Chapter 1: 1.1
Hell breaks loose when batarians amass in a rare show of cooperation and band together with legions of vorcha in the Terminus Systems, beginning a vicious five-year war with the human Systems Alliance in the Attican Traverse. The speed at which humanity becomes desperate to stop further infringements on their colonies - left alone in all but word by the Citadel if they happen to be outside Council space - is slow at first, but then increases rapidly as batarian ruthlessness and vorcha adaptability and numbers, as well as secondary conflicts involving the Geth, wear on the Alliance.
The Alliance is further weakened during the Attican Strife by the Geth conflicts lead by a rogue turian Spectre. Events culminate in a bloody battle for control of the Citadel, after which the Alliance must find ways to hold the line against batarian attackers with resources stretched too thin.
Several solutions are brought to board. One works - the Systems Alliance Super Soldier Program. SASSP. Elite teams picked from the best of the best, enhanced in almost every way possible, and sent into the field to drive the enemy back through sheer force of strength, stamina, and resilience.
They are patriots. They are heroes.
The rest of the proposed solutions are quietly swept away.
The blood that drips from the hands of the Alliance commanders shows on none of their gloves.
In the Attican Traverse, near the outskirts of Earth Alliance space, the small colony of Aurora goes dark. It’s too far from Terminus space to pull a super soldier in from the front lines where they’re needed most, so the Alliance dispatches a few teams of soldiers and biotic operatives to fend off their enemies.
The colony is left empty, all hostiles down and innocent souls laid to rest.
The Attican Strife ends only a few weeks later.
An Alliance envoy en route to Priet, one of the ravaged colonies in the Traverse, is destroyed by pirates, killing everyone on board.
In the wake of the tragedy, Captain Seeley Booth of the SASSP’s 3rd Regiment is welcomed to the Special Tactics and Reconnaissance force of the Citadel, one of the few human Spectres in the galaxy.
Captain Booth, with the help of a team of several Alliance specialists, uncovers and cripples the operations of a slaver’s ring operating out of Alliance space, cementing his place as a Spectre in Citadel space and earning him the command of his own ship, the SSV Patriot, a Normandy-class frigate.
The crew of the Patriot is considered an elite team by virtue of being led by a Spectre, and they participate together on several Spectre and Alliance missions thereafter.
Following leads on the activity of a dangerous ring of drug and weapon smugglers leads Booth to Illium, all the way in the Cresent Nebula in the Terminus Systems. The trail falls cold, as it often does on Illium, whose beauty hides business even uglier than Omega’s, until…
Booth only needs to spend one afternoon asking around to know that tracking down the head of one of the most slippery smuggling rings on the Citadel has gotten much more tedious. He’d been expecting it - he’d backed the target into a corner, and even in a galaxy as large as the Milky Way, there are only so many safe places to hide.
Tenion Braxus, the turian bastard, is going down in blood or in cuffs one way or another - but tracking him down and slamming him with galactic law is much easier said than done on a planet where even drugs like the dangerous red sand is legal merchandise.
The sting team he has waiting on the Patriot isn’t going to be happy about the wait, but there can’t be a sting if there’s no target.
That evening, Booth forgoes coffee. Despite wanting to get as much out of the daylight hours as he can on Illium, he knows that even with his enhancements, the jetlag will hit him hard if he isn’t ready for it. And as long as Braxus doesn’t slip away again, Booth has all the time in the galaxy to find him.
His omni-tool pings with a message only moments before he falls asleep, and by the time he’s reaching for it he’s nearly fully awake again. The sender is unknown, hence the pinging, and when Booth squints at the subject line of the e-mail it simply says: To whom it may concern . He taps it.
Captain Booth, it reads, I think I can be of service to you during your time here on Illium. I can’t say much more in this message - sorry about that - but if you meet me at this address tomorrow morning, you’ll know what I’m talking about.
Below the short message is the address mentioned. It isn’t far. Booth frowns. He’d almost brushed the message off as spam, but he hasn’t done anything in the single day he’s been here to have garnered such a message, especially not with the security surrounding his contact information. That, too, poses another question - and raises a red flag. Who’s contacting him, and how did they know he was here, how to contact him?
He drops the omni-tool back onto his nightstand, rubbing his eyes. Tomorrow. Tomorrow morning. If only to solve the security issue, he’s going to have to follow the lead.
The initial lines of the address bring Booth to a triad of towers connected by a multitude of bridges that all intersect to form a sprawling multi-level trade district. One of the higher levels is home to a sector of privately leased office spaces that overlook a level of commerce bridges that seem to be perpetually glowing in the long Illium daylight hours, and it’s on one of these bridges that Booth finds himself trying to be as inconspicuous as possible - which has been a harder task since his becoming a super soldier, what with his increased height and mass - as he locates and stakes out the small outdoor cafe indicated in the address.
The decorative reinforced glass protecting the business from the high winds at this altitude and the number of people passing through during the morning hustle and bustle make it easier and harder to spot the person - this Finley - that he’s looking for. The glass obstructs his view, but the concentration of customers in one area makes it easier to spot the one figure sitting at a corner table near the edge of the bridge.
The man sits with his back to the drop and his eyes on the tablet on the table in front of him, occasionally sipping from a small cup held in his right hand. His left remains resting in his lap. Both are gloved. He’s tall, long legs crossed with an ankle over the knee under the table, and the suit he wears is recent Illium fashion - fitted, but only just enough so that the jacket sleeves will still blow with pointless dramatics. His face is youthful from afar, and remains mostly so up close, but the closer Booth gets the more details he can catch - faint scars along his hairline that aren’t quite masked by tousled hair, lines where an expression stuck, the type of posture that civilians can only mimic and that soldiers can only feign.
Young and hell worn - the Attican Strife, Booth thinks before he reigns his thoughts in and approaches the table.
The man has brown hair and eyes, wide when they aren’t squinting at the screen of his tablet, and full lips that all play into a look of brief surprise when he notices someone approaching his table, and then a welcoming smile when he picks Booth out from the scene.
“Hey, you showed up,” he says brightly, setting his cup down. The smell of coffee loaded with cream and sugar to mask the bitterness wafts over in the breeze.
“So you clearly know who I am,” Booth says, matching Finley’s brightness with an edge. Finley does not seem to react. “I’m guessing you’re the one who sent me that message. Mind telling me how you got a hold of that?”
“If you sit down I’d love to talk with you,” Finley says, sidestepping completely and gesturing to the empty chair across from him.
“Yeah, and I’d like some answers,” Booth says. He crosses his arms and stares down at the man hard, a tactic he knows well is intimidating even to other super soldiers. No giving, no playing.
Finley reacts a bit more to the looming. He clears his throat and leans back in his chair. “My name is Doctor John Finley. I’m a psychologist based here-”
“A psychologist,” Booth interrupts.
“Are you kidding me?”
“Not at all. I’m really-”
“No, no,” Booth cuts in again, waving his hand. “That’s not what I mean. I mean - you somehow found out I was here, tracked down my contact info, and had me come out here because you figured, what, I’m a soldier, so there’s gotta be something you think you can play around with in my head? Is this how you get clients on this planet?”
Finley shakes his head quickly. “No, that’s not what I’m doing - certainly not playing with you, no.”
“Right, right.” Booth snorts. He definitely needs to fiddle with his spam filters later. “Well, great chat, but I’ve got work to do here. Do yourself a favour and go find someone else to pull this stunt on.”
He’s got his back to the shrink and half a dozen steps between him and the table before Finley calls out to him.
“He’s got more hiding places than you think, you know.”
Booth pauses involuntarily, just long enough that he figures he should stay still while the words sink in. He turns on his heel to find Finley, cup in hand and face schooled into an expression so knowing that it’s annoying. He takes a sip of coffee, eyes never breaking from Booth’s.
“Your turian friend, I mean.”
Booth glares at him as he stalks back to the table and yanks the empty chair out. “First of all, he’s no one’s friend,” he grinds out in a low voice, sitting heavily and leaning forward. “Secondly, how the hell do you know about him, too?”
Finley shrugs one shoulder. “Lots of things come across my desk,” he says, equally quiet. “Freelance psychology doesn’t pay all the bills in this place either, to be honest.”
Booth glances at the suit again. Too fancy for a kid. He leans back after a moment of considering Finley’s response and lets out a half-hearted laugh. “You’re kidding me. So you’re a psychologist and an information broker? Which one’s the side job?”
“Depends on the day,” Finley says with an annoying little smirk.
“And I’m guessing your name’s not actually Finley, is it? Oh, wait, do I have to pay for that answer?”
Finley smiles full now. “Hey, three for three, we’re doing good so far.”
“What can you tell me, then? You said you could help me. What do you know about my guy - and what are you gonna charge for it?”
“No money,” Finley says. Booth is surprised, but he doesn’t let it show. “The reward for it is more personal, you could say.”
“He done something to you?”
Finley shakes his head minutely. “Not personally, no. Either way, he’s a turian and so doesn’t actually know what a dillweed is, but he embodies it perfectly. His operations are getting people killed even here. So, first thing you should know is this - his name isn’t actually Tenion. He picked that up somewhere after leaving his homeworld. Probably lifted it off someone he killed. Who you’re really looking for is Kalas Varek. Ex-military, full-time crime lord.”
He slides his tablet across the table. There on the screen, to Booth’s continued surprise, is Tenion - no, Kalas Varek. The file Finley has opened is an old military portrait attached to a short report marking the turian as killed in action during a skirmish with pirates more than ten years ago. Booth squints at it.
“Ten years… Wait.”
“Track his operations back far enough and the dates match, right?”
“What, couldn’t grab that bit, too?” Booth asks sardonically. Finley’s assumption is right, though. The smugglers working under Varek first started popping up near a decade ago, slippery bastards that have managed to grow for so long because the tactics they used were so obviously lifted from Turian military schemes. Booth knew from the start just from that alone that the guy had some connection to the military, but even his Spectre status could only get him so much, especially when no matching name came up in the military database on the Citadel.
“On short notice? No, sorry. I had to pull a favour for this, I hope you appreciate it.”
Booth lifts his critical gaze back to Finley. “This is starting to sound like a lot of effort on your part for not a lot of gain.”
“I assure you I’m not trying to trap you,” Finley says before Booth can go much further. “I’m not working for him.”
“That’s a bad method of persuasion, just saying,” Booth says. “Besides, underworld connections are still underworld connections, doesn’t matter how much taste you think you have.”
He counts it a small victory when Finley’s lips thin somewhat. Still, he decides to pull back a little.
“I guess it doesn’t count for much even if you try to use it for something good,” Finley says with an almost imperceptible sigh. “To answer your earlier question, though - I guess you could say I have a long term goal in mind. This smuggling ring is in the way. You take it out and we both go home happy.”
Booth considers him for a moment. He seems sincere - but as much as he’s dug at both, the combination of psychologist and information broker makes for a fine acting cocktail. On the other hand, if Finley is right then Booth has far less time than he thought he did, and it’s running out fast. If he loses Varek again, there’s going to be more consequences, and he’ll be damned if he loses a mission for the first time just because he - a super soldier - can’t catch up in a race against a goose.
“What else do you have?” He asks carefully. “Anything that can help me track him down before he quits Illium?”
Finley smiles and clasps his hands together. “I have just the thing - I have exactly where he’s going to be tomorrow night. Ah, but that will cost.”
Booth rolls his eyes. “I figured. What do you want? You said no money, is that still holding?”
Finley nods and his expression settles into a slightly more serious one. “All I’m looking for in return is a favour.”
“To do what, exactly?”
Finley shrugs. “Right now, nothing. But say I need a little something from you down the line - that’s the payment.”
“You want a military informant,” Booth says flatly.
“It sounds really dirty when you say it like that. Also implies that I’m looking for something long term.”
“All I’m asking for is a favour for a favour. You can say no.”
“I can, and then Varek gets away again. Huh,” Booth leans back in a dramatic parody of thought. “And since someone has it in their power to stop him, it’d be their fault when the ring expands again, wouldn’t it? Are you a gambling man, Finley?”
For a moment, Finley does nothing but stare across the table at Booth with narrowed eyes and pursed lips. Then he takes a sip of his coffee, slides his tablet back into his lap, and leans back in his chair. Back to the drop, unnerving stare straight ahead. “I can be.”
This time, Booth lets a fraction of his surprise show. The guy’s just full of them apparently, he thinks.
A favour for a favour.
“I guess it doesn’t count for much even if you try to use it for something good.”
An increasingly dangerous smuggling operation nipped off before it can get any worse for the price of (supposedly) one future favour from Booth. And not just from Booth - from a respected military figure, from a Spectre. An opportunity like that must not come around often for a small-time broker.
A broker with a goal, although Booth can barely even to begin parsing out what that could be. What does Finley know - what does he want to know? Psychologist, almost certainly ex-military. Distant, masked, but reaching to catch Booth at the last minute...
“Are there terms in this favour?”
Finley blinks slowly but hardly relaxes. “Only that you actually honour the agreement and follow through. It’s not like I’m going to be looking for something that could ruin you. Honestly, this kind of thing is standard. Information is paid for with new information, that’s all.”
Booth leans forward, elbows heavy on the table. “Where the hell is this bastard?”
Finley smiles, unabashedly smug.
Places like Errant Nebula aren’t usually Booth’s style, but it’s certainly the type of place he’d expect to find a scumbag like Kalas Varek. Three tiers of low blue light, pulsing music, and drinks to enjoy in cushy chairs while others mingle and gamble below them. There are no shortages of dark corners or security personnel conveniently looking the other way.
Getting in meant finding a suit on short notice, but Illium was built on such things, so as long as he can ignore the slightly disproportionate measurements of the jacket, Booth pays no mind to it. All he needs to do is make himself look like another paying customer while the voices of Alpha and Bravo team filter through his earpiece, getting themselves ready for the next couple hours while Booth searches for Varek.
Half an hour after him, Booth watches a small party headed by a gaudy looking turian enter the casino level from one of the balconies above. The lights distort him briefly, but soon enough Booth has a clear look at his face, and - wonder of wonders - Finley’s information was genuine. Kalas Varek is here, dealing and gambling and puffing himself up like a peacock.
But Booth can see the way his fingers fidget, the glances over his shoulder. The crowds can’t hide the paranoia from Booth’s well-trained eye. Illium’s towers and dens might not be his last hiding place, but Booth’s definitely closing in too close for comfort.
“Target is in sight,” he murmurs. “Proceeding as planned.”
The plan is to lure Varek into a false deal, preferably alone, but Booth knows better than to think he can get Varek alone at this point. He’s far too jumpy now. The teams he has waiting in the wings, however, are more than enough to deal with Varek’s security party. Booth’s face is known to the smuggler now, though, so the task of luring him is left to the single member of Charlie team.
Varek is almost too desperate to throw Booth off his trail for the plan to work, but part of the fun of being a Spectre is having the resources - such as a mind-boggling amount of credits to blow on tempting a drug deal - to pull such stunts off. Varek might be desperate, but he’s also too damn greedy for his own good.
Alpha and Bravo move in, surrounding the deal in access corridors and alleys, while Booth checks to make sure his shields are working and his pistols are ready. Varek locks himself and Charlie into a third tier private room - and Booth bypasses it with software patented by the wonderful Miss Montenegro and strolls in like it’s been his deal all along.
“Last chance,” Booth announces, gun aimed at Varek’s head while Varek stumbles back and chokes on his own spit. “You can make this real easy and come quietly, or you go down here and now.”
“A true turian never surrenders to human scum like you!” Varek spits just before one of his lackeys is shrouded in shimmering blue.
Booth moves to dive out of the room again, but he’s never been able to claim he’s faster than close range biotics, even with enhancements. He’s thrown against the wall and his ears are ringing as shots are fired off, glancing off his shields and being returned by Charlie. The worst part of it all is that the effects of the biotic throw don’t wear off enough for Booth to stand until Charlie has taken a shot to his shoulder and Varek’s party is scrambling out the door. They alert Alpha and Bravo, who immediately set to work cornering their target.
As soon as he can stand, Booth sets off after the criminals, following the frantic sounds of their escape through one of the back entrances of Errant Nebula and into the labyrinth of alleys created by inner tower establishments. Varek tries to cover his tracks, but between Booth’s own skills and the reports from Alpha and Bravo, who block off pieces of the party trying to lead Booth astray, it’s easy to catch up to him again.
It’s a mistake for Varek to run into the open space of a near-empty landing lot a few blocks from Errant Nebula, but it’s a testament to how well Booth’s got him trapped now. He tries to dive for cover behind one of the parked hover cars, but not before Booth catches sight of him.
“End of the line, Varek!” Booth shouts over the wind. “There’s nowhere left for you - not even Illium can keep you out of jail!”
“You’ve got a lot of guts for being such an upstart, but you’re still wrong,” Varek shouts back. “I’m walking out of here alive, just like every time you thought you had me before!”
He stands up, ready to run again, and before Booth can take aim properly he raises something flickering red in his hand, eyes maniacal.
Booth doesn’t look for the explosive - there’s already no time for it. He braces instead for the blast that comes only a couple seconds later from his right, shaking the ground under his feet and shrouding the area around him in smoke. His shields absorb a fraction of the force, but without the augmentations from his armour, it isn’t enough to stop the blast from throwing him off his feet.
Alpha team is closing in, just not quick enough.
His head sways just enough to make aiming too difficult for comfort when he stands, and the static of his shields trying to reboot hurts his wrist while the fabric of his suit sticks hot to his skin. Cam’s going to enjoy having to patch him up because the only armour he had was a suit, he thinks sourly. For a few long seconds the smoke is too heavy to see through and he’s sure that Varek has sprinted away again, and he curses harshly through a gasp - but then the wind, cool and constant, clears away just enough of the smoke to allow Booth to see Varek less than thirty feet from him, gun pointed at his head.
Booth’s shields flicker again. Cracked and low on energy, they won’t stop Varek’s shot.
“End of the line,” Varek says. He snorts. “What a sorry way for a Spectre to go, but that’s the human race for you.”
A tiny decorative potted tree sails through the air from the right and strikes Varek with such force that Booth can hear multiple bones snapping. Varek goes flying to the left and hits the ground like a ragdoll. Booth’s attention whips to the source of the improvised projectile - and standing near the burned up blast zone in a suit fitted much better than Booth’s, gloved hands shimmering faintly with biotic energy, is Finley.
“Captain Booth,” Finely greets nonchalantly, as if he hadn’t just crushed a turian under the weight of a potted tree. “That went pretty well, all thing considered, didn’t it?”
“Where the hell did you come from?” Booth blurts out. It’s not his most graceful moment, but all things considered -
“Same as you,” Finley says. “You’re welcome, by the way. He should still be alive, too.”
Booth turns back to Varek, somewhat reluctant to have his back to Finley, and finds Varek still breathing. Wheezing, really, and clearly suffering under the weight of broken bones and a metal plant pot nearly half Booth’s height. He’ll get up again, but not any time soon.
“Target is down,” he says into the radio after making sure Varek can hear him. He sends his coordinates through to the other operatives’ omni-tools. “Bring the shuttle for pickup.”
Cheers come through his earpiece in response. Ten years isn’t long by galactic standards, but for any lawful standard, it’s ten years too long.
“What will you do with him?” Finley asks, hands clasped behind his back. He hasn’t moved.
“We’re handing him over to the Citadel Council,” Booth replies honestly. “They’ll decide what to do with him. He’ll probably end up in turian hands to face the music on Palaven. He’s going to pay for what he’s done.”
“It seemed to me most Spectres would have shot him dead when they had the chance,” Finley comments. His tone and the way he stares at Booth like he’s some kind of study wriggle under Booth’s skin.
“Sure they would have,” Booth says, straightening up. “But just because the Council gives us space to do whatever the hell we want doesn’t mean I have to throw morals out the window, too. You could have killed him, too, even without the tree. You didn’t.”
“I don’t have the leeway to get away with it,” Finley reminds him. He shrugs, though, and if his conceding to Booth’s point didn’t sound so much like he’d just proven a point then maybe Booth would be more inclined to think that’s all there was to it. “Now that you have him, though, what do you think?”
“What do I - is this a shrink thing?” Booth asks, squinting. “What do I think about what?”
“About my favour,” Finley says. “Sorry, I should have said so. Will you believe now that I’m not going to ask for it for anything bad?”
Booth glances back at Varek, consigned to his fate on the ground. Finley, still standing at a distance with his hands behind his back after saving Booth from a fatal injury, stares at Booth expectantly, eyes narrowed. He presses the question silently, his expression almost severe with the dark liner on his eyes.
Booth approaches at his full height, taking satisfaction in the advantage it gives him, in the way Finley tries to step back to keep some distance between them, in the way that he ultimately has no choice but to turn his chin up just to maintain eye contact when Booth finally stops less than two feet away from him.
“I’ll find you if you do,” Booth warns, pitching his voice so low that even other super soldiers would have to focus just to hear. “And if I do, you’ll get exactly what’s coming to you. Don’t ever think that you won’t, Finley.”
Finley’s shoulders tighten and his breathing picks up. Booth takes satisfaction in that, too. If anything, the near-death experience only made him more intimidating.
Finley exhales through his nose for a few long beats - and then he smiles and holds his right hand between them. “Deal.”
Booth takes his hand and shakes it as firmly as he can manage without causing any more than light bruising.
“It’s been good working with you, Captain Booth,” Finley says, stepping back just as Alpha team updates Booth on their approach.
By the time the shuttle lands, he’s disappeared into the alley.
The rest of the evening is one vid call after another as Booth updates the Alliance and the Citadel Council on the success of the mission as soon as Cam pushes him out of the Patriot ’s medical bay, and then Angela on the success of her bypass program. The Patriot leaves Illium the same night, flying directly for the Citadel to hand over their prisoner. Booth forgoes coffee after all the calls so that he can fall right to sleep and not think about how he’ll have to do all the debriefing again in person as soon as he lands.
Just before he falls asleep, his omni-tool pings with a message and he reaches for it out of habit. The sender is familiar, but he’d purposefully neglected to properly label it. The subject line is short and vague again: Just one more thing. He taps it.
My name is Dr. Lance Sweets. Consider this payment for services rendered.
Chapter 2: 1.2
Booth sets out to clear up some confusion and winds up in an even bigger mess.
Citadel Security takes Varek off his hands almost as soon as the Patriot docks at the Citadel. The rest of the morning is spent debriefing the Council, debriefing the Alliance Admirals.
Booth is half-way out of the Alliance embassy, intent on heading to lunch with Brennan and anticipating spending most of it hearing about the projects she was deployed on during his absence before he makes any more rounds when something in his memory finally clicks and he pivots on his heel and heads right back in.
It isn’t as familiar as a friend or acquaintance by any stretch of the imagination, but Booth had still felt bothered by the name since the moment he woke up and remembered the message. Since then he hasn’t been able to shake the feeling he’s heard it before. And he knows he has.
Angela’s office has one of the prettier views of the Presidium in the entire embassy, something she’d insisted upon when it became glaringly obvious that she was one of the Alliance’s leading software engineers and data specialists and therefore deserved such an office. Booth isn’t one to disagree, either. The window that provides natural light to offset all of the holographic light that otherwise dominates the room is always lined with plants and artistically designed replicas of bio-samples and miniature Prothean artifacts, and the coffee table in front of it is never a bad place to sit. It feels homey, familiar. A little piece of Earth all the way in the middle of the Serpent Nebula.
She’s sitting there with Dr. Hodgins, the scientist who occasionally brings her samples for her to replicate from the different research projects he’s embarked on with Brennan, when Booth walks in. They’re in the middle of lunch, but they’re still happy to see him and they both cross the room to greet him.
“You’re finally back,” Angela says after a quick hug. “How was Illium? I’ve always wanted to go there.”
“I didn’t exactly have much time to enjoy the scenery,” Booth tells her, smiling. “I was working, remember?”
“Yeah, congratulations, by the way,” Hodgins says, clapping a hand on Booth’s shoulder a couple times. “I can’t believe you finally caught the notorious Braxus.”
“And what’s the supposed to mean, slime boy?”
Hodgins hold his hands up in mock surrender. “It’s just impressive. Good job, big guy.”
“Well, I couldn’t have done it without your hard work, too,” he says to Angela. “Every time I got close to him it seemed like he had half a dozen new security programs to try and lock me out with.”
“So it worked really well then?” Angela asks, her face lighting up the same way a scientist’s does when they see good results. “That’s perfect, that means I can try using some of those algorithms on other programs. Where’s my tablet…”
“Hold on, hold on,” Booth says quickly as Angela crosses the room again. She looks back up at him just before reaching her desk. “I didn’t come over here just to chat. I need you to look something up for me. It shouldn’t take long.”
“Oh, are you already on another mission?” She asks, sinking into her chair. “Have you stopped by to see Brennan yet?”
Booth shakes his head. “No. I don’t have another mission, either. I just need something double checked, since I can’t go down to Earth and see it in person.”
“Sure, then. What is it?”
“I need the list of names of the people who died during the Priet skirmishes ‘87.”
The room falls quiet and Booth briefly regrets shooting the mood dead. Angela blinks a couple times and then looks at her screen.
“Okay, I’ll throw the records up on the big screen.”
Booth steps back, listening to the faint tap of her nails against the keys as he waits for the largest screen in the office to light up.
In the midst of the recovery efforts of the Attican Strife, skirmishes had continued for a time throughout almost all sectors of the Traverse. A lot of them had faded out of public concern except for small memorials that had been erected in honour of the fallen. The Priet skirmishes, however - they’d been the toughest of the lot, and Booth won’t forget them. Tracking down the multiple pirates that had been determined to take one last colony down with them was what earned him his rank as a Spectre. He owed it to those names. He’d attended the memorials. He’d listened as every name was read aloud and mourned them.
He’d listened as Lance Sweets echoed from the microphone.
“There it is,” Angela says as the names appear. There are just under two hundred.
“Scroll to surnames starting with S.”
Savannah. Shaun. Smith. Sweets .
“There,” he says, pointing. “I need his history.”
“Give me a moment,” Angela says.
“What’s up?” Hodgins asks carefully. Booth waves him off.
A military profile opens up on screen, and there, staring back at them, is Finley - no - Lance Sweets. His face is younger in the image - taken somewhere in 2186 - but there’s no mistaking his face. The only difference between this picture and the man Booth had met on Illium is the lack of a military uniform and the presence of faint scarring on the edges of his jaw and hairline.
An Alliance psychologist since 2184 - a doctor after all, Booth thinks - and then in 2186, a biotic operative. And then, in 2187, killed in action en route to Priet.
“Poor guy,” Hodgins comments.
“Yeah,” Angela agrees. “He was going to help people get their lives back on track.”
Booth shakes his head slowly. “No.”
Hodgins and Angela both give him confused looks.
“No, this is wrong,” Booth continues. He points at the photo. “Lots of people wound up unaccounted for right after the Strife ended. We were stretched thin on all fronts, so people fell through the cracks. Sometimes we realized it, too, or people that were declared missing managed to make their way back. This man - he isn’t dead. I saw him on Illium. I spoke with him. He’s alive.”
“Holy shit,” Hodgins says, eyes wide. “Really?”
“I’m positive. He’s still out there.”
“Why didn’t he come back, then?” Hodgins asks, crossing his arms. “The Alliance still thinks he’s dead. What’s he doing out there?”
“He must think they forgot about him,” Angela says mournfully. “They think he died en route, and they weren’t dedicating resources to finding bodies in space. They wrote him off.”
Her words hang in the air between them for a moment. Booth tries to find an easy answer to Hodgins’ question, but the honest truth is that he doesn’t know enough yet. For all intents and purposes, Lance Sweets had blindsided him. Contacting him out of the blue, hiding his name until he’d already gotten what he wanted - and what that was going to be, Booth could scarcely say, although with this information he could hazard a guess or two. None of them particularly good, despite how Sweets tried to assure him otherwise.
“I need everything you can find about him,” he says to Angela. “I need to deal with this.”
“Are you going to try to get him back?” Hodgins asks.
Booth hesitates. “I don’t know if I can. He seemed pretty... I don’t know, content where he was. He’d made something new for himself. But the Alliance thinks he went up in flames and he probably thinks we left him for dead. It can’t stay like this.”
“You’re right,” Angela agrees. “I’ll find everything I can.”
“Listen, thanks for your help earlier,” Booth says before she can start tapping away. “Helped a lot. Just finish your lunch first and send me what you can later. I’m going to go see Bones for lunch. See you guys later.”
“Good luck,” Angela calls after him as he leaves the office.
Booth hopes he won’t need it, but it doesn’t stop him from being slightly on edge. He wonders what Brennan will say about it all.
The first thing she says is: “You’re late. I thought travelling between clusters didn’t throw off your sense of time.”
It’s a joke, mostly. Booth hugs her anyway for it.
“Good to see you again, too, Bones,” he says as he sits down across from her. The sounds of the cafe’s afternoon business around them dull somewhat as he settles in. “You know I’ve been keeping busy. What about you, any good fossils examined while I’ve been out?”
“Not as many as you would think,” Brennan says. “And the majority were not so old that they could be considered fossils.”
“They’re ancient,” Brennan says. She takes a sip of coffee before nearly laughing into her cup. “Oh, I got that! Because the remains are recent compared to other digs I’ve participated in. In that case, yes, they were relatively recent in terms of galactic time. I wish we could have had the Patriot , though. It would have been much quicker getting to and from our sites that way.”
“Ah sorry about that,” Booth says. And he is, too. “Duty calls, though. We needed her to catch up to Varek.”
“Varek?” Brennan asks, brows furrowed slightly. “I thought they sent you after the drug and weapon smuggler-”
“They did, they did,” Booth cuts in. “But it turns out Tenion wasn’t his real name. I picked up on that on Illium.”
She allows him to go into more detail about how he got to Illium, now that she can hear more of it instead of receiving periodic updates through emails on his whereabouts. Half a dozen different clusters he’d chased the criminal, passing through Omega multiple times on the way before finally cornering him on Illium. He falters there, unsure of how to explain his sudden leap in progress without mentioning Sweets, but he doesn’t correct himself quick enough for her to disregard it.
“When the case is considered officially closed will you be able to tell me how you were able to make these deductions?” She asks.
“Is that what it sounds like I’m doing?”
“Actually, my first thought was that you had injured yourself in obtaining your information and your pride, especially as a super soldier, was causing you to come up with a way to save face.”
“What? That’s not it at all.”
“You were very quick to correct me,” Brennan says, unconvinced. “You should know I wouldn’t judge you for it. Even if you did it outside the law, it technically is within the law for you as a Spectre to have done it.”
“No, no, that’s not it.” He waves his hands. He’s only halfway through his lunch by now, but he pushes the plate aside so that he can lean in. “Look, I was gonna save this for later, because it kind of developed a little, too, but if you wanna hear it-”
“I’d like to have an accurate working knowledge of how you finished the mission, yes.”
He brings the email from “Finley” on his omni-tool and shows it to her. “I got contacted by an information broker…”
He tells her about Sweets. The meeting and their eventual deal. The name, its familiarity. The dead man walking almost an entire galaxy away from the Alliance. She stares intently at the second email, her eyes flicking back and forth over it.
“Whatever he was looking for, it seems that he’s gotten it already,” she says finally.
“Yeah, he’s got his favour for now, but he knows it won’t end well if he thinks I’m gonna let him hurt anyone with it.”
“Oh, so you are honouring the deal?”
Booth can’t help but sigh. “Yeah, I am. He helped me catch Varek and throw a wrench in his operations. Shady or not, I’ll hand him that.”
“That’s very noble of you. But it wasn’t what I was referring to.”
“What do you mean?”
“Sweets told you that brokering information was, in a lot of cases, a trade of more than just money. Other information, other favours. Your dealing with him was a trade back and forth. But by that logic, you didn’t do anything to have earned knowing his name - unless you’ve already done something and haven’t realized it yet.” She points to the message on his omni-tool. “He says it right there. ‘Payment for services rendered.’”
Booth re-reads the message as well. “He said that the smuggling operation was in the way of a different goal and stopping it was a favour to him, too. Maybe that’s what he meant.”
“Maybe.” Brennan shrugs. Booth can’t say he’s any more convinced than she is. “You should be careful in the meantime anyway. You’re obviously going to be hearing from him again.”
“Yeah, I just don’t know when or for what. That’s just great.” He pulls his half-eaten sandwich back to himself and takes a bite. “I’m going back later, though. I got Angela to grab anything she could find on the guy. Nobody knows he’s still alive, but if I can get the Alliance to reach out to him, then there’s a chance that if he’s planning anything then I can nip it off right here.”
“You think he is?”
“I think so, yeah. Think about it. The guy chose to enlist as a biotic operative to help during the Strife - and then everyone just goes and writes him off as dead when he winds up in a tight spot. If I were him I’d be mad, maybe even enough to want some kind of vengeance. If that’s the case, I have to change his mind. What’s the look for?”
Brennan’s expression had softened throughout his explanation, and being caught didn’t harden it again. “Spectres are the best of the best for a reason,” she says. “But oftentimes they shrug off aspects of their morality simply because they can. But you haven’t, Booth. You care about this man-”
“I care about the people he has the ability to hurt.”
“You care ,” she repeats, “with your morality intact. I truly believe it’s one of your best qualities. It’s what makes you one of the best Spectres, I think.”
He smiles. “What, and not the strength or the endurance or the amazing aim?”
Brennan shakes her head, mirroring his expression. “No. Anybody can have those traits and still be a terrible person.”
“You’re welcome, Booth.”
“Wanna tell me about how much more you think you could have gotten done if you had the Patriot ?”
“I hope you realize I spent several hours in transit that I could have been using for much more productive activities?”
She tells him, and until a message from Angela arrives with several attachments, Booth doesn’t think about anything that might be waiting in the shadows of Illium.
Angela’s brief search, without the power of cutting through too much red tape, mostly only yields Sweet’s brief military service records and a few of his medical records from before his enlistment. There are some general records as well - place of origin, the schools he graduated from before he even hit twenty years, and an assessment of his biotic abilities. While they aren’t on Brennan’s level, they still allow him the choice of being a sizable threat if he chooses to be.
The longer Booth looks through them, the more he’s convinced that he won’t be able to let this go. Sweets had put on a nice face when they spoke, but his history is far too bloody - even before he’d joined the Alliance - for Booth to believe that he doesn’t have some kind of lingering resentment for what happened in ‘87, that he won’t become a real threat to the Alliance while it’s still putting itself back together.
He saves the files and takes only the military file back into the embassy, to the desk of General Arnett. They’d fought together during the Strife until Arnett had gotten injured, then promoted to a desk job a few months before the Alliance began its super soldier program. His promotions and his duties on the Citadel resulted in the age lines in his face deepening and his hair greying far quicker than Booth’s, but they’d remained friends since then. He’d put Booth’s name forward as a candidate for the Spectres, too.
When Booth puts the file on his desk and tells him there’s something that needs to be put to rights, Arnett understands.
So Booth is confused when he’s called back to the embassy early the next morning, back into Arnett’s office to see Arnett looking grim over the file displayed on a holopad.
“What’s the problem?” Booth asks after Arnett tells him to sit. “I know it looks far-fetched, but I know it’s the same guy.”
“I believe you, don’t worry about that,” Arnett says, shaking his head slowly. His voice has always been rough since the Strife, but this morning it sounds almost like he’d spent the whole night chain smoking. “But there is an issue. I just didn’t know how to approach it yesterday without some more input.”
“What kind of issue?”
“This man,” Arnett says, sliding the file to Booth. Lance Sweets stares up from the image impassively. “Listen, Booth, I know you want to do right by all this, but I have to warn you, this situation isn’t the way you think it is.”
Booth frowns. The records on his omni-tool now pointed him in all sorts of different directions and he isn’t liking the way in which they seem to have gone. “Explain it to me, then.”
“I agree that Lance Sweets should be brought back to the Alliance - not for reconciliation, however, but for trial.” He holds a hand up before Booth can speak. “Did you look at any of his other records?”
Booth almost considers lying. “Yeah. Medical, some history prior to his military service. I noticed a few things about it.”
“Then this shouldn’t come as a big surprise. Sweets came to us as a psychologist, but if anything he needed the help more than any of the patients he treated. The attack on his birth colony, the abuses he suffered before the Alliance was able to rescue him - all of that put an anger in him that we were willing to overlook during the Strife for the sake of the greater good. His tactical intelligence and biotic capabilities were sorely needed. Perhaps that was a mistake, though. After the war, it got worse. It became a fury he wasn’t able to work through, which culminated in an act that took the lives of everyone aboard the Paladia before it could reach Priet. We thought that he had gone down with it, too, but evidently, that is not the case.”
Booth blinks at him, speechless.
Sweets had said he bore no malicious intent for whatever his future favour was going to be. But Booth knows from experience that people will say just about anything to hide what they’re doing when they’re angry enough - especially someone like Sweets, who knows how to work people with a smile on his face the whole time.
“You mean he blew the ship up,” Booth says finally. Arnett nods once, his expression mournful. “He killed more than two dozen people and managed to make it look like pirates did it.”
“The Alliance was nearly crippled at the end of the war. It was the perfect opportunity for someone to take out their anger at us. One last hurrah before he finally kills himself, too.”
“But he’s not dead,” Booth says urgently. “He’s not done yet.”
“No, he’s probably not. It might take years before he shows himself here again, or he might never - but that’s not a risk we want to take. He is dangerous.” Arnett leans back and clasps his hands on the edge of the desk. “That’s why we want to send the Patriot back to Illium. He cannot be allowed to act freely, not when he has the deaths of an entire crew - an entire regiment of peacekeepers - on his hands.”
“I’ll go,” Booth says quickly, straightening up. Being tricked always sends anger coursing down his spine.
Arnett nods. “I knew you would. This needs to be put to rights. You’ll be on your own when you get there, though. Not only is Illium outside Alliance and Council jurisdiction, but this mission will be delicate. If he finds out what you’re doing too soon, he could become very dangerous. You’re an elite soldier, but he’s got biotics on his side and all the paranoia that comes with a dark mind like his. Bring him in if you can - but if there’s any indication that you can’t... “ Arnett sighs. “We need to make sure he can’t hurt more of our people.”
Booth exhales deeply and nods slowly. He wants to bring Sweets in alive, he wants Sweets to answer for what he did. He and Arnett know it’s against his nature to want to do it another way - but Arnett’s eyes are hard and grim. There’s no room for a softer heart if it costs the life of someone else.
“Good luck, Captain Booth,” Arnett says. “Don’t let him get away with taking all those innocent lives.”
I was originally going to toss this fic down all in one go, but then decided that would be mean with a document going on for several ten thousands of words, so now it's split up into parts based on POV and specific points that the story is rotating around, hence chapters 1.1, 1.2, etc. Part 1 is Booth's POV as we ease into this story and I ease into confidently writing other characters.
Chapter 3: 1.3
To Illium once more, this time for a story.
This and the next chapter were originally one, but I decided to balance out the content instead of mash it all together in one go. It's all about what happened before and after Sweets went off the grid.
Before the Patriot leaves the Citadel again, Angela sends him a short message. The address of the office of Dr. John Finley goes for seven lines - planet, city, tower, floor, the whole works. Booth sends his thanks back and apologizes again for taking the Patriot without her full crew again.
The ship leaves the Citadel the next morning and arrives in the Tasale system just after lunch. It’s a windy day, but it still isn’t enough to completely relieve everyone of Illium’s heavy heat, especially not with the sky above so clear.
To Booth’s surprise, the office of Dr. Finley, where Sweets should be working this time of day, is in one of the towers which overlook the same cafe in which they’d first met. The interior is open and cool, faintly lit pink from Illium’s ruddy sunlight filtering through the windows. In the foyer is a large sign displaying the floor numbers of all the businesses in the building.
Floor 147 is quiet. The loudest sound is the light tapping of an asari woman’s nails against a keyboard as she works behind a tall desk. She notices Booth stepping out of the elevator - it would be difficult not to - and stops writing to lean over on her elbows.
“Hello there,” she says with a light voice. The peachy freckles along her forehead shift just slightly as she looks up at him with a friendly expression. “Do you have an appointment?”
“No,” Booth says shortly, glancing at the halls to the right and left, and the stairs behind her that lead to yet another. “I do need to see someone here, though.”
She gives him a sympathetic look. “I’m sorry, but first we’ll need you to make an appointment-”
“How about you just tell Dr. Finley,” he stresses the name, “that there’s someone here to say ‘hi.’ The name’s Booth.”
The secretary blinks - then taps the sleek microphone on the side of her head. “Dr. Finley,” she says, “he’s here for you.”
Booth tries not to press his lips together too hard. Again, Sweets had already known.
“His office is right up there,” the asari says, turning slightly in her chair to direct him to the stairs behind her. “Go ahead.”
He offers a genuine smile. She knows something of what Sweets does, but aside from that, she has nothing to do with his mission.
There’s only one door after the stairs and a left turn. Booth doesn’t knock. Inside, he’s immediately met with a sitting room, complete with a chair and a sofa and paintings on the wall, and he realizes that he’d nearly forgotten that Sweets might be a war criminal, but on Illium he has a practice. Beyond the homey looking chairs is a half-open door, where light spills through pink and blue.
He stands in the doorway, taking up the entire space of it as he surveys the office. It’s larger than the sitting room and has yet another door on the left side. There is also another pair of chairs in front of the windows, which stretch from one wall to the other. On the right side of the room is a desk. Sitting in front of it, his back to the windows, is Sweets.
He isn’t doing anything except watching the doorway with his hands resting on the arms of his chair when Booth enters. The suit he’s wearing this time doesn’t look quite as fancy as either of the two before, but his gloves are a clean black and his blue jacket is just stylish enough that he doesn’t look any less well put together. He offers a smile and it makes Booth want to punch his nose in.
“Captain Booth,” Sweets says with measured surprise. “I didn’t think I’d be seeing you again so soon.”
“Yeah, well, I guess you shouldn’t have gotten cocky then.” Booth shuts the door and stands on the other side of the desk, arms crossed. Sweets looks up at him quizzically. “Don’t look at me like that. You thought you could trick me.”
Sweets sits back, brows furrowed. “No, I told you, Booth. Tricking you hasn’t in any way been on my to-do list.”
“Yeah, so you said. But I’ve known people like you before. Doesn’t matter what you have to do or say to get what you want.”
Some understanding seems to dawn on Sweets’ face. “I think I know why you’re here. If that’s the case, then we should talk. I figured there would be more time, though.”
“No, no more time,” Booth says. He slides his pistol from the holster hidden under his jacket and, holding it ready to aim and fire if he needs to. “I’m putting you under arrest right here and you’re not gonna run away from what you deserve anymore, Sweets.”
Sweets’ breathing picks up and his eyes widen slightly, but other than that he sits unmoving in his chair for a long time. “Captain Booth,” he says slowly. “I really think we should talk. I don’t know exactly what they told you, but-”
“Stop with the games,” Booth snaps, aiming his pistol. He doesn’t intend to shoot, but the longer they talk, the longer Sweets has to think of ways to use his biotics to pull off an escape. “ Now . I know what really happened to the Paladia , to her crew, and if you won’t answer for it then there’s only one way this is going to go down.”
Sweets pales. He stares at the barrel of Booth’s gun blankly for so long that Booth almost mistakes it for defeat. “That’s what they told you?” he finally rasps. His eyes finally focus on Booth. “They told you that I did that?”
Booth’s aim doesn’t falter, but it’s a close thing.
“What am I saying, of course they would,” Sweets continues, looking down at the blank laptop screen before him. His hands go to the edge of his desk with a white-knuckled grip. “Of course they would, there’s only so much-” His gaze snaps back up to Booth, and with it his entire demeanour shifts. There’s anger in his eyes for the first time. “What mission did they send you here on, Booth?”
“What does it look like, smart guy?” Booth snaps. “I’m arresting you for the murder of an entire crew of Alliance personnel - of peacekeepers , in case you’ve forgotten.”
“Oh, that’s rich coming from them,” Sweets retorts.
“You better start making sense, Sweets, because to be honest I never had much patience for people like you, and it’s running out pretty damn fast. I’m under orders to take you in or take you down - and between you and me, I’d much rather you live long enough to pay for what you did, even if your whole life is only worth a fraction of theirs.”
“I didn’t kill those people,” Sweets says, standing up. “They were my friends , why would I do something like that to them? Why would I blow that whole ship up?”
“People do a lot of shit that doesn’t make sense when they’re angry,” Booth replies. “I had a look at your file - the colony that was attacked, the pirates who passed you around until someone finally pulled you out - all of that could have been avoided if the Alliance had responded just a little faster. You never could let that go, could you?”
Sweets’ expression is pinched, lips flat and jaw ground tight.
“No, you couldn’t. So, you got into the perfect position to get as many people around you who trusted you as possible, and then you did to them exactly what you thought the Alliance did to you-”
“I didn’t kill them ,” Sweets cuts in. “I did let those things go. I got help and I joined the Alliance so that I could do the same for people who had it rough just like I did. But it meant shit all to them when they fucked up, when they needed to find the way to save their own faces before they ruined themselves worse than the Attican Strife ever could! They lied to you, Booth. I’m not the one with something to pay for.”
“What do you mean?” Booth asks. He can’t imagine what Sweets could be talking about. He wouldn’t go as far as to say the Alliance was always right during the Strife - but it was war and millions of lives were at stake with almost every decision. The anger that Sweets is showing him now, though - if Sweets is telling the truth at all, then it’s far too powerful to be rooted in the horrors of his childhood.
“Put your gun away,” Sweets says, a little more composed.
Booth only grips tighter. “I don’t think so. I’m willing to hear you out here, Sweets, but I’m not about to trust you to not run at the first opportunity.”
“Run?” Sweets holds his hands out at his sides. “You might have a gun, but do you think you’re still the one with the upper hand?”
“You looking to test your reaction time against a close-range shot? Because I’m telling you now, I won’t miss.”
“No,” Sweets says. “But if that’s your only plan of action right now then I think you should take a moment to consider where you are and how you got here. If I’m as paranoid as you must think I am, don’t you think I’d have certain security measures in place? Don’t you think I’d have prepared for something like this? Don’t forget, Booth, you didn’t stumble over me - I contacted you .”
Booth squints, clenching his jaw tightly as he realizes that Sweets is right - that Sweets not only came to him first, already knowing who he was, but also gave his name away.
Payment for services rendered . Brennan was right - Booth had already done something and he hadn’t even realized it, and then he walked right back to Sweets without a second thought. If he’s going to figure out a way to get the upper hand, he’s going to have to let Sweets keep it a little while longer.
He lowers the pistol, but doesn’t holster it.
Sweets tilts his chin up slightly, eyes flicking from Booth to the gun and back before he sighs deeply and crosses his arms. “Does the name Aurora sound familiar to you?”
Booth knows an Aurora or two, knows a few places called Aurora, but Sweets must be looking for something specific. “Not exactly, no.”
“It was a colony in the Traverse,” Sweets explains, his voice gone soft. “It was small, only a couple hundred people. More of a research outpost than anything.”
It clicks. “It went dark during the Strife.”
Sweets nods. “Just after SASSP came into the picture. Not long after I became an operative. The first mission I participated in as a biotic specialist instead of a consultant was to take out any hostiles and get the colony back online. When we got there it was too late to save it, everyone was gone. We searched everywhere we could think of, and in doing so we learned that the colony was being used as a research site for an experimental program.”
“What kind of program?”
Sweets doesn’t respond for a beat. “The Alliance came up with a lot of different things to try and end the war. SASSP was the golden goose. Project Blue Star wasn’t like that.”
“Project Blue Star?” Booth frowns. “I’ve never heard of that.”
“You wouldn’t have, either. If they haven’t scrubbed every scrap of data about it from the systems then they’ve buried it. Blue Star was the experimental solution being tested in Aurora. It wasn’t just a failure - it was catastrophic. It wasn’t batarians that took Aurora out, Booth. It was Blue Star. It was the Alliance.”
Booth freezes. He remembered the Aurora incident, now, if only second hand. He’d been on the front lines by that point. Aurora went dark, and they couldn’t spare one of their small numbers, not when they were finally pushing back against the endless numbers of the batarians and vorcha. But still…
“Your history has no mention of Aurora.”
“Then you have a false file,” Sweets says. “But like I said, they probably scrubbed everything they could. After we came back, we reported what we saw, what we found. We were ordered not to say anything - Blue Star was a secret like the SASSP had been before it turned out to be a success, and it would stay like that.”
Sweets closes his eyes and sighs quietly. “But that wasn’t enough, and they knew it. Blue Star was…” he trails off, and the far-away look in his eyes returns for a moment before he refocuses on Booth. “There’s no way they could have kept it under wraps forever, not with everyone on that mission knowing and not enough of them tight enough under their thumbs, and they weren’t going to own up to it. So, they rounded up everyone who was on that mission, put us on the Paladia , and sent us off to die. I didn’t kill my teammates, my friends, Booth. The Alliance did.”
Sweets lips twitch up in a strange parody of a smile, and that alone sets discomfort deep in his stomach.
“And now they’re trying to convince you that I was the one who did it. Are you going to shoot me, Booth? Because I have no intention leaving quietly, and the Alliance has no intention of actually putting me on trial. If you don’t kill me, then they will.”
Booth doesn’t know how to respond at first. His first thought is that it isn’t true, but his mind struggles to connect the possibility of an elaborate lie with the man standing in front of him now. Sweets is angry, that's for damn sure - but the betrayal isn’t only perceived.
“How am I supposed to trust you about all that?” he asks. “How do I know if this is all true? You never said was Project Blue Star was.”
“And I won’t, either,” Sweets says. “That might sound counterproductive, but think about it, Booth. The Alliance was - and is - willing to go any distance to make sure nobody knows about what they did. If they find out that you know then it won’t matter that you’re a decorated officer, it won’t matter that you’re a Spectre. You’ll be a dead man walking. I could tell you exactly what I know about it, but until I know for sure that it won’t get more people killed, I won’t. It’s one thing that you were willing to listen, but I need to know that you aren’t going to be my enemy.”
The words practically ring in Booth’s ears. “Then you are up to something after all.”
“Like I said, I’m not the one with something to answer for, Booth,” Sweets replies. His eyes are hard. “The people in charge of Blue Star, the people who destroyed the Paladia - if anyone should be answering for war crimes, it’s them.”
“Why now?” Booth asks. “You’ve been alive all this time, you could have said something before.”
Sweets snorts. “So that they could deny it, cover it up, and then have me killed? No, thank you. So yes, I do have a plan now, but no, I’m not telling you what it is just yet. The longer you go without shooting me, though… Well, we’ll see.”
Booth squeezes his eyes shut and pinches the bridge of his nose, cursing under his breath. If Sweets is honest, then he’s innocent. But the Alliance would never take his word.
Booth opens his eyes to find Sweets looking at him expectantly.
Sweets nods to Booth’s gun. “What are you going to do, Booth? I’ve said all I can say and I’ve established that I’m not going to go under arrest. Will you follow your orders or not?”
Booth stares at his pistol, lowered only half way. Despite coming here without proper armour again, he’d held no illusion of not having to use it or the second pistol hidden under the opposite side of his jacket. But still…
He came to Illium to put things right. For that, he needs more than this.
He lowers the pistol to his side.
“I’m not shooting you,” Booth says. “I can’t make that call. But the Alliance knows you’re alive now. I’m not the end of this.”
“Of course not. I gave you my name, after all.” Sweets sits back down heavily. The chair slides back a couple inches before tilting back as Sweets leans an elbow on one armrest, his chin resting on his knuckles. “I wonder, then, if I might suggest something, then.”
“Something like what?” Booth asks carefully. “Is this that favour you talked about?”
Sweet’s smile is small but genuine. It doesn’t last long, either. “Go back to the Citadel. Tell the Alliance that I got crafty and escaped. But before you do - have a look through the databases and look for any information on Project Blue Star. Discreetly, mind you. They can’t know if you saw anything. Even the tiniest scrap of information will tell you that it existed and that everything I’ve said is the truth.”
“And what do you get out of that?”
Sweets looks pensive for a moment. “One less obstacle in my way.” He glances at Booth’s pistol again. “Let me say this again, Booth - what I’m doing, there’s no malicious intent in it. What I want is for the people who committed the crime they tried to pin on me to answer for it. What I want is justice for the people they killed.”
“That’s a fine line to walk,” Booth says warningly. “I know it, believe me.”
“I’m aware,” Sweets says softly. “Nevertheless, it is true.”
“Fine, then. I’ll look.” Booth finally holsters the gun before putting his hands flat on Sweets desk and leaning closer. “Let’s say I believe you for now. You’d better be telling the truth.”
Sweets nods once.
“All right, then.”
“All right. Anything else I can do for you?”
Booth blinks. “What?”
Sweets shrugs as he returns to his initial position, arms at his sides, hands loose over the rests, legs crossed. “We’re not talking over dinner. I’m still working. Is there anything else you need? Gossip, dirty dealing businesses - or, I do have a legitimate practice, if you need to talk about something else-”
“Stay out of trouble, Sweets,” Booth says, already out the door.
Chapter 4: 1.4
Storytime but this time with food.
Booth doesn’t head back to the Patriot immediately. He intends to at first, but in the time it takes him to leave the office building he realizes that there’s going to need to be more to the plan than just a bald-faced lie.
Tell the Alliance that I got crafty and escaped.
A medical report would probably help. Maybe a few fired shots, a dent in the ammunition block just for the records. He needs to make it look convincing, and if Sweets is as smart as he thinks he is, then Booth only has so much time before he really does run.
That’s not the only reason that has Booth loitering on one of the tower’s landing platforms. Resolving the Priet skirmishes landed him on the Council’s elite force - except one of those incidents wasn’t part of the skirmishes at all, and he’d walked right by something else entirely.
Thankfully, Sweets’ secretary was willing to tell him where to wait.
Sweets exits the office as the late afternoon sky starts to turn a deep blue. The eastern edges of the horizon are tinged violet already - Illium’s red light makes every sunset seem longer than almost any other place Booth’s seen. He’s preoccupied with his omni-tool and doesn’t notice Booth immediately, but he isn’t slow on the draw, either. He takes three steps out the door and stops, fingers freezing as he stares back at Booth, who’s leaning against the wall not far away.
“Ah, Booth. There you are.”
“She tell you I was waiting?”
“How much does she know, anyway?”
“She passes things on sometimes.” Sweets tilts his head. “She doesn’t know my name if you’re wondering. You didn’t say you needed anything else earlier.”
“It didn’t occur to me then,” Booth says, pushing off the wall. “There’s something I want to talk to you about, though. Why don’t we go somewhere else?”
Sweets gives him a very pointed look.
Booth holds his hands up. “Not a trap. I’m not asking as a soldier or a Spectre. I just figured this time we talk over food, my treat. That good enough?”
Sweets hums, tempted. “It’s not often I get bribed with food. But if you’re paying…” The screen of his omni-tool flickers out after he taps it once. “Any preferences?”
“Wow, you’re really trying to butter me up, aren’t you?” Sweets asks as he steps onto the platform past Booth.
“That’s how this works, isn’t it?” Booth asks as Sweets leads him across the platform to a small blue hover car. Its lights are already on and the doors slide open as they approach.
“You’re not wrong, I guess.” Sweets slides into the driver’s seat and nods to the passenger’s side. “Get in, then. I know a good place.”
The ride is mostly quiet. Sweets steers them smoothly into the flow of traffic weaving between the soaring towers of the city, following the directions of a soft-voiced GPS. Booth spends most of his time staring out the windshield or taking in details about the interior of the car. It’s not a recent model but it looks very clean, which tracks with what he knows about Sweets so far. It still smells somewhat new; the only other things he can smell are cologne and something fruity.
The restaurant Sweets brings them to looks like an outdoor establishment, although it’s well protected by wind walls, and colourful frosted glass partitions divide sections and tables from each other. An extendable glass ceiling covers only a fraction of the floor space since there’s no threat of rain anywhere.
The hostess seems to know Sweets somewhat, and they chat amiably before they’re led to a table closed in on three sides - a quiet corner against a wind wall, an interior wall, and a pane of blue frosted glass. The wind wall is tinted slightly, clearing some of the red out of the light filtering through it around the tables closest. There’s no good line of sight across the rest of the restaurant - although the entrance is still in sight - but the view outside the wind wall is beautiful. Sweets sits with the interior wall to his back while Booth takes the seat across from him against the partition. Their server brings two glasses of water and a plate of chips and then leaves them alone.
“I take it they know you here,” Booth says conversationally as he flips through the menu. He doesn’t miss the fact that there is not a single price listed. Good place, indeed.
Sweets shrugs. “The food’s good here. They have really nice fruit salads. What?”
“Nothing,” Booth says quickly, focusing back on the menu.
“I have taste, you know,” Sweets says defensively. “And interests aside from criminal justice.”
“Can’t blame a guy for thinking you have a one-track mind,” Booth murmurs. He’s not sure if Sweets hears him or not.
The dessert menu is easily the most extensive part of the menu, but a good steak and potato meal isn’t hard to find. He’s not sure what the “added classic Illium touch” is going to amount to, but he figures it’s the closest thing to an Earth course and worth a shot.
There are two beats of complete silence after the menus are gone where they do nothing except stare at each other across the table before Sweets inhales deeply and asks, “What did you want to know?”
“Right down to business. You don’t want to eat first?”
“If you’re going to ask what I think you are, then I don’t really want to be caught with my mouth full.”
“Understandable. Well, simply put, I want to know how you wound up here,” Booth says.
Sweets sits back and knits his fingers together in his lap. “I see.”
“Is that something you’re willing to say anything about?”
For a moment, Sweets simply stares at the glass in front of him. Finally, he focuses on Booth and says, “Sometimes I’m not sure, exactly. I think if I didn't have biotics I wouldn’t have survived. If I hadn’t been looking over my shoulder since being ordered to shut up, I wouldn’t have thought anything was off.”
“But you are, and you did.”
Sweets nods and continues quietly. “I didn’t notice anything until we were already in transit. People involved in relief efforts had been selected based on their ability to help the colony reconstruct and maintain stability while it was being targeted during the skirmishes, so most of us were either biotics or had prior experience with reconstruction, crisis response, and so on.”
“And you were the shrink.”
“I was the shrink,” Sweets says with a flat look. “Plus biotics on the side. They probably would have sent me either way regardless of why they actually sent the Paladia . But while I was thinking about what I could do, what we as a crew could do, I noticed something about all of us.
“There wasn’t a single one of us on that ship that hadn’t been on the Aurora mission. We’d all seen it. I thought it was strange, partly because some of those people were better suited to be involved in retaliation efforts like you were, and partly because I was so off-kilter after Aurora that even things that weren’t strange felt like it. So I investigated a little.”
“What was there to investigate?” Booth asks. “What proved to you that the ship was doomed? It wouldn’t have had some file or transmission on it saying you were about to get blown up.”
“No, but what it should have had was adequate supplies for the mission in which we were sent to do,” Sweets says pointedly. “The Paladia ’s logs listed a cargo bay full of rations and materials needed to keep the colony afloat. When we went through what was actually there, to say what we found was negligible would be an understatement. There was some of what we needed there, but most of the cargo was just a bunch of empty crates. There’s no way it could have just been a mix-up.”
“The spotlights were on Priet then,” Booth says, shaking his head. “A mistake on the Alliance’s part would have made everything worse. Was that it?”
“That’s what cemented it. It wasn’t me that took that thought and made the connection, but as soon as the idea spread we tried to steer away from the collision course. We were between relays so we couldn’t stop, but as soon as the ship passed through the Armstrong relay we slowed down.” Sweets pauses to take a sip of water and rub his fingers over the scars along his jaw absentmindedly. “We thought we could buy some time to find an alternate route that we had the fuel for. But, um…”
“A bunch of paranoid soldiers on a ship didn’t really make for a great discussion?” Booth guesses.
Sweets grimaces and glances past the wind wall. “Not really. I wasn’t what you would call the most respected person on board, either, so I didn’t have much input. Or, if I did, I don’t remember what I said. What I do remember is that we were found pretty quickly. I don’t think slowing down had any real effect at all. They were definitely waiting for us.”
“Blood Pack mercenaries, actually. They blended in a bit with pirates, but the thing with a large group of krogan and vorcha is that they’re not that subtle about what they do, especially not when they force someone to transmit a mayday before shooting them. They only made it look like they were part of the actual skirmishers.”
“You think the Alliance paid them off.”
“Oh, I know they did,” Sweets says with a hard look. “I know my mercs. When the Blood Pack goes into battle they don’t waste time. They don’t board a ship without stealing everything they can get their hands on. They don’t make sure a transmission was sent before they start setting charges to blow while they shoot at it from outside.”
“Well, then we need to move things along because I still have no idea how you managed to get out of there in one piece.”
Sweets’ jaw clenches tight at Booth’s near flippant tone.
“I barely survived,” he says, eyes narrowed and voice quieter than ever. “I got shot, I got burned .” He tugs his right glove off to reveal a strange pattern of mottled scars on his hand, one of which stretches up and disappears under his sleeve. “I played dead in one of the only pieces of the ship left intact until I could crawl to an escape pod.” He almost tears his left glove off. “And I did not make it out in one piece.”
His left hand isn’t flesh. Instead, he curls a prosthetic hand into a fist over the table and unfurls it again. The pads of his fingers and his palm are soft black, but the rest of the prosthetic is a sturdy white material. This, too, Booth can tell extends farther up his arm, but he has no way of telling how much of Sweet’s left arm is still flesh. Booth doesn’t have the time to try and figure it out before Sweets tugs his gloves back on, hiding both hands away again.
“Bet that wasn’t on my records either,” he says shortly.
Booth shakes his head. “No.”
Sweets takes a couple deep breaths and stares at the city below them. Booth gives him the moment. The sun is getting lower, the light passing the wind wall turning everything a deep gold. The white light on the wall above him lessens the effect only a little.
“I floated for a while,” Sweets says slowly. “I don’t know how long it was before an asari ship found me. They helped me get to Omega because I wouldn’t let them send me back to Alliance space.”
“Is that where you go into the information business?” Booth asks. “Lots of dirty things happening there.”
Sweets nods. “We all start somewhere, and I needed to start figuring out what had happened and how to solve it. And since nobody is just going to hand you an arm on Omega, I needed a way to get the money for it.”
“Why Omega, though? After the Strife, there’s no way humans would have been welcome.”
“Omega is the kind of place where no one is actually welcome,” Sweets says dryly. “But if you’re smart, stubborn, and you play nice with Aria T’Loak, then you find ways to keep going. I got what I needed there and moved on. Illium’s a nicer place to work.”
Booth snorts. “Sure, the planet’s pretty , but I wouldn’t give it much more than that. No offense.”
Sweets smiles faintly. “None taken, it’s true. Illium’s got all the same things Omega does. People here just like pretty words and the colour blue more.”
“Oh, then you’re right at home, huh?”
“As much as I can be, I guess.”
Booth doesn’t get the chance to say anything about that. Sweets turns his head and Booth follows his line of sight until he spots their server on her way back with dishes balanced on her arms. “Just in time,” he comments. “That always happen here?”
“No,” Sweets says. He takes a sip of water before pushing the glass away to make room for the large sandwiches the server sets down in front of him. He doesn’t continue until she’s finished dropping off their meals and left again. “I have noticed that sometimes they like to wait around with the food until it looks like people aren’t in the middle of something anymore.”
“Talk about being an accessory,” Booth says.
“Not an accessory if it’s legal,” Sweets reminds him. “Mind you it isn’t always, but most of the time it is.”
Sweets takes a bite out of one of his sandwiches and Booth takes it as a cue to dig into the steak in front of him. He can smell the spices on it, although the smells aren’t all familiar. It tastes much better than he thought it would be, too - cooked just right and tasting almost like the steaks he made on the grill back home. It’s hard to chew and ignore the curious look Sweets is giving him at the same time, so he opts to fill the silence.
“I didn’t think the food thing would actually work, you know.”
Sweets shrugs. He opens his mouth to speak but then shuts it for a couple seconds before starting again. “Free food works for a lot of things, actually. How is it, by the way?”
“Pretty good, actually. Not like what you can get on Earth, but it’s not bad.”
Sweets is still giving him the same look - if anything, he’s smiling wider. “Yeah?”
Booth sets his fork down and squints across the table as he tries to figure out what Sweets is getting at. A part of his brain jumps to a dark conclusion, sparking the idea that Sweets had slipped some kind of message to the kitchen staff without Booth’s noticing and now he was about to pay for it, but he vetoes it. They’re in too much of a public place for Sweets to risk his plans by poisoning him, and when Booth opens his mouth to ask, he notices a tingling sensation on his tongue which quickly becomes something closer to a burn.
Sweets hides his smile behind his free hand. “Are you alright, Booth?”
“They didn’t say how much spice they were going to use,” Booth says, grabbing the still full glass of water at his side. It’s less than half full when he slams it down again. “Wow, that really-”
“Milk, Booth,” Sweets says, pointing to one of the new glasses the server had dropped off. “They gave you milk.”
The heat tapers off as he washes it down with milk until he’s left with only the slight sensation again, along with the aftertaste of the steak. Sweets is still putting a grand effort into not laughing out loud and failing.
“You weren’t going to say anything about that, were you?”
“They did say - that’s usually what the ‘classic Illium touch’ is,” Sweets explains. “People really love their spices here, and Illium has no shortage of them.”
“Are the potatoes going to be the same?” Booth asks, looking apprehensively at the sprinkling of seasoning across the sliced potatoes.
Sweets shrugs. “You tell me. I’ve never tried it. Not really my thing.”
“Of course not.” Booth hazards a taste, anyway. To his surprise, they’re incredibly light, and the spiciness from before dulls even further, replaced with an almost soothing taste.
“Your face isn’t all red anymore,” Sweets comments. “They’re good then?”
“More than good. I’m ready for another round of the steak, even.”
The conversation falls away again as they eat. Booth cycles between the steak - less and less spicy with every bite as his body adjusts - and the potatoes while Sweets spends most of his time watching the sky slowly turn darker with the occasional glance at the rest of the restaurant on his other side. By the time Booth gets down to the last bits of his meal, Sweets has finished his sandwiches and is making a dent in the chips that they’d been left with initially. Booth almost thinks it’s impressive that Sweets can easily eat so much at once before he remembers that taking in more food than the average person is a necessity that super soldiers and biotics share.
He grabs a handful of chips before Sweets can get them all and eats them out of his hand as he gets back to business.
“Before we’re done here, there’s something else I need from you.”
Sweets raises his eyebrows. “I don’t know how much dessert is going to cover you for.”
Booth shakes his head. “Not information, no. I need you to throw me. With your biotics.”
Sweets frowns. “You want me to throw you.”
“Yeah. Maybe a couple times.” Booth pats his chest. “Super soldiers are tough, might take a go or two for you to do some believable damage. That way, when I say you were crafty someone’s actually going to believe me.”
Understanding dawns on Sweets’ face. “Oh, that does make sense. In that case, yeah, I can do that.”
“Great. Let me finish these and we can get on that.”
Later, when the server delivers the bill, Sweets slides it toward Booth immediately, who’s glad that both of his jobs pay relatively well because the price tag on the steak matches its taste. The sun is still setting by the time they leave the restaurant, but it’s only just peeking above the horizon. The sky above has gone mostly dark, but only a few stars are visible through all the lights surrounding them.
“Surveillance is heavy here,” Sweets says as they climb back into his car. “And if it sounds like someone’s getting murdered then authorities will come running, so we’ll have to look around for somewhere a little quieter.”
“Are your biotics up to the task?”
Sweets side-eyes him. “I’m manipulating every particle of your being, Booth, and then tossing you around. It’s going to hurt any way you look at it.”
“It has to show, though. I heal fast.”
“Tossing you multiple times, then.”
They wind up landing on a nearly empty landing platform on one of the larger multi-division towers. It exits into several different businesses that are closed for the night and a few winding corridors. They scout the area quickly before settling on the closest thing Illium’s tower cities have to a back alley - a sheltered corridor lined with backdoors and large waste containers, where the only light around is the white-blue light keeping pitch darkness at bay all hours of the day.
Booth relaxes as much as he can with the knowledge that he’s going to be in pain very soon without a finger having been laid on him.
“One other thing,” he says as Sweets takes up a position close by. “I’m going to fire my gun a few times. That way it looks like I at least tried to get you.”
Sweets nods carefully. “Ready?”
Booth holds his arms out. “Hit me.”
Sweets glows blue, the energy turning slightly to violet along his right arm, and then Booth glows blue. The sensation of being lifted off his feet untouched is easily one of the strangest things he’s ever felt. A tingle races through his skin and it feels like his stomach is crawling just a bit too far up his throat, and before he can think much more on that his body goes flying backwards as if being blown by a gust of wind. For a split second, it feels like nothing at all and he thinks that this is going to take longer than he thought - but then he connects first with a waste container, then with the wall next to it, and the pain is both sharp and crushing.
Very briefly, it feels like someone tried to crush his body flat, and then when his brain makes sense of that situation, the pain of hitting the corner of a giant bin and then a wall registers, sharpening like knives through the initial pain. He hits the ground after all that, which feels like landing on feathers in comparison to everything else.
He curses loudly.
“You good?” Sweets calls from somewhere down the corridor. Booth can’t be sure while his head is spinning.
“Yeah, yeah,” he says, staggering through a couple steps as he stands up.
“How was that?”
“How was - how do you think it was?”
“Don’t get too angry about it. You did ask for it,” Sweets reminds him.
“Yeah, yeah.” Booth reaches into his jacket for his gun and pointedly does not aim at Sweets. “I’m gonna fire a couple times and then you’re gonna do that again, you hear?”
“If you’re sure.”
“I’m sure.” Booth stands straight again as the spinning finally stops. He listens for a moment but can’t hear anyone on either end of the corridor. He fires twice in the direction they’d come, then another couple times for good measure before holstering the pistol again. “Okay, one more time. I’m pretty sure I’m bruised, but let’s make it a little darker.”
“Here you go.”
Booth does go - to the other side of the corridor this time, where his shoulder makes a very painful connection with the corner of a different bin, causing him to flip mid-air before landing on the ground with a heavy thump .
“Oh, I think that’s good enough,” he gasps when the pain in his shoulder does not immediately start dimming. He reaches up and pats it. “Yeah, I think we’re good.”
Sweets comes into view above him as he crouches over him, slightly concerned. “You sure?”
“I’m a super soldier, I’m fine,” Booth snaps, then winces. “I will be, anyway.”
Sweets nods. “Okay then. I have to make myself scarce, then. You’ll have to get back to your ship on your own.”
“All the better.”
“Can I tell you one more thing?”
“I want to thank you for today,” Sweets says. “You gave me the chance to explain. Trust isn’t something that anyone can buy, not even in my line of business. It’s gained through people’s actions. I’m trusting you with what I told you today, and I know that you don’t trust me yet, but I’m hoping that you’ll give me the chance to prove myself, too. Good-bye for now, Booth.”
With that, Sweets stands up and walks away, leaving Booth alone with his thoughts as he gathers his strength again to get off the ground himself.
I wasn't sure about storytime part 2, but when considering how I want the plot to move, as well as fitting it with these versions of Booth and Sweets - the Booth that's still very much loyal to the organization he works for but moreso to his sense of right and wrong, and the Sweets that went through all sorts of hell and learned how to think like a tactician outside of a chess match and still wants to do something good - I decided it was the way to go.
The things that I'm choosing the focus on here will become more obvious later on, especially when the plot elements that don't look like they're going to be taking a back seat actually do, because at the end of the day the alternate title for this fic is really "unconventional ways to bring a team together."
Chapter 5: 1.5
Time to get all hands on deck.
The Alliance archives are dim and quiet except for the low hum of electronics in every division. Some sections of the archives are full of shelves of paper records, boxes upon boxes of things dating back to First Contact, now housed on the Citadel for posterity. Others house the more recent digital records, a near replica of the archives on Arcturus Station, which are just as much of a confusing maze as the paper ones as far as Booth is concerned.
He doesn’t come here often. He usually assigns others to the task of digging records up.
And he most certainly never needs to make use of the unpatented version of Angela’s security bypass program.
She’d given him a strange look when he’d asked for it less than an hour ago. It’s incomplete because it hasn’t yet been throttled by Alliance regulations and is therefore technically still in the experimental stage - meaning that in reality, he has the full version that most people will never see. She hadn’t given it to him immediately either, but it hadn’t taken long to convince her. He’d been honest about it, too.
“There’s something more to this mission,” he’d told her quietly, even though her office was empty except for them. “I can’t explain it right now, because I can’t verify how much more there really is unless I can get into records that even I don’t have access to. I need to find specific records from the Strife, ones that were most likely blacklisted and buried. Can you do this for me?”
She’d been concerned - but trusted him all the same and replaced the program in his omni-tool for its secret successor.
He starts off simple - a roundup of every project he can think of that the Alliance created when the Strife was pushing them further and further into ruin. Angela’s tech does most of the work, and eventually, he has a list of programs that had either been vetoed from the get-go, or failures during their early stages. At the top is Project Apex - known to everyone else as the Systems Alliance Super Soldier Program, the only successful solution of the lot.
Project Blue Star isn’t on the list. Other operations aren’t listed as having been located anywhere near Aurora. Not that he hadn’t seen any of that coming, though.
He continues to the most obvious place - keyword: Aurora. It was originally a geological research station that had been posted on a moon in the Armstrong cluster during humanity’s second wave of expansion from Earth. It was never large by any means, but it had yielded enough results and maintained a healthy enough growth to warrant a legitimate colony being built around it. From there, the Alliance’s data on it, even just the surface of it, before the bypass program kicks in, is immense. Scientific papers published by the researchers in the original station, and census logs, and requisitions are all stored together, seemingly with the barest amount of organization the archivers could get away with. Nearly twenty years’ worth of information. Booth dismisses the vast majority of it.
The most recent documents he can find on Aurora are dated in 2187, some months after the end of the Strife. Everything after that is just one short addendum after another on the end of the file - still pending, still pending, still pending.
He skims over the initial report and finds it very similar to others if its kind that he’d seen on the tail end of the war. The colony, left ruined and empty, had been declared too unsafe to rebuild and was slated for deconstruction. There, Booth frowns. It’s been nearly four years, but as far as he can tell Aurora is still standing. Empty and probably even worse for wear without maintenance, but still there.
Shortage of manpower, he thinks initially. It’s the most logical conclusion.
But another report is brought to his attention, further complicating everything. The words “biohazardous environment” practically glare at him and the delay on Aurora’s deconstruction starts to make more sense - and yet, at the same time, it makes even less sense than before.
What kind of biohazard could come out of geological research? Did they go digging somewhere and release some kind of alien bacteria? If there’s radiation, how did such dangerous amounts collect there?
The report isn’t helpful at all, either. It doesn’t state the exact nature of the hazard, only that it's currently too severe to allow work teams in the area. If Booth were less inclined to think there was anything more, he’d leave it at that, but the fact that the report states nothing more irks him. The file must have been changed, or perhaps the original report never made it to the archives, leaving nothing for Angela’s tech to find.
He has to go back. He has to start from the first report stating Aurora had lost contact and work his way through it.
Several days without contact , he reads. With the chaos of the war and the heavy lag in any communication that wasn’t the highest priority, however, it’s more than likely that it had been weeks by that point.
Emergency response teams sent to eliminate threats and restore contact - just like Sweets had said. After that, all he can find are statements on the tragic loss of the colony, and the information between 2186 and 2187 is cut off abruptly. It’s almost a believable attempt at a seamless scrub, too, if not for the brief blinking on Booth’s omni-tool signaling a message from the bypass program.
Edited elements remain in the document history and can be partially retrieved , the message reads. Booth can almost imagine Angela asking him if he wants to retrieve it.
He hesitates for a moment. Even a scrap of information will tell him that there really is some kind of truth to everything Sweets has told him. Booth won’t be able to unlearn it, either, just like he can’t unlearn everything he’s already been mulling over for days.
It takes another few moments for the retrieval to come through. A collection of disorganized, half corrupted, nearly contextless scraps of data come together to form a few simple lines, most of which he still has to disregard for all the sense they make. Only one piece matters anyway.
Status of Blue Star cannot be ascertained, but it is no longer necessary and doesn’t need to be taken into consideration by emergency response.
Blue Star .
The archives are dark and dim but for a few active terminals, and Lance Sweet’s voice is echoing all throughout.
It takes almost two weeks for Angela to come up with Sweets’ trail. Booth doesn’t tell her what he’d found in the archives in that time. He doesn’t tell Brennan, either, or anyone else. He’s not sure how to - the last thing he wants to do is risk their safety. He can’t just take the information and the Patriot without them, though.
For two weeks he has no choice but to keep quiet about it while the team takes on simpler bag ‘em and tag ‘em jobs in the Citadel’s immediate vicinity.
Then Angela strolls into his office one morning with one word: “Omega.”
Booth looks up from his desk, frowning. “What about Omega?”
Angela rolls her eyes rapidly. “Your guy? Sweets? I finally tracked him down - he’s on Omega.”
Booth blinks. It’s such an obvious place for Sweets to go, not that Booth has been in all that much of a hurry to track him down. He’s still trying to figure out who in the Alliance Sweets could be after - aside from a single name that Booth hasn’t enjoyed thinking about like this.
He stands up as Angela crosses the office to hand him a holopad. “How’d you find him?”
“Not easily,” Angela says. “Pulling your Spectre card goes practically nowhere there. I had to resort to some alternative sleuthing methods.” She leans in to whisper, “I won’t tell the Alliance if you won’t.”
“Somehow, I don’t think they’d mind,” Booth says dryly. He scrolls on the holopad to find a still shot from a security camera. The image is slightly grainy and saturated with a heavy tint from Omega’s heavy red lighting, but one of the figures in it is almost certainly Sweets.
“That’s one of the clearest ones I could get,” Angela comments. “I’m pretty sure I managed to spot him in some other places, but either the lighting was just too bad to repair or he was wearing just enough makeup to prevent facial recognition software from making a 100% match.”
“This is recent?”
“Yep, just within the last few days. I got a bit of a trail on the name Finley as well, but most of it was from years ago.”
“That would have been from when he first got there,” Booth says. “I doubt he’s doing much on Omega that you could easily figure out. You’d have to actually know people there. Good job, though. We know where to go now.”
“We’ll probably have to figure out a careful way to get to him,” Angela says, looking proud of herself. “Rumour has it that he’s on good terms with Aria T’Loak. She’s dangerous.”
“She’s gonna care more about herself than him, though. This doesn’t concern her.”
“I hope you’re right.”
“Thanks, Angela,” Booth says, returning her holopad. “Let’s get everyone ready to go.”
Angela nods and turns to leave his office again. Before she leaves, though, she turns to look over her shoulder with a concerned expression. “Hey, this is going to be okay, right? You’ve been weird about something since you got back from Illium. And I know you’re still probably not going to tell me what that’s about, but are our plans still going to work?”
Booth hesitates for a moment, an apology on the tip of his tongue. He’s playing things by ear more than anything, trying to appear as invested as possible in the mission when in reality, everything under the surface is so unsteady that’s it’s hard to keep his footing. It’s like being thrown into zero gravity training again.
“Is it because he used to be Alliance?” Angela asks quietly, snapping Booth out of his thoughts.
“No,” he says quickly, shaking his head. If that were the case then he’s sure that he’d feel even more determined to bring Sweets in. “It’s not that. It’s just that this might get really messy. No matter how this goes down, though, I’m going to make sure this team is safe, okay?”
Angela offers a small smile, but Booth can tell she’s still unsure. “Okay. I believe you. I’ll tell everyone to get ready.”
“Now that we know where he is, we can lay down some solid plans once we’re on the ship,” Booth adds.
“Right. See you, Booth.”
A couple hours after Angela sends her message out, Booth sends one of his own, calling the team to meet at his apartment after dinner. They’re getting ready for an early morning departure so that there’s still some time left in their day to work when they reach Omega.
Booth knows there won’t be a good enough chance to explain anything then. He’d thought about it after Angela had left his office and realized that the best way he can handle this is if his friends know what they’re actually going into. He can’t take the choice away.
It takes some time for everyone to gather. Brennan takes a ride with Booth, but they have to wait for everyone else to navigate the tight flight paths through the maze that is the lower levels of Shalta Ward. He’d purposely chosen an apartment near a commercial area, where the population is the densest and navigation can be most confusing because he still found it easy to get in and out, and the building is located within the ward’s maintained atmosphere and therefore doesn’t need to be air-tight.
No one else finds it particularly easy to get to, but they make their way. He rarely calls them here, anyway.
Hodgins says as much when he arrives last, right on Cam’s heels. He’s been at the apartment only once before, during a holiday. “What’s this about?” he asks with the same disbelief he has when Booth makes a rare visit to his office. “Is it about the mission? Or do you have a surprise for us?”
“It’s a surprise,” Booth says as he ushers him over to the table just off the kitchenette. “It is about the mission, though. There’s something you guys should know about it.”
“Is this about what you were looking for in the archives?” Angela asks. All attention immediately turns to her as everyone sits down. “Are you finally going to tell us what that was about?”
Brennan looks up at him from her own seat. The confusion is barely evident on her face but she still looks slightly confused. “You never mentioned anything about needing things from the archives.”
“That’s because this is... “ Booth pauses, shooting Angela a brief look, to which she responds with an apologetic shrug. “It’s delicate. I needed Angela’s help to get into sealed documents without someone else catching on.”
“This doesn’t sound good,” Cam says, her brow furrowed with concern.
Hodgins, on the other hand, leans forward on his elbows with wide eyes. “It sounds interesting. Unauthorized access to secret documents by a Spectre chasing down a war criminal? This is getting good .”
“This is not some conspiracy theory for you to get your fingers in,” Booth scolds. “This is serious. And I’m telling you now because there’s not going to be a good time for it later. This might turn into a real mess and you won’t be able to opt out then.”
“If that’s the case, then you really should tell us now,” Brennan says, gesturing around the table. “We can’t work to the best of our ability as a team if we don’t all know the facts, and…” she shrugs and gestures to Booth. “I have the feeling that you’ll go to Omega alone if you have to regardless, and that’s not a very good course of action.”
“I have the feeling you’re going to want to help either way,” Booth says softly.
“Of course,” Brennan replies. “You already proved with the incident on Illium that you’re not a match for Sweets’ biotics. However, it’s likely that I am.”
Booth closes his eyes while a round of snickering passes along the table. “Thanks, Bones. His biotics aren’t the problem, though.”
The group hushes gradually. Booth takes a breath and finally tells them the story - a message out of the blue on Illium from a complete stranger, a psychologist with a tiny practice on Illium who - and this he tells honestly, even when he hadn’t when reporting it to Arnette - also deals in information. A survivor of the Strife turned war criminal turned - well, Booth doesn’t know what the hell to call him now. Some kind of freedom fighter?
He tells them what Sweets had told him, and before anyone can ask about how believable or trustworthy any of the information is, he tells them that he found exactly what he’d been looking for in the archives, that someone had been just careless enough to leave him one nugget of truth in the story - one that can only be confirmed if they can track down Sweets again and get the full story.
He hadn’t wanted to tell Booth everything for fear of losing more lives. Booth doesn’t want to lose more, too.
But he can’t let this go unresolved, either.
He’s not sure how much they all believe. Hodgins is the only one that doesn’t look completely shocked. He looks serious, almost intense. “I see why we’re doing this here now,” he says quietly.
“That is a lot to take in,” Cam says.
“It does indeed make this mission more dangerous,” Brennan adds. She stares up at Booth. “How much of it do you believe?”
“You think he’s was telling the truth the whole time?” Hodgins asks.
“I think enough of it is true,” Booth finally admits. “I think… Look. We were at war. We were getting desperate, too. We can never be proud of all the choices we make in that kind of situation.”
“That doesn’t make them right, though,” Angela says. It’s almost a plea.
“I know that,” Booth stresses. “I know. That’s why I want to see this through. A lot of good people died and there was no one to answer for it - there’s no one that wants to answer for it. Instead, more people died so that it would all go away.” He shakes his head. “But it not going to go away, not while someone’s still alive to remember it and not while there are people around who can make it right.”
“If we get into this,” Cam starts warningly, glancing around the table, “then Booth's right, and this could very likely go downhill before it gets any better.”
Booth nods. “If you come with me to Omega, you might not get the chance to back out. Let’s be honest, actually. You probably won’t.”
“There tends to be a high level of danger in the majority of the missions we participate in,” Brennan says simply. “We carried out those tasks anyway.”
“Yeah, she’s right,” Hodgins says. “If it’s a matter of how much danger we’re going to be in-”
“I think you’re oversimplifying it,” Booth cuts in.
“-then it’s not like we haven’t been in some risky situations before,” Hodgins continues as if Booth hadn’t said anything. “I’m in.”
“Me too,” Angela chimes in, looping one of her arms around Brennan’s. “We can’t put someone on trial for something they didn’t do just so someone else can cover their ass.”
“We’re going to need all hands on this no matter which way it goes,” Cam adds. She rolls her shoulders back, her usual confident posture returned, and smiles. “Looks like we’re all in, Booth.”
Booth can’t help but smile back. He only hopes that he doesn’t come to regret it. “All right. You should all go home and get some sleep, then. We’re leaving early tomorrow and chances are we aren’t going to figure out how this will play out until we get there.”
Sweets hasn’t sent him any more messages since they parted on Illium, and Booth has no way of knowing whether or not he still pays any attention to the address he’d used to initiate contact, but it’s the only way Booth has any chance of contacting him now.
He’d nearly done it during the two weeks of waiting, late at night when he was alone in his office or in his quarters on the Patriot , but he’d never gone through with it. There wasn’t anything he could think of to say - certainly not to tell Sweets that he was right about something , or to get himself deeper into what Sweets is doing, or to give him a name .
Omega is further from the Citadel than Illium is. They have more than half a day’s travel ahead of them, most of which the team will probably spend mulling everything over. So, the night before they leave, Booth writes out a very short message.
We’re coming for you.
And he hits send.
Thank god for conveniently placed errors. The next chapter is going to be kind of long, but after that, we wrap up Booth's POV.