Government contractor, my ass, she thinks. She didn’t care much about his job five years ago; there was little conversation involved that night on the whole. Shepard is very interested now though. There are exactly three people on this base that know about her suspicions about Arterius; two if she excludes herself. Garrus Vakarian is not one of them.
Suspicion and curiosity draw her nearer the two men, some anonymity afforded by the constant flow of people in the atrium of Arcturus base. They both wear civilian clothing, although that’s no longer surprising on its own. The Alliance and the United Nations Council both outsourced so many jobs, plenty organisations now straddle the fine line between government-paid versus government-empowered. What’s interesting is the gist of the conversation, which she quickly gets. Vakarian is definitely getting a dress down, probably from his superior, although the latter’s rank is… uncertain. She’s wandered close enough to hear the hissed instruction to “Drop this nonsense or your ass is on the line.”
Shepard moves on after this. There’s someone she needs to see and that someone - just like many others in nearly every unit on the base - owes her a favour. Four hours later, a rather slim file on Garrus Vakarian is on the tiny desk in the closet she calls her office in Pozzallo. It’s definitely a heavily redacted version; she’s still miffed that her contact in Personnel, Hans-with-glasses, not Hans-with-cute-freckles in Recruitment, dropped it off for her rather than email it. Correspondence from Vakarian, a chain of emails dated this morning, is attached at the end of the file. By a stroke of luck, it hasn’t been censored, yet. It sends goose bumps down her arms; it’s clearly the reason Glasses Hans couldn’t wait to get rid of her favour. More importantly it’s a lead, one she badly needs.
Anderson’s office is slightly larger than a closet; two steps inside the door, she stands in front of him, watching him wrap up a phone call. She can’t begrudge the Council their space allocation. The squad is hardly around anyway, spending more time in the field that any of the others on base.
She barely gives the captain a chance to hang up and the file lands in front of him. “Garrus Vakarian. C-Sec. What do you know about these guys? What do they do?”
Acquainted already with her motor mouth syndrome, Anderson keeps up easily. “I know a few things. Citadel Security. Usually focused on high-spec missions, security, anti-terro. Renditions, extractions. No idea who’s in charge though.”
“We need to find out. We need him on our payroll.”
She leans across the desk to flip to the last pages in the folder. “He’s been investigating Saren for months. Prior, he’s worked intelligence in Libya and Iraq. Two weeks ago, he was in Syria; he’s worked with FSA before. How much you want to bet that he has a hunch about what happened at Eden Prime?”
It’s hard to tone down her enthusiasm when her instincts are fired up. Anderson somehow manages to reign her in; that’s one of the reasons she respects him. He always asks the right questions. Now, he gives it to her straight. “Shepard. I know losing Jenkins hit hard. Nihlus even worse. I’ve got to ask. Are you sure about Saren?”
Shepard owes him her honesty in return. “Sure? No, not until I have evidence. But I’m certain Vakarian suspects Saren of going rogue. And since we know there’s just me, you and Hackett who know about Eden Prime, it’s likely that Saren’s involved with much more than just testing a nerve agent on a refugee camp. With or without other incidents, Vakarian’s experience alone can help us get to the bottom of this.”
“Okay, Shepard. Leave it with me.”
She’s doing inventory a few hours later, when she’s summoned back to Anderson’s office by the vibration of an incoming text on her phone. Vakarian’s there, taking up a hell of a lot of space. If he’s surprised to see her, it doesn’t show. Anderson explains his transfer quickly. His experience is needed on the Normandy’s next mission and C-Sec was happy to loan him. The captain doesn’t mention Saren, but the nod he gives her as he dismisses them both lets her know she can play it however she sees fit.
Vakarian grabs the duffle bag stowed at his feet and follows her out and just like this, he’s squad and he reports to her. Despite the fact she spent nearly all of their prior encounter under him. There’s no time to spend wondering whether he’s recognised her; he cuts straight through any bullshit with a twitch to the corner of his mouth. “We meet again, N7.”
“Vakarian. At least you didn’t lie about your name,” she says, although there’s only humour in her voice.
“I didn’t lie at all. Garrus Vakarian, C-Sec.” He gives her the world’s worst impression of what-you-see-is-what-you-get. “I work for the government. You just assumed I was a contractor.”
A man of few words. That hasn’t changed; he’s right, he didn’t lie. Much. “You work for the Council. But fair enough. Come on, I’ll get you introduced, then show you our quarters. Don’t get too attached, we’re off as soon as our transport is cleared.”
Most of the squad is killing time in the rec room. Jeff’s shooting something up, headphones in, hands jerking a console remote with more enthusiasm than she’s seen him most of the time on the field. Kaidan’s playing online poker and Ashley is Skyping with her family. She’s just joined the team, after their mission on Eden Prime, so Shepard doesn’t know her well. What she’s figured out so far is that Ashley is tough but fair and a damn good soldier.
A notification from Anderson’s already reached the squad by the time she walks in with Vakarian. Jeff, Joker Shepard calls him, waves then gets back to his game. Kaidan shakes his hand, welcomes him to the crew. They’re all normal people, doing normal things in a not-so-normal world.
Shepard leaves Vakarian making small talk with Ashley; he jokes about most of his time on Skype asking others if they can hear him and she gives them space to chat without the commanding officer hovering. This is possibly her favourite place on Arcturus. Wide and tall windows face Pozzallo harbour, the beautiful Mediterranean Sea less than a mile away.
While she watches, a rescue boat pulls in. The upper deck is crowded; she can pick out the yellow lifejackets dotting the crowd. It’s been another one of those days. The Med is not much of a tourist attraction in these parts; it is however one of the main landing sites for refugees in Europe. The boat has now docked. It’s search and rescue definitely, although she can’t make out the organisation from a distance. Tens of them patrol every day and she is grateful for every life they save. Politically, it’s dangerous. Italians threaten NGOs with arrests over aiding illegal immigration. Greece, Malta have already done it. The passengers are now shuffling off towards the immigration officers posted on the dock. She doesn’t need to be closer to know what they must be feeling, relief at reaching Italy, anxiety at what happens next - the path is long ahead yet - more relief. Dread; one way or another, every single person on that dock has suffered loss, on the journey or back home. No one feels safe. It’s important to remember, she tells herself, what the stakes are. Lest we forget.
A shadow growing on the window in front of her alerts her to Vakarian’s presence. Shepard nods towards the courtyard just below, another hive of activity on the base at any hour. To his credit, Vakarian gets the code for let’s talk outside and follows in her footsteps. Up close, he towers over her and he can easily outpace her; instead he syncs up his steps a little behind her, just enough to let anyone know that they’re walking together.
Surrounded by people, they can talk a little easier. She doesn’t worry about her squad, not even about Ashley. They’re loyal and they’ve either been vetted or tested extensively. No, it’s the rest of the base she worries about, surveillance in their quarters, monitored media and comms, all the glorious shit that comes with the digital age.
Vakarian speaks first. “I saw you this morning, Shepard. You should know I don’t forget faces.” It sounds like he doesn’t forget many things and the implications make her shudder. Slightly. “Then there was this funny trace left on my file from someone in Human Resources. My clearance is high enough that I get alerted when my file is accessed. There’re no coincidences in our line of work, commander, so why don’t you fill me in on what you want and then we can get to what we can do for each other?”
One name, two words, and his posture changes from casual to focused. “What about him?”
“Five days ago, we were tipped off about a stash of nerve agent. Proximity to Eden Prime, a refugee camp on the Syrian border, made it priority. My squad and I investigated. We found a cell, holed up in the mountains nearby. My corporal got shot down; we buried him yesterday. We shut down the cell, but chemicals had already spread to part of the camp. Forty-two casualties altogether, including Nihlus Kryik, our FSA agent and a long-time collaborator.”
“How does Saren feature in all this?”
“A couple of witnesses put him at Eden Prime a couple of days before our arrival and the attack. I didn’t think too much of it, but thought I’d investigate anyway. His office denies his presence in the camp, despite photographs widely available and flight records have been deleted. We also intercepted comms that suggested help for the execution of the nerve gas attack came from inside, a general or higher in the Council.”
“Circumstantial, wouldn’t you say?”
His matter of fact tone is just that, fact, no judgement. She gets the sense that he’s been at that end of the argument a lot. “Agreed. Which is why I’ve shared my suspicions with only two other people. Well, three now. I want to find evidence that sticks and I think you can make that happen.”
He takes his time, no doubt thinking what to share. His eyes tell her that he’s going on a limb trusting her on this. “I know nothing of Eden Prime specifically. But I have spent the last year looking at a large bunch of failed Alliance missions and nearly all of them link up to Saren in one way or another. I’m talking ninety percent of the time.” He stops and carefully surveys their surroundings. “I’ve also heard talk of a high-placed deep cover agent in the Council for about the same amount of time. It cannot be a coincidence. So, I started looking into it, not just Saren, but most of the Council. About eight months ago, I started focusing just on him; I’ve trailed him all over the region and tried to keep track of other leads. My informants often turn up dead; when they don’t, there’s not enough to go on and when there is, the Alliance blocks every attempt at an internal investigation.”
“Joker will help set your encrypted email up. Can you share your files when ready? I’ll cross reference with our missions, see if we can add more pieces to the puzzle.”
“Sure thing. You’ll have them tonight.” She turns to move back towards the crew quarters when his hand on her arm stops her, brief touch as confident as five years back.
“Hey, N7? How do you want to play this?” He gestures between them, smile light, eyes honest. “Pretend we’ve never met? Or make up some story?” There’s a moment when he almost starts on her, then changes his mind, sticking to the small distance between them. “Repeat performance, maybe?”
Shepard can’t help it; she snorts, laughs and acts as if her cheekbones aren’t on fire. She deflects with a question of her own. “What do you want, Vakarian?”
His eyes are still candid, but his voice lowers, guarded. “Honestly, commander? I don’t know. And I don’t think you do either.”