Of all the ways to be woken up, being thrown from a berth to roll across grated metal decking was not one of the more pleasant. Shepard felt the breath shoved from her lungs as her chest hit the deck plates, her head ringing as the back of her skull bounced off the corner of a footlocker. Her limbs shot out, spreading out her weight and momentum to slow her movement and stop herself from rolling again. Fingers hooked around the leg of a desk,that was blissfully secured and bolted, and the world stilled itself for a moment, long enough for her to grasp her surroundings.
Klaxons were blaring, red lights flashing in sync with the alarms. All around her, her bunkmates were righting themselves after the initial lurch, cautiously gripping various secured handholds against a repeat. Which, of course, came promptly on the heels of the first abrupt tossing.
This time, she was awake and prepared, and braced herself against the desk as the world turned upside down, too fast for the artificial gravity to compensate and a half dozen marines were sent flailing into what was supposed to be the overhead. She kept her grip on the desk leg, hanging in mid air for a moment before letting herself drop into a crouch on the overhead-turned-deck.
"What's going on, Shepard?" Jenkins had a palm pressed to a gash over his left eye. She took a moment to glance at him and visually inspect the injury -bleeding profusely, as head wounds did- and discern he was mostly unharmed, as were the others. She registered the throbbing at the back of her own head then tucked it neatly into the back of her mind as irrelevant. Adrenaline was running high, and she took a moment to reign in the flood of sensory information that came as a result.
"Hell if I know," she responded. "Woke up the same way you did." Even as she answered, her eyes were scanning the trashed berthing quarters. The unsecured footlocker that she'd bashed her head on had clattered 'down' to land near her, falling open to spill various items of personal nature. Everything not secured in place was now strewn around their feet. The bulkheads vibrated, the whole compartment shaking intermittently without any sign of a pattern. Concussive shudders made the interior plating tremble. Something was hitting the hull of the ship directly, which meant the ship's kinetic shielding was down.
As if reading her thoughts, the ship offered a precarious dip, and all of the marines went sliding portside for a moment before sliding back. The only other female present, Maverik, swore loudly, cursing the ship's engineers.
"If engineering hasn't fixed this by now, something's keeping them from fixing it," Shepard ventured. A lurch was all the warning they had before 'up' and 'down' began to flip once more. Training took over for all of them, letting themselves fall 'up' before curling into a ball and using their own body weight to turn themselves on their own centers of gravity and land neatly, if heavily, on their feet.
So, kinetic shields down, ship taking fire, life support systems probably also compromised if the gravity was twitching this badly. Engineering personnel either incapacitated or dead, since Shepard knew that if the artificial gravity was unfixable, it would have simply been disabled. Maneuvering in zero gravity was easier to deal with than random gravity swaps.
Added to that, it was feasible that the bridge and whatever current rotation of officers it held were also out for the count, given that no shipwide announcement had been given. If the shipwide comm had been knocked out, then at least the officers would have received orders via omnitools or private comm channels. Both, as far as Shepard could tell, were silent.
The occasional, familiar shiver that crept through the deckplates and up her legs told her that the SAS Lincoln was returning fire, so the battery stations were still secure. There was nothing else worth considering- aside from the essential crew, Shepard and her team had been the only passengers. The Lincoln was a an armed frigate, but she was alone.
So, in a nutshell, it seemed like they were possibly already royal screwed before she'd even managed to get out of her PJs and brush her teeth. Wonderful.
All of this had passed through Shepard's mind in the time it took her to dart to the lockers set into the bulkhead by the hatch, where hardsuits and weapons were secured, her team directly on her heels. With the ship shaking all around them, alarms drumming into their ears and the rising sounds of their vessel taking a thorough beating, the six individuals stripped -modesty a commodity forgotten long ago- and suited up. They snapped weapons into place even as they strode out into the corridor, Shepard in the lead, each with their favored sidearms in hand.
For a surreal moment, Commander Kastanie Shepard was not aboard the SAS Lincoln ferrying herself and her team to their first assignment out of Alliance Marines Special Forces Academy, but instead was back on a much smaller, much older ship. And she wasn't flanked by five of the Alliance's best and fiercest, but rather her little brothers-
Discipline and necessity had the memory locked away almost in the same nanosecond it had sprung up, right alongside those unimportant bruises. Experienced marines hand-picked for N7 status did not lose their heads in a combat situation to indulge in a bit of sob-story nostalgia.
"Captain should have comm'd us by now." The comment came from the team's communication's specialist, Boon, who was tapping away at his omnitool. He spoke using the private channel that linked all six black Onyx hardsuits. There was a trill audible to all of them. "Hm, well that explains it. Shipwide comm system is down," he said, echoing Shepard's earlier thoughts. "And there's a broad-array jamming signal keeping most personal lines shut down."
Whatever responses or curses were eminent in response to this announcement were swallowed when there was yet another warning tremor before the world flipped upside down again. It was barely enough time for them to slap at the controls on their wrists, and heavy clicks signaled that the strong electromagnets in their boots had sealed their feet to the deck a half second before they were all hanging upside down. With heavy, metallic clunks they walked 'down' the side bulkheads until they were standing on the overhead. More clicks as the magnets were turned off. All of it done with deceptive calm, as if they handled malfunctioning artificial gravity wells daily. And for four months out of the two years of their elite training, they'd done exactly that.
"Really need to do something about that," Maverik groused, referring to the gravity shifts.
"Engineering first," Shepard agreed, and began moving down the corridor, shifting to walk alongside the bulkhead, weapon drawn and ready. The team moved with as much ease as they had during the long years of training. Each had been an individual of surpassing ability and skill before being selected for the Alliance's special forces program and now, after three years of training together and honing their specialties to a level most would consider godlike, they moved with a fluidity that bordered on psychic.
"Biosigns," Jenkins warned at the same time Shepard's eyepiece flashed a warning. Information was sliding across her lumagel heads-up display, the small glowing square hovering over her left eye one of the only sources of light as, suddenly, the underfoot bars of lighting flickered and died. Almost in sync, six lights sprang from the barrels of various firearms.
"Where?" All of them had heads-up pieces that told them the easy, but incomplete, answer. Jenkins was a master at deciphering the nuances of information that could, with the proper broadcasted signal, be forged and manipulated into giving false leads.
"Up ahead," came the reply, without hesitation. Shepard glanced around, spotted an open hatch, and waved her team towards it. They filed into the room, Maverik and Boon clearing it before the others followed. Shepard dived in last.
"Human? Batarian?" Shepard asked once they were out of sight, edging to the edge of the hatch to peer down the corridor. Batarian raiders were a common problem for the newest race on the galactic scene. Humans less so, but it still happened.
"Turian," he replied tersely. Normally an overly exuberant, almost foolhardy individual, Jenkins was fully capable of buckling down with the rest of them, though most wouldn't believe it to meet him outside of a combat situation. Their mentor and trainer, Captain Anderson, had once said it took a special kind of stupid to be any level of 'N.' Jenkins certainly qualified.
"Just down the next sector, starboard."
Shapard swore. Of course, they'd be right in the way of where she needed to go. She glanced around the room they'd taken refuge in. She signaled, and Boon -the comm specialist- swapped places with her. She went to inspect a wall panel. Memorization of standard alliance military ship schematics was something every Alliance marine was drilled in, for good reason. Memory told her that the panel in front of her should cover one of the access panels to the vents that pumped and circulated air throughout the ship.
"Maverik," she called, and the shorter woman was there instantly, spotting what Shepard was looking at and setting to removing the panel without any further explanation. A few moments later, and the controls were exposed and circumvented, the access panel popping off with a hiss.
"Boon, Carver, you're staying here- let me know if those turians move." The two she'd named nodded. "Maverik, Jenkins, Sakino, with me. Go to contained enviros." Six sets of visors set into their helmets were lowered and sealed, personal atmosphere controls turned on, and the four marines filed into the open access panel. Since the ship was still 'upside down' as far as the structure was concerned, they were essentially moving underneath the 'floor' rather than the overhead as they would have been if the vessel's artificial gravity had been pulling things towards the proper direction. Disorientating for a normal person, just another day for the three N5s and the one N7.
Between the memorization of the ship schematics and Shepard's sense of orientation, she led the other three marines swiftly and relatively silently -an impressive feat given they were all in full armor- through the ducts towards engineering. The only issue came when, in the middle of climbing up a shaft that would normally have required descending instead of ascending, the gravity chose to again reverse itself. The four of them took a moment to tell their instincts that no, they weren't going back the direction they came even as they all began shuffling down rather than up. Feet and legs were braced against the walls of the shaft hard enough to keep them from sliding freely as they all, one by one, skidded down to the level below.
A few more turns brought them to another access panel. The narrow confines meant and Shepard did the tech work this time, since Maverik was behind Jenkins. Once the panel was quietly popped free, Shepard tossed a flashbang grenade into the room below, drawing the panel shut against the blast that would blind, deafen, and temporarily disorient any nearby person and temporarily scramble tech they may be sporting.
As soon as the grenade's high pitched whine had faded, Shepard kicked the panel free. She cautiously stuck her hand down into the room below, omnitool vidcam activated and sending a live feed directly to her helmet's HUD.
"Clear," she announced when both her biosign detector and vidcam eyes told her there was nothing moving below. She dropped down through the vent access, landing solidly on her feet, habit making her bend her knees to absorb the impact. She checked the room again before waving a signal above her head, and the rest of her team dropped into the room behind her. Moving like synchronized swimmers, they checked corners and shadows for any stealthed individuals that might have somehow escaped sensors and Shepard's eyes.
Then, and only then, did they turn their attention to the bodies.
"I count five. That's the whole engineering team," Sakino announced, after he'd checked the last corpse for vitals. They'd all been able to tell on sight that there was no one alive, but his medic speciality demanded he check anyway. As if there were a way to survive a throat being sliced open near down to the vertebrae.
Maverik was already at the main controls. "Huh...clever bastard," she was muttering. She flicked a glance down at the senior engineer, dead at her feet.
"What have you got?" Shepard asked as she came up beside the shorter woman.
"He jacked up the artificial gravity on purpose. Communications must have already been jammed- he did it to wake us up. Saved our asses. That turian team we almost ran into was probably on their way to us."
Shepard felt no true emotion, a mere proverbial flag in place of where typical human responses would normally occur- guilt, gratitude, respect. All things she'd save and feel later when she could afford to be emotional.
"How's life support?"
"Not tampered with. Thankfully, the scaled dipshits need oxygen as much as we do."
"That might change. Keep personal enviros going for now." She frowned at the pane of thick plexiglass that separated the engineering room from the drive core and, beneath it, the churning rotators of the artificial gravity well. She could well guess what the turians were after... Alliance intel had done their damnedest to keep it a secret even from the highest-ranking of their own that they had finally cracked the encrypted data Shepard herself had brought back from Citadel Space less than a year ago. It had been that mission, to obtain schematics to an experimental new drive system, that had gotten her nominated for the infamous N7 training at Arcturus. It had been that, or a court martial- technically, the mission hadn't been hers to begin with, she'd just given Captain Anderson a hand.
The SAS Lincoln was the ship test driving the new Tantalus drive core, the product of that mission. Officially, it was just a military transport taking a team to their new assignment, but anyone with a brain would note the destination (a back-water dirt farming colony), the names and rankings of the marine team aboard, and raise an eyebrow. Or brow-plate, as was the case, as apparently something about them had raised turian red flags.
"Maverik, set the gravitational shifts to a random pattern, and have it send us - and only us - a signal when it's about to flip. If we know when the gravity's going to swap poles, it won't hinder us as much as it will mess with them."
Maverik was grinning behind her visor. "Yes, ma'am." Fingers flew over the controls, sensory chips embedded in her fingertips and the exterior of her gloves let her interact with keys that normally required contact with the mild electric current all human bodies possessed in order to register being activated. The exterior chips simulated this current, and the chips in her fingers helped translate pressure through the hard gloves. All in all, very complex set up for something as simple as touching, but it could mean the difference between life and death for a spacer.
"Done," the woman announced a few moments later. "I've linked it to our comm channel, Commander. It'll ping us five seconds before the next shift, at random intervals no more than ten minutes apart, no less than five."
A tight nod of acknowledgement. No praise for doing what any enlisted engineer worth her salt could do in her sleep.
"Can you get a read on the CIC from here?" It would be a matter of how much the turian boarding party knew of human tech.. Looking for herself at the ship's 'black box' of data history, the turians had apparently known enough to calibrate an EM pulse strong enough to get past the ship's kinetic barriers...and that meant they probably knew a hell of a lot more.
"CIC is sealed, looks like from the inside. XO Dunley was off-rotation in his quarters, so my guess is Captain Chevik is locked on the CIC deck. Med deck and auxiliary crew quarters are already locked down as well."
Standard procedure when dealing with a boarding party. All essential areas of the ship were sealed off, the idea being to try to trap the invaders in the corridors, which could be vented and then re-pressurized. Shepard frowned- it was obvious why engineering hadn't been locked down, since the turians had gotten there first. Why hadn't Chevik vented the corridors? On a ship this small, all that would have been needed to be secured before opening the access hatches would have been the CIC, engineering, crew quarters, and the med deck. Check, check, check, and check. The only room that hadn't been locked down was compartment where she and her team had been snoring. Shepard frowned.
"Something's not adding up. We need to get to Chevik. Let's go."
They used the hatch this time, after Sakino waded through tangles of broadcasted junk intended to clog their sensors and verified there were no boarding parties in the corridor. Once out of engineering, she had Maverik seal the door behind them. Wouldn't it just be convenient if the turians figured out what they'd done to the gravity and undid it?
"CIC," Shepard declared, the declaration terse, and they moved on.
The rest of the ship was eerily silent. No matter how long Shepard had lived in space -her whole life- she'd never get used to the unnatural silence. The vessel had stopped giving the controlled shudders that signaled the torpedo bays releasing their volleys. Counting back in her head, Shepard realized it was possible they were simply out of armaments. She'd prefer that to the alternative- the invaders had gained access to the battery systems, or the battery crew. Near the same time, the violent shaking that followed the hull being bombarded had also ceased. None of the four marines were sure if this was a good or bad sign.
Regular reports from Boon and Carver let her know that while the jamming was too concentrated for them to track the turians movements exactly, they were able to tell them that there were two parties roaming the corridors, and a third trying to get into the crew quarters- but only after they'd swept through the quarters Shepard and her team had so recently vacated. Shepard had frowned at the news- not out of worry for her fellow crewmates, but out of confusion. Turians were, from what little the humans knew, big on ranking structures. It went against everything they normally seemed to stand for, to go for the little guys rather than trying to get at the captain.
The hair on the back of Shepard's neck stood on end the closer they got to the bridge without seeing any sign of activity. Soon as they got near, the one patrol that had been hovering near the CIC moved off. Soon as they saw that, they stopped.
"Shitscales are up to something," Jenkins muttered, scrutinizing his omnitool readouts. "They've knocked out the sensors on CIC deck. I can't even get a bodycount on whose inside."
"I don't like this," Shepard said needlessly. In this sort of situation, there tended to be only one course of action that seemed to work for her: Do the absolute opposite of anything anyone would expect.
"Jenkins," she said suddenly. His eyes snapped up to her from his screen. "Get us to the turians' point of entry." He quirked an eyebrow behind his visor. She continued, "Maverik, tell Boon and Carver to move to better cover than that room. In the vents." Her instructions were relayed by Maverik as Jenkins pulled up a projected display of the ship. Tucked as they were into a maintenance alcove in the corridor, with Sakino keeping watch, very little of the orange glow escaped into the corridor.
"Their access point was here," he said, pointing to an area directly between the ship's two main engines, which was also directly beneath engineering. Their own engine signals would have masked the turian's boarding pod's emissions, even if the initial EM pulse hadn't knocked out most of their systems, letting them dig their claws directly into the cargo compartment directly beneath engineering with relative ease. One of these days, she was going to have a talk with the designer of military crafts and ask why, exactly, he'd put such a vital part of the ship in such an accessible location.
"Then that's where we're headed," she told them. No questions, no looks of 'you're insane,' no hesitation. The Commander led, they followed.
There were two more gravity shifts, a ping on their comm channel alerting them the promised five seconds beforehand, plenty of time to activate the gravity locks on their boots. They kept out of sight, sent an acknowledgment when they received confirmation that Boon and Carver had moved to a better location. Boon had even managed to get them near a maintenance terminal, and was attempting to revitalize the ship's sensor systems to tell them what the hell was going on in the CIC.
Careful approach got them to the storage room beneath engineering undetected. Jenkins sliced through the dense informational static being broadcasted and managed to tell them that there were three turians guarding the access point. Shepard sent Sakino into the vents, and a few moments later the nearly inaudible sound of an electrical discharge preceded the turian on the left seizing and convulsing before he dropped.
'The laws of their biology may be different,' Anderson had once told her. 'But the laws of physics aren't. Pump enough electricity through something alive, and it will not be happy.'
The other two turians turned to the direction of the electrical overcharge's origination, even as they dived for cover. That cover being the corridor Shepard, Maverik, and Jenkins were guarding the other end of. The turians were dropped by two more charges, launched from modified sidearms specifically developed for shipboard firefights, the little aerodynamic nodes neatly planted below those alien 'tentacle-spike things' atop their heads.
"Sakino, hold position, guard our retreat if we need one."
A warning ping had them slapping their gravlock controls and waiting until the world had shifted around them again before continuing. Shepard tried not to be morbidly amused at the almost comical way the turian corpses flew past her head to flop heavily down onto what was now the deck. Drops of blue blood, leaking from nostrils, went splattering. A few streaked across her visor.
Once on board the turian pod, she realized two things; one, it wasn't a pod. It was the actual ship, a small one, clearly designed specifically for exactly what it had done, to sneak and stab. The second, was that the design was shockingly...human. No scales on the wall, no slime and smoke on the floor. Realistically, she knew it wouldn't have been quite so sci-fi, but then again, who could have said for sure? The only turian ship interiors humans had seen first hand had been burning debris.
The compartment they'd first entered had been obviously designed for one thing; hosting the giant 'can opener' that had been raised through a hatch in the ship's hull to attach to the SAS Lincoln and carve out a nice big opening, to which they had then sealed an access tube with convenient rungs. She couldn't help but grimace in revulsion; it was a favorite tactic of Batarian slavers. Little as she thought of turians, she'd never heard of them sinking to slaver methods before.
There was, however, one advantage to this scenario, and that was that there was already an elegant procedure perfected, refined, and practiced by Alliance military personnel; blow shit up.
"Charges," Shepard said, holding out one hand even as she holstered her weapon to free her other and release her own grenades from her belt. As the resident demolitons expert, this particular bit of fun fell to her, and she didn't bother suppressing the anticipatory grin at the thought of the blaze of glory to come if cooperation wasn't forthcoming in the second part of her plan. Her teammates kept the modified grenades coming, and she adhered them to strategic points around the soft-sealed opening. The peeled-back flaps that the charges were tucked behind would create an ideal path of least resistance for the explosion, channelling the wost of the blast out in a flat ring, doing minimal damage to each ship while very definitely removing the Lincoln's unwanted hitchhiker.
At her instruction, Maverik began jerry-rigging a trio of flashbang grenades, linking them together and rewriting their codes on the spot. It was a trick the tech had shown Shepard their first week training together, and Shepard had the woman working on perfecting it since. The improvised EM pulse generator would knock out communications for several minutes, and tended to show up on sensors as a mere power overload, sending the engineers in search of a blown circuit breaker or surge buffer instead of insurgents.
"Hostiles approaching, Commander," Jenkins warned.
"Then let's get out of here," Shepard replied, setting the last charge and linking them all to her omnitool. One press of a button, and they'd all go off simultaneously.
Quick and quiet, they climbed back through the opening and slipped past the still very-dead form of the two turian guards they'd tossed through, as well as the four from their initial encounter. It would take a moment for the approaching turian patrol to verify that the two guards were gone, not simply vacant from their posts. A short moment, but it would be enough.
She'd ordered radio silence while they'd been aboard the turian ship. No point in risking tripping any alarms set to detect unauthorized transmissions. Now, as she settled in behind a bulkhead with Maverik and Jenkins keeping watch, and a hidden Sakino providing another line of defense, she'd re-opened communications.
"Carver, I need you to get back down into engineering and be ready to seal the aft cargo bay hatch on my command. Permanently. Boon, tell me you've got access to CIC communications."
"You owe me a drink, Commander." Boon's grin was audible in his voice.
"I owe you a hooker and an open bar, LT. Patch me through." Absently, she tried to remember if Boon preferred blondes or redheads. Hacking through the pea soup she'd seen earlier in such a short amount of time was nothing shy of damned impressive.
There was a crackle, and then the unmistakable sound of Chevik's Eastern-Europe roar. "-cowardly, uncouth, vile tactics from batarians, but I had thought the turians had a spec more honor than this!"
"It is a fool who turns down an advantage in a time of war for the sake of preserving what their enemies consider 'honorable.'" The reply was undeniably turian, the vibrating sound of dual-vocal cords giving a very distinct sound. Shepard was pleased- it would make things much simpler now that she knew the turian had a omnitool VI translator with an dialect easily understandable by humans. Her own turian translator was...less than accurate at times.
"Good morning, gentlemen," Shepard's voice cut through the tension-loaded air of the CIC. There was a heartbeat of startled silence, and Shepard imagined the turian who had spoken snapping his avian head up, predatory eyes searching.
"Who is this?" The turian demanded. "I have your Captain on his knees, human. You would prove wise to answer me quickly."
"With pleasure." Shepard's fingers danced over the command to set off the charges. "This is Commander Shepard, and I've got a proposition for you." She nodded to Maverik, who returned the nod and tapped at her own omnitool. The lights overhead flickered faintly as, a ways away on the turian ship, Maverik's mac'guyvered contraption went off. "You get the hell off my ship, and I don't vent yours of all atmosphere. You have seventy seconds." It would take a hundred and five seconds for Maverik's toy to run out of juice.
There was a pause, likely as the turian captain attempted to contact his ship. There was a growl that, were Shepard a normal human, would have made something small and monkey-shaped in the back of Shepard's brain scurry for the nearest tree. Instead, she grinned. Quietly, in her ear, Jenkins informed her that his biosign readings had the turians retreating from the CIC. The static was clearing up, and Shepard brought up her own sensor readouts to watch their approach. Five from the CIC, three from the crew quarters, three from the main battery. Shepard's throat tightened- she had thought there'd be six on board, at most. She was lucky she'd gotten a turian captain who apparently valued his people enough to not risk her bluffing.
The turian invaders here hauling ass. The timer ticked down to thirty seconds by the time they began snarling past the trio of humans set beside the causeway to the cargo hold, heavy weapons up and ready. If they decided to fight back now, it wouldn't matter, and the humans knew it; better to show they were willing to risk a hull breach. Last minute chest-puffing as the humans brandished the weapons and the turians passing them made lunges at the pink mammals in hardsuits, snapping toothy jaws and flaring mandibles. Only one went past at a controlled, fast walk that for a human's shorter legs would have been a mild jog.
This last turian's uniform had one thing the others' didn't, a deep cobalt blue sash around his middle, and blue bands around his arms. He stopped in front of Shepard, and behind his visor she caught a flash of blue. Whether he'd picked a random human to stop in front of or if he somehow knew she owned the voice that had threatened him, she couldn't say. But he stood there, immobile, while they stared at one another. Despite both pair of eyes being hidden behind polarized visor, she knew their gazes were locked.
Unexpectedly, with ten seconds to go, the turian spoke, "I am Captain Nomos Vakarian. You will remember my name, human, as I will remember yours." Then he turned, and sprinted. The moment he was through the cargo bay hatch, Shepard addressed Carver, "Seal the doors."
There was the sound of hydraulics working, then a hiss as a chemical compound was released into the locking mechanisms that would melt and fuse the working. Nothing short of a full crew, some powerful machinery, and several hours of labor would get that hatch open again.
Shepard waited a few heartbeats. If Captain Vakarian was stupid enough not to seal off the compartment with the 'can opener' the instant his people were aboard, then any deaths resulting from what she was about to do was on him. She hit the command on her omnitool, and the resulting explosion rocked the Lincoln.
A scant few moments after the rocking had settled, the shipwide comm clicked on, and Chevik's accented voice filled the air, "Shepard! Get your ass up here now!"
Shepard couldn't help it- she laughed. Maverik and Jenkins joined in, Sakino's own chuckle joining theirs as he emerged from his hidey hole. She wasn't sure how or why, since she'd just saved the ship and everyone on board, but she knew she was about to have her ass chewed, and her team knew it too. Somehow, that knowledge, joined with the euphoria of surviving something that should have had them dead half an hour ago, sent them over the edge.
"Shepard!" Chevik howled again, which only made it worse.
"Check on the crew," Shepard gasped between laughing chokes. "I need to go make sure Chevik still has both his balls."
"Least we know he still has both lungs," Maverik snickered. Shepard grinned, shook her head, and headed down the corridor. For once, the thought of an impending ass-chewing didn't make her grimace. It was just good to be alive. Even if she had, apparently, made her first life-long enemy of another species.
If it weren't for the color, it would have been one of the more gruesome sights he'd ever seen. And given his service in the turian military during one of the bloodier segments of the Contact War, and subsequent employment as Citadel Security, that was saying something. But as it was, the red that coated the walls just looked like an exuberant child had gotten ahold of a bucket of bright crimson paint.
"How many?" He asked, voice low and grating. Human or not, these dismembered corpses had deserved better- anyone would have deserved better.
"Five," the young crime scene analyst informed him. "Looks like more, since they're in multiple pieces, but...we count five. Three adult females, an adolescent male, and a male child." The analyst looked over his shoulder at the scene, his shoulders twitching in disgust. "I don't mind telling you, Officer Vakarian, I'm no pro-pyjak freak, but this is..." Words left unsaid were sometimes just as telling as when actually spoken.
"Yeah, it is." The two males took a grim moment to survey the utter brutality. Then professionalism took over, and from then on it was as if they were discussing lunch selections. "We're still missing two. The adolescent and child females."
"Cellius and Resinion have teams doing sweeps of the complex now."
"You've got things taken care of here?"
"Yes, sir. Just figuring out what pieces go together and prepping them for shipment back to Alliance Space, after forensics gets what they can."
"Then I'll join the search. Make sure I get copies of everything by the end of the day."
Moving through the blood-splattered room, C-Sec Investigative Officer Garrus Vakarian felt the urge to lower the visor on his hardsuit helmet to block out the smell. The bodies might not have been turian, but he didn't care what species you were- dismembered corpses never smelled pleasant. He managed to resist the temptation long enough to cross the room and duck through a door leading to the rest of the dilapidated complex that had been the most recent hiding place of those known only as the Traders. They'd popped up in other sectors of Citadel Space almost as soon as the Contact Wars had begun in earnest. No amount of credits, dedication or public outcry had stemmed their flourish of success on the black market. He supposed it was true- something new and different would always be valued above the old and familiar, especially when it came to the forbidden.
Human slaves, provided for all manner of depraved fantasies, were definitely forbidden. Most turians - and other races- agreed on this, not despite of their animosity of the new race, but because of it. A conflict with a less worthy species would have been classified as an 'ongoing squirmish' rather than a full-out war. Garrus supposed that had something to do with why the batarians and vorcha were so ruthless in their support of the Traders- new kids on the block, and already the humans garnered enough grudging respect to be a step above the 'annoying vermin' label that the aforementioned species seemed unable to escape.
Granted, not all subjects of the Turian Imperial Senate agreed with this assessment. Some would classify the humans as below the batarians and vorcha. Personally, Garrus thought that any species that could hold their own against the turian military for as long as the Alliance had, deserved at least a nod. Then again, there were the krogan. They'd more than held their own, and had required the intervention of the salarians to be brought under control. And the best most turians could bring themselves to do was ignore the krogan race altogether.
Proud, noble, warrior-race that they were, if there was one thing turians did not do well, it was lose. And they had come very, very close to loosing to the krogan. Some said they were nearing that same point with the humans. Garrus disagreed- it was more like they were too evenly matched, and both sides were running out of resources and -more importantly- excuses. Pressure had been building for years to put an end to the war that hardy anyone could even remember the original reason for. The Council especially had begun hinting heavily that it might not entirely hate the idea of a second military race. It was no secret that should the turian government ever have really wanted it, Citadel Space would have been theirs. A second species to balance out the turians was, in the estimation of many, not a bad idea.
'The Human Dilemma' many had taken to calling it. As far as Garrus was concerned, the politicians on Palaven and the Councilors on the Citadel could debate all they wanted about this 'dilemma.' Garrus' job, and only job, was the security of the Citadel. And right now, that security was challenged by the first incursion of a major black market movement in a long, long time. The Traders didn't deal only in humans- if they did, Garrus had a suspicion that pressure to take them down might not have been as intense, Human Dilemma or no. The fact they also dealt in asari and turian slavery made them a very high priority.
The halls and rooms Garrus searched were standard for the places the Traders squatted in. No power other than what cables from generators provided, the smell of feces and urine from multiple species clinging to the walls and the air. Bits of debris had been piled in corners long enough that their original origin was indistinguishable. And of course, there were the bloodstains. Red, blue, orange, purple. Krogan (or human), turian, batarian/vorcha, asari. Morbid rainbows splashed everywhere.
Reports came in over the security channel fed directly into his headpiece, the small lumagel screen suspended in front of his face providing bits of data now and again that he read and catalogued and dismissed with minimal attention- until a little red light began blinking. His mandibles tilted down and flared slightly, a typical turian expression of combined concentration and -sometimes- disapproval. A few taps at his omnitool, and the readout from his heads-up piece transferred down to the larger projection on his arm. A heat signature, in the room he'd just exited, that didn't match the emissions from the de-activated generator that he thought had been the room's sole occupant.
It was probably nothing, but just in case...
"Cellius," he spoke into the open channel. "Might have found something."
"On our way," the officer replied. Signals in the standard-issue C-Sec hardsuits would guide Cellius and his team to him, no problem. Garrus flicked off the channel. If his suspicions were right, he didn't want the faint radio chatter to scare them off.
Back in the room, he brought up the heat-sensor program again. The room was bare, no furniture to hide behind. The signal sent him to his left, and walking in the direction it led it him brought him to the far back corner, a grated window dimmed the weak artificial city light dappling the filthy floor. One of the wall panels was off-center, the corners not quite aligned with their moorings. He stood still, watching the panel for a long moment.
There was a sob.
Garrus suppressed a sigh. The sob had sounded young. The last thing he wanted was to expose the missing -or not so missing as the case may be- human child to more trauma, but at least she was alive.
He reached out one taloned hand and pried the panel free. Huddled inside the hidden alcove that was revealed behind the dingy square of panelling, was a small human female clutched in the arms of an older female. At least, he was pretty sure they were both female. Both were slender, with longer lengths of the stuff called 'hair' growing from their scalps. Wide eyes were red rimmed and glossy, with wet tracks down their cheeks. The smaller female gave a cry and clung tighter to the adolescent, who was starring at him with an expression that even he could tell was defiant. Some things translated across all species- unwavering stares, facial bones and muscles rigidly set, lifted chin, all spoke of 'do your worst.'
Turian knee joints bent horizontally as well as bending vertically, allowing him to rotate his lower legs somewhat outward, avoiding skewering his thighs on his spurs as he crouched down. Coming to eye-level with the adolescent, he sighed quietly. The smaller one was working into a full wail, and the two of them were clutching each other tight enough to leave visible red marks on otherwise pale, sallow skin. Garrus hadn't seen too many living humans, but he'd seen enough of them to know that their skin wasn't supposed to be that sickly, almost transparent shade of yellow-pink.
Slowly, very slowly, Garrus held out a hand, palm up, talons relaxed. He kept his mandibles pressed firmly as close in as they would go. Flaring them, a turian grin -or snarl, depending- tended to send humans into shrieks of fear, he'd learned.
"Things is good," he said slowly, the sibilant sounds of the human language coming out almost like a hiss. It was one of the few human phrases he'd dragged out of a C-Sec linguist, an asari with a known pro-human standpoint. One of these days, he'd get ahold of the rumored VI translator chips supposedly programed with a working, comprehensible catalogue for one of the main dialects used by the Alliance. But for now, clumsy phrases would have to do.
The little one had stopped her climbing wail at his words. The eyes of the older one widened almost comically. He extended his hand further.
"No hurting," he promised. He pointed to himself with his other hand. "Rescue."
They were both staring at him now, frozen with fear and uncertainty. Moving slowly, Garrus reached to one of the hardpacks at his side, and retrieved a nutrient bar. Having two of the five influential (scavengers or not, quarians were definitely widespread) in Citadel Space based on dextro-amino acids, rather than levo, had inevitably led to various corporations developing Unimo bars. 'Universal amino' acids had been the work of both food manufacturers and pharmaceutical companies, creating a molecule that utilized both sides, rather than just the right (which resulted in dextro) or left (resulting in levo). The result? The brown, slightly sticky, tasteless brown bar he was currently removing from its wrapper and slowly extending to the females.
The little one moved first, faster than he was used to seeing from the mammalian race, quick fingers darting out and snatching the foodstuff before his arm had even stopped moving. Deft digits had torn the bar in half, shoved one half in the other girl's mouth, and the remaining portion in her own. Chew, swallow. All before he'd quite registered that the umino bar was gone from his hand. Frankly, he was surprised those blunt little teeth had been able to work through the leather-like bar so quick. He also noted, with interest, that despite the near-mindless fear and hunger of the younger girl, she'd shared her prize without hesitation.
Sharp hearing picked up the sounds Cellius and his team nearing as he pulled out another two bars, handing one to each female. Still watching him like caged animals, they devoured the offerings.
"In here," Garrus called in his own tongue when the sounds of approach got louder, and the two pairs of human eyes snapped to the door. Cellius came into view a moment later, flanked by two turian C-Sec officers Garrus didn't recognize and an asari he did, though he couldn't recall her name to save his life.
"They don't look injured," he said, looking back to the humans.
"Then let's get them out of here," Cellius's voice, deeper, gruffer, grew louder as he came up behind Garrus. "I'm sick of the stink of this place. Reeks of human and vorcha." He bent down and reached for the females, clamping one three-fingered grip around a thin white limb. Shrieking, the one he'd grabbed -the smaller one- lashed out, teeth finding purchase between his thumb and left finger, where scale gave way to leather-like skin. Tough, but sensitive. Cellius swore and raised his other hand-
Garrus intercepted the blow, catching the larger male's forearm in an iron grip. Cellius growled, mandibles flared and jaw dropped to let loose an insulted hiss.
"They're scared enough as it is," Garrus told him, shoving him away. He looked to the two victims and sighed- what little progress he'd made with patience and the unimo bars had been lost. Slowly, he reached towards them, expecting the shrieking. He wished he had the time to be patient again, but if he didn't do it now then others would come and make things worse. The best he could do was get his arms around the bigger female, letting her keep ahold of the smaller one. Once they realized he wasn't trying to separate them, as Cellius had, their cries dimmed somewhat, though the little one kept biting the air in his general direction, trying to catch any stray talons or flesh that came too close to her quick mouth.
The bigger female surprised him, clamping a hand over the younger's mouth and hauling her close against her, whispering something in her ear as Garrus lifted the both of them easily. Abruptly, the smaller human went still, raging howls reduced to quiet sniffles. The adolescent female looked up into his face, finding his eyes and visibly swallowing. With visible effort she managed to say two words, voice sounding hoarse and flat. It took him a moment to remember what they meant, and he was taken aback by the wave of pity that swept through him.
As it turns out, finding the girls had been the easy part. The challenge had come with the paperwork that followed. Mostly, because there really was no set protocol for dealing with humans on the Citadel. Aside from those that were brought there illegally, there were no humans on the Citadel, and most of the ones they found were dead. Usually in pieces. No one wanted to take responsibility for the young aliens, least of all a busy police department.
In the end, it was decided that since the turian goverment already had a system set up for handling humans, the two survivors would be shipped to Palaven. The life of a quellen, or captured bondservant, was not one to be relished, but the girls would be fed and clothed and have access to medical care, at least. It was the best Garrus could do.
Between arranging for immediate medical care and transportation to Palaven for the two females, the extensive report he had to write, debriefing the Captain of the the next cycle, reading and accepting the reports from the lower-ranking investigators who had been involved, checking himself through his own medical routine to guard against unfamiliar pathogens from other species, it was well into what should have been the middle of Garrus' sleep cycle before he was able to stumble through the doors of his modest apartment. He wanted nothing more than to shed his hardsuit, scrub himself down with fresh buffing cloths and soak under a hot spray until he fell asleep in the very shower stall. The Spirit of Torment, it seemed, had other ideas.
Greeting his exhausted self when he entered the bedroom was a rapid staccato of beeps and clicks, letting him know in no uncertain terms that not only did he have a message, but it was a high priority message that would brook no procrastination on his part. He debated on silencing the alert and passing out anyway. Then he considered all the things it could be, and knew that wondering would keep him awake despite his exhaustion.
And so, Garrus was halfway through divesting himself of his boots and greaves when he froze, the name of the sender of the message finally filtering through his numb brain. Newfound energy shot through his limbs, opening the message with a speed that, ten minutes ago, he would have sworn was impossible after the draining day he'd had. There was only one reason why Imperial Admiral Terondis Almonus would be sending him a missive. Trepidation gripped him as he read the words glowing on his screen in abrupt, precise script. Reaching the end, he let loose a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding.
Garrus was almost ashamed of the flash of mixed disappointment and relief that replaced the momentary rush of awakeness. His father may not be fond of him or his choices, but he was still his father, and there were worse parents to have.
Then the reality of his father's situation penetrated his haze of muddled emotions, and despite himself he winced on Nomos Vakarian's behalf. Captured by humans? Perhaps death would have been better. Even if he was treated well, even if the humans somehow had umino bars on hand, the political and social fallout that would follow once he was rescued...
And there was no doubt in Garrus' mind that he would be rescued. If nothing else, the message mentioned pending negotiations to trade the life of his father and his surviving crew for a few key human prisoners of war. What the missive didn't mention, curiously, was how this had happened. Whatever misgivings Garrus had about Nomos as a parent, he had none about him as a captain. There was a reason Garrus had served his mandatory six years in the Hierarchy Military then promptly signed up for C-Sec. No elder son relished the task of filling a father's large, illustrious shoes.
Releasing a rumbling sigh, Garrus reached out to rub the junction of his neck and cowl, where a knot of tension had begun to build beneath where the plates of metallic carapace met. A good turian would leave things alone, be appreciative that an honorable Imperial Admiral had been thoughtful enough to inform the son of his most decorated captain of said captain's capture and potentially impending death.
Garrus, as he was fond of quipping, was not a good turian.
Briefly, he debated leaving it until morning. Glancing at the time dismissed that notion- the individual he intended on contacting would be up, probably just barely, but still. The volus required little sleep compared to most other species.
"Officer Vakarian!" The pale, flabby face that greeted him was undoubtedly one of the more stomach-churning Garrus had seen, including ones that were damaged.
"Barla Von," Garrus returned the acknowledgement with a nod, trying not to show how tired he was.
"How many I assist you? I assume this is not a social call?" The banker, accountant, stock broker -among other things- was wealthy enough to afford a home with an enclosed environment, and thus had the luxury of going without his suit while he was home, as he was now. And so Garrus was able to see the flaps of flesh that hung down on either side of a circular mouth wobble in what he believed was the rough equivalent of a smile.
"You guess correctly." Tapping a few keys, Garrus forwarded the volus a copy of the Admiral's message. "I'm sending you something I received today. I'd like to know more about it."
"More, you say?" The volus raised three fat fingers, stroking one of the flesh-flaps. "Very well. I assume my...gratitude for your generosity, after this, will be permitted to abate?"
"If you're able to find out anything useful, then yes." Never let such a valuable resource as the best information broker in the Widow Nebula off the hook entirely, especially when he owed you. Garrus' phrasing left plenty of room for interpretation, which the volus took in stride.
"Of course. I'll see what I can do. Will tomorrow be sufficient?"
"That will be acceptable."
"Then I bid you a fine evening. Do get some rest, Vakarian- you look like vorcha shit."
Then the connection was severed, and Garrus allowed himself a short laugh. If the volus' statement was accurate, then he looked a far sight better than he felt. When the last of his armor had been pried free, cleaned, and set on the shelves designed specifically to hold the pieces, Garrus allowed himself to fall into the large nest-like bed of thick, padded leather suspended on a long, oval ring. Despite his anxiety over his father's predicament, the turian had no trouble finding sleep.