Keesh was born in a heap of garbage and debris that he shared with three siblings. On the day he first opened his eyes he lost his right one, because he fought all three of them, and vorcha claws are sharp.
The mangled socket had itched and Keesh had scratched at it, peeling away scab after scab until the mass of regenerative tissue began to form, and then it hurt, so he left it alone. Keesh was good with one eye. One of his brothers had only one arm. When the eye grew back, Keesh was even better. The arm did not grow back. His brother was shot through the temple by a turian. Brains do not grow back.
Keesh sees better with his right eye now. He sees sharper and farther in darker places. Vorcha eyes glimmer red in the shadows. This is how he sees his clanmates as they slip along the alleys scavenging. He searches with them, red irises shining just like theirs, snarling when other reds get too close. He claims a trash pile and tenses when others near. It is his, and these are his things, and he is clan.
He finds cycles-old pyjack meat, shredded from the bone. The rotted flesh settles well on his stomachs and the bone is not so bad, either. He cracks a tooth, but he has twenty more. He eats well that cycle.
Other races don't eat the garbage. It is wasteful, but his clan is king of waste. The Others worry about disease. There is always some four-eyes vomiting in the street or in the corner. They wallow on the ground and die from the inside out. Keesh doesn't care, as long as they don't wallow too close. They do not grow back. Not like vorcha. It is wasteful.
Keesh has never been sick. He does not understand the fear of the garbage or the smell of rot. It doesn't matter. The clan grows. Let the others keep their clubs and their bass and their wide open spaces. Keesh crawls through the debris and finds interesting things, things that are his. He crawls through the service shafts where the walls are tight and dark. It is better there. It is home.
He sleeps, sometimes. Sometimes he dreams. He dreams of fighting his siblings and other clans over scraps of still-fresh meat. They are good dreams. When they are over, he wakes up ready to fight again.
It is simple to vorcha. Combat asserts dominance, defines hierarchy, teaches lessons. He learns about his clan by battling his clanmates. He learns their weaknesses and strengths and how sharp their teeth are, and how long their claws are, and where their skin is thinnest. He knows where each draws their boundaries and when they are most receptive to company. He knows his nestmates, and they know him. He knows them better than the other races know their kin. That is what it means to be clan.
Keesh rummages through his trash pile and snarls when another of his clan gets too close. This other vorcha knows his personal boundaries and skirts them anyway. It sniffs the air, nostrils flaring, slinking to and fro around his heap. The reds of its eyes agitate him.
It lunges then, veins rippling across its chest and neck, but pulls up short when Keesh shoves into it with a snarl. The air is full of barking as they circle, tighter and tighter, shoulders grinding, working into a frenzy that burns as red as their eyes. Keesh sees teeth and snaps his own together, butting foreheads and sending the other shrieking through the street. Keesh gives chase and nearby an asari gasps; the noise is unfamiliar, un-vorcha, and it pinches the nerves of his earbuds. He snaps at her as he runs by and cackles when she jumps for the nearest doorway, swearing, thinking he is after her.
His clanmate dives into the service tunnels and he follows. Their claws leave nicks along the metal, but the small spaces feel like home, and Keesh's blood thrums slower in the darkness. Soon he forgets what he was doing and wanders aimlessly, his nostrils filled with the stench of clan. The sound of other claws drives him forward when he is frozen, momentarily, by a vorcha's scream.
It is not a shrill squeal or a complicated curse; it is simple anger and simple pain, no more and no less. It is sufficient. Vorcha have no need of words. Keesh's claws click-click-click across metal and grating as he shoves through the tunnel towards the source of the sound.
When he rounds a bend he almost falls through as the grating peels away without warning. The pale light of Omega filters through where the bottom has fallen out, and Keesh approaches cautiously. The hinges creak as he creeps, and he sees where tools have been taken to the metal, and how the hole looks far too square. It is a trick.
There is scuffling from below. Keesh understands without seeing; his clanmate fell through. It fell for the trap, the trick. Keesh knows better now, but he circles the hole anyway, his large eyes glimmering trails of red as he peers down. The snarls of his clanmate far below agitate the hollow tubes that line his temple. The sound is amplified.
Alien voices swell from nowhere. The snarls rise in volume. Keesh cranes his head down, swiveling to and fro so that the fins of his head find the right pitch. The alien words are noise. They garble in his head. They have no meaning. Keesh has never used a translator. Vorcha have no need of words. Talk is slow and complicated, and takes up time.
Sounds of amusement punctuate the enraged yelps of his clanmate. From the sound of it, it hasn't moved. It should pay for its mistakes, for falling for the trick, but Keesh almost fell for it too. The alien laughter reverberates through the tunnel and the tubes of his head contract. The garbling roar of nonsense noises angers him. He wants it to stop.
It is a long way down, but the ground rushes up fast when Keesh drops through the opening. His left foreleg breaks as it makes contact, but he lands on his feet. He rolls forward and the bone grinds together, but the pain is only an afterthought, one he communicates with spittle through his teeth.
The laughter stops as two turians quickly stumble out of the way. They stink like ryncol. The smell only feeds Keesh's aggression; it is alien, un-vorcha, un-clan. Vorcha don't get drunk. The turians are in his space, infringing on clan territory. They have no weapons. When he lunges forward they scatter and disappear. Keesh loses interest once they are out of sight.
He slinks back to where his clanmate fell. There are empty beer canisters littering the ground around it, presumably having been thrown on purpose. Its back is broken and it hisses when he draws near. He circles it, skirting just outside its comfort zone, deliberately provoking. It snaps teeth at him but starts dragging itself forward with its own two hands.
Short barks echo from the tunnels overhead. Keesh recognizes the voices. Impatient, he digs his claws deep into the muscle fiber lining the back of his clanmate's legs and half jerks, half drags it back into the alleys. It tries to bite at him but it can't twist far enough, and soon settles for hoisting its upper half in tandem with his limping gait.
They leave a trail of viscous, sour-smelling blood, but the wounds have dried to flakes by the time they arrive back at the garbage heaps of home. During the first few cycles Keesh is tempted to gnaw on the shard of bone that protrudes below his kneecap, but after a number of cycles pass it is too knotted in fresh bands of tissue and skin to bother. His clanmate with the broken back rarely strays from its nest, but it is not long before it crawls with some success, and two weeks later it is walking again.
The next time they fight they do not go into the tunnels. Instead they tussle in her nest, far away from any tricks, where she draws blood from his flanks and face.
They have two pups from the encounter, and then three more.
Sometimes the other races do not respect his territory. Muffled sounds of violence bring him out of the shadows and into the open places. The sound of angry words – always with words – fails to mask the heavy thump of a body. When he arrives on the scene, a batarian is lying wounded on the ground, spitting blood, and the smell of it is sharp.
Keesh has seen this many times and always for the same things. Others fighting others for credits and food, or for no reason at all. It is almost like vorcha, and their gangs are almost like clans, but it is not the same. Keesh wanders forward, sniffing, cautious. The batarian's presence irritates him, but it's not quite enough to provoke anything more.
The batarian says something – "blasted vorcha." It is a string of words Keesh knows, but he doesn't care about its meaning, only its intent. His gums glisten as he cackles through rows of teeth and the batarian struggles to sit up, all four of its eyes trained on him. Their eyes are black and small. The glimmer is dull.
"Get back, scavenger," the batarian says. Its hostility is fast mirroring his own. These are his spaces. He doesn't want a four-eyes here, spitting its sickness up everywhere. It is not vorcha. It is not clan.
Keesh sucks in air through his mouth and expels a throaty hiss. "Arrrgh, go away!" His voice rises, harsh from lack of use. "No want you here!"
"Get back!" the batarian commands, as if these were his spaces. It wipes blood from its mouth and flashes needle teeth. The gesture is aggressive to vorcha. Keesh's blood boils in response, and the knot of bone in his mended knee itches.
"Get back," the batarian says again, and it reaches for something. Red eyes track its hand and see the outline of a gun. Rage sears the edge of his vision white as Keesh shrieks and leaps on top of the four-eyes, ripping the pistol from its grip before cracking its skull against the ground. The batarian thrashes, but it has already fought once today, and when Keesh drags it to the dumpster and slams its forehead against the edge, there is a squishing noise, and then it stops moving.
Keesh snarls and shoves the four-eyes away. With the threat eliminated, Keesh busies himself by picking through the batarian's pockets and scouring the area for anything of interest. Whatever credits and supplies the four-eyes might have been carrying had long since been taken, but Keesh cannot stop himself from salivating when he stumbles across a bar of candy. Shoving it between his teeth, he then crawls over towards the gun and is disappointed to find it empty of thermal clips.
He takes the weapon anyway, and while the candy doesn't taste that good, he eats it anyway as well.
Six cycles later the krogan come.
Vorcha startle from their nests like flies when the gunshots first go off. The roar of shotguns is infuriating and pierces through their heads like knives. They swarm forward, snarling and spitting, hoping to overcome the intruders who dare to challenge the clan with numbers multiplied by savagery.
But, like Keesh's right eye, and his knee, krogan do grow back sometimes – and they are much larger, and if not as savage, then they are much stronger and better equipped. Shotguns do not cringe from claws or teeth. The red glimmer of vorcha eyes makes them easy to spot as they weave in and out of shadow.
Some nestmates race into the tunnels, but Keesh knows those tricks well by now. The clan congregates one last time and surges forward as one. Clanmates shriek as their heads are ripped from their shoulders by a point-blank shot, and Keesh barely dodges a spray of brain matter and bone shards when one of his nestmates collapses in a twitching heap beside him.
He leaps at the nearest krogan, drawn by the tower of red armored plating, and fights for a handhold. He snarls and scrapes, seeking skin and soft flesh to rip into, or uncovered eyes, but the krogan shakes him off with a laugh and sends him flying. He hits one of the far walls and feels something shatter, and the world blinks in and out of focus as he crumples to the ground. Beside him, his mate lies still.
The taste of blood is familiar, and it follows him into oblivion.
There's a loud crack as the krogan's fist connects with the side of Keesh's head. He falls backwards, bouncing along the ground as his vision swims in and out of focus. Two more teeth gone.
"Speak when you're spoken to, vermin," the krogan demands. Its voice makes Keesh's audial tubes contract, and inside the room it echoes.
"Rrragh." His vocal chords convulse and twist, grating against each other with every syllable, and his lungs inflate inside his chest. "I talk! I talk!"
An armored boot digs into his side, snapping ribs. He howls.
"I talk!" His tongue thrashes against the back of his teeth. The tissue of his throat is inflamed and raw, but he forces the words out. Simple words.
The armored boot retreats and leaves tracks of knotted tissue in its wake. "What is your clan?"
The translator buzzes in his head. It's always buzzing, always, still humming even after the words are gone. It makes his brain hurt. He had been awake when they'd implanted it deep inside his head. The scar tissue is smoother now, and covered in tiny veins.
The boot draws back and Keesh cringes, hissing.
"Blood Pack," he spits.
The krogan throws a pistol on the ground beside his head. It lands with a clatter and Keesh just barely resists grabbing it and firing a round between his master's wide-set eyes.
But they grow back. Not like vorcha, but close enough. Maybe better. Keesh stills, tasting blood, and glowers instead.
"That's a good vorcha," the krogan laughs. It grabs the shotgun at its back and aims over Keesh's head. His audial canals ring with the sound of it being fired. Pain races up Keesh's leg as the krogan ejects the heatsink and lets it fall on top of him.
"Remember that," it says, "or you'll be as good as that wall."
For the first time in Keesh's brief existence, the smell of sizzling flesh nearly makes him ill.
The vorcha beside him paws at the flamethrower in its hands with unbridled enthusiasm. When it notices him watching, it hisses, half in challenge, half in greeting.
The krogan overseer orders them forward. The pyro leaps over the crate in front of them with a cackling laugh, but Keesh slips around with more finesse. He wants to be in front, but he is a squad commander now, and the krogan says he has responsibilities. As squad commander he is the voice of the vorcha, and while he needs no translator to enforce his status with his kin, it does help him keep tabs on the temperament of their masters.
The talk is complicated, like always, but Keesh understands disappointment and pleasure when he hears it. The red-plated krogan enforcers sound pleased as they order his clan forward, and the startled howl of a turian in the distance makes his legs pump faster.
"Keep at them," one of them yells. "We don't stop until Gozu is ours!"
Keesh doesn't understand what they want with all the big empty places, but he's in no position to argue. From across the plaza a turian decked in Blue Suns armor pops up from behind cover and fires into their ranks; beside him a vorcha stumbles, and a stray bullet takes out a chunk of his shoulder as he leaps behind a potted plant. By the time he's settled on his haunches and bracing his pistol, the wound is already starting to scab.
"Keep going!" The krogan's voice is a dull roar. Keesh hears the familiar cackling of the pyro followed by a ring of gunfire, a hiss, and then a loud explosion. Specks of blood and flesh rain down around him and pepper the floor to his right with gore. The smell of something dead – something burnt – edges him away from cover, and with a sharp bark to the three troopers to his left, he leads them around a corner in order flank their target.
It is not so different from fighting among the trash heaps, only this time the enemy's bite reaches across a far greater distance, and the losers rarely walk away.
The turian tries to sprint back into the alcove behind it for better cover, but the decision opens it to a hail of bullets. Its kinetic shields flare a bright white before crackling into recharge, and it dives, rolling toward the entryway with a sharp clink of armor on alloy. Keesh opens fire from behind a pillar and titters to himself as the first bullet pings a fangs-breadth from the turian's helmeted head. Another Blue Suns joins it, but remains squatting behind the wall.
His clanmates sweep around him and the unwieldy clanking of a fuel tank draws Keesh's attention to his back. With a hiss he fires off a few more rounds, if only to give their krogan overseers something to jeer about, before pinning himself back against the pillar.
The source of the noise is another Blood Pack pyro. It creeps into position behind him and Keesh's sharp right eye makes out a dark face and the glimmering red irises of kin. But beyond the stench of fuel, discharge and blood, Keesh can also make out a familiar musk; it is one of his, and his pup growls in greeting.
"Press them!" The krogan's voice reverberates in his brain and sends a jolt of pain and hate surging through his bloodstream. Keesh ejects a heatsink and snarls over the hiss it makes as it hits the floor. With a wordless gesture of his finned head he directs two of his vorcha forward to the next pillar in order to offer suppressing fire. When one of them doesn't move quite fast enough Keesh slams his fist into its back, sending it sprawling forward onto its stomach. It shrieks as the turian mercenary's Carnifex zeroes in on its head and rolls over just in time to avoid decapitation. Properly motivated, it scrambles forward and joins its clanmate a few strides ahead.
The Blue Suns shift their focus to the more immediate threat. As they fire potshots at the next pillar, Keesh takes the time to direct his pup to the other side of the plaza. It is a simple strategy even for vorcha; while the enemy is distracted, rip into its haunches. It is better than grappling with the mouth, and every vorcha knows the value of sharp fangs.
At first it seems that his pup will resist. At any other time this would have ended in a fight, but the pup's large eyes flick over the grenades strapped against Keesh's chest. Its head lowers even as its lips pull back in a gesture of submission. With his status as squad commander upheld, the pup pyro lopes out of cover and circles around toward the left of the plaza, now snug inside the Blue Suns' blind spot.
Another bullet whizzes by Keesh's shoulder. One of the vorcha troopers has fallen, its body convulsing in a gargling heap by one of the stairwells. Two more who had been holding the center stumble as the Blue Suns lob an incendiary grenade. Keesh shrieks into the flash of smoke and leans away from the pillar as he fires back in retaliation. His patience is thinning fast, and his anger makes him reckless. He abandons the pillar completely and lopes toward the alcove where the Blue Suns have drawn their perimeter.
The turian's helmeted head sweeps to face him and the other soon follows; Keesh takes the first bullet with grace while the second nicks his neck, and with a throaty roar of defiance he pulls out his squad-issued Katana shotgun. The Blue Suns duck back behind the wall as he rips into the entryway with renewed zeal, pausing only to drop back behind a crate to refill his lungs with a much needed breath.
When the mercs next glance out to take stock of their ranks, they're met with the grinning face of a Blood Pack pyro. Keesh pokes his head out just in time to see the flames erupt from the business end of the flamethrower, and the whine of failing shields and agonized screams sounds far sweeter than it ever has.
The two-toned armor blackens and visors melt away as the mercs dance on their feet in an attempt to put the fire out, but the pyro is relentless, charging forward with a maddened laugh. The screams stop eventually, and all that's left are two blackened shapes and flakes of alloy clinging to the melted barrel of a once-Carnifex.
His other clanmates creep out from cover, slapping and snapping at each other as the rush of violence leaves them strung with unspent energy. Keesh snaps his Katana back in place with an awkward swing of his arm and surveys the charred and blood-specked plaza, ignoring his pup as it re-powers the flamethrower and lights the mercs' remains on fire one last time.
The sound of a single shot being fired nearly startles Keesh into hiding again, but it's too late. He turns just in time to see his pup's face contort in surprise before the fuel tank strapped to its back ignites.
The force of it almost sends him crashing to his back. The world spins, a swirl of color and heat signatures and massless shapes. He feels something wet spotting his exposed arms and face, and the musk is unmistakable.
The krogan enters the plaza. It is joined by two more Blood Pack warriors, and it laughs humorlessly, holstering its handgun as it does.
"Idiots," it says, the laughter coming to a sudden stop. "Don't waste the fuel."
Keesh pushes away from the crate that kept him upright. The rest of his clanmates slink to their overseers and listen to the words – always words – they speak. Keesh stares at the blackened stain on the ground where his pup once stood, and his tongue clicks once against the back of his teeth.
"We keep going," the krogan is saying. "The only pocket of resistance that remains is at Kokomo Plaza."
"What of the plague?" one of the others asks.
"Are you sick yet?"
Some of his clan go back to loot the bodies of their fallen nestmates. Keesh joins them, sending a number scattering as he takes his fill of heatsinks. Residual hatred simmers through him as he passes within the shadow of the krogan, but it is an emotion vorcha have a great deal of experience with, and he reloads his weapons without a word.
Not that he ever needed any.
Everyone choke and die.
Perhaps there aren't any words that can describe the satisfaction Keesh feels when the krogan stumbles, mid-charge, because half its face has been eaten away by a hail of bullets.
Keesh ignores the shards of its scaly crest as they scatter about his feet. He ignores the garbled scream of another clanmate as it's blown in two mid-reload. Both of its halves skid across the floor behind him.
He ignores all of this in favor of the heady thrum of blood that pounds inside his head, echoing through every part of him, loud enough to drown out the continuous buzz of the chip lodged in his brain.
The mended bone of his knee itches, and it hasn't itched in a long time.
He pops up from cover and fires. An answering bullet rips through the lengthy tendon running from his arm to his chest, and for a split second his grip on the pistol goes numb. It is all the time the enemy needs – another bullet impacts his chest, and yet another rips through his abdomen.
He stumbles, still holding the pistol. The cries of his clanmates have gone silent. Even the hated lump of krogan and its warriors lie still, their cooling bodies masked in blood-red armor. The last of the Blue Suns are long since dead.
Keesh considers the three strangers in front of him with dimming eyes before the final bullet sends him crashing to the ground.
He lies still, almost breathing. Alien glyphs light the wall far above him. The letters blink in-and-out: K-O-K-O-M-O.
The three strangers pick their way across the corpse-strewn plaza. The armored one goes first and the others follow. Keesh knows a clan when he sees one, and his audial canals strain to follow the tap of their footsteps as they walk past him and continue on.
He lies still for what feels like a very long time.
If he looks down he can see the exposed muscle of his chest pulsating, but doing so makes him dizzy. He rolls his head to the right and to the left, but the room keeps spinning. He feels very little, physically, but the silence is new. There are no growls, no clack-clack-clacks of claws on metal. No snuffling, no twitching, no fevered dreams. No darkness. No walls. No soft trash to lie on.
And then it occurs to him: he wants to go home.
His body pitches to the side. His arms have trouble responding, and his face is squished against the floor, but if he rolls his torso a little he can crawl. And crawl he does: forward, only forward, because his limbs respond to nothing else.
If he can find his trash heap – his nest – then he can rest. The walls are close there, and it's dark.
Something drags behind him. It's a funny feeling he ignores. The stench of clan is everywhere. Their scent is all around him, mixed with blood and other things, but it's clan-scent all the same. Keesh roots his head forward and bumps into the leg of one of his old nestmates. He growls, weakly, expecting a challenge.
His nestmate doesn't respond. Doesn't move. A cold feeling settles somewhere inside him, and it drives him forward.
He is dimly aware that this place is not home. There are no heaps. The smell of garbage is absent. The ceiling is high and wide, and everywhere is open. Not like his nest at all.
He crawls into a small corner. It is darker there and he feels better with a wall against his back. In fact, everything looks darker, and the colors all look dim. Even his sharp right eye can't seem to focus.
Keesh curls into a small ball and shuts his eyes. Surrounded by his clan, he rests, and waits for his body to heal.
It always does.
"Azhan, you asshole, you missed one."
The Blue Suns merc grunted as he noticed the bloodied mass in the corner. "Look, I'm at my corpse capacity, okay? You get that one."
"Quit your bitching. I had to load up two of the krogan. Now get your ass into gear so we can go."
The merc sighed and stooped down. Gripping the cold and stiffened form beneath its arms, he started the long and undignified shuffle backwards.
"And don't forget its guts," his companion jeered.
"Hilarious. Shit, Shepard sure knows how to make a mess."
"Got that right."
"You don't realize how many of these things infest the place until you have to chuck their ugly asses into the crematorium."
"There are still some plague fires that are burning pretty good. We'll just dump them in one of those and save ourselves the trip."
"Are you kidding? I'm not going near one of those."
"What did I say about bitching? The plague is over, asshole. I'll even run you to the clinic like a little bitch if you so much as sniffle."
The merc snorted as he hefted the dead vorcha onto the back of the trolley. "Yeah, sure. Fine, let's go."
"You wear vorcha guts pretty good. Anyone ever told you that?"
"Screw off. The next time I see one it'll be too soon."
"Story of my life, asshole." Mass effect field generators flicked to life as the trolley moved forward. "Story of my life."