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Mass Effect: Hunter & Prey

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Cover art for Mass Effect: Hunter & Prey

Omega Nebula cluster, Pranas system
Unregistered ship docked onto the Omega space station

Tolaen Valrin regained consciousness with a start, a pounding headache and stiff limbs the unwelcome reminders of events that had recently transpired. The flight from The Shrike Abyssal cluster after everyone in his squad of Special Tasks Group (STG) operators had been killed save him. The mad chase through Omega’s maze of confusingly similar alleys, with bounty hunters, mercenaries and gangs hot on his heels. The ambush against him combining a sudden biotic attack with the electrified field of a submission net. And finally the stock of an assault rifle painfully connecting with his head, knocking him unconscious.

Scanning the surroundings, the salarian quickly assessed his situation. He was locked in what looked like a small cargo hold aboard a starship, his arms and legs immobilized by restraints he could not readily identify. Even without recourse to the observational capability his species was famed for, it was plainly obvious for Valrin that he was a prisoner, a package for his captors to deliver to the highest bidder.

STG operators were taught to adapt and be flexible in order to accomplish their missions, so the salarian was unprepared to accept he was defeated. Given the chance, he might be able to find a way to extricate himself from this mess, but the cargo hold seemed devoid of anything useful to assist in removing his restraints. The salarian’s weapons and omni-tool were also nowhere to be seen.

Valrin was still looking around his makeshift prison when he finally realized that the dark, unmoving shape next to the wall to his right actually was a mech of some kind on guard duty. The robot’s appearance was similar to that of the increasingly common LOKI security mechs, except for its black paint job. It was so motionless that initially the salarian had mistaken it for a part of the ship’s cargo, but there was no doubt that it was active and standing guard, as evidenced by its optics assembly firmly trained on the salarian and by the stun weapon clutched in one of its robotic arms.

The salarian considered using his skills as a combat engineer to hack the mech and force it to assist in his escape. On the other hand, without his omni-tool, taking control of the robotic jailer wasn’t a feasible option. Alas, for all their training to handle the most disparate tech, even salarian combat engineers required an omni-tool for hacking. Or failing that, they needed direct access to their target’s system, which was definitely unlikely in Valrin’s current situation.

In the otherwise silent cargo hold, Valrin suddenly heard footsteps approaching. The mech sprang into motion, as if responding to a silent command, and moved from his position to operate the holographic controls on the door connecting the cargo hold to the interior of the ship.

The door noiselessly slid open and two figures come through the opening to visit the prisoner. Valrin eyed the newcomers with interest. The first one coming in was a human female with light skin pigmentation and dark brown eyes. The hair on her head, a peculiar trait seen only in humans, was long and brown. She wore the same body-hugging, black and red suit the salarian had seen on Omega, shortly before the woman knocked him flat with a biotic throw. She carried no obvious weapons, which was unsurprising for Valrin. If her display of biotic power on Omega was an indication, then that woman had no need for weapons. She was a weapon.

Right behind her, a stocky batarian male pushed his way into the cargo hold. He was clad in a suit of medium Gladiator armor with a blue matte finish, red stripes painted across the shoulder pauldrons and chest piece and a set of matching red lights. The batarian did not seem to be sporting any weapons either, at least as far as Valrin could see.

The human stopped not far from the prisoner, arms folded across her chest. She introduced herself speaking in a youthful voice. “My name is Blackthorn. Gemma Blackthorn.”

Despite the smooth tone of her voice, Valrin sensed this woman had a steel resolve and was not one to be trifled with.

 “And this is my… business associate Kol’Xulbizar”, the human carried on with the introductions, gesturing towards the batarian. “We are bounty hunters and you, sir, are our prisoner.”

Valrin was still considering what could be the best approach to establish a dialog with the woman, but whatever reply he was about to come up was cut short by the batarian bounty hunter.

“No time for these niceties Blackthorn!” The way he spat the woman’s name betrayed an ill-disguised distaste. Relations between humans and batarians were strained, to say the least, and the salarian perceived that Kol’Xulbizar probably wasn’t too happy of his business arrangement with Blackthorn. He filed away that information for later use, in case it could be of assistance for his escape.

In the meantime, the batarian took a step forward and made an unpleasant suggestion. “I just say we disarticulate this salarian’s knees and wrists and also keep him sedated for good measure.”

“Stand back Kol’Xulbizar”, the human ordered. “The contract specifies he is to be delivered alive and unharmed. I will not let your paranoia compromise full payment of the bounty.” Blackthorn’s resolute words did not seem to admit a reply, but Kol’Xulbizar was not tamed.

“You are a fool! The lizard-men are unpredictable and far craftier than a Khar’shan ring-tailed possum. If we do not incapacitate him, he might find a mean to escape before we reach our destination!” the batarian complained vehemently.

“My ship, my rules,” Blackthorn retorted, annoyance creeping into her voice. “If you want your share of the bounty, you’ll abide by these rules.”

Valrin listened to the exchange with interest, in the sincere hope that the human’s view would prevail. If left free to do as he wished, Kol’Xulbizar would certainly practice his suggestion to the letter. The salarian had already witnessed the batarian’s merciless approach back on Omega. In fact, it was Kol’Xulbizar who had administered an electrical shock to Valrin using the submission net and then used his rifle’s stock to render the prisoner unconscious. No doubt that Kol’Xulbizar was the kind of bounty hunter who would take extreme measures to impede a prisoner from escaping.

“Speaking of my share of the bounty, it is fair to increase that to 80% of the client’s payment”, the batarian said, jumping at the opportunity to talk about his fee.

“We are not bargaining all over again. We already agreed to an equal share of the profits”, Blackthorn reminded to her business associate, with no intention to accede to this new request.

“Ha! That was when my contribution was limited to the location of the lizard-man’s shuttle on Omega, but before my pivotal intervention in his capture.” Kol’Xulbizar patted his right forearm where he had installed the omni-tool.

“Like I said, we are not bargaining anymore”, Blackthorn replied, her earlier smooth tone marred by the batarian’s insistence on the topic. “You provided the shuttle’s location in order to set-up our trap, but I have the necessary contacts to deliver the prisoner and obtain payment of the reward.”

The atmosphere in the cargo hold was getting tense and Valrin caught sight of a faint bluish glow flaring up around Blackthorn. Apparently, the woman was readying to use her biotics so as to make her decision stand. The salarian also noticed his robotic jailer had shifted its electronic gaze on the batarian.

Sensing he was caught between two fires, Kol’Xulbizar seemed to relent, “All right”, he said, taking a few steps to distance himself from the woman and the mech, but giving his back to the salarian.

It was then that Valrin realized that the batarian was not weaponless. A small slot at the back of Kol’Xulbizar’s armor slid open and revealed a collapsed heavy pistol. The batarian bounty hunter casually rested the right hand on his hip, still talking. “I thought you would agree with my view Blackthorn, but I might have made a mistake in trusting you…”

The last word of that sentence had barely left his mouth when the batarian grabbed the concealed pistol. With a fluid motion he un-collapsed the weapon and began to bring it to bear against his interlocutor. At that sight, Valrin instinctively shouted a warning, “Handgun!”

Kol’Xulbizar had been snake-quick, but Blackthorn’s reaction was lightning-fast. With a flick of her wrist, she raised a biotic barrier to protect herself, harmlessly deflecting the batarian’s shot.

The stocky alien never managed a second shot, finding himself cocooned in a stasis field, courtesy of Blackthorn’s biotics. The next second, the motionless Kol’Xulbizar was struck by Blackthorn’s mech with its stun weapon and he crumpled to the ground unconscious.

Valrin’s gaze was instantly drawn to the pistol falling from the batarian’s now nerveless hand. The weapon clattered on the deck, not too far from the prisoner. If he acted fast enough, Valrin thought, he might be able to roll next to the pistol, grab it and neutralize the woman. However, he hesitated to move.

With his arms tied to his back, it was extremely unlikely that he might succeed where Kol’Xulbizar had just failed. Factoring in Blackthorn’s crazy reaction times and biotics, as well as the mech’s presence, the odds were definitely against the salarian. The brunette woman finally resolved Valrin’s uncertainty when she crouched to pick up the fallen pistol. She removed the thermal clip from the weapon, returned it to its collapsed form and then clipped it to her belt.

Valrin watched Blackthorn move to her now ex-business associate unconscious body and prod the batarian with the tip of her boot. That elicited a groan from Kol’Xulbizar, but no further reaction.

“See how you like a 0% share of the bounty, frigging batarian wanker”, she mocked before returning her dark brown eyes back onto Valrin.

“You know, I could have handled him without your help… But thanks for the heads-up anyway”, she told him. “So, out of curiosity. Why did you warn me?”

“He called me ‘lizard-man’. Twice. And I could not let that stand. Salarians evolved from amphibians, not reptiles”, Valrin said, hoping that the human’s translator was good enough to convey the irony behind his answer.

The salarian had remembered an old STG psyops report, alleging that a large portion of humans showed a positive response to the use of irony. Valrin hoped that Blackthorn was among that portion of her species, because at this moment striking up a friendly conversation with the woman seemed to be his best bet to coax her into freeing him.

“Besides, I reasoned that my chances of getting wherever you are headed in one piece were far better with you than with him,” he explained, pointing his chin to indicate the still unconscious batarian.

Blackthorn nodded in agreement. “You could say that. Kol’Xulbizar would have done literally what he said earlier. That idiot was willing to have the reward for your capture reduced merely to incapacitate you.”

The salarian nodded too, watching as the woman turned to her mech and instructed it. “By the way, I think it’s time to do some cleaning-up here. Haul him off the ship and then prep us for leaving Omega.”

The mech began to move towards Valrin, its arms outstretched, when an exasperated Blackthorn topped it. “What are you doing, Dasty? I didn’t mean the salarian. It’s Kol’Xulbizar’s ass that you have to get out of my ship.”

“Dasty?” the salarian asked while the mech spun around and, much to Valrin’s amusement, began to haul away the batarian bounty hunter holding him by the rear end.

“Yeah, my robotic assistant belongs to a poorly known line of mechs going by the fancy name of DASTAN, short for Dah’tan Advanced Self-Teaching AutomatoN. But I like to call it Dasty”, Blackthorn explained.

Actually, Valrin was familiar with the DASTAN project, albeit he had never seen one of its mechs until today. Development of the DASTAN mechs had been the last project of a now defunct company, Dah’tan Manufacturing. Originally a batarian manufacturer of computer components, Dah’tan went bankrupt back in 2165, after its headquarters and principal manufacturing plant were blown up, along with the company’s management and engineers, in what was regarded to have been a terrorist ploy.

A consortium of Systems Alliance investors had acquired Dah’tan’s surviving assets, making the Batarian Hegemony furious. Under the new management, Dah’tan focused solely on the DASTAN project, aimed to create a new line of mechs to rival the Hahne-Kedar-manufactured LOKI mech. The idea was to employ an advanced self-teaching algorithm, which would meant to allow DASTAN mechs to improve their basic programming by means of repeated practice and emulation. Dah’tan intended its mechs to be more flexible and intelligent than Hahne-Kedar’s and the company investors’ planned to sell DASTAN units at a competing price, in order to gain as fast as possible a considerable market share and recover their investments.

However, the project failed since Dah’tan’s engineers were unable to streamline the self-teaching algorithm and get rid of a number of bugs in the mech’s software. With the time to market increasing exponentially and no signs that money would be recovered in a reasonably short span of time, the investors withdrew their financial support and left Dah’tan without funds. The DASTAN project had been the single egg in Dah’tan’s basket and, with no money to continue development nor other projects in the pipeline, the company had to apply for bankruptcy once again.

STG records did not mention that Dah’tan ever manufactured any DASTAN unit beyond a few prototypes, so Valrin assumed Dasty had to be one of those prototypes. Compelled both by his species innate curiosity and a personal interest in such technological matters, the salarian considered asking Blackthorn how she had come to acquire Dasty, but the woman spoke up again, entirely changing topic.

“Look, salarian, I appreciate you helped me, but that does not change anything. You are still my prisoner and I intend to collect the bounty on your head”, she stated firmly. Still, she sounded slightly apologetic to Valrin.

So much for talking her into freeing me, the salarian thought sourly. “Care to at least tell me who placed that bounty on me?”

“Your guess is as good as mine. My contact didn’t really say, all I know is that they want you real bad considering the large reward to be paid to whoever brings you in”, the woman answered shrugging. “In other words, you must have pissed off someone with a lot of money and the right contacts.”

Valrin chewed over the information, but he did not have enough data to come up with a reasonable hypothesis of who might have placed the bounty. However, he had a suspicion the bounty had something to do with his team’s doomed mission in the Shrike Abyssal cluster. Things had started to go from bad to worse during that mission and it could be no coincidence, so he was willing to bet that whoever was behind the bounty was someone connected with the investigation assigned to his team.

“Anyway, you will soon find out. We are heading for the Styx Theta cluster to deliver you”, the bounty hunter noted. She made as if to leave, giving Valrin a warning, “I’ll be in the cockpit with Dasty. If you are in the mood to attempt an escape, I would appreciate it if you avoid any permanent injury to my person or serious damage to this ship and its equipment…”

She left the end of the sentence hanging in the air, exercising what seemed to be the universal prerogative of women to have the last word, and made as if to leave the cargo hold. Could that mean Blackthorn was willing to allow him to escape, provided he managed to figure out a non-violent way to do that? Considering there were at least three mass relay jumps ahead before reaching the Styx Theta cluster from the Omega Nebula, Valrin assumed there would be plenty of time for him to put together an acceptable escape plan.

“Oh, one last thing”, Blackthorn stopped halfway through the door. “Forget about hacking Dasty. I had a tech-savvy friend install counter-measures against that. It would take you more time than what you have to circumvent those security blocks.” She then disappeared through the door, leaving the salarian alone to ponder on the situation.