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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.

Chapter Text

Horse Head Nebula cluster, Pax system
Aboard Blackthorn’s ship

Blackthorn’s ship had already carried out two jumps since leaving Omega. By then, the salarian knew every detail of the cargo hold by memory, including the codes stamped on the supply crates stored in his makeshift prison. If the bounty hunter had picked the fastest route to her destination, that meant that shortly the ship would use the mass relay of the Horse Head Nebula for the final jump to the Styx Theta cluster.

Contrary to his own expectations, Valrin had entirely failed to come up with a decent escape plan. While it was possible that he would regret it later, the salarian had decided to postpone his escape until he had met whoever had placed the bounty on his head. It was not a matter of simple curiosity. Rather, his loyalty to STG and to his now dead teammates compelled the salarian to find out the person he assumed was responsible for the death of his squad and try to make sure he pay for that.

Unable to sleep more – salarians’ high-speed metabolism meant that one hour of sleep a day was all he needed –, Valrin began to think about the botched operation of which he was the sole survivor. It felt like ages ago when Major Kirrahe, the CO of Valrin’s company in the 3rd Infiltration Regiment, had issued the orders. The six-man squad Valrin was part of, led by Lieutenant Uvada, was to infiltrate a location in a star system of the Shrike Abyssal cluster.

Over the preceding weeks, STG had caught wind of a traffic of equipment and materials for use in genetic therapy and genetic engineering. They had been unable to determine the destination of the shipments, but a tip-off suggested a new shipment would soon be handled by the Blood Pack mercenaries. STG believed the shipment would be dispatched from a Blood Pack installation in the Zada Ban system and Valrin’s squad was ordered to quietly investigate the place, identify the nature of the shipment and collect any evidence on the shipment’s intended recipient and use.

The mission had gone off without a hitch until the squad had to call for extraction. They had determined that the shipment consisted of a large amount of a chlorine-based compound collected on the planet Tarith. Among other things, the compound was a raw material for the production of a mutagenic agent and records showed that the shipment’s destination was somewhere in the Shadow Sea cluster. On the other hand, the salarians found no records of the identity of the shipment’s recipient. Having acquired all the available information, the STG operators were ready to leave, but realized that their comms were blocked by extensive jamming.

The salarians split into two teams, each with a plan to carry out. Team 1, under Lieutenant Uvada, would attempt to disable the jamming that seemed to be originating from a nearby Blood Pack communications relay. Team 2, consisting of Corporal Bielko and specialists Delijo and Valrin would have to secure one of the shuttles at the mercs’ landing pad for use by the squad.

They did not know what really happened to Lieutenant Uvada’s Team 1. The members of Team 2 received only a garbled message that barely made it through the jamming. It was the agreed code word to signal that Team 1 was compromised and that the rest of the squad had to complete the mission on their own.

Team 2 did not have any substantially better luck. After infiltrating the landing pad, Corporal Bielko ordered Valrin to bypass security on one of the shuttles and prep it for take-off, while he and Delijo would keep the Blood Pack mercenaries busy. In the relatively short time it took to open the shuttle’s ramp and hack the controls, Delijo remained killed when he was forced to detonate a set of det charges before he could properly take cover. The explosion wiped out a stationary turret, two krogans, as well as several of their vorcha underlings. And the STG operator with them. With the help of Valrin’s covering fire, the Bielko had managed to retreat to the shuttle, but he had already taken a full burst of assault rifle fire through his armor when he finally climbed into the shuttle. By the time they had left the planet’s atmosphere, Bielko died from his wounds.

Maybe he was not thinking clearly, but having his whole squad killed led Valrin to believe their mission had been sabotaged by someone who tipped off the mercenaries. Acting on a whim, the salarian headed for the Omega Nebula, where he hoped to make contact with one of his former STG trainers, Jondum Bau, who had gone over to join the ranks of the Spectres. Bau had been reportedly seen on Omega not long before Valrin’s squad had left for the Shrike Abyssal cluster.

On Omega, Valrin did not manage to locate Bau nor collect any information of the Spectre’s whereabouts. When a first attempt to capture him was made by a small gang calling themselves “The Ones”, the salarian found out there was a bounty on his head and he rushed to leave Omega. After evading several ambushes, he was finally captured by Blackthorn and Kol’Xulbizar and that was how he found himself in his current predicament.

During the time he spent musing over these events, Dasty showed up once to have the salarian eat a pill of condensed nutrients. The mech had also brought a bottle of water with a straw, so that Valrin could drink with his arms tied. As for Blackthorn, she did not show up until after the ship had performed the final jump into the Styx Theta cluster.

When the bounty hunter entered the cargo hold, with Dasty in tow, she did not give any sign of surprise at finding the salarian was still there. She produced from a pocket a small device which, when activated, turned into a pair of solid holographic cuffs.

“Are handcuffs standard issue for you bounty hunters?” the salarian asked eyeing the woman suspiciously.

“Not really. I just bring these along for a… friend who hoped I had handcuffs to use with him”, she said impishly, twirling the holographic cuffs around her forefinger. “Next time I run into that smug playboy, I will not use these to his liking, but to arrest him and take him to an Alliance prison in chains.”

The irony behind Blackthorn’s acid comment was actually lost on the salarian. Back then, Valrin simply was not aware of Blackthorn’s past with the human pirate and mercenary Elliot Wolfe. Plus, there was one big difference between humans and salarians preventing him to put Blackthorn’s remark about handcuffs into the proper context.

Generally speaking, of the other three species sitting with the salarians on the Citadel Council, humans were the one that Valrin found easier to deal with. Humans and salarians seemed to share a similar concern over the length of their respective average lifespans. Also, they were both innately curious and had a penchant for intellectual challenges.

What really set the two species apart was what the salarians had come to regard as the humans’ “sexual obsession”. Salarians did not desire sex for pleasure, reproduction being more of a necessity for them. On the other hand, when viewed from the salarians’ perspective, sex seemed to permeate human culture, as well as their language and even their forms of art and entertainment. Valrin still remembered an odd conversation with a salarian friend running a game shop on the Citadel and specifically the shopkeeper expressing utter disbelief upon hearing how many humans had reportedly bought copies of certain asari-hanar porn games sold in Shin Akiba.

In the meantime, the bounty hunter had hauled the salarian to his feet and slapped the handcuffs on his wrists, all under Dasty’s watchful gaze. With the assistance of a short omni-blade, Blackthorn carefully cut the restraints that up to that point had kept Valrin immobilized. Much to the prisoner’s surprise, the restraints turned out to be made of simple rope covered with a layer of black plastic tape. If he ever made it back to STG’s headquarters, Valrin planned to suggest additional training for all operators to learn how to free oneself from technologically ancient forms of restraints.

Motioning for the salarian to follow her to the ship’s cockpit, Blackthorn asked “So, I assume you plan to stick around and see who is going to pay the bounty, right?”

“Whoever is behind this has caused the death of my whole squad and I need to find out who it is. But I promise not to escape and kill the responsible until you are paid, if that helps.”

“That is very gracious of you,” she replied with a hint of sarcasm. “In exchange for that courtesy, I’m inviting you to sit in the cockpit for the rest of the trip.”

The cockpit of Blackthorn’s ship turned out to be a very small compartment, with room for the controls, pilot and co-pilot seats and barely enough space for a third person to squeeze in behind the two seats. Provided that third person was not claustrophobic.

“Take the left seat, please”, the bounty hunter said, inviting Valrin to take the co-pilot’s position.

“Uh, is your mech going to stand there behind me?” the salarian wondered aloud. He wasn’t looking forward to having the mech figuratively breathing down his neck for the rest of the trip. Otherwise, sitting in the cockpit would not be an improvement compared to his conditions in the cargo hold.

“Nah, Dasty is going to stay hidden in the cargo hold and act as my failsafe, in case something goes wrong during the exchange. I have no idea who we are going to meet, so better they see only me and you in the cockpit.”

Having said that, Blackthorn took the pilot’s seat, her hands dancing over the holographic controls as she made some tiny adjustments to align the ship towards the Thanatos system. In the ensuing silence, Valrin examined the navigation instruments in the cockpit. It was not military-grade technology, but everything seemed top of the line. In particular, the radar was a salarian model, very accurate and very expensive. Apparently, business had to be going well for Blackthorn, if she could fit her ship with the best technology available to civilians.

The woman broke the prolonged silence with a question for her prisoner, “So, care to tell me your name?”

Valrin was actually taken aback by the unexpected request. His STG training took over and he answered almost automatically, “Under the Mannovai Protocol I’m not under any obligation to tell you my name, rank or serial number.”

“The Mannovai Protocol? So you are salarian military, eh?” Blackthorn noted with a hint of surprise that Valrin felt to be genuine. “Suit yourself. If you do not want to share your name, I’ll just stick to using your bounty number, Mr. Case no. 228B22.”

Conforming to a rigid application of the salarian military protocol did not seem helpful in the present circumstances, so Valrin relented, in an effort to befriend the bounty hunter.

“I just said the Protocol states I’m not obliged to tell my name, not that I can’t tell entirely”, he said, unbending a little. “My name is Tolaen Valrin. You can call me by my clan name, Tolaen, but I’m more used to people – friends and enemies alike – call me by my given name, Valrin.”

“Fine, it is Valrin then”, Blackthorn decided, her eyes back to the navigation board.

A chirping sound from the pilot’s console alerted the woman that the ship had finally entered the Thanatos system. She tapped a rounded hologram on her left, placing the ship en route to the in-system coordinates she had been provided with by her contact.

“You know, I figured that my name would be the bounty notice”, Valrin noted. The human seemed to know awfully little of the person she had been looking for if the bounty notice did not report neither Valrin’s name, nor its affiliation with the salarian military.

“Yeah, it was a bit strange, but the notice included only a grainy still, a description of your shuttle, your presumed whereabouts and the amount of credits to be paid upon your delivery, alive and unharmed”, Blackthorn explained pulling up the relevant file for the salarian to see.

Valrin shook his head in disbelief. The image had been taken during the fight at the Blood Pack’s landing pad. That and the fact the description of the shuttle could be known only to the Blood Pack mercenaries confirmed the salarian’s suspicion that whoever was behind the bounty was in all likelihood connected to the traffic of genetic engineering technology his squad had been investigating.

Meanwhile, they got in the proximity of the rendezvous coordinates, which turned out to be a location in orbit around the outermost moon of the system’s only gas giant planet. Blackthorn parked her ship in geosynchronous orbit around the satellite and looked at the radar screen for a telltale signal of a possible ship in the area, but she did not find any.

Seeing, it would be a matter of playing a waiting game until someone showed up, Valrin killed some time checking the codex entry for the Thanatos system. Blackthorn had pulled up the information upon entering the system and the data in the ship’s computer confirmed the salarian’s suspicion: the Thanatos system was essentially barren and devoid of noteworthy resources. The system’s gas giant planet could be a source of helium-3, but the lack of any other useful resource coupled with Thanatos’ remoteness so far had deterred all mining companies from setting up helium-3 facilities. Seen from another perspective, that also meant Thanatos was the perfect out of the way planetary system to have meetings without anyone snooping around by chance.

Waiting quickly annoyed Valrin, so much that if nothing happened soon, he was ready to risk asking Blackthorn to let him log into his “Galaxy Of Fantasy” account from her ship’s computer. It was too long since he had last played the game and completing some of the secondary quests he had left behind so far would be perfect to pass the time.

Before the salarian could test Blackthorn’s patience, the radar screen suddenly beeped and came alive with a target. Blackthorn was already feeding more power into the system, trying to get a better read on the signal.

“Boy, that’s far bigger than I expected”, she said upon checking the readouts. “Cruiser-weight, on an intercept course for our position. They must have been hiding behind the moon…”

While the woman’s voice did not betray concern to Valrin’s ears, the salarian on the other hand was suspicious of the unknown vessel’s sudden appearance. Why didn’t they hail Blackthorn while her ship was approaching the rendezvous coordinates? Also, what reason did they have to stay hidden and keep the bounty hunter waiting until now? He really had a bad feeling about this situation.

“Can we outrun that thing?” the salarian asked, even if he knew the answer in advance.

“No way. They will be onto us before we can build up a substantial acceleration vector”, Blackthorn told him. “Besides, no reason to be jittery and turn tail when it might be my client aboard that vessel”.

She activated the ships external cameras, feeding their output on one of the cockpit’s screens. Valrin watched the unknown ship growing larger on the display, until he could pick up some of its details. The vessel was of human design, similar to those serving with the Systems Alliance Navy. The salarian could not see any markings identifying that particular ship as part of the Alliance, but there was a significant number of weapon mounts along its hull. Regardless of who was in command of that vessel, it was clearly meant as a ship of war rather than a merchant ship.

“Unidentified vessel, this is Gemma Blackthorn reporting to the agreed coordinates for delivery of a prisoner under bounty contract no. 228B22”, the woman spoke into an open comm channel. “If anyone is listening, please answer this hail on channel 16, over.”

Shifting uneasily in the co-pilot seat, Valrin heard the speakers installed in the cockpit of Blackthorn’s ship crackle to life. Someone on the unknown ship was answering the bounty hunter’s hail.

“Blackthorn, this is MSV Strive for Perfection. We read you loud and clear”, a disembodied voice said, sounding hollow over the speakers. “Stand still for docking maneuver and prepare for transfer of the prisoner. Strive for Perfection over and out.”

The comm channel went dead and Blackthorn got up from her seat to prepare for docking her ship to the larger vessel. It took a short amount of time for both her and Valrin to realize they were not about to perform a conventional docking maneuver. On the screen, they could see Strive for Perfection, still moving at considerable speed towards Blackthorn’s ship, open massive clamshell doors to reveal its fore shuttle bay. The salarian hoped that whoever was piloting that capital ship knew what they were doing. Otherwise, Blackthorn’s ship and everyone aboard it would turn into a fireball against the larger ship’s prow if the alignment between the two vessels was not perfect.

At last, Valrin’s worries dissipated when Strive for Perfection got close to the bounty hunter’s ship at a proper angle and then used a tractor beam to swallow the smaller ship into its belly and gently settle it down onto the deck of the shuttle bay. No sooner had the clamshell doors closed than a trio of armed men in armor entered the compartment, heading for Blackthorn’s ship.

“All right, let’s go welcome our hosts”, Blackthorn said, motioning the salarian to the airlock.

Upon closer inspection, the group of armed figures meeting them certainly did not look to Valrin to be part of the Alliance. With their black armor devoid of any insignia and mismatched weaponry, they looked like members of a mercenary unit rather than part of a regular army. They did not lose any time making introductions and with a few curt words they simply instructed Blackthorn to follow them somewhere deeper into the ship.

For his part, Valrin took advantage of the small walk from Blackthorn’s ship to an elevator at one side of the shuttle bay to look around. The bay was mostly empty, save for a few stacks of neatly arranged equipment scattered around and two unmarked Kodiak shuttles. Valrin also noticed what looked like a Mantis gunship parked in a corner. That one also bore no recognizable insignia. Everything looked so new that it would not be surprising if it turned out that Strive for Perfection had been launched a mere few days earlier. This led the salarian to conjecture that the cruiser wasn’t simply a decommissioned Alliance warship sold off to and then refurbished by a private. However, the question of who had the considerable amount of money required to build a cruiser-weight ship anew was one that Valrin felt he could not answer at that time.

The elevator ride was relatively short and dropped Valrin, Blackthorn and their three escorts on an immaculately clean deck of the ship, distinctly smelling of some kind of disinfectant. The escorts prodded him to move along, guiding the bounty hunter and her prisoner through the corridors until they finally came across another group of humans who had been, until then, waiting for them.

There were three more armored soldiers in this new group, seemingly part of the same outfit to which belonged those who had met Valrin and Blackthorn in the shuttle bay. A fourth man stood out among them, for he wore an expensive-looking business suit and carried no obvious weapons. He was light-skinned, with short-cropped black hair and piercing blue-gray eyes. The escorts had Valrin and Blackthorn stop a few paces from the quartet and then went to join their companions.

After examining the newcomers for a couple of seconds, the man wearing the business suit greeted Blackthorn.

“Miss Blackthorn, a pleasure to finally meet you in person”, he said, his voice sounding affected to Valrin.

“I might say the pleasure was reciprocal, but unfortunately I don’t know who I’m supposed to be talking to”, the bounty hunter retorted, without bothering to hide her dissatisfaction at how she had been treated so far.

The man’s lips parted in a half-crooked smile and he hastened to answer. “Of course, where are my manners? I’m Henry Lawson and I welcome you aboard the pride of my fleet, Strive for Perfection.”

“I sincerely apologize for the brusque reception, but Chief Dodgson here is in charge of my security and he insisted that his people escort you all the way to this meeting”, and he indicated the black-skinned man in armor closest to him as he said that.

The name Henry Lawson did not ring a bell with Valrin. No person with that name was mentioned in the STG reports concerning the trafficking of genetic engineering technology that his squad had been investigating. As for Blackthorn, she did not give away any sign that she had recognized or not Lawson’s name.

“Very well, Mr. Lawson. Your apologies are accepted”, Blackthorn told the blue-eyed man.

“Now that that is sorted out, I suppose we can get down to business Miss Blackthorn, shall we?” Lawson suggested.

The bounty hunter was more than willing to move on with their business. “Sure. This is the salarian who was wanted under contract no. 228B22. I’m ready to release him into your custody, once I receive payment of the bounty awarded for his capture.”

“I’m afraid that things are not as simple as you may think”, Lawson began. “You see, we need to ensure this is actually the very same salarian we have been looking for, so I’m not in a position to pay you the reward until we are certain that you did not capture the wrong individual.”

It was not the first time Blackthorn heard something like that from those who had to pay her a bounty. She was about to suggest an arrangement whereby she would receive a 50% advance payment and the rest of the money once Lawson was satisfied she had captured the right salarian, when Chief Dodgson activated his omni-tool and signaled his subordinates to point their weapons against the bounty hunter.

The woman’s biotic powers flared up, enveloping her in bluish glow. “This is a very unwise move on your part, Mr. Lawson”, she said, the slight stress on the word “very” the most evident sign of what Valrin sensed was a tightly reined in anger.

Surprisingly, Lawson was utterly unfazed by the woman’s display of power. “Now, Miss Blackthorn don’t you think I would take some small precaution before meeting you?”

Those words were a command for Lawson’s security chief to activate a control on his omni-tool. At first, Valrin thought that nothing had happened. Then, Blackthorn swore sulfurously, her British accent making the oath sound even more obscene, and the salarian realized that Dodgson had somehow managed to shut off the woman’s biotics.

The bounty hunter relaxed her fighting stance in a gesture of surrender, but her gaze remained threatening. If she ever managed to get her biotics to work again, Valrin doubted there would be much left of Lawson for the salarian to extract any useful information to assist the STG investigation.

The situation under his control, Lawson seemed to take a perverse pleasure in explaining what had just happened to Blackthorn’s biotics. “You see, my scientists have come up with a biotic dampener. It’s based on the technology of the standard tech mine used by tech specialists of all races to temporary disrupt a biotic field around a target, with the exception that my dampener can affect a larger area and its effect lasts as its emitter is active.”

“So, what are your intentions?” Blackthorn asked, seeing that Lawson had, at least for the moment, the upper hand.

The blue-eyed man did not answer her directly and rather spoke to his head of security. “Chief Dodgson, please have the salarian brought to the interrogation room for questioning. Also, kindly ensure that Miss Blackthorn finds her way to Dr. Wenwen’s laboratory. I’m sure the doctor will be delighted to have a test subject with her biotic talent to practice the surgical procedure for the installation of the Phantom implants.”

Lawson’s unpleasant laugh echoed in the corridor. And this time both Valrin and Blackthorn had a bad feeling about the situation they had just stumbled into.

Chapter Text

Styx Theta cluster, Thanatos system
Aboard Lawson’s cruiser
MSV
Strive for Perfection

Dodgson assigned two of his subordinates to fetch Valrin to the interrogation room with orders to stand guard while the interrogator did his job. Before the two soldiers unceremoniously grabbed the salarian, Blackthorn, unnoticed, managed to slip something into the palm of one of Valrin’s still cuffed hands.

Valrin allowed himself to be taken away by the two soldiers. One of them, a man, had a nasty-looking scar on the right side of his face and kept a Carnifex heavy pistol at the ready. Valrin briefly wondered why “Scar Man” hadn’t the scar surgically removed. Last he heard, only krogans loved to show their hard won scars. The salarian’s second escort was female, a hatchet-faced woman with a buzz cut, who – contrary to her comrade – kept her weapon holstered. “Buzz Cut” led the way through the ship’s corridors nonchalantly while Scar Man kept shoving the salarian to keep him moving.

On the way to the interrogation room, Valrin racked his brains to figure out what was the object that Blackthorn gave him. It was difficult to tell because of his armor’s gauntlets, but apparently it was a small device of some kind with rounded edges and what felt like a single large button at its center.

The salarian had a hunch what the device could be. If he was right, then he would no longer hold a grudge against Blackthorn for capturing him on Omega.

True enough, the woman’s greed for money that had put both of them in the present dangerous situation, but the salarian was beginning to like her. After all, she had done her bounty hunter work in a professional manner, she hadn’t mistreated him as a prisoner and now it looked as if she was trying to make things right, once it turned out her client was a treacherous backstabber.

With one final shove, Scar Man pushed Valrin through a door and into the interrogation room. Buzz Cut entered last, closing the door behind them and taking position to stand guard. The room was sparsely furnished and the salarian’s eyes immediately focused on the unmistakable looks of a torture chair. It was clearly meant for humanoids and came equipped with sturdy-looking restraints meant to immobilize the arms, legs and neck of whoever was unfortunate enough to sit there. A human male in a lab coat, in all likelihood the interrogator, stood next the room’s single desk, busy charging a hypodermic injector.

“Have the subject seated, please”, the interrogator said to the two soldiers, barely looking up from what he was doing.

Scar Man holstered his weapon and brought Valrin towards the torture chair, giving the salarian the chance to notice a tray attached to one of the chair’s arms. There was a number of tools neatly arranged on the tray and Valrin involuntarily shuddered at the realization those were meant to assist the interrogator in extracting information from him. STG operators were trained to resist torture, but there was only a certain amount of suffering anyone could endure before finally breaking. As a result, Valrin well knew that, if he allowed himself to be immobilized on the chair, he was as good as dead.

It was now or never, so the salarian decided to play his cards and to attempt to escape. He began to sit on the chair while Scar Man leant over preparing to fasten the chair’s leg restraints. However, before he could immobilize the salarian’s legs, Valrin lashed out at the human with a kick.

The soldier was only shortly dazed, but that was enough for Valrin to hit the button on Blackthorn’s device, shutting off the solid holographic handcuffs at his wrists. His hands free, Valrin grabbed a tool from the tray, a set of pincers, and rammed it up Scar Man’s exposed throat with all the force he had. The kinetic shields on the human’s armor were meant to deflect high-speed rounds and thus did not oppose resistance against the salarian’s stabbing attack.

The human went wild eyed, hands to his throat in an attempt to staunch the blood gushing out from the wound, but it was too late. Scar Man collapsed to the ground lifeless.

Buzz Cut was slow to react, stunned by the salarian’s sudden and brutal attack. Later, when thinking again about that very moment, Valrin thanked once more his species apparently harmless looks. Had he been a turian or a batarian, the woman might have been more cautious. Instead, she had misjudged how dangerous a salarian, just like any other species, could really be when cornered.

Valrin took advantage of Buzz Cut’s hesitation to throw himself to the ground and take cover using Scar Man’s bulky corpse as a shield. The woman finally drew her gun and fired off a panicky SMG burst. Valrin felt the bullets impact against Scar Man’s shields, a single round grazing the salarian’s armor on the right arm, while he frantically fumbled with the dead man’s hip holster to release his Carnifex pistol.

A second burst of SMG fire expended Scar Man’s shields, but Valrin finally managed to retrieve the human’s pistol. Aiming the weapon at Buzz Cut’s center of mass, the salarian fired off as many shots as he could in the shortest possible time. The powerful pistol rounds overloaded Buzz Cut’s shields, the last two bullets penetrating through the composite armor plates and ripping a large hole in the woman’s chest.

Rolling out from below Scar Man’s body, the salarian went to check Buzz Cut’s status. She was dead too. Valrin paused to retrieve the woman’s spare thermal clips and added her SMG to his arsenal for good measure. He then plucked the capacitor from Buzz Cut’s armor and inserted it into the slot on his own armor. The salarian’s capacitor had run out of power back on Omega, leaving him without shields, so he was glad to have the chance to get them back up.

A sound from a corner of the room reminded Valrin that he had to deal with his would-be interrogator. The man had hidden behind his desk as soon as the former prisoner attacked Scar Man and he was still there, cowering in fear.

“Get up”, Valrin ordered him bluntly, pointing the Carnifex in the man’s general direction. The thermal clip had been entirely expended taking down Buzz Cut, but the interrogator could not know that.

The human slowly emerged from his cover, holding up both hands. Valrin picked up Blackthorn’s holographic handcuffs from the torture chair and slapped them on the interrogators wrists. He also removed the man’s omni-tool and put it on his own wrist.

“Take me to Dr. Wenwen’s lab”, Valrin told him. He had to rescue Blackthorn because objectively she was his best option to leave Strive for Perfection. Also, on second thought, he felt like he owed her for assisting his escape.

“I… I… wo-won’t take you… you there…”, the man stammered.

All it took Valrin to have the interrogator change his mind was placing the Carnifex’ muzzle at the man’s forehead, right between the eyes. “If you don’t, I have no use for you.”

“Nooooo! P-please do-don’t shoot! I’ll do anything!” the interrogator, wide-eyed, shouted.

“Fine, I knew you’d see the benefits of complying with my request. Now, open that door and remember: one suspicious move and you end up with a hole in your back like your friend there.”

The man cast a nervous glance at Buzz Cut’s corpse and then shakily went to the door, his back to the salarian, Valrin took the chance to replace the expended thermal clip in the Carnifex with a fresh one. As he passed Scar Man’s body on his way out the interrogation room, Valrin noticed a flashbang grenade dangling from the fallen man’s belt. He snatched up the explosive device, aware that it might come in handy.

Once out of the interrogation room, the salarian followed the interrogator through the ship’s corridors. From what he had seen ever since getting aboard, Lawson’s ship seemed to carry a small crew, which meant there was a fair chance they would not run into anyone before reaching Dr. Wenwen’s lab.

Valrin’s luck seemed to be holding out pretty well, until he spotted Dodgson and one of the soldiers that had been with the security chief during the meeting with Lawson. The salarian swiftly took cover behind a corner, holding the interrogator at gunpoint, and let the two humans walk past. They entered the elevator, oblivious to the fact Valrin was hiding not far away. When the road was clear again, the salarian signaled the interrogator to move and shortly thereafter he reached a door with a sign reading “Genetic engineering lab”.

“That door will take you to an observation room overlooking Dr. Wenwen’s lab”, the interrogator said. His voice no longer stuttered, but the human was still very much scared.

Shoving the man inside, Valrin checked the observation room and found it empty. There were two rows of seats facing a large observation window on the left. Directly opposite the entrance was another door and the salarian correctly assumed it led to the below room that was visible through the window.

Taking a cautious look through the window, Valrin saw the below room was a lab. Inside, there were three people in surgical scrubs as well as two of Dodgson’s soldiers standing guard. Various medical devices and machinery were scattered throughout the lab and right in its center was an operating table with a patient strapped down to it. It was Blackthorn, wearing a hospital gown in place of her black and red outfit.

The two guards stood at the far side of the lab opposite the entrance, not far from a second door. They were armed, but neither had his weapon at the ready. One of the medical staff was next to the operating table, fiddling with a machinery. The other two members of the medical staff were looking at data displayed on wall-mounted screens to the right of the entrance.

The salarian turned back to the interrogator and gave him a direct order with a menacing look. “Sit in the corner over there and stay out of sight. I’ll be back in a couple of minutes.”

A winding staircase led from the observation room to the lab below. Valrin quietly descended the steps and stopped next to the lab’s closed door. He had to find a way to even the odds and take out the guards fast. The fact that Blackthorn hadn’t already torn the place to pieces with her biotics suggested that she was still within range of Lawson’s biotic dampener. As such, starting a firefight meant that the bounty hunter might be hit by a stray bullet.

Valrin activated his borrowed omni-tool and checked what functions had been installed onto the device. It was customized for medical use, so most of its functions were useless in a combat situation, maybe with the exception of neural shock. Fortunately, Valrin had taken the habit of keeping a backup of his personal omni-tool programming on a chip.

Producing a small cartridge from the belt compartment of his armor, the STG operator reconfigured the omni-tool to use his incinerate, energy drain and decoy tech talents. It was unfortunate he lacked the holoprojector module required to use the decoy, so Valrin decided to pull out the flashbang grenade he had recovered earlier from Scar Man and then tapped the door’s controls. While the door began to open noiselessly, he pulled the pin from the flashbang grenade.

One…

Trying not to expose himself, the salarian leaned to drop the grenade on the lab’s floor and sent the device rolling towards the guards.

Two…

Several of the lab’s occupants looked in the general direction of the unfamiliar sound caused by the rolling grenade.

Three…

The explosive device clattered against one of the lab’s machinery coming to a halt. The medical staff member closer to Blackthorn bent to take a closer look.

Four…

The guards tried to shout a warning, but it was too late by then.

Five…

The flashbang exploded and filled the lab with a blinding flash of light and searing noise, stunning the occupants and playing hell with the delicate electronics of any unshielded device in the grenade’s range.

Valrin burst into the room brandishing the Carnifex in his right hand and the activated omni-tool on his outstretched left arm. His targets were the two guards and he cut them down with merciless efficiency, using his shield drain tech power and some well-placed shots from the pistol. Assuming the medical staff was no immediate threat, Valrin rushed to assist the bounty hunter.

As soon as he was close to the operating table, the salarian realized the woman had managed to keep her eyes closed when the flashbang went off. She had managed to avoid the momentary blindness caused by the flashbang, but not its noise and the resulting effects on the nervous system.

“You son of…”, Blackthorn croaked, her pretty face distorted by pain.

“Apologies. Flashbang was the safer option to avoid a firefight”, Valrin explained, looking for a button, a control or whatever else unlocked Blackthorn’s restraints.

“Ow, I’ll have this headache for days”, the woman complained. “And my control of biotics won’t be as accurate for a while.”

The salarian finally found on a side of the operating table a recessed panel with several buttons when Blackthorn shouted a warning.

“Behind you!”

By some miracle, the medical staff member that had been closer to the operating table was already on his feet, holding a surgical scalpel in one hand. He jumped the salarian and Valrin managed to sidestep barely in time to avoid getting the attacker’s sharp surgical instrument planted in one of his large black salarian eyes.

The man kept swinging vicious blows with the scalpel, forcing Valrin to backpedal to dodge the attacks. There was no time to draw a weapon and the omni-tool was not equipped with an omni-blade. That left the STG operator with few options.

When the human lunged forward once again, Valrin sidestepped and then hit his opponent in the belly with his right knee. The blow connected, staggering the man, and the salarian followed up with a smashing blow at the face delivered with his palm open. The force of the attack was sufficient to break the attacker’s nose and there was a sickening noise as the man’s fractured nasal bone flew up his brain, instantly killing him.

Catching his breath, Valrin resumed his earlier attempt to free the bounty hunter.

“Valrin, shut off that rotten biotic dampener, will you?” Blackthorn pleaded.

The salarian followed the human’s gaze to see an emitter placed above the operating table. He took aim with his weapon and fired, turning off the device for good. Looking as the dampener produced a shower of sparks, Valrin felt a pang of regret he had been forced to destroy that unique device without the chance to study its functioning.

Back to the operating table, he pressed the button releasing Blackthorn’s restraints. The woman’s biotic powers, no longer held in check by the dampening field, flared back to life. She drew herself to a sitting position, massaging her wrists and ankles, all the while eyeing the two survivors of the medical staff that were starting to recover from the effects of the flashbang grenade.

Mouth agape, Valrin watched Blackthorn’s figure lift off the operating table, the woman using her biotics to float gracefully towards the two survivors of the medical stuff with her long brunette hair swaying in the biotic field surrounding her body.

The salarian wondered if humans had ever worshipped a goddess of vengeance, because if they did she must have looked just as darkly magnificent and menacing as Blackthorn appeared right now.

One of the two men tried to swing a clumsy punch at Blackthorn the moment the bounty hunter made a soft landing to his side. She simply used a biotic pull to stop the attack and then threw the man to the opposite side of the lab without even batting an eye. The impact against the wall was so hard that the man did not raise again. Judging by the force of the blow, it was well possible he had broken his neck on impact.

“So, tell me doctor, are my biotics up to your liking?” Blackthorn asked to the last survivor of the medical staff. Valrin assumed the man was Dr. Wenwen and watched puzzled as the doctor’s face began to turn livid. It took just a second to figure out that the bounty hunter had put the man in a chokehold using biotics.

“Blackthorn, maybe you should drop him…”, Valrin suggested cautiously, not wanting to anger the woman further, but concerned her ordeal might have left her too shell-shocked to think with clarity.

“No, he deserves this… For all his sick experiments…”, she answered through gritted teeth. Blackthorn held the man in her stranglehold for a few more seconds, but eventually released him. The doctor dropped to the ground on all fours, wheezing sharply as he struggled to inhale.

Blackthorn watched the salarian through narrowed eyes. “He has been experimenting on unwilling subjects and I was about to become one of those, so don’t tell me I have to let this guy live longer than he deserves.”

Valrin trusted that the woman was still in her right mind, albeit angry. Admittedly, he wasn’t concerned about the doctor’s fate, but the man clearly saw things differently and chose that moment to play his trump card.

“You will need me… pant... If you want… pant… To leave the ship… pant…”, Dr. Wenwen said quavering, his breathing still ragged.

“We will need more than that to keep you alive doctor, because I already have someone to guide us through the ship”, Valrin interjected, looking at the observation room where he had left his would-be interrogator.

“What are you talking about?” Blackthorn asked puzzled. There was no one in the observation room.

“Uh-oh, looks my interrogator friend took the chance and bolted”, the salarian admitted with a touch of disappointment.

“We need to get out of here fast. Dodgson’s men will be here any minute and without my equipment and my biotics still shaky I will not be able to hold them at bay”, Blackthorn said.

As far as the salarian could tell, the woman’s biotics looked anything but shaky, considering the impressive control she had demonstrated so far. Still, she had a point about leaving the lab as soon as possible and Valrin had to trust her word that she was not feeling in top shape.

“I swear to help you, if you let me live”, Dr. Wenwen pleaded, his voice no longer quavering, probably feeling emboldened by the realization that Valrin and Blackthorn really needed him to escape. “As a gesture of goodwill, you will find your clothes and equipment in that crate behind the ECG station”, he offered in an attempt to win over the bounty hunter’s trust.

Blackthorn floated to inspect the crate and was satisfied to find all her belongings were there, as Dr. Wenwen had told her.

“Will you please turn those big salarian’s eyes somewhere else while I dress?” the bounty hunter asked half-seriously to Valrin.

Feeling slightly embarrassed for a member of a species that had no concept of sexual attraction, or the biological impulses and social rituals attached complicating other species’ lives, Valrin turned away to question Dr. Wenwen.

“Is there another route from this lab to the shuttle bay that does not require use of the main elevator?” he inquired. Odds were Dodgson would have his men waiting for Valrin and Blackthorn at the main elevator.

Dr. Wenwen pointed to the second door in the lab, the one opposite the entrance used by Valrin shortly before. He explained that the door would take them to the specimens’ containment area. While the doctor didn’t elaborate on the nature of those specimens, he noted that their characteristics had required installation of a service elevator to carry them directly to and or from the shuttle bay, without the need to take the same route used by the crew.

“Take us to that service elevator and I will let you live”, Blackthorn briskly told the doctor upon coming back to join Valrin. The salarian noticed that the woman had scrambled back into her usual black and red outfit and she was tapping several commands on her omni-tool.

“Just sending some instructions to Dasty for when we get to the shuttle bay”, the bounty hunter explained.

A movement in the observation room overlooking the lab caught Valrin’s attention. Dodgson’s men were pouring into the small room, the security chief himself in tow.

“Time’s up”, the salarian warned and dashed to the door connecting the lab with the staircase to the observation room. His own omni-tool materializing, Valrin performed a quick hack of the door’s controls, making sure their pursuers would have to lose precious minutes to open the door either by counter-hacking the controls or blasting the door.

Dr. Wenwen went to the door leading to the containment area and typed a code on that door’s holographic controls. As soon as the door was open, they moved into the adjoining space and Valrin performed another hack to make sure that that door remained locked too.

The containment area consisted of long corridor with holding cells on both sides. Valrin thought it odd that there were no guards posted to keep the denizens of those cells under control. The service elevator was directly opposite the access door, as inviting as any other escape route the salarian had ever seen.

Walking down the corridor, Blackthorn peered inside the holding cells’ windows. The first few cells consisted of single rooms and were occupied by human beings of both genders. The prisoners were sprawled on their cells’ floor and did not react at the presence of the newcomers. The bounty hunter had to fight off a wave of revulsion when she noticed the prisoner’s eyes were rolled back, showing only a blank white stare, and the odd, bluish-glowing veins on their heads, radiating off from recently healed surgical incisions.

“Unfortunately, some of our… uh, patients… suffered from unexpected complications. They became dangerous and we were forced to put them into containment”, Dr. Wenwen said, answering Blackthorn’s unspoken question as if he was a tour guide explaining the local attractions to some visitors.

The woman, her disgust for the doctor reaching a new level, resumed walking in an attempt to leave behind herself both those poor souls in the cells and the monster of a human who was responsible for their conditions. She wished someone had offered a bounty for bringing in Dr. Wenwen. Dead. That was one contract she would be happy to sign up even for free.

The next block of cells on both sides consisted of a large containment room allowing free movement to its occupants. However, when Valrin and Blackthorn looked inside, nothing moved. There were some dozens humanoid creatures there, all motionless and all turned in the same direction as if they were watching or hearing something only they could perceive. The moment Blackthorn moved closer, the creatures suddenly sprang into motion and she could see glowing blue eyes and cybernetic implants pulsating beneath an outer layer of a sickly, metallic-looking skin. She instinctively retreated as the creatures began to mass next to the door, their claws scratching against it as if they could cut a way through and reach the two humans and the salarian watching them.

Valrin had seen holo-stills of exactly the same creatures in the STG archives. Those images had been taken on the Citadel, after the space station had been attacked by the rogue Spectre Saren Arterius and an army of synthetics, as well as on the human colony world of Eden Prime following an earlier geth raid. STG analysts speculated that those creatures were the product of geth technology turning organic creatures into machines.

“Husks”, Dr. Wenwen noted. “This is the last stage of the Reaper indoctrination process.”

“The Reapers? I thought they were a myth”, Valrin commented, his eyes wide open in surprise.

“I don’t care whether the Reapers or the whole damn Blood Moon Sabbath is behind this”, Blackthorn burst out. “Let’s stop sightseeing and get to that elevator. This whole place is making me sick and the sooner we leave, the better.”

The salarian could only nod in agreement. If Dodgson and his men managed to catch up, knowing whether husks were a product of the legendary Reapers, the geth or the doctor’s experiments would do them no good

They had taken just a few steps past the doors to the husks’ cells when the holographic displays next to the cells flashed green and all doors slid open. Dr. Wenwen’s face turned deathly pale and he shoved Valrin aside, running back to the door leading to his lab.

The doctor tried to open the door, forgetting or unaware that Valrin had locked it for good. Desperate, he began to pound the door with his bare fists, screaming.

“Blasted door! Why won’t you open? Dodgson? Can you hear me, Dodgson? This is Wenwen! For God’s sake, get me out before those creatures get out of their cells!”

If Lawson’s security chief was there and heard the doctor’s desperate pleas, he did not seem to care much to do something. The husks began to pour out from their cells with frenzied, zombie-like movements, their claws ready to tear into Valrin and his companions.

Visible waves of biotic energy lashed towards the oncoming tide of husks as Blackthorn made precise motions with her hands, throwing the creatures away. Valrin pulled up his borrowed SMG and opened fire as well. When the shots pierced through the husks, a vile, green fluid spewed out from the wounds, littering the immaculately clean corridor.

Somehow the husks realized their attack was ineffective and changed strategy. They began to climb onto the walls and ceiling, creating multiple fronts to weaken Valrin and Blackthorn’s concentrated fire. Valrin kept shooting, alternating between bursts from the SMG and incinerate or neural shock attacks using his omni-tool. Blackthorn’s forehead was glistening with sweat as she concentrated to direct biotic shockwaves against the horrific creatures.

The husks’ attacks finally began to dwindle when they were a couple of meters away from the salarian and the bounty hunter. Valrin spat another burst of fire from his SMG, emptying the thermal clip. He began to rise his omni-tool to deliver a tech attack when he felt something tackling him from behind. Out of the corner of his eye, the salarian realized that one of the experimented humans had wandered out of his cell and got a hold onto his armor. Two husks immediately seized the opportunity to leap towards the salarian in trouble and took him down to the ground.

Valrin kicked hard and managed to get free of one husk, but the other creature had managed to pin him down and prepared to slash at the salarian’s exposed head with its claws. He closed his eyes, preparing for the inevitable, but nothing happened because the husk was swept away by one of Blackthorn’s biotic shockwaves.

Valrin got back up, shoving aside the experimented human now pinned under him, and then aimed his omni-tool. He could feel a silent plea coming from that victim of Dr. Wenwen’s experiments, begging for release from the nightmare that life had become. The salarian nodded and unleashed his incinerate attack, the searing plasma projectile consuming the poor soul. He immediately turned back to support Blackthorn to see that the husks were no longer attacking. The floor was literally carpeted with the fast-decomposing remains of the fallen husks and only a handful of the creatures was still standing, their resolve to attack seemingly evaporated.

A repeated booming noise started to echo throughout the containment area, its source one of the furthest cells. If Valrin had to guess, something very large was trying to force its way out of the cell, forcibly widening a passage too small for it to pass through.

“The scion!” Dr. Wenwen’s alarmed shout came from behind Valrin and Blackthorn.

As if summoned, a giant behemoth of a thing emerged from its cell after ripping away the doorframe. Valrin caught sight of a contorted body, seemingly consisting of several husks fused together. It pointed its swelled left arm in their direction, the crackle of energy showing that the limb was actually a weapon. Valrin jumped to his right knocking Blackthorn off her feet and out of the scion’s line of fire. Three bolts of energy flashed across the corridor and above their heads while Valrin and Blackthorn rolled to safety in one of the now empty cells.

Peering outside the cell, the salarian noticed that the scion’s attack had not entirely missed. The unrecognizable remains of Dr. Wenwen lay scattered at the base of the door he had so desperately tried to open. Later, Blackthorn would have thought that the doctor had got exactly what he deserved for his hideous experiments, but at that moment the bounty hunter did not have the luxury of thinking beyond the need to stop the scion. She cast a biotic barrier around herself and walked out of the cell, launching a warp attack against the creature. The scion withstood the attack and returned fire with its weapon.

The energy blasts dissipated harmlessly against Blackthorn’s barrier, but much to her surprise the protective field collapsed under the scion’s onslaught, forcing the woman to take cover inside another of the cells at once.

The scion charged forward, blowing away the last few surviving husks that were laying on its path. Blackthorn and Valrin opened fire on the creature with a combination of biotics, tech powers and weapons fire, managing to slow down the behemoth. The scion seemed to be able to withstand an impressive amount of damage without dying and, slowly, still kept advancing.

“Valrin, when I give you the word, launch another incinerate attack!” Blackthorn ordered to her companion.

The salarian nodded and watched her concentrate, as if preparing for a difficult biotic attack. The scion kept plodding onward, totally unfazed by the bullets from Valrin’s SMG pinging off its armored hide.

“Fire now!”

When the bounty hunter gave the signal, Valrin unleashed his incinerate attack. A second later Blackthorn emerged from cover with arms outstretched and her open palms aimed at the lumbering creature. A biotic sphere appeared around the scion and then began to gradually shrink as Blackthorn rhythmically clenched and unclenched her fists, tightening the sphere around the monster and compressing the air inside the bubble in the process. The increased pressure acted as a booster for Valrin’s incinerate attack and the creature finally collapsed, consumed by the fire.

Blackthorn sagged against the wall, exhausted. The effort required by the prolonged use of her biotics had taken its toll on the woman.

“I just need a minute”, she said when the salarian approached, concerned that the bounty hunter had been spreading herself too thin and now would be unable to proceed any further. Generating mass effect fields required a considerable physical effort and a constant caloric intake to any biotic individual, but it was unlikely that Lawson had had a meal offered to Blackthorn.

Giving the woman a short moment to rest, Valrin went over to the cells holding the remaining subjects of Dr. Wenwen’s experiments. He had realized that the one subject who attacked him during the fight must have done so to force the salarian into killing him. Valrin felt he owed the other victims of the experiments the same relief. Blackthorn heard the salarian’s incinerate attack unleash three times before he got back to her.

“Like you said, the sooner we leave this place, the better”, he said flatly and helped the bounty hunter to get back on her feet.

The service elevator’s door yawned open to reveal an empty cabin when Blackthorn touched its holographic control. Given that Dodgson had not filled the elevator with troopers, the woman knew that meant the security chief must have set up an ambush in the shuttle bay. She got into the cabin, feeling eager to face the challenge, but Valrin remained outside, eyeing with interest an access panel in a niche right next to the elevator.

“What is it?” the bounty hunter asked, maybe a little more briskly than she intended.

“Access panel to ship’s network systems. Exactly what we need to improve our chances to escape in one piece.”

Blackthorn watched the salarian swiftly remove the access panel, revealing a panel with holographic controls and a data port. Seconds ticked off her clock and she began to feel a growing impatience while Valrin connected his omni-tool to the data port and fiddled with the controls, all the while humming to himself some apparent utter nonsense.

“Ha ha! Lazy programmers!”

“Ouch, that wasn’t a bit nice…”

“I hate this VI crap.”

“There, got you. Your Kung-Fu is not strong!”

Finally, Valrin got up and joined Blackthorn in the elevator, beginning the ride down to the shuttle bay.

“So, how did you exactly improve our chances of escaping?” the woman inquired with curiosity.

“Oh well, I just uploaded this little program of mine I had a backup of with me. It’s some malevolent code that will infect the ship’s engines, navigation and weapons systems and block them with a request to pay a ransom”, the salarian explained, barely hiding the amusement in his voice.

“A… ransom?”

“Yes, if Lawson wants this starship to move again, the program will ask him to put a wealth of credits into the fan’s crowdfunding for the next Blasto movie. And if he wants to use his precious cannons and tractor beams, the program will ask him to deposit 1600 credits into all active user accounts of “Galaxy Of Fantasy”, an amazing MMORPG with more than 11 billion players. By the way, the game is excellent and you should get an account of your own, you know?”

“Valrin, hasn’t occurred to you that Lawson seems to have credits to burn? It’s not going to do us any good if he can just pay to get his engines and weapons back online.”

“I never said that my program will unlock access to the ship’s systems once any ransom is paid.”

“That’s devious… Is that part of STG’s bag of tricks?”

“Uh, sort of… I did part of the coding as part of the STG cyberwarfare programme, but I customized this copy for myself, taking the liberty to reprogram the destination of the ransoms”, Valrin explained with a chuckle.

The elevator ride came to halt at the shuttle bay. Blackthorn hit the override control to stop the doors from opening. She inhaled a deep breath and let it out, focusing to summon her reserves of energy in anticipation of the upcoming fight, while Valrin checked both his weapons had a fully charged thermal clip.

“And now watch me improving our chances of success”, the woman said releasing the lock on the elevator’s door and casting a biotic sphere to protect herself and the salarian.

As soon as the duo came out of the elevator, a hail of gunfire began to rain down against the biotic sphere. Dodgson’s men were entrenched in the shuttle bay, using for cover the stacks of equipment and the two Kodiak shuttles Valrin had seen earlier. The security chief’s voice blared over the ship’s PA system, directing the troopers to concentrate their fire on the biotic sphere, but there were no signs that the shielding bubble was weakening.

“Enough of this!” the bounty hunter shouted just before she effortlessly raised one of the Kodiak shuttles from its landing spot, leaving entirely in the open those enemies who had been hunkering behind it for cover. Taking advantage of their surprise, Valrin drained the troopers’ shields and opened fire, taking down those who did not dive fast enough to a nearby cover.

There was a loud crashing noise when Blackthorn threw the shuttle she had lifted with her biotics and sent it to smash into the second Kodiak. Crushed under the weight of the shuttle that had literally rained down on them, a number of troopers briefly shouted in pain. Not content with the mayhem generated by that move, the bounty hunter latched a biotic field onto two of her enemies, jerking them into the air and then causing them to collide into one another before, finally allowing their unconscious forms to fall unceremoniously to the ground.

Enemy fire trailed off and eventually stopped as the surviving troopers began to retreat. That allowed Blackthorn and Valrin to walk up to the wreckage of the two Kodiak shuttles and take cover behind it. The bounty hunter’s biotic sphere finally disappeared with a popping sound, the salarian exhaling a sigh of relief that the woman had managed to sustain the protective field that long under the enemy’s fire. Biotics were a rare sight among salarians and the few serving in their military did not fight on the ground, so Valrin was absolutely amazed by the sheer amount of control and concentration that Blackthorn had just displayed while they crossed the shuttle bay. The salarian mused that if she could pull off something like that when exhausted by the earlier fight with the scion and husks, then she might even be able to take on a starship solely with her biotics when rested.

“An impressive show of force, Miss Blackthorn. My compliments”, the voice of Henry Lawson said over the ship’s PA system, echoing Valrin’s own thoughts. “But I doubt even you can keep up with something like that for much longer. Hand over the salarian to Chief Dodgson and his men now and I will allow you to board your ship and leave, unharmed. Do we have a deal?”

Valrin watched the bounty hunter shake her head to reassure him before she spoke.

“Hey, Mr. Lawson. You don’t seem too good at upholding your end of the deals you get into”, the woman said aloud. “So, here’s my answer!”

Blackthorn raised her right hand balled in a fist over the cover of the wrecked shuttle and then extended her middle finger in an arcane gesture.

“Have it your own way, bounty hunter”, Lawson’s angered voice retorted.

Examining his ammo reserves, Valrin did not feel as defiant as Blackthorn. “I’m down to one last thermal clip and you know he is right about you being unable to use biotics for much longer. We have to think something fast or we will be in trouble.”

As if to confirm the salarian’s pessimistic take on their situation, the main elevator disgorged another wave of Dodgson’s men. To their right a bulkhead opened to reveal a squadron of LOKI mechs activating. Both the soldiers and the mechs began to advance on Blackthorn and Valrin’s position. The bounty hunter’s ship was not too far, but Valrin knew they would came under fire well before they had the chance to board the ship. In addition, the bay’s massive clamshell doors were still closed, preventing the ship to leave.

Blackthorn’s omni-tool activated flashing a message to the bounty hunter. Her voice was exuberant as she spoke into the omni-tool. “Perfect timing Dasty, execute order 74 now!”

A section on the upper hull of Blackthorn’s ship slid open and a turret armed with a gatling-style mass accelerator cannon popped up. The bounty hunter’s robotic assistant was sitting at the turret’s controls and wasted no time in opening up fire on Dodgson’s men. The soldiers, who had been up to that moment advancing on what they believed was a beaten foe, panicked and ran for cover. Dasty swiveled the turret to take aim at the other threat, the LOKI mechs. High-speed slugs tore through the mechs, leaving them a mass of shattered pieces by the time the turret turned around to resume firing on the soldiers.

Emboldened by Dasty’s intervention, Valrin and Blackthorn got out of cover and added their powers to the turret’s fire. Not even a minute thereafter, the few survivors among Dodgson’s men abandoned the shuttle bay, fleeing for the safety of the elevator. No longer hampered by enemy fire, Valrin and Blackthorn moved to board the woman’s ship. Before going inside, the woman pulled off one last feat with her biotics, ripping the bay’s clamshell doors off their rails. Now only a thin force field separated the bay from the vacuum of space.

Valrin plopped himself down in the co-pilot chair and found that Dasty had already pre-flighted the ship in anticipation of its master’s return. The salarian only had to power up the engine and, as soon as Blackthorn closed the hatch behind her, he flew the ship out of Strive for Perfection’s shuttle bay and out into the safety of open space.

Chapter Text

Styx Theta cluster, Thanatos system
Aboard Lawson’s cruiser
MSV
Strive for Perfection

In his personal cabin, Henry Lawson reviewed on a datapad the reports on the damage and losses suffered during Blackthorn and the salarian’s escape. His technicians had been forced to reset manually the ship’s navigation, engines and weapons systems to remove the malware that had infected those systems. However, this had forced them to return to factory default setting and as a result Strive for Perfection was travelling at half its rated speed and with malfunctioning weapons, at least until they had time to reinstall the necessary programming to the affected systems.

Worse than that was the complete loss of his specimens of husks, including the single, precious scion. He had incurred considerable costs to capturing those creatures, the scion in particular, and their loss meant that his research on the effects of Reaper indoctrination would come to a standstill. The Illusive Man had been less than pleased to learn of this new setback and Lawson had been able to mitigate the wrath of Cerberus’ leader only by explaining a plan concocted to lure unwary test subjects to his new base on Horizon. With a steady supply of subjects and the genetic engineering technology he had been smuggling to Horizon, Lawson had promised to the Illusive Man that he would be able to speed up the research on indoctrination and deliver results very soon.

Then there was also the matter of Dr. Wenwen’s loss. When he released the husks from their cells, that idiot Dodgson had caused the doctor’s death as well as the loss of all specimens. And to think it was Lawson himself who had picked the man as his security chief. Upon renewing his allegiance with Cerberus, Lawson had insisted he was allowed to handle his own security, refusing the Illusive Man’s suggestion that Cerberus troops be assigned to provide security for Lawson’s project. Now that the businessman’s trust in Dodgson had proved to be misplaced, Lawson had been forced to yield to the Illusive Man’s request and Cerberus would directly take over security of the Horizon base. Lawson comforted himself with the thought that Dodgson and his few surviving mercs would at least pay the price of their failure. They were all slated to join Cerberus’ troops as part of the organization’s forces upgraded with Reaper technology.

And while Dr. Wenwen was dead, at least his data demonstrating the successful development of the surgical procedures to begin indoctrination and enhancement of selected candidates under the Phantom initiative had survived him. Lawson had already put forward a request to the Illusive Man to have the biotics from the Crimson Lotus squad detached from General Petrovsky’s command and assigned to Horizon, in order for its members to undergo surgery for the installation of the implants.

Shaking his head, Lawson put down the datapad. He would have his revenge on Blackthorn and the unnamed salarian soldier one day, but for the moment he had to concentrate solely on his research on indoctrination. Only through that he could ensure the survival of humanity and finally gain the spot among the “saviors” of his race that he had always coveted.

 


Exodus cluster, Utopia system
Aboard Blackthorn’s ship

With two mass relay jumps between her ship and Lawson’s crippled cruiser, Blackthorn finally felt like she could relax. Gracefully leaping out of the pilot’s seat, the woman relinquished control of the ship to Dasty and went to check on Valrin. She had left the salarian in her cabin quite a while back, to let him recover his weapons and equipment the bounty hunter had requisitioned at the time of Valrin’s capture back on Omega, but he had not come back to the cockpit ever since.

When the door to her cabin opened, Blackthorn caught the salarian in the act of snooping around among her stuff. In particular, Valrin’s attention seemed focused on one of the cabin’s walls, the surface of which was pockmarked with dents. A holoprojector was sitting on a desk placed against that wall and when the salarian had turned it on, the device projected the image of a tall human male, with sparkling blue eyes, red-brown hair and a set of heavy armor emblazoned with a red wolf’s head logo. The dents in the wall’s surface seemed to concentrate around the approximate area where the holoprojector displayed the man’s face, leaving Valrin to wonder whether Blackthorn had used her biotics to deliberately throw something at the man’s image and hence damage the wall.

“My apologies”, the salarian said. “Information gathering is a deeply ingrained instinct among those of my species and I’m afraid that STG training only increased my inclination to poke into other people’s stuff and business.”

“Whatever…”, the woman replied a bit annoyed. She really did not like the idea of broaching the subject of Elliot Wolfe with a member of STG, the Salarian Union’s top espionage organization.

Unaware of the woman’s discomfort, Valrin pressed on. “Oh, I see. Am I right to believe that the human displayed by the holoprojector is the person you were planning to use your handcuffs with?”

Blackthorn was actually caught by surprise by the question. Of course, she was referring to Elliot when she had made that comment about using her handcuffs to bring him in chains to an Alliance jail. And it looked like the meaning of that comment had not been entirely lost on the salarian after all.

“Uh, yeah… His name is Elliot Wolfe. He is an old… acquaintance of mine and in all honesty I’m not in the mood to talk about him.”

Valrin had the impression that the woman’s face had turned red. He still had a very hard time understanding the humans’ equivalent of the social cues used by salarians to discourage curiosity, but finally he seemed to catch onto the woman’s uneasiness. “Ah, I must say that human courtship rituals elude me. They are definitely too complicated by salarian’s standards. All right, let’s not talk more about this”, he conceded, much to Blackthorn’s relief.

“So, what are your projects once I drop you off on Sur’Kesh?” Blackthorn inquired, changing subject.

“I’m reporting back to STG for debriefing and a new assignment”, the salarian replied without hesitation. “Intelligence work is all I have ever done and my duty lies with STG. Of course, that’s assuming the bounty on my head is not going to get in the way and prevent me from further serving with STG.”

“No need to worry, I’ll get the bounty on your head removed and I will also put the word out to all my colleagues that they should be wary of any bounties put by that ass Lawson”, the woman said.

“Thanks, that should help.”

“You’re welcome. After all, I owe you for getting me out of that lab before I got turned into one of those zombie things”, Blackthorn noted seriously.

“Tell me one thing, Blackthorn. How did you know I would come back to help you?”

“Well, I didn’t. But you were willing to put your life at risk out of loyalty to your fallen teammates in order to find who was responsible for their death, so I was hoping you would extend the same loyalty to me, if given the right incentive.”

Valrin was a bit embarrassed by the woman’s words. His decision to rescue her had been motivated first by the merely utilitarian need of the bounty hunter’s skills in order to escape from Lawson’s ship and only on second instance out of loyalty for the help she gave him when she had provided the salarian with the handcuff’s control device.

“Ehm, thanks for the vote of confidence… Besides, STG operators are trained to adapt and survive, so I figured we would stand a better chance to escape by combining our forces”, he added trying to sound nonchalant, but failing miserably.

“I daresay that the combination of our respective talents proved quite successful. Which is why I asked about your plans for the future. Ever considered a career as a bounty hunter?”

“Me? Scouring the galaxy looking for outright felons and poor innocents with a bounty on their head because of people like Lawson?” the salarian inquired ironically.

“Hey, you don’t need to make it sound that bad”, Blackthorn chimed in defensively. “A case like yours is the exception, not the norm. I usually work alone, but I you want to join I’ll take care of the hunting while you support me with those tech and hacking talents of yours. You could also do that for other people willing to pay you, provided you like their motives.”

“Working as a mercenary doing intelligence work?” The salarian did not sound particularly convinced, his right hand resting on his chin as if he was pondering the possibility.

“Why not? And if you are not keen on working for yourself, I’ve heard rumors that the Shadow Broker has undergone some changes to his organization and is looking for new associates. Just give it a thought and if you decide to leave the military give me a call”, Blackthorn explained. She then tapped a command on her omni-tool and sent over to the salarian’s own omni-tool her extranet contacts and the communication codes to get in touch with her.

“Thanks for your suggestion, I’ll think about it”, Valrin said and smiled. Somehow, of all the possible outcomes that he had envisioned after being captured by Blackthorn, becoming friends with that human bounty hunter had not been the one outcome he would have bet upon as the most likely.

 


Annos Basin cluster, Pranas system
Dalatrass Linron’s estate on Sur’Kesh

It was a salarian’s age-old tradition that females wield power in the complicate web of deceit and alliances that was their species’ political system. Through shrewd political machinations, dalatrass Linron, matriarch of one of Sur’Kesh’s wealthiest bloodlines, had just secured another important victory in her ongoing struggle for leadership with the matriarch of the rival Narra clan.

Sitting in the lush gardens of her estate on the outskirts of Talat, the capital city of the salarian homeworld, dalatrass Linron savored the satisfaction for her last victory by going over the latest STG reports.

Through her secure connection, the dalatrass downloaded the two newest reports filed by STG operators and examined them with interest. The first report had been prepared following debriefing of one specialist Tolaen Valrin of the 3rd Infiltration Regiment, returning after a mission part of an investigation into an illicit traffic of genetic engineering technology and resources. The report included evidence that the Blood Pack mercenaries had been smuggling a controlled substance to an unknown destination in the Shadow Sea cluster, but provided no clues regarding the intended recipient or the exact destination of the shipment.

The report also included unsubstantiated claims that a human named Henry Lawson was connected with that illicit traffic and that he had been carrying out experimenting on biotic individuals and creatures of possibly Reaper origins aboard a privately owned, cruiser-weight warship where the STG operator had been taken by a bounty hunter. A note from Major Kirrahe was appended to the report, requesting permission to dispatch units in the Shadow Sea cluster and to launch an investigation into the activities of Henry Lawson.

Dalatrass Linron could not believe that an experienced officer like Kirrahe would actually suggest investing STG’s precious resources to investigate the groundless and absurd claims of an operator who was likely suffering from PTSD, possibly triggered by the loss of his entire squad during the operation. Even putting aside the poor professional conduct of an operator that had allowed himself to be captured by a bounty hunter, suffering from a form of PTSD strong enough to cause him to fabricate unbelievable stories was more than enough for the dalatrass to issue a note that this Tolaen Valrin be dismissed from STG. She then flagged Kirrahe’s request for further investigation as “denied”, giving no further thoughts to the matter, especially after reading the second report.

Indeed, that second report was, to say the least, explosive in its contents. Based on Kirrahe’s debriefing, the report detailed the results of a covert mission on Tuchanka, where the Major’s team had found a group of krogan females cured from the genophage. Much to the dalatrass’ dismay, Kirrahe had ordered that those females be brought on Sur’Kesh, rather than executed right away to prevent even the remote possibility that the krogan may find a cure for the genophage.

The long-term consequences of a genophage cure were simply too far-reaching to consider. Dalatrass Linron assigned the highest security clearance requirement for any further access to the report, fully committed to let the recovery of the fertile krogan female a secret. It was her duty to her race, to the entire galaxy, to make sure that the krogan never resurge.

THE END