Actions

Work Header

Mass Effect: Rogue Biotics

Chapter Text

Serpent Nebula, Widow system
Citadel’s Zakera Ward

Induction into the salarian Special Tasks Group (STG) was supposed to be a life commitment, sometimes a very short one due to the unit’s dangerous assignments. On his way back from the Citadel’s offices of the turian-volus conglomerate Sedra-Abis, the purple skinned salarian named Tolaen Valrin thought over an assumption he had made in days long gone, specifically that life commitment as part of STG would have applied to him too and that he would have either silently died during some secret operation to defend the freedom and prosperity of his race or quietly retired once he was too old to serve on the front line.

Recent events had shown how that assumption had been stunningly wrong. When an operation against the Blood Pack mercs went south and he found himself the target of several bounty hunters, Valrin managed to return to base after a daring escape, during which he discovered that a human named Henry Lawson was responsible for the Blood Pack’s involvement and for placing the bounty on the salarian’s head. Valrin reported to his superiors Lawson’s involvement in an illicit trafficking of genetic engineering technology, as well as the human’s work on creatures of apparent Reaper origin. Shortly thereafter, Valrin was surprised to be stripped of his rank and transferred from STG, the salarian’s military elite force, to a new outfit which was commonly regarded as the most rear echelon unit of the whole military, a place where pen pushers and generally all those who insisted to enroll, but did not have any considerable skill, were relegated.

Valrin could only find out that someone very high up had marked him as “unsuitable” to further serve with STG, someone who outranked by a long margin his commanding officer Major Kirrahe, someone who had the power to have the records of Valrin’s last mission marked as a failure caused by the “gross mistakes and incompetence” of none other than Valrin himself. With no way to prove what really happened, a mere two days processing military supply documents as his new assignment was enough for the former STG operator to resign his commission with the military and go back to civilian life. While he enjoyed working with a computer, Valrin had been trained in infiltration, sabotage and information gathering, such that mindless processing of documents was too much of a step back for a front line soldier like him.

With the credits he had managed to save during his military career, Valrin left salarian space and moved to the Citadel. He was lucky enough to find a half-decent apartment in the Zakera Wards, which doubled for a time as his house and the office where he met the potential clients of his new business. Relying on the skills he learnt and used with STG, Valrin slowly, but steadily made a name for himself as a successful “problem solver”. Providing countermeasures against industrial espionage, retrieving electronic information and assisting with the development of network security gained Valrin enough money to make a decent living and rent a better office. The former STG operative’s most impressive accomplishment was when he assisted in identifying the members of a gang, the “Steam Lifters”, responsible for kidnapping an asari matriarch’s daughter, locate their hideout and dig up enough evidence to incriminate them for good. Valrin’s work was instrumental for Citadel Security (C-Sec) to storm the criminals’ hideout, save the kidnapped asari girl and deliver her back unharmed to the mother without paying any ransom.

Valrin’s success in what the press called the “Steam Lifter’s kidnap case” garnered him an increase in wealthy clients in need of the salarian’s skills to solve their problems. Indeed, for his latest assignment Valrin had been hired by the businessman Corollin Sedra, the turian founder of Sedra-Abis, who harbored a growing suspicion about the disloyalty of his volus associate Ondo Abis. Valrin was coming back from Sedra-Abis’ offices, his back account replenished by Corollin’s payment, after the salarian provided evidence that Ondo was stealing considerable profits from his turian associate. For the former STG operative this assignment was what humans called “a piece of cake”. All it took was entering the building where Ondo’s office was located while posing as a delivery man and hacking into the volus’ computer to gather the needed evidence. The fact that Ondo used the 90100 security VI on his system made things easier: Valrin was amazed that nowadays people would still trust the aging 90100 to adequately protect them from hacks and could not help but shake his head in disappointment at that folly.

Coming to a stop next to one of the Citadel’s transit points to board a taxi hovercar, Valrin heard a beeping from his omni-tool signaling an incoming message. Taking a moment to instruct the hovercar’s automated system to take him to the transit point closest to his office, the salarian tapped the omni-tool on his forearm to playback the message.

A holographic close-up of another salarian formed above the device, speaking in the quick tone that was common to the whole species. “Hello Valrin, I’m taking a break from the shop for a couple of hours. Just want to let you know there’s a discount on Justicars of the Asari Republics, if you have made up your mind about buying that game.”

That was Nalik, one of Valrin’s friends on the Citadel, a salarian running the game shop on Level 28 of the Zakera Ward’s Mid-Wards District. An avid gamer himself, Valrin soon became friend with the fellow salarian who seemed to know every new and old videogame available. The break mentioned in the message was likely an excuse to play some Solitaire, a human game that the salarian salesman somehow found particularly fascinating.

Almost as an after-thought, his friend had one further message to deliver. “By the way, you will find a new customer at your office by the time you are back. She insisted to see you right away and said she was willing to wait.” The message finished abruptly, leaving Valrin to ponder which information his friend regarded as the most important, either the discount on that asari RPG or the fact that a new client was in need of Valrin’s services.

As was the case at all hours of the day, the Wards were pretty much crowded and filled with people of various species going about. Leaving the hovercar, Valrin made his way through the crowds to the building housing his office to find a human female who was sitting cross-legged by the building’s entrance, apparently waiting for him. His new customer, if indeed she was one, looked to be a quiet young member of her species and, based on his recollection of human biology, Valrin thought the girl was yet to come of age. Upon seeing the salarian, the girl got up, her omni-tool and holographic left-eye visor turning off simultaneously as she did so.

“You are Tolaen Valrin, Here to solve my problems”, the girl said, misquoting the former STG operative’s advertisement that randomly played in several shops of the Zakera Ward, including Nalik’s game shop.

“And you are?”, Valrin prompted her while studying his interlocutor.

The young human’s pose, her expression and the tone of the voice felt somewhat out of place. The former STG operator thought they would befit a woman of more years than the girl following him inside the building, specifically one of those women belonging to the upper class and who was disappointed she had been kept waiting by a lowly salarian white-collar.

“I’m Mina Payne”, she answered, “and I need your help to find my father. I will pay you.”

Ordinarily Valrin would not try to shy away from a possible client without hearing exactly what that client was asking his assistance for, but the salarian’s perception was that the girl might be simply overreacting to his father’s absence, maybe because the man was too busy with his work and overlooked spending time with his daughter.

“Look, why don’t you ask that C-Sec officer back in the plaza to contact your father and ask him to come back home early to spend more time with you? You don’t need me to do that”, Valrin told her as he got inside his office, the girl still trotting behind him.

Mina looked around the mostly unadorned office and plopped into one of the battered-looking chairs in front of Valrin’s desk. The girl pulled up her omni-tool, a top of the line Logic Arrest model by Ariake Technologies, and tapped some keys until a tone came from Valrin’s own omni-tool. Undeterred by the salarian’s previous answer, she then stared pointedly at Valrin, waiting for his reaction to whatever she had sent him. The fact that a girl like that sported an omni-tool meant for professional users far above her age was quite surprising to Valrin and even more surprising was that Mina had just sent him a pre-authorization order instructing a bank to transfer on the salarian’s account an amount of credits corresponding to Valrin’s fees for seven days of work. Just who was this young human using such an expensive and advanced omni-tool and disposing with ease of that considerable amount of credits?

“Care for something refreshing?”, Valrin asked to his unusual guest.

“I’ll take an Eden Prime Mix juice if you have it”, she answered, not taking away her eyes from the salarian while he moved to a nearby cabinet housing his refrigerator.

Valrin had never heard of the Eden Prime Mix juice, so he handed the girl a drink cylinder of a generic fizzy soft-drink, which she accepted without complaint, gulping it down in a few swigs. Calling up the scanner suit of his omni-tool, Valrin acquired Mina’s fingerprints from the now empty drink cylinder that the girl placed on the desk in front of her. He was waiting for his hacking VI to find its way through C-Sec’s database to check those fingerprints when the girl came up with an answer to his earlier question.

“C-Sec can’t help me”, Mina said and then, seeing that she had the salarian’s attention, she went to explain, “I already spoke to one of their officers and explained someone must be holding him against his will. The officer was kind, but unhelpful. Told me dad has been recorded by cameras as he boarded of his own volition a shuttle that was headed to and safely landed on Bekenstein. Added that I was too young to be on my own, so I should wait there until the Social Services showed up to take me somewhere safe until dad comes back.”

The girl’s words matched what Valrin found on the C-Sec database. Her fingerprints identified her as Wilhelmina C. Payne, age 13, born on the human colony of Terra Nova and only daughter of Harold and Cecilia Payne. The system reported the following regarding her parents’ status:

                                             Father: Harold Payne (alive)

                                             Mother: Cecilia Bennet Payne (deceased)

The C-Sec officer Mina had spoken to, Eddie Lang, had opened a file regarding the girl’s report of his father going missing. Valrin quickly went over the file, noting that it contained a link to a video showing a man, presumably Mr. Payne, as he boarded shuttle no. CTD/767/AD at the Zakera Ward Keel Docking Station. There was also copy of the log indicating that the shuttle had left for Bekenstein on schedule and safely landed at the planet’s public spaceport a few hours later. Lang also issued an advisory to C-Sec officers on patrol to keep their eyes open for a girl named Wilhelmina “Mina” Payne and to hold her for transfer to the Social Services. As far as Valrin could see, officer Lang had been thorough in handling Mina’s claim that her father had been abducted, it was a simple case with no direct evidence of something amiss, thus necessitating no further investigations. According to C-Sec practice, Lang had closed the case, but took the time to dispatch a warning to his colleagues to search for the girl, presumably after she bolted C-Sec’s offices before the Social Services sent someone to collect her. That showed that the officer cared enough and really meant to help Mina as much as he could.

As if aware of what Valrin had been reading on the display of his desktop computer, Mina spoke up again. “I don’t think dad will come back anytime soon if nobody looks for him and I don’t want to be caged by Social Services till eighteen. When the officer mentioned them, I figured it was time to make myself scarce and seek help from someone other than C-Sec.”

A further quick hack, this time of the human embassy’s system, did not provide Valrin with any other information of particular use. The girl and her father had been registered among the humans residing on the space station, with a note that Omega was their former residence. That was kind of odd for Valrin, seeing that if you lived on Omega the chances were you either did not have the credits necessary to leave for the Citadel or you had enough credits to lead a wealthy life on the lawless asteroid station, away from all the rules and bureaucracy of the Citadel. Of course, there could be many reasons to explain why Mina and her father had left Omega for the Citadel, but the whole situation was nonetheless unusual.

“I heard salarians are quick to think and act, so how much longer you need to decide whether I should confirm that transfer of credits to your account?” Mina asked, her words tinged with just enough challenge to ensure that the salarian would have to react one way or another.

The video with the camera footage showing Mr. Payne board the shuttle was still playing in one window of Valrin’s screen, so he turned around by 90° the display such that the girl could see it. “This is the video mentioned by the C-Sec officer and there’s nothing to hint that someone forced your father to leave the Citadel”, the salarian explained. Painful as it might be for her, Valrin considered that it was better if Mina realized right away that her father had simply abandoned her. It was well possible that the man had brought his daughter in a relatively safe place such as the Citadel before leaving her, aware that the odds the girl might find shelter and assistance were far better there than on Omega.

However, Mina was persistent in her belief that someone took her father away. Pointing at the looping video she made a face and then gave her ruling. “Come on, anyone with a bare experience in video editing can realize this was doctored, can’t you see?”

The girl’s comment piqued Valrin’s interest and he looked at the video again and again, seeking for any telltale that the camera footage had been manipulated to somehow show Mr. Payne take the shuttle. And then he suddenly noticed Mina was right, the salarian’s eyes popping wide open for a second, his species’ equivalent of a human raising his eyebrows in surprise. There was just a very brief pause between the frame showing only the shuttle’s hatch open and the first frame with Mr. Payne walking inside the craft. Thereafter, it was just a matter of seconds for Valrin to notice that the of part of the video with Mina’s father had its colors tweaked to match the lighting in the rest of the video and, most importantly, the shuttle’s number in every frame of that part of the video had been altered to show a different number. There was only one conclusion possible: someone had purposefully altered the video to give the impression that Mr. Payne had voluntarily left the Citadel. It was a pretty good forgery despite Mina’s words of contempt for it, good enough to fool most people looking at the video into concluding that her father left of his own volition.

Finally coming to a decision, the salarian agreed to assist the girl into looking for her father. “You got me convinced Mina, I’ll help you. Now I just need to find a good lead to start, because we really don’t have much to work with right now”.

As he looked at Mina’s triumphant expression, Valrin was already chewing on the implications of the video forgery. Technically, altering the original recording would not require an much skills nor too expensive equipment, rather it was hacking the Citadel’s security systems that required a very good hacker, someone at least as good as Valrin. That meant that the most logical step was to figure out what he would have done if he had the hacker’s task to plant into the system the video after its manipulation and see whether the hacker left any traces of his or her activity that would lead the salarian in the right direction.

“I’ll show you our house and dad’s clinic so you can search for any evidence, but I think you can simply ask yourself what you would do to plant the doctored video in the system and follow the trail left by whoever did that”, Mina suggested, echoing Valrin’s own thoughts.

It was the second time the girl seemed to be mind-reading him. The salarian did not have any experience dealing with human younglings, but he began to suspect that Mina was smarter than the average human kid of her age, probably as smart as a salarian kid of her equivalent age. Due to the salarian’s accelerated metabolism and relatively short life span, the younglings of Valrin’s species developed their full intellectual skills earlier than other more long-lived species. It was testament to Mina’s intelligence that her intellectual development seemed to be on par with that of a salarian.

“I was just thinking about that, you know? I’m going to inspect the dock’s cameras and the terminal they are linked to and then work my way from there. Come on, let’s go”, Valrin told to his new customer, feeling a little excited at the prospect of having a new technological mystery to unravel.

The former STG operator powered off his computer with one hand, grabbed a snack from a drawer with the other – no way to predict when he would be able to eat something if he got engrossed in this case – and jumped up from his chair for the door. Mina was surprised by the salarian’s sudden reaction for no more than a couple of seconds and was right behind him as soon as she switched off her omni-tool. Noticing that the girl seemed to have the firm intention of following him on the investigation at the docks, Valrin decided that the first thing to do was to find a safe place to leave Mina until he was back. It was unlikely that Mina would be in harm’s way if he brought her along to the docks, but the salarian was not keen to have a customer get in the way of his work, especially not a young human, no matter how intelligent she seemed to be.

Waiting for a taxi hovercar, Valrin figured that a certain game shop at level 28 of Zakera’s Mid-Wards District would safe as any other place, but with the benefit that his friend Nalik should be able to keep an eye on the girl for the couple of hours needed to check out things at the docks. It did not take long for the hovercar to bring the two to their destination and they could see the usual crowd of people lingering around the shop, taking a look at the available games or talking with the ever-alert salarian salesman, his ability to spot potentially interested customers and talk them into buying something was unparalleled, especially in the eyes of his human assistant. It was no coincidence, given that salarians were renowned for their commercial skills and many shops in the Citadel were run by members of that species.

“Absolutely”, the salarian salesman was talking to an asari and her partner, “Justicars of the Asari Republics is the first product of a joint asari-human developer. It’s visually gorgeous and the fights are some of the most engaging in recent games – especially on the latest holo-haptic devices –, trust me. Plus, for a limited time there’s a 50% discount on it, both the standard and collector editions!”

As part of his commercial strategy, the salarian usually left customers to ponder a while by themselves, thus leaving him free to move to the side of the table where Valrin and Mina had been waiting. The girl was browsing the games’ catalogue, while Valrin checked the prices of the newest haptic gaming controls, seeing that the ones he had been using with his current gaming rig were starting to show their age.

“Hello Valrin. Good to see you again young Miss”, Nalik greeted them. He had briefly met Mina earlier, when the girl had stopped at the game shop to ask directions for Valrin’s office upon hearing the salarian’s problem solver’s ad playing on a speaker at Nalik’s shop.

“I don’t think Justicars of the Asari Republics is that good”, the girl admonished the salesman. “The graphics are cool and the fights fun, but it’s full of bugs crippling many quests and the background story is dumb and nonsensical. First thing is that justicars almost never leave asari space. And then what about those ‘morality’ and ‘Code-adherence’ traits? A justicar either follows the Code or she doesn’t and in the latter case the other justicars will simply hunt her down for good. Oh, and the microtransactions are just… ugh… I hate that you need to spend more credits if you want decent equipment to play the extranet matches.”

It was plain as the day that the poor salarian salesman did not expect to hear from the young human such vehement criticism of the game he had just advertised to his customer, but he recovered in no time. As every vendor is well-aware of, there’s nothing worse than someone spewing criticism at a product when potential customers are nearby, so he had to make sure the asari and her friend did not change their minds about buying the game in case they had overheard Mina’s tirade.

“You certainly played the game on its earliest release version, but the latest patch has solved almost all of the quest bugs. And the developers never hid that the background story is merely inspired by justicars and not meant to be a faithful reproduction of their way of life. As for the microtransactions, you can also buy equipment with the points you earn from playing matches, you know?”

Mina was not too convinced, “Maybe the patch improved the game, but the fact that after a few months from release it is sold for half the original price tells me that Justicars was poorly received by players.”

“I beg too dissent, according to a survey on the extranet, the game is selling very well, especially among humans”, the salesman noted in further defense of the title.

Valrin chose that moment to intervene. “Uh, that might actually have more to do with the humans’ obsession with sex rather than any real virtue of the game”, he noted. “The player character’s body proportions are certainly alluring for their species, not to mention that all justicar armors in the game are very provocative and that you can also have romantic relationships with other characters. Anyway, I did not stop here to talk about games, sorry Nalik. Actually, I’m here to ask you a favor.”

“You are absolutely right. I even heard there is a fan made modification that will let you play with your justicar completely disrobed. Can you think of anything more ridiculous than fighting batarian thugs, krogan mercenaries, rogue Spectres and the wild-life of a dozen alien worlds wearing nothing than bare skin?”, Nalik was still focused on discussing the game, until he caught up on his friend’s request. “What favor?”

Valrin explained that he needed a safe place for Mina while he went to the docks for a couple of hours. Hopefully, the salesman could keep the girl busy with a videogame and keep an eye on her until Valrin was back. While his friend had no objection, Mina had no intention to be left behind and she protested the salarian’s decision. That was when Valrin realized for the first time that Mina’s sparkling intelligence meant that the girl was what a human bounty hunter friend of his had once referred to as “a royal pain in the butt”.

Mina’s index finger was hovering threateningly on the holographic surface of her now active omni-tool. “I can still cancel that transfer of credits for as long as a week. If you try to leave me behind while you go looking for dad, all I need to do is to tap here and the credits are gone from your bank account. Same goes in case you think about taking my credits without helping me”.

“I suspect you know what blackmailing means, right?”, Valrin asked with a tone he knew humans would associate with a sarcastic reply. “All right, you win again, but I expect you to follow my rules and not to create me trouble while I’m investigating those cameras”, he conceded.

The salarian hated the idea that the girl might think it was so easy to manipulate him into doing all she wanted, but an old STG saying attributed to the Silent Step was “Learn to pick your fight before striking”. Having Mina amble along for the visit Zakera’s Keel Docking Ports was unlikely to put the girl in any real danger, so for this time Valrin decided it was convenient to avoid a discussion and bring her along. The salarian had a feeling there would be more situations where he might want Mina to stay safe out of the way and he preferred to save his counter-arguments, as well as his patience, for when it would matter most. Taking their leave from the salarian salesman, Valrin and Mina headed back to the transit point to catch yet another taxi hovercar.

They were entirely unaware that, mingling with the crowd visiting the various market stalls and shops of Level 28, a lonely figure had finally picked up the track lost earlier on that same day and now swiftly darted to retrieve a hovercar, firmly inclined to follow the salarian and the human girl wherever they went.

Chapter Text

Serpent Nebula, Widow system
Keel Docking Ports in the Citadel’s Zakera Ward

Zakera Ward’s Keel Docking Ports was a busy hub for both private and commercial traffic to and from the Citadel. Several public shuttle lines connecting the massive space station with the closest inhabited star systems and nearby clusters created a relatively affordable transport network for the residents of the Citadel as well as people in need of visiting the seat of power of the Council species. Among the planets served by these shuttle lines was also Bekenstein, the human colony world which the dock’s security recordings suggested as Mina’s father destination.

After a 10-minute flight aboard the hovercar, Valrin and the young girl who had hired him had joined the members of more than a half-dozen different races visiting the Keel Docking Ports. However, differently from those hurrying to board a shuttle or ship and those simply taking a tour of the place to admire the vast range of different space-faring vessels currently docked, Valrin and Mina were there in the hope that an inspection of the cameras and related terminal that were the source of the recording showing the girl’s father might provide a trail to follow.

The salarian invited Mina to sit on a bench in front of the Bekenstein shuttle dock, suggesting they should try not to look suspicious. “Please try to act normally while I scan the security cameras”, Valrin told the girl.

Indeed, C-Sec was still on high alert following the geth assault on the Citadel and its officers were on the look-out for potential terrorists or anyone generally acting in a suspect manner in places where they had no good reason to be. No doubt, someone running a scan of the dock’s security cameras might attract the attention of one of the C-Sec officers on patrol and Valrin had no wish to spend time explaining what he was doing and maybe even spend half a day in jail for allegedly interfering with the station’s security.

“Done. Cameras are clean”, the salarian sentenced powering down the omni-tool’s scanner VI and calling up a map of their actual location at the Keel Docking Ports. “No evidence of someone tampering with the cameras themselves, so whoever fed into the system the doctored video of your father departing necessarily acted on the junction terminal.”

All cameras of the dock’s sent their data to one of several nearby junction terminals. These collected the feed from various cameras, compressed the data, then sent it to C-Sec’s mainframe. The source data was usually removed from the junction terminals to keep their memory free as soon as it was safely stored on the mainframe. Other than collecting the cameras’ data, the junction terminals also monitored the camera’s functionality, directing one camera to cover for a malfunctioning one until a repair team was dispatched to fix the problem. Junction terminals were also designed to be redundant, such that in the event one terminal was knocked out, the cameras depending on it would simply reroute their feed to the closest working terminal rather than stop transmitting at all.

Valrin had detected via the scan with his omni-tool the junction terminal that the cameras they were interested in were connected to. According to the map, it was just a short walk from their current location to the security box which housed the junction terminal. The box had no special markings except a numeric identifier and was tucked away right next to one of the ubiquitous planters seen throughout the Citadel in order to make it inconspicuous. When Valrin and Mina got closer, the salarian was dismayed to notice a C-Sec officer standing no more than ten paces away from the terminal he wanted to scan.

“Need that officer out of the way to do your stuff, uh?”, Mina inquired, fixing her gaze on a turian female in C-Sec garb. She always thought turians had somewhat avian features and it was not difficult for her to picture that particular C-Sec officer as an hawk-eyed sentinel guarding over junction terminal.

“Yes, this time a scan will not suffice. I need to open the security box and have physical access to the terminal, so we need a diversion to get rid of the turian for while”, Valrin confirmed. Triggering an alarm at one of the nearby landing pads would likely suffice to force the officer into leaving her current position to investigate the alarm. “Going to give her some unharmful distraction to check out, then we…”

The salarian did not have time to finish the sentence, as he noticed Mina skipping around in the general direction of the turian officer. He resisted his first impulse of reaching out and grabbing the girl before she was too far, but reconsidered, afraid that an adult salarian suddenly grabbing a young human girl like that might draw unnecessary attention on himself. Just what was Mina thinking? Valrin had warned her to follow his rules no longer than half an hour ago and yet here she was, acting on a whim and creating trouble. In theory he could still trigger the alarm, possibly distracting the C-Sec officer from Mina, who was now talking to the turian, but he had to act fast.

It was the damnedest stubborn alarm Valrin had ever run into in recent times, refusing to signal a fake unauthorized boarding of the shuttle standing on the landing pad that the salarian had entered into the system. Before he tried a different approach, the C-Sec officer suddenly sprinted away from her position, trying to follow Mina as the girl darted away among the crowd.

“Well, diversions are all the same…”, Valrin thought with a shrug. Taking the yahg by the horns, he swiftly crossed to where the security box was located and began scanning the device. He did not detect any obvious signs of tampering and he picked up several fingerprints, albeit none seemed to be sufficiently clear to run the identification program. The salarian then opened the access panel to reveal the junction terminal, quickly worming his way into the system and laughing at the irony that the security on the terminal was less picky than that of the landing pad alarm. At a first glance nothing seemed out of place, until Valrin noticed some familiar snippets of code, left-overs of a self-regressive algorithm he was familiar with. It was a little program he had already seen several years earlier, capable of planting external data into a computer’s memory and then wiping itself from the computer once the job was done.

The program was direct evidence that someone had tampered with the junction terminal and Valrin had a hunch that someone had used it to plant the video of Mina’s father boarding the shuttle into the terminal, such that the system uploaded the video to C-Sec’s mainframe along with the regular camera footage. Because the junction terminal deleted all video already uploaded to the mainframe, once the hacker’s program deleted itself there was no way to figure out that a hack took place. Or there was no way unless one knew what to look for, as was the case for Valrin. The pieces of code he had detected could be easily mistaken for stray bits of the junction terminal legitimate programming, but when read in the correct fashion that code displayed on a screen the message “Pyjak Brain owned you”.

That was enough of a lead for the former STG operative to look into the matter of Mina’s father disappearing from the Citadel, so he proceeded to close the access panel and quietly went back to the bench he had been sitting on a short while ago, before the turian C-Sec officer got back to her post or one of her colleagues showed up to replace her. Mina was nowhere to be seen amidst the coming and going of asari, human, salarian and turian travelers, not to mention the odd drell, elcor and volus. On the other hand, Valrin could see a visibly annoyed turian C-Sec officer making her way back to her post. She was speaking into her omni-tool when she passed close to the salarian who overheard her message, “Officer Syndria reporting from Zakera’s Keel Docking Ports. Human female answering to the description of Wilhelmina ‘Mina’ Payne sighted near Bekenstein shuttle line dock. Subject evaded withholding for delivery to Social Services. Will keep looking in case she remains in the vicinity. Over and out.”

While he shared the C-Sec officer’s feeling of annoyance at the girl, Valrin had to admit that the young human had proven resourceful, using herself as bait to coax the turian into leaving the security box unguarded and then evading the officer’s pursuit. Admittedly, his investigation might proceed in a smoother way if C-Sec managed to get a hold of the girl and hand her over to the Social Services, but that would just grant him a brief respite. From what he had seen, Mina would be able to escape custody the first minute that the unfortunate Social Services worker handling her case looked away.

Walking to the nearest transit point, Valrin concluded that the girl was more than capable to look after herself and assumed that Mina would likely go back to the salarian’s office in case the two of them did not reunite at the docks. In any event, that was his destination, seeing that after uncovering the identity of the hacker who fed the doctored video to C-Sec, Valrin needed to make a quick call to a friend to improve his chances of finding the hacker in a shorter time. He was getting closer to the transit point when he noticed an unusually long queue next to a drink dispenser, dodging at the very last second a krogan who was carrying a handful of drink cylinders and almost tripped over the smaller salarian.

“Sorry pal”, the bulky alien rumbled in the deep, growling voice common to the member of his reptilian species. “Have a cold one on me! Someone hacked that dispenser, so all drinks are free. Better hurry though!”. The krogan them stormed off with his prize, chuckling to himself like he had just said something very funny.

The former STG operator did not need a drink, but found that the hack on the drink dispenser while he was around to examine the hacked terminal was too odd to be a coincidence. Pulling up his omni-tool, Valrin scanned the dispenser and realized that the machine had been operating normally until a few minutes ago, dispensing drinks for a price, at least until someone had revised its simple programming to get a free drink cylinder of Eden Prime Mix juice without bothering to reset the dispenser to its original programming. Valrin recalled that Eden Prime Mix was the beverage Mina had asked him when she stopped by his office earlier that day. Did the girl leave a trail for him to follow?

Apparently, that was really the case, seeing that the salarian then sighted a message cyclically displaying on the sign of one of the shops that lined the far side of the Keel Docking Ports. “Here to help me”, flashed on the sign before it was replaced by a Citadel’s souvenirs advertisement. Valrin headed straight for the shop and he was a few steps from the shop’s entrance when he had a familiar perception.

Someone was watching him.

It was not the causal glance cast by an occasional bystander that triggered an instinct Valrin had honed over his time with STG. There was someone following him, watching him like a predator stalking its prey.

The salarian did not stop walking, but after a couple of steps he did quick 180, in an effort to surprise his stalker. He was not surprised to see it was not Mina playing a prank on him. Actually, Valrin could not detect anyone suspicious among the meandering flow of people strolling across the docks. Whoever or whatever the stalker was, it was both fast and skilled. Feeling somewhat dumb, the salarian forced himself to memorize the look and appearance of as many of the people in sight as possible. His species had an almost eidetic memory and in theory he might identify the stalker if any of the people he memorized turned up again in Valrin’s vicinity at a later time. Salarians’ memory could register with crystal clarity numbers, text and events and it was also good at memorizing facial appearances. True, it worked better when one had to memorize looks of other salarians that, rather than those of beings from the other alien races – every species tended to perceive members of another race as looking all identical – but the level of detail Valrin could remember would be sufficient.

Inside the souvenir shop, the salarian found Mina huddled in a corner, pretending to look at the mementos on display and sipping her Eden Prime Mix juice. “Cool! Didn’t take you much to find me”, she greeted him before querying whether he had found anything useful on the terminal.

“Yeah, found something. But we need to have a talk about your stunt to distract the C-Sec officer”, Valrin told her in as much a serious voice as he could muster. “You can’t act of your own initiative like that, leaving me in the dark. We are part of a team now and, just like when I was part of a STG team, we need to make each other aware of the plan before executing it. Otherwise, we might do something counterproductive and put the mission objective at risk.”

Valrin did not expect the reprimand would work so well and was pleasantly surprised when the girl simply nodded and followed him without another word. Indeed, while Mina felt somewhat chastised by Valrin’s words, the concept of being part of a team along with the geeky, salarian tech expert elated her. The two made their way back to Valrin’s office without incident, ready to follow the lead found on the junction terminal.


Serpent Nebula, Widow system
Valrin’s office in the Citadel’s Zakera Ward

“Pyjak Brain owned you? That’s our clue? Really?” There was a look of genuine disbelief on Mina’s face as she listened to Valrin explaining what he found at the docks. “That’s just so silly, like a kiddie bragging about winning some dumb matchmaking game.”

She was still shaking her head when the salarian explained the meaning behind that message. “In a way, it is a form of bragging. Pyjak Brain is the nickname of a salarian hacker who was particularly active a dozen years ago. He always included in his code some extra bytes that, when properly interpreted, would display that message. It’s like a fingerprint or more like a signature to let others like him know who was behind the hack.”

“Will this help us find dad? What does this Pyjak Brain want from him?”

“Possibly. And no clue”, Valrin answered the girl’s rapid-fire questions. “Next step is to figure out where to find Pyjak Brain. I heard he had retired from his hacker career after being caught and that he was living on the Citadel after serving the past two years in jail.”

“You seem to know him pretty well, don’t you?”, Mina inquired with curiosity.

“Nah, not really. He is salarian and in STG we used to keep a tab on many skilled hackers of my species. Never know when you need one of them to do some dirty job against another species’ computer system and then pin the blame on them, such that STG, and the Salarian Union, come out with their hands clean. Wonder whether they are keeping a tab on me now…”

Valrin was not sure the girl would fully understand the implications of his answer, but it did not matter much. Meanwhile, the salarian kept fiddling with the communications suite of his office computer, trying to lock on the correct extranet frequency to raise the one person who could help them track down Pyjak Brain.

Extranet communication made it possible for virtually everyone to keep in touch across the inhabited galaxy, however access to the network of comm relays of the extranet was prioritized, meaning that users with low priority might be prevented from placing calls if all available bandwidth was already taken over by those with a higher priority. Valrin’s little business did not qualify for a very high priority and, rather than buying a costly subscription from one of those bandwidth resale corporations, the salarian had managed to use a STG hack to piggyback his access onto that of the salarian embassy. As long as his conversations did not steal large amounts of bandwidth, he would be able to benefit of his species’ government high priority for his communications on the extranet.

A few minutes went by as his call was forwarded through the system and Valrin waited for the person on the call’s receiving end to answer. The person in question was the bounty hunter responsible for capturing the hacker a few years earlier, after Pyjak Brain infiltrated the computer systems of a Noveria-based research corporation and stole a large amount of the corporation’s credits. The damage caused by the hacker’s attack was substantial, prompting the corporation’s leadership to hire a bounty hunter who could find the hacker and get back the stolen credits. There was no clear record of how exactly the corporation got back its money, but shortly after their CEO announced the complete recovery of the stolen credits, the bounty hunter turned over Pyjak Brain for detention in Port Hanshan.

It would be a serious case of bad luck if the bounty hunter was out of reach of an extranet comm relay. Fortunately, after what felt an eternity, Valrin’s call was answered and a static-filled image appeared on his computer screen, resolving into the image of Gemma Blackthorn.

“Hey Valrin, what’s up?”, the woman asked from the bridge of her small ship, in the British accent the salarian remembered so well. “You caught me in the nick of time, because I’m just a few minutes away from the nearest mass relay, heading for the planet Yamm, in the Kalabsha system, a forsaken backwater star system with no decent extranet link.”

Blackthorn was the bounty hunter who captured Valrin at the time of the botched operation that had ultimately cost the salarian his STG operator qualification. However, when the man behind the bounty, Henry Lawson, refused to pay Blackthorn and rather attempted to use her as a test subject for some hideous experiment, the woman assisted Valrin to escape their now common enemy. After those events, the salarian and the bounty hunter had remained friends, keeping in touch from time to time.

“Good to see you Gemma”, Valrin was genuinely pleased that he had managed to contact his friend in such a timely manner. “I need some quick input from you. Remember a salarian hacker going by the handle of ‘Pyjak Brain’? Any idea about a specific spot on the Citadel where I might find him?”

“You bet I remember that smartass. I was paid handsomely to bring him back on Noveria.”

The bounty hunter paused a moment, as if gathering her memories of the time when she had chased Pyjak Brain. Meanwhile, Mina vacated her chair and wandered into the field of Valrin’s camera, interested to both see and hear the person Valrin was talking to. Framed in the computer screen was a slender, brunette, human woman wearing a black and red outfit who definitely did not match Mina’s idea of a bounty hunter. The girl expected to see a square-jawed, unfeminine, middle-aged woman with bulging muscles, instead Gemma Blackthorn was an attractive, lightly-built, young woman with delicate features, long brown hair and that mellow voice she heard coming from the speakers.

“Hello, are you Valrin’s girlfriend?”, Mina asked to the bounty hunter, causing the salarian to look at the girl as if she had just grown a second head.

“Hello there”, Gemma replied, barely stifling a laugh. “Alas, I’m not his girlfriend. That cold-hearted salarian over there did not even spare me a glance that time I was almost undressed, wearing just a thin medical gown.”

The fact that the bounty hunter answered making a joking reference to her ordeal when she risked becoming Lawson’s test subject, told the salarian that his friend Gemma did not suffer from any post-traumatic stress disorder caused by the experience. On the other hand, having gained a better understanding of human sarcasm, Valrin was not sure he liked so much the idea that the woman was making fun of what humans perceived as a lack of sex drive afflicting the salarian species. Fortunately, Blackthorn did not have more time to keep mocking her salarian friend.

“Right, right, I’ve seen the mass relay coming up, now quite up Dasty”, the bounty hunter told someone off screen, namely her mech assistant Dasty. “Valrin, I’m approaching the jump point, so I need to keep this short. Pyjak Brain used to run his business at the Citadel from a HabCapsule in Bachjret Ward’s 286 Block, so you might be lucky and find him there.”

“Thanks for your help Gemma. Keep your eyes open on Yamm, I’d rather avoid a trip there to save you once again. Valrin out”. He was sure his attempt at a sarcastic answer did not affect Blackthorn even minimally, but he had to at least try in order to defend the salarian species’ dignity.

“Will do. Say ‘hello’ to Pyjak Brain for me and next time we talk, you are going to tell me who that sly little minx over there is”, the bounty hunter said flashing a big wink at Mina. The next second she flipped a switch on her console, disconnecting the communication and turning the image on Valrin’s screen back into static.

“She is totally gorgeous!” Mina was talking about Blackthorn of course, “Why don’t you go on a date with her or something? And she is nice too, even if she called me a minx…”

If there was one thing about the other species of Citadel Space that Valrin still struggled with, that was their apparent inability to understand the salarians’ lack of the romantic love and sexual attraction concepts. He knew that actually Gemma Blackthorn had a good understanding of salarian biology and culture, but the woman thoroughly enjoyed directing her sarcastic comments to Valrin. It was her way of coping with the fact that the former STG operative was immune to her charm when mostly everyone else found her attractive. However, Valrin had no clue if young Mina was similarly teasing him or whether the girl was truly unaware of how salarian relationships worked.

“Say, doesn’t your school teach the basics of the biology and culture of other species?”, Valrin asked the girl. He trusted that taking Mina back to whatever she had studied at school would suffice to answer her questions about Valrin’s relationship with Gemma.

“Oh sure, we are taught that salarian females are very few, so male-female relationships are rare among your species. But does that really prevent you from finding women of yours and other species attractive? Or does that apply only to non-salarian females?”

“Uh, well…”, Valrin was struggling to find a way out of this discussion before things got more complicated. “Let’s put it this way. It’s an evolutionary issue: salarian reproduction has been a matter of negotiations rather than attraction since the outset of our culture. So, as much as I enjoy Blackthorn’s company, I don’t feel any impulse to pursue what your species calls a ‘romantic relationship’ and I’m not interested to date her in the way you seem to suggest.”

Mina was listening with rapt interest, prompting Valrin to share an insight he had just come up with, in spite of his earlier discomfort regarding the subject of the discussion. “Maybe things will change in the future, as my species’ cultural evolution continues. Nowadays, it is common for salarians to be attracted to the asari, but apparently that was not always the case. My hypothesis is that salarian culture has adapted to centuries of inter-species relationships with the asari and in times to come my species might become attracted to turians or humans too. Anyway, enough talking about this, we have a hacker to track down.”

That was a enough for Mina to declare that she was ready to head for Bachjret Ward right away, but Valrin gestured for her to sit down. Even a single block of one Ward was large enough that combing all its HabCapsules to look for Pyjak Brain would take too much. Yet, Gemma’s input simplified the search to a large extent, since the salarian would need only some telltales of the hacker’s presence in that specific, single block rather than searching across the entire space station.

Working with his computer and omni-tool, Valrin devised and put into practice several strategies aimed to pinpoint the exact location of where Pyjak Brain might live in the 286 Block. After a time, his efforts produced a partial facial match extracted from the footage of a security camera and data obtained by infiltrating the records of the Citadel’s power management bureau. Combined together, this information suggested that an individual resembling the hacker might reside in a HabCapsule showing an unusual level of power consumption and located at the far end of the 286 Block. According to the Block’s registry office database, that accommodation was occupied by a single transient visitor, but the amount of power used was more akin to the presence of at least three people or, in the alternative, Valrin surmised it might be one hacker with a power-hungry computer system.

Looking across the room, the salarian figured that he would have to postpone to the next day any visit to Pyjak Brain’s hideout. He was so used to working alone that he had not realized Mina fell asleep while he was busy investigating. Due to the peculiarities of salarian metabolism, Valrin did not need to sleep more than one hour a day and his eating schedule was also different from other species like humans. That, coupled with the typical salarian tendency to speak and move quickly, meant that members of Valrin’s species were often seen as restless and hyperactive by the other species.

“Is it dinner time already?”, the girl queried, her voice still full of sleep. Apparently, in spite of Valrin’s attempt to move quietly across his office, the noise he made was enough to wake Mina up.

“Oh, sorry. Didn’t meant to wake you. And it’s not ‘dinner time’ for me. My next meal should be several hours away”, the salarian explained. “But maybe we can get something to your taste in Shin Akiba and then you can sleep a few hours in my office before we go to the 286 Block.”

“Chimichangas!”, the girl exclaimed enthusiastically, launching into a tale of the first time in Zakera Ward’s human commercial zone, Shin Akiba, when she and her father found this establishment where the owner spent as much time shouting “chimichangas” to attract customers as he did cooking his trademark recipe. Mina has found the dish appetizing and a real delicacy and thus was jubilant at the prospect of going to eat in Shin Akiba, even insisting that the salarian should taste some chimichangas himself.

While she talked especially of the food, there was fondness in the way Mina recalled the time spent with her father on the Citadel and Valrin took a mental note that he should really ask the girl more about herself and the missing Harold Payne. In fact, as they headed for Shin Akiba, it occurred to the salarian that he had jumped into Mina’s case because he was much intrigued at the prospect of investigating the mystery of the doctored security video, but it would not hurt having a more thorough knowledge of both the man he was looking for as well as of the girl who had hired him.


The next day Valrin roused the young human from her sleep with some difficulty. They had been up until late and, by the time the two had returned from dinner in Shin Akiba, Mina was practically sleeping standing up. It turned out that the sleep need of a human of Mina’s age was between 8 to 10 hours, so the salarian had plenty of time ahead before the girl would be ready to wake up. But what could he do to keep himself busy in the meantime?

Two hours were spent playing Valrin’s favorite videogame, Galaxy of Fantasy, a role-playing game based on elements of turian mythology. The salarian met a new player using the alias “Mother of Pumpkin” and together they banded with other players of their same faction, setting out to complete a particularly difficult quest. Mother of Pumpkin proved to be one hell of a player, effortlessly taking down a Level 55 Palavenian Necromancer with the relatively underpowered Turian Paladin. When the quest was successfully completed, Valrin would have loved to play more, but the group disbanded when Mother of Pumpkin left the server, announcing that there was a yahg in need of getting his ass kicked at Galaxy Wars. The comment left Valrin perplexed, as he had never heard of yahgs playing videogames, and ultimately chalked it up to some strange quirk of Mother of Pumpkin. (see chapter Note 1)

Having no desire to look for other players from scratch, Valrin turned his attention to a more professional activity. During dinner in front of a plateful of chimichangas – at Mina’s insistence Valrin had ventured to try a salarian variant of the recipe, the Sur’kesh dragonfly chimichanga – the former STG operator managed to extract some information from his dinner companion, by having the girl talk about herself and her parents. As such, the salarian figured that he could devolve some time to supplement what Mina told him by scouring the Extranet for additional information.

Chewing on a bite of her chicken chimichanga, Mina had recounted what little she remembered about her life on Nova Terra and then, in more detail, her subsequent life following the father as the man moved from one planet or installation to another for his work as a clinician. Valrin had listened carefully as Mina first talked about her mother, the late Cecilia Bennet Payne, a topic which the girl had broached several times with her father Harold, only to be gently rebuffed by the man, who seemed reluctant to talk about his deceased wife. For her part, Mina had only fleeting memories, mostly impressions, of the mother, because she was too young when the woman died. As a result, all the girl knew about her mother were the tidbits available on the Extranet, noting that Cecilia Bennet Payne was an astronomer with an interest in extragalactic studies and that she was lost while on a deep space assignment to supervise the maintenance of equipment intended for imaging the Andromeda galaxy.

Predictably, Mina had talked in some more detail about her father. An accomplished clinician in the main hospital of Terra Nova’s capital city, Scott, Dr. Harold Payne was driven to the current “nomadic” lifestyle after losing his wife. He left Terra Nova to work for hospitals or clinics on a number of different worlds and space stations scattered throughout Citadel Space, including the infamous Omega space station. The time spent on each location varied by a large margin, ranging from a few months to a couple of years, the only constant being that Dr. Payne always proved to be very hard-working, but at the same time made an effort to spend as much time as possible with his daughter. Nonetheless, wherever they transferred, Mina would spend a considerable time on her own, attending digital school courses from home in the mornings and browsing the Extranet in the afternoons. Apparently, it was in her free time during those afternoons that the girl learned the basics of hacking that Valrin had seen in action during the visit to Zakera Ward’s Keel Docking Ports.

Despite some in-depth searches on the Extranet, Valrin did not come up with anything much beyond what Mina had already shared about her mother, except that the woman had been working for a human foundation financially supporting her studies of other galaxies and that her death was the result of a never-explained accident on an orbital platform. Officially, Cecilia Payne was accidentally propelled into space as a result of a random system’s failure. When Search & Rescue units could not find her following extensive searches, she was declared missing, presumably dead. Nobody could have survived in space for such a prolonged period, certainly not for more than double the time allowed by their suit’s environmental systems.

Information on Mina’s father was likewise scant, but Valrin was able to retrieve a number of articles authored by the man and published on minor, well-reputed, scientific journals in the field of medicine. While an analysis of the clinical data in the articles was beyond Valrin’s expertise, he could easily notice a common thread in all these publications, namely biotics. Harold Payne was mostly interested in the development of biotics, especially in predisposed subjects whose abilities manifested at a relatively late age. A review of the publishing dates and identity of the journal’s publishers revealed a substantial correlation with Mina’s father peregrinations across the galaxy. As far as Valrin could conclude, Mina’s father had been moving from one place to another to advance his research on the mechanisms behind the development of biotics, but what was the reason and the ultimate purpose of that research remained unclear.

When further Extranet searches proved fruitless, the salarian finally decided to devolve at least one hour to sleeping. There was no telling what the visit to Pyjak Brain would entail and how things would develop from there, but Valrin’s time with STG had taught that catching some shut-eye when he had the possibility was always a sensible investment.

Chapter Text

Serpent Nebula, Widow system
Citadel’s Bachjret Ward

The next day, it turned out that in order to get Mina to wake up properly Valrin had to offer her an abundant breakfast. The amount of food that the girl seemed capable to eat was surprising for the salarian, but after having her meal she was ready to follow him to the Bachjret Ward and find Pyjak Brain.

Before leaving, Valrin had retrieved from his office a Kassa Fabrication Razer pistol, as well as a satchel that the salarian jokingly referred to as his “magic bag of tricks”. C-Sec had cleared him to carry the pistol for self-defense, but his clearance did not extend to the extra equipment that was stashed inside the satchel. The C-Sec officer Valrin had talked to when requesting to carry a weapon for personal defense made it clear he did not like civilians going around the Citadel carrying weapons, no matter that the request was from a former STG operator: the salarian thought with amusement that the C-Sec guy would have a heart attack if he saw what was inside the satchel right now.

It was later than Valrin had planned when the vehicle he and Mina were travelling onto finally joined the queue of transports moving from Zakera Ward to Bachjret Ward, only to find themselves caught in a traffic jam. Due to the ongoing repairs on the damage caused to the Tayseri Ward by the geth attack of a couple of years before, Citadel Control had to redirect part of its traffic through other Wards. As a result, it was not usual that during hours of intense traffic certain lanes might be slowed down or halted entirely until the situation cleared.

While they waited, Mina asked the salarian to tell her of his own family, the place where he grew up and of his youth in general. Valrin, being a reserved type, was not too keen to speak about anything of that, but the girl insisted, saying that it was only fair, especially after she had gone through Valrin’s “interrogation” regarding her parent during the day before. At last, the salarian relented and started talking, as a way to pass the time.

Mina was very much interested to hear about Valrin’s homeworld, the planet Nasurn, particularly the fact that it was the location of the city of Aegohr, one of the first three salarian colonies. Even more interesting was the revelation that Valrin had close to a couple dozens brothers. The girl thought it would have been amazing to grow up with so many siblings, that way she would have never felt alone when her father was busy at work. For his part, the salarian did not see things in the same positive light: during his youth, Valrin had found himself competing extensively with his brothers to show the clan’s Dalatrass who was the more intelligent, fast and creative. As soon as he reached the legal age to enlist with the Salarian Union army, Valrin left behind all those competitions to become an STG operator. His military career had kept him clear of the clan’s political and dynastic affairs, but also caused him to lose touch with most of his brothers.

Finally, before Mina could come up with more questions, Citadel Control gave the green light and traffic through their lane slowly, but steadily resumed. Twenty minutes later Valrin and Mina landed at Bachjret Ward’s main docking station, heading to the nearby 286 Block, where the salarian’s investigation suggested they would find the hacker Pyjak Brain.

The 286 Block was mostly reserved to provide shelter to transients visiting the Bachjret Ward. There was a continuous stream of new arrivals coming in to occupy the HabCapsules vacated only a few hours before by other transients. Due to that high turnover, residents of the block really did not pay attention to those living nearby. As such, the 286 Block was a perfect place for Pyjak Brain to set up his activity.

The complex housing the hacker’s suspected hideout was located at the far end of the block. It was a very quiet place and no one gave more than a look at the two newcomers. Valrin moved close to the door of the HabCapsule he had identified to be Pyjak Brain’s and unholstered his Razer pistol.

“I’ll go in alone”, the salarian cautioned Mina. “Once it’s safe to come in, I’ll give you the all-clear.”

Without waiting for the girl’s reply, Valrin readied his omni-tool to bypass the door’s security restrictions and that was when he realized something was amiss: the HabCapsule’s door was already unlocked. The salarian slid open the door and went inside, pistol at the ready, scanning the corners of the T-shaped room in front of him. The lights were off, but the wall directly facing the door was entirely covered with computer monitors, some of them showing merely static, but providing enough illumination for the salarian to check the place.

Valrin could tell a lone figure was sitting on a large comfy-chair in front of the monitors, but whoever that was did not give any sign of being aware of the salarian’s presence and did not move a muscle. Once he was right next to the chair Valrin realized why: there was a salarian sprawled on the chair, his neck bent at an awkward angle.

“I’m afraid you have been owned this time around, Mr. Pyjak Brains”, Valrin said to no one in particular as he moved to inspect the adjoining bathroom and the cubicle that passed for a bedroom. Satisfied that no one else was inside the HabCapsule, except the very dead hacker, Valrin got back to the entrance and gestured for Mina to come in.

“Is the hacker in there? Did you find him, Valrin?”, the girl asked.

“Oh, he is here all right”, the salarian said nodding. “Unfortunately, we will not be able to pass along Blackthorn’s greetings. Pyjak Brain is dead. Killed before our arrival.”

That stopped Mina dead in her tracks, the HabCapsule’s door automatically closing behind her. Then, after a few seconds, the girl wandered into the main room, trying to put on a brave face, but giving the dead hacker a wide berth. Valrin hoped the sight of the corpse would not plague Mina’s dreams for days to come.

“Why don’t you check for anything unusual with your omni-tool, while I take a closer look here?”, the salarian suggested as a way of keeping the girl busy. In his line of work Valrin often got to see dead people and he had forgotten that this was not true also for most girls of Mina’s age.

With the hacker dead, the trail was going to turn as cold as if it was put in cryo. Valrin hoped something useful might turn out by searching the HabCapsule, because he really hated the idea of going back to square one. Pyjak Brains’s computer would have been the best thing to start with, if the killer had not been competent enough to remove it. And if the hacker had a backup of his files, it was likely stashed somewhere other than the HabCapsule, leaving the salarian to wonder how long it would take to locate its whereabouts.

Turning his attention to the corpse, Valrin noticed with practiced eye that Pyjak Brain’s neck had been snapped. It was a quick and painless kill, performed by someone that the hacker trusted or who had the skills to approach him unseen and unheard. On further examination, he realized that the thick layer of moisture commonly present on salarian eyes had not left the hacker’s eyes, suggesting that death had occurred recently, otherwise those eyes would be much drier. Moving away from the body, Valrin kept looking for further clues until he was interrupted by Mina.

“Valrin? Come see this, quick!”

The salarian moved closer to examine something displayed on the girl’s omni-tool and realized why she sounded worried. It was a video shot from a high angle, showing a four-man unit of armed humans, and possibly asari, all wearing a camo-patterned armor complete with full face mask and advancing through the complex towards the hacker’s place. They clearly had some kind of tactical training, judging from the single-line formation they used to advance, but they looked nothing like a C-Sec SWAT team.

“It’s a live feed from a camera somewhere outside of this HabCapsule. I picked it up with my omni-tool”, the girl explained while Valrin’s mind was already going through their options.

They had to leave the HabCapsule on the double, but there was neither the time nor the means to leave undetected, seeing that the only one way out was through the door Valrin and Mina had used to enter and the unknowns would be there in minutes. To make it worse, if those four were hostiles, the salarian’s pistol would not be enough to lay down enough covering fire to open a path to freedom. That left two options: surrender or laying down an ambush. Valrin jumped straight into action.

The salarian’s first step was to pull out of his magic bag of tricks a pair of arc grenades and a sheet of adhesive polymer. Then, he quickly affixed the explosive devices to the walls close to the entrance, one on each side. The HabCapsule’s main room had a T-shape with the entrance located at the base of the “T”, thus creating a perfect kill-zone. A pair of tables close to the hacker’s workstation had been used by Pyjak Brain to collect an assortment of junk. Valrin flipped the two tables over, throwing to the ground a multitude of data disks, hardware components and one copy of Fornax, so as to improvise some cover for himself and Mina in the two opposite corners of the T-shaped room.

Not two seconds after taking cover, the salarian heard a shotgun blast pierce the HabCapsule’s door at the height of the controls and the four-man unit began to file through the entrance. Valrin was peeking through from behind his cover to ensure that all four members of the team were in range before he detonated the arc grenades.

The team’s point man suddenly halted, the searchlight on his shotgun illuminating something that the armored man did not expect to see. He shouted to warn his team.

“Oh shit, grenade!”

Too late.

Valrin tapped the detonation command on his omni-tool and the corridor became the center of a twin EMP blast that enveloped all four members or the team, overloading their shields and weapons and, most importantly, electrocuting and leaving them stunned for a few precious seconds.

That was all the opening Valrin needed and he jumped out of cover, grabbing Mina by an arm, careful not to trip over one of the still writhing soldiers on the way out. Mina was running as fast as she could to keep up with Valrin’s pace, but her shorter legs could not match the salarian’s stride and more than a few times she risked to stumble.

Outside the HabCapsule complex, the two fugitives noticed another unit of camo-armored soldiers. Apparently, the sound of the exploding grenades did not alarm them, but they promptly gave chase as the realization hit that the salarian and the girl had somehow escaped their comrades.

The sight of the soldiers lent Mira wings and she ran twice as fast. In an effort to shake off their pursuers, Valrin led the girl through a zig-zagging course, in and out a maze of hallways and up and down multiple flights of stairs. The salarian and the human were both out of breath by the time they finished climbing one last set of steps, reaching a panoramic promenade with an impressive view that overlooked the expanse of the Ward below.

Stopping to catch some much-needed breath, Valrin checked his whereabouts, trying to figure out the shortest way back to the docks. The view of Bachjret Ward sprawling in the distance, the Presidum visible at the far end of the Citadel, was breathtaking and briefly distracted Valrin. When the salarian focused back to the need for directions, he was suddenly struck by the familiar feeling of someone watching him.

It felt just like the day before, during the escapade at Zakera’s Keel Docking Ports, except that this time Valrin’s senses focused on an individual who seemed to be the source of the unpleasant feeling. There was a dark-haired human woman walking down the promenade in their direction, wearing some kind of lightly armored outfit and a Delumcore visor partially concealed her facial features. Headgear like that was usually worn to assist with aiming and to improve the wearer’s proficiency with a gun. As such, you did not need to be a former STG agent to sense that the woman meant trouble.

Later, when Valrin went back to the event in his mind, he could not shake off the impression that time had elapsing twice faster than normal during that moment. First, he saw the human bring to bear a heavy pistol. Next, the salarian registered the succession of bright flashes as the weapon was shot in his general direction and he stiffened in preparation to be hit by the incoming fire. Valrin was not wearing armor and all he could hope for was to shield Mina and keep her from getting shot. And then, much to the salarian’s surprise, the bullets harmlessly struck a biotic aegis barrier, cast by a blue-hued asari who had been standing a couple of steps behind Valrin and Mina.

It was not the first time Valrin witnessed a properly trained biotic creating an aegis barrier as a defence from weapons fire or melee attacks. If properly employed, the barrier could also be used to deflect the incoming fire back to the attacker. The ability was commonly referred to as backlash, and the salarian was thankful that the asari had used it to protect herself, as well as Valrin and Mina. There was another salvo of pistol rounds, again deflected by the aegis barrier, as the asari moved to completely interpose herself between Valrin and the attacker.

“Get to cover!”, the asari shouted.

She was directing Valrin and Mina out of the line of fire and away from imminent danger, while the mystery woman paused to replace her pistol’s expended thermal clip. The salarian pushed Mina behind a nearby pillar for protection, drawing out his own pistol.

By that time, amid general screaming, all bystanders had vacated the surroundings, leaving the asari and the human alone to face each other in the middle of the promenade. From their cover, Valrin and Mina watched as the fight moved to a new phase. Realizing that her weapon was ineffective, the human changed tack and Valrin saw a bluish glow burn increasingly brighter around her body. She was a biotic too!

First one, then a second lance of biotic energy were lobbed in the asari’s direction. The aegis barrier that had saved Valrin just a moment ago finally shattered, courtesy of the impacting shafts of blue energy thrown by the woman. The asari sprang into motion, hurling a warp field at her opponent. The attack thinned the human’s biotic barrier, without doing appreciable damage, but Valrin understood that the asari’s true intention was to keep the human occupied. Using her biotic dash ability, the asari began closing on her opponent, blinking in out of sight and effortlessly avoiding another biotic lance that was sent her way.

The last biotic dash took the asari into striking range. She reappeared in mid-air and poised to deliver a biotic punch, only to be hit by a gravity field projectile that the human conjured at the last possible moment, throwing her adversary away. Valrin’s eyes followed the asari as she was hurtled across the promenade. Rather than slamming awkwardly into the ground as the salarian expected, the blue-skinned alien hit the floor rolling on her shoulders to better absorb the impact and finally got back on her feet.

“Smooth landing”, Valrin said, whistling in appreciation. He was thinking of his own embarrassing landing, when Gemma Blackthorn had hit him with a similar biotic attack at the time of their first, not-so-friendly, meeting.

“Oh, now she is seriously mad…”, Mina chimed in.

She was talking about the asari of course and Valrin could only nod in agreement. The look on her face told the salarian that being thrown across the promenade had really pissed off the asari. In spite of the danger, Valrin found watching the fight between the two biotics to be weirdly entertaining. It was just like having a front seat at a live version of those biotic wrestling shows that he occasionally watched on TV. Of course with the exception that this show could cause real damage and real injuries.

Meanwhile, the human began her counter-attack, trying to close in using her own biotic dash, much like the asari had done a moment ago. Valrin was curious to see how the human planned to avoid the same kind of point-blank attack she had hurled at the asari. However, the asari had no intention to let her opponent get so close before striking back. Behind her enraged expression, she was concentrating to unleash some powerful attack, so much so that a singularity materialized a few paces away from the very spot where the human reappeared after the last biotic dash.

A singularity was notoriously one of the most powerful biotic talents, generating a swirling vortex of gravitational energy that was already attracting towards its center the closest loose objects scattered across the promenade, while at the same time pulling at the nearby benches and planters with a force capable of tearing them off the ground. The human woman’s biotic barrier protected her from the maelstrom for a few seconds, but the singularity was so close that it quickly stripped the barrier away and began to inexorably drag the woman into the eye of the storm.

The fight seemed as good as over, the human apparently defeated and floating helplessly. And yet, the masked woman was not ready to give up, resorting to something as audacious as it was dangerous: using her throw talent, she detonated the singularity field. The ensuing biotic explosion was blinding and Valrin was forced to close his eyes and pull back behind the pillar he shared with Mina for cover, losing sight of the makeshift battlefield for a few seconds.

“Will you look at that mess…”

Mina’s tone conveyed a mixture of reverence and disbelief that the salarian could only agree with when he finally opened his eyes to see for himself the destruction wrought by the biotic explosion. The once peaceful promenade was almost unrecognizable due to the damage sustained. There was a large crater where the asari’s singularity field had been detonated and all the walls in the range of several meters were cracked and worn-down by the massive amount of energy released in the process. There was no sign of the human biotic and Valrin wondered whether she had been literally obliterated as a result of her own reckless action. As for the asari, she had survived the blast almost unscathed, Valrin saw her emerge from under a pile of rubble, removing the dust from her now dented armor.

“Follow me, you can’t stay here”, the asari said, coughing a little at the dust.

It was an unexpected offer and one that Valrin approached with caution, especially after the increasingly dangerous turn of the events in the last hour. Dropping into the house of a salarian hacker shortly after he was killed was bad enough, having that very same place stormed by mercenaries while you were inside made it so much worse, but not as much as escaping those mercs to wind up in the middle of a crazy biotic fight. At this rate, what was the next step? A rachni invasion?

“Don’t be stubborn. She’ll be back and her CAT6 goons are still around”, the asari said, sensing Valrin’s hesitation. “And in any event I doubt you want to stay here and explain what happened to C-Sec, right?”

As if to punctuate the asari’s words, Valrin could hear C-Sec’s sirens, signaling that patrol vehicles were rushing onto the scene of the fight. Nothing like having to take a rushed decision in a prickly situation, Valrin thought with a hint of resignation.

The asari renewed her request, while extending a hand in Valrin and Mina’s direction. “Come with me if you want to live.”

Coming to a final decision, the salarian shared a look with Mina and the girl silently nodded, suggesting she would like to follow the asari. Together, the trio ran to a nearby staircase leading down to the lower levels of the Ward, careful not to lean against the railing damaged by the earlier biotic explosion. A person’s weight would be enough for the railing to break and cause the unfortunate soul leaning against it to plummet to death several levels below.

The hallway at the bottom of the stairs was unkept and poorly illuminated, the opposite of the once elegant promenade upstairs, and served as a parking lot for hover cars of all models and colors. The asari guided the group towards a brand new car, its lavender-painted chassis having some kind of metallic sheen to it, and dropped into the driver’s seat as soon as the canopy raised open. Valrin and Mina hastened to board the vehicle too.

By the time they were airborne, Valrin felt like an assault rifle on full auto, spewing a stream of questions at the asari. He was in need of answers and being a former intelligence operative did not help. The salarian had been trained to gain a low tolerance for lack of information. As his STG mentor Jondum Bau once put it, STG agents depended on information just as much as their body depended on food.

“All right, who are you? Who was that human? What is CAT6? What do you know of Pyjak’s Brain death? And where are we going?”, the salarian rapid-fired all the questions without even taking a breather between each one.

 “And what does all of this have to do with my father’s disappearance? Please tell me, wise sister of Tevura”, Mina added.

It might have been because the girl used some kind of asari honorific to address her or because the salarian’s string of questions simply required more time to process, but the asari chose to tackle Mina’s question first.

“I’m sorry child, but I don’t know who your father is nor if and how he is connected to what just happened.”

If Mina had been disappointed by the answer, she did not show it. Valrin expected the girl might insist, say that she didn’t believe the asari, probe her with more questions and maybe even tempt her with offering credits in exchange for an answer, but Mina just remained silent, looking at the asari with what the salarian thought was reverence. What had happened to the sly, cheeky girl Valrin had met the day before? Did the time spent on a few asari worlds while following her father impart on Mina a particularly deep respect for the asari?

“And I’m afraid there was a misunderstanding”, the asari added. “Contrary to what that Heart of Tevura pendant may suggest, I’m not part of the goddess of travel’s sisterhood”, she explained, pointing to a small jewel hanging from one of the car’s controls on the dashboard. “But I still welcome the blessing of Tevura, for I am Alyssaria, a justicar, and I happen to travel a lot.”

“You know, I’m told that justicars almost never leave asari space”, Valrin barged in, quoting from memory something he heard Mina say when criticizing the videogame Justicars of the Asari Republics. The salarian felt somewhat irritated by the asari’s deliberately unhurried, laid back tone and possibly his words had been more brisk than intended. Indeed, Valrin’s interruption earned him an outraged look and an elbow in the ribs from Mina, suggesting that the girl had a serious case of “hero worship” when it came to justicars.

“I can explain that and answer your other questions”, Alyssaria said, choosing to ignore the by-play between her two passengers. “But to do that I need to tell you of why I gave up my previous life to follow the Code.”

Contrary to Valrin’s expectations, the events of the asari’s story did not go back to a hundred years earlier, but to a scant ten years before the present day, at a time when Alyssaria said she was still serving as a commando in the asari military. Back then, her mentor was the respected Matriarch Jocasta, a retired commando and well-known on Thessia for her willingness to provide biotic training to those non-asari individuals who possessed an exceptional biotic talent and were thus shunned by their own people out of fear.

The salarian nodded, it was a widespread knowledge that the asari were uncontested adepts at biotics and that they often welcomed biotics from other races, helping them to master their biotic potential. For the same reason, the asari also welcomed scientists interested into a better understanding and development of biotics, as was the case of Mina’s father, Harold.

Alyssaria recalled how Matriarch Jocasta had accepted as one of her students a human woman. Impressed by the human’s raw powers, Jocasta agreed to teach her and after a few years the woman managed to harness the power of her biotics. The following events were still unclear, but the general consensus was that soon after her training the human began offering her services as a contract assassin, prompting the Matriarch to confront her. In response, the human killed Jocasta in an ambush and then fled from Thessia, soon establishing herself as one of the most brutal biotic assassins in asari space under the untoward moniker of “Angel”. Alyssaria had vowed to avenge the Matriarch and abandoned her previous life to become a justicar, following Angel from one asari colony to the other, as the human used the teachings of Matriarch Jocasta to kill for money and always managed to evade Alyssaria by a small margin.

That was enough for the salarian to draw the most logical conclusion. “And now that your biotic assassin has left asari space you gave chase here on the Citadel, right?”

“Exactly. I’ve been following her quietly for the past few days, waiting for my moment, but I decided to reveal myself once it became clear she meant to kill either or both of you.”

An unexpected jolt following when another car collided with the rear end of their own vehicle prevented Valrin from seeking an answer to his question on CAT6. Alyssaria’s car relied on an external camera to provide rearward vision and the camera’s view clearly showed another hover car, no actually it was two, trying to ram the justicar’s vehicle and push it out of the traffic lane. Stuck in the passenger seat, Valrin was feeling powerless and could no more than witness as the asari accelerated her car, taking evasive actions to avoid further collisions.

“It’s again those camo-armored soldiers”, Mina pointed out while looking at the image picked up by their car’s camera. Indeed, Valrin could see that the occupants of the two vehicles giving chase were wearing the same camo-patterned armor of whoever tried to capture him and Mina at Pyjak Brain’s house.

“Hold tight!”, Alyssaria warned as she began a series of maneuvers aimed to shake off the pursuers. They were moving much faster than allowed by the Citadel’s airspeed limits, weaving between the other cars, sometimes with mere centimeters of clearance. Valrin noticed that the traffic was so thick that it was just a matter of time before they eventually hit another vehicle by accident. The asari seemed to realize the same thing and abruptly changed direction to leave the traffic lane they had been following until that moment.

Taking a steep downward turn to the right, Alyssaria dropped the hover car into a traffic lane flying on a lower level and, disturbingly, traveling in the opposite direction. Valrin was not sure the asari’s choice to steer her car into oncoming traffic was commendable, but it surely was effective. Of the two pursuing vehicles, only one managed to successfully follow the justicar’s car into the new traffic lane, while the second spun out of control and smashed into a holographic billboard after it was forced to steer away to avoid a head-on collision with a car travelling in the other direction.

The asari kept driving and dodging the oncoming cars, closely followed by their now single pursuer. Valrin was keeping his gaze fixed on the traffic, somehow afraid that if he averted his eyes the consequences could be fatal, regardless that common sense told him that merely watching was not a guarantee. While Alyssaria had proved a steady driver so far, the salarian wished yet again that he was at the control. In fact, while Valrin was not fond of stunts like the one pulled by the asari, he was pretty good at that kind of stuff, thanks to his lightning-fast salarian reflexes.

At last, Valrin decided to take the risk and looked away. He wanted to check on Mina, for he had not heard even a whimper coming from the girl since the car chase had begun. At first glance, she seemed to be doing all right, but Valrin noticed the girl’s slightly defocused gaze aimed straight ahead and her white-knuckled grip on the seat. No doubt, the day was proving full of thrills and shocks for the young girl, starting with coming face to face with the dead hacker, then surviving a destructive biotic fight and now this pulse-pounding car chase. The salarian waved a hand in front of Mina’s face, to pull the girl out of her apparently shocked state. She reacted by swallowing nervously, then put on a brave face and gave him a thumbs up.

Reassured that Mina was not entirely traumatized by the events of the day, Valrin returned his attention to Alyssaria’s driving, sparing a few glances at the screen showing the car’s rear camera feed. Whoever was at the controls of the hover car giving chase was good, for the asari had been unable to shake them off despite the substantial danger of head-on collisions with other vehicles. The image on the screen showed to Valrin that one of the passengers aboard the pursuing vehicle was opening a lateral section of the car’s canopy to then extend an arm outside and aim a pistol at Alyssaria’s car.

The salarian managed to warn the justicar just in time. The asari hit the hover car’s air brakes, causing the vehicle to suddenly loose speed, narrowly avoiding an impact against their pursuers’ car that flashed past at full speed. Valrin and Mina were still trying to recover from being bumped around in their seats by the sudden deceleration when Alyssaria resumed driving straight down the traffic lane at full throttle. The asari had managed to turn the tables on their pursuers, however her unorthodox maneuver had also attracted the attention of a C-Sec patrol car and it was not long before Valrin could hear the blare of the patrol car’s sirens closing behind them.

Instead of taking this chance to evade their former pursuers, the asari was now intent on giving chase, heedless of C-Sec’s intervention. In his current line of work, Valrin had always tried to fly below C-Sec’s radar, so he was pretty unamused to have a patrol car from the Citadel’s security forces along for the ride. As much as he would have loved to chase down their former pursuers and have a quiet chat with them, the salarian would have preferred to see Alyssaria break off the pursuit, especially before more C-Sec patrol cars joined the fray. Unfortunately, the justicar seemed unable, or rather unwilling, to do so, prompting Valrin to solve the matter in his own way.

The role-reversal brought about by the asari’s maneuver offered an opportunity for Valrin to try disabling their former pursuers’ vehicle with a tech attack. Aiming the omni-tool at his intended target with accuracy proved tricky, because the guy driving the former pursuers’ vehicle kept weaving between the oncoming cars. To make it more difficult, to get a better aim Valrin was forced to lean himself out of an open lateral section in the car’s canopy, at the risk of getting smashed on some obstacle if Alyssaria did not factor that in when maneuvering. Once his target was finally aligned for a shot, the salarian let loose an overload attack, but his aim wobbled out at the last moment and he missed completely. Before he could follow up with a second try, Alyssaria shouted a warning.

“Brace yourselves!”, she cried and then sent the car into a roll on the right to dodge an oncoming hauler. Valrin’s hold on the car’s frame was already precarious at best and the unexpected maneuver caused him to completely lose his grip. The salarian began slipping out of the car and he would have been in for a long fall and a painful impacting with the ground several hundred meters below if it was not for Mina’s intervention. The girl grabbed him and then used all her strength to keep Valrin from falling out for the few precious seconds that Alyssaria needed to straighten the hover car.

“That was close”, Valrin said with relief as he settled back into his seat. After taking a breather, he proceeded to haul himself out the opening in the canopy once more. This time Mina grabbed the salarian’s legs as a precautionary measure, unsure that she would be again able to grab him at the last second as was the case shortly before.

“Steady… Steady…”, the salarian chanted while doing his best to keep a straight aim at his target. At the car’s controls, the justicar did a slight adjustment to better align with the former pursuers’ vehicle, forcing Valrin to hold his second attempt for a little longer while his omni-tool re-calculated the proper trajectory for the attack.

“There!”, Valrin shouted as he released the overload attack. This time the salarian did not miss and he briefly saw his target lose power and slow down. Alyssaria maneuvered to leave the traffic lane they were still traveling in the wrong direction, in the process giving all of the car’s occupants a final view of their pursuer’s vehicle steadily losing altitude. From the look of things, Valrin assumed that the driver was relying on what little aerodynamics the hover car had for a controlled glide to the ground. There was no time to see whether the maneuver was successful as Alyssaria’s car sped past down its new course.

The justicar’s car camera picked up at least three C-Sec patrol cars on their six, much to Valrin’s displeasure. The high-speed chase was not over yet, but with their former pursuers out of the picture Alyssaria now seemed eager to leave the scene as soon as possible.

“Get them off me, salarian. I know of a few hiding places to leave a car, but we have to shake those patrols off before I head there.”

That made a lot of sense, except that Valrin had no intention to use his overload attack against C-Sec. There must be some other way to discourage those patrols from keeping up the pursuit without exposing the C-Sec officers at an unnecessary risk, the salarian thought. Meanwhile, the three patrols had gained ground and were maneuvering to box Alyssaria’s car in. The justicar pushed her vehicle’s acceleration stripe to full velocity, temorarily evading C-Sec’s attempt to trap them.

“I can’t keep this up for long”, she warned matter-of-factly. “Once they have more patrols on scene, it will be hard to keep them at bay”.

Call it paranoia, but Valrin somehow perceived the asari’s words as a veiled rebuke over his apparent inability to get rid of C-Sec’s patrols. His mind raced through a multitude of options and each time the salarian was forced to discard them. Any of a dozen ways to sabotage a random car, forcing C-Sec to stop and provide assistance? No, too risky for the bystanders. Hacking the traffic controls to leave C-Sec stuck in a traffic jam? Impractical, without a direct access to the Citadel Traffic Control Station. Altering the appearance of Alyssaria’s car? Wishful thinking, that kind of stuff was seen only in movies, like the Blasto series.

While the Valrin was busy pondering the options, the number of C-Sec cars had increased. By now, there were enough patrols to make this high-speed chase across the skies of Bachjret Ward an event for the news services. It was only a matter of time before the C-Sec officers coordinated to make a new attempt at blocking the fugitives, then, before the day’s end, Valrin’s face would be shown in the news. He could already hear the news report playing in his head, the voice of well-known Citadel’s journalist Emily Wong commenting on how the salarian Tolaen Valrin, alleged “problem solver” with a shady past, was arrested by C-Sec following a high speed chase through the Wards that had put civilian lives at risk. Not exactly a flattering portrait of him and definitely not the kind of advertisement he was looking for to promote his services.

It was Mina that ultimately came up with a solution. Clearing her throat before speaking, the girl activated her omni-tool and sent a file to the salarian’s own device. “Uh… Maybe this bit of C-Sec code might prove handy, what do you think?”

Valrin inspected the code he had just received, a triumphant smile lighting up his features. “No idea how you put your hands on this girl, but this is going to be fun!”, he said chuckling.

“Remember that I told you about visiting C-Sec’s offices to report my father going missing?”, the girl explained, “Well, the officer I spoke to had this in a file open on his terminal, along with some other stuff I siphoned off while he was not looking”.

“Oh, poor officer Lang is surely in for some trouble if they ever figure out we got this through him”, Valrin commented, equally amused and sorry for Lang. The guy was a good officer all in all, at least based on the few interactions the salarian had with him, so it would be a shame if Lang got in deep vorcha crap over this. Still, this was their best shot, so the salarian kept tapping commands on his omni-tool at a considerable speed, programming a hack that would transmit to C-Sec’s patrols the code Mina had sent him. Then, all they had to do was to simply wait for those patrols to “roll the red carpet”, figuratively speaking, and allow Alyssaria’s car to go on its way.

A further bit of contortion was required on Valrin’s part in order to throw the hack at the patrols, but at least this time the salarian did not risk falling out the car while he leaned out of the canopy’s open lateral section to aim his omni-tool. The worm quickly found its way through the first patrol car’s computer, issuing the specific command embedded in the code stolen by Mina. The infected patrol car’s own system then broadcast the signal to the other vehicles taking part to the chase and in a couple of seconds the sirens fell silent and all patrols save one slowed down, making no further efforts to continue the pursuit.

“Excellent!”, Alyssaria noted with satisfaction. “What did that code do exactly?”

Chuckling again, Valrin revealed what was the function of the stolen C-Sec code. “That, was the best thing we could ever ask for in the present situation”, he said, giving a complimentary nod to Mina. “Basically, that’s an override signal that orders any C-Sec unit, be it a mech or a patrol car or an officer, to stand down and ignore whatever offense perpetrated by whoever transmits the code. Supposedly, its use is reserved to undercover C-Sec officers and Special Tactics and Reconnaissance agents, specifically when they are on a mission and need regular C-Sec units to stay away.”

Behind Alyssaria’s car, the last patrol finally slowed down and was soon no longer visible in the car’s rear camera. “Rumors are that some C-Sec officers hate the idea of Spectres defying the law and they don’t approve of this kind of override, just like our friend in that last patrol car who kept pursuing us for a little more”, Valrin added. “But I guess no officer can keep up a high-speed chase when it’s the patrol car itself refusing to cooperate. And now, it should be smooth sailing for us”.

Indeed, the justicar proceeded to insert her car, now traveling within the speed limit, into another traffic lane. It was not long until Valrin and Mina saw Alyssaria check, by means of the rear camera as well as by looking around through the car’s canopy, for anyone who might be still keeping an eye on them. Satisfied that no one seemed to be paying attention to her car, she smoothly landed the vehicle at a docking station at the very top of a tall building housing several shops and restaurants.

“Got a quiet place not far from here where I can finally answer your other questions. Shall we go?”, the asari said, inviting her two passengers to follow her.

 

Chapter Text

Serpent Nebula, Widow system
Ridni’s motel in the Citadel’s Bachjret Ward

For her stay on the Citadel, Alyssaria had rented a room at a second-rate motel in an anonymous street of Bachjret Ward and that was the place where the justicar led Valrin and Mina after leaving her car. The cheap furniture and faded appearance of the walls inside the room was all the evidence Valrin required to conclude that Ridni’s motel was not exactly suitable for tourists. Rather, the place catered more to the needs of visitors with few credits to spend or those who wished to keep a low profile and avoid registering for a HabCapsule in one of the Wards’ transient blocks.

There was no telling which of the two categories Alyssaria fell into Justicars did not strike Valrin as being particularly wealthy and at the same time they were known to perform their duties as quietly as possible, preferably without interference from local police forces. Whatever the case, the volus owner of the motel, Ridni, did not care. His principal concern was ensuring that the guests pay the daily rent – something which a pair of large krogan minions attended to – and not much else. As such, it was no surprise to Valrin that there was a number of unsavory characters inhabiting the motel, or that several rooms served as the working place for prostitutes who met their clients at the motel, or that a gambling den had been set up in the basement. After all, the motel was located in a decayed area of the Wards, albeit not as bad as the cesspool of degrade that was Omega.

On the bright side, given that minding one’s business was the golden rule for all guests of Ridni’s motel, once inside the justicar’s room, Alyssaria, Valrin and Mina could resume the conversation abruptly interrupted during the car chase without fear of intrusion.

“Make yourselves at home”, the asari said as she excused herself before and disappeared in the adjoining bathroom.

Valrin and Mina attempted to make themselves as comfortable as possible in the worn out room. Alyssaria was back just a few minutes later: she was no longer wearing the armor, her body now covered only in a dark gray, tight-fitting outfit that revealed the contour of her toned and fit physique.

The effect elicited by Alyssaria’s good looks respectively on Valrin and Mina could not have been more different. The salarian eyed the justicar with the same interest he showed when inspecting a new weapon or tech device, taking note of the asari’s well-developed musculature and then making conjectures about what training she must have undergone as well as which asari martial arts Alyssaria might practice. In contrast, Mina watched the justicar with a slack-jawed expression as the asari emerged from the bathroom. The human girl was simply awed by the blue-skinned alien’s confidence with her body and the way beauty and power coexisted in her. Valrin heard Mina mutter something about wishing to be ‘like that’ when she grew up, yet more evidence of the extent to which the girl seemed to admire the asari species.

 “So, unless I’m mistaken, I told you about Angel and how I followed her to the Citadel”, Alyssaria said by way of resuming their earlier conversation, unaware of the contrasting thoughts her looks had triggered. “And whoever that "Pyjak Brain" you mentioned was, it’s almost certain that Angel has something to do with his death. It can’t be a coincidence that she is close and someone winds up being dead.”

When the justicar’s had revealed that the mysterious human woman they had run into at the 286 Block was an assassin for hire, Valrin had immediately suspected that she might be involved in the hacker’s death. Someone hired Pyjak Brain to create a cover up for the disappearance of Mina’s father, then paid Angel to remove the loose end represented by the hacker. In all likelihood, those who had materially carried out Harold Payne’s kidnapping would be found dead sooner or later, yet another unsolved murder to join the pile of cases resting on some C-Sec’s detective desk.

Unfortunately, the knowledge that Angel was an assassin covering someone’s tracks was not of any immediate use to find Harold Payne. That left the identity of the camo-armored soldiers who had stormed Pyjak’s Brain place and then chased them by car to be investigated, prompting Valrin to return on this subject.

“And those mercenaries who chased us, you called them "CAT6". Do they work for Angel?”

Alyssaria shook her head. “Not for her, but with her, as far as I have seen.”

“I have never run into CAT6 before, but they seem to be a well trained and equipped group”, the salarian noted.

“Their members are former soldiers of the Systems Alliance who got dishonorably discharged, so that might explain their training”, the justicar replied. “They seem to be taking orders from whoever hired Angel. I was following my quarry, waiting for a good moment to take her down, when I witnessed a meeting between Angel, a CAT6 officer and another human.”

The way Alyssaria talked about “taking down” someone gave the salarian a chill, but he put that aside, keen to investigate one detail the asari had just revealed. “Any clue who that other human is?”

“No. I saw him discuss with Angel and the merc and that’s all. My sole interest lies in tracking down Angel and anyone who is in business with her is not my concern”, there was only a brief pause before she added more. “Of course, unless they get in the way of my mission or the Code demands that I take action against them.”

It was no secret that justicars could be pretty brutal and unrelenting when it came to enforcing the dictates of their Code. Valrin was still part of STG when word got out that the justicar Samara had… roughed up – as in killed, maimed or beaten up –half of the Eclipse mercs’ garrison on Illium, in retaliation for the mercs’ assistance to a criminal she was hunting. Valrin thought it was probably for the best that justicars rarely left asari space. He was also sure that he would not like to trade places with Angel once Alyssaria managed to finally corner the assassin.

Regardless of the justicars’ rumored brutality, at present knowledge that a third individual was involved in their case was all that mattered for Valrin. If they could find the man Alyssaria had seen with Angel and the CAT6 merc, it was possible they might get some useful information out of him.

“Is there anything peculiar you remember about the third human? Something that might help with his identification?”

The justicar briefly pondered the question, her eyes slightly narrowed as if trying to focus her memory on the events of the meeting she had witnessed. “He had very plain looks, nothing that would make him stand out among other members of his species. But he was wearing a lab coat, with a symbol shaped in the form of a circle.”

Considering the sheer number of humans present on the Citadel who might be wearing a lab coat or similar clothing for a variety of reasons, Valrin’s only hope was that the symbol Alyssaria had seen on the coat could at least narrow down the search.

Mina was one step ahead, hastily working on her omni-tool until she pulled up a holographic image of a very plain “O” symbol. The girl stretched out her arm with the omni-tool to give the asari a better view.

“Is this the symbol you saw on the man’s lab coat?”

“It is”, Alyssaria curtly replied.

“Oh my, gosh! That’s the logo of the clinic where dad has been working for since we got to the Citadel!”

Mina was thrilled that they had just found a clue with a direct link to her father. She worked some more on her omni-tool, loading a holopicture to replace the clinic’s symbol. The picture was one of Mina with her father and Valrin could see it had been taken in front of what was probably the clinic’s building. Right above the building’s entrance was a sign consisting of the “O” symbol with the name “Le Cercle Parfait” immediately beneath.

“All right, we need to use the terminal in my office”, the salarian stated. “We are going to take a peek at the clinic’s personnel records and see if Alyssaria can identify the third human. Then we have a nice, little talk with that guy.”

“Too dangerous”, the justicar interjected. “Angel and CAT6 are certainly expecting you to show up at your place or your office and they will be waiting for you and the girl there.”

That made a lot of sense, assuming that Angel and the mercenaries were aware of Valrin’s identity. It was certainly possible that they knew about him and the salarian was thus unwilling to take the risk of visiting his office. But without access to a suitably powerful terminal, he had no means to hack into the clinic’s personnel archives.

“Well, then we need to find another terminal”, Valrin stated as an idea took form in his head. He had just figured out where to find one such terminal.

* * * *

Serpent Nebula, Widow system
Ridni’s gambling den in the Citadel’s Bachjret Ward

The smell in the gambling den’s restrooms was anything but memorable, forcing Valrin to rely on his STG training to block out the intrusive thought of the smell and concentrate on the work at hand. The restrooms were located just adjacent to the office where management controlled all the gambling activities of the joint located in the basement of Ridni’s motel. This meant that, notwithstanding the unsavory smell, Valrin and Mina were suitably close to the terminal located inside the management’s office, close enough to remotely enter the system and use it for their own purposes.

With Valrin’s assistance, Mina had used her omni-tool to find a backdoor into the terminal and force it to send out a remote access signal. The salarian intercepted that signal with his own omni-tool and used it to piggyback on the terminal’s extranet connection, relying on the remotely connected device to work his way into the archives of the Le Cercle Parfait clinic.

Alyssaria, now back into her armor, was guarding the restrooms’ access door she had locked to prevent anyone else from coming inside. She looked around the smelly restrooms with an air of mild boredom, her arms crossed and the left foot casually resting on the now unconscious turian gambler who had wandered in just a few minutes ago, when Valrin and Mina had been in the process of setting up the hack. The turian had learnt the hard way that it is not wise to threaten a former asari commando turned justicar. While Valrin and his companions were undeniably making an improper use of the restrooms, the unfortunate gambler had made the stupid mistake of punctuating his complaints by throwing a punch at the asari. The turian’s fist did not even come close to connecting with Alyssaria, he was too drunk for that, but the justicar did not give him the luxury of a second chance. She retaliated with a vicious uppercut that had knocked the gambler unconscious, leaving him to drool over the restrooms’ dirty floor. Judging from the rapidly expanding wet spot on the turian’s trousers, the punch also contributed to relaxing his bladder, causing the gambler to soil himself.

Valrin could only chuckle at the sight of the unconscious gambler, thinking that the guy would probably wake up the next day, a wiser, and very much embarrassed, turian. Meanwhile, the salarian finally managed to open the archive storing the clinic’s personnel profiles. The clinic’s network had been comparatively more difficult to hack than expected, but its security was ultimately no match for a former STG specialist, all the more considering the amount of practice he got by infiltrating several of the Citadel’s sensitive systems.

Mina pointed to a specific cluster of data from the clinic’s personnel records and Valrin pulled out the pictures stored within each of the profiles for all of the clinic’s employees and associates, filtering the results to see only human males.

“Time to see if anyone looks familiar”, the salarian said, inviting Alyssaria to join him and browse through the pictures.

It was slow going for a while, as the justicar had insisted on setting to “low” the speed at which the omni-tool would switch to the subsequent picture. Valrin would have managed to recognize someone even while browsing the pictures at 8X, so watching Alyssaria browse at 1X felt excruciatingly slow for the salarian.

A couple of yawns escaped Valrin and he could tell that Mina was getting impatient too, at least judging from the increasingly deeper frown she was wearing on her face and the tapping of her foot. So much for hero-worshipping the justicar, Valrin thought. Finally, the asari stopped browsing the pictures and the three of them looked intently at the picture of the balding, middle-aged human male that Alyssaria identified as the person she saw meeting Angel and the CAT6 merc.

Using the holographic controls of his omni-tool, Valrin pulled up the man’s profile from the clinic’s records. According to the data, they were looking at one Kalevi Virtanen, a laboratory technician who had been working at Le Cercle Parfait clinic for about two years after an internship at Huerta Memorial hospital. The file showed that the man had consistently received by his superiors positive, albeit only slightly above the average, comments on his work at the clinic. There was also a residence address, showing that Mr. Virtanen’s lived not far from the clinic, at the fringes of Zakera Ward’s most densely-populated block.

The salarian saved the clinic’s personnel files onto his omni-tool for later use and prepared to leave the restrooms. The next step would be to find Mr. Virtanen, either at the clinic or at his residence, and have a frank chat with him. Alyssaria unlocked the door and they filed out of the restrooms, glad to finally leave behind the smelly place, but only to find themselves face to face with Ridni and his two krogan bodyguards.

Under different circumstances, the contrasting sight of the diminutive volus backed by the two massive reptilian behemoths behind him would have elicited a laugh from Valrin. However, judging by the way things were looking at that very moment, Ridni had not shown up in the basement to provide some comic relief for the salarian and his companions. Just like all the members of his species, the volus was encased in a pressure suit and there was no way to read his expression behind the breather mask. Valrin simply assumed that their intrusion in the gambling den’s terminal had not gone entirely unnoticed, a conclusion which was conveniently confirmed when Ridni spoke up, his speech interrupted at regular intervals by the clicking sound of the suit’s breathing apparatus.

“Typical salarian behavior”, *click*. “Relying on their purportedly superior technology to steal the volus’ hard earned credits”, *click*.

Behind the volus, the two krogans simultaneously let out a short, guttural rumble that was their species’ equivalent of a chuckle. “Right, boss”, one of the bodyguards added.

Whatever the reason behind it, Valrin was sure that if Ridni asked them to jump around standing on one foot, the two bodyguards would comply without even batting an eye. Ironically, in ages past it was Valrin’s species that had been responsible for uplifting the then-primitive krogans and introduced them to the galactic community. That had been a measure driven by necessity, since at that time the salarians and their asari allies had been entangled in a war with the rachni, a war they might have lost if not for the deployment of legions of fierce krogan warriors at the battlefront.

Valrin was aware that because of their past together, salarians still tended to look upon the krogans in a stereotyped manner, as if they were still the dumb primitive brutes of prior to their uplifting. It was an unfair stereotype, but occasionally there were individual krogans whose behavior confirmed that the stereotype actually had some merit. And Ridni’s bodyguards seemed to definitely fit with the dumb brute stereotype.

“Now you will hand over all your omni-tools”, *click*. “And that includes you too, young girl”, *click*, the last request clearly directed to Mina.

“This is not acceptable”, Alyssaria stated. “You are impeding me from following the path the Code has set me upon!”

In a show of force intended to intimidate her opponents, the asari began to emanate the distinct blue glow that was the telltale feature of biotics. For his part, Valrin pulled up his pistol and aimed it in the general direction of Ridni: biotics were good, but biotics and guns were even better.

“You heard her, Ridni”, Valrin addressed the volus who was looking suitably intimidated by their reaction. “How about you trust us that we didn’t touch your dirty credits and we just leave?”

While the volus was effectively frightened by Alyssaria’s biotics and Valrin’s gun, the same could not be said about the two bodyguards. Indeed, the krogans redoubled their throaty rumble and leveled their shotguns, relishing the idea of a fight that promised to be more challenging than the brawls they were called to put down in the gambling den. Those two were definitely dumb brutes, but brutes armed with mass effect weapons.

“So, how about you give me your omni-tools as I asked”, *click*, “and then I let Gurt and Tragg… uh, "escort" you out?”, *click*. “I will not ask this again”, *click*.

“Right, boss”. Was that Gurt? Or Tragg? Valrin could not say.

For the second time in the day, the salarian cursed the fact that he was not wearing his armor. At this distance, he would not survive a point-blank shotgun blast from Ridni’s krogan minions. Maybe Alyssaria could summon an aegis barrier sufficiently fast to protect him and Mina, but he did not know the justicar’s powers enough to bet his life, as well as Mina’s, on them. Apparently they had reached an impasse.

“How about you let us leave and I don’t erase all the records in your terminal and refrain from rigging all gambling machines to allow players to win every game?”

That was Mina. While the two groups of grown-ups tried to bully each other into submission, the girl had reactivated the connection with the gambling den’s terminal, providing Valrin and Alyssaria with a much more effective bargaining chip. She made sure that the volus could clearly see her and explained how she had set up the omni-tool with a “deadman’s switch”: if anyone shot her, or her friends, the girl would simply remove her finger from the device and all of Ridni’s records on the terminal would be lost forever, while at the same time players in the gambling den would enjoy a winning streak at all of the games.

“Let’s not be hasty, Earth clan”,*click*. Suddenly Ridni was back to acting as your average volus businessman. “I’m sure we can find an agreement for our mutual benefit”, *click*. “I only ask you leave the omni-tools and I swear you can all leave unharmed”, *click*.

“Right, boss”, the two krogans said in unison. Were they actually trained to say that every time Ridni gave an order?

“Sorry, not good enough. We just leave. With our omni-tools. Or my friend will wreak havoc on your terminal”, Valrin countered. He needed the stuff saved on the device and had no desire to surrender his expensive omni-tool and his hacking programs to the volus.

“You wouldn’t dare!”, *click*. Ridni’s voice betrayed a deep concern. Apparently, he was more worried about the safety of his terminal than his well-being.

“Oh, she’ll dare, bet on it!”

“I’ll dare all right”, Mina echoed Valrin’s words, her voice full of mischief, just like she was pulling the biggest prank of her life.

Alyssaria and Valrin began to cautiously circle around their opponents, Mina swiftly moving to keep herself behind the salarian. Both groups were keeping their weapons trained on the other, but it was merely as a precaution, much to Gurt and Tragg’s disappointment. The salarian and his companions kept moving, walking towards the elevator without giving their back to Ridni and his bodyguads. It took only a few seconds for the elevator’s doors to open and they quickly moved inside. Mina hesitated for a second more, then she took a step inside the elevator cabin, making sure that Ridni watched as she purposefully removed her finger from the omni-tool controls. The girl gave the diminutive alien a crooked smile as the elevator doors began to close.

“NOOOOOOOO!”, *click*. “What have you done?”, *click*.

“Hey, if you act fast you can stop the worm and keep the gamblers from cleaning you out”, Mina shouted back to ensure they could hear her from inside the elevator. Valrin heard the volus screaming to the krogans to stop all gambling activities. He also thought he heard one more “Right, boss” before the elevator was far enough.

“Maybe it was unnecessary to pull that trick, but with Ridni busy trying to save his files and those krogans keeping the gamblers from playing we should have enough time to leave the motel undisturbed. Well done!”

Mina did not say anything in response to the salarian’s accolade, but Valrin was sure he briefly saw the girl blushing. While he really had no actual knowledge of what was regarded among humans as the average interaction between parents and their offspring, Valrin had a feeling that in Mina’s case the relationship with her father did not contemplate a sufficient number of occasion where the man had taken the time to compliment her daughter for her achievements.

“What’s your next move, salarian?”, Alyssaria asked as the three of them left the motel after a quick stop to retrieve the asari’s few possessions from her room.

The justicar’s question interrupted Valrin’s train of thoughts, returning him to the present. After finding out that their next lead was represented by Kalevi Virtanen, the former STG operator had already improvised a plan. And that called for infiltrating the clinic where the man worked without waiting for him to go back home. Valrin had no intention to risk losing precious time before following this lead. Angel had been one step ahead of him so far, taking out Pyjak Brain before the salarian could question the hacker. Since Virtanen’s position as a lab technician suggested he was not the one who had hired the assassin, it was entirely possible that the real instigator could decide to dispose of yet another loose end if he got wind of the fact that Valrin was on the lab technician’s trail.

However, the one question that currently bothered the salarian was whether he should actually let the justicar get involved in his plan. It was not that Valrin did not trust the asari, after all she had saved him and Mina from a very dangerous situation and she had shown to be a powerful ally. And yet, Alyssaria simply did not seem capable of keeping the kind of “low profile” that Valrin regarded essential to quietly sneak in and out of the clinic. For a justicar, Alyssaria had quite a temper, easily flaring up in a display of biotic fireworks, as the very recent confrontation with Ridni had demonstrated. Plus, Valrin was not looking forward to halve his fees in case Mina decided that the justicar’s contribution to saving her father had been considerable enough to warrant a discount on the amount of credits they had previously agreed as the salarian’s pay for the job.

“I’m going to interview Mr. Virtanen and extract what he knows about this whole affair… But I’m going to do that alone to avoid attracting attention. I’ve got practice with this kind of ops.”

No sooner had the salarian finished speaking that his words were met with complaints by both Alyssaria as well as Mina. In particular, the young girl was adamant that she would not accept being left behind and had one pretty big card to play in order to ensure that Valrin would take her with him during the ride at Le Cercle Parfait clinic.

“I visited the clinic several times to see dad. I know my way around the place well enough and can provide you with useful intel on its security”, Mina explained, raising her voice

For her part, Alyssaria was uncharacteristically quiet in her complaint, as if the matter was not even worth raising her temper. Eyeing the salarian with a serious expression, she limited herself to noting, matter-of-factly, that her biotics could be the only thing between Valrin and Angel once the assassin managed to track them down once again.

“If you do not want me with you and the human girl, I will simply go to that clinic on my own. The Code demands that I follow this lead.”

“All right, all right”, Valrin was feeling quite exasperated. “We shall go to the clinic together to have that chat with Virtanen. But first we need to pay a quick visit to a certain place. From now on, I want to be able to rely on all my gear for this job.”

* * * *

Serpent Nebula, Widow system
Outside
Le Cercle Parfait clinic in the Citadel’s Zakera Ward

The clinic was exactly as seen in the picture that Mina had shown them earlier that day. The building looked as if it had been recently built, its main entrance adorned with a sign with the “O” symbol and the name “Le Cercle Parfait”. There were cameras recording everyone going in and out of the clinic’s entrance. There were also at least two side entrances, but apparently those could be operated only from inside and they also had cameras to ensure that the clinic’s security staff could check if anyone suspicious tried to force their way inside the building. On their way to the clinic, Mina had explained that past the main entrance was the clinic’s hall with a waiting area for the patients and a security station with at least two guards always on duty. A security scan was required to access the area with the labs and the doctor’s personal offices, since that area was kept separate from the area with the visiting rooms and the patients’ wards.

The security scan would be no trouble at all for Valrin, but he had to make sure that the security staff was busy while he hacked the system to gain entrance to the labs and offices. Again, the best solution to the problem was represented by a suitable diversion, something so chaotic to force the guards from leaving the security station and keep everyone looking elsewhere while Valrin and his companion slipped by.

Fortunately, the salarian had the perfect person in mind to provide the diversion he was in need of. For that reason, Valrin was waiting with Alyssaria and Mina in a quiet corner of the plaza, well outside of the clinic’s cameras range. He was now wearing a suit of armor, retrieved with some weapons and additional equipment from a secure storage facility the salarian had rented time ago in preparation for a situation where he was cut off from his office and residence. In addition to his armor, Valrin had donned a white lab coat to help looking inconspicuous once inside the clinic. On closer inspection, it would be evident that he was wearing a suit of armor under the lab coat, since he looked far more stockier than any regular salarian, but the disguise would hold as long as nobody paid too much attention.

Next to Valrin, Alyssaria was growing increasingly impatient with the waiting. The salarian’s contact had promised to meet them at the plaza, but he was almost half an hour late, an amount of time that seemed to drive the justicar crazier than the hyperactive Valrin. The asari had agreed to disguise herself wearing a lab coat, but she had decided to leave her armor behind. The massive shoulder pauldrons and chest plate made it substantially impossible for her to wear the lab coat above her heavy armor. As a result, Alyssaria was relying on a personal shield generator to boost her natural biotic barrier talent for protection. In addition, she had decided to hide under the lab coat a far larger assortment of weapons that those she usually carried. Carefully hidden under the lab coat she now carried two pistols, an SMG, a Venom shotgun she had liberated from Valrin’s storage facility and even what looked like an asari sword. An elite weapon issued to asari commandos, the specific sword carried by Alyssaria was different from any of the other asari swords that Valrin had seen so far. In fact, the justicar’s weapon featured a shorter, retractable blade that disappeared in a slightly larger hilt compared to that of standard asari swords.

The salarian had been curious about the unusual weapon, but Alyssaria evaded his questions. The asari had learnt from Mina that Valrin was a former STG operator, so when he had attempted once again to coax the justicar into talking about the sword, Alyssaria reminded him that – similar to STG personnel – asari commandos were also sworn to maintain secrecy with regard to some of the operations they took part in. That had put an end to Valrin’s attempts to directly obtain information about the sword, but he was still aching to get his curiosity sated.

The wait was over when a lumbering elcor angled for the group and finally got close enough to greet Valrin with as much cheerfulness an elcor could muster.

“Great delight: I am glad to meet again Tolaen Valrin, to whom I owe my current life”, the elcor saluted in the toneless voice common to his species.

“A pleasure to see you too, Ulio”, Valrin reciprocated the elcor’s friendly greeting before he made the introductions. “Mina, Alyssaria, this is Ulio, a former client of mine and now a rising star among elcor actors. Ulio, meet my current client Mina and the justicar Alyssaria.”

“Polite greetings: it’s good to meet you”.

Alyssaria gave the imposing elcor a simple nod of acknowledgement, while Mina was more enthusiastic about the meeting. “It’s a pleasure to know you Ulio. This is the first time I meet an elcor and one who is an actor to boot!”

“And your acting skills are exactly what we need right now”, the salarian noted with a sly grin.

Valrin’s first meeting with the imposing elcor dated back to shortly after the salarian had started his activity on the Citadel. Ulio had plodded into the makeshift office Valrin was using to meet clients and explained how he was under the suspicion that his manager was voluntary passing up all chances to get him hired. It was a simple case for Valrin to solve. By tapping into the manager’s comms, the salarian found out that the man had far too many clients to attend to and thus he was unwittingly missing those opportunities that would have been perfect for an elcor. The next step was infiltrating the terminal of another agent and make sure that Ulio’s résumé was highlighted among those of potential candidates for a stage adaption of Oscar Wilde’s The Canterville Ghost featuring an elcor cast. In less than two days, Ulio had been contacted by the second agent, dumped the old one and got the part of the Canterville Ghost after an audition that had greatly impressed the director of the play. The elcor had been very grateful for Valrin’s assistance and the two had remained friends.

“Sincere curiosity: how may my acting skills serve my salarian friend?”

“Well, remember that special Burgat commercial of yours?”

Valrin was making reference to a peculiar “sample” of the elcor’s repertoire that the salarian had been given a preview of when Ulio had hired him at the time. Everyone in the Citadel had heard the original ‘Burgat’ commercial at least once while visiting the Wards. It was one of the most persistent commercials and Valrin had come to loathe the mere sound of the voice of its turian testimonial. On the other hand, Ulio’s special adaption of the commercial was guaranteed to provide an excellent diversion when performed in a clinic, especially if the performer was a massive elcor.

It took several minutes before Ulio was in position outside Le Cercle Parfait clinic. Valrin and his friends were walking at a short distance behind him, trying to act as casually as possible as they wandered into the clinic’s cameras range, and then followed the massive elcor into the building.

Once inside, Valrin, Alyssaria and Mina waited for Ulio to begin the diversion while feigning interest in whatever was displayed on an information display. There were two guards at the security booth and Valrin needed them both to leave their post in order for the three of them to sneak inside the restricted area. Since Mina was not wearing a disguise, they had agreed that the girl would follow them inside only if the diversion worked long enough to keep both guards out of the way, otherwise she would stay in the waiting room. Mina had complained vehemently, but a word from Alyssaria coaxed the girl into collaborating.

On the opposite side of the clinic’s atrium, Ulio was ready to start his scene. The elcor approached the asari nurse at the desk, pretending to be in need of assistance.

“Deep concern: my meal of ‘Burgat: the Other Blue Meat’ may have been spoiled. Urgent request: examination is needed to exclude infection from intestinal parasites”, the imposing creature declared to the unimpressed nurse.

Valrin was sure that the disclaimer in the original commercial about the risk of intestinal parasites in non-batarians consuming Burgat was just a safeguard clause, but the elcor actor had used it as a cue to come with his own version of the commercial. The asari nurse attempted to calm the elcor down, but Ulio played his role to the hilt and began to complain about intolerable abdominal pains and the risk of an imminent fit of flatulence caused by the infection. The elcor appeared to be sufficiently agitated to require the intervention of another nurse, but that was not enough to contain him. Ulio’s whining was incessant and when his ambling around raised the concern that he might accidentally trip over and crush some of the other patients in the waiting room, the guards at the security booth intervened to help the nurses into subduing the elcor.

The commotion in the waiting room was drawing everyone’s attention, giving Valrin the cover he needed to run a bypass on the door leading to the labs and offices. The security was just enough to keep curious visitors outside, so it was no match for the salarian’s military grade hacking tools installed on his omni-tool. Sparing one last quick glance at the nurses and guards struggling to bring Ulio under control in the waiting room, Valrin and his companions slipped through the unlocked security door, following Mina’s directions to her father’s office.

“Is Ulio going to be ok?”, Mina was actually concerned about the elcor’s well-being.

“Well… He is a big, friendly bloke, I don’t think those guards will hurt him to calm him down. Worst case scenario he is going to take a nap, courtesy of some tranquillizer.”

The girl did not really feel reassured by Valrin’s words, but there was not much she could do to help the elcor right now. Finding out a lead to locate her father had the priority, so she pushed ahead, calling up on her memory of an earlier visit to the clinic – with a guard as escort to her father’s office – to guide Valrin and Alyssaria through the labyrinthine corridors of the restricted area.

Mina navigated the corridors with relative ease and it was not long before they arrived at the room that Harold Payne used when he was not busy visiting patients or performing experiments in the labs. It was a scarcely adorned office, with a single computer terminal placed on a desk. Valrin reviewed the terminal’s log, where he found a list of patients Mina’s father had attended to most recently. Some of the patients were one time visitors, but the majority were recurrent patients who were seeing Dr. Payne due to the symptoms of the exposure to element zero, ‘eezo’, the rare material known to influence or strengthen the presence of biotics. Mina’s father was especially interested in those patients whose biotic potential had remained latent for most of their life before some event triggered their ability to create and manipulate mass effect fields. There was also some scant information regarding a treatment that the patients had volunteered to follow, but no details on what the treatment entailed: the relevant data had been stored elsewhere or removed on purpose, Valrin could not tell.

With Mina literally looking over his shoulder, the salarian continued to scan through the files on the terminal, trying to figure out whether they also contained anything useful to locate Kalevi Virtanen. Valrin knew that the technician was somewhere inside the restricted area during working hours, either in his office or in one of the labs. In theory, they could simply go from room to room until they found the man, but figuring out Virtanen’s whereabouts beforehand would make everything easier.

After watching Valrin and Mina work fruitlessly on the terminal for a few minutes, Alyssaria decided to take action herself. The asari was tired of her companions’ reliance on technology to get anything done. For her, the best way to obtain information was not hacking a terminal, but directly extracting what she needed to know from a person. Alyssaria peered out of Harold Payne’s office and when an unsuspecting lab technician walked past, she grabbed the unfortunate man in a stranglehold and dragged him inside.

“What are you doing?” Valrin asked puzzled, while Mina looked at the scene with alarm.

“Getting the job done without a terminal”, the asari noted through gritted teeth.

The man she had captured was pretty much shaken. He kept babbling incoherently about the fact he was nobody and that he had nothing of value, apparently assuming he was the victim of some kind of robbery. The justicar did not have to threaten the scared technician to find out what she needed to know. All she needed was to point her index finger menacingly to the man’s face and ask him the relevant question.

“Where do we find Kalevi Virtanen?”

“K-ka-kalevi? H-he is in the amps testing lab”, the technician stammered in reply.

The man was referring to the clinic’s laboratory for testing and tuning biotic amplifiers, colloquially referred to as ‘amps’, before each device was fitted to a specific biotic individual. Valrin left the terminal and wandered next to Alyssaria and her prisoner, grabbing a medical injector along the way.

“And what is the closest route to the amps testing lab?”, the salarian inquired nonchalantly.

“Uh, the lab? Fi-f-first co-co-corridor… to the right… second door on the l-le-left.”

That was all they needed to know from the scared technician and Valrin proceeded to dose him with a narcotic using the borrowed injector. The man was fast asleep in a matter of seconds and he unceremoniously collapsed to the floor as soon as Alyssaria released him from the stranglehold.

“Here’s the plan”, Valrin stated. “Mina, you stay here, locked up in your father’s office while I go with Alyssaria to question Virtanen. If that tech wakes up, just give him another dose of the sleep-juice.”

With that the salarian handed the injector to the girl and went for the door. Behind him, Alyssaria flashed an admonitory look to Mina, forestalling whatever complaint the young human was about to voice.

“You heard the salarian, stay here. We will be right back.”

Once again Mina’s respect for the asari won over her impetuous nature and the girl followed Valrin’s directions. Ever since the salarian had accepted to follow Mina’s case he had barely managed to contain the girl’s exuberance, so he was starting to appreciate the influence that the asari exercised on the young human. On the other hand, after spending time with STG using stealth and hacks to get the job done as quietly as possible, Valrin found the asari’s approach a little too direct for his taste.

With the door locked behind them, Valrin and Alyssaria went to the amps testing lab. Along the way, they came across another lab technician, but the man barely spared them a glance, their disguise holding up for the moment. A sign reading ‘Amplifiers Testing Laboratory’ was placed next to the second door on the left of the corridor, exactly as indicated by the technician they had interrogated.

“Let’s try a softer approach this time.”

Alyssaria grunted in response, leaving the salarian to assume it was her equivalent of a grudging approval. Valrin keyed the controls and the door slid open, revealing the amps testing lab. Empty. There was no trace of Kalevi Virtanen, prompting the asari to swear. She was ready to storm back to Dr. Payne’s office, wake up the technician and have a painful follow-up discussion with him. Valrin thought that if the game mechanics of Justicars of the Asari Republics were an indication, then Alyssaria must have missed one meditation too many and now her morality and actions were veering off towards a more malevolent facet of her character. He pushed the thought aside and held up a hand to stop the asari from leaving, sensing something odd about the lab.

The salarian perceived a faint trace of UV light filtering from a small fissure at the bottom of a wall. He activated the scanner function of his omni-tool and the outline of a hidden compartment resolved on his holographic screen. Based on the data picked up by the scanner there was an airlock connecting the amps testing lab to some kind of secret facility. Following a trait of electrical conduits revealed by the scanner Valrin located a hidden control panel that opened the airlock. A section of the wall slid aside and the UV light that had flooded the airlock turned off automatically. Just what kind of secret facility required ultraviolet lamps to sterilize its access points? Valrin had all the intentions to find that out. Besides, he reasoned, Virtanen might have gone that way too.

Alyssaria sounded suspicious when she spoke. “How did you know there was an airlock hidden there?”

“Oh, my species can see ultraviolet at the short-wavelength end of the spectrum. Once I noticed a small amount of UV light filtering from below the wall, running a scan was just an obvious approach. What I’m curious about is why they need to use short-wave, germicidal UVC light here.”

“Germicidal? We are in a clinic, so this might be where they store biological stuff. And sterilization is a standard measure to avoid contamination.”

“Makes sense. Let’s go, find out first-hand”, Valrin prompted as he cycled the airlock open.

Beyond the passage they found another chamber from which two corridors branched off. There was a row of doors on each side of the corridors and Alyssaria insisted that they should separate in order to efficiently sweep all the rooms behind those doors. Taking the left corridor, Valrin began to cautiously open each door on the left side. The empty rooms he peered into gave the salarian the chills. Maybe it was because they looked like holding cells. Or maybe it was because they all housed some kind of dentistry chair. Equipped with restraints.

When Valrin opened one of the doors on the right, he finally hit the jackpot. It was another laboratory and the man in a white coat behind the counter looked exactly like the picture of Kalevi Virtanen in the lab technician’s file.

“Excuse me, are you Mr. Virtanen? Do you have a moment for me?” Valrin was keen on trying a soft approach, no need to be menacing.

“Yes, I’m Kalevi Virtanen. What may I do for you, Dr. …?” the lab technician replied, prompting the salarian to give his name.

“I’m, uh… Dr. Saleon”, Valrin lied while privately wondering how he had come up with the name of a dead salarian mad scientist to use as his cover. “I need your help to contact Dr. Payne. I understand that you are aware of his whereabouts.”

“Sorry, I’m afraid you are ill-informed, Dr. Saleon”, Virtanen did not raise his eyes from whatever he was doing. “Dr. Payne has left the clinic some days ago and he did not tell me anything. You should talk with his assistant, maybe she can help you.”

Valrin did not know about any assistant working with Dr. Payne, certainly Mina had never talked about an assistant. “Where can I find Dr. Payne’s assistant?”

“Just give me a second. I have my omni-tool right here and I can call her right away.”

The lab technician leaned down as if to retrieve something from a shelf below the counter, but it was not an omni-tool. Virtanen exploded three shots in quick succession from a Predator pistol, almost catching Valrin by surprise: maybe the salarian was getting too old for this kind of job, but he really did not expect an apparently placid technician to pull a pistol out. Valrin hit the deck and rolled to take cover behind the lab’s counter opposite to Virtanen. Drawing his own pistol, Valrin noticed a bullet hole in the lab coat he was wearing above the armor. Fortunately, the armor’s shields had safely deflected the round, proving that the salarian’s decision to wear his armor for this operation had been for the best.

Valrin’s omni-tool picked up a faint trace of polonium around the bullet hole in the lab coat. Virtanen was playing dirty for sure: polonium rounds had been banned in Council space, but they were still popular with pirates, criminals and mercenaries. This kind of ammunition contained a minuscule amount of radioactive polonium, effectively poisoning one’s targets and, while its use had been prohibited by the Council just a couple of years ago, Valrin knew that at least STG still used polonium rounds for assassination missions or to subdue dangerous wildlife, such as varrens or klixens.

While the former STG agent pondered how best to disarm his opponent without killing him, Virtanen kept shooting his Predator, forcing Valrin to keep his head down. Assuming that Alyssaria’s hunch about dangerous biological agents was right, the salarian trusted that Virtanen was not carelessly discharging his gun right where there was the potential to accidentally release a deadly toxin, a mutagen, some kind of virus or even nanodroids. On a more positive note, if the lab tech turned shooter kept firing at the current rate of fire, he would soon need to load a fresh thermal clip, giving Valrin a chance to counterattack with a flashbang grenade or disruptor ammo in order to incapacitate Virtanen. Of course, that was based on the assumption that the continuous stream of shots was not covering fire to pin down the salarian while the man waited for reinforcements…

Before Valrin had the chance to take action, a man-sized section of the lab’s wall on the right kind of imploded with a clunking sound that momentarily masked the booming report of Virtanen’s gun. His vision blurred by the haze from the dust and particles of the shattered wall, the salarian saw a lonely figure cross the newly created opening and walk into the lab from the adjoining room. Just who the hell is that? he thought.

Chapter Text

Serpent Nebula, Widow system
Restricted labs at
Le Cercle Parfait clinic in the Citadel’s Zakera Ward

The sudden implosion of the lab’s wall sent Virtanen into an even wilder shooting frenzy. The man replaced a spent thermal clip and resumed firing as fast as possible in every direction, trying to fill every centimeter of the lab with rounds.

Under the circumstances, Valrin was all the more grateful for the fact that – his vision cleared – he recognized Alyssaria as the figure coming in through the gap in the wall. The asari burst into the lab enveloped in a biotic barrier for protection, then flicked her right wrist and pulled the pistol from Virtanen’s hand. With a flick of her other wrist she then cast a stasis field against the lab technician, effectively freezing the man in place, leaving him with the startled expression he wore as he witnessed his weapon snatched from his grasp.

Raising from cover, the salarian walked to the other side of the lab counter to join Alyssaria, ready to interrogate Virtanen. The mass effect field temporarily blocking the lab technician would not allow him to talk, so the justicar dispersed the field, promptly grabbing Virtanen by the throat and raising him several centimeters off the ground. That was rough, but there was no more use for a soft approach now that the lab technician had ‘welcomed’ them with lethal force.

“Let me go!” Virtanen hissed, his arms and legs dangling loosely as Alyssaria kept him suspended mid-air in a choke hold.

“Sure, but first you are going to spill out all your secrets”, said the asari. She seemed to be enjoying the moment, judging by her tone.

“Ain’t gonna say you anything, filthy tentacle-head. Nor to that frog-eyed buddy of yours”, the lab technician replied defiantly.

Over time, Valrin had received his fair share of insults from members of other alien species and by now he was no longer fazed by it. The most common insult was “lizard man”, which was more annoying than offensive, seeing that salarians had evolved from amphibians and not from reptiles like lizards. As such, Valrin was actually amused to realize that “frog-eyed” was a step forward. In contrast, Alyssaria plainly did find funny being called a “tentacle-head”. Her response to the insult was to squeeze Virtanen’s throat harder, slowly choking the life out of him. It was not a pretty sight and Valrin could tell that at his rate it would only be moments before cyanosis caused the human to became as blue as an asari.

The justicar squeezed just a little longer than what Valrin thought to be safe, then she released the pressure on Virtanen’s windpipe, allowing the man to draw in some much needed breaths. While their prisoner hastened to replenish the supply of oxygen to his organs, Alyssaria and Valrin used that moment to lay out some questions.

“What is Angel doing on the Citadel? Where do I find her?” asked the asari.

“And what happened to Dr. Payne? Do you know where is he?” Valrin added a moment later.

The lab technician’s eyes darted from one to the other of his interrogators, then after one more wheezing breath he found the force to reply.

“I… I don’t know anything of that! I’m just a lab tech, I swear!”

“You are lying! I saw you meeting Angel just a few days ago”, Alyssaria stated and then made as if to resume chocking Virtanen.

“No, no! Please! I won’t know those answers even if you keep chocking me”, the human pleaded.

The asari seemed to consider that last statement and Valrin could see furrows appearing in her forehead like she was concentrating on something. When she spoke again, Alyssaria raised the Predator pistol she had snatched shortly before from Virtanen where he could see it.

“You pulled a gun on us, which is enough to tell me you know something… So, one way or the other, you are going to spill your guts!” she said, pointing pistol at the lab technician’s left keencap, index finger hovering over the trigger.

“Last chance”, she finally added.

Valrin watched the tense scene, feeling this was what humans referred to as the ‘Good cop, bad cop’ approach, at least according to his friend Blackthorn. No doubt Alyssaria was playing the ‘bad cop’ here, so the salarian assumed his duty was to act as the ‘good cop’. In essence, the trick was to wait until Virtanen was scared shitless by Alyssaria and then Valrin would make a well-timed overture, such that the human was happy to give up whatever he knew in exchange of his well-being.

“Oh, no, no, no… I fired only because I was scared! Please don’t shoot me!”

“Wrong answer”, the justicar said.

*BANG!*

Alyssaria pulled the trigger and put a mass effect round in Virtanen’s kneecap, releasing the man from her grasp at the same time. The human fell to the ground, watching his wounded leg in shock for a whole second before his brain realized that all this was happening for real. Valrin was grateful that the lab turned out to be soundproofed, not least because Virtanen’s cry of pain was so loud it might have raised the alarm throughout the clinic. Instead, the scream’s only effect was to hurt the salarian’s ears. The former STG agent was not expecting things to escalate to this level of violence so soon, but he had to think pragmatically. This was the overture he had been waiting in order to play the ‘good cop’, so he retrieved some medi-gel from his equipment and moved closer to treat the man’s wound. It would take mere minutes for the polonium coated on the round to spread from that wound and damage the human’s various organs, but the asari held up a hand to stop Valrin.

“First you talk, then we treat your wound”. There was no pity in the words the asari directed to the man writhing on the ground.

“Aaargh… Alien bitch… You shot me!”

“I’ll count to three, then you either talk and get treated or say goodbye to your last good knee.”

“One…”

“Two…”

“Stop! I’ll talk!” Virtanen held up his hands in defeat. “Sonja Hock. She paid me to give her intermediary access to certain medical technologies we developed at the clinic. Or to key personnel working on the tech, in the case of Dr. Payne.”

Sonja Hock. Valrin had heard that name when he was still with STG. The lesser known sister of Donovan Hock, the controversial human patron of the arts, weapons dealer and smuggler, Sonja had recently returned to Bekenstein to take over her brother’s properties and business after the man died in what the press described as a feud with a rival weapons dealer. However, rumor was that Donovan Hock’s death was the result of a SpecTRe operation involving none other than the much talked-about Commander Shepard. According to STG’s file on her, Sonja Hock had worked independently from her brother Donovan, making a name for herself as a successful smuggler in the Attican Traverse, evading all the time both the Systems Alliance’s and Salarian Union’s attempts to stop her. The most recent report noted that she was now carrying over her brother’s line of work.

Alyssaria finally motioned for Valrin to attend to Virtanen’s injury. The salarian knelt next to the wounded lab technician and applied some medigel, stopping the polonium from spreading and fatally intoxicating the man. The shattered kneecap was an entirely different story though, for it would require to be entirely rebuilt or replaced to give Virtanen the chance to properly walk again.

“And Angel? Why did you meet her? Where is she now?” Valrin heard the justicar ask these questions, pressing the grudgingly cooperative human for more information.

There was puzzlement in the lab technician’s eyes, prompting the asari to give him a brief description of the woman she was chasing, noting that Virtanen had met her together with an officer from CAT6.

“Oh, her. She is Hock’s intermediary. Came to the Citadel to oversee the… uh, ‘transfer’ of the clinic’s assets”. The human stopped talking, but Alyssaria waved the pistol before him and he was quick to add something more. “That’s all I know, I swear! She never told me where she is staying on the Citadel and she was the one to contact me when needed. I have no idea where to find her, but I suppose that eventually she will report back to her boss on Bekenstein”.

“Very well, that’s all I need to know”, the asari said, pocketing the man’s weapon. “We have no more use for you now”.

For a moment Valrin thought that Alyssaria meant to execute Virtanen in cold blood and, judging by the man’s wide-eyed expression, the lab technician must have assumed the very same thing. Instead, the asari simply began walking away, advising the salarian that they should leave quickly, before anyone stumbled in there and alerted the clinic’s security. Indeed, it was a lucky break that the gunshots and screams had not drawn anyone’s attention, so Valrin was eager to recover Mina from her father’s office and leave the clinic behind as soon as possible. He spared one last glance at the wounded lab technican half sitting on the lab’s floor, noting that the man looked back with his eyes still open wide. A moment later, the human collapsed, a copious amount of foam erupting from his mouth.

What the heck? the salarian thought and sprinted back to check on Virtanen. Too late. The man was clearly dead, all evidence pointing in the direction of a suicide. No way this was polonium intoxication. For a reason that appeared unfathomable to Valrin, the lab technician must have swallowed some kind of suicide agent, some type of poison that killed him. Did Virtanen have a capsule of poison implanted in his mouth? Maybe he ingested it after he was disarmed, expecting the effect to be faster and thus avoid interrogation. But what regular lab technician had a suicide agent implant? There was something so very odd going on here and Valrin felt the sooner he figured things out, the better it was for everyone.

The salarian’s thoughts were interrupted by a warble echoing throughout the labs. Just beyond the lab’s door, Alyssaria was impatiently motioning for him to get moving and Valrin abandoned the dead technician to flee with the asari. When the two of them cycled through the airlock leading back to the amps testing lab, they noticed that the clinic’s personnel was hastily, but promptly fleeing towards the exit back to the main lobby. Valrin figured that the trilling sound still playing on the PA system was an evacuation signal rather than a security alert. He wondered whether Virtanen’s suicide agent had been picked up by some detector in the lab and thus triggered the evacuation. If so, it was a fortuitous event that could provide an excellent cover to leave the clinic undetected. In a few strides Valrin and Alyssaria were back to Dr. Payne’s office, where they were welcomed back by an anxious-looking Mina.

“Did you find that Virtanen guy? Was he helpful?” the girl asked, looking expectantly to the salarian to give her some good news regarding her father. “Oh, and that alarm is not my doing”, she added sheepishly, afraid that either Valrin or Alyssaria might blame her hacking skills for that.

“Yeah, found him and now we have a good lead. But I’ll tell you more once we are outta here”, Valrin replied before addressing their asari companion. “Alyssaria, give me a hand carrying outside this guy”.

The justicar followed Valrin’s gaze to see the still unconscious lab technician that she had forced into giving up Virtanen’s position earlier. After ushering Mina outside her father’s office, the salarian and the asari followed the girl, each holding one of the unconscious man’s arms draped over their shoulders, in an effort to carry him to the clinic’s main lobby. The trio melded with the doctors, lab technicians and nurses leaving the offices and labs, passing right under the nose of the guards at the security booth that they had eluded on their way in thanks to Ulio’s assistance. With the amount of people now flooding the main lobby all at once, the guards did not pay attention to Mina nor to Valrin and Alyssaria, rather focusing on the unconscious human being carried out of the labs. One of the guards even assisted with finding a spot at the assembly point outside the clinic where to accommodate the man until someone could provide first aid. Among the crowd of patients being herded out to the assembly point, Mina noticed a now familiar-looking elcor. Much to the girl’s relief, Ulio was walking under his own steam, looking a bit groggy – likely due to a sedative administered by the nurses to calm him down – but overall unharmed.

The infiltration operation successfully completed, Valrin took advantage of the confusion due the large number of people crowding the assembly point in order to leave the area with Alyssaria and Mina in tow and without drawing unwanted attention. With no other safe place to go at the moment, in order to plan the next move the trio went back to the location of the secure storage facility that the salarian had rented to keep a backup of his equipment.

* * * *

Serpent Nebula, Widow system
Keel Docking Ports in the Citadel’s Zakera Ward

At the secure storage facility, Valrin, Alyssaria and Mina convened a short ‘council of war’, briefly updating Mina about the meeting with Virtanen, in particular Sonja Hock’s involvement in the girl’s father kidnapping and Bekestein being their next destination. The irony that Bekenstein turned out to be the planet where the kidnappers took Dr. Payne did not escape Mina, considering that that same planet was her father’s alleged destination in the doctored security video that Pyjak Brain had been paid to feed to C-Sec.

After eating something and grabbing some shut-eye, the trio transferred to Zakera Ward’s Keel Docking Ports, en route to the dock where Alyssaria had left her shuttle upon landing at the Citadel. While previously Valrin had been skeptical that they needed the asari’s help, now even him could not deny that Alyssaria’s assistance had proved valuable. When she had offered a ride to Bekenstein aboard her personal shuttle, the salarian and Mina had gratefully accepted the offer. It was true that the asari’s objective, the capture of Angel, did not coincide with Valrin’s objective of finding Mina’s father, but he reasoned that, as long as his own objective took him in the very same place where Alyssaria needed to go, then parting ways with the justicar made no sense.

As usual, the Keel Docking Ports were bustling with activity and Valrin made sure to keep an eye on Alyssaria, now back to wearing her armor, lest he lose sight of the asari among the scores of travellers, visitors and personnel roaming the passageways of this section of Zakera Ward. The salarian was also trying to stay on the lookout for C-Sec agents, remembering that in all likelihood they were still searching for Mina in order to hand her over to Social Services. While well-intentioned, C-Sec’s interference would only complicate matters at that point. He was so caught up in these two tasks that Valrin noticed only at the last moment that he was about to bump into a pair of large krogans. The two were wandering almost aimlessly around the various docks and Valrin recognized them almost at the same moment that they, in turn, recognized him. They were Ridni’s bodyguards, Gurt and Tragg.

“Hey Gurt, look! It’s the salarian computer thief”, one of the two krogans noted.

“Ah, yes. And there’s also ‘big mouth human girl’ and ‘asari codex warrior’”, Gurt added using nicknames he seemed to have come up for Mina and Alyssaria.

“Everyone. Let’s not do anything hasty”, Valrin said, unwilling to start a fight right in the middle of the crowded and heavily patrolled docks.

The salarian’s comment was aimed both to the krogans as well as to Alyssaria, for the asari was bristling at being mistitled a ‘codex warrior’. Fortunately, Gurt and Tragg for once were not in the mood for a fight. Indeed, they were not even wearing their armor nor carrying their shotguns. In an entirely unexpected turn of events, the krogans calmly explained that they were currently unemployed, since Ridni had been unable to pay their usual monthly cut. Valrin figured that could be the result of Mina’s wiping clean all data on the volus’ terminal and rigging all of his gambling machines to allow players to invariably win. Probably, after paying all the winnings, Ridni had run out of credits on his main account and, with the loss of the data on his terminal, he was no longer able to access his slush funds. Without their payment, Gurt and Tragg had simply refused to continue their work as bodyguards and simply abandoned the volus to look for a new employer.

“So, no ill-feelings between us after that… ‘incident’ at Ridni’s, right?” Valrin ventured, sensing that, true to the krogans’ ingrained mercenary attitudes, these two would not move a muscle for Ridni unless they were paid to do it.

“As long as the volus doesn’t pay us, any ill-feelings between him and you are of no concern to us. No credits, no boss”, Gurt said by way of confirmation, together with a nod of his huge reptilian head.

The conversation sparked an idea in Valrin’s brain. “How much to do you boys charge for bodyguard work?”

Gurt named a figure.

“Woah, the best don’t come cheap, uh? Still, I can afford to hire you for the few days I need”.

Their eyes full of greed, the two krogans seemed to become even larger the very moment when Valrin activated his omni-tool and arranged a transfer of credits in their favor. At that point, Gurt and Tragg took leave in order to retrieve their equipment, but not before Valrin gave them the dock number of Alyssaria’s shuttle, ordering that they were to meet again their new employer in about an hour.

“Right, boss”, Gurt and Tragg acknowledged.

Somehow, Valrin knew that answer was just to be expected. Leaving behind his new companion, the salarian resumed following Alyssaria’s lead towards her shuttle, taking a look at both the justicar and Mina to gauge their reaction to his decision of hiring as bodyguards the very same krogan mercenaries that had held them at gunpoint no more than a day ago. For her part, Mina did not seem to betray any particular reaction to the unexpected development. In contrast, Alyssaria didn’t have the slightest qualm about complaining that Valrin’s plan to infiltrate the Hock mansion on Bekestein had just managed to get even worse than what she had initially believed.

Earlier, in the relative safety of the storage facility, Valrin had outlined the plan to his companions, explaining that he would pose as a rich salarian weapons dealer by the name of Lys Joraud. Under that assumed identity, he would obtain access to Sonja Hock’s place for one of the frequent auction events held by the woman to sell weapons. As part of the steps to give his cover a further aura of credibility, Valrin revealed that the plan called for Alyssaria to accompany him in the role of one of Joraud’s mistresses.

“According to my intel, Sonja’s auctions are not much different from the parties her brother used to host for his rich, criminal friends”, Valrin explained. “They like to get together to show off their wealth and possessions, so taking along a scantily-clad asari will go a long way to helping me blend with their lot”.

The justicar had vehemently complained about the whole idea, even threatening of refusing to take Valrin and Mina to Bekenstein or cooperate any further with them if that meant doing anything that could be remotely considered in breach of her Code. She had relented only after the salarian expressly acknowledged that she would need not to do anything out of the ordinary beyond wearing a fancy dress and suitable footwear. Valrin thought that the asari had ultimately started to like the plan, especially after seeing her pleased expression upon buying from a Citadel boutique what Mina had referred to as an ‘awfully sexy dress’ and a pair of high heelers. Now the hiring of the two krogan seemed to bring Alyssaria on the verge of entirely reopening the debate.

“Just think about it, Lys Joraud will be much more credible if, in addition to an asari mistress, he is accompanied by those burly krogan bodyguards. Can’t you see the logic?”

In response to the salarian’s question, Alyssaria stopped in her tracks and turned around to look at Valrin with a serious face plastered with an impish smile.

“Just so you know”, she addressed him, “Should this venture disgrace me as a justicar, it’s logical that I will hunt you down to cleanse the stigma of my dishonor”.

As they finally arrived in sight of the asari’s shuttle, Valrin suppressed a chuckle. Yes, she definitely likes my plan, he thought.

* * * *

Serpent Nebula, Boltzmann system
Sonja Hock’s Bekenstein mansion at the outskirts of Milgrom

After two days of careful planning, negotiating and scheming, Valrin had managed to pull the right strings to ensure that Lys Joraud and his entourage were on the list of attendees to Sonja Hock’s next auction event. During the shuttle trip to Bekenstein, the salarian spent all the time working on his cover, using everything he had learned with STG to create a fake identity that could pass whatever tests the Hock woman ran on the people she invited at her mansion. It was relatively easy to create records to show that Lys Joraud was born on a salarian colony world, records of his studies and how he became wealthy by profiting on the sale of weapons to mercenary companies and private security organizations. Valrin even created a fake arrest record, but the most complicated part was to provide Lys Joraud with a sufficiently sizable bank account.

There was no way that Valrin could obtain through lawful means the amount of credits he knew were indispensable for Lys Joraud to appear sufficiently wealthy to earn an invitation to the auction. In the end, he had reluctantly accepted that he would have to obtain the required credits illicitly, by getting them ‘on loan’ from the accounts of the turian-volus industrial conglomerate Sedra-Abis.

Shortly before meeting Mina, the salarian had completed a job at the request of the turian Corollin Sedra, during which he obtained the access codes to the accounts of the volus founder of Sedra-Abis, Ondo Abis. The volus had diverted a fair share of the company’s profits, right under the nose of the turian founder Corollin, but Valrin had provided the damning evidence that ultimately led to C-Sec arresting Abis. For the duration of the pending investigation, the volus’ accounts had been frozen and that meant no one would be looking at those credits for a while, leaving the salarian free to divert the stolen funds to Lys Joraud’s account. Valrin had no plans to use or keep the credits though and he fully intended to return them where they belong as soon as he was done with this operation. Indeed, Valrin had sustained all the costs for hiring Gurt and Tragg, paying the clothes he and Alyssaria would wear at the auction, not the mention renting a hovercar befitting of a rich salarian weapons dealer. And now it was time to see whether all the time and resources he had invested would pay off.

The rented hovercar with Tragg at the controls elegantly glided to touch down on Hock’s private landing pad. A short fly-by gave Valrin a good glimpse of the mansion and adjoining park which left the salarian suitably impressed. Donovan Hock’s former residence was in all probability the best money could buy on Bekenstein and it was no wonder that his sister had elected the place as her own headquarters after she took control. The mansion was an imposing building, a huge park filled with lush vegetation that surrounded it on three sides while an artificial lake sprawled at the back of the building.

Once the hovercar came to a halt, Tragg hurried to open the doors of the passengers’ compartment. Lys Joraud and his assumed asari mistress disembarked from the vehicle the moment the bodyguard on point, Gurt, gave the all-clear.

“All right, let’s get this show started”, the salarian said to the krogans. “Once we are admitted inside, you two get back here. We’ll call you if we need assistance”.

“Right, boss”.

Dressed in an expensive suit, the pretend weapons dealer walked down the gravel path separating the mansion from the landing pad, marching purposefully with Alyssaria at his side and the krogans as rear guard towards an ornate gate where awaited a human tasked with receiving the guests for that night. As ordered, Gurt and Tragg would then go back to guard the hovercar, as well as the passenger hidden inside the vehicle. Valrin had agreed with Mina that she could come along to the mansion, but stay hidden aboard the hovercar, using her omni-tool and a porta-comp Alyssaria had kept on the shuttle to probe the mansion’s security system and look for any weakness to be exploited. It was not an ideal solution, but it was better than leaving the girl alone aboard the shuttle at Milgrom’s port. At least, here Valrin could count on the krogans to keep Mina safe. Of course assuming that the girl did not trick the two massive bodyguards in order to wander by herself across the mansion’s park. That was certainly possible considering Mina’s skills and that the short trip from the Citadel had confirmed Valrin’s initial impression that Gurt and Tragg were not the sharpest krogans around. Not that the salarian expected them to discuss rocket science or spout poetry, but all they did aboard the shuttle was eating, drinking and watching Universal Biotic Wrestling matches on the television. Valrin had nothing against either of those activities, he actually enjoyed UBW himself, except that Gurt and Tragg seemed to overdo just about anything.

The two krogans had practically cleaned out the galley of anything remotely edible, prompting Alyssaria to give them an angry tirade when she found out. The asari made them swear to replenish the shuttle’s food supplies at their own expense after landing on Bekenstein, otherwise she would space them at the earliest opportunity. They did marginally better with drinking, in that the other passengers were lucky that Gurt and Tragg left them sufficient water, but that was merely because the krogan duo was mostly after alcoholics. At one point, Valrin even had to intervene and stop them from drinking the spare disinfectant solution used to flush the shuttle’s toilet, all because Tragg claimed that ‘the stuff packs a punch and tastes good as ryncol’.

“Will you put that stuff down, buddy! Drinking that disinfectant is going to give you the squirts for a week!” the salarian had exclaimed, doing his best to wrestle the container out of Tragg’s grasp.

“Uh… Right, boss”, the krogan begrudgingly said, finally surrendering the disinfectant to Valrin.

The salarian suspected that Tragg had changed his mind not because of the noxious consequences the disinfectant would have on his bowels, but out of fear of what Alyssaria might do to him if he got the shits aboard her shuttle.

At least, when it came to watching wrestling on television, the two krogans’ behavior was not much different from anyone else’s, in other words cheering loudly for their favorites wrestlers and complaining just as noisily whenever one of those was put to the ground. Of course, they did not care the less that their racket might disturb the other passengers in the cabin, namely Valrin. In fact, Alyssaria had essentially locked herself in the shuttle’s cockpit and Mina had elected to spend most of the time of that trip in the company of the justicar. The human girl moved to the passenger compartment only during the final approach to Bekenstein, joining Gurt and Tragg as they watched UBW. By that time, Valrin had given up his efforts to concentrate any further on the infiltration plan and settled on watching the television himself, cheering with the krogans as a vorcha wrestler wearing a lucha mask used a biotic stranglehold to take down his turian opponent. Well, if you can’t beat them…, the old adage had echoed in Valrin’s mind at that time.

Meanwhile, the salarian and his companions had come within hearing distance of the human on reception duty at the gate outside of the mansion, prompting the woman to ask the newcomers for their names. Valrin presented himself as Lys Joraud, then went on saying that he had advised in advance about him bringing a partner at the auction, that the park around the mansion had some magnificent samples of vegetation and that with its artificial lake the mansion was as good as if it was built on Sur’Kesh. He basically kept talking non-stop while the receptionist checked on her omni-tool the guest list. Most of the other species found it hard to follow the salarians’ typical speech pattern, with its hammering stream of rapidly spoken sentences, so Valrin used that to his advantage, giving the receptionist a good reason to get rid of him as fast as possible, preferably without paying too much attention to him and his asari partner

With a slightly flustered look, the receptionist finally ticked off on her list a box next to ‘Lys Joraud + 1’. She then admitted Valrin and Alyssaria into the inner part of the park, directing them towards the mansion’s entrance, while Gurt and Tragg retreated back to the hovercar. After clearing the gate, Valrin noticed the security personnel hiding inconspicuously in the shadows of the inner park. They were all humans in civilian garb and the salarian assumed that they could be CAT6 mercs, albeit it was hard to tell since they were not wearing their trademark camo-patterned armor.

Whichever organization they belonged to, they did not bother the pretend weapons dealer and his asari mistress, something which reassured Valrin that his cover was holding up for the moment. Surely, if Sonja Hock’s security was on the lookout for a purple skinned salarian, then they were bound to be disappointed. In fact, Valrin had gulped down some pigmentation altering pills a few hours prior and now his natural purple skin tone had shifted to a greenish complexion reminiscent of that of his former STG commanding officer, Major Kirrahe.

Next to Valrin, Alyssaria looked cool as ice and unexpectedly at ease walking with those high heeled shoes she had picked up as part of her disguise. If only the justicar did something to look less intimidating than usual, Valrin would feel more confident on the success of their infiltration mission. Alas, the asari kept throwing nasty looks all around herself, so the salarian was worried that he would have to rely on what Blackthorn called the “old-fashioned keep your fingers crossed approach”. In present case, that meant hoping that the guests would be too busy noticing Alyssaria’s good looks and alluring garb and just chalk up her hard expression to whatever stiff and formal upbringing the asari had.

Just before entering the mansion, Alyssaria stopped Valrin. “Show me again that picture of our host, will you?” she asked.

From a pocket in his suit, the salarian pulled out a datapad and reloaded a picture he had retrieved from a local newsfeed. The news related to a charity event that took place in Milgrom not long ago and noted the attendance of several prominent Bekenstein citizens, including late patron of the arts Donovan Hock’s sister, Sonja. The picture (see chapter End note 1) showed a human female of fair complexion with brunette hair and hazel eyes, squeezed into a red dress. The woman exuded a confident and relaxed expression, not what people might have expected a smuggler from the Attican Traverse to look like.

Valrin could not see any physical resemblance between Sonja and her now dead brother, leaving him to ponder whether the two Hock siblings really did not look anything alike or whether he was simply unable to notice any subtle, but ultimately present, similarity between Donovan and Sonja.

When Alyssaria snatched the datapad from Valrin’s hands – seemingly to better familiarize herself with Sonja Hock’s appearance – the salarian took a moment to go over the information he recollected about their host. Thanks to the almost-photographic memory typical of his species, Valrin could access the contents of STG’s file on the woman as if he had a copy with him. Her file contained no relevant data until Sonja had separated from Donovan and become the leader of what was initially an all-female gang of smugglers. Over time she built a reputation for being ruthless in her line of work and garnered recognition among other smugglers for being close to uncatchable by the authorities. The file also highlighted Sonja’s proficiency in unarmed, hand-to-hand combat and her penchant for archaeology. Indeed, after inheriting her brother’s possessions, it was rumored that Sonja had gone on several archaeological expeditions across the galaxy, venturing into ancient tombs and ruins for herself, raiding for relics to expand the already sizeable collection of artifacts left behind by her brother.

Once they entered the mansion, Valrin and Alyssaria were greeted by a grandiose display of luxurious, modern architecture. The large hall used to receive the guests attending the event had walls decorated with antique framed pictures and several sculptures were scattered around the floor, a perpetual art exhibition of sorts. For their part, the guests were deep in conversation among themselves, many of them tasting the appetizers and sipping the local wines offered by their gracious host. Speaking of which, Sonja Hock was nowhere to be seen when Valrin searched the hall for the woman and neither was Alyssaria’s target, the elusive assassin known as “Angel”. It was only when the asari discreetly elbowed him that Valrin finally noticed Sonja appearing from a recessed corner of the hall, swiftly moving in their direction. She was wearing a dress of asari making, different from the red one she wore in the picture on Valrin’s datapad, but she sported exactly the same hairstyle.

“Good evening, Mr. Joraud. I am Sonja Hock”, the woman said by way of introduction. “The reception informed me that you and your partner had arrived and I wanted to welcome you in person.”

Sonja extended a hand, clearly expecting the salarian to kiss it. Instead, Valrin deliberately clasped the woman’s hand with both of his own and began to pump it enthusiastically, blaring about how much he was delighted to attend the auction in such a wondrous location. Valrin had correctly interpreted Sonja’s affable approach as a façade, the true reason behind the woman’s welcome that of providing her with a chance to size up firsthand a new guest she had never heard of before. In her line of business, Sonja had soon learned that a favorable background check based on information gathered from the extranet was the bare minimum. Figuring out people during face to face meetings had proved a much more valuable instrument for her in order to survive the rough-and-tumble world of the smugglers. Only, this time the woman had no clue that she was dealing with a former STG agent with a training in espionage. By acting like a parvenu, Valrin trusted that he could pass for an innocuous chap, a nobody who simply got rich enough to enter the weapons dealer business, and thereby deter Sonja from doing any further scrutiny into his background.

“Uh… My pleasure to have you here, Mr. Joraud”, Sonja replied, disentangling her appendage from the salarian’s unexpectedly tentacular grip. “The auction will begin shortly and you can download the program with the full list of items on sale tonight from that terminal”, she said, pointing with her head in the terminal’s direction. “In the meantime, you and your partner should feel free to take advantage of the refreshments. Now, if you will excuse me, I have another newly arrived guest to welcome.”

Valrin’s calculated lack of charm successfully caused Sonja to beat a hasty retreat and at the same time made the salarian a target for Alyssaria’s stinging sarcasm.

“If you ever run out of ammo during combat, these social skills of yours will work wonders to make your enemies abandon the battleground”, the asari mocked.

“Humph, there is nothing wrong with my social skills. As planned, that was an act for Hock’s benefit. I can be charming when I want, you know? After all, I’ve got plenty of contacts in my Galaxy of Fantasy friends list”, Valrin retorted. Maybe it was due to the tension of being undercover, but he was feeling more touchy than usual and he could not resist the urge to lash back.

“Besides, you are one to talk about social skills. Lucky thing you don’t shoot lasers from your eyes, otherwise half the guests would be dead by know.” The salarian had not failed to notice that, in the short time they had been inside the mansion, at least a dozen guests had been thoroughly intimidated by Alyssaria’s gaze when the asari spotted them admiring her legs.

“It’s a large galaxy and the extranet is a wonderful tool to keep in touch with faraway people”, the asari conceded. “Still, I’ll never call ‘friends’ people I know exclusively through an online game. I tend to share Sonja Hock’s approach and trust only real people that I’ve met face to face. Anyway, this petty bickering is pointless. Come on, let’s go to the terminal and grab a copy of the auction’s program.”

Following Alyssaria’s suggestion, the salarian stowed the conversation and navigated the hall to download the program on his datapad. While the asari were a mono-gendered race, for all intents and purposes they still looked female to Valrin and coming from a species having a strongly matriarchal culture meant that the salarian felt compelled to let Alyssaria have the final word. On his way to the terminal, Valrin picked up a drink, but quickly regretted the decision when he almost chocked himself after taking just one sip. His asari companion looked at him perplexed, unaware that Valrin’s reaction had not been caused by the drink itself, but by the fact that the salarian had unexpectedly recognized one of Sonja Hock’s guests. It was Henry Lawson.

In hindsight, Valrin realized that it should not come as a surprise to see Lawson at this auction. The human might pose as a legitimate businessman, but Valrin knew from personal experience that the full range of business ventures the man engaged in ranged from contraband of illegal weapons and technology to unethical experiments on sentient beings using technology of alleged Reaper origin. All in all, Lawson was right at home with the likes of Sonja Hock and the other guests of the auction.

Recovering his composure, Valrin steered clear of Lawson to finally reach the terminal with the auction’s program. While he was confident that the pigment-altering pills would be enough to conceal his identity from someone he had met only briefly like Lawson, the salarian was not eager to test the theory that humans generally could not tell one salarian apart from the other. The consequences if his cover was blown by a chance meeting with a former enemy were too dangerous for careless experimenting.

With a copy of the auction’s program downloaded onto his datapad, Valrin led Alyssaria to take a seat where several rows of chairs had been prepared for the guests attending the auction. According to the program, most of the items auctioned tonight had been provided by Sonja herself, while the remaining few had been put up for sale by other organizations, that lacked the resources or the contacts to organize an auction of this level and thus relied on Sonja to gain access to potential clients.

Flipping through the pages of the program, Valrin noticed that the items on sale had been divided in categories. The heading “Conventional Weapons” included several lots of weapons including a shipment of assault rifles stolen from the turian military, brand new Armali Council shotguns, an assortment of sniper rifles and handguns from various sources and even some small lots of heavy weapons like a set of Hydra rocket launchers. Based on the information obtained from Kalevi Virtanen, Sonja Hock had ordered the kidnapping of Mina’s father to obtain his research on biotics. Valrin had no idea whether Sonja would auction whatever data she had forced Dr. Payne to give up or the man himself. That meant it was necessary to pay particular attention whenever items from the categories “Biotics” and “Technological Know-How” were announced, as well as those falling under the “Live Specimens” label.

As anticipated, the auction began soon enough. The guests took place on the chairs, while a salarian auctioneer who would take the bids for the various items on sale climbed the small podium that had been set on a stage overlooking the chairs. Alyssaria remained standing beside Valrin, albeit the two of them had agreed beforehand that, if presented with the chance, the justicar would try to sneak into the restricted area behind the stage to take a look at whatever items were kept there. The conversations between the guests subsided to a barely audible murmur when Sonja took the podium to deliver a short introductory speech, that culminated in the recitation of a few verses of poetry attributed to her brother Donovan. Once finished, amidst a general applause the woman left the podium to the auctioneer and the auction finally began.

The first three lots were irrelevant for Valrin, including the shipment of asari shotguns he had noticed earlier in the program. He feigned interest into certain military-class omni-tools equipped with the latest generation omni-blades, making an offer that he knew would be easily outbidden by one of the other participants. Valrin had no intention to actually buy anything, since he was relying on the credits he had temporarily diverted from Sedra-Abis in order to participate at the auction and he meant to return those credits in full once this operation was concluded. Following a few more bids, the representative for the Blue Suns mercenaries outmatched all other offers for the omni-tools and the salarian auctioneer proceeded to enthusiastically announce the following lot.

“And now, ladies and gentlemen, allow me to present you our first item of the ‘Live Specimens’ category for tonight, offered for sale by the Parasol Corporation!” the auctioneer said, nodding his head in the direction of the human representative sent from Parasol, a tall blonde guy who seemed to wear shades also indoor.

A large display lit up behind the podium, with a live feed from what Valrin initially thought was a bunker. It took him a moment to realize that he was actually looking at a quarantine cell, as evidenced by the abundance of human, turian, asari and salarian “Biohazard” symbols plastered on its door. Inside the cell, there was only a cage housing what was unmistakably a pyjak.

“Do not let your eyes deceive you, dear guests”, the auctioneer chirped. “What you see in that cage is not a mere space monkey, but the carrier for a highly contagious, bioengineered virus that is guaranteed to infect all known dextro-amino and levo-amino species.”

Valrin wanted to shake his head in disbelief. There was no way for that pyjak to carry such a deadly, broad-spectrum virus. It was already doubtful that Parasol’s virus could really infect so many different species. But the telltale that this was a scam was the claim that a pyjak could be used as vector. It was one of STG’s many well-kept secrets that pyjaks had once been considered as the potential vector to deploy the genophage on Tuchanka, given the little creatures’ prodigious breeding rate and their ability to thrive also on inhospitable worlds. However, the salarian scientists had been baffled by the finding that the prototype viral vector for the genophage was rapidly cleared from all lab pyjaks inoculated with the bioweapon. Further tests revealed that key to the pyjaks’ unusual adaptability was the impressive efficiency of their immune system, capable of swiftly neutralizing whatever pathogens, allergens or foreign substances the creatures came into contact with, including the original genophage virus. One salarian scientist suggested to breed a line of transgenic pyjaks in which the immune system had been knocked out, but the idea was abandoned, because the genetic manipulation required to remove the pyjaks’ immune system caused the resulting transgenic animals to be too weak to survive on Tuchanka.

Everything seemed to suggest that the Parasol Corporation had planned to goad some fool into paying an exorbitant amount of credits in exchange for a non-working bioweapon. Valrin was on the verge or rolling on the floor laughing as he witnessed a turian and two humans contend ownership of the pyjak with increasingly higher bids and it was only Alyssaria’s scowl that kept the salarian in line. Ultimately, the highest bid was placed by one of the humans, outmatching his turian competitor. Valrin imagined the man’s frustration the day he discovered that the only danger coming from releasing that pyjak would be to cause an infestation of the pesky little creatures.

Lot after lot, the auction continued, with no sign that Dr. Payne or his research would be put up for sale. Valrin had been optimist that they could at least get a fix on Mina’s father during the auction and thus avoid going in blindly during the second stage of the plan, with no certainty that the person they were looking for was really kept at the mansion. However, judging by how the situation was evolving, Valrin concluded that in all probability he would have to resort to infiltrating Sonja’s mansion later that night and look for Dr. Payne throughout the vault built under the mansion.

The auctioneer announced the last item on sale and by then Valrin was eager to leave and get back to hear Mina’s report about the potential weak spots in the mansion’s security that the girl had located and that Valrin could exploit to enter the vault. Unexpectedly, Henry Lawson’s sudden interest in the final item diverted the salarian’s attention back to the auction.

“This is part of equipment, some kind of VI interface, personally salvaged by our host, when Ms. Hock found herself on the remote planet of Aite. Opening bid for this device at 10,000 credits”, the auctioneer stated.

During the auction Lawson had demonstrated even less interest than Valrin into the various items on sale, but once bidding for the VI interface component started, Lawson participated actively in the offers as he tried to best all other bids. Valrin was tempted to make an offer himself, to see how many credits Lawson was willing to shell out in order to acquire the device, but thought it was better to avoid drawing the human’s attention on himself, lest Lawson recognized him as the salarian who had used a ransomware virus to cripple his cruiser not too long ago.

Whatever that VI interface component was, Lawson wanted it real bad, which was apparent from the fact that he made one huge final offer, which caused the stupor of many attendees and finally silenced the competition. The auctioneer marked the item as sold and said goodbye to Sonja’s guest, after delivering a reminder that all items would be stored in the vault for the night and be available for pick up and shipping on the next day, as soon as confirmation of the various payments was received. That was all Valrin needed to hear, so he exchanged a look with Alyssaria and the two began heading for the exit.

Along the way, they were intercepted by Sonja Hock. “Leaving already, Mr. Joraud?”

The salarian was caught off guard and tried to dissimulate the increasingly pressing urge he felt to leave the mansion. “Weeeell… I have, uh… enjoyed the evening, Ms. Hock. Unfortunately, I have other business to attend to on the planet early tomorrow, so I have to take my leave now.”

It was not a particularly well-crafted lie and Valrin sensed that Sonja may have approached him because she had smelled something fishy about his fake identity. Was she trying to keep him tied up in talking while her security took position outside the mansion?

“If that is the case, then I bid you farewell and trust that you will attend a future auction with items more to your liking”, Sonia said.

The salarian felt a little relieved at the realization that Sonja had approached him merely because of his apparent lack of interest in the auction and he hastened to reply in a manner that would hopefully dispel any residual suspicion that Sonja might have harbored against Lys Joraud. “I would be delighted to attend another auction, thank you. I only suggest that next time you run a more thorough check on any future lot of merchandise provided by the Parasol Corporation before you accept to auction their products at your events. It would be most unfortunate if they used you for some kind of scam.”

That was enough to cause Sonja’s eyebrows to raise in surprise. Valrin’s plan to pass as a complete parvenu had been more successful that he had expected and now his comment about Parasol’s dubious behavior had evidently caused Sonja to reconsider her initial opinion on Lys Joraud. Before the woman decided it was worth to investigate more, Alyssaria defused the situation by possessively wrapping her arms around the salarian, her head resting on one of Valrin’s shoulders, and speaking in the most mellow tone Valrin had ever heard the asari use.

“Come on, Jo-Jo… You need to wake up early tomorrow… And tonight we have much to do”, Alyssaria said, running a finger allusively on Valrin’s right cheek.

Sonja Hock gave them a knowing smile and took leave from the two guests. “Pardon me from keeping you, Mr. Joraud. I’m sure we will have another chance to discuss about Parasol. Have a good night and enjoy your time on Bekenstein.”

“Goodbye, Ms. Hock”, Valrin saluted while Alyssaria was already steering him towards the exit.

There was no security team to wait for them outside the mansion and Valrin exhaled a sigh of relief

“You’d suppose that Lys Joraud’s asari mistress will have a pet name for him, don’t you?” the asari told Valrin, the expression on her face suddenly becoming that of a person who has just been forced to swallow some disgusting food. “By the goddess, I can’t believe I had to act like that to get us out of here before the Hock woman began to suspect something was amiss”, Alyssaria complained and Valrin mentally crossed his fingers that the asari would not regard this as a breach of the justicar Code that might cost him his head.

* * * *

Serpent Nebula, Boltzmann system
Sonja Hock’s mansion

It was already late in the night when the last guests finally left Sonja’s mansion and the woman retired to her rooms. Hidden among the trees of the park that surrounded the mansion, Valrin and Alyssaria prepared to enter the vault in order to locate and free Mina’s father. As expected, the girl had insisted to accompany them inside, but Valrin had not budged and – backed by Alyssaria – he managed to convince Mina that she had to wait outside, carefully hidden in the mansion’s park in the company of Gurt and Tragg.

Earlier that night, the human girl had done an excellent job locating the blind spots in the surveillance network and pieced together a path that Valrin and Alyssaria could follow to reach a service door that provided access to the garage and from there to the vault. Hacking the camera pointed at the door and then bypassing the door controls was trivial for Valrin’s tech skills. Once he and Alyssaria were inside the garage, the salarian briefly deactivated each camera they ran into for the time required to conceal their movements, until they finally reached the vault’s entrance.

“Problem. Big problem”, Valrin commented as he inspected the vault’s security mechanism.

“What’s the issue?” the asari demanded with more than a hit of annoyance creeping into her voice.

 “Door requires a password. No problem, I can hack that just fine”, Valrin explained. “Secondary security measure: DNA scan. Piece of cake, I got a sample of Sonja’s genetic material when I shook her hand earlier tonight. Third line of security? Brain patterns scan. This is problematic, since I can’t bypass it and I lack sufficient data and time to hack the system.”

“It’s got to be Sonja’s brain patterns, right? And you can record a scan on your omni-tool, right?” Alyssaria inquired, receiving for each question an affirmative nod from the salarian. “Then, we have to enter Sonja’s bedroom, scan her brain and get back here to unlock the vault.”

Obtaining a sample of Sonja’s brain patterns was an unexpected complication. Left with no other viable alternative, Valrin decided it was time to field-test an ‘ace-in-the-hole’ that might ensure the success of the crazy stunt suggested by Alyssaria. After leaving STG, Valrin had tinkered to some extent with his armor and he had managed to build and install a cloaking mod. It was a jury-rigged device, not the genuine Tactical cloak that salarian infiltrators’ armor was equipped with and lacked any form of testing under real conditions. In addition, assuming that the cloaking mod worked, it would hide only Valrin, meaning that he would have to enter Sonja’s bedroom alone, while his asari companion found a quiet spot to wait for him.

The next minutes seemed to last an eternity for Valrin, as he slowly made his way through the mansion towards Sonja’s bedroom. Cloaking tech automatically disengaged whenever the wearer performed sudden movements, like running or any kind of combat maneuvers, and Valrin’s makeshift device was even more sensitive to that issue. As a result, he was forced to keep a slow pace to avoid that the cloak might disengage at a crucial moment. When Valrin finally reached the bedroom, he was dismayed to hear noise coming from beyond the locked door, clearly indicative that Sonja was still awake. The former STG agent moved to one side of the door and activated the scanner mode of his omni-tool, making sure to be outside of the closest camera’s field of view, lest the omni-tool conflicted with the functioning of the cloaking device and caused him to appear out of thin air. The scanner provided an orange-silhouetted picture of the interior of the bedroom, revealing Sonja’s position as she walked up to what looked to be her bed. Since the scanner could only display the woman’s silhouette, it took the salarian a few seconds to realize that Sonja was undressing. He hoped that the woman was not preparing for one of those frequent mating rituals that humans generally indulged into, otherwise he might have to wait a long time before she decided to go to sleep. Assuming she will go to sleep, Valrin thought pessimistically.

The salarian was relieved when it turned out that Sonja was not preparing for any kind of intimate rendezvous and merely intended to take a shower. When the woman moved into the adjoining bathroom, Valrin took the chance to bypass the door controls and entered the bedroom. With the clock ticking, the salarian could not wait for Sonja to fall asleep once she finished her shower. That meant he would have to knock her out of her senses to take the required brain scan. Ideally, he would be far away from the mansion with Dr. Payne and the rest of the gang by the time Sonja recovered. The electrostatic discharge caused by certain tech talents or neural shock would undesirably alter the woman’s brain patterns, but Valrin still carried the medical injector found during the visit at Le Cercle Parfait clinic. The device held one last final dose of narcotic, sufficient to sedate Sonja and take the necessary brain scan.

About five minutes later, the door separating the bedroom from the bathroom opened, letting out a cloud of steam which was rapidly followed by Sonja. The woman walked towards the bed, rubbing her damp hair with a towel and arguably oblivious to the presence of a cloaked salarian ready to inject her with the narcotic. It thus came as a surprise for Valrin when his intended target suddenly spun around, grabbed the armored salarian by one arm and effortlessly threw him across the room with a classic judo flip.

The impact against one of the wardrobes broke the cloaking effect, causing the salarian to become fully visible. Valrin realized too late that the steam pouring out of the bathroom had likely interfered with the light-bending technology of the cloaking field, at least enough to make him partially visible to Sonja. The woman must have feigned ignorance of the intruder’s presence until the last moment and when he was close enough she used her extensive knowledge in hand-to-hand combat to strike first. With a groan, Valrin got back up, just in time to face Sonja’s next attack. Apparently unafraid to take on an armored opponent with her bare hands, the woman had abandoned the towel and rapidly closed the distance separating her from the now visible assailant. She swung a powerful uppercut punch, followed by a crane kick and then an elbow chop. Valrin managed to dodge the punch, sidestep to avoid the kick and finally resorted to dive into a roll to evade Sonja’s last attack. The move gave the salarian the chance to recover from the floor the injector he had lost upon the earlier impact against the wardrobe, but also cost him a few precious seconds. Sonja did not miss to chance, landing a hard kick to her opponent’s midsection which sent him tumbling on the floor, but not before the salarian managed to inject a dose of narcotic into one of the woman’s legs.

Adrenaline kept Sonja going for another short moment, but the fast-acting sedative was simply too powerful to resist its effects. The woman’s movements became increasingly uncoordinated and sluggish, until she crouched down and finally collapsed on the floor. Valrin did not waste a second to activate his omni-tool and acquire a scan of the woman’s brain patterns. The job done, the salarian tried to reactivated his makeshift tactical cloak, but to no avail. The device refused to cooperate, forcing Valrin to hack the camera in order make his way back to where Alyssaria had been waiting for him.

“Took you long enough”, the asari complained as Valrin appeared from behind a corner.

“I got the scan, but we might have another problem now”, the salarian noted, going straight to the point. “Had to dose Sonja with a narcotic and I’m not sure how long that will keep her sedated. Depends on how fast her metabolism can clear the drug.”

“Humph, what a mess.” Alyssaria was shaking her head, evidently displeased with this new development. “Well, this just means we have to move faster. No time to search for Dr. Payne and then look for Angel, so you get the vault open and fetch the doctor while I’ll sweep the mansion for my prey.”

“What are you talking about?” Valrin asked in disbelief while working on the vault’s access door to deactivate its three security measures. “You don’t have a cloak and you’ll need my help to elude the cameras, otherwise Sonja’s security will be onto you in a matter of seconds.”

Considering that the mansion was teeming with a horde of mercenaries, the salarian did not regard that as the best of times for the asari to abandon the stealthy approach and switch to her preferred frontal assault.

“We will cover more ground if we separate and I’m not planning to carelessly trigger an alarm. I can move stealthily and avoid the cameras when I need to. And if I somehow alert Sonja’s security and they come gunning for me, then it will divert attention from whatever you do in the vault.”

This time the Alyssaria’s plan was not up to Valrin’s taste, but he understood that the asari had come along on this mission with a different objective to accomplish and saving Dr. Payne was not her priority. Besides, Valrin could not deny the potential tactical benefit for him if the justicar acted as a diversion and drew the attention of Sonja’s security away from anything going on inside the vault. While it would be dangerous for her, Alyssaria had proven that she was more than capable to handle herself in combat using her powerful biotics. Coming to a final decision, Valrin mentally crossed his fingers that he did not end up being the diversion for Alyssaria rather than the other way around.

“All right, you look for Angel in the mansion and I search for Mina’s father in the vault. But we stay in radio contact”, Valrin conceded. “Here, use frequency 4400 and encryption scheme delta”, he added as he uploaded a file to Alyssaria’s own omni-tool. “Mina and the krogans use frequency 4500, so you can call Gurt and Tragg in case you need backup.”

“Got it. But I won’t need backup from those two krogan bunglers”, she replied, all confidence.

The security system chewed over the scan of Sonja’s brain patterns and the vault’s access door finally unlocked with a thud. Valrin drew his weapon and prepared to enter the vault, ready to hack any cameras, while his asari companion carefully moved towards the mansion.

“Good luck with your hunt, justicar”, Valrin saluted.

“Same to you, salarian.”

Now alone, Valrin explored the vault, trying to balance the need to maintain a stealthy approach and evade all cameras with the urge to proceed faster. Donovan Hock and his sister were both criminals, but there was no denying that the stuff they had managed to collect and hide in the vault was incredible. The salarian caught a glimpse of what was once part of a huge statue of a crowned human woman, as well as numerous artifacts belonging to others of the galaxy’s cultures. The place was like a private museum, one that Valrin however did not have the time to visit. Leaving behind all those wonders, the salarian crossed another door and found himself in a section of the vault built like a bunker.

It was the same place Valrin had seen on video during the auction. The quarantine cell where Sonja had stored Parasol’s pyjak vector must be somewhere around here, so the salarian reasoned that the woman evidently kept in this part of the vault all that was not for display in the museum but required a safe place to be stored, such as contraband weapons and wares, stolen technology and probably also the people that Sonja kept prisoner. He inspected several storage rooms, none of which had been turned to a detention cell, feeling a growing suspicion that maybe Mina’s father was not here at all.

Valrin began to regret that there had been no chance to question Sonja about Dr. Payne’s location. If Alyssaria captured Angel alive, then there might be the chance to question the assassin and force her to reveal the place where she had brought Mina’s father after leaving the Citadel, but it was doubtful that the opportunity would arise, since the asari had clearly hinted that she had no plans to take prisoners.

After the unsuccessful inspection of yet another row of storage rooms, Valrin emerged from one of the vault’s corridors and into a larger room which seemed to serve as the point where the items sold at the auction were prepared for delivery to their final recipients. Several pillars were evenly spaced throughout the room, diving the available space in sections where stacks of boxes, crates and barrels were lined up on pallets. The salarian checked a nearby set of barrels to find out that they were marked as containing the synthetic derivative of red sand that had been auctioned earlier that night. During his time with STG, Valrin had developed a particular distaste for drugs and drug-dealers, so he did not think twice about sabotaging this shipment of the substance. Once detonated, the incendiary charge he rigged the barrels with would make short work of the red sand derivative. Valrin only had to make sure that he was at a safe distance before setting off the charge, because inhalation of the fumes generated by the drug’s combustion was known to cause intoxication, in addition to the minor biotic-enhancing effect typical of red sand.

On second thought, the salarian thought that it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to rig with charges all other potentially dangerous items in the process of being shipped out of the vault. Whoever had acquired the stolen turian rifles at the auction would be in for a nasty surprise and the Blue Suns should have bought their omni-tools from a legitimate supplier rather than relying on technology of dubious origin sold by Sonja. Before he had the chance to take any further action, Valrin heard footsteps approaching and hid behind the nearest crates, assuming that and a guard on patrol duty was approaching. When he peered from behind his cover, Valrin was dismayed to see it was actually Angel, the biotic assassin. Oh, damn! he thought.

Despite having seen that woman only once, in the midst of her fight with Alyssaria, Valrin instantly recognized her. Angel wore the same light armor and Delumcore visor she had used on the Citadel and seemed to be on the lookout for something or someone, hefting a nasty-looking Carnifex pistol in her right hand. However, more than the gun, it was the woman’s biotic talents that Valrin was worried about.

“Alyssaria? I’ve got a problem here”, the salarian whispered using the encrypted frequency he shared with the asari. “That fugitive you are looking for… She’s here! In the vault!”

A few seconds ticked off before he got a reply from Alyssaria. “Hold tight, I’m on my way”, she said in her terse, curt justicar tone.

For the time being, Valrin was on his own. Unless necessary, he was keen on avoiding a direct confrontation with such a biotic opponent of Angel’s caliber. After his adventure in the company of Gemma Blackthorn, a powerful biotic in her own right, the salarian had trained hard to improve his effectiveness and endurance in combat against biotics. He had even coaxed Gemma into helping him develop a device that could be used to dampen the biotic powers of an opponent during close combat. Valrin carried the prototype with him ever since, but it was yet another piece of tech that had never been field-tested.

He heard some more cautious footsteps, then the crates he was using for cover were suddenly pulled from the ground in a bluish glow, leaving him exposed. The salarian could not figure out what gave his location away, but somehow Angel had detected him. The next second, the woman smashed the floating crates at the very exact spot where Valrin had been hiding. Or at least where he was hiding a moment earlier, until his combat reflexes kicked in and he took cover behind the nearest pillar.

In an effort to buy time until Alyssaria appeared on the scene, the former STG operator tried to stall his human opponent with dialogue. “You should consider a peaceful surrender now, before you get hurt. My asari friend will not be very merciful if you keep it up with this… unfriendly attitude!”

“I knew you had been working with her all along!” Angel shot back, all rage, just before throwing another crate in Valrin’s direction.

So much for dialogue as a stalling tactic. That seems to work only in videogames… Valrin thought with disappointment.

The salarian risked taking a quick look from behind the pillar and saw Angel advance shrouded in a biotic barrier. Valrin was aware that he had to keep moving, since getting too close to a biotic opponent was unhealthy, to say the least. He began darting from one available cover to another, using the pillars, the stacks of boxes and the crates in the room to prevent Angel from getting a clear line of fire on him, while shooting sustained bursts from his submachine gun when moving. The bullets did not seem to do any appreciable damage to the human’s barrier, but at least seemed effective to keep her at a distance. Angel responded to that tactic by using biotics to sweep away the containers that Valrin was relying onto for cover, sharply reducing the number of nearby hiding spots available to the salarian.

Angel concentrated to remove the final tree stacks of containers that were all the cover left in the room other than the pillars, providing Valrin with a brief opening for an attack while the woman was not directly attacking her opponent. His arm outstretched toward the human, the salarian activated his omni-tool to unleash the energy drain tech power. The attack caused Angel to visibly flinch, leaving her dazed, and rewarded Valrin with an extra charge for his shield capacitors thanks to the barrier energy absorbed by the energy drain. With his shields temporarily boosted beyond their normal strength, the salarian emptied the thermal clip in the SMG against Angel’s barrier. Her defenses finally collapsed, accompanied by a string of expletives.

For all her power and presumed skills, the woman did not seem to live up to her reputation as a fearful assassin. Indeed, Valrin was surprised that Angel had let her guard down enough for him to so easily dissipate her biotic barrier. Was she used to fighting from a distance? The question rapidly scrolled through the salarian’s brain and, almost as fast, the memory of the biotic fight between the woman and Alyssaria popped up to answer him in the negative. With a chance to put an end to this fight within reach, Valrin banished any further thoughts and conjectures from his head, concentrating to land what would hopefully be the final blow.

The split second elapsed since Valrin’s attack was enough for Angel to recover from her daze. She rapidly activated another defense to replace her biotic barrier and a holographic armor formed around the woman, protecting her torso and arms. Before the salarian could unleash his powerful incinerate tech power to end the confrontation, Angel sent a biotic shockwave in his direction, scattering the barrels of red sand derivative and stunning Valrin for a brief, but sufficient, moment for the woman to take cover behind the closest pillar.

Woah, a tech armor! Valrin thought as he shook off the after-effects of the shockwave to jump behind a pillar himself. He had assumed that his opponent was a ‘regular’ biotic rather than a member of that particular class generally referred to as ‘sentinels’, individuals that relied on a combination of biotics and tech powers. As he considered the available options, the salarian noticed that Angel’s counter-attack had lowered his shields back to their nominal strength. Valrin thanked his luck that he had boosted his defenses with the energy drained from his opponent’s barrier, otherwise that shockwave would have been strong enough to overpower the regular shields and sweep him away along with those barrels.

With no hint that Alyssaria would be joining the fight anytime soon, Valrin decided to spring back into action right away, with the intention to act before Angel’s biotic barrier was restored. Up to that point, the woman had been using plenty of her biotics and the salarian was sure that it would take at least a few seconds before she could regenerate the barrier. The woman could still rely on her Carnifex heavy pistol and tech powers, but those did not worry Valrin as much as her biotics, since combat engineers like him were trained to deal with and contrast their opponents’ weapons and tech skills.

Without pausing to reload the SMG, Valrin retrieved from his ‘magic bag of tricks’ satchel an arc grenade, an EMP-packed explosive device. Angel partly emerged from behind her pillar to fire off several rounds from the Carnifex, in an attempt to force the salarian to keep his head down still while her biotic powers recharged. Relying on his shields, Valrin used that moment to fire an incinerate attack from his omni-tool, waited half a second and then rolled out of cover to lob the arc grenade in Angel’s direction. The high-explosive plasma round of the incinerate attack travelled too fast for Angel to dodge and it found its mark. The fireball dissipated against the woman’s tech armor without causing substantial damage, but priming the salarian’s target for the subsequent combined fire explosion that would be triggered by the arc grenade.

Valrin was looking triumphantly at the grenade as it flew towards its intended target, already feeling the taste of victory, but Angel grabbed the explosive device in a biotic pull, in a last moment attempt to send it back floating towards her opponent. With a flash, the arc grenade detonated halfway between the two combatants, overloading Valrin’s shields, but causing far more damage to Angel since the EMP released by the grenade acted as a detonator for the expected fire explosion. The effect of the power combo was enough to destroy Angel’s tech armor and collapse the column she had been using for cover, hurtling several huge chunks of concrete towards the salarian.

Feeling a bit dizzy as a result of the closer-than-expected-explosion, Valrin tried to get up, only to realize that the remnants of the destroyed pillar were pinning him down to the ground. With an effort, the former STG operative did his best to free himself, frantically removing the pieces of rubble that blocked him. He gave a sidelong glance to Angel and redoubled his efforts when he noticed that the woman was already back on her feet and taking some unsteady steps in his direction.

The Delumcore visor she had been using to conceal her face was badly damaged and Angel removed what was left of the device, sending it clattering to the floor. Her expression was marred by the pain from the injuries suffered due to the explosion, but Valrin thought that her face looked vaguely familiar. The salarian could not think clearly enough to make any conjectures, busy as he was with the unsuccessful attempts at removing a large chunk of concrete that blocked his legs. He was still blocked when Angel appeared in his field of view, towering over him and aiming to the his head a fist covered in a warping field of biotic energy.

“Where is my daughter?” the woman asked menacingly, ready to flatten Valrin’s head with a warp field.

“Uh, what…”, the salarian stammered. Of all the questions that he might have expected the woman to ask, this one came as a complete surprise. Valrin could not fathom why a biotic assassin he had never heard of until a few days earlier would ask him, of all persons, about her daughter’s whereabouts. But in truth, at that moment the salarian really did not care much about the question itself, but only that it provided him with an opportunity to save his neck. He shifted his efforts from trying to free his legs to reaching in a back pocket for his prototype biotic dampener.

“I’ve been following you on the Citadel, saw you take her to that asari bitch”, Angel accused him, her face now closer to Valrin’s after the woman had bent down as if to intimidate him, unwittingly placing herself in a perfect position for the salarian’s counter-attack. “Speak, or I will…”

That conversation did not make any sense to Valrin. He recalled the feeling of being tailed back on the Citadel while working on the case with Mina. Wait one… Mina? The salarian thought he was close to an important realization, but his body – honed to follow the deeply inbred instincts that STG’s training had instilled in him – was already acting of its own initiative.

With a swift move of his right arm, Valrin pulled out the biotic dampener and thumbed on the device. The prototype had a roughly cylindrical shape the length of a hand, but when activated it extended into a holographic staff, reminiscent of those used by mage characters in the Galaxy of Fantasy RPG, with a pointy blade at the bottom of the staff and some kind of dual sickle-shaped prongs on the opposite end. Before Angel could react, Valrin stabbed the woman’s midsection with the larger sickle-shaped head of the holographic device. He was unable to put much force behind the attack, but there was enough to crack Angel’s armor. Then, the dampener released a charge throughout the woman’s body that temporarily inhibited her biotics.

Angel’s expression was one of horror as she saw the biotic energy she held in the hand disappear. Thereafter, she felt her last energies leave her and she collapsed face first onto the salarian that she had been threatening just a moment before.

“Ouch!” Valrin screamed as the additional dead weight of the now unconscious woman was added to that of the chunks of concrete still blocking him. He exhaled a sigh of relief, content that the battle of over, and wondering when Alyssaria would show up. Judging by how things had turned out, the salarian was aware that he would need help to get back up on his feet. And the sooner the better, since the noise of the explosion had certainly alerted Sonja’s security by now.

It was at that moment that Valrin heard it. The sound of clapping. Someone was applauding and then spoke. It was an unwelcome voice, one that meant the salarian was ‘out of the rachni war and into the krogan rebellion’, as the saying goes.

“A bit dramatic, but an effective piece of work, lizard-man. Thank you for knocking each other out.” Henry Lawson said with the hideous voice that Valrin remembered from his earlier encounter with the man.

Chapter Text

Serpent Nebula, Boltzmann system
Inside the vault under Sonja Hock’s mansion

The lack of a colorful and brightly lit button with the label ‘LOAD’ was another grim reminder that Valrin’s current predicament was a real life event, rather than a level he had failed while playing a videogame. After hearing Lawson mocking him, the salarian had ceased struggling to remove the rubble that pinned him down and turned around to see where the businessman’s voice came from. Two platforms connected by a series of catwalks overlooked the large room where the fight took place and Valrin located Lawson standing on one of the platforms, in the company of a team of armored CAT6 mercs. A door behind the platform evidently provided the access from an adjacent room and explained how the group of humans had managed to bypass the turbulent fight that had just concluded in the room below.

At the sight of Henry Lawson, a feeling of revulsion briefly overwhelmed the salarian. His reaction had nothing to do with the physical appearance of humans, regardless that Valrin found the hair that usually covered the humans’ scalp to be odd-looking and the beard that same of the males sported on their face to be even odder. Rather, it was the knowledge of the unethical and deeply disturbing experiments carried out by Lawson that had caused Valrin to find the sight of that specific human to be offensive. Indeed, at the time of his unwanted visit on the businessman’s starship MSV Strive for Perfection, the salarian had witnessed first-hand the results of those experiments, when facing a number of test subjects exposed to what was in all probability Reaper technology. Due to Lawson’s apparent interest in experimenting on biotic individuals, Gemma Blackthorn herself had risked becoming one of those experiments until Valrin’s intervention saved the bounty hunter from that fate.

“When my agent reported that a former STG soldier was involved in this matter, I did not expect that our paths would cross again”, Lawson said upon seeing that he had Valrin’s full attention. “You can’t even imagine the extent of my satisfaction when I realized that it was really you again and that this time I could exploit all your efforts to further my own agenda.”

Being pinned to the ground with half a dozen assault rifles aimed at him was already bad enough, but having to listen to Lawson gloating was just one step below physical torture for Valrin. Apparently, the human businessman belonged to that category of villains who loved to mock their opponents while at the same time parading their pretended superiority.

“Considering how you infected my ship’s computers with a malware, I’m sure that you’ll appreciate the irony of your falling for the old ‘trojan horse’ strategy”, the blue eyed man noted. “Is it not, Angel?” he then added, turning to look at someone behind him that Valrin could not see from his angle.

The statement finally made some sense when the salarian recognized the person to whom Lawson had directed that last question. Wearing the suit of slightly dented, shiny, purple armor that Valrin had become familiar with, Alyssaria appeared from behind Henry Lawson, eyeing her former ally with disdain.

“If only you could look at your ridiculous, slack-jawed expression”, the asari told Valrin, giving a little shake of her head and punctuating the comment with a snort.

“So, you are Angel?!? And who is this woman over here then?” Valrin asked, unable to keep the disbelief out of his voice. He was feeling like a total dumbass for having trusted the asari, ignoring his earlier intuition that it would have been better to continue the investigation without involving her.

Alyssaria seemed willing to humor him for the moment. “What my people actually call me may be roughly translated as ‘Angel that Silently Takes Lives in the Darkness’. Since this is quite impractical to use as a name in my line of business, and given that the original asari term is difficult to speak for most other species, for simplicity I adopted the ‘Angel’ moniker to deal with those of non-asari birth. As for that woman…”

“She is just a failed experiment and none of your concern, salarian!” Lawson interjected.

“You heard the man, she is of no more concern to you. Suffice it to say, that it was so easy to paint her as the boogeyman when I pretended to be assisting you and the human girl. Besides, I needed someone that I could pin on the blame for the death of Matriarch Jocasta.”

The asari’s words were additional pieces of a puzzle that Valrin’s brain was processing as fast as possible, in order to piece together the whole picture. He turned to look at the woman he had just fought, a suspicion about her true identity dawning on him at last. She had regained her consciousness after the shock of having her biotics suddenly shut down and, with an effort, the woman pulled herself away from Valrin while detaching from her armor the salarian’s biotic dampener. The holographic parts of the device disappeared as the dampener shut down, its solid handle clattering to the ground not too far away.

In the meantime, it looked like Lawson was done with talking to Valrin and went back to addressing Alyssaria. “Is the Overlord VI interface secured?”

“Bravo Team has retrieved the package from the storage room and they are already on their way to the transport”, the fake justicar answered.

“And what about the girl? I have a CAT6 team on stand-by to pick her up at the shuttle port, if needed.”

“That will not be necessary, Mr. Lawson. She is here, waiting in a hovercar hidden in the mansion’s park. I messaged the two krogan bodyguards protecting her with a request for backup and sent them on a wild-goose chase. They will not interfere while I fetch the girl and bring her to your transport. She trusts me and will not suspect anything when I tell her that she needs to come with me right away.”

One level below the platform where the human businessman was talking to Alyssaria, the woman that Valrin had thus far known as Angel raised herself on a kneeling position. “You… Will not… Touch… My daughter!” she screamed through gritted teeth, her fist shaking in Alyssaria’s direction. A faint blue aura intermittently emanated from her figure, but her biotics still refused to cooperate.

Neither Lawson nor Alyssaria were concerned by what they regarded as an empty threat. The human woman was evidently unable to summon her biotics and had also lost her pistol after the explosion. Valrin watched the scene with a growing concern for his own safety, but at the same time he could not prevent the analytical part of his brain from examining with interest the after-effects that the biotic dampener was having on the woman. He had scrounged up the device based on his recollections of observing a bigger-sized version of the dampener operating aboard Lawson’s ship. As such, the performance of the prototype on its first field test was too fascinating for the salarian to ignore, despite the looming danger currently posed by Lawson and his forces.

The intermittent bursts of biotic energy released by the woman as she tried unsuccessfully to tap into her powers suggested that the dampener was not acting by draining an individual’s reserves of biotic energy. Valrin speculated that the device might actually work by somehow scrambling the element zero nodules embedded in the subject’s body tissues, thereby inhibiting that subject’s ability to create and then manipulate the mass effect fields which were key to all biotic powers. The salarian reasoned that it was just a matter of time before enough of the woman’s sensitive nodules got back in synch to create a stable mass effect field and maybe stimulation with a substance having biotic-enhancing properties could speed up recovery.

A second team of mercenaries joined Lawson on the platform, interrupting Valrin’s internal speculations. After listening to the team leader report that the mission to recover the VI interface was complete, Lawson issued his orders. They were more or less what the salarian had been worried to hear ever since his nemesis had appeared inside in the vault.

“Alyssaria, fetch the girl and escort her to the transport. I’ll be there myself to link up with Alpha Team”, Henry Lawson told the asari. Then, he turned towards the merc in charge of the newly arrived CAT6 team: “Sergeant, I want your team and Gamma Team to finish the job here. Kill those two down there and then get to the extraction point asap.”

“Yes, sir!”

“And Sergeant, I don’t care about the salarian, but see to it that the woman’s body is retrieved and brought back to the transport. My scientists might learn something useful from a dissection, so I’ll pay CAT6 a bonus if you can secure the body, even if that means tangling with Hock’s security.”

The human businessman left the platform with Alyssaria, the asari presumably heading to get hold of Mina. Valrin had to make an attempt at warning the girl; she was a smart one and given a sufficient head start she might be able to avoid capture. Gulping down a calming breath to ignore the mercenaries training their weapons on him, the salarian activated his omni-tool and tried to raise Mina on the agreed frequency.

“Mina, get the hell out of there! Alyssaria works for the bad guys!” he spat on the audio channel, but only static answered him. It seemed that CAT6 was jamming the frequencies he had agreed to use with Mina and Alyssaria.

At a couple of paces of distance, the woman that Valrin had so far known as Angel eyed him with perplexity. Her biotics still had not returned to normal, as evidenced by the intermittent blue flashes she kept emitting. Maybe the woman just had a change of heart and no longer wished to kill him, but the salarian knew his odds of surviving the imminent execution were still close to zero.

Unable to move, there was no way to withstand the concentrated fire from twelve assault rifles, no matter that his armor’s shields had recharged by now. The shields would not last enough for Valrin to incapacitate even one of the mercs with his tech powers, let alone all of the twelve soldiers ready to cut him down with merciless gunfire. At that moment, the salarian dearly wished that his friend Gemma was there to save the day, casting a biotic sphere or an aegis barrier strong enough to protect him. Unfortunately, the last time he had heard from the bounty hunter she was far away from Bekenstein to be of assistance, busy following some fugitive’s trial to the planet Yamm. And the only biotic close enough to help was unable to use her powers due to Valrin’s mistakes.

A barrel, lying on the ground a couple of meters away, suddenly drew the salarian’s eye.

The container was one of those scattered across the room during the previous fight and it was rigged with an incendiary charge. Valrin realized it must be one of the barrels containing the red sand derivative that he had planned to destroy. And red sand and its derivatives were all stimulants with biotic-enhancing properties! It was a long shot, but he could detonate the incendiary charge to flood the immediate area with the drug’s fumes. A short exposure to the fumes should be enough for the woman to recover her biotics. Whether she would use those powers to help the salarian was another matter entirely, but Valrin was willing to try if for no other reason to at least make amends for the mistake of falling for Alyssaria’s ruse.

On the above platform, the mercenaries had positioned themselves on the catwalks to surround their human and salarian targets. The CAT6 non-com in charge began to bark short, parade-style orders to his men.

“Bravo and Gamma Teams! Ready… Aim…”

Before the soldier could give the order to open fire, Valrin closed his eyes and tapped the omni-tool control that detonated the incendiary charge. The unexpected explosion set aflame the red sand derivative and caused the CAT6 mercs to instinctively scramble for cover. The fumes quickly spread in the room, first sweeping over Valrin, who was closest to the barrel, and then reaching the human woman.

The effect of inhaling the fumes did not take long to manifest. Ever since her first attempt, the woman had kept trying to summon her biotic powers and a couple of inhalations proved sufficient for the element zero nodules embedded in her tissues to regain their functionality. The mercenaries opened fire, aiming a dozen streams of mass effect-propelled slugs at the two figures below. Only, those two were no longer defenseless as their attackers had expected.

Valrin opened his eyes to see the woman standing over him, right arm outstretched with her palm open to summon an aegis barrier large enough to shield her as well as the fallen salarian from the oncoming weapons fire. She flicked her left wrist and Valrin felt the weight of the rubble blocking him lift from his legs, the chunks of concrete pulled away as if by magic.

“Oooooh! That’s cool!” Valrin heard himself say in a childish tone, full of wonder.

That was his voice, no doubt about it, but to Valrin it felt as if someone else had spoken, not him. Prompted by the woman, the salarian got up and then took some cautious steps walking backwards behind the protection of the biotic aegis. The world around him was growing increasingly shiny and fuzzy and, after reaching the relative safety of a pillar, Valrin looked at his arms and was amazed to see a very dim blue glow surrounding his limbs. The salarian waved his arm in a jerking motion and several small chips of concrete gently floated in his direction, captured in a weak, drug-induced biotic pull.

“Hehehehehehehe, I’m a biotic too now!” Valrin proclaimed amidst a fit of hysteric laughter.

A remote part of Valrin’s consciousness was aware that he was witnessing the effects of inhaling the red sand derivative’s fumes. The mild euphoria, the blurred vision punctuated by the suffuse glow and the weak biotic potential were the hallmarks of red sand intoxication. He did his best to concentrate, recalling the training he had been imparted by STG to resist interrogation under the influence of drugs.

A shout from his new-found ally eventually penetrated the salarian’s mental haze. “We need to get out of here! Follow my lead!”

The mystery woman was retreating towards the corridor that she had originally followed to reach the room where she had fought Valrin, but the mercenaries were swiftly reorganizing to give chase, for they had no intention to let their targets off the hook. The soldiers jumped from the platform and catwalks onto the lower level, alternating their fire to cover each other during the maneuver. Valrin looked for his SMG, only to realize that the weapon was not secured to its armor slot. Probably, he had lost during the previous fight, but he realized that it did not really matter much at the moment. Indeed, in his current status the salarian was doubtful that he could hit anything with the SMG anyway, so he pulled out the Scorpion pistol that he carried as a secondary weapon.

The Scorpion was one of several specially-designed weapons issued to STG units. The gun shot delay rounds consisting of a high-explosive filler coupled with an adhesive and were thus capable of adhering to any surface they came in contact with and then detonate after a short countdown. Under the circumstances, Valrin could use the Scorpion without worrying about his aim, since the explosive nature of the pistol’s ammunition would ensure that any mercs in the immediate vicinity of the detonations would be wounded, regardless of scoring a direct hit. The salarian emptied the weapon’s thermal clip to shoot a volley of the sticky rounds on the CAT6 soldiers and watched the mercenaries as they rolled out of the line of fire, trying to place some distance between themselves and the explosives that attached on the walls. A lucky shot took one of the mercs in a leg and when the projectile detonated the soldier was left with a badly mangled limb. A second merc appeared from behind a pillar and dragged his wounded comrade to cover, opening a medi-gel pack to stabilize the man’s leg.

“Booom, boom, boom! That wasn’t a bit nice, eh?” Valrin heard himself jeering, unable to keep his drugged consciousness from speaking, no matter the salarian’s best efforts to concentrate and banish from his system the red sand derivative’s effects.

“Get a grip on yourself!” the biotic woman shouted to admonish the salarian.

The two of them were now only a few steps from crossing the corridor into the next room and from dramatically improving their chances to survive. Once Valrin and the woman were inside the next room, the corridor would form a perfect choke point and present the mercenaries with a difficult choice: either slowly advancing through the corridor under cover and give their opponents time to run away or, in the alternative, rushing headlong into the corridor and risk being exposed to their opponents’ attacks. Valrin was one step away from rounding a corner into the next room when he stopped to pull the trigger of the Scorpion pistol. The weapon clicked with each pressure of the trigger, but did not shoot any projectile.

A thought echoed in the salarian’s brain when he registered what the problem was. Replace the spent clip!

Valrin fumbled for a fresh Scorpion clip, but could not clearly recall which pocket or armor slot held them. The drug-induced confusion caused the salarian to forget that he was still standing in the middle of the corridor, unaware that the CAT6 soldiers were already lining up for a headshot with their rifles. The former STG operative was surprised when he felt a sudden dizziness as the human woman dragged him to safety with a biotic pull. The mercs’ shots narrowly missed their intended target and instead impacted harmlessly on the corridor’s walls.

“This was soooo much fun, I wanna fly more!”

The salarian’s dumb comment put a scowl on the woman face. Valrin’s intoxicated state threatened to compromise their escape, so the human pulled out a half-spent pack of medi-gel and threw it to the salarian. Valrin’s clumsiness was so bad at that moment that he had to drop his pistol in order to grab the medi-gel. Even with both of his hands free, Valrin almost missed the pass, the medi-gel slipping from his hands on the first attempt to grab the container, but in the end he managed to get a secure hold of it.

“Be quick! Apply a small amount on your neck’s skin”, the woman instructed him. “The anesthetic in the gel will act as an antagonist on the same brain receptors targeted by red sand. It should work within a few minutes and counteract the effects of the drug on cognitive function”, she explained.

Indeed, a couple of minutes later Valrin was once again able to think straight. It was a considerable improvement, albeit the people and his immediate surroundings kept looking blurry and glowing. Free from the most debilitating effects of the drug, the salarian managed to reload his Scorpion and timely shot a couple of explosive rounds down the corridor. That forced the CAT6 mercs to hold position rather than rush into the next room. While Valrin was relatively safe for the moment, there were still eleven mercenaries left to contend with, so the most advisable course of action was to disengage and leave the vault right away, especially considering that, if he acted fast enough, maybe there was still be a chance to intercept Alyssaria before she took Mina to Lawson’s transport.

However, there was no time to coordinate a plan with his former human opponent, because a new figure appeared on scene and changed the battle’s equation yet again. A lone figure wearing a suit of light Gladiator armor gracefully dropped down from the catwalks, right behind the hunkered down CAT6 mercs. Valrin recognized her as Sonja Hock and watched as the owner of the mansion walked up to the soldiers and engaged them in hand-to-hand combat.

Hit by one of Sonja’s deadly blows, a first merc flopped to the ground like a broken doll, making enough noise to draw his comrades’ attention. They spun around to face the new threat, but the close proximity with their assailant meant that the CAT6 soldiers were having a hard time aiming their assault rifles, a fact that Sonja used to her advantage, along with the mercs’ unwillingness to risk shooting each other. One versus ten odds still looked crazy to Valrin, but Sonja was not alone. A door in the room where Valrin and his human ally had taken shelter flung open and from it emerged Gurt and Tragg, followed by a contingent of what the salarian realized were Hock’s security forces.

The CAT6 mercs were now sandwiched between two threats. On one side Sonja was engaging them in close combat with her uncanny martial arts skills while on the other side the two krogans charged down the corridor, their shotguns at the ready, followed by the mansion’s security forces. Roaring a battle challenge, Tragg landed a blow to the nearest opponent with one of his powerful arms. Even a glancing blow from a krogan could be fatal and Tragg did not spare energies in his attack, thus causing the unfortunate mercenary to fly on the other side of the room, the parabolic path of his flight coming to an abrupt end when the man crashed into a wall. The impact was so strong to break the merc’s neck. Gurt was not going to be overshadowed by his brethren, so he discharged his shotgun point-blank, shooting until he ripped a gaping hole into his opponent’s torso, and then he pounded into a second mercenary with his massive fist, finishing him with a typical krogan head-butt. Meanwhile, two of the CAT6 soldiers had switched to their pistols in an attempt to shoot down Sonja Hock, but to no avail. The woman caught in a stranglehold the merc she was fighting with and used him as a shield to protect herself from the gunfire. When she was close enough to the attackers, Sonja threw the improvised shield at them, kicking hard the first merc while the second one was shot down by a member of her security. The fight was as short as it was brutal and less than five minutes later there were no more mercenaries left alive, save the one who had been badly injured by the round from Valrin’s Scorpion.

While Sonja’s people double-checked that the CAT6 mercs were truly inoffensive, Gurt and Tragg celebrated the carnage by bumping their heads together and performing a few others of what Valrin classified as silly, post-combat krogan rituals. The two reptilian aliens noticed their salarian employer watching them and jogged up to his position. At that moment, Valrin felt someone tap him on a shoulder and he turned around to see it was his still mysterious human ally.

“I can’t lose a minute with that asari bastard threatening Mina”, the woman told him. “Do whatever you need here, but I’m going after her right now.”

“I’ll do my best to follow you asap”, he replied. Judging from the woman’s resolute tone, it was clear that she would not accept a negative answer in reply and in fact she was already moving towards the door while Valrin was still speaking.

“Just, who are you exactly?” the salarian shouted to the woman before she got too far to hear him.

“Dr. Cecilia Bennet Payne. I’m Mina’s mother.”

She did not slow down to look at the effect of her revelation on Valrin and she was gone before Gurt and Tragg joined the salarian. While he had begun to suspect that this woman could be Mina’s presumed-dead mother, part of Valrin was still shocked, particularly due to the magnitude of the consequences of his misunderstanding the woman’s true identity. The salarian had seen a picture of Cecilia in the C-Sec database after Mina had hired him, but the visor the woman wore ever since their first meeting on the Citadel and the fact that by all accounts she had been dead for several years had prevented Valrin to recognize her. And it was no surprise that Mina had failed to recognize her own mother, after all the girl was too young when Cecilia has been presumed lost on a deep space assignment to supervise the maintenance of equipment intended for imaging the Andromeda galaxy. Under the circumstances, it had been easy for Alyssaria to spin her lies and manipulate both Valrin and Mina to believe that the woman the asari had fought on the Citadel was an assassin.

Nonetheless, the salarian still felt guilty that he had been so easily manipulated. In hindsight, he realized that Cecilia was not shooting at him and certainly not at her own daughter, on that fateful day on the Citadel. She was probably trying to keep Alyssaria away from her daughter, except that things did not work out as intended and the asari was clever enough to take advantage of the situation, pretending to be there to save them from an assassin. On the other hand, it was still unclear to Valrin what Lawson might want from a girl like Mina. Could it be that he wanted to use her as leverage to force her father to reveal the details of his research? Indeed, it was now clear that Sonja Hock had nothing to do with the kidnapping of Harold Payne and that Lawson had been the mastermind acting in the shadows until now. Lawson seemed to have a fixation about biotics and in all likelihood an investigation would turn out that the Le Cercle Parfait clinic was part of the businessman’s properties.

“Ha ha! Told you the salarian would still be in one piece!” Gurt said to his pal Tragg when the two where next to Valrin.

The salarian was grateful that the krogan bodyguards had appeared on scene to take down the CAT6 troopers and at the same time curious about their current company. “Hey, it’s good to see you too, big guys! That was a timely rescue for sure. Just how did you find me? And what are you doing together with Sonja and her people?”

Tragg burst into a rumbling laughter, leaving the task of answering to Gurt. “When the asari called for backup, we ran to the mansion, ready to smash Hock’s security forces to pieces. They were waiting for us, but before I lost myself to the battle madness I noticed Bob among our adversaries.”

“Bob? Who the hell is Bob?” Valrin asked aloud, feeling that the krogan’s explanations were creating more confusion rather than clearing things up.

“Old acquaintance from a previous job”, Tragg intervened. He had recovered from his fit of laughter and was now hiking up one of his massive thumbs in the direction of an armor-clad individual next to Sonja. The guy was wearing a full face helmet, leaving Valrin to wonder how the two krogan bodyguards had actually managed to recognize him.

“Shut up, Tragg! I’m telling the story!” Gurt reprimanded his companion, before resuming to answer Valrin’s original question. “So, Bob tells everyone to hold fire and then explains their Boss ordered everyone to the vault because there’s a salarian fighting off someone over there and in addition one ‘Bastard Lawson’ infiltrated the place with teams of mercs. We just followed him to the vault, so we could finally rip someone apart. Ha ha, it was so good to fight! Did you see me punching the shit out of that merc?”

When Gurt did not add anything more, Valrin understood that the krogan was apparently satisfied that he had properly answered the salarian questions. Valrin was still a long way from considering himself satisfied with the answer. Former acquaintance or not, it seemed odd that Hock’s men would let the two krogans hang around like that. Further explanations would have to wait however, given that time was of the essence if they were meant to rescue Mina from Lawson’s forces. As Valrin opened his mouth to speak, he absent-mindedly noticed that, during the conversation, Gurt and Tragg had been escorting him to where Sonja Lawson and her people were questioning the wounded CAT6 merc.

“Yeah, yeah, you did fine Gurt. But now we got to move, catch Alyssaria before she takes Mina away. She is working with Lawson and they are not good guys”, Valrin said to the two krogans who were still clearly leading him to Sonja.

“It’s up to the Boss to say what we do. And she wants to talk to you before you leave.”

“Uh? Boss? She? I’m supposed to be your Boss! It’s my credits that pay your fee.”

When he next gazed at the krogans, Valrin noticed that Tragg was looking sheepish, or at least as much sheepish a krogan would ever look.

“Remember? No credits, no boss”, Gurt said, a reference back to what happened some days ago at Ridni’s motel on the Citadel. “Your last payment covered our bodyguard fee until around half an hour ago. Bob mentioned that Boss Hock would be happy to pay our fee, so now we are taking orders from her.”

“But I meant to renew your hiring!” the salarian protested. The last thing he needed now was to get caught in the clutches of Sonja Hock. However, now it was too late to escape. Face to face with the woman he had injected with a narcotic not too long ago and with his former bodyguards blocking his retreat – not to mention more weapons trained on him –, Valrin would have to play the cards he had been dealt with at his best if he was to avoid Sonja’s ire and rush to Mina’s help.

“My my, what do we have here?” Sonja asked ironically, allusively running a finger on the salarian’s chin. “That CAT6 scum over there tells me you are not with them, but your asari girlfriend is. Oh, but I assume she is not your girlfriend and maybe not a friend at all, right? Also I daresay that Lys Joraud is not your true name.”

“Well, it’s a long story…” the salarian began to explain, immediately regretting those words. This was not the best moment for going into lengthy details. “The asari gave me bogus information. Said you were holding hostage a person I’m paid to rescue. But she is working with Lawson and now she will kidnap my client and leave this mansion with her captive and whatever it is that Lawson wanted to retrieve from your vault.”

Despite the unhelpful introduction, Sonja seemed to accept Valrin’s words at face value and gestured her men to lower their guns. “Whoever you are, you have fooled me twice tonight. First I believed you were just some schnook loaded with credits who acts like he is a weapons dealer, then your comment about the Parasol Corporation gave me reason to suspect you were an undercover STG agent. However, I’m sure of one thing: you are here to assassinate me for Lawson, otherwise you would not risk infiltrating my bedroom to dose me with a simple narcotic. Lucky thing for you that I had my metabolism genetically-manipulated to be faster, otherwise I might have been sleeping longer instead of leading my security here and save you from Lawson’s mercenaries.”

“Speaking of Lawson, he has a transport somewhere around here that will take him away with my client and the device he stole from your custody. Shall we declare a truce and head outside to stop Lawson?” It was Valrin’s best chance to turn this debacle into a success and he was pleased when Sonja accepted the deal.

“There’s more going on here that I need to understand, like who’s the woman you first battled with here, only to ally with her when Lawson showed up. But that can wait for the moment. That wounded merc gave up the location of the transport, let’s go and make sure Lawson does not leave!”

With those final words Sonja rallied her men and ran for a door, with Gurt and Tragg charging after her bellowing a krogan war cry and all of the security team trailing after them, except for a couple of men who stayed behind to guard the prisoner. Valrin fell in behind the group, trying to match Sonja’s speed, but the effects of inhaling the red sand derivative were still making him a bit clumsy. Once outside of the vault, breathing the cool air of Bekenstein helped the salarian to shake off some of the lingering effects of the drug fumes, his vision finally becoming less blurred.

The first reddish gleams of the planet’s star announced that the new day would be dawning soon and Valrin strived to keep up the pace as he followed Sonja through the vegetation of her mansion’s park until they came in sight of a clearing. During the sprint to reach the location of Lawson’s transport, Sonja led to group without ever slowing down and not even a trace of fatigue despite the physical exertion caused by the fight with the mercenaries just a few minutes earlier. Whatever the woman had done to augment her metabolism, it was clear that the result involved a considerable increase of her stamina and possibly of her strength too. Valrin thought that the augmented metabolism might also explain the reason why Sonja was so lethally proficient in hand-to-hand combat.

The fresh scorch marks visible on the grass in the clearing were the evidence that a vehicle of some kind, probably a shuttle, had been parked there until not too long ago, but unfortunately it was no longer there by the time an out-of-breath Valrin reached the place with Sonja Hock and her forces. The salarian noticed a trio of stars brighter than all others blinking in the sky, shuttles heading off-planet at full speed. It was almost certain that Lawson, Alyssaria and the surviving CAT6 mercs were among the passengers and a bad feeling in the pit of his stomach told Valrin that Mina was aboard one of those shuttles too. As if to reinforce that conclusion, he noticed a lonely figure prostrated on the ground at the opposite edge of the clearing. Cecilia Payne’s gaze was fixed on the increasingly distant shuttles. Her complexion had turned as pale as a ghost’s and she clutched tightly a device that Valrin was initially unable to recognize.

In the background, Sonja Hock paced nervously, venting her frustration at Lawson’s escape by swearing profusely. Valrin tried to ignore the woman’s rage and kept his fingers crossed that she did not decide to call off their truce so as to direct her anger against him now that Lawson had managed to get away unscathed. In stark contrast, Cecilia practically had not moved a muscle nor uttered a single word since Valrin and the rest of the group had reached the place. There were still many questions he wanted to ask her, but under the circumstances it was best to be cautious. Like many other species, humans could engage with a truly berserk fury if the safety of their offspring was at risk and there was nothing to be gained by accidentally enraging a mother gifted with a terrific biotic potential right after her daughter had been taken away by a monster like Lawson.

“You know, I thought that Wilhelmina would be safe if I stayed out of her life and kept my distance”, Cecilia said, almost too softly to be heard, when the salarian cautiously approached her. “I was stupid to think that life could not take another turn for the worse, that I had already got more than my share of tragedy, but I was just being naïve. And the consequences are that Cerberus will do to my daughter what they did to me, maybe even worse.”

It was difficult for Valrin to find the right words to use in this situation. Issues of biology apart, from a psychological point of view the salarian could not put himself in the shoes of a mother. However, facing loss and coping with it was essentially a universal experience, one that is experienced almost the same way among the galaxy’s various sentient species. While Valrin had never lost a daughter, he knew well enough about loss after a whole branch of his clutch-brothers died in a freak accident while en route to a clan meeting on their home planet. And the pain was there also when Valrin saw all the buddies from his STG team get killed by the Blood Pack mercs. Based on his own experiences, the salarian knew how important it was to snap out of the spiral of self-recrimination right away, rather than wallowing in misery, and all the more so when there was still a chance to set things to right. Mina was surely in danger now, but she was not dead and Valrin was unwilling to give up on the girl without trying to rescue her.

“We can still prevent all that. If we work together, I’m sure that we can locate Lawson’s whereabouts, track him down and persuade him to return Mina unharmed”, Valrin told the disheartened woman. Then, aware that he was abandoning his cautious approach, he hastened to clarify that there was one condition to fulfill in order for the two of them to enter into an alliance. “But first you will need to convince me that you truly are her mother. I’ve been duped once too often lately and I can’t make the same mistake again.”

For the first time since Valrin and the rest of the group had arrived at the clearing, Cecilia Payne moved, turning her head to look the salarian in the eye. He could see that the woman had been crying, the tears leaving tracks on her soot-covered face, but upon speaking Cecilia’s voice held the same resolute tone Valrin had heard the woman use when she had rushed out of the vault all on her own, to go after Alyssaria and Lawson.

“I will give you all the evidence you need to see that I am not lying, salarian. And you are right, I can’t abandon my daughter. However, what you may not be aware of is that the people who took were in all certainty sent by Cerberus, a human-supremacist group with so much power, connections and resources that they could be taking Mina to literally anywhere in this galaxy. I really don’t know how we could locate the right place before anything befalls her.”

This was the second time that Cecilia had mentioned Cerberus. Assuming she spoke the truth, the possibility that Lawson was working with that shady organization was news to Valrin and frankly not of the best type. He was aware from his days with STG that the intelligence services of all the four Council species had made their own attempts to eradicate Cerberus, but without success. At best, they had managed to shut down one or more of the group’s cells, however the structural integrity of the organization had not been compromised at all. The mere fact that so far whoever led Cerberus had managed to avoid being identified by salarian intelligence, widely recognized to be the best in Citadel space, spoke volumes about the organization’s capabilities.

While Valrin was chewing on the implications of Cerberus’ possible involvement, Cecilia finally got up from the ground, giving the salarian a chance to finally take a better look at the device the woman had been holding tight in her hands. It was definitely the physical component of an omni-tool. Being a tech expert, the salarian had no trouble to identify the device as the same model of omni-tool used by Mina. That was when Valrin suddenly had an epiphany.

Back on the Citadel, Mina had used her own tech skills to “drop bread crumbs” in order for the salarian to locate her when the two of them were forced to separate. Could it be that she did the same here? Valrin thought as he looked intently at the device in Cecilia’s hands.

“If that is your daughter’s omni-tool, then I think she may have left us some kind of trail to follow”, Valrin said.

Just as he finished speaking, the salarian realized that he had referred to Mina as the woman’s daughter, implicitly trusting what his interlocutor had told him about her identity. Valrin mentally chided himself, annoyed that once again he was trusting so easily someone he had just met. Truth be told, without the visor to hide her face Valrin thought that this woman claiming to be Mina’s mother did bear a strong resemblance to Cecilia Payne as seen in the old picture from the Citadel’s archives. However, after the debacle with Alyssaria, he felt that his willingness to place trust had to be kept in check until some hard evidence was available to back up the woman’s claims.

As if perceiving the salarian’s sudden wariness, Cecilia refused to surrender the device she still held firmly in her hands. “Look, you have reasons not to trust me, but I have just as many not to trust you. From my perspective, you have been working with the asari all along and your pretense to care for Mina’s well-being could be a ploy to trick me. Still, with my daughter’s life on the line I can’t risk losing a potential ally, so it looks like we need to extend each other a modicum of trust, just like we did during the fight in the vault.”

“Fair enough, I guess”, the salarian conceded. “What if you keep the device, but we look at its contents together?

Cecilia nodded to confirm that they had an agreement and carefully proceeded to swap the omni-tool on her forearm for the device she had recovered from the clearing. Valrin followed with interest the woman’s practiced movements as she connected Mina’s omni-tool to her armor. With every passing second, the salarian was growing increasingly eager to see whether his hunch that Mina had left behind a trace for him to follow proved correct.

“I remember the day when Mina received this omni-tool from her father, for I was watching over them from afar. It was about three years back, on an asari colony world, and the vendor was surprised that an expensive omni-tool like that was meant for such a young girl. When I found the same model of omni-tool in the clearing, I immediately realized that it must belong to Mina”, Cecilia commented, a touch of motherly pride in her voice, while she finalized the connections between her armor and the device. “All right, the power-up circuit is engaged, the holographic controls should appear right now.”

Nothing happened.

“Uh, did you initialize the connections properly?” the salarian asked, unsure whether the woman had missed an important step of the delicate process.

The question earned him a dirty look from Cecilia. “Of course I did. I was already doing stuff like this when you were no more than a tadpole.”

Valrin ignored the rebuke. “What about the haptic control sensors on your armor then? Did you reconfigure those to use the new omni-tool?”

“Done.”

“Ok, then you should check if the omni-tool is receiving power. It’s a common mistake to forget about the power connector. Happens to the best of us.”

“No, it’s not the power connector. Just shut up for a second, while I check what’s wrong with this device, will you?”

Cecilia was getting unnerved by Valrin’s suggestions. It was not as if she had never worked on omni-tools before and she was also well aware that this could be their only hope to find Mina. She appreciated that the salarian was well-meaning and she did not mean to be harsh when she silenced him. On the other hand, all those questions were just causing her more stress, making it more difficult to concentrate. Finally, in the ensuing silence, Cecilia reinstalled her own omni-tool and performed a scan of Mina’s, stubbornly uncooperative omni-tool. It did not take too long before she could report the results of that analysis.

“Damn! Can’t say whether it was an accident or done on purpose, but something fried the nanocircuitry connecting the memory buffers to the holographic processor and haptic controls. There is no way to fix this on the field.”

Valrin just looked back at the woman intently, without saying word.

“We are totally screwed now and…”, a downcast Cecilia began to complain, only to stop mid-sentence and shift her gaze from the omni-tool’s readings to the still silent salarian. She really did not expect that Valrin would be able to follow her instructions to stay silent for any prolonged amount of time. After all, salarians were well-known to have a propensity for non-stop chatter and the ability to ask too many questions. A look at his face was sufficient to tell Cecilia that Valrin was itching to say something and that he was visibly struggling to comply with the earlier request to keep his mouth shut.

“Fine, I got it. Belay the earlier order. You are free to speak.”

“Phew, finally! I was getting worried you’d never lift that order”, Valrin said exhaling a breath. “There is a workaround to access the contents of the omni-tool, even in its current non-functional status.”

There was no need for Cecilia to prompt the salarian to continue. Valrin was like a flood now that he was once again allowed to speak freely.

“No, I’m not talking about pulling the memory buffers core out of the omni-tool. I’m aware that attempting something like that would trigger a reset and wipe all data”, Valrin said, as if to forestall an objection he expected the woman to raise. “But that is an Ariake Technologies Logic Arrest omni-tool, which means it has built-in diagnostic routines to interface with another omni-tool in the event of a malfunction.”

“You are right, the Logic Arrest series had those routines added since model VI shipped out!”, the woman barged in excitedly, only for her spirits to plummet again a second later. “But the interface routine will work only when using a second model VI or higher Logic Arrest omni-tool. And I don’t see anyone here with such an expensive device.”

Unperturbed, Valrin activated his omni-tool. “Not a problem. This beauty is custom-built according to salarian military specs and can emulate a wide range of other brands and models. Aldrin Labs? Sirta? Elkoss Combine? Serrice Council? Ariake Tech? Just name a model, I can handle all of them.”

“Salarian military, eh? I’m smelling STG all over you”, Cecilia commented on the reveal. “You guys always get the more sophisticated hardware to use on the field.” It was no secret that salarians were keen specialists when it came to cutting-edge technology. And due to her involvement in a certain project, Cecilia was aware of the work done by STG to develop new hardware and software improvements for omni-tools.

Clearly misunderstanding the woman’s words, Valrin carefully sniffed the air around him. “I don’t smell anything peculiar about me. I was not aware that humans had such a sharp sense of smell compared to salarians. Or did you have yours genetically engineered? Was the relevant mutation based on elcor genes? They have the sharpest sense of smell of all sentient species in this galaxy.”

“Hey, stop please. My sense of smell has nothing special. Forget about what I said, just show me what you can do with that omni-tool of yours”, Cecilia hastened to say, before the discussion strayed too far from the original topic. Once again, she began the process of swapping her omni-tool with Mina’s, while Valrin programmed his own device to emulate a Logic Arrest model.

As soon as Cecilia confirmed that the power-up circuit of Mina’s omni-tool had been engaged, Valrin tapped several holographic controls floating above his forearm to cue the Ariake diagnostic routines of the broken device and start the interface procedure. The orange hologram of Valrin’s omni-tool shifted to a reddish hue, as soon the connection with Mina’s device was established. There was some minor interference that required the salarian to adjust the parameters of the emulation, but finally anything stored in the girl’s omni-tool became accessible.

“Uh, just one file stored here. Maybe everything else got corrupted or a worm program was run to purge all the data except this file”, Valrin commented upon inspecting the contents of the omni-tool’s memory buffers.

A two-dimensional depiction of a winged creature formed above Valrin’s omni-tool when he loaded the file. The salarian could tell it was a stylized representation of some kind of bird, but he did not recognize it. With such a simple drawing it was hard to tell, but the creature did not look like anything indigenous of Sur’Kesh or another salarian world that Valrin had visited. Cecilia’s face mirrored his perplexed expression, unquestionable evidence that the woman what also unaware of what meaning, if any, should be attributed to the image.

While the two were busy gazing at the mysterious clue left behind by Mina, Sonja Hock silently approached them. When she spoke, Valrin was caught off guard by the revelation that Sonja could explain what the bird image was supposed to mean.