A/N: Shout-out to this chapter's part-time coauthor Jacob for writing some of this – see if you can discern his prose from mine. And go read Chapter 08 of "The Cerberus Files : Tactical Addenda, Opposing Forces" by LogicalPremise, Jacob wrote that chapter for him (along with all the volus CerbFiles) and it ties into this chapter somewhat.


Swirling indigo clouds floated lazily through the air. The room's filters had been shut off and the occupants were left to bake in the bitter tang of burning cannabis. Estêvão Volinski laid on the floor with a smoldering joint between his ebony fingers – watching the trail of fresh smoke join the stale clouds near the ceiling. Nearby, with his broad shoulders braced against a wall as he sat on the floor, was Theodore Pellham – his own roll of cannabis smoldering between his lips.

Volinski broke the silence after a time, "You ever notice everyone no Cão is a basket case?"

Pel grunted in the affirmative. "Like every goddamn day. Some of us are all right though."

"Nah, I think I said that wrong… Like, everyone has some fucking awful tragic backstory."

Pel took another hit of his joint and became thoughtful. "I… hmm… Kai, me," he mumbled as he counted out the names on his fingers, "Chambers, Trelly, bossman… shit, I guess it really is everyone. At least the important ones."

"I wonder what that says about Cerberus."

"That it's not for the faint of heart. The reefer must be hittin' you pretty hard. You're not usually so philosophical."

"Eh, just… contemplating things. My place in the world and shit like that."

"Lookin' to retire?"

"Not yet…" Volinski said before drifting off, his face scrunching up in confusion, "Does Cerberus even have a retirement policy? Or is this shit like the Mob, blood in and blood out?"

"You're thinking the old Mexican Cartels, but… I dunno. Can't think of anyone who ever quit the Dog and wasn't a traitor." Pel shot up from his slouch and pointed at Volinski. "Minsta!"

The Brazilian favored his friend with an incredulous sidelong glance. "…Minsta is retiring?"

"No, no, no. Earlier, that thing with tragic backgrounds. Minsta doesn't have one."

"Are we considering that fop a member of Cerberus now?"

"For the purposes of this conversation? Yes."

"Hmm, that… hmm," Volinski hummed, "You might be right. I think his wife left him for an asari. That's nothing."

"Yep, same goes for the Dog Princess."

"I suppo— Wait, wait. That's not right. I think Minsta had another daughter who was dating an asari and killed herself."

"Really? Shit, there goes that idea."

"Yeah, but really, it's weak sauce. It sucks she killed herself but put Minsta's trauma up against Niri… not even fucking close."

"It's not a fuckin' competition, dude."

Volinski frowned and reluctantly nodded as he sat up and smashed out his joint in the ashtray. "Yeah, fair enough. My mode of thinking is… eh."

The pair fell into silence once more, content to watch the indigo clouds and secretly pick out the shapes of animals and faces. That one a bison, that one a slug-cat, the whole mass looking like a thresher maw. It reminded one of days gone by, when you could look at a clear sky as a child with wonder in your eyes.

Volinski then saw one that looked like Nirin, and he frowned. "She's getting worse."

"What'd she do now?"

"Not so much what she did, as how she acts when she thinks I'm not watching." Volinski closed his eyes and sighed. "I see her crying all the time. She only does it when she's in her suit, so I can't see the tears and she can shut off the suit speakers so I can't hear the sobs, but I see it in her body language. When I reach out to comfort her, she plays it off like nothing is wrong. And I can't even detect the pain when she speaks, it's like talking to fucking Rasa or Brooks."

"It's weird to think of Sunshine crying like that. She's always so peppy."

"Fake it till you make it, I guess. She used to gaslight me so hard on her depression that I genuinely thought I was going crazy, but she can't hide it outside the suit. That's when everything comes crashing down."

"Shit, man. You doin' anything about it?"

"Booze and drugs and sex help distract from it. Otherwise, I've been working with Chambers to try and figure out something. Results are mixed."

"Just keep at it, I guess."

"Well, trying to treat someone who won't acknowledge they have a problem is like… I don't know. Think of an apt metaphor and pretend that I said it."

"Your head's full of grayboxes. It shouldn't be that hard to think up a fuckin' metaphor." Pel chuckled and stamped out his own joint into a nearby ashtray before rising to his feet. "C'mon, let's hit the gym and sweat out the stupid this little therapy session brought to the fore."

Volinski rolled his eyes and grumbled as he clambered to his feet and followed Pel. The room's ventilation kicked in as they left, sucking out the thick, pungent smoke.


Nirin'Ptrun swirled her container of triple-filtered turian kaless brandy – heavily diluted with deionized water. She was in the station's mess hall, sitting alone in the back corner. She preferred solitude when her bahnt was elsewhere. Pretending to be happy was exhausting without him or Ms. Brooks or Mr. Pellham to play off of. To do so with a stranger was… eh, why bother. It's not like they mattered in the grand scheme. It's not like she mattered to them.

She sighed before attaching the brandy container to her suit's emergency induction port. A small straw extended from the inside of her helmet to her lips and she drank deeply of the strong alien spirit. She made a mental note to send Mr. Pellham another 'thank you' note and a crate of black nano grenades for gifting her the liquor on her last birthday.

The notes were fruity and harsh and difficult to describe. She knew not what flavors the quarian palate could produce, as everything had reverted to nutrient pastes and flavorless, sterilized meats. She'd once inquired about it to Matriarch Trellani, who had seen Rannoch with her own eyes, and the Matriarch said that she had been told – as quarian liquor was poisonous to non-dextros – that it tended to be earthy and semi-sweet, with dry and peppery notes that remained on the tongue once swallowed. So much had been lost in their centuries of wandering that alcohol seemed like a minor thing, but it was symbolic of everything. All races had alcohol, and all races were defined by it in some way. Only the quarians bucked this trend – and the geth, if they count – and only because alcohol production would be a waste of resources.

Perhaps that would change now that they had the colonies of Catynaal and Vyn'lestin to populate. The liveships had always grown food native to the homeworld. Assuming they still had the recipes, it shouldn't be too difficult to start brewing and distilling once more. Nirin glanced at the datapad on the table as she sipped her brandy. It was a news article on the first quarian colonies in living memory – asari and krogan memories excluded, of course. It was an uplifting tale, one of dogged determination and a people's ability to persevere – the propaganda elements were obvious to her cynical eyes, but she still felt an ache of longing in her gut. What might have been had her birth-ship not rebelled with the others? Would she be living in this new Eden? She noted the fawning words about quarian population growth and scowled. Would she have been a broodmare to her people? Would she have been content with that?

The answer to both would have been an enthusiastic 'yes.' After all, had her entire family not been exiled, she would have been raised as a good little suit-rat, doing everything she could for her people – her own desires be damned. But to be a mother… what would that be like? Even if the Master hadn't ruined her body, she still wouldn't be able to have children with her bahnt. It was best not to dwell on such things, lest Estêvão grow suspicious and offer a shoulder to cry on.

She smiled slightly at that. He could be a hard and grumpy man, but he was soft around her when she needed it most – even when it was the last thing she wanted from him. She remembered their bittersweet first meeting – him in full Blood Dragon armor, metal eagle wings spread from his HUSSAR rig as he blasted away Master after Master like an avenging angel. And her… in the parlor with Master's toys, breathing her last as her immune system went into revolt and her body into shock. He carried her away from that place, and grateful tears flowed from her eyes at the memory.

She sucked harder on the straw, until a slight gurgle announced the bottom of the container. She removed the empty brandy container from the emergency induction port and moved to set it down when she glanced back at the extranet article and froze. Her grip tightened and a rage came over her. She screamed in anguish and slammed down the container into the datapad. Then she slammed it again, and again, and again. The near-empty mess resounded with the echoes of breaking technology, encouraging the handful of other patrons to remember they had urgent business literally anywhere else. It was made all the more unsettling as the crazed quarian made not a sound, as her suit speakers were muted.

She swiped an arm across the table, hurling the broken pieces to the ground. She grabbed the edge of the table and lifted with all her might, only to be forced back into her seat – her strength inadequate to break the bolts that held the table suspended from the wall. She collapsed to the table with her head in the crook of her left arm, sobbing as she pounded the table with her right. Her body shook, and had the mess not been deserted, her suffering would have been plain for all to see.

She remained there, sobbing – her tears being wicked away by her helmet's in-built features. Her hysterics slowed, though the pain remained – without the adrenaline-analogue courses through her veins, she could now feel the bruising in her right hand. She clenched her sore fist and listened to her wheezing breath as it echoed in her helmet, content to just sit there and wait for death. It went like this for long minutes until she slowly dozed off, falling straight into one of her familiar nightmares.

"Make not a sound, kashka," Bassac said as he forced the pliers into her mouth, clamping it around the first tooth.

She shot up in her seat as the phantom pain of her memories washed over her. Her heart was racing, and there was a slight tremor in her quills. She took several gasping breaths until she finally calmed down. She walked over to the Tupari machine and ordered a tube of Chippo brand flavored dextro energy paste – bubblegum-artichoke. Her boots clicked and cracked over the broken datapad as she returned to her seat and inserted the tube into the emergency induction port and slurped down her chosen poison.

She idly brought up her ruby-colored omni-tool and started perusing her bahnt's email account. They were mostly the same ones she received – station announcements, an e-vite to happy hour, etc. There was also a message from Ms. Chambers imploring them both to stop self-medicating – fat chance. One of the messages was flagged. Opening it, she saw that it was a forwarded invitation to Bekenstein for dinner with his parents – they were celebrating their anniversary next week, she would need to get them something nice. She then swiped into his deleted messages and found more of the same – business mixed with personal.

She was about to close it down when she noticed an odd message with the subject line 'Station VIP.' She didn't remember receiving a message like that, so she clicked into it and found that it had been sent by Mr. Harper himself. She skimmed through it with a lazy glance – 'under no circumstances… blah, blah… our guest is relegated to room… yada, yada… attached is a picture of…'

The straw fell from her lips. The image held within it a giant of a man. His blackened eyes shimmering with a haughty arrogance she hadn't seen in years – it sent her heart to flutter. She checked the room number and realized it wasn't far from the mess. She hurriedly scrambled out of the booth and skipped out of the mess hall with a pep in her step that had been absent for some time.

Purpose.


Volinski was nearly through his yoga routine when he started to worry his lip with his teeth. It wasn't the exercise that bothered him, though he found yoga to be a bit feminine for his tastes. Nor was it the lingering high of the cannabis… though maybe that had contributed. No, it was his state of mind in recent days. Night after night he had the same dream. Him and Niri in the vast inky blackness as a mighty leviathan watched over them.

It felt wrong. Odd. Worse still, he found trouble discussing it with others. He could speak to Niri, and any of his crew as easily as discussing the weather. But speaking to anyone else about it was… awkward? That was probably the best way to describe it. Even some of his Dragons, those not assigned to the Cavaleiro Pálido, seemed forever out of reach on this topic. He couldn't talk about it directly, but maybe if he were indirect…

He glanced over at Pel as the man stacked weight after weight on the barbell. The gym originally consisted of resistant cables and bars, but Pel had insisted on a classic style – claiming it felt more real.

Tição's a simple guy. I can do this. I can talk to him. I just need to relax.

Relax…

Volinski took a deep breath, though it wavered slightly on the exhale. "Hey, uh, Pel, you ever have something that… I don't know. Like you want to talk about something, but you can't? Like there's an awkwardness you just can't get over? Like you've done something and feel guilty maybe?"

Pel's eyes narrowed as he slid the final free weight on the metal bar of the bench press. "Something you wanna share?"

"Naw, I just…" Volinski drifted off, then became startled, "Fucker, don't look at me like that."

"Like what?"

"Like I'm a fucking Hades plant or some shit."

"You'd probably have blown up the base making a cup of coffee if you were Hades," Pel quipped, "It's just, the way you said it…"

"It came out wrong. I'm not sure how to address this fucking albatron swinging 'round my neck."

"Jesus fuck, man. 'Albatross.' The fucking word is 'albatross.' "

Volinski drew a haughty sniff. "Fake news."

"Tch, this fucking guy."

"Point is," Volinski grunted, shifting into a tortoise pose, "I got something noodling around in my head and I can't talk about it. I can talk to Niri and some of my Dragons, but anyone else is… I don't know. It's like I can't bring myself to speak about it."

"Well what is it? I'll listen to ya, man, you know that."

"I know, and I appreciate it. It's nice to have someone put up with my bullshit who isn't batshit." Volinski shifted into the shoulder pressing pose – the awkward position helped dull the unease he felt when speaking to an outsider about the Revelation. "It's… well… faith."

"Huh?"

"I…" Volinski drifted off, his words caught in his throat as happened every other time. With a growl of frustration, he untangled himself and sat up straight, pinning Pel with an intense look. "What would you do if you saw God?"

Pel's expression became indignant and he sat down on the bench with a thud.

"Don't gimme that look, tição."

"Man, what'd I say about calling me that?"

Volinski shrugged. "I use it as a term of endearment."

"Keep it up and I'll endear my foot to your ass. Again."

"Bah, you can't catch me off-guard twice," Volinski said with a dismissive handwave, "But I'm serious, Pel. What would you do? If you knew, in your bones, that it was true… how would that change you?"

Pel was quiet. "So, you found God, did you?"

"I found… a god," Volinski admitted uncomfortably, "I've never felt so small. This essence enveloped me and invigorated me. And I… I don't think it even knew I was there. That's the gulf of presence between us. Like I was insignificant, truly insignificant."

"And when was this?"

"It was…" Volinski began, but became a bit sheepish and embarrassed, "…after we left Noveria."

Pel laughed. "You fuckin' druggie idiot. You were high."

"I wasn't that high," he grumbled, suddenly unsure.

"Heheheh," chuckled Pel slowly, "Well, intoxication is mind-expanding sometimes. Maybe you got a future in the priesthood."

"Yeah, I'm sure patrão'll be fucking thrilled when I take over the Minuteman chapel."

"Ha! That'll be the fuckin' day. Like anyone would listen to a godless Brazilian."

"And you wonder why I keep calling you 'tição.' "

"Heh, ain't no secret why you sling your slurs," Pel said as he laid down and positioned himself under the barbell, "One of these days you'll need to man up and grow outta that shit."

Pel lifted the barbell off its j-hooks and went through a set of bench presses – up and down. The bar dipped slightly at the ends from all the weight. Volinski meanwhile made do with a gym mat – doing a series of plank exercises and mountain climbers. All he had left that was still meaty was his core, the limbs were all prosthetic. They continued in grunting silence for a time, each struggling near the end of their routine.

"So," said Volinski, panting his way through a series of mild stretches after his set, "I saw the memo about that batarian we got lurkin' 'round base. You met him yet? What's he like?"

"Huh?" Pel let the barbell catch on the j-hooks. He sat up on the bench, wiping a gleam of sweat off his bald pate with a towel. "What's he like? Okay, you ever had that one asshole buddy? A good buddy, but an equal part asshole? Like he's a dude who's cool to hang out and drink with, he's a good wingman, he's got your back in a fight, but at the same time you would never, ever, leave this asshole alone with your girl or your sister or pretty much anyone you really care about? That's what he's like. He's that asshole buddy."

"So he's a batarian you?"

"Fuck off. Point is, I didn't wanna like him, but I like him. I also have a plan to kill him whenever he steps into the room, because I know for damn sure he's thinking the same thing about me."

Something about that irked Volinski in a way he couldn't fully explain. "Yeah, okay, I think I get that part."

Pel stared at him. "Do you, though?" he asked before laying down on the bench and resuming his set.

"It's just… look, I don't fuckin' know how to say it, but there's something about treating a vesgo like it's one of us that just gets to me, you know?" said Volinski, taking a sip of water he didn't really want. It only made him feel more uncomfortable. "It's hard to get past, after everything they've ever done – that's all I'm saying. I don't care how fuckin' charismatic or useful this asshole is, end of the day, we're not here to make friends. They're still the enemy, and we're treating him a hell of a lot better than he'd be treating us. You know that, right?"

"Gimme a sec," said Pel, and he finished his last set on the bench press, panting and giving a single strained grunt as he placed the barbell back on the hooks. He sat back up, wiped the sweat from his brow, and began taking off the plates and neatly stacking them back on the weight tree.

Volinski decided to do some of those star jumps the base therapist recommended.

Pretty sure that guy is just fuckin' with me, wants me to look like a goddamn cheerleader in front of everyone, probably laughing his ass off at this.

Still, they were meant to help his injuries, so he figured he didn't have much of a choice.

Pel leaned against the power rack and folded his arms. "Look, man, the way I see it, shit ain't that complicated. This is the Dog. We all know what the score is. You do what you gotta do. Bossman gives you the order? You do it, because you know he's smarter than us and he's thought this shit out a million ways to Sunday, and he'll give you the support you need to get the job done – which is more than the fuckin' Alliance ever did. I'm not on board with that Iron and Shadow Cell shit, but they're dead now, so fuck 'em, right? We're the best way forward for our dysfunctional mess of a species. That's it."

"And that means we gotta get into bed with every sketchy, criminal asshole in the galaxy?"

Pel actually laughed at that. "Bruh, for real? We're sketchy, criminal assholes."

"He's a batarian. They're fuckin' slavers. I'm not sure if you've looked in a mirror recently, but your ancestors—"

"You're treading on some mighty thin ice here, Estêvão."

"You know what I'm trying to say."

Pel grunted. "Had this… weird talk about that with our squint guest, actually. About a lot of things. He's a slick fuckin' talker, I'll give him that. Got this combination of silver tongue and swagger, reminds me a lot of some of the ward politicos back in the SoCal Arcology. That, and maybe one of our Admirals of the Red. Or a Primarch."

"As in a turian?" asked Volinski.

"Yeah." Nodded Pel. "I get that Primarch vibe from him. I mean, that was pretty much his job, socially. So anyway, we started talking trash at first, just flinging shit at each other, it was fun. Batarians buy into that a lot. Then we started talking the good shit – grub, cash, women, fights – and I thought: 'man, I know this asshole does more heinous shit in a week than I do in a year, but I like hangin' out with him more than I do about ninety percent of my own people, so fuck it.' One of the strange things in life is that we don't always like good people, and don't always hate bad people. There's probably some German word for that."

Volinski grumbled something in Portuguese.

"Easy now, I'm gettin' to that part of the story. No one has an attention span these days, do they?"

"Alright, alright, keep going. I'm listening, which is why I'm struggling not to vomit at the idea of you 'talking women' with a vesgo."

"Yeah, there were some undertones to that part that were… well, best not to look too closely. Anyway, eventually the slave thing came up," said Pel, "It wasn't anything personal, I was just curious, to be honest. I pointed out it's generally considered fucked up by most humans, he pointed out that literally every great human civilization practiced it, called it 'monkey hypocrisy.' I pointed out a lot of us don't, he pointed out that I'm more than happy to make use of hookers and shit, 'enjoy the fruits with my eyes closed,' I said 'fair point.' And then he… I mean, he delivers a speech, really. Good fuckin' speech too, I couldn't look away. Talked about what he calls the 'natural order of things,' like a cosmic food chain, some metaphysical shit, where the Dark Gods are at the top, and they offer the Pillars of Strength as the only viable way to live through the struggle against the Darkness. So you have a physical, spiritual, and apocalyptic reason to obey. Talked about how the point of slavery wasn't really to keep slaves, or even out of sadism or control, it was ultimately an act of worship – you're acknowledging this natural order, this hierarchy, where the strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must."

Volinski stared at him. "Tell me you don't actually believe any of that shit, man."

"What? Nah, fuck no, but that ain't the point. I was just listening, and no one does that anymore. Not really. So you can learn a lot that way. It was… look, I dunno if it was his delivery, but it was compelling. I can get my head around it. I can get why they think that way. We could use that in the Dog."

Volinski didn't have anything he could say to that.

"Now c'mon, let's get back to it. This is getting too serious," said Pel, "Your routine is pathetic. Need to lift some shit."

"Two things. One, my limbs are mechanical, lifting weights would be meaningless. Two, your limbs are mechanical, so why are you lifting?"

"Only one of my arms is metal, dipshit."

"Still doesn't explain why you do two-handed exercises."

"Just flexin' for the bitches."

"Bitches, what bitches? We're the only ones here," Volinski said, gesturing to the empty gym.

"Exactly."

"…Oh, fuck you."

Pel just laughed. Then he tried his best not to laugh as the Brazilian began a round of 'oscillating glute stretches.' He quietly mused that the five hundred credit bribe he gave the base therapist was money well spent. "Heard you're all buddy-buddy with Dog Princess. Licking the dew off her noble feet."

Volinski finished twerking. "What's wrong with licking feet? Tiffany's all right once she drops that hoity-toity act of hers."

Pel grunted. "Man, you know what she said to me? First talk we had, officially?"

"Something snooty I reckon."

"Made a witty crack about me being a 'shitty father.' "

Volinski paused. "But… you are a shitty father."

"Man, fuck you."

"Fuck me? Fuck you! I've heard you openly state to all and sundry – on multiple occasions – that you're a shitty father. It's not my opinion. It's yours."

Pel scratched his head. "When was that?"

"You mean most recently? Overheard you and Mr. Leng in the mess."

"Hmph. Whatever, man." Pel shrugged. "Spoilt little rich girl thinks her family name and witty 'jokes' are gonna mean something in our world, bitch is gonna last one deployment. She swallows her pride and tries to learn off the best, she might make it. Hope she does. Only because I thought we'd gotten rid of all these useless assholes after BENEDICT."

"And yet you're still here."

"Fuck off. Point is, that bitch is annoying."

"I find that I'm something of a connoisseur of annoying women," Volinski quipped as his omni-tool buzzed and he glanced at the caller ID with a smile, "Speaking of which."

A rectangular display appeared above his orange-sheathed hand. An indigo quarian facemask hovering on screen.

"Estê-kun, you big bully!" Nirin said, her waifish cadence reverberating over the speaker.

He scoffed, "What'd I do now?"

"How could you hide that message from me?"

"…What message?"

"The one about Master!"

The color drained from Volinski's face. "Niri, I understand that you're mad, but for god's sake don't—"

"Gotta go, Estê-kun. I think that's Master's room up ahead."

"Niri, don't! He's—"

The line went dead.

"—SIU!" Volinski just stared at his omni for a second before bolting toward the door. "Fuck!"

Pel followed in his wake. "This is gonna get stupid."


Volinski ran down the hall with Pel on his heel. Up ahead, near the VIP's room, were a pair of Centurions climbing to their feet – the telltale signs of stun and overload app usage plain to see.

He screamed at them, "Open the fucking door!"

One of them hit the door release and they rushed in, guns drawn, taking kneeling positions on the left and right as Volinski burst through the middle. He skid to a stop as he took in the scene, finding Nirin singing and making lunch for the hardest-looking batarian fucker he'd ever seen.

He looked around as sweat dripped down his face and his heart pounded against its cage of bone.

The apartment was spartan and industrial, full of exposed concrete, brushed gunmetal steel and aluminum, and warm lighting. The furniture was a strange blend of utilitarian and comfort, and aside from the burnt-orange Cerberus logo, the only real colors were black, titanium, chrome, chocolate-brown, and bone-white. There were strange black stone statues dotted around each room.

At the dining table sat the batarian. Even at ease, he radiated a certain swaggering nonchalance and barely contained violence, his golden face cut with a haughty smirk and four inky-black eyes. He was wearing a black armored slicksuit with the Cerberus logo, which was slightly reassuring, along with a savage-looking mace at his belt, which was not. He held in his hands a strange C-shaped… harp? Guitar? Whatever it was, the batarian was playing it with the skill and passion of a true virtuoso, and the tune was far catchier than Volinski wanted to admit.

This asshole's arms are thicker than my goddamn waist.

Volinski turned to look at Nirin. She still hadn't noticed him.

Nirin was singing as she fussed over some kind of deep pan dish, alternating layers of pastry with layers of spicy red paste and mashed fish, every now and then throwing hot peppers and some kind of cheese-like substance in there. The rich, pungent aroma filled the entire apartment, and Volinski was instantly filled with hunger.

And then it hit him.

Nirin wasn't singing a quarian tune, or one of the human songs he'd turned her on to, or even some of her usual nonsense rhymes and stream-of-consciousness chatter.

She was singing a high-caste batarian anthem, and she was singing it with gusto, leaning into the bombastic orchestral sections and doing her best to growl out the harsh vocals.

"What. The. Fuck?!"

He didn't know whether to scream or whisper, aiming for both and failing.

Nirin continued singing and cooking as if he weren't there. The batarian, on the other hand, looked up at him as he stood still in the doorway, dumbfounded by this parody of domestic bliss.

"Uh…"

The batarian smirked even harder than he already was, tilting his head slightly to the right. "Ah, monkey. You must be 'Volinski.' Greetings. Please, sit. Kashka is making us pastries."

Volinski hated this asshole already, hated that fucking voice that sounded like every slick politician and noble general he'd ever resented in his life as a semi-professional fuck-up.

He sounds like a mix of Genghis Khan and some douchebag hitting on your girl at a club. And 'kashka'… did this motherfucker give her a slave name?!

"Hey, man," Pel said in a hushed voice behind him, "I'mma bow out. I'll catch ya later."

"What?! Do not leave me alone with him!" Volinski hissed.

But Pel was already walking away, his hand raised in farewell. "Later."

"Cabrão inútil," Volinski cursed and drew a labored breath to calm his nerves, tasting the spice in the air. He glanced back at the pair of Centurions on either side of the doorway – still at the ready with guns drawn. "At ease, boys."

The Centurions rose to their feet and lowered their weapons – though they did not holster them.

"So, what happened? How'd she get past you?"

"Our orders are to guard the… VIP," the one on the left said, spitting out the initialism like a poison, "Your quarian tried to enter and we blocked her. She hacked our gear in two seconds flat and left us sprawled on the floor as she went inside."

Volinski sighed. "Mr. Harper's gonna fucking kill me." He glanced over at his oblivious girlfriend as she stirred a pot of… something. "So what now?"

"Not sure. Your quarian's actions have been reported. We'll see what Command has to say about it. Until then, we'll return to our posts."

Volinski glanced at his clothes and lack of armaments – beyond those hidden in his augs. "Yeah, can you not stand outside please. If this asshole tries something, we'll be dead before you open that door."

The Centurion nodded. "Understood, sir."

Volinski watched the guards move to either side of the doorway, their weapons at the ready. He turned back to Nirin and the batarian. "Again: what the fuck? Who are you?"

"Magyar Sek, Blackened Mace of the Intervention and Fourth-Born of the Patriarch of the Third Rotation of the Hegemon, glory be to his name. And you?"

"Jesus Cristo." Volinski shook his head. "Batarian titles, I swear, you put the Palavanus to shame with your melodrama."

The batarian snorted. "We value the majesty of the deed and of the will. It can be… flowery, to your ears, I admit. And your titles?"

Volinski gave a bitter, dismissive bark of hollow laughter. "Volinski, of nowhere and nothing. Proud Brazilian and prolific vesgo-killer. In case your dime-store translator didn't catch that, it means 'squint.' So. The fuck are you doing with Niri?"

Before the batarian could respond Nirin turned around. Volinski wondered how she hadn't reacted or even noticed him until now, and figured it was down to her being caught up in whatever that music was.

"Oh. Hey, Estêvão. I'm making lunch! You should ask if you can have some. It'll be tasty, I promise."

He tensed, still frozen in the doorway. Those words. That tone. He didn't know how to process any of it, and so, Estêvão Volinski sat down at a table with his alien girlfriend and their equally alien host and had the most surreal lunch of his life.

He tried to remind himself of all the reasons he had to hate the squints – it was an exhaustive list. He kept telling himself he'd have killed this fuckin' squint if it wasn't part of the Dog now, but if he was being honest with himself, he wasn't sure he could do it – at least not alone. He sure as hell knew he wouldn't survive the consequences if he did. Intel source like that alone was valuable, to say nothing of his combat and leadership skills.

Volinski sat at the table, staring at Nirin in amazement as she took two bottles of batarian ale from the cooler, cracked them open, and then served them.

She served Sek first.

Volinski clenched his fist, taking a deep breath and slowly exhaling.

"Relax, monkey," said Sek, fixing all four eyes on Volinski, "Technically, you're only a cuckold if I penetrate her."

Volinski slammed his mechanical arm down on the table, his entire face flushing. "Motherfucker, I don't care how much you're worth to patrão, you keep pulling this shit and I will turn you into a hat!"

Nirin huffed from over in the kitchen, "Estêvão, don't kill the mood. You're a guest here."

Meu Deus.

"Besides, the leather is still good on your fedora."

"That's not the goddamn point, Niri."

Sek took all this in with another smirk. "Why so serious? This is merely a pleasant meal."

"Not the word I'd choose for this. Not by a long shot."

"At least you can appreciate our music," said Sek, sipping his ale and glancing at the table.

Volinski frowned and followed the batarian's gaze, only to see an ebony metal finger tapping along to the beat.

Goddammit.

Volinski sighed and clenched his fingers into a fist before taking a swig of his drink. It turned out to be as smooth as the soundtrack, all biscuity malt flavors that left a pleasant, tingling numbness on the palate.

"You people can jam and brew… I'll admit that much."

Sek inclined his head ever so slightly to the left. "The composition of both is my own creation. Such a pleasure to meet a monkey of taste and culture."

Volinski bristled, but before he could respond Nirin arrived at the table, cooing over the main dish as she placed it before them and began serving – Sek first, then Volinski, then herself.

The meal was delicious, a deeply satisfying blend of chewy pastry, that strange cheese, fresh fish, and that rich, pungent, numbing spice blend that seemed to make all his senses come alive. The ale was perfectly matched and mellowed the edge from the peppers even as it gave him a clear buzz. He started nodding along to the bassline again.

Anywhere else, with anyone else, this would be a perfect way to spend an afternoon.

Volinski looked at Nirin.

She should be squealing with glee while she plucks out his eyes with a pair of pliers, not doing this doting girlfriend dinner party shit. Why is she— ah, shit, she's never been alone with a high-caste before, has she?

Not since Bassac.

There was a poise and confidence to her that he'd never seen before, as if she were an actress who'd been handed a script and a stage and then thrown herself into the role. There was none of her stream-of-consciousness babble, none of her sing-song voice, none of the obsessiveness over human nerd culture, none of those broken coping mechanisms she'd acquired over the years.

What had replaced it terrified him.

She's gone from a weeb to a goddamn geisha.

The conversation flowed freely. Nirin talked about things he'd never heard her talk about before – her time in Citadel Space, her thoughts on the Migrant Fleet, all the cheeky gossip she'd heard from the mess – but what shook him was the way she said it. Her manner was, if not mature, then glib and entertaining, as if she were a hostess at a dinner party instead of a tech-obsessed, shut-in geek.

Underneath that, though, in a place in his heart that he was ashamed to admit even existed, part of him found this change deeply appealing. Even arousing.

He felt sick admitting this.

He found himself falling into conversation with Sek about mêlée fighting, trading stories and asking about the mace at Sek's belt. Turned out it was his old sigil of office, a ritual antique made of lacquered hardwood and polished edges of something called 'Pillar-stone.'

Sek himself inquired about Volinski's gear. Despite himself, the Brazilian waxed poetic about the HUSSAR rig and its history, both sharing a laugh at how batshit crazy the soldiers of the Commonwealth had been to strap rocket-powered wings to their backs. Mass effect technology had since made it a much safer device. Sek seemed genuinely interested in the gleaming metal wings, though he didn't pass up the opportunity to quip about 'flying monkeys.'

Volinski found himself torn between wanting to punch him or share another drink. Okay, you're still an asshole, but you're an interesting asshole.

Once they'd finished their meal, and another ale, Nirin began collecting their plates and clearing the table.

Sek turned to Volinski. "We must speak of business, you and I. Regarding your quarian."

"What, she can't stay for this?"

"No. It would be better if she did not."

Volinski sighed and turned to speak to her, but Nirin was ignoring him and facing Sek, her hands crossed at her waist and her poise demure.

"Did I do well, Master?"

Sek nodded, his head neutral. "Indeed, kashka. You may leave us now. We will speak again later."

Nirin squealed in delight and almost skipped out of the room when she left, not even bothering to say 'goodbye' to Volinski as she passed the guards. He knew she'd be in a spectacular mood for the rest of the day, and he was, if he was being honest, filled with an unyielding rage that he was not the cause of it. Envy was a bitter sin.

The batarian noticed, of course.

"Your quarian," smirked Sek, "who was her Master?"

Volinski grimaced. "Bassac."

Sek shifted his head until it was set perfectly in the center of his gaze. "I see."

"What's this? No snide remarks? Not gonna puff out your chest again, seu filho da puta?" Volinski growled.

"No. I do not jest with you when I say I have no affection for Bassac, or any of his kind."

Volinski tensed. "You know him?"

"We are not friends, but Bassac is high-caste and dozens of his family members serve in the Fist of Khar'shan, so of course we crossed paths socially."

The untouchable monster who ruined Niri's whole life, who still has her waking me up with her nightmares, and this asshole just bumps into him at weekend parties all the damn time.

This fucking life.

Sek continued. "He himself controls one of the largest high-caste slaving… 'pools'? 'Corrals'? I do not know the word in monkey language."

" 'Cartels'?" suggested Volinski. This fucking guy adds 'monkey' to everything. Wonder if it's a tic.

Sek nodded. "Yes, that is accurate."

"Okay. So then what's your issue with him?" said Volinski, sipping a mouthful of ale.

"His blatant disregard for human rights."

Volinski choked and spat out his beer.

Another flash of fangs. "That was, of course, a joke. He and I both care for human rights about as much as humans do."

"Is every Hegemon-caste this much of a smartass prick?"

"Yes."

Volinski shook his head as Sek continued.

"My issue is with the political and religious direction of my species' new ruling elite," said Sek, and Volinski found himself caught up in the batarian's increasingly passionate oratory, "They do not deserve to rule. What use is it to slaughter your entire herd or burn down your own garden and then claim mastery over the blood and ashes? Is that a measure of greatness, or simply the product of stupidity? This is neither the time nor the place for a dissertation on the subject, but know this: they are sacrificing long-sight mastery for short-sight glory, and I cannot respect that, let alone support it. That they are polluting and squandering the inheritance of the Great Intervention, with its thousand years of magnificence and culture, is merely my final reason for despising them."

Volinski gave a slow, sarcastic clap. "Bull. Fuckin'. Shit. You were in the Unit, you knew exactly what you were getting up to and don't even try to deny it, you—"

"No." The batarian shook his head, making a strange growling sound. "You misunderstand. I do not mean to… 'whitewash'? Is that the word? Whitewash my career in the Unit. It was, objectively, glorious. And yet this Emperor and his court lackeys, like Bassac, have taken that from me, and in doing so, damned my kind to a new dark age. That is why I am here, with Cerberus, and with you now."

"As if you have a choice. You're Hegemon-caste. The Emperor declared you anathema."

Sek grunted. "Indeed he did, and whilst it is not my place to question the supremacy of the Most High and Dreaded Emperor—"

"This shit's like the Matriarca with the Thirty, right? Even when you hate these assholes you still gotta salute 'em?"

"…You might say that, monkey. Regardless, I wish to change this state of affairs."

Volinski leaned in and sneered. "And why should I care about any of that?"

"Because neither you nor your quarian pleasure-slave are getting stronger over time. Nor better, as you would see it. If you help achieve my goals, I can aid your own. You want to help her, yes? Take some of her pain away?"

"Of course I do. Like you'd fucking understand any of that."

Sek shrugged. "I had a favored mate once. She could converse with me, on a basic level, but she was always curious, and I enjoyed that. She could play a drum and do some maths. And cook. This pleased me. Her high-caste-status and sturdy nature was also excellent for breeding."

"Yeah, that's a storybook vesgo romance right there. Fucking beautiful."

"Regardless of your weak moralizing and performative virtue, my point stands. You wish to help her?"

Volinski felt his heart cave in. "Yes. Yes, I do."

"Mm," said Sek, nodding as he contemplated the matter, "Undoing Bassac's damage will be difficult, but not impossible. She will never truly heal, but she will… grow, or at least survive alongside you."

"Yeah, see, 'survive' ain't exactly what I was aiming for. You understand."

Sek shrugged again. "Is it not better than the alternatives?"

"Maybe. So what are you gonna do for me?"

"I can… speak to her. Sometimes you will need to be present, other times you will not." Sek leaned in and stared at Volinski. "I will attempt to alter certain neuro-linguistic frameworks, boundary limitations, and her reward/punishment circuits. The ways her neurons bind and the way her body reacts to stimuli. Some quarian issues, like matters of group identity, meaningful work, and communal bonding will also need to be dealt with."

Volinski stared back, mouth agape and a slight suspicion building. "You sound like a goddamn shrink, like Chambers or the Matriarca or some shit. How'd you learn this? Why do you think it could work?"

Sek folded his hands together. "You're familiar with the SIU, no? You've read the report the high-caste Minsta female put together?"

Oh, Tiff is gonna love that description. I wonder if it has anything to do with the blond hair.

"Yeah, I read it, but I already knew the gist of it. Whole lotta sadistic shit, and if you wanna call the rest 'culture,' go ahead."

"I wouldn't expect a monkey to understand." Another fanged grin. "Though a Brazilian? Maybe."

"Shocking that the Emperor decided to kill you and your whole fucking caste."

"The 'bottom line,' as you would say, is that we have… extensive experience in working with the minds of almost all alien subjects. I commanded an entire Mace of the Intervention. I am familiar with this business. I can help you help her."

"Right," Volinski grunted, "and what do you want?"

Sek grinned. "Whatever do you mean?"

"Don't play coy with me, asshole. Never met a batarian who didn't have a supernatural ability to look after his own first."

"You know us all too well, it seems. I will… request your aid in the future. It will not be a small favor. I expect you to answer the call."

"Well if that isn't the most ominous fucking thing I've heard all day…"

"Do we have an accord?"

Volinski's expression darkened. "Not yet, no. I can work with a little quid pro quo, but there's limits. Serious limits, you get me?"

"Monkey, you wound me," said Sek, his voice sly, "Whatever are you implying?"

"That I'm not gonna do any sick, batarian-style shit, is what I'm saying," said Volinski, throwing up his hands, "No slaving. No kidnapping. No rape. No abuse. No sacrifices to the Dark Gods or other horrible nonsense. That kinda shit."

"It pains these eyes that you would even suggest it."

Volinski folded his arms. "I bet."

Sek smiled. "It will not involve wanton 'evil,' if that is what troubles you. Or at least no more than you already partake in. What matters is that I will call upon you to return this favor, and that you must answer the call. Do we have an agreement?"

Volinski stood up to leave, grimacing as he weighed his options. Much as it galled him, there probably wasn't any other way to help Nirin. "I'm leery of the implications, but… yeah. Okay. We've got a deal."

Sek grinned, baring a mouth full of fangs half the size of Volinski's fingers. "Excellent. We shall speak again. Until then, may the Dark Gods lend their strength to yours."

"Uh, yeah… normally a 'see ya' will do, but whatever. One more thing… you called her 'kashka' earlier. The translator didn't help with that one. What's it mean?"

Sek tilted his head slightly to the right and smirked again. "It is a high-caste slang term for a… favored subject, a warm body of interest. Normally, the youngest, most fertile, or most satisfying pleasure-slave or concubine, but it can refer to any of your stable who especially delights you. With fine music or cooking, for example. Or through other means."

Volinski narrowed his eyes and tilted his head to the right, and then kept tilting until his ear was flush with his shoulder. "…Fuck you, and I'll see you around."

Far from insulted, Sek actually smiled at the display. "Indeed, monkey Volinski. Indeed."