the Rack & Pinion, which was by custom one of the quieter pubs in Valhalla anyway. Small and unobtrusive on a little-traveled side street off the Street of the Eternal Heroes, it catered to a small core of regulars who prized it for its discreet frontage, its motoring-themed décor, and its air of relaxed gentility. Even today, on the afternoon after the most apocalyptic series of parties ever to rock the Halls of the Honored, it maintained that most prized of its attributes.
In the back of the tap room, near the doorway leading to the lounge, a party of einherjar spacers sat in their customary corner booth, doing what the warriors of Valhalla have always done when the fighting is over: telling war stories.
A bald-headed man dressed, as several of them were, in a Wedge Defense Force uniform dating to the 2280s held the floor, telling a story about the chaotic end of a long-ago shore layover at Deep Space K-7: "So the Klingon says, 'I strongly suggest you rephrase your remarks, human,' and the Commander looks at him for a second and then says, 'OK, you're stupid-looking too.'"
[ Senior Lieutenant Charles Pressly, WDF (dcd.)
Killed in action: WDF Normandy v. GMV Avenger, September 11, 2288 ]
As a laugh went around the table, one of the listeners - a rugged-looking blond man wearing a different uniform - remarked, "I bet that didn't go over too well."
[ Captain Conrad Verner, Ph.D., United Earth Defense Force (dcd.)
KIA: Battle of Central Park, August 12, 2388 ]
"Oh, it all kicked off then," Pressly confirmed with a broad grin. "Doc Chakwas was taping us back together for days after that one. Although, give us our due, that Klingon ship didn't have enough able-bodied men left to leave port for a week."
The dark-haired woman to Pressly's left sighed in a put-upon fashion, though she was smiling. "Press," she said, "have you got any stories that don't involve me being psychotically aggressive?"
[ Commander Sir Virginia E. Shepard CKE KCSS, WDF (dcd.)
KIA: Normandy v. Avenger, September 11, 2288 ]
"Not really," Pressly replied innocently.
"Well, I have," put in a slim, redheaded woman. "Who remembers Hammerhead?"
[ Able Spaceman Kelly Chambers, D.Psy., WDF (dcd.)
KIA: Normandy v. Avenger, September 11, 2288 ]
Shepard gave the put-upon sigh again. "Oh, here we go," she said, covering her smile by taking a drink of her Belhaven.
"I think everyone who was there remembers Hammerhead," remarked a wiry (and unhelmeted - what need was there of such things here?) quarian, "but you tell it better."
[ Admiral Kevirin'Zorah vas Archangel, QN (dcd.)
d. July 16, 2374 ]
The man on Shepard's left grinned. "Yeah, go ahead, Kelly," he said. "I think Conrad will appreciate this one."
[ Lieutenant Colonel Kaidan Alenko, UEDF (dcd.)
KIA: Battle of Horizon, May 2, 2334 ]
Kelly paused, glancing at the commander, but Shepard just flipped a hand in a be-my-guest fashion and got on with her drinking, so the yeoman smiled and said to Verner, "Well. We hit a Cerberus science outpost in... late '82, I think, or maybe early '83. It was a year or so before Operation Herakles. Anyway, it was supposed to be where Cerberus was concentrating a bunch of technical information they'd pirated from various companies and governments around the galaxy, and Command wanted us to see if we could get it back.
"So the Commander hit the main lab with... " She paused to consider. "... Garrus and Wrex, if memory serves."
Shepard nodded with a nostalgic smile. "My heavy boys," she said. "The Normandy riot squad. I always took them along when I knew we'd be up against Cerberus."
"And it was the usual complete rout this time," Kelly confirmed. "It took all of five minutes for them to breach the central vault and find what the Cerberus researchers were working on... only it wasn't any kind of information storage system we were expecting. It was an egg."
Conrad blinked. "An egg? What kind?"
Kelly shook her head. "Nobody knew! We were a special operations ship, not a science vessel. The only real science assets we had on board were Dr. Chakwas and Professor T'Soni, and this was way outside either of their fields. All we could tell was that it was big - about as big around as a car tire - and they were keeping it warm. We were taking it to rendezvous with the Wayward Son so they could try and figure out what it was... when it hatched."
"What was in it?" asked Conrad. Then, with a look of suspicion, he said, "Wait a second, was this the rachni queen? I've heard stories about that, but I wasn't sure even you guys... "
Kelly shook her head. "No, that was earlier, and it wasn't us that found that egg anyway. This was totally different. It was a neosaur."
Conrad looked puzzled. "A... genetically engineered replica of an extinct Earth animal?"
The yeoman nodded. "Yes. Only now that we knew what it was, it didn't take our little science team long to figure out that this was a very special one. A variant developed from the original WDF Life Sciences design by Cerberus's top geneticists for a particular mission. It had all their stolen data encrypted in the 'junk sequences' of its genetic material."
Conrad's eyes went wide with recognition. "You mean it was a - "
Kelly nodded triumphantly. "Yep. A steganosaurus."
Her shipmates groaned, as they always did at that point, but Conrad only said, "Wow. Like a datadog, only... awesomer."
"Mm-hmm," Kelly agreed. "Anyway, our little guy had information encoded in his DNA that could have jeopardized the national security of the Salusian Empire, United Earth, maybe even the whole UG, and we knew in pretty short order that Cerberus was hunting for him. If they could get him back from us, a lot of people were going to be in a lot of trouble." She looked sad. "The only logical thing to do was destroy him."
Conrad gaped at her. "You didn't."
Kelly managed to keep up the sad face for a couple of seconds, then beamed. "Of course not," she said. "That's the whole point of the story." She gestured to the woman at the other side of the table, who had gone faintly pink. "Commander Shepard not only wouldn't order it, she told Admiral Mihailovich from the UEDF 5th Fleet to go pound sand when he tried to order her to do it."
"For the record," put in Kaidan dryly, "this was not the first time she'd told that particular admiral to go pound sand."
"And technically, I think the phrase she used both times was 'I don't work for you, so take the asshole train to the end,'" Pressly added, "which nobody's even sure what that means, except it's clearly not complimentary."
"And then she raised him by hand," Kelly went on.
"Hammerhead, not Admiral Mihailovich," Kevirin noted helpfully.
"Which takes some doing when an adult stegosaur is 30 feet long," said Kelly, resolutely ignoring him. "By the end of it Hammy took up as much of the hangar deck as the Mako."
"Which didn't make Garrus any too happy," Kaidan remembered.
"Why was he called Hammerhead?" Conrad wondered.
"When he was little he used to greet people he liked by headbutting their knees," Shepard said. "Fortunately he stopped doing that before he reached five tons."
"Except with Wrex," Kevirin reminded her.
"Yeah, but Wrex liked it," said Kaidan.
"But what did you do about the data?" Conrad asked.
"Well, it was about a year later that the WDF and 3WA did a joint operation that shut Cerberus down across the board," Shepard told him, "after which everybody who knew how to get at it was either on the Normandy, in Takron-Galtos, or dead." She shrugged. "At that point we figured it was safe to give him a new home."
"It was really sad to say goodbye, though," Kelly said. "He was part of the family by then. Eating us out of ship and home, true, and seriously starting to outgrow even the hangar deck, but still." She leaned toward Conrad and told him confidentially, "After we left him on NatureWorld, she cried for an hour."
"I did not," Shepard said, but not with much force. Then she smirked slightly and went on, "No more than five minutes. I've told you a million times, Chambers, don't exaggerate." A little wistfully, she added, "Liara thought Cerberus might've left in the original LSD encode for longevity when they pirated his genome. He could still be alive. I wonder if he'd remember me."
"He ought to," Pressly said. "I'd remember anyone who'd hand-fed me upwards of 20 tons of kalatamara leaves."
"Anyway, there you go, Conrad," said Kelly, beaming again. "Positive - albeit anecdotal - evidence that Commander Virginia Shepard has a heart of gold to go along with her fists of steel."
"And quad of brass," Kevirin chipped in. "Can't forget that."
After the laugh that drew died down, Kaidan raised a glass to his commander and added, "And that is no bullshit."
With a sardonic smile, Shepard clinked her glass against his, but at almost the same instant, there came a crash of shattering glass from somewhere in the tap room, a faint cry, and a roar of much more raucous laughter than the Normandy crew had been producing.
"What the hell... ?" Shepard wondered. She frowned and got partway to her feet, looking over Conrad's head to see what was going on. At some point during Kelly's story, a band of what looked like ten ulfhednar - so-called "berserker" troops from the rough hill country of western Vanaheim - had come into the place, clearly pissed out of their skulls and still on the roll they'd started the previous night. The gods only knew how they'd stumbled across the Rack & Pinion on their drunken course; perhaps they were actually hitting every single drinking house in Asgard. Now that they were here, in any case, they were diligently lowering the tone.
Scowling, Shepard got the rest of the way up. "Watch my beer, kids," she said.
"Commander... " said Kelly with a sigh.
"Won't be a second," Shepard told her, then eased past Kaidan out of the booth and marched up the aisle, her gait giving little sign that she'd just left behind half of her ninth pint of Scottish stout.
Out of the booth, the source of the crash was clear. Minerva, one of the Rack's vættir barmaids, had lost control of a tray carrying a half-dozen full pint glasses, their contents now mingling on the floor with the broken glass in a slick of multi-tone brown and amber foam. The reason she'd lost the tray was plain as well: she'd been seized in an overly familiar manner by one of the ulfhednar, who was now holding her clean off the floor and growling lewd suggestions into her ear through his foam-streaked beard.
"Get off me, you imbecile," Minerva snarled, attempting without much success to either elbow him in the face or get a heel into a soft spot.
"Hey. Buddy," said Shepard, her voice cracking like a whip. Blinking boozily, the berserker looked up from his "work", then gave her a leer.
"Art thou addressing me, wench?" he said in a voice that blared like a car alarm.
"Put the girl down," Shepard told him, her voice flat and cool. When he didn't immediately move to comply, she added, "Now."
The ulfhedinn considered for a moment, then shifted his grip so that he had Minerva pinned against his chest with one arm, freeing the other hand to point a thick, black-nailed finger in Shepard's face.
"Wait thy turn, woman," he said, then grinned jaggedly through his beard and went on, "A morsel this small should only detain me for YAAAAAAGGGGHHHH!"
Without waiting for him to finish his remark, Shepard seized his would-be-threatening finger and bent it smartly in a direction not supported by the manufacturer. Then, with the smooth and unhesitating precision of a finely tuned machine, she stepped toward him, pivoted, and drove the heel of one of her combat boots into his kneecap. Cursing, he stumbled, dropping Minerva, who beat a hasty retreat.
The ulfhedinn's finger was already purple and swelling as, roaring with the barely-contained rage that was the hallmark of his corps, he crossdrew a combat knife with his off hand and lunged. Shepard all but ignored it, deflecting the wild thrust with a casual sideways slap of her right hand, grabbed a fistful of the berserker's simulated-wolfskin tunic in her left, and jerked him toward her, ramming her knee into his groin. Beery breath gushed out of him as he folded up. She boxed his ears, used them to propel his face into her still-upraised knee, then dealt him a left cross that audibly fractured his jaw. Job done, she stepped calmly aside as he plowed facefirst into the floor next to the fallen cargo of Minerva's tray.
"... and on the flip side, there's that," Kevirin observed quietly to the others.
The ulfhedinn's colleagues stared at Shepard in astonishment rapidly converting to fury. She smirked at them, her violet eyes twinkling, and said as her shipmates piled out of the booth behind her, "Are you guys going to be smart and get your buddy out of here, or are we going to need ten ambulances?"
As the tenth ambulance pulled away from the Rack & Pinion and sped off, its siren wailing, Virginia Shepard stood with her team at the door, her arms folded, and shook her head.
"This neighborhood's going to hell lately," she remarked sardonically to Conrad.
"And here I thought I might find you resting on your laurels, Commander," said a voice from the sidewalk. Shepard turned to see Skuld Ravenhair - the Norn of Tomorrow and, maybe more importantly, the Valkyrie who had brought her to Valhalla in the first place - grinning at her. "Got a minute?" Skuld went on. "I've got a proposition for you."
Shepard crooked an eyebrow, then smiled and gestured into the open pub door. "Step into my office," she said.