The C-Sec Reports - "Hardline Diplomacy"
Disclaimer:This story is not canon in any way, shape or form. While we all wish we could own Garrus, he belongs to Bioware. The characters not taken from the game are my own invention, but everything here is property of Bioware and should be treated as such
Continued from The C-Sec Reports: 'Business Rivals,' which can be found on my old account: CalicoJack3218
In his darkened apartment, Garrus groped numbly for the light sensor, trying and failing to make sense of the babble of urgent information pouring into his communicator. These old Tayseri housing blocks were ancient edifices; voice activated lights were unheard of.
Weak yellowish illumination flooded into the space and momentarily dazzled him. He sat up and squinting, he croaked; "Slow down, Control. Start again." He struggled to get the words out. "Chief Ardess has been… murdered?"
"Assassinated, Officer Vakarian," the voice in his communicator repeated, slowly, as if he were talking to a naïve child.
Garrus' mandibles flicked. He stared down at the threadbare Salarian rug on the floor. "Why the semantics?"
"Were you not listening to anything I said?"
"Truthfully, no. You woke me." Garrus sighed and tried to be professional. "Tell me why you're so sure it was a hit." He still felt light-headed and unreal, as if this might just be an odd nightmare brought about by stress and exhaustion. He pushed a thumb into one eye. Outside, the lights from passing vehicles swept across the room through the thin blue curtains. He could hear the swish of their passage.
"Chief Ardess was found with a single wound through his cranium," the tinny voice continued, "close range, minimal entry damage, no cauterisation or surrounding burn. Extensive damage upon exit. We're confident that a high-velocity projectile expulsion weapon was used."
"A gun?" Garrus said incredulously, "Metal slugs powered by a trigger, spark and explosive powder?"
"It looks that way."
"Yes, the medical examiner said you'd say that," the voice said dryly.
Such ancient weapons – dating back into the brutal pasts of so many races - were coveted amongst the criminal cartels and mercenary bands on the citadel for their symbolic quality and stark, vicious results. Messy and loud, unlike the quick, sizzling death of a modern weapon, they were almost exclusively used for punishing betrayals within the ranks and the public murder of particularly onerous enemies.
Even today, human, turian and krogan arms smugglers moved shipments of the battered but dangerous relics on and off the citadel and their own planets, eluding detection, commanding exorbitant prices and running paranoid, cutthroat businesses. For C-Sec, keeping them in check was a full time job. Garrus had seen what those weapons could do. On behalf of Chief Ardess, he shuddered.
"Is the examiner still at the scene?" Garrus asked, yanking on clothes and fixing himself into his light armour. "Where did this happen?"
"On Boreana Promenade in Zakera Ward. Doctor Drasari is still on site, waiting for you. We've sent a C-Sec car."
Seven minutes later, Garrus Vakarian was riding impatiently through the ceaseless traffic of Tayseri Ward's purple-hued sky. Slums and the uneven piles of carelessly-built tenements lurched up into the vacuum, then flashed by underneath. Tayseri's famous markets reared from the grim heap of civilisation to his right, all shining towers linked by hundreds of sealed crosswalks and elevators. The markets' windows glinted serenely in the light of the Widow star. There was nothing to suggest the roiling, sweat-infused crowds Garrus knew seethed within. All around its base, even more desperate slums washed up against the gleaming metal like an encroaching tide. A struggling place, Tayseri Ward; not a vision for the wide-eyed, open-mouthed visitors that poured in daily from home systems across the galaxy. No, the Council's Tourism department funnelled them away from this grubby reality, encouraged them towards the enthralling vistas of Kithoi Ward and its educational and governmental elite, or the never-ending entertainment and excitement of Zakera and its thousands of nightclubs.
You only lived in Tayseri Ward if you were poor, a criminal or a C-Sec Officer unlucky enough to be put on duty there. And C-Sec's resources were not what they once were; Garrus' modest apartment was testament to that.
Traffic whirred by on all sides as the C-Sec vehicle flitted out of the looming metropolis and whisked its way above the thick outer layer of the Presidium ring. The natural light permeated through the nebula and forced Garrus to shield his eyes. Gravity was a little odd here thanks to the citadel's rotation and he felt his stomach crawl up his throat and then drop back down suddenly enough to make him nauseous. Then he was hurtling down into Zakera Ward, its ocean of bright neon vids and advertisements an assault on the eyes. In the distance, Garrus saw the giant DNA strand that was the Vorbal Museum where he'd met Chief Ardess what seemed like a lifetime ago.
As the vehicle descended through the high-speed traffic and skyscrapers towards the Promenade where the Chief's body lay, Garrus mentally steeled himself. He'd not been close to the man, who he'd only known a short time and mostly through legend anyway, but that Ardess had been gunned down so harshly and so soon after the death of the assassin was a stun to the system. He tried to remain objective, remind himself that anyone could be behind his death. But he didn't really believe that and one name bounced around in his skull. It would not be dismissed.
He came down into Boreana Promenade and leapt out of the skycar before it had fully settled to the ground. The Promenade was a long and wide, tree-lined shopping bridge, just beneath the edge of the air envelope, weaving its way between half a dozen skyscrapers and bulky retail malls. It was obviously built for crowds, but C-Sec's holographic barriers were keeping away the gawkers. On either side of the crime scene on the glittering bridge, Garrus could see them clustered and excited, trying to see over one another's shoulders. C-Sec grunts were on guard, standing impassively, ignoring the shouted questions and demands.
The turian medical examiner met him as he turned, hurrying between a thicket of decorative bushes. The red light from an advertisement high up made his white coat look like it was slick with blood. He had a thin face, greyish features and no facial markings.
"Officer Vakarian," Doctor Drasari puffed, not offering a gloved hand, but saluting in old colony style instead. "I'm pleased you're here. I'd like to get the body onto a transport as soon as possible. We've forbidden the media from any flyovers, but you know how persistent they are. Follow me, please."
Taken aback by the Doctor's perfunctory manner, Garrus walked mutely after him through the gap in the brush and across the street to the crime scene. They walked through the scrolling hologram saying 'Do Not Cross' and the Doctor gestured to the lifeless figure beyond.
Garrus swallowed hard.
The body was propped awkwardly up against a VI interface. Ardess' face was fully intact, but that commanding authority had vanished from his hard features. The mandibles hung open, the eyes were empty marbles. In the craggy forehead, painted with the symbol of Ran'shar Colony, a single, small entry wound, perfectly round and dark. Blood seeped from it and had left a trail down the Chief's face.
But the worst part was behind the body. The back of Ardess' head had been blown off when the projectile – Garrus wracked his mind for the name of it – the 'bullet' – had exited, spraying brain, blood and skull all over the walkway and the VI's interface. The blood was drying, thick and sticky.
"Hash'nat," Garrus swore.
"Indeed," Drasari said, unperturbed. He bent and put his finger to the entry hole. "As you can see, our murder weapon is obviously archaic, possibly an ancient pistol or single-shot rifle. For certain the attack was at close range."
"Exactly when did this happen?" Garrus asked. He was unable to look away from the Chief's empty gaze. It felt accusatory.
"Best I can give you is maybe six hours ago, Officer Vakarian."
"None that would talk, if there were," Drasari scowled. "Big, public killing like this? Nobody's going to want to risk coming forward." The doctor nodded to the bullet-hole in the Chief's forehead. "For what it's worth, it looks like a cartel hit to me. As you know, they prefer to use these types of ancient weapons for executions. To make a statement."
Garrus didn't answer. It was certainly an assassination, but after yesterday, the likelihood that this was some cartel vendetta was non-existent. He took a proffered pair of gloves, slipped them on and stepped gingerly around the body and probed the interface it leaned against. He tried to avoid stepping in his superior's blood.
"How about the VI?" he asked, then frowned as he caught the acrid stench of recent death; the sickly metallic taste of blood in the air.
The Doctor sighed and plucked at the lapels of his coat. "I'm afraid this particular display was ruined by the impact of the body and the amount of excess fluid that was cast across it."
Excess fluid? Garrus grimaced. "But VIs have a hub, yes, where all their interactions are recorded?" The Doctor didn't answer and swallowing, Garrus wiped some of the blood away from the metal surface.
"Zakera Centre for Architectural History," he read aloud. "Must be to do with this Promenade."
The Doctor just looked impatient and Garrus felt a rush of anger towards him. Plainly the turian's main concern was getting Ardess' body out of public view, not the evidence that might lead to his killer. He'd performed only the necessary essentials. He'd already made up his mind about the crime.
Garrus swallowed his annoyance and looked down once more at the Chief who'd put him on this unenviable case; the one who'd wanted his expertise specifically. The one who'd sent the exhausted Vakarian home to rest after using him to chase down a human assassin - a murderer of volus businessmen. While Garrus rested, the Chief was to make some enquires at the offices of their best lead on who hired the killer. Terra Firma, the human supremacist movement. Terra Firma, who were rumoured to have dark ties with several extremist groups back on their home planet of Earth. The Chief had thought he might be able to put some pressure on, get them to tell him something useful. Shine a torch into a dark place and see what scurried out.
Now the Chief was dead.
Garrus supposed he didn't really need witnesses or an autopsy. It wasn't the most ambiguous of leads. Objectivity be damned. He knew where to go hunting. Time for a hearty kick at the hornet's nest.
"Do what you need to do to get his body out of here," Garrus told the Doctor, who bristled visibly at being told how to do his job. Garrus didn't care. He needed to get away from here, get some distance; think things over. He needed to work out which direction in which to jump. If Terra Firma were really behind the death, why did they use such ancient, unwieldy weaponry? Modern firearms killed easier, were more reliable and cheaper. And if Terra Firma were behind the death, they might know that Ardess had a colleague. They might be aiming for Garrus next and he had no plan of action.
Suddenly, he felt very exposed on the windy promenade.
Forcing himself to move calmly, he turned his back on the body and the Doctor and returned to his skycar. He blew out a heavy breath between his mandibles and steadied himself. There was only one safe place to go to work out his next course of action. He programmed the car with numb fingers to take him to Zakeef's Grotto, high in a nearby cluster of skyscrapers. Twenty years previous, Zakeef, a former C-Sec Infiltrator, had set up shop as a restaurant and casino owner after retiring – to 'keep busy' he'd said. In reality, the opulent restaurant and gambling den served as a luxurious off-duty harbour for C-Sec and Security types right across the Citadel, providing them with a place they could truly relax. Zakeef's veritable army of mechs and rugged mercenaries policed the place with all the alertness of a military ship's crew. It was safer than anywhere else on the entire station. Not even the craziest assassin would dare try to make a hit there.
He breathed easier as the car swept up and between the towering structures and settled into a glide for a wide airlock that was otherwise unremarkable. The vehicle was scanned as it closed in, found to be occupied by a C-Sec identification and the doors promptly hissed open. The vehicle settled slowly to the landing pad inside and the outer doors shut.
"Welcome to Zakeef's Grotto!" Intoned the gravelly voice of Zakeef himself, on a cheerful recording that resonated around the space. "Please be patient while we pump some air in and don't pop your hood until the green light comes on. And don't forget, Thursday is quiz night! Only one salarian player per team – we like to keep things fair here at Zakeef's."
Garrus heard the sucking rush of air being blasted into the space and then the green light on the wall in front shone brightly. He clambered out of the skycar and made his way up a gentle slope to an elevator. The doors slid open as if they were expecting him – which, of course, they were. As he rode up in the mirrored, synthetic-wood panelled space, he noted the choice of music. Drell marching tunes. Interesting selection.
When the doors slid open again, two heavyset human guards were waiting. Fully armoured and carrying rifles, they smiled at him genially.
"Weapons, please," one said, "You know the drill."
Garrus did. He unlimbered his pistol and handed it butt-first to the man, who secured it in a lockbox.
"Go right on in," the man said. "Oh and don't eat the peanuts on the right side. Left side bowl's for you guys."
Garrus nodded and moved into the crowded space. Zakeef's, like most businesses on the Wards, never slept and was always busy. Dozens of C-Sec types, from the grunts up to the detectives, milled throughout the red-lit space, talking and laughing, thronging between the synthetic mahogany tables and standing in clumps at the bar, nursing every imaginable colour of drink. One wall of the club was dominated by a giant panoramic window that looked out on the shining expanse of Zakera. The luckiest and wealthiest customers crammed the booths there, wolfing down their meals or discussing business. Garrus saw more than one datapad and credstick quietly change hands.
Adrift in the midst of the sea of blue uniforms, grim-eyed, sharp-mouthed mercenaries wandered, sipping strong alcohol or clustering to swap gore-filled stories of past assignments. Garrus didn't care for mercenaries, but these were from companies fully sanctioned by the Citadel Council. 'The Council's Favourite Murderers," went the cynical phrase.
Garrus slipped to a relatively quiet booth along the wall and sat at a right angle so he could see the elevators and the massive window at the same time. Traffic swished by endlessly. He sat and willed his tense muscles to release, forced himself to breathe more easily. Relax, Garrus. Get your head on straight. They don't know about you. They'd have already tried something otherwise. They'd have tried last night, when you were asleep and vulnerable.
When the asari waitress arrived, he ordered a Palaven Coffee and roasted Goluki; he was tempted to remedy his nerves with a glass of something stronger, but he wanted to be alert. Eventually he'd have to go back out there and do what needed to be done. He couldn't afford to lose his edge.
Garrus had just speared a cut of Goluki when a figure slid suddenly into the seat opposite him.
Startled, he almost dropped his knife and was groping for his pistol that wasn't there when he recognised Nalrad, his enthusiastic – and admittedly, neglected of late – apprentice.
"Officer Vakarian!" Nalrad beamed, his mandibles working excitedly, "I saw you come in. I haven't seen you since you signed on with Ardess!"
The youngster was cradling a sweet-smelling, reddish liquid.
"I didn't exactly 'sign on,' Garrus snapped irritably, "And I'm starting to regret that he ever asked me for help." Nalrad looked at him curiously and he tried to head off his questions. "What are you doing in a bar like this anyway? Are you even old enough to drink?"
"Oh please," Nalrad rolled his eyes, "I have to go somewhere after work. Anyway, this is Hawri bark tea; perfectly intoxicant-free." Nalrad smiled and Garrus could see he hadn't been distracted from the verbal slip. "What do you mean, you're regretting that the Chief asked you for help?"
"It's probably better that we don't discuss it," Garrus said flatly, "But it won't be long before the news spreads through C-Sec anyway."
"News?" Nalrad's eyes darkened with concern.
Garrus leaned partway over the table. "Ardess is dead."
Nalrad's mandibles fell open. "Dead? What do you mean, dead? How? What happened?"
"He was shot in the skull from close range with a centuries-old weapon. It was an execution."
Nalrad had put down his tea as if he'd forgotten about it. "What were you involved in, sir?"
Garrus hesitated. Did he want to involve the youth, earnest as he was? Surely it was far better that he bear the brunt of the investigation of its dangers alone than involve an inexperienced kid like Nalrad. Then again, he knew the youngster would never stop dogging his trail if he didn't tell him the full story. Nalrad was a lot like himself, he was starting to realise. Once he had a scent, there was no putting him off. Maybe it was better to keep the kid informed. At least then he wouldn't walk into the crossfire by accident.
Garrus sighed heavily.
"Do you want some Goluki?" he asked, pushing the plate forward. "This will take some time to explain."
Nalrad's eyes and mandibles were still wide by the time Garrus had brought him up to date. He looked especially sickened and angered over the way Chief Ardess had died. But mostly, he was unnerved.
"The Tayseri cartels use weapons like that for high-profile executions, don't they?" Nalrad asked uncertainly.
"Yes, but they've been quiet of late. Nothing but skirmishes with regular weaponry. And they don't operate that openly in Zakeri Ward anyway."
"So why, if Terra Firma wanted to kill the Chief, would they use such exotic, old means?"
The kid was sharp, you had to admit. He was coming to the same theory that Garrus had, only a few minutes behind.
"Misdirection," he supplied. "Ardess was leaning on Terra Firma, making himself a threat. They killed him and made it look like cartel business."
"Why would they take that risk?" Nalrad asked, "They must know that someone would follow up whatever the Chief was investigating."
"Maybe they panicked. A… what do the humans call it? A 'knee-jerk reaction.' Quick, messy and public; shift focus onto the gangs. The doctor at the scene was already talking about gang hits."
"The question is, do they know about you?"
"Initially I was worried they might, but now I don't think so. It would have been simple to send someone to my apartment in Tayseri. It would look even more like cartel dirty work. I don't think they would leave a loose end." Garrus swigged his now-cold coffee. "I think Ardess got too close and they took a frantic gamble, hoping we'd take the red herring and go chasing street thugs."
"Well you're not going to pay any attention to that, are you?" Nalrad hissed angrily. He actually leaned over the table, his eyes fierce. Garrus involuntarily leaned away from him. "You're going to drop on Terra Firma like a ton of vesh'rek, right?"
Suddenly, both turians' attention was taken by a loud altercation at the bar between two salarian mercenaries that ended with one slugging the other with his drink. The glass shattered, blood sprayed and the security guards moved in, threading their way quickly through the crowd.
Garrus frowned at the sudden snap of violence and then turned back to Nalrad, waving the youngster back down into his seat.
"Relax," he murmured over the hoots of derisive laughter as the furious salarian was restrained, "I'm going after those responsible. I just needed time and somewhere safe to think about my next move."
Nalrad stared across at the groggy mercenary as someone dragged him to his feet. The bartender tossed cold water into his face. "I wouldn't call this place safe exactly. But at least it isn't Chora's Den."
Garrus looked at him sharply. "What do you know about Chora's Den?" but then he held up a finger. "Actually, don't tell me."
Nalrad just grinned, but then he looked serious. "Shouldn't you send a report to the Executor?"
Garrus winced. The kid was right. The best thing to do now would be to send a detailed report to Executer Pallin, bringing him up to speed on Ardess' fate and investigation. But Pallin would undoubtedly want to pull Garrus off the case in favour of a higher ranked detective and he'd be sidelined in favour of a massive C-Sec crackdown on Terra Firma. And that was probably the right thing to do; but it just didn't sit well with him. He wasn't much of a loyal follower at the best of times and to go crying to the Executor now felt shameful. A turian was brought up to never flee from personal responsibility and with Ardess gone, that responsibility fell to Garrus. Be damned if he would shy from the duty of taking down a cabal of murderous political zealots.
No, the Executor would understand. Eventually. Undoubtedly he would have received the various reports of Ardess' death now from the Doctor and those who were on-scene. He would be waiting, if impatiently, for Garrus' to complete the picture before he would act. That gave Garrus a few hours free.
"Not yet," he said decisively to Nalrad, who blinked in surprise. "Chances are, he'll shove me off to the side somewhere under 'protection' which – once they realise the Chief had an underling on the case – won't be enough to stop them nailing me right here." He tapped the grey sweep of his own forehead. "If I'm going to go down, I'd like to go down swinging," he said resolutely.
"We'll have to act fast then," Nalrad said, "And make sure we take whoever's behind this out of commission entirely before the Executor reins us in. Or worse," he added darkly.
Garrus hadn't missed the sudden change. "We? Us?" He put his empty coffee container aside. "You're going back to C-Sec to file the report that you will then give to the Executor. By the time you do that, I'll either have Ardess' killer and his associates in custody or I'll be dead. Either way, you're not in the line of fire, literally or when Pallin explodes when he finds out what I've done."
Nalrad leaned back, a sardonic expression twisting his features. "You're relegating me to office clerk and going off hunting on your own, Vakarian? Do you think you can take them down alone?"
"I've caught bigger fish," Garrus scowled.
"Don't give me that. You need more hands on this and if you asked anyone else, they would sell you out to Pallin before you were finished speaking. Which I just might do if you don't let me help you." His eyes glinted slyly and Garrus suddenly thought what a good detective the kid might be. He glared at Nalrad.
Garrus stared at him for a few seconds, then swore. "I've taught you too much, you know that? Fine. If you want in on this, it's on your own head. But it's likely to get nasty. Especially when I go making noise at Terra Firma." He drained the last of his sludge. "Biggest fish first, once I find out who that is."
Nalrad surprised him by saying; "I can tell you that."
The youth ordered another tea and a coffee for Garrus from a passing waitress and leaned over conspiratorially to murmur just loud enough to Garrus, "Their local chapter head is a human female by the name of Teresa Maynard." His teeth clicked over the unusual human pronunciation. "She's their organiser and their deep pockets. A multi-millionaire mining baroness owning iridium and osmium excavations all across the human system, apparently."
"How do you know so much about them?" Garrus asked, chiding himself silently for not doing his own research the night before.
"One of my first briefings just after I joined C-Sec. They give you a rundown on all the fanatical groups and their potential threat level. Hanar Enkindler zealots, salarian superiority organisations, 'Biotics First…' Terra Firma was labelled as 'likely harmless.'
"Tell me about this… Maynard."
"She's an 'old-world' moon colonist. One of the first humans to be brought up on the distant moons from their star. An unlovely piece of rock orbiting a much better looking gas giant with dust rings. I forget its name, but the moon was called Dione." Nalrad rubbed his brow with a fingertip. "Apparently her family was wealthy then as well, but had to truly eke out a colonist's living for years on Dione that swallowed their fortune like a black hole."
"Then they hit the osmium veins?"
"Correct. That brought in more colonists and financial backing until they had a veritable city booming on the moon's surface and underground. It was a spectacular revival. The Maynards had a hand in everything and money everywhere. Consequently they were sometimes called the 'Lords of Dione.'
Garrus grimaced. "Rather grandiose."
"That's the nature of the family, yes. In any case, from Dione, over a hundred survey missions went out to neighbouring moons and asteroids – spearheaded by long-time experts hand-picked by the Maynards, of course – and of those, perhaps sixty or so were valuable concerns. Today, the Maynard Dynasty operates mines and archaeological sites right across the… the…"
"Solar system. They call it the 'Solar' system."
"Yes, that's right. And while it remains lucrative, it's also controversial. Not only have Maynard excavations frequently displaced colonists who are just starting to make a living for themselves, but competitors frequently found their own stations under threat from raiders and pirates. Installations mining valuable deposits were wiped out or abandoned and Maynard bought out the deeds for a fraction of the price from desperate sellers trying to reduce their losses. It didn't take long for the accusations to arise stating that the Maynards were paying off criminal elements to expand their own empire."
Garrus absent-mindedly watched the sashaying backside of an asari barmaid as she moved past. "And there's truth to those claims?"
"Undoubtedly, but nothing that sticks. And they aggressively legally pursue any claimants to silence such ideas. There's more; the Maynard Dynasty has been accused of smuggling, drug trafficking, sentient trafficking and employing slavery secretly on some of their more distant outposts. The human Alliance investigates the rumours, but there's a lot of corruption there too. Maynard and her three brothers – that's the elite of the family – are basically untouchable."
Their drinks arrived and Garrus took an appreciative sip of the hot liquid. It tasted like the coffee old Jaru Drekarius' wife used to make back in Garrus' old home town back on the homeworld. It was a long, long way from the cutthroat human politics and business they were discussing.
"So what brought Teresa Maynard to the Citadel? More importantly, why fund Terra Firma?" he asked.
"That part I don't know. Apparently one day she just left Dione and the whole mining company in the charge of her brothers and boarded a vacation ship for the Citadel. She's been here since."
"Stirring up trouble, evidently. Not to mention paying for it."
"That seems so, sir," Nalrad said awkwardly, as if he had suddenly become aware that he had just briefed his superior like a cadet. "The actual Terra Firma candidate for local Zakera governor is an intelligent young politician named Oliver Monroe. Not especially bigoted or offensive; actually he comes over quite moderate and likeable."
"Don't they all?" Garrus growled around his coffee.
"My point is, he's just a figurehead. If Terra Firma is truly responsible for Ardess' murder and employing the assassin you killed, it'll be Maynard pulling the strings."
"But why, that's the main question."
"I don't know. But Maynard's as ruthless and cruel as a drathniri shark."
Abruptly, Garrus downed his coffee and rose. He felt the knots release from his muscles and his mind slip into the space reserved for going into battle.
"Let's go and ask her," he said.
Nalrad smiled grimly and followed him out of Zakeef's. They hesitated only long enough to retrieve their weapons.
Official embassies were granted luxurious, cavernous space in the Presidium, but the hundreds of political parties, charities and special interest groups were relegated to what space could be rented out of the warehouses, habitation blocks and abandoned factories that lined the edge of the Ward. It was a noisy, dirty part of Zakera that was kept well out of the tourist's eye. Bulky and unlovely volus cargo trawlers vied for space at the docking ports with sharp-angled turian naval vessels and colonist storeships. Autocranes swung and grinded, loading and offloading massive containers while LOKI mechs guarded the piled merchandise and foremen yelled out checklists or broke up arguments between ship owners.
Here and there, giant YMIR mechs that had been stripped of weapons and reprogrammed stomped through the corridors between the mountains of cargo, dragging heavy sleds of miscellaneous junk.
Terra Firma's main office was squeezed into six floors in a squat, wide habitation block that was only twenty floors high. It was a testament to their well-funded nature that they occupied the very top floors – as far as possible from the noise and stink below. It wasn't luxury, but it was the best the human Maynard's money could buy on the Citadel where space was at a premium.
Garrus took the vehicle down manually, slipping down into the air envelope and aiming for the landing bays on the lowest floor of the offices. This was a calculated risk, waltzing in the front door like this. It could be that they would be blasted into atoms before they were even to the reception, but Garrus didn't think so. Other habitation blocks and bustling factories surrounded the office and traffic passed over and under constantly. It would be impossible to avoid witnesses. The assassins had known where and when to strike Ardess, but they didn't know Garrus was coming to them. They had no time to prepare.
Or so he hoped.
No laser fire erupted as the skycar came down onto the pad. There were no cries of anger and alarm. Garrus glanced across at Nalrad as they settled, noting the youngster's hard expression and lack of any jitters. He wondered what unit the kid had served with during his compulsory service back on Palaven. He gazed out of the windscreen at the building's dark façade, saw nothing to suggest they were under the barrel of a weapon and cautiously popped the canopy. It hissed up and back and Garrus vaulted out and behind it, using it as cover. Nalrad joined him.
Still there was no sign of attack. But then, there was movement.
The automatic doors at the end of the landing pad's bridge slid open and a single figure stepped out. It was a human male, dressed immaculately in flowing black garb with a silver tailoring around the cuffs and collar. He held up his hands to show that he wasn't armed. Even so, Garrus ducked back around the skycar.
"Officer Vakarian?" the man called in a rich baritone, "Is that you, Vakarian?"
Startled, Garrus clenched his fist around the butt of his pistol.
"It's me," he yelled back, "You knew I was coming, then."
"We suspected, yes," the baritone said, "No doubt you're looking for information regarding Chief Ardess Orm'ust?"
"That's right." He hesitated, decided to push it. "Is that an admission of involvement?"
"Absolutely not," the voice said, though it did not sound angry. "And I can assure you, we've no intention to harm you. Come inside and we can talk."
Garrus hesitated again. There was every chance that as soon as he risked the exposure of that bridge, a hidden shooter would plough him and the kid right between their eyes. Yet, something about the human's voice made him think otherwise. If he wanted to kill them, why bother coming outside to meet them? If he knew about Garrus after all, why not attack hours ago? Garrus caught Nalrad's eye and nodded. Together, they stood cautiously and circled around the skycar, weapons unholstered but by their sides. Garrus had to force himself not to run across the bridge as he crossed it. No fatal shot came at them.
"Welcome to Terra Firma's Citadel headquarters, gentlemen," the human in the dark suit said genially as they drew level. He glanced down at their weapons and looked reproachfully into Garrus' eyes like a disappointed parent. "You won't need those, Officer. Really. The only armed personnel here are security mechs and they're currently all inactive." He cleared his throat; a human mannerism Garrus understood to conceal awkwardness or embarrassment. "Terra Firma will co-operate fully with your enquiries."
"This is a politer welcome than I was expecting," Garrus admitted, putting away his weapon.
"I imagine it is," the man said, dryly. "I'm relieved you came looking for illumination and not a gunfight." He waved his hand in front of the automatic doors and they yawned to admit them. "Please, follow me."
Bemused, Garrus and Nalrad exchanged a glance and a shrug before following the man into the habitation block. But neither of them had his hand too far from his holster.
Inside was much better appointed than the exterior, featuring synthetic marble flooring, polished wooden counters and delicate light fixtures sculpted to look like brightly-coloured flowers. Wooden framed paintings and photographs of stunning vistas lined the walls; gigantic waterfalls, sweeping and gloriously white beaches, even a shining jewel of a city. Earth, Garrus realised; the pictures were of the human homeworld.
Humans scurried everywhere here, embodying the uncanny industriousness the species was known for; everyone seemed to be busy, from receptionists and clerks taking calls to well-dressed men and women hurrying to and from meetings. A few stared openly at the two turians; aliens in the heart of their abode, but only a few of those looks hardened openly into dislike. Most just blinked and hustled away. A janitor was straightening a large painting of a meadow filled with greyish white, woolly cloud-like creatures. He paid the two aliens no heed at all. Garrus didn't know exactly what he'd been expecting of Terra Firma; perhaps a seedy little dive and equally scruffy, disorganised employees. Whatever it was, he was stunned by this fluid, dignified operation.
The man in black was eyeing him knowingly.
"Thinking things would look a little different, Officer?" he said without sarcasm or mockery. "Yes, many people are pleasantly surprised when they get past our more… vocal members and set foot in here."
Humans flowed by on every side. The man in black put his hand out. "My name is William Morewell. I am the administrator for this particular workplace. And I can see that you have quite a lot of questions. Let's go somewhere quieter."
Morewell lead them down two hallways and into a spacious private office that boasted soft rugs and a wide couch. Datapads and actual paper were stacked neatly on the desk. Morewell sat on the couch and gazed at the two turians for a few moments, his face unreadable.
Eventually, he leaned back, stared into Garrus' eyes and said; "It wasn't us."
"It certainly points to your organisation," Garrus said, but he kept his voice neutral. "Chief Ardess had been here to put pressure on about the human assassin hired to kill volus banking moguls. Soon after that, he was dead. Plus, you already know about his death despite it not even being in the official channels yet. And that I was pursuing his killer."
"Oh come now, Officer," Morewell looked exasperated, "Ardess Orm'ust was a living legend. It was only thanks to him that largely-uncorrupted politics could even happen on this Ward. That skybridge was crowded when he was killed; do you think that news like that wouldn't spread like wildfire? We knew hours ago through the grapevine. By now, all of Zakera will know. As for your arrival, Ardess let slip your name in anger. He said that if he found out we were responsible, he'd send his 'attack dog' after us." The man shrugged. "Once he turned up dead, it seemed only a matter of time before you showed."
Garrus scowled at the late Chief's choice of words.
"It's too much of a coincidence that he made enquires here before turning up dead," Nalrad said confidently. Garrus just stopped himself in time from glaring at the youth. Instead, he picked up his thread.
"What's the connection here, Mr. Morewell?" he pressed, "Tell me whatever you told Ardess."
"Gladly," Morewell said, but he looked pained. "He practically barged his way in here and demanded an audience, which I granted. He then raved and became furious over the assassin you mentioned, trying to force me to confess to hiring him. He was convinced that this assassin, whoever he is, was on our payroll, that we were trying to destabilise volus banking concerns so that human ones could move in."
"And I told him over and over what I'm about to tell you; we didn't hire any assassin and we've absolutely no interest in the volus. For the last month, we've been focusing on improving our membership rates back in the Solar System and on preparing our candidate for local governor, Monroe, for the hardships of his upcoming campaign. Are you aware of the sheer amount of time such things take? None of us have any time for hiring murderous brutes, even if we wanted to!"
Garrus was reminded of the assassin's last words up in that blood-strewn apartment and decided to put more pressure on.
"I was there," he said slowly, "I killed the assassin myself and interrogated him before his death. He said he was working for you." Which was a lie. All he'd said had been "politics," before he'd slid lifeless out of Garrus' grasp.
"Then either he or you are lying!" Morewell snapped, coming out of his seat. Garrus found he took a perverse pleasure in ruffling the man's feathers. "Or perhaps he was delusional." Morewell took a deep breath. "Officer Vakarian, Terra Firma is not short on enemies-"
"Imagine that," Nalrad murmured.
"-but if we have a problem with someone, we take legal action. We get lawyers talking and making threats of lawsuits and restraining orders until they back down or we meet them in court. We don't hire out thugs to rough people up! We are a small, special-interest political party, not a mercenary group."
"But you are bigots, though, isn't that right?" Nalrad said, scratching one mandible. "You field a manifesto advocating human supremacy."
"Again, you're misinformed. That is what the media and our opponents would have you believe. In fact, our manifesto champions maintaining cultural solidarity and the protection of the identity of our race. We are not xenophobes; we do not hate aliens. We are concerned primarily that because of the cultural melting pot that the galaxy is – and particularly the Citadel – the core aspects of human culture and history might be diluted or lost in the general scrum. Do you see? We are for the unity of human beings, not the unity of human beings against aliens."
"You talk a good talk, Morewell," Garrus said, "But I've seen some of the protests made by Terra Firma protests and rallies across the Citadel. I've seen some of the trouble they've caused. They yell hate and threats at passing aliens."
Morewell sighed. He was pacing now.
"Not all of our members are as moderate as the actual politicians," he admitted with a grimace. "Because we're the only truly viable human-interest political party, we do attract the real bigots." He raised his hands, palms upward. "We can't monitor our entire membership base at all hours. We do what we can to discourage that sort of behaviour, but we also don't want to undermine free speech. You have to understand, there was a lot of strife on our homeworld centuries ago just to establish that right of freedom to say what they wish."
Garrus waved back the rhetoric and held a hand up to Nalrad, who bit off his retort. Garrus looked at Morewell intensely.
"Is it possible that one or more of your members could have hired an assassin without your knowledge?"
Morewell stared at him. "It's… well, it's possible, but unlikely. Terra Firma members are a tight knit group by nature. Someone would have heard something and we would know."
"But Ardess thought you were involved and shook you down… now he's dead. That's still pretty damning."
Morewell pulled off his glasses and turned to Garrus. He pressed a thumb and forefinger into his eyes.
"Look, Vakarian, you know as well as I do that Ardess had his own share of enemies. You don't do that job for as long as he did and not accumulate a share of people looking to get even. All I can tell you is that we are not one of those enemies. Either someone is trying to discredit Terra Firma or one of those enemies finally caught up to him and the timing is just coincidence."
'Discredit' was an interesting word and it bore more consideration. Garrus filed it away for later and said; "Interesting that you'd suggest a vendetta, considering that the Chief was killed by a long-outdated lead-based projectile weapon. A type of weapon the criminal cartels use almost exclusively for assassinations. Very convenient."
Morewell's face creased into confusion. "A lead-based… oh, you mean like a musket?" When both turians looked blank, he made a shooting gesture with his hand. "An old-fashioned gun?"
"Ah. You think we tried to get rid of a problem and divert C-Sec's attention towards criminal elements at the same time. Yes, I see."
"It's messy, but understandable if you were under sudden pressure."
Morewell grimaced and spread his hands. "Come now. There's one very easy way to prove that isn't anything to do with us. If we'd have wanted Ardess and his investigation dead and wanted to pin it on the gangs, wouldn't we have tried to kill you too? In the same way? You know what he knew, after all."
Garrus stared hard at the human politician. The man looked back frankly and seemed vaguely pained, like they had insulted his intelligence. He was also right. Why kill the master and leave the attack dog wandering free? It made no sense.
"Let's pretend for the moment that we believe you," Garrus allowed, "You didn't hire any assassin and nobody in the lower rungs of Terra Firma did either. So what about higher up the ladder?"
"Higher…? You mean Maynard?" Morewell looked ready to laugh. "Teresa Maynard couldn't care less about Terra Firma! She just shovels money into it and occasionally does the rounds so that she looks good for the business leaders back home, 'protecting human interests' they call it. We shake hands, pull out some fake smiles and I go back to dealing with the actual politics." He shook his head. "Terra Firma is her publicity jaunt. She cares nothing about our actual beliefs." His face darkened. "And she makes that abundantly clear."
"Where is she now?" Garrus asked.
"She's staying in the penthouse suite of the Kilimanjaro Hotel right at the far tip of the Ward. As far away from people as she can get."
"Are you aware of what she does all of the time?" Garrus asked pointedly.
"No, but I also know that she's not idiotic enough to undermine her vast fortune and her gritty little moon empire by dabbling around in hiring assassins. If you want to interrogate her, that's your business, but like I said, she cares nothing for politics. She cares even less for what the volus do with their banks."
There seemed to be little more to say. Garrus was starting to feel adrift, as he did in every case when the leads started to dry up. Beyond the fact that Ardess had come here and then been killed and that the human assassin had cited politics as a reason for his crimes, there wasn't enough evidence to drag William Morewell into C-Sec for more vigorous questioning. A check with the receptionist and security director proved that Morewell had been in the Terra Firma headquarters for a solid twelve hours, meaning he couldn't have been at the skybridge to murder Ardess. Of course, it could be anyone else in the organisation despite Morewell's assurances to the contrary, but Garrus didn't have the time, manpower or legal right needed to question and search an entire office worth of people. If it came to that, it would be under Executor Pallin's oversight.
But Garrus wasn't going to sit back and wait for that.
"You seem to have an answer for everything, Mr. Morewell," he told the man, "But I'd appreciate it if you would not leave Zakera Ward before my… superiors have had the opportunity to question you more at length." Best not to let it known he was working alone at the moment. He twitched his mandibles. "This 'attack dog' has to go and play nice."
Morewell gave him a weary smile. "Trust me, I wouldn't be able to get away from work if I wanted to."
Garrus and Nalrad left the way they had come, two turians looking thoroughly out of place in the humanised corridors. Once they were back in the C-Sec skycar and flitting through the traffic and gleaming structures, Garrus shaded his eyes against the glare of the Widow star and voiced a question to his young shadow.
"What do you think, Nalrad?"
"I think he's far too smooth and a practised liar. But I don't think he hired any assassin, to kill volus businessmen or Ardess. I don't think he knows who did." Nalrad looked out of the window thoughtfully at the passing vehicles. An unwieldy truck transport moved sluggishly by. "His opinion of Maynard is interesting, though. No love lost there, is there?"
"Let's hope she's as scandalous as you say. If we get nothing out of her, I'll have to slink back to the Executor full of apologies and leave him to do a 'scorched-earth' investigation while I sit around and wait to get my head shot off when he gets back.
Nalrad said nothing. Garrus grinned at him.
"Don't worry, if it falls through, it's all on me. You're supposed to do whatever I tell you."
Nalrad glanced at him. "I'm not worried. I was thinking about that." He tapped his passenger window. The giant transport hadn't sped up to pass. Now it was matching their speed and hogging space. Vehicles behind it dropped or veered sideways to get around it, honking in protest. Frowning, Garrus took hold of the controls; it had been on autopilot but there was something about that truck's proximity that he didn't-
"Look out!" Nalrad bellowed. The transport was swinging in towards them at alarming speed. Swearing, Garrus tried to yank the aircar out of range. He swept sideways ten feet, twenty feet and the monstrosity was still coming on; a great grey boulder pressing in on them.
Whoever was driving thumped more power into the thrusters and it lurched drunkenly across the lanes of traffic, crashing heedlessly into the civilian vehicles. Metal rended and twisted and debris blasted in all directions. Windows shattered and their inner atmosphere venting, the cars spiralled away, the occupants desperately fighting to control their descent. One driver was crushed between the truck and a garbage scow, the remains of his vehicle dropping like a stone, blood cascading after it. The scow veered and narrowly missed Garrus' car, heading downwards for the nearest rooftop.
"It's still coming!" Nalrad yelled urgently. As well he might, as he could see the solid grey wall as it gained on his passenger side window.
"I'm dropping down!" Garrus said and made to hammer the aircar into a steep dive.
But at that moment, the panicked occupant of another vehicle, in his attempt to avoid the ploughing transport, lost control and sideswiped Garrus' on his driver's side. The impact was shocking and the side of the aircar folded inwards, sending a piercing pain through Garrus' right side and the awful screech of bending metal slicing through his senses. Stunned, he fought with the controls as the other aircar fell away, but the vehicle shuddered like a wounded beast, veering and swerving, refusing to respond.
Garrus was dimly aware of Nalrad bellowing in his ear; a mixture of fear and anger without any words. He glanced over to see that the advancing wall of the transport was almost upon them and made a desperate pull on the controls, yelling his own frustration.
The aircar finally reacted and pitched sideways so that the inexorable truck smashed into the rear instead of the passenger side. Even so, the collision was devastating. Garrus was deafened by the crunch and scream of metal again and the canopy concertinaed, the windows shattering in an intense implosion of raining glass. Garrus and Nalrad were rocked violently as the aircar was catapulted away from the impact and pain flared through Garrus' forehead as he thumped it against the ruined canopy. His head ringing and vision swimming, he fumbled for the controls. Atmosphere had immediately begun to rush out of the breaches at the moment of the crash and Garrus sucked in a deep breath of air, nabbing the very last of the escaping oxygen.
The aircar was ruined and falling; the only things that still seemed to be responding to input were the anti-gravity thrusters that changed its direction. Garrus gritted his teeth as the wreckage dropped through the Ward's sky, powering the thrusters to shove them towards the flat rooftop of a nearby skyscraper inside the air envelope. It would be a hard landing, but it was better than plummeting into the heart of the Ward.
Going down, brace yourself, he gestured to Nalrad, who was grim-faced and gripping the remains of the instrument panel. The youngster nodded and tightened his grip.
The devastated aircar made the lip of the rooftop with a metre to spare and slammed into its surface, jarring both turians and skidding and spinning to a halt just before the opposite edge. Garrus gulped in air greedily and Nalrad did the same, neither speaking, allowing their minds to catch up with the shock their bodies had been through. There were no sounds other than the creaking of the metal and their shaky breaths.
And then the murderous garbage scow descended from the violet sky and smashed into the roof with a teeth-shattering impact, metal shearing off from its bulk and skittering across the smooth surface. It bounced once, veered sideways and grinded to a stop on its side. It was belching oily smoke from its contents and the thrusters fired intermittently, flashing blue and white, uncertain and lacklustre. Its canopy popped.
"Get out!" Garrus hissed to Nalrad, already scrambling his own way through their shattered screen. A sharp pain clawed into his side and he gasped, but there was no time to survey the damage. The youngster was only a beat behind him as he half-fell out of the canopy and hit the shining metallic surface of the rooftop, putting the destroyed skycar between them and the scow. Nalrad landed more gracefully, but Garrus could see that adrenaline tremors rocked his figure.
"By the spirits," Nalrad could only ground out, fumbling for his weapon. "By the spirits!"
Above, civilian traffic continued to whirr between the taller skyscrapers as if nothing had happened, though Garrus could hear the faint whine of medical transports and C-Sec vehicles converging on the site of the collision. On the ground, people would be milling about, trying to help, trying to see. Probably the media was already there.
No time for that now. Garrus risked a look over the skycar and earned himself the passing heat of a superheated slug. In the glimpse before it stung his mandibles, he saw humanoid figures dressed in casual clothes.
"How many?" Nalrad clamped a hand around his pistol.
"Three," Garrus said. "Human."
"I think we put a morlegor amongst the j'tek, yes?"
Garrus was going to suffer a serious chewing-out for this. Maybe disciplinary action. Maybe an unceremonious firing. He decided to try to limit the damage by following standard procedure in at least this exchange.
"C-Sec Operatives!" he yelled out over the hiss and clunk of broken thrusters firing, though of course these attackers knew that, "C-Sec Operatives! Discard your weapons and submit to arrest!"
The answer was a barrage of fire that pinged and seared against the battered hulk of the skycar. Beside him, Nalrad swore. Garrus flexed his grip on his pistol, judging from the shots where the assassins were in cover. He steeled himself. He had to incapacitate at least one of these humans non-lethally, so he could be questioned.
With practised precision and ignoring the flaring pain in his side, Garrus leaned around the edge of the skycar and squeezed off a shot. He was rewarded with a grunt of pain and surprise and the unmistakable thump of a body hitting the ground. One of the other assassins swore colourfully and peppered the space where Garrus' face had been a second before.
"One down," Garrus said grimly. He raised his voice. "One last chance, boys. Throw them down and I won't have to send you to wherever humans go when they die."
No answer, except more slugs. Fine. Let them die, then.
Carefully, he scooted towards the opposite end of the skycar, motioning for Nalrad to follow. He crouched there, pain throbbing through him and adrenaline pumping through his system.
"There's one behind the front corner of the scow," he told the younger turian quietly. "The other is hiding behind debris on the left." He looked steadily into Nalrad's dilated eyes. "Which do you want?"
He expected the youngster to miss a beat, but Nalrad's mandibles barely twitched before he said; "The left."
"Good. I'm going to try for a shoulder shot. I want to talk to one of these hash'nat." He took a deep breath. "Ready?"
Both turians launched up and triggered off shots against their chosen targets. Nalrad missed with his first, but the second shot burned through the human's chest and the assassin crumpled without a sound. Garrus buried a shot into his target's shoulder, sending the man wheeling backwards and his weapon flying.
Both hands clamped around the pistol butt, Garrus hurried across the gleaming, debris-strewn space to the wounded human and inspected the damage. The shot had cut a furrow through the man's shoulder, but cauterised the majority, so that only a steady throb of blood seeped between the assassin's clamped fingers. The man glared up at him with eyes full of hatred and lips sneered into a grimace of pain and fury.
"I warned you," Garrus said to that gaze and directed Nalrad to retrieve the disarmed weapon and check on the bodies. "But lucky you. That's not a fatal wound. And lucky me; you can still talk."
The man swore and spat into the turian's face. Garrus wiped the phlegm away calmly. Let the man spit and curse all he wanted; the fight was over.
"That doesn't help," he told the human. "C-Sec'll be here in minutes and you just injured and killed a whole traffic lane of innocent people. Tell me what I want to hear and I'll make sure you don't find your way to a bullet in a dark alley."
In truth, C-Sec was far too professional to allow that to happen, but this bastard didn't know that. Even so, he continued to glare in mute silence, as if by force of will alone he could crush the turian crouching over him.
"To be honest, it was messy," Garrus said conversationally, fingering his own injury with probing fingers and wincing. "Desperate, even. We have a friendly conversation with William Morewell and he doesn't say anything incriminating and we're barely out of the office door before he sets his paid thugs to put us out of the picture."
A flicker of confusion dented the hate on the assassin's face.
"I would have thought Morewell would have been more methodical, calmer," Garrus continued, "Not the sort of man to throw violence at a problem recklessly. Terra Firma seem much more organised than that. Why send you so suddenly?"
Confusion congealed, and then the man grimaced. "Terra Firma can go to hell!" he grated, then winced as his vehemence pulsed fresh blood onto that already drying between his fingers. "Goddamn politicians. Goddamn talk."
Now it was Garrus' turn to be confused. He masked it carefully, though he doubted this man knew how to read turian facial expressions. "Angry that they used you?" he suggested. "Such is the life of a mercenary."
"Used me? Even for an alien, you're crazy. I don't work for those cretins! All they do is posture. They never do anything."
Garrus stared up into the sky for a moment. He could see the glint of blue C-Sec lights heading their way. Soon be time for the explanations.
"So Morewell and Terra Firma didn't send you to kill us? Didn't send you to kill the turian C-Sec chief Ardess?"
The human's face cracked into a sardonic smile. "You've got no idea."
"No idea about what?" Garrus growled. He resisted the urge to push his fist into the man's wound. "If you're not on Terra Firma's payroll, who do you work for?"
"How well do you know human mythology, turian?" the man continued to grin. When Garrus didn't answer, the man winked; a sarcastic little expression performed with a smirk and the slow closing of one eye. "It doesn't matter. The Three-Headed Gatekeeper's time is at hand."
"What is that supposed to mean?" Garrus took a fistful of the man's scruff and shook him. "What does that mean?"
But the man had lapsed into a smiling silence and merely looked at him. Furious, Garrus dropped him and stalked away across the rooftop, not trusting himself to refrain from manhandling his prisoner. He didn't bother to cuff him; there was no way off this roof and the shadows of C-Sec vehicles were already descending.
He squinted up at them, the nebula glare stinging his eyes. Nalrad joined him.
"Here they come," the youngster said flatly, "And that's the Executor's personal skycar."
"The Three-Headed Gatekeeper," Garrus mused quietly, "What does that mean, do you suppose?"
"I've no idea, sir. Is that what the human said?"
"Yes. Something about their mythology. And they're not Terra Firma's hounds, if he can be believed."
"He'll be interrogated," Nalrad pointed out.
"In about thirty seconds, so will we," Garrus said and sighed. As Executor Pallin's transport swept smoothly down, flanked by other official vehicles, Garrus started over to where it was coming to a stop. "No time like the present."
Executor Pallin was not a subtle turian and had not risen to his station nor shouldered the burden of liaising with the Citadel Council through being a docile career officer. He was not afraid of speaking his mind. As such, his outburst upon getting within earshot of Garrus was truly blistering.
"Vakarian!" he bit off as he stalked across the rooftop, "What by all the spirits is happening, you gash'arn-addled jararr? Have you gone completely insane? Have you taken leave of your wits as well as your concept of duty? Of chain of command? Of due process?" He balled his fists as he stopped smartly in front of Garrus. "Chief Ardess is murdered and suddenly that gives you leave to go off like a wayward firework, shaking down political organisations and engaging in gunfights in public? And bringing your assistant with you!" The turian was trembling with barely-suppressed rage. "Did you not think I could have handled the issue? I, the Executor? I expected you to show up with a report at my office; some sort of explanation as to what Ardess had been up to. Then I would have deployed resources accordingly and maybe – maybe – I wouldn't have to be explaining one dead and three severely injured civilians lying in my streets!"
Garrus felt flecks of saliva spray his mandibles and forced his own boiling anger down, willing himself to remain silent until the Executor had exhausted the majority of his initial outrage. Pallin gulped several deep breaths of the thin air and snarled, then moderated his tone.
"I need to know exactly what's going on, Vakarian," he grated, "And your explanation had better be so good you don't find yourself in a cell of your own."
Keeping his voice as neutral as possible, Garrus explained the situation as succinctly as he could, explaining that he'd thought there was a need for swift action and that Ardess had encouraged discretion for fear the assassins would go underground or flee the Citadel. He explained his own fear for his life and reaction to that; go in swinging.
Pallin seemed mildly mollified by that last part. As ruthless and hard-edged as he was, the Executor could understand that course of action. An enemy attacked you, you took the fight to his very door. But he was also a dogged supporter of doing everything exactly by the book; just like Garrus' father. Duty would always win out over personal safety and retribution. Not something Garrus had ever found easy.
But Pallin surprised him by taking the conversation sideways, straight back into business.
"And these three humans?" the Executor asked, barely keeping the contempt from his voice as he named the species, "I see one is still breathing."
"Yes sir," Garrus said, relieved to have something useful to report. "I questioned him-" He held up his hands as Pallin looked at him sharply, "-not under duress! – I thought he was working for Terra Firma, since that's where all the evidence has been pointing, but he insists he has nothing to do with them. Seems to hate them, even."
"Curious," Pallin muttered. "Of course, he wouldn't give his actual employer?"
Garrus shook his head. "No, but he asked me how well I knew human mythology and told me that 'the Three-Headed Gatekeeper's time is at hand."
Pallin's head came up from its ruminating. "He said that?"
"Yes sir. I don't know what it means."
Pallin gazed more appraisingly at the wounded assassin, who had been sedated and was being seen to by C-Sec officers and a medic. "Human mythology is very complex and convoluted; literally dozens of ancient religious pantheons with countless lesser beings and servants. No guarantee it relates to or means anything at all, but I'll have an aide trawl the extranet."
Garrus took a deep breath. "And me, sir?"
Pallin fixed him with a scowl. "And you, yes. My wayward officer with a talent for drawing violence. I've a good mind to suspend you right here and now and let you earn your keep as a bouncer for a month!" He waved a hand, "But that would be a gross mismanagement of resources. You're in this too far already. I can use you." His eyes flashed. "As bait, if necessary."
"Bait," Garrus said, flatly.
"Well, somebody wanted to kill Ardess, to stop him from digging too deep and finding out who was behind those volus killings. It seems to me that they overlooked you and tried to rectify that mistake. This garbage scow 'crash' was their last ditch effort to kill you before C-Sec got its claws back into you and debriefed." He sighed. "If Terra Firma is behind this, whatever your assassin told you, now I can pile on the pressure until something cracks. Ardess questioned them. He turned up dead. You questioned them. Someone tried to kill you. It's damning. So I can handle that part. But that still leaves the possibility that an unrelated group is behind all this. I can't afford to rule that out. So, I can use you." He stared hard at Nalrad, who to his credit, only quailed a little under that sharp look, "And this youngster you've got involved."
"I've got no leads, sir," Garrus said, feeling useless suddenly, "We still don't even know why they wanted Ardess dead. I have nothing more than you've got now."
"On the contrary. Since this attack failed, they probably expect us to spirit you away somewhere safe and take over the investigation entirely. Their plan failed, so they'll be gravitating towards damage control; rounding up evidence and probably going underground. They may even try to arrange for an accident for me. Depends on how extremely they want this investigation to go away, I think."
"I don't fully understand."
"By their outlook, you're soon to be in a detention cell; you're no longer the problem; my people and I are." Pallin smiled; it was truly icy. "You're the only concrete connection to Ardess. So when you're suddenly back on the team and delving into places they'd rather you didn't… what do you think they'll do?"
"That's right. What humans always do when you get close to their bolt-hole. They panic. And they get reckless and violent. They'll undoubtedly try to kill you again."
"Oh good," Garrus said, before he could stop himself.
"And when they try," Pallin went on like he hadn't heard, "I'll have a deluge of C-Sec special response come down on them like a supernova." He pounded a fist into his palm. "We'll worry about the Ardess connection later. Right now I'm more interested in putting warm bodies in cold cells."
"You want to throw me into the flock of j'tek to see how many fly out in front of the hunters," Garrus shifted his weight. That was a better deal than the suspension. "I can do that, but we've no idea where the flock is."
"You were on your way to question that human mining baroness, correct?" Pallin demanded, folding his arms. "You said she's the money behind Terra Firma and doesn't like not getting her way." The Executor prodded Garrus in the chest with one thick finger. "Go and annoy her. Throw some accusations in her face. See what happens." A grim smile twisted those harsh features. "It might be like lifting up a big, wet rock and seeing what crawls out."
"She's a very powerful human figure," Garrus said neutrally.
"Not on my Citadel, she isn't!" Pallin harrumphed. "Show me an Admiral of their so-called 'Systems Alliance' and I'll show you someone who is still a second-class citizen on this station!"
Garrus blinked. It was no secret that Pallin didn't trust humans; thought they expanded too fast, but this bitter fervour was starting to sound like Ardess. Wisely, he kept those thoughts to himself.
"I'll go now, sir," he said instead.
"Good." Pallin stepped closer until he was barely inches from Garrus' face and dropped his voice to a low growl. "And Vakarian, I am now in charge of this investigation. From the ground up. What I say is what happens. You are a pawn, which I will use to get results out of this debacle. Do you understand?"
The Executor stared at him for a beat, then jerked a thumb over his shoulder at the parked vehicles near the wreckage of the scow. "Take one of those skycars and go do your job. Do it properly and you might still be welcome on this station by the end of this."
With that, Pallin strode away to oversee the fastening of a mass effect field around the ruined, still-smoking scow. The bodies were all gone now; only scarlet splashes and stains remained to show there had been a gunfight at all.
Garrus felt deflated. He'd expected a confrontation, yet it had still dragged him down with fatigue. He passed a hand over his face and felt a firm grip on his shoulder.
"Officer Vakarian," Nalrad said, "Are you alright?"
"No, but I will be when this is over," he sighed. "Come on, let's go and harass Maynard as we planned."
"Harass?" Nalrad smiled slightly.
"Question intensively," Garrus moderated with a shrug.
"Do you think it will help?"
"I don't know. But one thing's for certain; it gets us away from Executor Pallin."
Nalrad's smile grew wider. "When you put it that way… lead on."
Together, they headed for the cluster of skycars and were soon sweeping up into the streams of red and white lights as if a few moments before, they hadn't been fighting for their lives and were just on a relaxing jaunt to get out of the office.
Garrus shook his head. And all that time ago, he'd thought that C-Sec would be boring.
The Kilimanjaro Hotel was a relatively recent construction, built only in the last decade in a distinctively human style. Garrus had noted that when it came to architecture, humans had a tendency to marry alleged wealth and status with visible opulence. The Kilimanjaro was no exception; a true palace of an establishment, it rose in a cluster of slim, graceful towers connected by sweeping silver tunnels that glittered like silk strands. It was decorated with tasteful, tapestry-like neon adornments in purple and green and its spire-like pinnacles glowed with the throbbing lights of private penthouse clubs.
"That's the place?" Nalrad wondered aloud as their skycar swung in and out of traffic, nearing the vast edifice. "Humans do not go in for delicate reserve, do they?"
"Not when it comes to their social elite, no," Garrus said, gazing at the pulsing neon, "Think of it like our colony insignia. We're proud of where we come from. Humans are proud of where they've reached."
"I understand," Nalrad said thoughtfully. "But just look at that thing! And right out on the tip of the Ward like that."
The youngster was right about that; the Kilimanjaro occupied a space right at the precipice of the immense city-plate, only the solid metal cliff of the Ward's circumference between it and the void. Residents on the outward-facing side of the hotel would have an unequalled view of the star-speckled, violet nebula. Guests on the other side would have the entire Ward spread before their illustrious view. Beyond, the peak of the Ward reared up; a gigantic metal wave, cresting towards the city . It was where the Citadel would seal together in the event of overwhelming attack. Of course, that hadn't been necessary in centuries.
"Do you think they'll just stand aside and let us wander?" Nalrad asked dubiously as they circled down towards a crowded, wide landing pad.
"Probably not, but I can always offer to have C-Sec… 'concentrate' on maintaining anti-narcotics laws in this particular sector." Garrus flashed a wicked grin, his mandibles flicking. "Chances are that would severely dent their revenue."
Both turians were surprised when, upon exiting their vehicle, a human valet dressed immaculately in a red and black suit crossed the pad and bowed politely, his hands crossed behind his back.
"Good day, Officers," the man said, with no trace of sarcasm or contempt, "Welcome to the Kilimanjaro Hotel. Will you be guests of our establishment, or will you be dining with us today?"
Garrus exchanged a nonplussed glance with Nalrad. "Thank you, but we're just visiting one of your long-term guests. Ms. Maynard?"
"Ah, the distinguished mining baroness, yes. She's been with us for quite some time now. May I ask if this visit is for business or pleasure, sirs?"
"Business," Garrus told him, "Though I doubt she's expecting us."
"I see." For the first time, a crease of worry appeared on the valet's smooth features. "While we wouldn't dream of obstructing a Citadel Security inquiry, I'm afraid it's not hotel policy to give non-residents access to the penthouse levels. Our more influential guests demand a certain level of privacy from… all manner of attention."
Garrus restrained his voice, which was encouraging him to growl, and schooled his features into pleasant tolerance. He said smoothly. "I understand. Perhaps the front desk could call Ms. Maynard and ask her if she'd meet with us in the hotel bar for a quiet..." he struggled with the odd-sounding human word, "…soiree?"
Nalrad took the initiative, surprising Garrus with his well-spoken tones. "Perhaps you could pass along our goodwill, as well, and that of our superior, Chief Ardess Orm'ust? They're old friends."
Garrus stifled a laugh.
The human had brightened considerably. "Ah, yes. That would be excellent. Please, follow me. I'll have the receptionist inquire as to Ms. Maynard's availability."
The two turians were led across the landing pad and through a pair of ostentatiously large doors. Within, the walls were panelled with what Garrus was willing to bet was real, dark wood from Earth's forests, the floor covered in a lush maroon carpet that the feet sank deeply into. Glittering chandeliers cast soft yellow light over the space without reaching the corners, creating dim, cosy areas at the edges that overflowed with soft seating and luxury coffee-tables. Almost all were occupied with well-dressed humans enjoying beverages or flicking through jewellery merchant datapads. The burble of conversation thrummed beneath human classical music piped in at a tasteful volume. Nobody paid the turians any attention whatsoever.
The valet led them to a desk decorated in black marble and passed on their request to meet with Teresa Maynard. Smiling genially and exuding helpfulness, the young human woman duly called up to the penthouse suites. Garrus couldn't hear the exchange over the communicator, but he could see from the slight furrow on the receptionist's brow that Maynard was less than impressed with the summons. Whether out of a guilty conscience or simply because she was a busy, self-important woman was impossible to tell. Only when the receptionist passed on Chief Ardess' 'goodwill' did the tone change. And it changed abruptly.
"Yes, madam," the receptionist was saying. "Yes, of course. By all means. Shall I send a porter to take a food order? Very well. Any wine or spirits? I see, none of those either. Yes. Of course. I will send your visitors up immediately." She broke connection and smiled sweetly at Garrus and Nalrad. "Ms. Maynard would be thrilled to entertain you today. She tells me that it's so good to hear from two of Chief Ardess' most prominent protégés."
The turians exchanged an amused look. So the woman had a dark sense of humour.
"Just go up in the elevator to the back," the receptionist gushed, "Here's a swipe-card to give you access to the penthouse. Ms. Maynard will be waiting in Suite Thirty-Six. Have a nice day, sirs!"
Freed from the appendage of the valet, the two of them entered a broad, mirrored elevator at the back of the lobby. Nalrad swiped the card, and the lift rose quickly while Garrus looked critically at his own reflection. He poked his forehead and scratched at his head-fringe, rubbing at the hard silverish surface. He was looking tired. Beat-up. His eyes were sunken. I look about ten years older than I really am, he thought darkly. He saw Nalrad peering at him from over his shoulder. The youngster's expression was unreadable.
"Protégés," he said, and snorted.
"Her way of telling us that she knows about Ardess' assassination," Garrus suggested, pulling down on the skin around one eye. "Arrogant admission of guilt or a willingness to co-operate? Hard to say."
"From what I know of her, the arrogance would fit."
Garrus looked into the reflected sharp eyes of his assistant. "Perhaps she feels we've walked straight into the nest of the varren covered in carrion."
Nalrad wrinkled his features. "That's an unpleasant analogy."
"Even so, be on your guard. She could try anything."
The elevator chimed when it reached the penthouse floors. The two C-sec officers stepped out into a lavish, well-lit hallway lined with doors of rich wood. Nalrad ran a finger down the grooves of one.
"Mahogany," he said, mouth testing out the unfamiliar word. "Very exotic. Very expensive."
No other beings moved within the carpeted corridor. Though the floor must be right beneath the pounding of the clubs above, no sound permeated through; the only noise was their own tense, shallow breathing and the light scuff of their feett upon the carpet. It did not take long to locate Suite Thirty-Six. It was one of the ones that looked out over the edge of the station and into the maw of the nebula. Naturally. The numbers were displayed on the door in some kind of shiny, golden metal. Garrus motioned that Nalrad take up position on one side of the door and placed himself opposite. A suspect was sometimes partial to firing straight through flimsy doors into would-be arresting individuals, expensive door or not. He unlimbered his pistol for easy access, but didn't draw it. Let's not make this a firefight before a conversation. Cautiously, he rapped on the door.
"Ms. Maynard? Garrus Vakarian."
The husky voice that emanated from within resounded with confidence and status. And not a little haughtiness.
"Officer Vakarian, please, a moment of patience. I will be with you shortly."
Garrus heard scuffling, a door creaking and then soft footsteps, like bare feet on carpet.
Abruptly, the mahogany door swung inwards and Garrus was staring down the gaping barrel of a Tornado VII Haliat Armoury shotgun.
"Yes, quite," the figure behind the weapon said mildly. That figure was the least feminine human Garrus had ever seen. Teresa Maynard, in her late seventies was all sharp angles and flat planes – a tall, whip-thin thing like a bamboo cane, with a seamed, rugged face like beaten, wrinkled leather. Emotionless hazel eyes were narrowed in that visage and blonde hair that was fading to grey was forced into a tight bun on the back of her head. The mouth was the only expressive part; it was curled up slightly in a cold, proud smile. Her eyes flicked once to Nalrad, then back to Garrus, dismissing the younger turian as completely as if it were a military order.
"Make a move for that pistol and they'll be scraping turian off the wall," Maynard said, with terrible calmness. "But let's hope it won't come to that." The smile grew infinitesimally larger. "I would have to move suites."
"Let's start with why you're pointing a shotgun at my midsection and go from there," Garrus said slowly.
"Very simple question to answer," Maynard said, "But first, why don't you and the child step inside?"
If Nalrad bristled at the disdain, he didn't show it, merely following Garrus slowly into the penthouse under the watchful orifice of the shotgun. Both turians took care to keep themselves easily in Maynard's view as the slid the door closed. The suite was gorgeous, the analytical part of Garrus had to admit. All soft, rug-spread couches, delicate glass shelving and tables, warm lighting from wall sconces and a giant vidscreen currently displaying galactic news mutely in bright colours. Superseding all of that – the truly phenomenal view from the panoramic windows into the very heart of the nebula. Violet light seeped in, gleaming off the glass surfaces and warring with the artificial glow. It made Maynard's already hard face look starker still.
"Very good," she said. "As for the weapon, that comes from a lifetime of careful preparation, Officer Vakarian. In the cutthroat business in which I have raised myself to the peak of, one makes many enemies." One bony fingertip stroked the smooth side of the shotgun almost absent-mindedly. "Rival businesses, displaced colonists, anti-capitalist crazies… You cannot possibly imagine how many people I've pissed off to get here."
Garrus didn't reply, but he thought that he had a pretty good idea.
"Thus, some degree of personal safety has to be ensured, along with a solid dose of caution. Without it, I'd have been dumped into a forgotten crater on some god-forsaken asteroid years ago." She rubbed a thumb at her sharp chin thoughtfully, as if realising she'd caught herself reminiscing. "But to the matter at hand, gentlemen. You had the receptionist mention the turian C-Sec Chief Ardess for one of two reasons. One – you are one of the many corrupt officials on the payroll and are here to clean up the thorough mess you've made of this operation, or two – you're actually investigating that arrogant bastard's death and are intelligent enough to have come to me for a conversation instead of with an arrest warrant after my name and Terra Firma flagged up on your suspects list. Which is it?"
Garrus blinked. "You think we're assassins?" He shook his head, confused. "But that's what we came here about. To press you on the point of assassins."
Teresa Maynard visibly relaxed, even if it was only a minor drop of the shoulders. But the shotgun did not drop away.
"Let's have it then," she said, "Introductions. You already know me."
"Garrus Vakarian and Nalrad Brugalis, C-Sec Investigations." Garrus hesitated, mostly out of confusion, but then he gave a mental shrug and jumped in. "I was working for Chief Ardess, chasing down a human assassin who was murdering volus businessmen. I killed him, but the Chief suspected Terra Firma. Hours later, the Chief was dead and I went hunting for answers. Minutes after I talked with your Morewell at Terra Firma, someone tried to knock us out of the sky." He paused again. "Three more human assassins."
"Christ," Maynard said, shifting her weight to one hip. "It's worse than I thought." She pointed a slender index finger at Garrus. "You've really got under their skin."
"Under who's skin? What is worse than you thought?" Garrus demanded. "Just what is actually going on here?"
Finally and with deep sighs of relief from both turians, Maynard lowered the shotgun. Her hard brow was furrowed, but the thunderclouds of her anger were no longer directed at them. She abruptly turned and crossed to the massive window, alertness transformed to pensive, businesslike analysis.
"So of course, you suspected Terra Firma and came to talk to me, the person who bankrolls the organisation," Maynard said eventually. "Smart. And much better than parading me around in cuffs." She turned and rolled her shoulders, as if easing a burden. "What you should understand is that I've really no interest in Terra Firma or their agenda – given that they remain mostly moderate and stay out of trouble." She smiled at Nalrad's quizzical tilt of the head, but it held no warmth. "They're a trophy; an expensive asset to improve my… slightly tarnished reputation with the public back on Earth. Terra Firma get plenty of funding and people believe I'm a benevolent supporter of human culture and politics. Doing my part for humanity!" She fluttered her fingers to show how inconsequential she thought that. "Public relations."
"So-" Garrus started, but he didn't get any further.
"That said," Maynard interjected, "I know for a singular fact that Terra Firma is not in the business of hiring assassins to further its manifesto. I know this because if it were happening, I would know and I would revoke my support immediately. Morewell would never risk it. Terra Firma would fade away without my funding." She grunted. "Also, I've a fairly good notion of who is behind this."
Garrus' head swam. This exchange was not going anything like he'd expected. "You're going to have to slow down, Ms. Maynard. I've been staying one step ahead of a bullet in the skull for hours. I've killed three human men and wounded another. Now you greet me with a shotgun and the news that you know who killed the Chief. Forgive me if I am… how do you say this… 'at sea."
Maynard snorted a humourless laugh. "Welcome to the micromanagement of galactic politics, Vakarian. Sit. Listen. Learn some fascinating things about politics."
Garrus, his limbs moving almost of their own accord, sat on the plush couch. Nalrad hovered nearby, uncertain, while Maynard casually tossed the shotgun on the glass table and sat opposite, eyes unreadable. Never relaxed, sitting like that she looked a lot like an insect from Palaven called a Ferax beetle; a predatory, spindly-limbed thing that leapt upon other insects and bit off their heads. Garrus resisted the urge to keep his hand near his pistol.
"This may shock you," Maynard said.
"By this point, any revelations you have are more of a relief than anything," Garrus said drily.
"Your government – the Hierarchy – has some grubby little secrets it would rather the average turian citizen didn't know. But what government doesn't? Too many to list. But here's one I can name… they called it – well, our translation of it is – the Prevention Committee."
Garrus stared. "What on Palaven is that?"
Maynard leaned back and, ludicrously, lifted up her legs and hugged her knees like a young human girl. Garrus had the sneaking suspicion she was enjoying making him uncomfortable.
"It was established during what we call the First Contact War. Despite its prosaic name, the Prevention Committee was anything but a dull sector of paper-pushers. Their entire purpose was to operate as a turian special forces strike team, specialising in pre-emptive action such as assassination, kidnapping, interrogation and coercion." Maynard permitted herself another small, cold smile. "They were solely designed to operate against humanity and were thus trained in our culture, our biology, our history… all to ferret out the weak points."
Garrus did not understand the phrase 'ferret out' but the context was obvious. "Anti-human, Hierarchy-sanctioned assassins," he said flatly. "This is absurd."
"Isn't it?" Maynard was unruffled. "I assume that the Hierarchy thought that humanity would be more of a nuisance than the reality proved and prepared such a team so as to combat our multiple factions and loyalties more effectively." She shrugged her thin shoulders. "Of course, it never came to that. After Shanxi and the Citadel Council stepping in, hands were shook, weapons lowered and we all became the very best of friends." She laughed. "The Prevention Committee, after all their training, their education, their conditioning, was never used."
Maynard's voice carried absolute certainty; she stated everything as if it was a proven, historical fact. Garrus felt a small chill. Despite himself, he said; "And they were disbanded?"
"Officially and as far as the Hierarchy thinks, yes. They were quietly and unceremoniously dismissed; ordered to return to the battalions they had been hand-picked from. But they didn't go back."
Nalrad sat down hard next to Garrus, looking totally nonplussed and more than a little angry. He clacked his mandibles. "Even if any of this is true – and I'm not saying I think it is – what does it have to do with a dead C-Sec chief, human assassins and Officer Vakarian and I almost ending up as paste on the side of a building?"
Maynard looked at the youth, appraising him anew. Finally, she inclined her head; an acceptance of worth. She spoke directly to him.
"The Prevention Committee dropped off the radar. Not wanting to cause a stir and risk revealing their intentions to their new allies, the Hierarchy looked the other way. Military companies got replacements and were encouraged to ask no questions, records about the Committee were destroyed and for all intents and purposes, your government forgot about it." She unfolded herself, looking even more like a preying insect than ever. "You have to understand, these turian warriors were very thoroughly conditioned to fight humans. They were taught to hate us; to loathe us with every fibre of their being. To enjoy taking a human life. Do you follow?"
Garrus did, but he was appalled. War was war; you did your duty with as little emotion in the way as possible. Granted, he hadn't always managed that, but still…
"To simply tell them that the war was over was anathema to them. Humanity was the enemy. It would always be the enemy. If they were not killing humans, they had no purpose." Maynard sighed. "So that's what they did, for a few years at least. Acted like another criminal organisation, albeit better trained, preying on human cargo and passenger ships, making them look like regular pirate attacks. Lots of humans died to those 'pirates' back then. But eventually they tired of that. Not doing enough damage, you see."
"This is insane," Nalrad said, but the energy had gone from his voice. Like Garrus, he somehow knew that what this human moon-mining baroness was saying was perfectly and terribly true.
"The Committee became far more insidious – as they had been trained. They still believed that they were doing what a good, dutiful turian should do, what the Hierarchy was too weak to see through. So they inserted themselves into positions of power and influence in the one place guaranteed to harbour hundreds of thousands of human beings while simultaneously being a haven where they would not look suspicious." She spread her hands expansively. "The Citadel."
Garrus suddenly couldn't just sit still. He got to his feet and paced, staring out the window at the glowing nebula.
"Newly installed in their nests of power," Maynard went on inexorably, watching him, "They turned their attention from simplistic murder to ruination. They targeted human companies, human culture groups, independent human traders… always working through intermediaries – some who didn't even know they were middlemen – to bring bankruptcy and misery to their hated enemy. And, if the opportunity came, they would return to their old favourite – a murder in a dark alley. Using a puppet, of course."
Garrus stopped and turned to face the matriarch of the Maynard clan. "You're trying to tell me that the Prevention Committee – or whatever rogue shadow it is now – assassinated Chief Ardess. A turian?"
Calmly, Maynard nodded. "That's exactly what I'm saying. Except it's more complex than that. Ardess was one of the Committee."
"What?" Nalrad and Garrus said in stunned unison.
A chirp sounded from a device mounted on the wall near the door. Maynard heard it and gazed in its direction, her mouth forming into a firm line. She got up.
"I'm afraid the rest of the explanation will have to be on the fly, gentlemen. The Committee's attack dogs are coming up to kill all three of us in exactly four and a half minutes. Shall we go?"
"Wait," Garrus snapped, "We're not going anywhere with you until you can explain how you know all this information! If the Committee is such a dirty secret, why do you know so much about it? And if you knew that Ardess was involved, why not go to the authorities?"
"Stay and die if you really must," Maynard shrugged, "But I'm not going to wait for their assassins. Either trust me for now and follow, or don't."
Teresa Maynard scooped up her shotgun and with elegant poise, headed for the penthouse door.
Garrus and Nalrad gaped, then hurried after her. They found her walking briskly down the cosily-lit corridor, heading for a stairwell rather than a lift.
"You see," she said as they strode along, as if they were simply going out for lunch, "The Committee has been focusing on Terra Firma for some time now. Not surprisingly, really; it's the biggest human-interest party active outside of Sol. Humans, spreading their politics into the galaxy at large? That made them furious."
"But they can't act openly and decisively against such a prominent political party," Nalrad said, jogging a little to keep up.
Again, Maynard looked at him with something close to re-assessment. "Very good. They couldn't simply exterminate them. That would bring them unwanted attention, even with the amount of middlemen they use. So they decided to discredit the party instead." She snorted. "Decidedly passive, for them. But they're not stupid brutes; they know how to undermine enemy assets." She gestured to the stairwell as they reached it, softly lit in yellow light. "Up here."
Garrus was feeling thoroughly twitchy now. His hand was clamped around his pistol butt. "You have a vehicle?"
"I will have, by the time I get there. An emergency chauffer, shall we say. This is not the first tight spot I've needed to exit quickly. Nor is it the first perpetuated by the damned Committee." She shook her head sadly. "Such a nice hotel room, too."
They scaled the stairs two at a time, the old woman surprisingly fit and barely short of breath as they passed landing after landing.
"The Committee hired your volus-murderer," she told Garrus matter-of-factly. "Had to be human, of course, to sway the suspicion towards Terra Firma. He wouldn't have known who he was working for, of course. The Committee likes to use humans against humans, you see. It amuses them." She glanced at Garrus. "Did you have the opportunity to question any of the assassins?"
"Yes. One alluded to political reasons and the other started spouting human mythology."
Maynard puffed a little as they reached their fourth landing. "I am too old for this. Mythology, you say? Let me guess; some kind of reference to a three-headed guardian?"
"Exactly. Though he said 'gatekeeper.' You know what he was talking about?"
"Yes, Officer Vakarian. It was a reference to a giant, three-headed dog called Cerberus. In our ancient myths, he is the gatekeeper of Hades – hell."
Nalrad looked warily down the stairs behind them, as if he expected a horde of assassins to come charging up them. From Maynard's determined climb, maybe that was likely. "Every species has afterlife myths. What does that have to do with this Prevention Committee?"
"Do you believe that Terra Firma hates aliens, Officer Brugalis?"
The younger hesitated. "They come over that way."
"Terra Firma are nothing but a slightly-isolationist bunch of people who fear change and the unknown. Bigots at worst, sentimentalists at best. No real threat to anyone. But there is an agency in existence that truly does hate aliens. It's new, only fledgling, really. Privately funded and rapidly gaining followers and influence back home on Earth and abroad. They call themselves 'Cerberus."
Garrus had caught on. "The assassins thought they were working for Cerberus, but really they'd been hired by the Prevention Committee."
"Correct, when I very much doubt that the real Cerberus knows anything about it. We have a human saying; smoke and mirrors. The Committee would have their pet assassins kill a couple of volus, have Ardess pretend to investigate the deaths, using you as an innocent accomplice so he had a witness, naturally turn towards Terra Firma and put pressure on… accidently let slip the process to the media, plant drugs and weapons on a few senior officials, make some arrests… generally display Terra Firma as a two-bit criminal gang with delusions of legitimacy. After some months of that, perhaps make a raid and 'discover' more evidence of criminality, make sure the media knew… you get the idea. Even if someone had dug something up and proved Terra Firma innocent, it would still all point right back to humanity."
"Then why was Chief Ardess killed, if he was part of this Committee?"
Maynard gave him an unreadable glance slightly marred by the redness growing in her cheeks from exertion. She gestured with her shotgun and Garrus winced. He hoped they didn't run into any other guests.
"That I don't know. But it wasn't Terra Firma, it wasn't Cerberus and it wasn't the Committee themselves. Ardess was too senior for that." She grimaced as they emerged into a short, utilitarian hallway leading to a maintenance door. "But it's obvious that the Committee believe C-Sec is responsible, which is why they're trying to kill you – and me." She grunted, as if amused. "No more quiet games from them now; they'll kill everyone who was close to the case and rely on their corrupt contacts to clean up the mess."
"This is insane."
"It's what they do. If something goes wrong, they clean house. Me, Morewell, half of Terra Firma; we're all targets now. One of their own has died and they've switched from sabotage to all-out war. Unless C-Sec can stop it, there will be a slew of assassinations right across the Citadel."
The door opened manually onto a broad, flat roof dotted with circulation ducts and lattices of aerials and interfaces. Garrus peered upwards and saw the flickering neon lights of the dance club splashing out against nearby structures and passing traffic. They were in a subtle mass effect envelope keeping the atmosphere in; light wind brushed against his face.
"I don't see an escape vehicle," he said.
"He's coming now," Maynard said and pointed to a dark speck descending rapidly from high above the traffic. As it drew closer, Garrus saw that it was a modified gunship; the weapons had been removed and the hull had been hammered down and streamlined for sheer speed.
The gunship shone like freshly-poured silver as it alighted on the roof; it looked as new as if it'd just been built. Maynard hurried towards the side-canopy as it hissed open, but Garrus hesitated. There may well be heavily-armed assassins only minutes or seconds behind them but be damned if he was going to get on board that gunship before a few more hard truths.
"Maynard!" he called, "Tell me how you know all this!"
Maynard gave him an icy grin. The gentle wind had teased free a few strands of her severe hair. "Do you know the Shadow Broker?"
"Nobody knows the Shadow Broker," Garrus retorted. Nalrad was silent at his side, facing back towards the doorway. Alert.
"No, but some know the Broker enough to grant themselves some concessions. Concessions like having his agents keep a constant surveillance on the Prevention Committee and their activities."
Maynard's face was abruptly as hard as a statue's. "Because the bastards blew up a habitation complex on one of my goddamn moons, if you must know!" Unexpectedly, Maynard spat to the side; a sharp, vulgar movement. "The Alliance covered it up as an 'accident,' of course. Malfunction with the life support systems. The Committee have been targeting my operations for years; rich human businesswomen, funnelling resources into the Systems Alliance? Perfect target. And so I've been fighting back. Thanks to the Broker, I've managed to stay one step ahead and even thrown a few mercenaries their way to keep them busy!"
The maintenance door smashed open behind Garrus and gunfire sizzled past his head. He spun. Four dark-garbed figures had poured out onto the roof. Nalrad was already returning fire. Behind him, Maynard said calmly; "Now can we leave?"
Garrus was already running after her; "Nalrad, leave them, get on the gunship!"
The youngster gave up his return fire and hurtled after Garrus, who leapt into the gunship's dim interior and took potshots at the men on the roof as the craft began to lift off. Maynard crouched beside him, yelling into the communicator to her pilot, but Garrus couldn't hear the words. Nalrad threw himself into the space just afterwards, sprawling on the floor; gasping but uninjured. Blasts pinged and whined off the bright silver plating as Garrus hammered the canopy closed. He felt a familiar lurch in his stomach as the gunship soared up and away from the Kilimanjaro.
"Unpleasantly close," Maynard observed, "Thanks to you and your questions."
Garrus shook his head. "Would you have trusted a woman armed with a shotgun and renowned for her ruthless business practices on faith alone, saying; "Get on the gunship?"
Maynard laughed; it was a gravelly, yet genuine sound. "No. I suppose I would not."
Garrus thumbed his communicator and called in the altercation at the opulent hotel, reporting directly to Pallin. When Garrus mentioned the Prevention Committee and Ardess, the Executor went into a blistering tirade of profanity; some very colourful turian analogies.
"You know of the Committee, sir?"
"Enough to know that this whole thing is making me reconsider retirement. Get Maynard back here on the double," he ordered sharply, "We'll need her evidence and testimony if we're going to stop this escalating."
"I'm afraid it's too late for that," Maynard leaned across the cramped, vibrating space. "They're on the warpath now that Ardess is dead. You can expect violent retribution against C-Sec right across Zakera Ward, maybe beyond, unless you take down the ringleaders they've appointed."
Pallin swore again as the gunship swooped up over the metropolis. "And you know who they are?"
"Some, not all. I'll give you everything I have, on the condition that my name will be kept out of further investigations and that any actions I may or may not take to… secure my assets against retaliation from the Committee remain distinctly private."
"Not acceptable!" Pallin spat over the comm, "I can't have mercenary violence down on the Wards. This debacle with Ardess has been quite enough!"
"Executor, if you don't agree to my terms, dozens of C-Sec officers will die, almost certainly some civilians. You can't afford those casualties and I can't afford to have my name dragged through this quagmire. I assure you; I will be discreet in my dealings."
"You strike a hard bargain, Maynard."
"Yes, it's been said."
Pallin sighed and startled Garrus by saying; "Fine. Fine, no names and I'll make sure we'll look the other way from your… defence efforts. You're sure that your information is sound?"
"Absolutely. I'm carrying an encoded datapad with everything on it. This data will enable you to at the very least, bring the Committees activities to a temporary halt and avoid a train of chaotic killings. You won't bring down the whole organisation; it's a damn spider's web, but it'll take them a long time to recover. And Executor?"
"I have no interest in dying. If the Committee's goons get to me, nobody will be able to unlock that datapad." Her face hardened. "Do you understand me?"
"Perfectly, Ms. Maynard," Pallin's tinny voice said distastefully, "You live, or everybody dies. Garrus?"
"I'm channelling all of C-Sec's resources into Zakera Ward to buy us time. Keep the baroness alive, at all costs. Get her back here before the Committee turns this into an international incident."
Suddenly, an insistent, ominous beeping started up from the gunship's cockpit and a red bulb began flashing steadily. Maynard looked up at it, rested her shotgun in her lap and laid her slender fingers over it, seemingly unperturbed.
"Missile lock," she said. "How unfortunate. They really are pulling out all the stops."
Garrus' stomach did a backflip as the gunship jinked sideways unexpectedly and then dropped like a stone. He clung onto his narrow seat while Nalrad braced himself against a bulkhead.
"A very good pilot, this fellow," Maynard said conversationally. Her only concession to the violent movement was to check her seatbelt. "Used to be a smuggler on Io."
"Io?" Garrus said through gritted teeth, despite himself. Someone was yelling in his ear.
"Oh yes, a volcanic moon of Jupiter, in our Solar System. Terrible, hellish place. Barely inhabited. Spent half his time dodging gouts of lava fifty feet high. We're in good hands."
As if to belie her comment, there was an abrupt, deafening impact on the underside of the gunship which made the entire aircraft shudder fiercely. For the first time, Theresa Maynard looked genuinely concerned and her knuckles whitened around her shotgun. She touched her own communicator.
"Faroush? Faroush, report, please."
"Only minor damage, ma'am," came back a smooth, deeply-accented human voice. Though did Garrus detect a little strain there? "I'm playing cat and mouse with another gunship. He was waiting for us. Your friends, I presume?"
"Can you reach the Presidium?" Maynard demanded.
"I don't like to make false promises, ma'am, but if I can keep using these skyscrapers as cover, I'd like to think so."
"Make it happen, Faroush."
"Yes, ma'am. I think I can- oh, goddammit, here he is again, he bluffed me, come around the other si-"
There was an almighty detonation that made the gunship shudder like an offended hanar and the bulkheads bend inwards with a horrific rending of metal. All three occupants were catapulted around in their restraints. Atmosphere sucked out through several gashes in the gunship's silver skin and the craft yawed sickeningly to one side. Gravity rebelled and Garrus' blood went into his head as dizziness swept over him. Maynard's gunship was rapidly losing altitude and had gone into a spin.
"Faroush!" Maynard bellowed into her comm. "Faroush!"
"Still here, ma'am! But most of the controls are dead." There was a pained grunt that could just be heard over the wailing warning sirens and escaping atmosphere. "I think my arm's broke too, but I can steady her! I can steady her! Come on, you bitch, work!"
The stricken gunship spiralled downwards, but thanks to Faroush's efforts, it became less erratic, the thrusters firing intermittently and the yawing and tipping becoming less pronounced.
But they were still descending.
Garrus' communicator was still patched through to Pallin. He realised that the Executor had been yelling for the past few minutes. Or was it only a few seconds?
"Officer Vakarian! What's happening? I heard explosions. Report!"
"I'm here, sir! We've been hit by an enemy gunship and we're going down. Presidium-end of Zakera Ward." He glanced at Maynard, whose stern face was pinched and taut, made ruddy by the red warning lights. She held his gaze. "I repeat, we're going down, sir!" Garrus was surprised at how calm his own voice sounded. Inside, he was bellowing with fear and rage, his hands clasped in a death grip around the rent metal of the canopy. He was finding it hard to breathe. So damn close to putting a stop to this and now I'm going out in a fireball. This prash'grat Committee! If I survive this, I intend to make sure they regret it!
"By the spirits," Pallin grated, "Hold on, Vakarian, I'll have C-Sec units and emergency services out there as soon as I can!"
The pilot's voice thrummed throughout the cabin. "Ground incoming, people," he yelled, "Hold onto your asses, this is going to be a hard landing!"
"I'm docking your pay for this, Faroush!" Maynard cried absurdly.
The pilot was still laughing when the gunship smashed into the ground belly-first with a nauseating crunch. Metal screeched against metal, sirens blared, lights shattered, then everything rolled over and Garrus just had time to see the nearest bulkhead come careening in towards his face before everything winked out.
Continued in 'The C-Sec Reports: Escort Duty.'