A Matter of Life and Death
PIRATES OF THE CALESTON RIFT
Balor System, Caleston Rift, Terminus Systems – 07:20 ZULU – 9th November 2185 CE
Valni looked up from the image of the Cerberus corvette hovering above her wrist and glanced at her companions. Vetra and the geth looked concerned. Well, Vetra looked concerned – the geth was still standing in the crate, its glowing photoreceptor focused unblinkingly on her face. Valni quickly gave up trying to guess what the alien machine might be thinking. Geth were impossible to read.
She turned to Vetra; they shared a look.
"Trouble?" Vetra asked.
"They're attempting to dock," the captain said.
Valni turned her attention back to the link. "What kind of defences do you have?"
"Minimal GARDIAN batteries. Certainly nothing that could take on a corvette."
"What do you have in your armoury?"
"A few rifles. But mostly pistols and small arms."
Valni cursed softly. "Don't do anything to provoke the raiders. Keep your crew out of the way. Keep them safe. The raiders are only interested in the quarian package. Let them come to us."
Vetra stared at Valni. "Come to us? Are you high?"
"We can't stop them boarding," Valni told her. "But we can control where we fight them." Valni turned her attention back to the link. "Open the armoury. Be ready to distribute as many weapons to the crew as you can. But wait for the nod from me. We'll try and thin the herd."
"Thin the herd?!" Vetra exclaimed. "What can the two of us do against armed raiders?" she asked incredulously.
"We have combat experience," the geth pointed out.
"Oh, like we're going to give you a gun!"
"We managed to get out a distress call," the voice on the link continued. "Blue Suns ships are on their way."
"Blue Suns?" Valni said. The Terminus Systems were so dangerous that traders were often forced to hire merc groups like the Blue Suns and Eclipse who would charge extortionate sums to patrol the region and ensure the safety of the transport ships. "Ugh. I'd rather take my chances against the raiders."
"Speak for yourself," Vetra said.
"I have history with the Blue Suns."
"Who doesn't?" Vetra jabbed her thumb at their robotic prisoner. "What do we do with this one?"
"Get it out of that crate for starters," Valni said.
The geth obligingly stepped out of its crate.
Valni pointed at the uppermost level of the cargo bay. "We need to get to high ground. We're sitting ducks down here. This maze is a killing ground. We need to see the raiders coming."
Vetra nodded and pointed her weapon at the geth. "You heard the Little Lady; get your iron ass up that stairwell."
"Little Lady," Valni muttered heatedly as they hustled between the containers.
"Would you prefer 'Ankle-biter'?" Vetra asked cheekily.
"Oh, shut up, Gigantor!" Valni snapped.
The geth led them to metal staircase leading upwards. They clambered up the steep steps and had just reached the catwalk above the crates when the main doors on the far side of the bay opened. Six heavily armoured men entered the cargo bay. Covered head-to-foot in thick white and yellow armour with metal helmets that completely covered their heads, the raiders were carrying white submachine gun in a configuration Valni didn't recognise.
"They don't look like any raiders I've seen before," Vetra said.
The geth cocked its head. "Assault troopers," it said. "They are unshielded but heavily armoured. Our sensors are detecting submachine guns, electro batons and frag grenades."
"That's expensive gear," Valni said.
Behind the troopers, four smaller raiders appeared and dashed past the armoured men. Clad in form-fitting light armour and full helmets similar to that of the troopers, the new arrivals were – judging by their feminine body shape – either asari or human women.
"What the hell is that?" Vetra exclaimed.
One-by-one the feminine raiders drew what looked like single-edged half-metre blades from a sheath on their backs and held them in their trailing left hand as they ran. Then a flash of light flickered across their bodies and the sword-wielding raiders vanished into thin air.
"Tactical cloaking," Valni said.
"We have encountered these organics before," the geth said. "They have the designation 'Phantoms'."
Vetra frowned. "What kind of idiot brings a sword to a gunfight?"
"Monomolecular blades," the geth added. "Optimised for cutting through armour. Addendum: Phantoms have projectile blasters implanted in their gauntlets."
Vetra inclined her head at the geth. "He's handy in a tight spot!" she said admiringly.
"Stay with the geth," Valni said. "Keep heading up. Watch out for the troopers. I'll deal with the Phantoms."
"How are you going to fight an enemy you can't see?" Vetra asked.
"They're not the only one who can vanish," Valni told her, before turning and running down the catwalk. **
Vetra sighed and pushed the geth up the stairwell ahead of her. "You heard the woman; let's go, tin can," she said. "Spirits! Can't believe I'm risking my skin for a geth!"
"Your epidermis appears unblemished," the geth observed.
"Thanks. I moisturise. It's a proprietary blend."
On the catwalk, Valni could see the troopers start to fan out as they searched the lower level for the quarian package. Evidently, the Cerberus troops hadn't realised that the crate had already been opened. But it probably wouldn't take long for them to realise the package was gone, or what used to be inside. Valni had to move quickly. She ran across a skywalk bridging one side of the hold to the other and activated her own tactical cloak, vanishing in a flash of light.
Below her one of the troopers had already reached the open crate. Despite their heavy-looking armour, these Cerberus soldiers could move surprisingly quickly.
"Package located," the trooper said over his comm. "It has been opened. Repeat: the package is open. No sign of the geth. Target is mobile."
Valni frowned. How did Cerberus know the crate was carrying a geth? Then she recalled Kandros telling her the quarian scientist who had sent the package had been tortured for information. It must have been Cerberus who'd captured the scientist.
She knew that it wouldn't take long for Cerberus to find Vetra and the geth.
Valni glanced around the open-plan cargo bay with its bridging skywalks and dangling cables. She was mindful of her training from military college: Use your environment to your advantage. Already a plan was forming. She needed to take the heat off Vetra; she had to provide a distraction. Of course, that meant putting herself in the line-of-fire.
Story of my life.
Decision made, Valni deactivated her cloak and brought her rifle to bear on the trooper standing by the open crate.
"Hey!" she yelled.
The trooper looked up, raised his submachine gun, and activated his comm.
"Hostile spotted!" he reported to his squad. Just as Valni planned.
She opened fire. The trooper took a full burst of rounds in the chest and fell backwards. But he wasn't dead. He groaned and tried to sit up. Normally a full burst from a Phaeston rifle could drop a charging krogan.
That armour must be damn thick!
A noise from her right made her turn. A couple of troopers had soared onto the skywalk from the level below, propelled by rocket boosters on their backs. Not only was their armour strong, but it was capable of limited flight.
Spirits! That's all I need!
The trooper landed on the skyway and opened fire.
"Hostile engaged!" one of the troopers yelled.
Valni quickly holstered her rifle as she leapt for one of the hanging cables to escape the hail of bullets.
She swung out, using her momentum to take her to the other side of the cargo bay, as far away from the enemy as she hoped she could get.
It was a vain hope.
As she hit the catwalk on the other side of the bay, a Phantom materialised in front of her.
Valni brought her rifle up and fired. The Phantom thrust out up her right hand and projected a biotic shield to absorb the flak.
Without warning, a burst of energy erupted from the Phantom's gauntlet. This time Valni's barriers took the fire and she staggered under the blast.
In that moment, the Phantom leapt forward with her sword raised.
Valni instinctively lifted her assault rifle to deflect the blow. The Phantom's blade, its edge sharpened to the width of a molecule, sliced through Valni's rifle as if it was mist.
Valni stumbled back. She dropped the useless bisected rifle and leapt away from another wild swing. The Phantom's movements were powerful but unskilled. Valni suspected that Phantoms relied on superior weaponry and the element of surprise to take down enemies in a single strike and weren't used to someone who could dodge their attacks.
Valni let the Phantom take several wild swings as she evaluated their style.
She saw an opening and exploited it.
The Phantom tucked her hand under her body as she geared for another attack, but Valni was ready for her. As she swung her hand, Valni darted in and caught the Phantom by the wrist. Valni twisted her body, throwing her weight onto her front foot and forcing the Phantom into a shoulder throw.
Momentum took the Phantom over Valni's shoulder and pitched her over the railings. The Phantom screamed as she fell into the cargo bay, the sword slipping from her grasp and landing on the catwalk at Valni's feet.
Valni scooped up the blade. It was light, perfectly balanced and exceedingly sharp.
She smiled. She may have lost one weapon but she'd gained another.
On the uppermost level of the cargo bay, Vetra and the geth hurried past a row of containers stowed on the catwalk. She'd seen the Spectre escape the troopers and her heart stopping battle with the Phantom, but she resented the fact she could do nothing to help her. Running from a fight was not Vetra's style. She desperately wanted to shoot something. She wanted to face her enemy.
She got her chance.
"A Phantom is approaching," the geth suddenly announced.
Vetra looked around. "Where? I can't see them."
"We can. They are in front of us."
Vetra stared. She still couldn't see anything. Just then, a figure appeared by the stairwell ahead of them. It was indeed a Phantom. And she had spotted the geth.
Vetra heard the Phantom say "Target acquired" into her comm as she ran towards them.
"I'm guessing they want you alive?" Vetra said. "But everyone else is expendable."
"That would be our assessment, too," the geth agreed.
Before Vetra could react, the geth turned at lightning speed and pushed her between the containers.
"Hide there! We will interact with the Phantom," it told her and then turned to face the enemy.
The Phantom rushed forward and dropped into a crouching position in front of the geth as she thrust out her sword menacingly.
"Freeze, geth!" the Phantom said in a rasping tone, her speech electronically distorted by the helmet. "You're coming with us!"
"Your vital signs indicate elevated stress levels," the geth said conversationally. "If it helps you to relax we could sign your underwear?"
The Phantom recoiled as if burnt. "What?!" she exclaimed, her voice heavy with confusion. That hesitation was all Vetra needed. She leapt out from behind the crates and blasted the Phantom in the chest with her Carnifex. The Phantom's shield took the force of the impact. A second round drained the shields and a third penetrated her armour. The Phantom flew backwards over the railing. A resounding clang echoed around the bay. Vetra glanced over the railings; the Phantom was sprawled atop one of the crates, trying to raise her hands as she groaned weakly in pain.
Vetra didn't tarry. She hustled the geth towards the stairwell.
"Whatever you do, keep asking that!" she told it.
Below them, Valni was hunting. She crossed onto the skywalk, the sword grasped firmly in her hand. On the other side of the bay a figure silently snuck onto the skywalk. The Phantom didn't try to conceal her approach from the turian. Seeing the stolen sword in the hands of an enemy alien infuriated her. She sprinted towards the lone turian. The turian responded in kind and they charged, the Phantom gaining speed for her a final attack that would all but cut the turian in half.
The Phantom shouted a battle cry as she drove her blade straight through the turian's chest.
It passed harmlessly through Valni's body.
The Phantom turned to see the holographic decoy vanish at the same moment the real turian appeared behind her.
"Two can play at that game!" Valni said and came out swinging.
The Phantom barely had time to raise her blade in defence.
Sparks flew as the swords clashed.
The Phantom hurled herself to the left and then sprang forward. Valni parried a thrust and responded with a riposte. The lethal blades sang and hissed as they came together, creating glittering arcs of lights. The swordswomen made for an arresting sight, their blades whirling as they fought in the middle of the skywalk. The Phantom desperately blocked a cut from Valni's sword as Valni tested the Phantom's defences, looking for an opening.
Valni's suspicions were correct: Phantoms were trained for quick killing blows, not extended swordplay – Especially against a skilled opponent with a stolen blade.
The Phantom backed up, flailing desperately as Valni pressed her advantage. The Phantom narrowly avoided a diagonal slash that left a shallow gouge in her breastplate. Then Valni lunged forward, driving the Phantom backwards. A final flick with the point of her blade sent the Phantom off-balance. She lost her footing and fell, her sword clattering away. The Phantom raised her arm protectively as Valni swept her blade up for a killing blow.
But Valni wasn't aiming for the Phantom.
She swung the blade in a wide vertical arc at the skywalk. There was barely any resistance as the monomolecular blade sliced through the metal walkway in one clean sweep.
The skywalk shuddered and dropped about a metre. The Phantom stared at Valni; in that moment Valni could almost see the look of shock on the Phantom's face as, a second later, the skywalk gave way.
Valni leapt for a dangling cable to her left. The Phantom was not so lucky and scrabbled for purchase as the metal walkway buckled, pitching her into the cargo bay with an almighty crash.
With one hand holding a hideously sharp blade and the other hand gripping the cable, Valni was alarmed to find she couldn't get a grip on the slick, oily chain. Her hand slipped. The cable sped through her fingers, burning her. Desperately, she let go, falling several metres to land beside the body of the dazed Phantom.
Shaking her head, Valni clambered to her feet. She was on the lower decks, in the maze of containers, with several heavily armed enemies gunning for her. She needed back-up.
Valni activated her omni-tool and opened a link to the Icarus' bridge.
"Yes, Spectre," the voice of the Icarus crewman replied.
"I'm giving you the nod!"
"Understood," came the reply.
"There she is!" someone called out.
Valni looked up to see another Phantom standing on the upper catwalk pointing her sword at her. Behind her were a pair of troopers. Valni activated her cloak and vanished as the Cerberus troops opened fire, sending ricochets in all directions.
Above her, Vetra watched Valni's fall into the cargo bay.
"We're going to help her," Vetra said firmly.
The geth didn't argue, which surprised Vetra. Being a synthetic, she'd half expected it to respond by reciting the low odds of survival. But it didn't. It simply nodded in agreement.
But no sooner had they started to move to the stairwell when two troopers rocketed over the railings, gouts of flame firing from their backs. They landed on the catwalk with a clang.
Vetra brought her Carnifex up and fired. The closest trooper staggered under the impact but he didn't go down. His armour bore the brunt of the onslaught.
Vetra dived for cover as the second trooper opened fire. The geth, however, didn't seek cover. Instead, it ran forward and grabbed the trooper Vetra had shot, using him as a human shield. Then, with a twist of robotic muscle, it lifted the trooper over the railings and pitched him into the hold.
But now it had lost its shield. Seeing the geth was vulnerable, Vetra emerged from hiding and charged the remaining trooper, firing her gun relentlessly. The trooper ducked behind a crate, only to emerge a second later with his gun trained on Vetra.
He had the drop on her. There was nowhere to hide.
Then a narrow spread of holes blossomed on the trooper's chest. The enemy went down under the stream of bullets and lay still.
Bemused, Vetra looked to her right. The geth was standing by her side, the first trooper's submachine in its hands.
Vetra eyed the geth warily, wondering if it was about to turn the submachine gun on her. She knew next to nothing about geth but was fairly certain trying to disarm it would not be a good idea.
'Thanks,' she said cautiously.
The geth lowered its gun. "You should gather the enemy's weapon. It will increase your firepower," it advised.
"Good call," Vetra agreed and hurriedly picked up the gleaming white submachine gun from the dead trooper.
Below them, the sound of gunfire echoed around the bay. Valni was in trouble.
"We've got to get down there," Vetra said.
"The stairs are too slow," the geth said as it holstered the gun on its thigh. Without warning, it seized Vetra around the waist.
Vetra started. "What are you doing?"
"This way is quicker," the geth said by way of explanation. And then leapt over the railings.
They fell into space. The geth caught a dangling cable in its free hand and let the chain slip through its fingers and the pair dropped like a stone. Vetra clung to the geth, its oddly warm metallic muscles flexing beneath her fingers. Despite herself, she couldn't suppress a squeal of terrified laughter as the ground came up to meet them at an alarming rate. At the last second, the geth squeezed the chain hard and they slowed to a perfectly judged halt, organic and synthetic toes brushing the ground.
The geth released her.
Vetra released an obscenity.
"Warn me next time you do that!" she exclaimed.
"As you wish," the geth said.
And together they advanced on the enemy.
They wound their way between the crates, emerging to a scene of all-out war.
Four heavily-armoured troopers were converging on their position, two limping Phantoms were carrying a third injured Phantom between them, while the last Phantom standing was locked in a battle royale with Valni as their swords clashed. Valni looked like she had the upper hand.
Vetra and the geth came out firing.
The troopers took note of the new arrivals but seemed loath to fire at the geth. Maybe they were worried about damaging their precious package?
Vetra ducked behind a crate and provided covering fire with her stolen submachine gun while the geth advanced on the trooper's position. The troopers were so focused on Vetra and the geth that they didn't notice the Icarus crew emerge through the cargo bay doors until it was too late.
The crew let loose on the raiders. The Cerberus agents suddenly found themselves on the defensive as they fought on three fronts against a turian woman and her geth, a turian maniac with a sword, and the crew of the Icarus. Caught in the flanking crossfire, a running retreat was the only option.
One of the troopers put his finger to his ear and activated his comm.
"We are being overrun. What are our orders? Do we withdraw?"
"Do you have the Asset?" a deep male voice demanded over the comm.
"No, sir! There was a complication."
"Do not let the Asset fall into enemy hands. If you can't capture the geth, destroy it!" the voice ordered.
"Understood," the trooper replied.
Over to the right, the Phantom Valni was fighting suddenly activated her tactical cloaking and vanished.
Valni swung her blade at the space the Phantom was but the enemy had gone, presumably retreating with her teammates.
Out of the corner of her eye, Vetra noticed one of the troopers reloading his weapon with explosive rounds.
Vetra glanced at the geth. It was standing out in the open. Vetra launched herself from cover and ran at the geth. "Get down!" she screamed.
The geth saw her running, then looked at the trooper aiming his weapon towards it.
It made a decision.
The geth caught Vetra by the arm and threw her back behind a crate just as the explosive round took the geth in the chest. A deafening blast echoed around the hold. The geth was torn to pieces. Robotic arms and legs spun in all directions. **
Vetra and Valni covered their heads.
Several seconds passed before they rose from their prone positions. By the time their senses had cleared enough to stand, the troopers and the surviving Phantom had gone, retreating to their shuttle in the docking bay.
Vetra emerged from her prone position on the floor and staggered to the remains of the geth, her ears still ringing.
"It pushed me out of the way," Vetra said. "Why'd it do that?"
Valni had no answers. She was staring at the smoking remains of the geth scattered on the ground.
Just then her omni-tool lit up as a message came through.
"The raiders are retreating," the Icarus' captain said. "Blue Suns' ships have just arrived in the system."
"Understood," Valni replied numbly.
She suddenly felt drained. She caught Vetra's eye; the merc drifter evidently felt the same way.
All that effort and they were no closer to discovering the truth about Haestrom or why Cerberus had taken such pains to capture and ultimately destroy the evidence.
It had all been snatched away.
Valni settled down on the floor beside the broken geth.
Had it all been for nothing?
Valni and Vetra battle Cerberus.
This chapter has a belter of a Two Steps From Hell soundtrack: www.youtube.com/watch?v=RKmw9o… It starts when Valni says, "They're not the only one who can vanish," and ends in an explosion! Enjoy.
A Matter of Life and Death
NYXING THE IDEA
Balor System, Caleston Rift, Terminus Systems – 06:10 ZULU – 9th November 2185 CE
The MSV Icarus wasn't what she was expecting.
The majority of cargo ships operating in the Terminus Systems were owned by traders and independent contractors who would often purchase obsolete junker ships at knockdown prices and overhaul them. Most of these freighters looked like they were held together with spit and polish. Start-up costs for independent traders often proved to be prohibitively expensive, and many struggled to make a decent living. As a result, many traders resorted to smuggling or transporting data packets to systems most reputable companies wouldn't risk.
The MSV Icarus, however, was an Athabasca-class freighter. Often mistaken for Kowloon-class cargo carriers, the Athabasca-class were multi-leveled starships with minimal armaments and were all too easily boarded by raiders.
Valni knew from experience how dangerous the Terminus Systems could be. The Terminus was a hotbed of piracy. Slaver gangs and mercs roamed the systems, occasionally invading the neighbouring Attican Traverse to raid poorly defended colonies. Since these attacks fell outside the jurisdiction of Citadel space, the Council rarely responded directly, preferring to take a non-interference policy rather than risk a costly war that could unify the loose affiliation of gangs against the Citadel forces.
The Terminus was lawless, and Valni pitied the traders who were forced to ply their trade amongst deadly stars.
But people had to make a living.
"Turian shuttle, your approach is not scheduled. Please identify," a male voice said over the shuttle's comm. Valni activated the link.
"This is Council shuttle Tiberius, operating on Spectre authority. Requesting permission to dock with the Icarus."
"Shuttle Tiberius, say again. It sounded like you said you had a Spectre on-board?"
"That is affirmative, Icarus," Valni said. "You're speaking to her."
There was a long pause.
"Pull the other one!"
Valni sighed. This happened more often than she cared to admit. People tended to veer towards scepticism when she told them of her Spectre status. Although, to be fair, it usually happened when she met them face-to-face.
To counter this, Valni had fallen into the habit of giving out her credentials as a matter-of-course. Sometimes she wished the Council had issued her a Spectre badge so she could flash it.
"Sending authentication code now," Valni told the man via the comm. "Be advised, I will need full access to your shipping manifest and am authorised to carry weapons. Please don't test me on this, it's been a long trip."
There was another pause as her codes were authenticated. The reply came a few seconds later.
"Um, sorry Spectre," the voice of the man said. "We weren't expecting someone like you. Are we in trouble?"
"Not yet. Now, are you gonna open the hanger or shall I make my own entrance?" Valni replied. She was in a hurry and sometimes diplomacy needed a big stick to get things moving.
"Opening hanger bay. Please proceed inside," the voice said. "A crewmember will be there to meet you with the shipping manifest."
Valni thanked the man, then switched off the link and piloted her shuttle into the docking bay.
The Icarus' cargo bay was larger than she thought. Unlike the modular cargo holds of the older Kowloon-class ships the Icarus' cargo bay was one huge, multi-tiered area with catwalks and gangways criss-crossing the upper levels. Massive cranes with dangling cables were built into the topmost deck to haul the cargo containers that filled the hold.
Valni glanced at the cargo manifest she'd been given by a nervous-looking human crewman. It wasn't especially organized and gave only a vague idea of where the package might be located.
Valni clambered onto one of the crates to try and get her bearings.
The place was like a maze. The way the containers were arranged made navigating through the hold difficult. Valni sighed. Even with the manifest, she knew it was going to take a while to locate the package.
"You're a long way from home," a flanging voice sounded below her.
Valni peered over the edge of the crate.
Standing in the narrow gangway between the containers was a tall turian woman in dark grey combat armour. Her carapace was pale with two blue colony markings running from her browplate to her mandibles in an inverted 'V', and a holographic visor covered her eyes. She didn't appear to be armed. Valni guessed she'd relinquished her weapons when she'd boarded.
"But I guess you Spectres can go anywhere they like, can't they?" the woman added.
"How'd you know I'm a Spectre?" Valni asked.
"Word travels fast…" the woman replied. "And I may have hacked the ship's comms. Freighters like this have the worst firewalls."
"You're from the Nexus, I take it?"
The woman flashed a smile. "Guess my reputation precedes me." She gestured at her chest. "Vetra Nyx. Wrangler, provisioner, gun for hire, and obtainer of rare antiquities."
Valni smiled back; she recognized the line from one of Kenneth's favourite movies. "Cute."
"Why, thank you. So are you."
Valni cleared her throat. "Yeah, I've already had my fill of compliments, thanks."
"What brings you to this neck of the woods?"
"Same reason you're here. I was advised you might need an extra gun."
"And the Initiative sent a Spectre? Wow! I'm touched. Seriously, I'm getting the warm fuzzies here."
"Actually, the Initiative didn't send me. They don't even know I'm on-board."
"And the fuzzies are gone."
Crouching, Valni grabbed the edge of the crate and leapt down, landing nimbly in front of Nyx. She stood up to face the merc, her head barely reaching Vetra's shoulders.
Vetra gave her an admiring smile. "Wow, you are small," she said. "I mean, human smol! Like a little pocket-rocket."
"Funny," Valni said without enthusiasm.
"Let me guess: the Council trialling a new model of sub-compact Spectre?"
"Yeah, side-splitting," Valni deadpanned. "Think you can tell me one I haven't heard?"
But then Vetra's expression changed, she stared at Valni as if seeing her for the first time. "Wait… I thought you looked familiar." A broad grin lit up her face. "Hello, Spectre!"
Valni groaned. "Don't tell me you're a fan of that brand, too?"
"The one with your face all over it. Sure. It's adorable."
"Shoot me now," Valni muttered under her breath
"Wasn't expecting to meet a celebrity on this trip. Maybe I'll get you to sign my underwear?"
"I… really hope that won't be necessary," Valni said carefully.
"Don't worry, I'm not wearing them at the moment. Technically speaking I never actually bought them."
Valni turned away. This was a conversation she really didn't want to be having. "Let's just find that data-package," she said as she moved between the crates.
Vetra trailed after her, an impish grin still playing on her face.
"Hey, if they ever make you into an action figure, would it be life-sized?" Vetra asked.
"You do know I'm armed, right?"
Navigating through the crates turned out to be a massive pain-in-the-ass.
Very often the pathways narrowed to a dead-end, forcing them to clamber up and over the containers. Valni appreciated the exercise, but there was no doubt she was going to have several choice words with the owners regarding their organisation.
"So, who tipped you off?" Vetra asked as they jumped down from another crate. "Can't imagine Sloane Kelly would send someone like you out to help someone like me. I bet it was Kandros. He seems like a sneaky bugger!"
"He certainly likes to play it close to his chest," Valni agreed.
"I didn't think he had that kind of pull."
"Everyone has a past."
They turned a corner and entered a long passage heading towards the stern of the ship. According to the manifest, the data-package was supposed to be somewhere there.
"You know, I checked your file on the flight over," Valni said.
"I have a file? What does it say?"
"Born on Palaven, but you left when you were young. As such, you were never inducted into the Hierarchy. Officially you're not even a citizen. Both parents gone. You were left alone to raise your baby sister by yourself. That's a lot of responsibility. Records are sketchy, but you were apparently involved with smuggling, merc gangs, and – according to Hierarchy intel – suspected of being part of a group that stole classified information from a military base on Menae…" Valni paused for effect. "Though there's nothing concrete to support that."
"You almost sound impressed," Vetra observed.
"Confused. You're obviously skilled. You're intelligent. You have knowledge of other cultures. Why did you decide to become a gun for hire?"
"You ask that like it's a recruitment option on career day. 'Oh, yes, it's my ambition to risk my life so my sister won't starve!'" Vetra said with scorn. "It wasn't a choice. I did it to survive."
"I get it," Valni assured her.
"Do you?" Vetra did not sound convinced. "On a related note, how did you become a Spectre? Did you have to audition for it or something? Was there a dance off?"
"I crashed a cruiser into Tayseri Ward. Almost took out the Dilinaga Concert Hall."
"And they made you a Spectre for that?" Vetra chuckled. "Spirits! If they knew about all the crap I've done, I'd be Primarch by now!"
"There were several captives being held on-board, including the CEO of Armali Council."
"Ah! Rescuing people in high places. Yeah, that'll do it."
"It wasn't favouritism. I was being evaluated. I just didn't know it."
"You can't have been very observant."
"My team and I took down a slaver group. We were rewarded for our actions. We weren't given preferential treatment."
"Uh-huh. What did your parents do?"
"Mom was an envoy. She's retired. Dad…" Valni hesitated, "he was Governor of the Northern Provinces back on Palaven."
"Oh, sure, no favouritism there," Vetra scoffed.
"I earned my rank on my own merits. I wasn't riding my parent's coattails."
"Keep telling yourself that."
Valni stopped and glared at Vetra. "What is your problem?"
"Some of us weren't born with a silver spoon in our mandibles. Some of us had to do what was necessary to not die! Those merc jobs I took, I hated those jobs. But I did them because I had to. I protected my kid sister. Even though I was still a kid myself. You grow up fast in that environment. Not everyone had the life of privilege you enjoyed."
Valni turned away and continued walking. "You know nothing about my life."
"You had parents, you had security, you had the Hierarchy," Vetra said, as she trailed after Valni. "Those are things me and Sid never had the luxury of knowing."
"We all have our trials and tribulations," Valni replied. "It's how we rise above them that determines who we are."
"Didn't realise Spectres were armed with philosophy degrees," Vetra muttered.
Valni continued to the end of the path and looked down at the datapad. According to the manifest the package sent by the quarian scientist should be right in front of her.
"This is it," Vetra said, pointing at a rectangular box that was about a metre long and half-a-metre high.
"Are you sure?" Valni asked her.
"See that weird symbol on the corner?" Vetra said, indicating a black motif that looked vaguely like a starship. "That's a quarian mark. Helps pilgrims and quarian explorers identify packages in secure drops. This one means it's to be sent to the Migrant Fleet."
Valni stared at the container. "That's a large crate for a data-package."
"Maybe it has a lot of padding?"
Valni switched on her omni-tool and scanned the crate. She frowned. "I'm not getting any readings from it."
Vetra also activated her omni-tool. She hunched down beside the container and started a decryption program.
"What are you doing?" Valni said.
"Opening it up," Vetra replied. "Let's see what we're dealing with."
"Wait, we don't know what's insi…"
But Valni's protest was cut short when, with a hiss, the top of the crate opened.
Vetra jumped back.
"What in the Spirits' name?"
The two women stared at the contents. Inside the crate was a grey, elongated robotic head with a single photoreceptor at the front.
"That's a geth head!" Vetra exclaimed.
"Not just the head," Valni said. With the crate open she was able to scan the contents properly. A complete geth had been folded into the container.
Without warning, the photoreceptor sprung to life.
"Whoa! What did you do?" Vetra accused.
Valni reached for her weapon. "That wasn't me," she said as her Phaeston assault rifle snapped open in her hands. "It must be reacting to the scan."
The geth uncurled itself, it's legs and arms lengthening as it stood up in the crate.
Then its glowing photoreceptor turned to face them.
On the edge of her vision, Valni saw a Carnifex pistol appear in Vetra's hand; the merc levelled it at the geth. Valni eyed the pistol warily. She thought Vetra had given up all her weapons.
"Where did you get that?"
"I'm a smuggler. I'm good at hiding things. I snuck this one away."
"I hesitate to ask where."
"There's a hidden compartment in my chest-plate. Don't get cute!"
"I'm a Spectre," Valni told the geth. "If you make any threatening moves I will shoot you."
"Spectre rank acknowledged," the geth said.
Vetra blinked in surprise. "Ummm… should geth be able to do that?" she asked.
"What the hell were you doing in there?" Valni asked the geth.
The geth looked down and regarded the crate in an almost quizzical fashion. Then it looked up. "We do not know."
"Where did you come from?"
"We were on Haestrom. A Creator scientist approached us. He was studying the effects of the parent star's premature eruption into a red giant. We had a mutual goal. We shared data. Then the Creator disabled us. Our systems went dark. Consciousness was not restored until the container was opened."
"This is… this is weird, right?" Vetra said hesitantly. "It's not just me?"
"How did the quarian disable you?"
"An energy weapon. The Creator was armed with a scaled-down arc projector. A high-ampere shock scrabbled our neural pathways. This platform's self-repair protocol was neutralised until we were freed from confinement."
"You said you shared data with the quarian. Did you tell him what happened to Haestrom's sun?" Valni asked.
"We told him," the geth confirmed.
"And then he shot you?" Vetra asked.
"That's gratitude for you," Vetra huffed.
"Can you tell us about Haestrom's sun?"
"In light of the actions of the Creator, no."
"I need that data. Can we make an exchange?"
The geth's photoreceptor seemed to blink. "What part of 'no' caused confusion?"
"I don't know much about geth, but are they programmed to be sassy?" Vetra asked.
"Most of them can't even talk," Valni said. She nodded at the geth. "What are you?"
"An autonomous unit. We function independently of the geth network. Our virtual intelligence processors are optimised for gathering scientific data and limited interaction with organics."
"A geth VI?" Valni asked.
"This platform is currently running 1,100 programs."
"Legion?" The geth paused and looked away as if it was remembering something. "The designation given to the platform sent to contact Commander Shepard. We serve a similar purpose. We were sent by the true geth to study the impact of extra-terrestrial offensives on extinct worlds. Our journey took us to Antibaar, Corang, Feros, Helyme, Kopis, Therum, all planets known to have suffered bombardment by hostile forces."
"What were you doing on Haestrom?"
"I repeat: all planets attacked by outside forces."
"I'm a little lost here," Vetra said. "What does it mean,' true geth?'"
"A small percentage of geth split from the Collective," the geth explained. "These heretics spearheaded the attack on the Citadel. They are not true geth."
"Geth have political factions?" Vetra exclaimed. "I think I'm getting a headache."
Valni kept her focus on the geth. "But the only race I know of that went extinct are the Protheans," she said.
"That information is restricted," the geth said.
"Are you saying Haestrom was a Prothean world?"
"That information is restricted."
"Is the aging of Heastrom's sun somehow linked to the Protheans?"
"That information is restricted."
"Not very chatty, is he?" Vetra muttered.
"We have discovered that reticence is a useful survival skill," the geth replied. "However, with the right incentive we can achieve consensus."
"You want to negotiate?"
"We have information you desire. Our continued survival depends on that information. Until you can guarantee our safe return through the Perseus Veil, that information is restricted."
Vetra shook her head in amazement. "Playing it close to its chest, isn't it?"
Valni didn't ask where she'd learned that human expression. She lowered her weapon.
"Well, this day just took a left-turn."
Vetra chuckled. "No kidding." She lowered her weapon. "But if it'll help cheer you up, I could still get you to sign my underwear."
"You really couldn't have picked a worse time, could you?"
"Got to take the opportunity where you can!"
"Don't embarrass me in front of the geth."
The geth cocked its head as it regarded the turian women. "Is this behaviour typical of organic social interaction?" it asked.
Valni's gaze flicked between Vetra and the geth. Even by her standards this was one of the most bizarre situations she'd been in.
At that moment (and much to her relief) an alarm sounded.
"Um, Spectre. Are you there?" a voice said on her omni-tool.
Valni answered. She was grateful for the distraction. "This is Severan. What are those alarms?"
"A ship just dropped out of FTL. I think they're pirates. They're targeting our engines. They're demanding we hand over the quarian package."
"What kind of ship is it?" Valni asked.
"I'm not sure. But it looks Alliance in design."
"Show me," Valni ordered.
A second later, Valni's omni-tool synced with the Icarus' navigation cams.
A holographic screen appeared above her arm showing an external view of the freighter. A ship was positioned directly ahead of the Icarus. It looked like a Fenrir-class Alliance corvette, only it wasn't in the standard blue Alliance colours. It was white and yellow, and its thrusters were emblazoned with a distinctive logo.
Valni stared; her browplates rose.
She recognised the insignia on the ship.
The last time she'd seen that elongated hexagon bordered by gold lines was on Kenneth's uniform.