Chapter XVI - Taria's Favor

Once the decontamination protocol has run its course, and the airlock has opened, four men calmly start carrying the stretcher Caryll is on towards the nearest hospital. His conditions are stable enough that there is no need to hurry. The fact that he is conscious is also a good sign; however, I do feel sorry for the poor souls who will have to endure his chatter the whole way.

"Well, see you in a bit, Derek," he says as the people carrying him take a different turn in one of the Citadel's alleyways. His words hit a little too close to home, as this is the last time I'll ever walk through the SSV Verdun's airlock. He is still unaware of my premature departure from the team, even though at this point pretty much the whole crew - including Rachel - has been informed.

Whatever my future in terms of deployment is, I want to spend these days of "shore leave" with Elia. She doesn't know I'm on the Citadel, and I asked Jonas not to inform her. This little surprise reunion I'm planning, however, won't keep me from having to work, as I do need to address both the matter of my re-deployment, and that of Iris' relocation. She has been allowed to stay on the ship until I find her a place to stay, or until the Verdun's departure, which is in three days. I do not doubt that people like Commander Corthias or Captain Reed would put her in an orphanage. In a way, me being in charge of this task is fortunate for her: be it the feeling that she wouldn't be safe there - or the resentment for orphanages based on personal experience - I find the idea of leaving her in one repulsive.

That is what keeps going through my mind for almost the entirety of my walk to Elia's flat. I arrive at my destination without having found a real solution. The best one that comes to mind would be to rent a small flat or hotel room for her, but I'm not sure how easy finding one will be, with all the people that have moved to the Citadel since the war started. Unsatisfied with the results of my brainstorming, I let go of the line of thought, and instead focus on the moment I'll be able to hold Elia again.

"Uhm, hello? Eliana Ezail" I say in a made-up, sales-pitch-like voice, "I'm here to talk to Ms. Eliana Ezail. Are you home?". A muffled, yet recognizable voice comes from behind the door, "I swear to God, Kara, if it's another guy handing out enlistment pamphlets...". The door opens, "Yes, what do...". A squeal of excitement interrupts her mid-sentence; she leaps towards me and wraps her arms around me. The many times this event has repeated itself ensure that I don't get knocked to the ground when she jumps in my arms.

A knock on the door echoes in the living room. "Were you two expecting visits?" I ask, looking towards Kara and my sister with a confused expression. Elia shakes her head, and I get up to open the door. "Perhaps Jonas decided to swing by and say hello," I try and guess. When I open the door, I realize that it's not him. I do, however, recognize who knocked. Not by their face, but rather from their mask: it's Taria'Nari, the quarian on our team. "Cute place," she says, taking a small peek inside, waving to Elia and Kara. "Yeah, it's cozy. Why are you here?" I say. "Straight to the point. I like it," she replies. She hands me a folded sheet of paper, which I assume is a message. "Romantic at heart, huh?" I tease her, "Extranet's too impersonal for you?". I unfold the note and find an extranet address written in ink on it. A small doubt sneaks its way into my thoughts, believing for a moment that she is actually doing what I teased her about. "Did... did you just give me your number?"

"In a way, I guess," she says, chuckling lightly. "Look, don't flatter yourself, you bosh'tet. I need a favor from you, contact me on this address when you get the chance.".

"A favor?" I ask, confused. "You heard me," she answers, "I'll send you the details once you've contacted me. See you around.". She starts walking down the hallway, before turning towards me again, "Oh, almost forgot, I'm not the best hacker out there.". I close the door and walk back to the table where Kara and Elia are.

I log onto my omnitool, holding the small sheet of paper Taria handed me earlier. Character for character, I type out its contents, which connects me to an extranet page. On the page is a set of security questions, asking me to state my name, rank within the Alliance Navy, name of my sibling... questions to which Taria knows the answers. The last one reads, "Taria'Nari vas Idenna nar Rayya is the greatest hacker in the known galaxy. Do you agree?". Scoffin, my finger immediately hovers over the "yes" button. What Taria said right before she left resonates in my head, 'Almost forgot, I'm not the best hacker out there.'

Without me even noticing, my finger is now hovering on the "no" button, only hesitating for a few instants before actually pressing it. A brief, jingle-like sound comes out of my omnitool, as it displays a big green checkmark. After a couple of seconds, the screen changes back, now showing a chat room with an anonymous user. Immediately, a message appears on my screen, "I was beginning to think you wouldn't show.".

"Well, I was too busy playing twenty questions," is what I type back, also asking her to tell me what this favor is all about. "All in due time," she replies almost instantly, then asking me if I remember that time where I got into a fight with a bunch of drunken batarians at a bar.

"You hacked my files, didn't you?". Once again, I get my reply with such haste that it almost seems like the messages are pre-written, "Nope. Just looked at some old article. You made local news on Zakera ward." She then follows up by linking the piece of news she mentioned.

"What does that have to do with anything?" I ask her.

"Mind paying it a visit and walking down memory lane? I'll meet you at the counter."

As I'm about to switch off my omnitool, a follow-up message arrives, "And remember: don't buy any drinks to strangers, Clyde.". I'm guessing this is another clue, like the "not the best hacker" one. As for the name, I'm guessing it's a cover. Before I have time to ask her to clear my mind of any doubts, a notification informs me that the unknown user has disconnected.

The loudness of the music in this place makes it hard to hear my own thoughts, which is likely the reason why Taria decided to meet here. After waiting over fifteen minutes for her to show up, I ask the turian bartender for a beer. He puts it down on the counter, leans towards me and utters, "Last time I saw you here, I lost six loyal clients and a set of glasses. Do I need to order a new set now?". I chuckle, "Is there another group of drunk batarians who wants to skin me alive because I'm with the Alliance? If not, then you have nothing to worry about."

"I sure hope so," he scoffs before walking away to serve other customers. I take a sip from the beer bottle and look around me, trying in vain to find Taria amidst the crowd. "Are you waiting for someone, or are you just broody?" I hear from my left. I turn around to see the woman sitting beside me at the counter facing me. "Maybe a little bit of both," I say, looking at her. Brown hair collected in a rather short ponytail behind her head; looking at her face, I'd say she's around her mid-thirties. The lights in the club make it a little hard to identify the precise color of her eyes, but it seems to be brownish, just like her hair.

She chuckles briefly at my response. "Well, I'm out of creds. Care to buy me a drink.". Her slightly pushy approach - and her immediate request for a drink - suggest me that we were meant to meet, and that Taria is likely the one behind this; therefore, remembering her last message before logging off, I tell her no. She looks at me, a smirk forming on her face. "Well, fair enough," she says, "I'm Bonnie, by the way.". I introduce myself with the fake name that Taria texted me, which immediately makes me realize that yes, we were indeed meant to meet. Taria shows up just a few instants later, "Look at you two, so cute."

"Bonnie and Clyde, huh?" I say, "Clever.". She sits down beside Bonnie, "Well, the extranet suggested that they were a famous human couple. Had you two been quarian, I'd have gone with Heri and Yanna.". A shake of her head and a "nevermind" is her response to the puzzled looks the two of us gave her.

"In any case, the weather outside is lovely. Shall we go for a walk?" Taria suggests, likely hiding a smirk under the helmet. "You barely sat down," I remark. "And we're on a space station," Bonnie adds. Taria stands up. "Did I stutter?" she says, before making her way to the exit. Bonnie looks at me, shakes her head, and follows suit. At this point, her continuous joking around almost makes it so that, in order to follow through on this favor, I need to remind myself that I won't necessarily have to see her again.

"Isn't this part of the Ward charming? The lights, the view, the wonderful people." Taria says after about an hour of walking, as we wander through a series of unlit alleyways, filled to the brim with unsavory and boozed-up characters eyeing us, almost as if waiting for the perfect opportunity to mug us. The pungent stench of alcohol, vomit, and garbage is apparently too much for Bonnie's nostrils to handle, as she walks the entire road with a hand in front of her nose. Taria, on the other hand, has the benefit of turning off her suit's olfactory systems, which I'm assuming she did before leading us into this place. I'm the only one out of the three of us able to endure the smell; after all, it's just like home.

Taria makes us take a turn into an even darker, dead-ended alley. Once we've reached its end, Taria calls for a "kiddo" to come out. The lack of a response makes her sigh out loud and say, "In the alley, Ally.".

"Wasn't so hard, was it?" A voice answers from behind us. We turn around to see a figure sitting in a dark corner. It stands up and comes toward us, revealing the face of a girl that can't be older than nineteen. "It's ok, Sarah," She says, "You can come out now.". A small, rusty door opens, and a smaller, shier figure timidly steps out of it, then hastily rushes towards the other, grabbing her hand and leaning against her once she reaches her. From a first glance, I'd say they're sisters; however, the differences in their appearance are evident. The eldest of the two is blonde, and with brown eyes; whereas the youngest, Sarah, has raven hair and eyes of a curiously familiar deep green color. Even though it is all just guesswork, I'd say she's around the age of ten. What puzzles me are their clothes: they are clearly of cheap make, yet too clean for them to be living in the streets; in the streets I grew up in, people would look in great envy at such cleanliness.

"Have you got it, Ally?". The older girl nods and turns on her omnitool: another commodity people back home would dream of. Taria turns her own omnitool on and syncs it with Ally's. "It's all in there," the girl says, "personnel, shifts, guard patrol routines... When you go in, it should be Teris and Kaius' shift on guard duty on Sector 3. They're dumb and easily distractable. Start chatting with them about Fleet and Flotilla, and you can stall them for an entire day."

"Appreciate it, kid," Taria says as he kneels down at Sarah's height and puts a hand on her shoulder. She, who had been staring at the floor for the duration of the conversation, glances up at Taria. "This... this is the last one, right?" She says, shyly. "Yeah, I promise," Taria says, as she reaches into one of her suit's many pockets, pulls out a credit chit, and hands it to Ally, "Auntie Taria's got you covered.". Ally looks at the chit for a second and says, "I thought you said you'd pay us when the job was done?". Taria stands back up. "Yeah, it's a little extra on the house. Take care," she says before they thank her and leave.

After the two girls are gone, I walk up to Taria, wanting a much-awaited answer to all this, "Can we cut it with all the scavenger hunt shenanigans and skip the part where you tell me what this favor is about?"

"Yeah, yeah, chill," she says, "I was going to, anyway, now that we're all set for the heist."

"All set for the what now?"