Chapter 20: Planning for the Future

[RED LEVEL SECURE MESSAGE]

To: Amb. Din Korlak

From: Chm. Maro Vul

Subject: Reassignment

[Attachments: Travel Voucher/Specifics]

Greetings, Ambassador Korlak,

By edict of the Board of Administrators, you are being recalled to Irune. I apologize for the abruptness of this order, but the Vol-clan has need of your expertise in diplomacy. You will be provided with a more thorough explanation upon your arrival. Arrangements have already been made for you regarding passage; you will report to the vessel Dahoon at 0800 standard time tomorrow and depart from the Citadel immediately. Details are provided on the attached document. Remember, speed is of the essence.

Respectfully,

Maro Vul, First Chairman of the Vol-clan Board of Administrators

Din Korlak collapsed the message on his terminal and leaned back in his seat. He wasn't sure why he kept looking at it. After all, it wasn't as if its content would change whenever he reread the message. Surely, there were better things he could do with his time?

He looked around his quarters that had been provided to him, and decided that there really wasn't. It was a rather expansive room, as far as starship accommodations went, with all the amenities one could ask for. But, in terms of entertainment or productivity, Din's allocations were decidedly lacking.

This must have been a real rush job, Din mused to himself.

The ambassador was reasonably sure he knew the reason behind this sudden recall order. The war with the Federation wasn't going so well, he knew. In fact, from what he'd gleaned, the Turians were getting their asses whipped raw. The Hierarchy's spokespeople tried to make things seem less disastrous, but reality wasn't being very accommodating. Millions of causalities and constant defeats simply couldn't be seen as anything other than a catastrophe.

But unfortunately, the Turians' debacle was also the Vol-clan's debacle, which soured any kind of satisfaction Din might have felt. He wondered how many Volus had died for the Turians' stupid pride and arrogance, how much money they had siphoned off from the Protectorate to fund this war of theirs. Too many and too much, as far as Din was concerned.

And of course, the Council remained adamant in their neutrality. As far as the Asari and Salarians were concerned, this war was the Turians' problem, not theirs. Din didn't blame them for that; it was only natural that they would want to keep their people as far away from that melting pot of horror.

What he did blame them for was the fact that they extended the same attitude towards the Hierarchy's client races, none of whom had any choice in the matter. Beyond the tepid "thoughts and prayers," drivel they trotted out now and again, there was barely a peep from the Council on their behalf. Din couldn't find it in himself to be surprised. This had been the way of things for centuries, so why break tradition now?

Din sighed and stared up at the ceiling, which looked as if it had been recently polished. With nothing better to occupy him, his mind began to put forth ideas as to what the ultimate reason behind his recall was. It had something to do with the war; that much was obvious. Equally obvious was that it was unlikely to be anything good. Emissaries generally didn't get called back home when things were going well.

Had the Federation decided to finally attack the Volus worlds properly, instead of just picking off any vessels that came around the active warzones? Din didn't think that was likely. Trying to invade their worlds would be a difficult and time-consuming effort by simple virtue of the ammonia-based environments they had. The humans' efforts could be better spent prosecuting the war on the Turians' worlds. Still, the thought of Federation ships raining fire down on their worlds or unleashing those bioengineered monsters he'd glimpsed at from various news footages was enough to make him sick to his stomach, and Din quickly put the thought out of his head.

The more likely scenario was that the Turians, who were still being walloped on the battlefield, were going to try and squeeze more out of the Volus. In his mind's eye, Din pictured a Turian delegate swaggering up to the governing body of the Protectorate and presenting the new terms.

"We need another thirty trillion credits to build some new ships because we keep losing them in naval battles," the imaginary Turian said. Din made sure to make him sound pompous and snooty, with an exaggerated drawl. "Oh, and you don't mind if we raid your warehouses and eezo refineries while we're at it, do you? Great. What do you get out of it, you ask? Why, our continued protection from the depredations of those humans, of course! Speaking of which, we're in need of more warm bodies to throw at them, so if you wouldn't mind drafting some more of your people to send into the meat grinder, that would be swell. A couple million or so should do for now. We'll be back later to gouge more stuff out of you all."

Din then made the Turian spontaneously combust. Yes, it was a petty and immature gesture, but the ambassador wasn't feeling very charitable at the moment. Actually, he hadn't felt charitable for almost three years now.

His mental play having run its course, Din checked the clock on his omni-tool and noted the time. His shuttle would be arriving at Irune in less than an hour. Grunting, he heaved his portly frame out of his seat and toddled over to where he'd stashed his luggage.

Better get everything in order, he thought. I have a feeling that I won't have time to relax.

#

Din was just storing the last of his baggage away when the ship arrived at Irune. He paused in his packing to stare out one of the viewports in his room and take in the Volus home planet. A great blue orb of ammonia oceans and seas, festooned with continents that seemed to gleam a warm golden-brown, stared back at him.

The ship passed into the planet's orbit with barely a jolt and continued its way down. Just looking at the world in all its placid glory lifted Din's spirits. He could practically smell the fresh ammonia of its air and, in spite of himself, Din felt eager to make landfall.

As he watched, the planet's surface grew ever closer until he could make out a great metropolis of gleaming lights and shining metal buildings. The capital city of Lenos was as beautiful as he remembered, the great jewel of Irune shining up at him, almost seeming to welcome him back.

How long has it been since I've walked through its streets? Din wondered silently. It feels like years.

Soon, the main spaceport of the city came into view, bustling with activity. Starships of all sizes and types packed the area, luggage carts ferrying their cargo towards designated drop sites. Disembarking passengers, port employees, vendors and a host of other Volus streamed to and fro along all the port. Fortunately for Din, he was headed for a private section, so he had no need to worry about the crowds.

The ship finally landed on a pad far removed from the main sector of the spaceport and the pilot's voice cackled in through the comms. "We've arrived, ambassador," he said, quite unnecessarily in Din's opinion. "The official from the Board of Administrators will meet you in the VIP waiting room."

"Thank you," said Din. He shouldered a knapsack which contained his most important items, leaving the rest of his luggage for the baggage handlers, and headed out towards the ship's boarding ramp. It was already dropped, and he trundled his way down to step out on Irune's surface. Even through his suit, Din could feel the familiar pressure of its atmosphere embrace him, as though receiving him like a long lost son. He could hardly wait to get it off and feel the fresh air on his skin for first time in who knew how long.

The VIP waiting room was, unsurprisingly, not heavily occupied. In fact, aside from a smattering of what were undoubtedly very affluent Volus, there was nobody there. As a result, Din had no problem finding the welcoming committee the Board had sent to pick him up.

They were a group of three, the foremost a male dressed in fine livery, denoting him to be of somewhat important standing. The other two were a security detail, wearing sealed combat armor and with guns specialized for their physiology in their hands. While it was true that the Volus didn't hold the romanticized view of battle that so many other races did, they still had their dedicated fighters and plenty enemy combatants had discovered that they were a lot more effective than first impressions might suggest.

"Ambassador Din Korlak?" the official asked as Din walked over to him. His skin was a healthy shade of pink and generously fleshed.

"That's me," Din replied. "Were you expecting someone else on a chartered Protectorate Administration vessel?"

"Uh…no, sir," the official said, appearing slightly flustered. Din guessed that he had either been recently elevated to his position, or someone from on high had simply assigned him to play escort. To his credit, he quickly mollified himself and dipped his head in a respectful bow.

"Chief Reception Officer Torum Bov, at your service," he introduced himself. "I hope that your trip to the homeworld went without issue?"

"It was pleasant enough," answered Din. "A bit of a rush getting aboard and not much to do on the ship, but otherwise, it was a decent flight. I would advise that you stock up on entertainment amenities next time, though. Or at least something that would allow passengers to get some work done."

"Noted," Torum said. He gestured off to the distance. "If you will follow me, ambassador, we have a limo waiting to take you to your lodgings at the Vol Netim." He offered a knowing smirk. "I imagine that you are eager to take that suit off."

"Oh yes," said Din. "I trust that the rest of my luggage will find its way there?"

"Yes, sir. In fact, I believe it has already been packed into the limo."

Din blinked behind his mask. That was fast, even for VIP treatment. The Board clearly didn't want to waste any time. In Din's experience, that kind of alacrity didn't bode well.

"Very well. Lead the way, Reception Officer," Din said, taking care not to let his internal feelings show in his voice.

Torum led Din out of the VIP waiting room, the two security personnel falling behind them with an admirable amount of discipline. Volus bodies couldn't pull off the professional strut that the taller, more limber races could, but they still did a decent job of it.

Within moments, they were in the parking garage, where a sleek limousine was waiting, the thrusters on its underside humming softly. The passenger's door swung open to admit Din, and he clambered inside to take a seat next to the tinted window on the opposite side. Torum came after, sitting down a polite distance away, and the door whispered shut.

No sooner had it closed when there was a muted banging sound on the hull, no doubt one of the security people signaling to the driver that it was clear to go. The limo gently rose up into the air and sped forward. A few turns later, and they were out of the spaceport and onto the main expressway headed to the city.

Din took the opportunity to look around at its interior. The limo's setup was quite luxurious; padded seats, a minibar with an array of drinks and glasses, and a small snack vendor off in the corner. Din settled down into his seat, reveling in the exquisite comfort. He looked back at the minibar with its refreshments, and gave mental shrug.

Hell with it. I might as well enjoy myself while I can.

Din reached up to his head and pressed the twin release-buttons on either side. There was a hiss of escaping air and his suit's mask came free. The air that greeted him was cool and smooth, revitalizing him on an almost fundamental level. He sucked in a deep breath, savoring the fresh ammonia that was so much richer than the stale atmosphere he had been breathing in his pressure suit.

"Ah," he sighed in pleasure, "that's much better." He looked over at Torum. "It gets very stuffy in there, don't you agree?"

Torum shrugged. "I couldn't say, ambassador. I've never been off Irune, so I never had to put one on." He stared at Din's suit, looking decidedly uncomfortable. "In truth, I don't think I could handle being stuck inside one of those things. The thought of being sealed within a layer of microelectronic systems and synthetic polymers, knowing that it's the one thing keeping me from literally exploding, makes my stomach churn." He started, and favored Din with a guilty look. "Sorry, sir. You probably don't want to be reminded about that."

Din waved a hand dismissively. "I'm used to it. I can't say that I don't notice the suit, but I don't feel suffocated by it."

He reached over and plucked one of the proffered glasses, along with a cylinder labeled "Irune Safral," the most favored liquor among the Volus. Din poured himself a generous serving and gazed at the phosphorescent red liquid. He couldn't remember the last time he'd had anything like this. The bars on the Citadel were woefully lacking in drinks for his people; since the Volus were an extreme minority there, coupled with the fact that their poison of choice was quite literally poisonous to every other race, most proprietors regarded stocking them as an unnecessary expense.

Din took a dainty sip, letting its sweet, fruity flavor dance over his tongue, and swallowed with relish. Note to self: secure a few crates of good Vol-clan spirits before going back to the Citadel, he thought. At least then I'll have something to look forward to there.

He took another draught, this time a much larger helping, and looked over at Torum. Din pondered whether he should ask him if knew anything about his sudden recall, but quickly dismissed the thought. Reception Officers, even a chief, were far too low on the food chain to be given information on a red-level classification. So, Din opted for another track.

"Tell me, Reception Officer, how are things faring in the Protectorate?" he asked.

Torum blinked in confusion. "What do you mean, ambassador?"

"How are things?" Din repeated. "You know, public opinion, stock market performance, business production, and so on? While I consider myself well-informed about what's happening in the Protectorate, I've found that the Administrators have a habit of omitting details they don't think are important in their memos, and I haven't been back to our territories in quite some time."

"Oh!" exclaimed Torum in sudden understanding. "Well…our people aren't very happy these days, I can tell you."

You mean that we aren't glad about being forced into a war that doesn't concern us? That fighting and dying simply because the Turians didn't get a groveling apology from the Federation doesn't fill us with merriment? Oh, say it isn't so.

"I guessed as much," said Din. "How deep does the discontentment run?"

"There have been several protests on all of our worlds against the war and the Turians," said Torum. "Anti-Hierarchy sentiment has steadily grown in the last year. It's gotten to the point that violence has even broken out in a few places over this whole thing."

Well, that's certainly worth noting, Din thought, with no small amount of surprise. In general, the Volus avoided physical conflict whenever possible; the fact that members of his race were angry enough to engage in actual brawls spoke volumes about their displeasure.

"Who still supports the Hierarchy?" he asked.

Torum shrugged. "Mostly the heads of the big corporations and their employees, particularly those dedicated to producing arms and munitions. Elkoss Combine is making a killing with all the contracts from the Turians."

Din wasn't surprised there. It figured that the only ones happy with the current state of affairs would be those who stood to profit from them. The Turians were undoubtedly commissioning everything they could think of to support the war effort, which meant a lot of Volus were seeing their bank accounts grow nice and fat. Din had yet to meet a fellow Vol-clan that would react to his income suddenly being cut off with anything other than outrage.

So long as the Turians pay them, the corporate heads and whoever else shares in the wealth will champion their cause like it's a divine mandate, Din thought sourly. And if the sums are anything like what I can imagine, they'll be very zealous in their patriotism.

Still, at least they weren't facing economic ruin. But if the war dragged on for too long and the Turians didn't start doing any better, then those contracts were going to dry up, and so would the money. Then, the Protectorate would really start to feel the pinch.

"Anything else of note?" Din asked.

Torum sat silently, features scrunched up in thought. After a moment, he shook his head. "No, ambassador. Other than what I just said, we've actually been doing pretty well." He let out a short laugh. "Things could be worse, right?"

"Oh, yes, they could be," said Din softly. His mind flashed back to the message from the Board. A chill crept up his spine despite the limo's perfectly-adjusted temperature.

And I really hope they haven't taken that turn.

#

The ride from the spaceport proved to be a quick one. To Din, it seemed as if the trip had barely started when they were at the main entrance to the Vol Netim's grounds. A guard in a suit of power armor came around to his window, and Din rolled it down.

"Please state your name and business, visitor," he said in a tone so professional that Din half-expected him to flash a certification dossier.

"Din Korlak, ambassador for the Protectorate, here on official Administration business," answered Din, his own tone dull as tarnished silver.

The guard checked a display on his omni-tool, and then nodded. "You are clear to enter, ambassador."

Of course I am. Din just barely resisted the temptation to roll his eyes.

"Thank you," he said brusquely, rolling up the window before the last syllable had left his mouth. The limo moved forward and into the grounds of the Vol Netim.

The complex itself had once been the palace of Cor Calum, an inordinately wealthy Trade Lord from the time before the Volus had reached the stars. Though he had not been the highest in rank among his peers, Cor was counted among the most brilliant administrators to have ever lived, credited with establishing a universal currency among the hundreds of tribes and a set of laws which had served the Vol-clan to this day. Upon his death, the palace had been repurposed into the seat of the Volus government.

It was a truly massive feat of construction. With an area of over fifty hectares, it was indisputably the largest complex in the entire Protectorate. The road they drove on was flanked on either side by great pillars, upon which stood statues dedicated to the most famous Volus in history. Each one was shaped with the finest precision, down to the smallest details of the faces.

Looking up at the towering effigies, Din felt a surge of pride fill him. Many of the other races dismissed the Volus as little more than small, portly beings whose only talents involved working with money. But these monuments were proof that they were capable of so much more.

Not that the Council would ever acknowledge it, he thought. Does artwork or mercantile expertise help keep the galaxy in line? No, they only care if you can give them an army to help enforce their will.

His good mood suddenly gone, Din sat in bitter silence until they reached the main building. The limo settled down on the ground with a soft bump. Torum exited first and said, "If you'll follow me, ambassador, I'll show you to your quarters in the complex."

Din nodded in acknowledgement, and followed him out of the limo. Two other Volus had come out with a trolley and were already unloading the trunk with economical speed. Din trailed behind Torum as he started up the flight of stairs leading to the main entrance.

It was an impressive entrance, to be sure. The door itself was both wide and tall enough for a freight truck to pass through without issue, and was flanked by a pair of buttresses that stood several stories tall. The rest of the building was equally impressive; domes and towers and high walls stretched out and around, seemingly without end. It was enough to make a Volus feel even smaller than usual.

They passed through the door and into the main hall of the Vol Netim. Inside, it was a veritable hive of activity that a non-Volus might not expect from them. Din's people raced from here to there, some carrying tablets that no doubt held important documents, some talking on comm links in rapid fire speech about this or that, and some just wandering aimlessly. Guards could be seen stationed at posts near key areas, many of whom wore power armor.

Din grunted and pushed his way through the throng, tailing Torum as best he could. He'd forgotten just how busy things could be at the Vol Netim. The Chief Reception Officer seemed to be right at home in this environment, weaving effortlessly between bodies like a Hanar in water.

I've been spoiled by the Citadel's open areas, Din thought.

Eventually, they arrived at an elevator and they clambered in. Unfortunately, they weren't the only passengers; no less than a dozen other Volus were already there, so personal space quickly became nonexistent. After a very uncomfortable moment, Din and Torum stepped off on one of the upper levels with palpable relief.

"This way, ambassador," Torum said. He led Din down the hallway to a suite and fished inside his tunic before pulling out a keycard.

"Here you go," said Torum as he handed the keycard off to Din. "Room number 402, VIP suite. Your luggage should be arriving momentarily. Please let me know if you require anything to make your stay more comfortable."

"Thank you, Reception Officer. I will," Din promised. Torum gave a slight bow and trundled off to whatever other duties he had. Din swiped the keycard over the door's scanner and it blipped green. He ushered himself inside and took in his new surroundings.

While the room wasn't on the level of a high-class hotel suite, it was still a large and quite comfortable setup. There was a kitchenette off to one side, complete with a cooking unit on one counter and a mini-fridge. The bedroom was situated in an adjacent alcove, boasting a bed, a desk and a personal computer terminal. There were other bits of furniture around, but Din wasn't interested in them. Instead, he made straight for the bed and flung himself on it, enjoying the feeling of sinking into the memory foam mattress.

When was the last time I slept in a bed without my suit? Din asked himself. Come to think of it, when was the last time I actually slept in a real bed and not a tiny cot inside a biosphere pod?

A loud beeping sound rang out from his omni-tool, startling him out of his thoughts. He sat up and looked at the display; it said that he had a call incoming from the First Chairman himself. Bemused, Din accepted the call and a holo-screen popped up.

Maro Vul was a much older Volus, with heavy jowls, deep wrinkles and hardly any neck to speak of. Which, considering the body-type of their kind, really said a lot. Long white whiskers bristled out from his chin and brow while the wattles on either side of his nose drooped ponderously. The First Chairman flashed Din a winning smile.

"Ah, Ambassador Korlak!" he said jovially. "I see you've made it to Irune safely. How was the trip?"

Din was momentarily taken aback by Maro's demeanor. This was honestly not what he had been expecting when he arrived. He had been prepared for angry rantings, panicked wailing, or just flat-out incoherent screaming, but definitely not this. Judging by Maro's good cheer, there would appear to be absolutely nothing wrong in the galaxy. And that made Din distinctly anxious.

"It wasn't too bad," Din said, slightly nonplussed.

"Excellent!" Maro beamed. "I hope the accommodations are to your liking. Nothing like stretching out one's limbs after a long flight, eh?"

He's either trying to ease me into something very bad, or he's gone insane, Din thought. With an air of placid contentment that wasn't entirely affected, he said, "They are very comfortable, Chairman; I haven't enjoyed such amenities in ages."

Maro nodded in sympathy. "Indeed. The galaxy is not a friendly place, especially towards our kind." He made a dismissive gesture. "But enough of that. As I'm sure you've guessed, I didn't recall you to engage in small talk. No doubt you'd like to relax after your trip, but we have many things to discuss. I've prepared the main conference room for our use. Report there in one hour."

And here it comes, Din thought. The torrent of bad news is about to wash over me. Aloud, he said, "Of course, Chairman. However, I don't really have anything proper to wear at the moment. For obvious reasons, I didn't have much of a wardrobe on the Citadel."

In fact, Din couldn't remember the last time he had worn anything other than his pressure suit. It seemed like most of his life had been lived within its confines. Din made a mental note that, whatever may come, he was going to at least enjoy the feeling of open air on Irune.

Maro waved a hand. "Not to worry. I took the liberty of providing you with a few clothing items. They're in the closet by the bed; pick whichever one you like. I'll see you shortly, ambassador. Good day."

With that, Maro closed the link and the omni-tool's screen flickered out of existence. If the First Chairman had hoped that his cheerful display would put Din at ease, he was wildly mistaken. On the contrary, Din's worries were now more pronounced than before and his mind fairly swam with a cross-section of potential calamities facing the Vol-clan.

With a vigorous shake of his head, Din brought himself out of his morose ponderings. Now wasn't the time to torment himself by imagining what might be. He could worry about whatever problems there were when he knew what they were. Until then, a clear and calm mind was needed.

With a grunt, Din hoisted himself off of the bed and made for the closet, deciding that he might as well see what kind of clothes had been provided for him. Hopefully, they had something in his color.

#

Din plodded his way to the main conference room, feeling more comfortable than he'd been in a long time. The attire he had chosen was an emerald green habit with intricate patterns woven throughout its surface. The fabric was loose and soft, a far cry from the tight confines of the pressure suit. The cowl that came with it was admittedly a bit much, but Din didn't care. He was too busy enjoying his newfound freedom of movement. It was refreshing to not have that blasted suit squeezing him like a stress ball whenever he walked.

I'd better not get too used to it, Din thought. I'll be back out in the wider galaxy at some point and back in that suit for who knows how long.

Din checked the clock on his omni-tool and saw that he had a good fifteen minutes before the meeting started. He quietly debated as to whether he should hurry up and get to the conference room so that he could put an end to his wonderings, or take his time and savor the last few moments of blissful ignorance until Maro broke what was almost assuredly bad news. In the end, he decided to be leisurely in his stroll. The information would come to him regardless if he was early.

A little while later, Din found himself facing the door of the conference room. A security terminal stood beside it and he pressed a hand against its surface. The screen flashed green and an electronic chirp sounded, signifying that he was clear to enter and the door slid open before him. He stepped inside, mentally preparing himself for what might come.

The entire Board of Administrators was already there, seated around a table. They were arrayed in ascending order from least important to most important. At the very end, seated in the biggest chair, was Maro Vul himself. As Din made his way inside, the First Chairman greeted him with a wave.

"Ambassador Korlak!" he called out, as though he were surprised that Din was actually there. "Right on time! Please, have a seat."

Din obediently walked over to the vacant chair that had obviously been placed just for him, and settled down on it. No sooner had he fully sat down when Maro spoke up.

"So, ambassador, I suppose you've been wondering why I have called you back here?" he asked.

"It's crossed my mind a few times," Din replied. More like I've been giving myself an ulcer worrying about what calamity has befallen us to warrant my recall. He took a deep breath gathering all the fortitude he could muster.

"All right, give it to me straight, Chairman. What kind of crisis are we facing right now?"

Maro sat back in his own seat. "Well, I wouldn't exactly call it a crisis; more along the lines of a sudden shift in policy. Apparently, the Turians have some new legislation they want to run by us and they're sending some emissaries to deliver them."

"'Run by us'," scoffed one of the administrators. This was Gol Halvek, the Administrator of the Treasury, which made him the second-most important Volus in the Protectorate. "I suppose we should be grateful that the Turians still value our input. Or at least pretend to."

Several other administrators grumbled their agreement. Maro silenced them with a wave of his hand.

"Now, now, let's not work ourselves into a fury here," he said soothingly. "We should at least wait to hear what these new laws are first before we start griping."

It didn't take someone of Din's powers of perception to tell that none of the administrators looked optimistic about the forthcoming laws. Din knew he certainly wasn't.

"So where are these emissaries?" asked a female administrator whom Din didn't recognize, most likely a recently promoted member of the Board. She was dressed in fetching red robes, and her words were etched with impatience.

As if cued, the doors to the room slid open and two individuals stepped in.

The first was another Volus, whom Din recognized as Surma Balth, the Protectorate Representative. His position had been established as part of the Client Pact the Volus had set up with the Turians. He was the one who met directly with the Hierarchy's governing body and sat in on their meetings. In essence, it made him an honorary Primarch, though with less powers and privileges.

Behind him was a Turian in a pressure suit. By his bearing, Din guessed that he was a high ranking official, most likely a military adjutant of some sort. Unlike the Volus designs, his head was covered by a glass dome, leaving his face revealed to the world. Despite his attempts to look dignified and stoic, it was abundantly clear that he was not at all comfortable in his suit, and Din took a bit of vindictive satisfaction from the sight.

Not very pleasant is it, being cooped up in a suit like that? But there's no other choice; that suit is the only thing keeping you alive and if it breaks, then you're done for. Welcome to our reality.

Surma deposited himself in a vacant seat next to the Chairman while the Turian took up position behind him. Several of the administrators shot angry glares at him, no doubt cursing his very existence in their minds. Din was fairly certain that at least a couple of them were entertaining thoughts that involved spontaneous and grievous bodily harm to him. For his part, the Turian did not acknowledge them or their glowers, adopting a posture of complete indifference.

Is this the aloof disdain of one who considers himself to be of a superior race being forced to interact with his lessers? Din thought. Or the resolve of one who knows that his own race, and by extension himself, is wildly unpopular and chooses to bear that ire stoically? I guess we'll soon find out.

Din focused back on Surma in the hopes of gleaning some hint as to what might be in store for them all. Judging by the particularly morose expression he wore, the news would not be very welcome. The administrators quickly picked up on this, and the intensity of the glares directed at the Turian ratcheted up a few levels.

Maro, however, remained as calm and affable as he had been earlier. Indeed, looking at him, you'd think that he was merely entertaining some guests and not about to hear what were surely ruinous edicts from the Hierarchy.

"Surma, good to see you again," he said amicably. "I hope you are doing well."

Surma gave him a pained, half-smile. "As well as can be expected these days."

"Indeed," agreed Maro with sober gravity. "Times have been hard on us all." He glanced up at the Turian. "Welcome to Irune, my good Palaven-clan," he said, giving every indication that his greeting was genuine. "I don't believe we've ever met; would you be so kind as to give us your name?"

The Turian gave a formal nod to the Chairman. "Major Ovelius Taran, Hierarchy Legate to the Volus Representative," he said in short, clipped tones. "I'm honored to meet you all."

Regardless of whether or not he was sincere, the sentiment was most definitely not shared by the Board. Judging by the dark looks they wore, Ovelius was as welcome as a bout of the Yoqtan disease. One of them let out a loud, derisive snort and Din looked over to see who had made the sound. He saw that it was Jirul Vasus, the Administrator of Defense and out of all the glares thrown at the Turian, his was the most venomous.

He was a fairly imposing figure for a Volus, at least a head taller than the others present and solid muscle could be seen rippling under his robes. Unlike other Volus, Jirul was not adverse to violence and was well known for being aggressive in manner, coarse in language and as direct as a homing missile on all matters. That demeanor had kept his position securely in his grasp for years, and now he was turning it on the Turian.

"Spare us the fucking formalities and get on with it," he called out. "Let's hear these new laws your people want passed."

"Peace, Jirul," chided Maro, as though he were a father gently scolding an unruly child. "The good Palaven-clan is a guest here. There's no need to abandon etiquette."

"Piss on etiquette!" Jirul snarled. He pointed an accusing finger at Ovelius. "Our people have been dying in their gods-damned war for over two years now! We've lost tens of thousands of good Vol-clan for the sake of Turian pride, and that's the conservative number! I've had to create an entire staff to fill out all the letters of condolence! So you'll pardon me if I don't act all welcoming to the Legate." He twisted the Turian's title into a curse.

While a few of the administrators looked abashed at Jirul's blatant lack of respect, the majority of them seemed to approve of his words, if not the tone. Ovelius, to his credit, said nothing and seemed content to let the matter fade away.

"Nonetheless, I feel that a little decorum is in order now," said Maro. "So let's keep this whole thing civil. Acting spiteful won't help anyone." Jirul grunted, but obeyed the Chairman's order and made no further comments.

"Now, Surma," said Maro, continuing on as if nothing had happened, "word has reached me that the Hierarchy wishes to enact some new laws that will affect us and the other client races. The floor is yours," he said, as though he were offering a priceless gift.

A sour look crossed Surma's face. "I'm afraid you heard right. The Primarchs recently convened to discuss policies concerning the war effort. As I'm sure everyone is aware, it's not going so well for the Turians."

"Hah! That's some serious downplaying if I ever heard it!" scoffed the female administrator. "Let's just be honest and call this situation what it is: a gods-cursed disaster. The Federation is busily grinding its heel on the Hierarchy's neck, which has been the theme for just about the entirety of these past few years and doesn't look like it will change any time soon. Wouldn't you agree, Legate?" She was only marginally less bellicose than Jirul had been in addressing Ovelius. "I mean, you Turians are all about honesty, after all."

Once again, Ovelius bore the bile directed at him without complaint and Din found himself feeling a growing respect for the Turian. It was obvious now that he had come here with the expectation that he would be facing a very hostile audience and seemed determined to exhibit exemplary patience. Ovelius inclined his head in a nod of acknowledgment.

"While I would not have phrased it like that, you are right, Administrator…" he trailed off, appearing to realize that he didn't know her name.

"Carlot Dailos, Administrator of Laws and Regulations," she said curtly. "I'd say it's a pleasure to meet you, but—"

"Thank you, Administrator Carlot," Maro interjected. "I believe we've all made our feelings clear on the Legate being here." He looked back at Surma. "Apologies for the interruption, Surma. Please, go on."

"…Yes," Surma said. He cleared his throat before continuing. "As I was saying, the war has not been going in the Hierarchy's favor. While I am not privy to the full scope of their military operations, I can say that the Federation remains firmly entrenched on Digeris and all attempts to evict them from the planet have so far been unsuccessful. This has had a decidedly negative impact on the Turians' morale."

"Well, that's a first," remarked Jirul. "The Turians are actually getting tired of fighting. Or maybe they only like it when they're winning," he added nastily, throwing a dirty look at Ovelius. This time, the Turian did give an irritable twitch, but that was the extent of his reaction.

"Contrary to what you might think, this war never had the universal public support that conflicts like the Rebellions had," Surma said. "The highest approval rate was back in the early days when the human colony of Shanxi had been taken, which was around sixty-three percent. That number has steadily gone down since then. According to recent polling conducted, Turian approval for the war has dropped down to about fifty-three percent, a full five points less than it was two months ago.

"Currently, there are two informal political factions within the Hierarchy. The first one consists of those Turians who want to go to the table and hash out a peace treaty before things get worse. The other side, unsurprisingly, wants to keep fighting; some out of pride or a sense of duty, but most of them are afraid that, if the Federation wins or is able to negotiate from a position of strength, they'll exact a terrible revenge. Right now, the pro-war camp is the largest, but their numbers are falling as things keep deteriorating. As such, they are trying to show that victory is still possible to keep their fellow Turians motivated to fight."

"A hundred credits says that Sparatus is leading the charge on that front," said Carlot with a smirk. "How did his speech go? Something about the Federation being no match for Turian power and the Hierarchy planting banners on all their worlds, wasn't it? Bet he's feeling pretty desperate after all his big talk now."

Din would have called that a sucker's bet. Sparatus had been the loudest and most enthusiastic voice calling for war against the Federation and had made a lot of promises about the glory and prosperity the Hierarchy would see at the end of it all. Now, with the humans setting up shop on one of the Turians' worlds—an inner colony, no less—and smashing their forces to bits, Din had it on good authority that whatever popularity he had before was being eroded with each passing day. If Sparatus didn't deliver some kind of success, Din was rather certain that the good Councilor's head was going to be on the chopping block.

And possibly not in the metaphorical sense.

"Anyway, that's the politics behind the new laws," said Surma, sounding weary. "As to the actual content of the laws, I'll let Ovelius take it from here."

All eyes turned to the Turian and none of them were friendly. Ovelius ignored them and took out a datapad from somewhere on his person. Din braced himself mentally, hoping to all the gods that his fears would at least be somewhat unfounded.

"Before I start, I want to assure you all that every possible option was explored when the Primarchs last convened. Regrettably, there were no better alternatives." Ovelius certainly sounded remorseful, at least.

"The main issue is the fact that the Hierarchy is losing money at a distressing rate. While the Primarchs and the top brass of the military would prefer if I were…" he paused to search for the right word. "Restrained in delivering the news, I personally feel that it would be a disservice if I didn't give you the full scope of things."

"Lucky us," said Jirul sarcastically. Ovelius ignored him and simply went on.

"As I said, no better options could be found, so these new laws that Primarch Draxon wishes to go into effect are acknowledged to only be short-term solutions. Furthermore, once the war has ended, they will be rescinded." He consulted the datapad. "The first item is as follows: effective one month from now, the Hierarchy will raise the Client Tax to thirty percent."

Loud grumbles of displeasure rang out from the administrators. Din, for his part, felt as if he'd just been slugged in the gut. Thirty percent! That's insane!

But Ovelius wasn't done yet. Without pause, he went on to the next proclamation from the Hierarchy. "In addition, all client races must purchase at least one trillion credits' worth of goods from the Hierarchy annually. All products imported from the Hierarchy will be subject to taxation, while any goods imported from client-held worlds will be duty-free." This last part was delivered with no small amount of reluctance on his part. Clearly, he wasn't ignorant enough to believe that this would go over well with the Volus.

And he was right. No sooner had he uttered the last word when all of the administrators began clamoring in indignation.

"This is outrageous!" proclaimed Gol, pounding the table with a fist. The sentiment was echoed by several other administrators. "You can't seriously mean to put these new laws into action!"

Ovelius regarded the administrator with obvious confusion. "I'm afraid I don't understand, Administrator. What is so wrong with them? Admittedly, they are somewhat burdensome, but surely they aren't unreasonable?"

Din wasn't exactly surprised by these new edicts, or by the Legate's reaction to the administrator's protests. The Turians as a whole understood precious little of economics beyond the basics, and had even less of an inclination to learn them. Why bother? That's what the Volus were for! In their minds, it undoubtedly made perfect sense for them to make some arbitrary financial law to get more revenue and let their client races figure out the details of how to make it work.

And unless I miss my guess, Gol is about to tear into the Legate over it.

Gol was looking at Ovelius as if he had never heard such an idiotic question. His eyes bulged in their sockets while his mouth hung open in astonishment. "Not unreasonable?" he spluttered. "What, do you think credits just come out of our cloacae? Gods above, I know you Turians barely understand the concept of economics, but I was under the impression that you could at least do basic math!"

Ovelius bristled slightly at the jibe. "Then could you please explain the issue to me?" he asked, a hint of irritation bleeding into his voice.

"Very well," said Gol with a sneer. "Let's start with the tax increase, shall we? Raising it to thirty percent might not seem like much at first glance, but in truth, it's a massive increase. It's double what we already pay the Hierarchy. To put that into perspective, that's almost a full tenth of our total GDP. A tenth." He paused to let that sink in.

"Now for the trading law; ignoring the fact that you are forcing us to buy your goods, which is just plain rude on its own merit, you've essentially made it so we can't derive any income from importing products from the Hierarchy, while at the same time are imposing what amounts to a tariff on our own goods. Speaking of which," he fixed Ovelius with a suspicious glare, "just how costly will these new duties be?"

That seemed to catch the Legate of guard. He swallowed and looked back down at his datapad, frantically flicking through it.

"Well?" demanded Gol impatiently.

Ovelius glanced back at the administrator. It didn't take an expert on Turian facial expressions to know that he was now decidedly nervous.

"Um…" he hedged. "I don't know. It appears that the amount has yet to be determined by the Primarchs."

"Oh, well isn't that great!" Gol exclaimed. "So what you mean to say is that your Primarchs will go with whatever amount they think sounds good, and to hell with common sense! Why don't you just demand access to our personal bank accounts while you're at it? If you're going to rob us, you could at least have the decency to be upfront about it!"

"We are not stealing from you!" Ovelius protested, almost desperately.

"Is that so?" Gol asked with a bitter laugh. "Maybe I missed the memo, but I'm fairly sure that rigging the tax and trade laws to exploit someone else for your own benefit counts as theft! I certainly can't think of any other way to phrase it, can you?"

Ovelius visibly struggled to keep his composure. He took a deep, fortifying breath and looked around at the board. "I understand that this is not pleasant for you," he said. Several snorts of derision met this comment, which he tactfully ignored. "These times have been hard on all of us. But we can't fight among ourselves! This war we're waging requires everyone to make sacrifices! We're all in this together!"

If he was hoping to sway the administrators to his side with his appeal to their sense of patriotism and unity, then Ovelius was badly mistaken. Din watched as the expressions of every Volus hardened into deep, angry glares and then, like a bomb going off, they erupted into a frenzy of shouting and cursing.

"This isn't our war, you self-important ass!" shouted Jirul over the clamor. He really did have an impressive voice. "This is your war, which we were forced into by your Primarchs and that puffed-up bastard you have for a Councilor! A war that, in case you've forgotten, you fucking started!" He smashed the table with his fist to emphasize each word.

"You dare talk to us about making sacrifices?" Gol demanded, following up after Jirul's diatribe. "We gave up our independence to you! We made you the second-strongest economy in Citadel space! Your people wouldn't be half as powerful without our help and this is how you repay us? By dragging us into your petty war of pride and bleeding us dry to pay for it?"

This went on for a good while. The entirety of the Board howled their rage at Ovelius, who now looked like a pyjak that had been cornered by a pack of varren and was trying to find an escape. In all his life, Din would never have imagined that any of his fellow Vol-clan could be moved to such a state of furor. But, if one thing was true, it was that these were not normal times.

Then, after what seemed like an age, a hollow banging sound cut through the tumult. Slowly, the Administrators quieted down and turned their attention towards the source of the noise. Maro sat placidly in his chair, rapping the table with the ceremonial gavel of his office. Once the last voice fell silent, Maro spoke up.

"I believe that is enough for today," he said with utmost solemnity. "We will reconvene at the same time tomorrow. I suggest we all take the time to cool our tempers so that we can approach this new state of affairs with clear and even minds."

Maro's own temper certainly didn't need cooling. He was the only one out of the entire Board that remained unperturbed by the whole ordeal. If anything, he looked even calmer than before. One by one, in sullen silence, the Administrators filed out of the conference room. Maro looked up at Ovelius. "Legate, if you would head over to the main reception office, they'll get you squared away in some decent quarters for your stay. Surma will show you where it is."

Ovelius, still shocked from being verbally castigated by the Board, mumbled out a thank you. Surma stood up, looking very tired, and trudged away, the Turian following at his heels. Din was about to follow them, when the Chairman called out to him.

"Ambassador Korlak, would you please stay for a moment? There are some matters that I would like to discuss with you before you go."

"Of course, Chairman," said Din. He returned to his seat and folded his hands across the table. Maro leaned back in his own chair and gave a satisfied smile.

"I think that went rather well," he remarked. "Wouldn't you agree, ambassador?"

Din wasn't sure how to respond to that. By his estimation, things had unfolded in a manner that was about as unwell as it was possible to be. Was this some kind of test?

"I'm…not sure I understand what you mean, Chairman," Din said, opting to play it safe.

"Why, the Hierarchy's new laws, of course!" said Maro, as though it were perfectly obvious. "I couldn't have asked for better statutes if I had written them myself! And the Board's reaction to them, gods above! They were positively outraged, Din! Did you see Gol's face? I thought he was going to pop every blood vessel in his face when the Legate read them out!" The Chairman guffawed heartily.

Din nodded politely, while wondering if perhaps Maro should schedule an appointment with a psychiatrist. "With respect, Chairman," he said, "I'm afraid that I don't see how any this could be considered good. Those laws the Turians are proposing could end up crippling us for a generation if they go through, and I can assure you that our people won't be any more welcoming of them than the administrators were."

"Well, of course not!" said Maro, waving a dismissive hand. "In fact, I anticipate all members of the Vol-clan will be roused to a fury beyond anything we've ever seen once those laws pass." He favored Din with a shrewd stare. "And make no mistake, my friend, they will be enacted, regardless of what we think of them."

Din felt his heart sink into his stomach. "You know this for certain?"

Maro shrugged. "They don't really have much choice. The Turians are hemorrhaging money and they no longer have access to the markets of Citadel space. Outside of trying their luck in the Terminus systems, we and their other client races are the only ones they can turn to in order to stay afloat financially. So, they'll make excuses, exploit some technicalities, and they'll put their new laws into effect, whether we like it or not."

Din sat silently, staring off into space. So it was as he feared then; that whole display back there was nothing more than a polite notice on part of the Hierarchy. The Protectorate ultimately had no choice in the matter. A cold apprehension began to dance its way up his spine.

How far will this go? Din wondered. What new laws will they enact or alter in the future that we will have to obey? Will we be left with any power at all, or will we be reduced to nothing more than a glorified tributary?

His dark thoughts were interrupted as Maro spoke again. "Yes, it is quite the unfortunate state of affairs we find ourselves in," he said, shaking his head. He wore an expression of such exaggerated despondency that no one could have mistaken it for being real. Then, in the blink of an eye, it was gone, replaced by a bright smile with plenty of teeth.

"But, we shouldn't despair!" he proclaimed. "This could very well prove to be a blessing in disguise, if we are clever about it."

A sudden inkling of suspicion replaced the apprehension Din felt. "What do you mean, Chairman?"

Maro didn't answer. Instead, he activated his omnitool and tapped a few keys. The conference room door suddenly turned bright red and Din heard the telltale sound of several locking mechanisms activating. Though he couldn't be sure, Din was also certain that any recording devices in the room were now suffering an unexpected blackout. Maro dismissed his omnitool and smiled placidly.

"That's better. Now we won't have to worry about any unwanted interruptions while we're talking."

Far from being reassured, Din's apprehension came back in full force. It didn't take a genius to realize that the Chairman had something cooking up that he didn't want to get out. Din suddenly felt as if he were walking towards a cliff edge and couldn't stop.

Well, no point in delaying the inevitable. Steeling himself, Din asked, "What is it that you have in mind, Chairman?"

"I'm glad you asked, ambassador," said Maro, beaming. "It's no secret that I've never been content with our status as a client race of the Turians, more so now, thanks to this damned war they dragged us into. I've always felt that it would be better for the Vol-clan if we were in charge of our own affairs, that it was an affront to our self-respect that we should choose to adopt a subservient role to another power, however mighty it was. Unfortunately, save for some grumblings among the populace, there was never enough support for me to act on.

"Until now, that is. Those new laws the Turians want enacted will enrage our people and even those who are profiting from the war will begin to think twice about our arrangement. If the Hierarchy can change the tax and trade laws so easily, who's to say they won't decide to go further? Maybe next time, they'll pass a law that says that no Turian can be tried for a crime committed in Protectorate territory, or something similarly outrageous."

That had been precisely what Din had been worrying about only a short time ago. To hear Maro echo his own thoughts on the matter made his stomach twist up into knots. "Do you really think they will?"

Maro shrugged. "Maybe, maybe not." A cunning, cold smirk crossed his face. "But we can certainly put that thought into people's heads. That'll strike fear in their hearts for sure. And in the meantime, we can act on the chance that has been granted to us."

"What chance?" asked Din, feeling himself teetering on that cliff's edge.

"Isn't it obvious? The chance to reclaim what we so foolishly gave away," declared Maro, spreading his arms wide. "Our independence."

#

For a long moment, Din said nothing. His mouth suddenly felt very dry and his mind seemed to have ground to a halt. He could feel himself now hurtling over the cliff's edge. Licking his lips, he asked in a strangled voice, "Chairman, forgive me for saying, but that's a very drastic course to take."

"Oh, certainly," agreed Maro, though he sounded unconcerned. "The path I intend to take is indeed radical, but nothing great was ever achieved without daring to strive for it." He leaned over the table and clasped his hands together.

"Let's say, for the sake of argument, the war ended tomorrow. What do you think will happen to us? I'll tell you what: we'll be right back in the same position we were before the war started. We will stay under the Hierarchy's dominion and continue to be regarded as little more than the bankers and credit-monitors of the galaxy, barely worth acknowledging. We will have to keep voicing our wishes through the Turians and the Council will continue to dismiss our petitions to obtain a seat among them." He stared pointedly at Din. "You of all Vol-clan surely appreciate the indignity of that."

"Oh, I can," Din said bitterly. He didn't care what anyone else thought. The Volus had never truly been seen as equals among the Asari and Salarians, no matter the fact that they had helped build the interstellar civilization of today. One need only look at the fact that their people didn't even merit their own embassy to see just what the Council thought of them.

"I thought so," said Maro sympathetically. "It's quite clear that we will never obtain the respect we deserve by staying as we are. We must remake ourselves into something greater and if we are to act, then it must be now. In fact, this war has actually proved to be something of a boon for us."

"What do you mean, Chairman?" asked Din. He certainly didn't think anything of the sort.

"One of our most prevalent shortcomings was the fact that our military forces were distinctly lacking. Since we don't share the sheer capacity for violence that the other races do, we've never invested much in that area. But, now that we've been forced to participate in the Turians' war, our military and industrial capacity has grown exponentially! Before all this, we barely had anything that could be called an army; now, we have millions of Vol-clan serving in the branches of our armed forces. We might not have many foot soldiers, but there's no shortage of armored fighting vehicles and fighter craft in our ranks.

"And that's not even counting our naval assets! They're bigger than they've ever been; we now have over three whole fleets, all fresh off the docks and armed to the teeth. And you should see the plans for the dreadnought Elkoss is working on! It'll be an absolute monster when it's finished!"

Maro's eyes fairly glimmered with excitement. "With these assets at our disposal, we won't need the Hierarchy to protect us! We'll once more be able to stand on our own two feet, tall and proud! Relatively speaking, of course," he chuckled.

It was obvious that he was very enamored with the idea of the Volus regaining their independence. While Din certainly liked it himself, he wasn't so easily swayed by fanciful imaginings, however nice they were.

"And you think the Turians will just let us go?" he asked. "I doubt they'd be happy to lose their economic architects, especially in these times."

Most likely, they'd express their opinions in the form of mass accelerator rounds directed at Volus holdings. Din's people may have entered under the Hierarchy's umbrella on their own terms, but he had spent enough time around the Turians to know that they considered the Protectorate to be essentially a part of their empire. Any attempt to leave would undoubtedly be seen as an act of sedition, and there was only one way they dealt with that. It was no challenge at all for Din to imagine a Turian naval force, frustrated and angry over the constant losses inflicted by the Federation, taking out their ire on a rebellious client race.

"Gods above, Din, you're making it sound as if I intend for us to just up and leave!" Maro laughed. "No, this will be a delicate process, one that will require deft and talented hands." He stared pointedly at Din. "I'd like you to be a part of it."

Din said nothing, too stunned for words. When he managed to regain control of his voice, he asked, "Me, Chairman?"

"But, of course," said Maro. "This effort will require the expertise of a seasoned emissary, and you're perfect for the job. In fact, I would think that you of all Vol-clan would leap at the chance for us to attain a higher authority."

Before Din could say anything, Maro waved a dismissive hand. "But, I appreciate that this is a very big choice to make. Take a few days to mull it over and give me your decision. My lines will always be open."

"Yes…I think that would be a good idea," said Din weakly, standing up from his chair on legs that felt like lead bars. As he made his way towards the doors, Maro called out, "Oh, and I'm sure you're aware, but this conversation does not leave the room. We wouldn't want any unfortunate incidents to happen, now would we?"

Though the words were jovial, they still sent an icy chill up Din's spine. He nodded his understanding and passed through the now-unlocked doors. So lost in thought was he that Din didn't realize he had reached his suite until he suddenly found himself at the door. Clumsily, he swiped the keycard against the scanner and let himself in. He walked into the main room and slumped down onto the nearest piece of furniture, suddenly feeling very tired.

Independence. In all his life, Din never thought that the idea would gain ground. Despite the irritation at having to be effectively subordinate to another power, the Volus had mostly considered the arrangement as a decent enough deal. But now, not only was the notion of secession being given actual consideration, the Chairman himself had set himself up as its champion.

A part of Din felt that it was too rash and that the Chairman was trying to grasp at something beyond his reach. Withdrawing from their pact with the Turians would be a massive undertaking; he didn't even want to think of all the legal battles that would have to be fought. But another, more tempestuous part of him sang its approval of the idea. They had been forced into this war because of the pact and now the Turians were trying to make the Protectorate foot the bill for it. Whatever benefits the arrangement had brought to the Volus was surely outweighed by the Hierarchy's actions.

A knock at the door brought Din out of his thoughts. He lifted himself up and went over to the door, sparing a glance at the feed from the security camera outside. To his surprise, he saw that Ovelius was standing outside. Din opened the door and looked up at the Legate, brimming with curiosity.

"Major Ovelius," he said by way of greeting. Whatever his feelings towards the Hierarchy and the Turians were, Ovelius at least had earned enough respect in his eyes to be afforded cordiality. "This is certainly an unexpected visit. Is there something I can do for you?"

"Actually, yes," Ovelius said. "May I come in?"

Din noted that the Turian appeared distinctly nervous. He did a good job of hiding it, but Din was familiar enough with his race's facial expressions to see the subtle flaring of his mandibles. His curiosity redoubling, Din invited the Legate in with a sweep of his arm. Ovelius nodded in thanks and stepped inside.

"So, what is it that you want with me?" Din asked.

Ovelius went silent, clearly wrestling with something he felt was important. Din waited patiently for him to get his thoughts in order. Finally, the Legate let out a sigh and looked Din squarely in the eye.

"There is something I feel I must tell you," he said. "While my superiors believe that it is inconsequential, I still think it should be addressed."

Din's curiosity gave way to cold foreboding. "And this issue is what, exactly?"

"You recall when Representative Surma talked about the two unofficial factions in the Hierarchy's governing bodies?" asked Ovelius. Din nodded.

"I do indeed. What of it?"

"What he didn't mention was that there is a subsect of the pro-war camp. It would be most accurate to describe them as fiercely nationalistic. They believe that the Hierarchy has gotten soft in the past centuries and that a new, stronger order is needed to bring the Turian race back to what they envision as its former glory." Ovelius glanced meaningfully at Din. "As you might guess, they're not exactly advocating for love and understanding."

"No doubt," muttered Din gravely. "How big of a force are they?"

"They're a small group," Ovelius said. "I'd be surprised if they have more than a few million members in total."

"Then what is the problem?" asked Din. "If they represent such a miniscule portion of your population, why even bring them up?"

"Because personally, I'm concerned about them," said Ovelius gravely. "While it's true that they don't have anywhere close to popular support, they are nevertheless zealously determined to see their goals through, and that counts for a lot. The fact that we are currently at war will only make things more problematic in dealing with them if they start acting up."

Din could certainly see why Ovelius was concerned about them. With things going as badly as they were for the Hierarchy now, a rebellion cropping up would be the very last thing they needed.

"I see your point," Din admitted, "but how is this relevant to my people? Forgive me for saying, but these ultranationalists seem to be a problem for you."

"Remember what I said about them being zealous in getting their policies passed? Well, in addition to being fanatically nationalistic, they are also avowed Turian supremacists and one of their doctrines concerns our client races."

The cold foreboding Din felt redoubled in intensity. "Go on."

"These Turians feel that another reason why the Hierarchy is doing so badly in this war is because of disloyal client species, especially your people. They think that the Volus have too much leeway in our pact and that we need to bring you under stricter control." He shifted uncomfortably. "A few months ago, they forwarded several statutes to the Primarchs for approval in an attempt to do just that."

Din let out a choking sound. "You mean to tell me that the Primarchs actually looked at a legislation draft from a pack of jingoistic maniacs?" he demanded.

"Of course not," Ovelius said with a scoff. "Their bills didn't even get past the initial processing. Even if it had come before the Primarchs, none of them would have dignified it with so much as a passing glance."

"Indeed," muttered Din without truly meaning it. "But again, if they are so small and apparently have no chance at getting their policies passed, why even bring them up?"

"The worrying part is what they did after they got rejected," said Ovelius. "Not long after their bills had been summarily dismissed, they went on the extranet and howled about how the Hierarchy wasn't listening to devoted citizens who 'only wanted to see their great empire stay secured.'" His voice took on a pompous tone at the last part and looked as if he wanted to spit after saying it. "Conniving bastards. After the tirade went online, their membership increased almost twofold in the span of only a few months. If nothing else, they've proven themselves to be resourceful enough to turn a defeat into a victory of sorts."

For a long moment, Din said nothing. He merely stared up at Ovelius, mouth agape. Once he recovered his voice, Din exclaimed, "Why didn't Surma say anything about this?"

Ovelius shifted guiltily. "Because he doesn't know. I've been told by my superiors to keep him in the dark about them."

"What?" Din spluttered. "Why?"

"As I said, the Primarchs believe that these Turians are of little consequence in the grand scheme of things, just another pack of rabble-rousers who will either fade away or be snuffed out if they get too uppity. They also felt that informing your people about them would only cause greater friction between us, especially with the new tax and trade laws being hashed out."

"Oh, how courteous of them!" Din spat sarcastically. "It's such a relief to hear that your rulers have taken upon themselves to keep information from us that they think will make us unhappy! Truly, I've never felt more at ease!"

Ovelius shrugged helplessly. "I can only apologize on their behalf. I wish I could be more supportive, but I don't have much in the way of clout within the Hierarchy."

Din wanted to scream at the Legate to take his apologies and do something obscene with them, but his professionalism born of years of diplomatic experience wrestled the urge into submission. He took several deep, calming breaths and looked back up at Ovelius.

"Why are you telling me this?" he asked. "If your superiors have forbidden you to talk about this band of fundamentalist loons, why are going out of your way to let me know?"

Ovelius straightened up to his full height, which was quite considerable. Iron resolve suffused his every feature, so resolute that Din couldn't help but admire it.

"My loyalty is forever to the Hierarchy and my people," he said solemnly. "However, my duty as a good Turian is to be the best intermediary between your people and mine that I can be. If that means I must bend the rules or exploit some loopholes, then so be it."

He meant every word of it, Din knew. Whatever else he might be, there could be no doubt that Ovelius's dedication to his role was absolute; he would serve to the best of his ability, regardless of the potential consequences for himself. Din offered Ovelius a deep bow of respect.

"Your candor is much appreciated," he said. "I won't forget it."

Ovelius looked immensely relieved. "Thank you." He gave Din a polite nod. "I'd best go now. Good luck to you."

With that, Ovelius left the suite and Din once more found himself alone. He went over to the chair he'd previously been sitting in and slumped back down into its soft confines.

The Legate's revelation changed everything. The Hierarchy was no longer acting in good faith with them; not only was its ruling body trying to pass financial laws that could prove ruinous to the Vol-clan, they were also attempting to keep crucial information from his people. Whether or not they considered it a trivial matter, they had chosen to not share it with the Protectorate, which was nothing less than a violation of trust.

The fact that they felt that a radical nationalistic party had sprung up who wanted to keep the Volus on a tighter leash wasn't worth mentioning to them only compounded the matter. The current batch of Primarchs might not pay them any heed, but they wouldn't stay in their positions forever. What if the next Turians to take up their mantles were more sympathetic to these extremists? Or what if this radical group didn't fade away and grew powerful enough to influence the Hierarchy's politics? Din didn't even want to imagine.

At that moment, his path became clear. For the good of the Vol-clan, he now knew what he had to do. Din called up his omni-tool and opened up a text window. In the box, addressed to Maro, he typed out four simple but powerful words:

You have my support.