Jack startled, biotics tensing and hands slamming forward for purchase as she woke. Where the fuck-
Oh. Right. The shuttle.
She disengaged the safety restraints and pulled herself out of the pilot's seat. The shuttle was totaled, half buried in the sand and crumpled like a tin can near the back, not that it was in any better shape before the crash landing, what with the goddamn slavers shooting them out of the sky.
Grunt was just outside the hatch. It had been his voice she heard. She didn't see anyone else.
"The fuck's Zaeed?" she asked, reaching up and touching her head. She winced and her hand came away red. Great. Fucking perfect.
"Bailed out after we got hit," Grunt replied, eyes fixed on the horizon outside the hatch. "Coward."
"Fucker," she agreed. "What are you lookin' at?"
Grunt sniffed the air. "Thought I smelled batarians."
"Then quit fucking sniffing and let me out of here."
Grunt stuck out a meaty hand and pulled her out of the shuttle. She didn't bother to thank him. That was one of the things she actually liked about the big, stupid krogan. No need for manners or pleasantries. He didn't care about any of that bullshit.
The twin suns beat down onto them, and the arid, cracked desert landscape stretched out in all directions. There was no sound. No birds, no insects, no life at all. Shit, wasn't even any wind.
"What a fucking hellhole," she muttered.
"Gorgeous," Grunt said, a little awe creeping in. Jack scoffed and cuffed him on the side of the head.
"Now what the fuck do we do?" she asked, plopping herself down on the edge of the hatch. "Wait here for Shepard to show up and rescue us?"
"Shepard will come." Grunt said it like it was a fact, like he was telling here 'this planet is hot.'
"Of course she fuckin' will." Jack touched the side of her head again. No red. Wasn't bleeding anymore at least, though she still felt like she'd been hit with a bat after twelve shots of ryncol. "Fuckin' girl scout won't leave anyone behind."
They just sat there for a while. Grunt scanning the horizon all around. Jack steadying her head and willing herself not to feel dizzy. It was a good thing she didn't wear much, or she'd be fucking miserable. Holy fuck this planet was hot.
Suddenly, both their omni-tools beeped. Jack reached down and checked. Message from the Normandy. Coordinates and a map.
"Rendezvous point," Grunt said, stating the obvious. "Fifty clicks east, across plains and ridges."
"So we have to run to her. Great. Fucking hell, this whole mission sucks."
It had sounded great back on the ship - two shuttles, one carrying Shepard and her usual crew, one carrying Zaeed, Jack, and Grunt. Their shuttle would go up the front, hit the slaver base like a battering ram and they'd just wreck shit up for a while as Shepard and her boys ran around the back and freed the slaves. They'd meet up in the middle, fuck everything up on their way out, and extract. Sounded like all kinds of fun.
Except for the camoflaged anti-air guns the slavers had on approach. Jack didn't know if Shepard's shuttle had been hit too, but probably not. Probably just them. Which was just her fucking luck, wasn't it. Zaeed had apparently bailed out like a pussy, which left her and Grunt alone to hoof it to Shepard. Not that she wanted him around for his charming personality or good looks, but it was the fucking principle of the thing.
"Quit whining," Grunt said, breaking her from her angry reverie. "You're always complaining."
"Yeah, like you've never been pissed before," she said, cuffing him on the side of the head again. "We goin' or ain't we?"
He turned and looked at her with those weird, too-blue eyes. "If you can keep up."
Jack grinned. "Race ya."
She lept off the shuttle and ran to the east. She caught Grunt grinning as he sprinted after her, moving like a big fat freight train.
They ran like the fucking wind for a while. Then they slowed to a jog when the terrain got harsh. Then they slowed to a walk as they marched up a rocky ridge.
Jack couldn't remember the last time she felt this fucking awful. The fuck was happening? She was hot, too damn hot, and her throat was like sandpaper. Something in the air maybe, plus those two fucking suns.
Grunt didn't seem to give a shit. But then, he never seemed to give a shit about the weather.
They hit the top of the ridge and Jack doubled over, hands on her knees.
"Fuckin' slow down..." she said, taking big gulps of hot air that didn't help. "It's too fucking hot."
"Whining again," Grunt said. She barely had the strength to reach over and hit him, but she tried. He gave her a weird look.
"You okay?" he asked.
"Do I fucking look okay?" she shot back. Then she coughed, and it hurt like hell. "How much farther?"
Grunt checked his omni-tool. "Halfway there."
"Good," Jack nodded. "Because I want to have enough energy when we get back to give Shepard a piece of my fucking mind-"
A shot hit the ground just below their feet. Grunt shoved Jack down onto the other side of the ridge and she rolled down a fair ways before she caught herself. Now she had even more cuts and bruises.
Grunt ducked behind the ridge and slowly raised his head over it. "Slavers. Hunting party. Tracking us."
"No shit," Jack said, biotics flaring. Oh, but that just made her more dizzy. She wished the rear half of the shuttle hadn't taken such a big hit, might have been able to salvage some of the goddamn nutri-bars or water. What she wouldn't do for some fucking water right now.
"Come on," he said, turning and scrambling down the ridge. "Let's go."
"Running from a fight?" she said.
"There's a difference between a good fight and a bad suicide," he said. "Now come on."
He started running again. She snarled angrily and followed.
Grunt was unhappy.
It had been a terrible day. The prospect of a great fight had gotten him all keyed up, and now, they were running from it. But he had to. There were only two of them, and a lot more batarians. Outgunned and outnumbered were normally his favorite odds, but he wouldn't even be able to get in shotgun range before they put him down. And they'd probably try and take him alive, too. Cowards.
Hours of running across the arid desert had cheered him somewhat. The suns hadn't moved in the sky. He enjoyed the feeling of the rays on his skin and plates, but Jack didn't. Jack had been particularly whiny today. He didn't know what to make of it. She could complain, at times, but never for very long before she got angry. And when she got angry, she reminded him of home. Part of the reason he enjoyed her company. That, and there was no one else on the Normandy who ever felt like tearing something apart with your bare hands. 'Kindred spirits,' his battlemaster had said, when he'd told her about their conversations. He'd had to look that up later, but it sounded right.
He heard a thud behind him. Grunt turned. Jack had fallen face first onto the parched clay desert.
"Hey. Get up."
She didn't. He marched over and nudged her with his foot.
Jack stirred, getting her hands underneath her and pushing weakly. She ended up on her back, not on her feet. She was a strange color, flushed and red.
"Can't," she said, voice cracking over chapped lips. "Fuckin' tats."
He blinked. "What?"
She pinched and pulled at her skin with two weak fingers. It was covered in the ink she'd burned into it. When she'd told him how it hurt, he'd admired her tolerance for pain. Now he was confused.
"Can't sweat," she said. "So fuckin' stupid, didn't think... fuck..."
Sweat? The ink was blocking her sweat, making her body weak and feeble. Grunt didn't need to sweat, or eat, or drink for days. It's what the nutrients in his hump were for.
"You have to keep moving," he said urgently. "If you don't, you're dead."
"Fuck you." Her head rolled against the ground, eyes shut. "Leave."
"I will!" Grunt's voice grew louder. He didn't really know why. She was right there. "I'll leave you here! You're too weak and pathetic to live!"
She didn't answer. He tore himself away from glaring down at her and looked towards their goal. It was past one more ridge, a tall one, rocky with a lot of boulders. Good cover, if the batarians caught up. He could make it easily.
He looked down at Jack. Still too flushed, still weak and feeble and it wasn't like her at all.
Then he looked back where they came. He couldn't make out the batarians yet, not through the heat haze, but he knew they were right behind them. On the hunt.
Grunt turned back to the ridge, took two steps, and froze.
He should leave her. That was how it was on Tuchanka, on his homeworld he'd only ever seen once. Survival of the fittest. Survival as the ideal. Survival as a cause. You face the world and dare it to strike you down, and when it does, you get back up again. That was as it should be. That was krogan.
But she wasn't krogan. She was a weak, frail, tiny human with power and fire and fury he'd never seen in any other, krogan or human, save one: his battlemaster.
Shepard didn't move like Jack, didn't fight like her, certainly didn't act like her. But the eyes were similar. Not the same, but similar. If it were Shepard laying there, what would he do? Stupid question. Shepard wouldn't be laying there. Shepard would be far ahead of him, yelling at him to catch up. Shepard could not be stopped by heat or exhaustion or injury. To hear the turian tell it, Shepard couldn't even be stopped by death.
But Jack wasn't Shepard. Jack had shown fault and frailty, and he should leave her there to die in the sand. Something deep in his genes, whether from Okeer or otherwise, said it was right.
"Nothing." Garrus lowered his rifle. "Can barely see through the heat haze."
"The same." Thane stood on the top of the shuttle. His voice sounded stronger, less warbling, since they'd landed on the arid world. She wondered if it was like this back on the drell homeworld.
Zaeed spit out the hatch. "They'll be here," he said. "No way they'd get caught."
Shepard paced around the shuttle. She hadn't figured it would take this long. She wished she could take up the shuttle and head straight to them, but they still didn't know how many damned guns the slavers had. If they got shot down, the Normandy itself would have to come and pick them up, and like hell was she putting the ship in danger. So they were playing it safe; an omni-tool message, encrypted, with coordinates. Too big a desert and too much chance of ambush or capture if they spread out to search. Hell, they'd barely managed to get to Zaeed before the slavers were on top of him.
All they could do was wait and hope. Grunt and Jack were both impulsive, but they were smart enough to know when to fight and when to run. They'd be here. She hoped. If they weren't, there were going to be a lot of dead batarians in the very near future.
A distant gunshot echoed across the desert. Everyone's head snapped up. It had come from the west, below the edge of the ridge they'd landed on.
"Shepard!" Garrus shouted. "I've got something!"
"What?" She ran over to him, grabbing his rifle and sighting down the scope.
Grunt charged over the edge of the ridge, about a click and a half away. Jack was limp on his back.
Shepard couldn't help but smile. "Atta boy."
"Why'd you do it?"
Shepard crossed her arms as they stood outside the medbay. Grunt had been staring in at Jack laying on one of the beds, IV trailing into her arm as Chakwas placed the ice packs around her core.
"Why'd you carry her?" Shepard kept her expression guarded.
He eyed her sidelong. "She couldn't walk, couldn't fight. She wouldn't have died well."
"Those aren't reasons, Grunt. Those are facts."
"I..." Grunt visibly hesitated. He gave the only answer he could. "I don't know. I didn't think about it."
Shepard let him chew on that thought for a moment. Then she laid a hand on his shoulder.
"That's good. You shouldn't have thought about it."
Grunt gave her an odd, searching look, then nodded. Shepard's hand left his shoulder. She turned and left, passing Zaeed (who was making coffee in the galley and trying desperately not to look like he was worried about Jack) and heading into the main battery. Garrus was cleaning his rifle at his bench.
"A few hours on that planet and there's sand in every single mechanism." He shook his head. "How's Jack?"
Shepard wandered over and sat next to him, facing away from the bench. "Chakwas says she'll be okay. She's a strong kid."
Garrus turned and glanced at her. "And Grunt?"
Shepard met his eyes, then turned away and stared off into the middle distance.
"Fine," she said, smiling softly. "He'll be just fine."