Six months before the events of Mass Effect...
Turians never break. The words were first spoken to Arlen by his father when he was only a child and had become a talisman of sorts. They were not a physical barrier. They did not protect him from bullets or blows but they often gave him comfort when he felt distressed or forlorn, and shored up his courage when he needed it the most.
His father had also taught him the breathing exercises to calm himself in times of stress, though they did little to sooth his fraying nerves at that moment. He inhaled the cool, sweet air of the Presidium and felt his chest push against the tight confines of his armour, the black and blue panels smoothly polished and free of blemish. Conscientiously, he brushed off the sleek guards over his forearms and began to rehearse his cleverly formulated speech; the one with which the recruit would greet his new commanding officer and convince him of his worth. His jaw moved slightly as he silently mouthed the words he would speak, and his eyes wandered from side to side absently as he toyed with different phrases.
His mental preparations were interrupted as the door slid aside to reveal Executor Pallin at his desk. The old turian's skin was dark and mottled, and the stark white tattoos adorning his face flashed brightly in the manufactured daylight of the Presidium. Arlen swallowed and took a few smart steps forward before coming to a halt and saluting sharply.
'Arlen Kryik reporting for duty, Sir,' he barked before falling silent, awaiting a response.
Pallin did not so much as lift his eyes from his terminal. His fingers continued to glide across the projected keypad, creating a symphony of beeps and clicks as the young recruit waited awkwardly for a response. Finally, with a gruff sigh, the executor raised his head and slowly leaned back in his chair. His small blue eyes shifted in their dark sockets, casting a judgmental gaze over Arlen as he stood rigidly to attention.
'How old are you, kid?' Pallin asked. His tone was not entirely one of disrespect but the words had a distinct, derisory bite.
Arlen's green eyes remained locked, staring at an undefined horizon, as they had been trained to do. 'Nineteen, Sir,' he answered. The words were devoid of all emotion, as they had been trained to be.
'Nineteen ' Pallin grunted, shaking his head. 'How many years in the army? Three?'
'Two and a half, Sir.'
'Two and a half years ' Pallin repeated, again shaking his head in wonderment. 'And you think you're ready to be a Citadel Security Interceptor?'
Arlen was unsure whether he should answer or not so he did as all recruits were expected in such a situation and kept his mouth firmly shut.
'What exactly do you know about the Interceptors, boy?' asked Pallin, his eyes appraising the recruit with keen interest.
'They are responsible for the apprehension of fugitives and other individuals wanted by the Council,' Arlen replied without hesitation. 'Alongside Special Response, they are C-Sec's best operatives, and are often directly responsible for the safety of the Council in times of emergency.'
'That's what the textbooks say,' Pallin muttered. 'Tell me what you know about the Interceptors.'
Arlen opened his mouth to speak before realising he had nothing to say. The truth was he knew little of the agents beyond their reputation and in any case, he had been picked to join them, not the other way around. The invitation had come so suddenly that he had not even had the time to look into their history, rank structure, even their current commanders. Such things would need to be learned in advance if he were joining a new legion and the young man felt naked without the facts.
'I didn't expect an answer, kid, so you can wipe that dumb look off your face,' snapped Pallin. 'You can't answer because you're not supposed to know anything about them. Interceptors are trained in all forms of counter espionage and set loose in small teams around the galaxy to catch the Council's most dangerous enemies. Their identities and tasks are highly classified, only known to myself and a handful of the highest-ranking individuals in the galaxy. Some say they are the Spectres of C-Sec but ' His expression twisted into one of grim distaste and Arlen shifted his weight uncomfortably as the executor's voice deepened. 'Interceptors always, always answer to the law,' he said forcefully, as if trying to push the words into Arlen's skull. 'They capture their targets alive, ready for them to face justice in a Citadel court. If you think you'll be able to roam the galaxy doing what you please like the Spectres, think again.'
Arlen allowed himself a sharp blink, a brief flicker of his eyelids. He was well-used to the words of superior officers and like any good turian he absorbed it all without reaction, still and obedient.
'Interceptors have more freedom to operate than average investigators but their actions are accountable and anyone caught acting with disregard for C-Sec regulations will face the consequences in a military tribunal. And don't think they'll go easy on you just because your shell's only just hardened.'
The executor's scornful tone was nothing compared to the crazed rants of his old drill instructors, yet Arlen could not help but tense slightly in annoyance at the constant slights to his youth. Instantly, the recruit forced himself to relax, knowing that to speak would bring shame on him before he had even begun.
'The Interceptors are still a relatively new concept,' said Pallin. 'They were introduced ten years ago in response to the demand for tracking down fugitives without having to allocate 'prized resources' like Spectres. They aren't standard C-Sec officers, like the kind you see writing tickets or busting drunks. Interceptors are usually hand-picked by myself and the top echelon of C-Sec staff; named men that have faithfully served C-Sec for many years. In a lot of cases only their past experience has seen them through, which is why I wonder why you're here; a green-as-grass recruit without a single tour of duty under his belt, even in the military.'
Arlen still said nothing. Where he would have snapped an acerbic response he now held his tongue and kept his eyes fixed beyond Pallin. The balcony behind him overlooked a vast swathe of the Presidium and Arlen found his temper cooled by the subtle white curves of the architecture and splatters of lush green vegetation lining the walkways.
'That said,' Pallin continued, his tone growing slightly more approving, 'you were picked out from your legion as a candidate for a reason and you sure impressed the hell out of the academy, so I'll give you the benefit of the doubt for now. We'll see how you perform while under the supervision of one of our veteran officers and if he likes what he sees then we'll get you set up with a minder, ready for your first assignment.'
Pallin leaned forward and resumed his work, lost once again in the dull orange glow of his terminal. 'Unfortunately, we'll have to cut this interview short,' he said brusquely. 'The Council is holding a high priority hearing in only a few hours so I have my hands full. Give me your omni-tool and I'll give you your stamp. For now, I want you to report to Garrus Vakarian. He'll show you the ropes until you can stand on your own two feet.'
'Yes, Sir, where can I find him?' Arlen asked, relieved to escape the tense, discomfiting atmosphere.
'He's been pulled from his current investigations and reassigned to the Joint Security Task Force. They're handling the Council's security detail during this hearing. He should be down in C-Sec headquarters. Just ask around, somebody will know where he is.'
'Yes, Sir,' Arlen turned smoothly and had almost reached the door when Pallin spoke again.
Arlen waited expectantly.
'Your stamp?' he asked with no small amount of condescension.
Blinking in embarrassment, Arlen stepped forward to receive Pallin's fingerprint on his omni-tool. The device beeped softly as it acknowledged the executor and Arlen nodded with satisfaction as his security clearance was approved.
'Thank you Sir,' he said appreciatively. Pallin did not answer and merely waved him away. For his part, Arlen was happy to oblige and he marched out of the office, almost gasping as the pressure left his body and mind. Ensuring the door was firmly shut, he sagged against the wall and closed his eyes. His father's spirit must have been shaking its head at that moment, Arlen griped inwardly as he pictured Pallin's expression of stern disapproval throughout the interview. The stamp had been the final straw and he shook his head slowly, mortified with himself. How could he allow such a simple thing to escape his notice and still expect to be treated with respect?
Slowly, the tension faded from his senses and clarity began to return to his thoughts. He was being childish, he realised, and one thing of which his father would not approve was moping in self-pity mere inches from the executor's door . After taking a few moments to compose himself, Arlen pushed away from the wall and began to make his way to the wards.
He would prove himself worthy of the executor's admiration, he was certain of it.
The customs agent swore loudly as another ship began to dock in a distant bay. Around him, the bustle of the port had grown into an incessant clamour, an almost aggressive wall of noise that pressed on the small booth from all sides.
'Another bloody passenger transport,' he muttered to his colleague, who replied as one does when they have heard the same complaint a dozen times in one day.
'Yes, Dale, another one,' Fran groaned. 'Do you want to try and be a little more pleasant to this bunch?' his co-worker asked sardonically.
'They don't pay me to be pleasant, Fran,' he replied, his voice a mixture of frustration and resentment.
Dale wiped his balding head with the back of his sleeve, ignoring the dark stains left in his jacket as a result. Long queues of people had started to shuffle their way through the checkpoints, the latest herd to disembark the passenger ship.
'Look at them,' he grumbled as he watched them approach. 'Five hundred extra bodies, all clamouring to be stuffed into this overcrowded pig sty of a station. It's enough to make you sick.'
Fran turned to him with a sour expression, her brow creased beneath a sweep of dark hair. 'Come on, that's unfair! A lot of these people are only here for the Council talks.'
'You call them people?' Dale mocked, though there was little humour in his words.
Fran glanced at the group, noting the large splashes of colour dotting the crowd as turians, asari and hanar walked among the humans, and frowned at Dale in response. She knew he did not mean it, that he only said such things in aggravation after a long, busy day. Still, he could get both of them in trouble if one of their supervisors overheard his remarks and she was beginning to grow tired of his crude comments.
'Shut up, this is serious! You know how important these talks are going to be for all of us. They say the Council's going to grant the Alliance new powers and expansion rights on the borders, which means more jobs and more opportunities for people like us. Besides, if you hate the Citadel so much why don't you just leave?'
'I will one of these days, believe me,' he answered. Fran shook her head in exasperation. Once the rush had died down he would be back to singing the station's praises once again.
The mass of people began to press through the checkpoint gates ahead of them and a cacophony of beeps and alarms rose as scanners were tripped. Those who didn't set them off began to trickle through in small drabs while the others grumbled as their persons were searched by waiting officers. Thank God for the bloody scanners, otherwise it'd take all day to see them all, Dale thought to himself as the first of the passengers arrived at the booth and the loud questions of the customs officers rose over the murmur of the crowd.
Dale narrowed his eyes as a bold, muscular turian approached, his pale grey features splashed with bright red paint. Slowly, the turian made his way to the booth before setting down a heavy-looking case and handing over an ID card. Arching his eyebrows pompously, Dale scanned the card with a flick of his wrist.
'Your business in the Citadel, Mister Siracus?' he asked, glancing at the scrolling reams of information on his terminal screen.
Crixus Nantia smiled, his calm exterior hiding his satisfaction at the success of the counterfeit ID. 'I am a close associate of General Septimus Oraka,' he replied warmly. 'I'm here for his retirement party.'
'Do you have anything to declare?' Dale sighed, the tedium getting the better of his manners.
Dale paused and eyed the turian warily, his eyes travelling down to the case at Crixus' feet. 'Are you sure?' he asked suspiciously.
Crixus smiled again and tilted his head coyly. 'A gift for General Septimus.' Again, Dale raised an eyebrow and looked at the case. Crixus scratched the back of his neck in feigned embarrassment. 'For his meetings with Lady Sha'ira,' he chuckled nervously. 'I'm afraid I can't say any more. I'm sure you understand.'
Crixus stood amused as Dale's expression shifted between confusion to shocked realisation, and finally to one of meek servitude. Grinning apologetically, he handed the card back to Crixus and gestured for the turian to move on.
'Well, we wouldn't want to keep the general waiting now, would we? Please go on ahead, Mister Siracus and please pass on our warmest regards to General Septimus.'
'Thank you,' Crixus acknowledged politely and picked up his case in a strong grip.
As he strode through the large exit and into the Citadel proper his friendly demeanour darkened instantly, and he walked with a dogged determination through the shifting crowds of travellers as they passed through the port. They were all cattle to him, blissfully unaware of the predator that stalked amongst them.
Arlen scratched the rough surface of his neck, frowning at his inability to reach the itch through the thick padding of his armoured gloves. Still, while he remained at attention there was little else his mind could focus on and the minutes passed by as scores of blue-clad C-Sec officers streamed by.
Around him, the main hall of C-Sec headquarters towered, hundreds of floors of azure-tinted windows stretching up into the depths of the station while crystalline tubes ran their length, shadows of elevators flitting briefly inside. The air was warm, with the slightly sour scent of the wards carried through on the subtly conditioned currents. It was all a staggering spectacle to Arlen, though he did not have time to enjoy it as he waited for the duty officer to register his presence.
The man at the desk shifted, his feet propped up lazily as he leaned back in his chair. Arlen glanced at his waxy, sallow skin and sunken eyes set under a bare scalp that was spotted with dark moles. The human looked like he had been living at the desk for months without sleep and Arlen casually looked at the name on the duty roster projected in bright blue lettering beside the desk. Duty Officer: Harkin.
'You just gonna stand there all day?' Harkin asked suddenly, not even bothering to lift his gaze from the terminal. The faint whisper of a noisy crowd rose from the desk and Arlen clenched a fist in outrage. The man was watching sports while on duty, a grievous lack of discipline that would have earned him a serious charge from his old sergeant.
Arlen would not show the same lack of honour and he responded formally. 'Just awaiting orders, Sir. Arlen Kryik reporting for duty, Sir, I'm looking for Garrus Vakarian.'
Harkin lifted his attention from the terminal for an instant and a broad smirk spread across his lips. 'Yeah, yeah, you're the new kid. Man, they weren't lyin' about your age. For a second there I thought you were just here to scrub out the filters with all the other duct rats.'
Arlen's breathing grew deep as his frustration mounted. He did not know what a 'duct rat' was but he was sure it was not a compliment.
'Garrus Vakarian?' he repeated firmly.
'He's down the hall, third door on your right,' the human replied and Arlen could have sworn his sneer had widened. 'Just be careful of that one, kid.'
'What do you mean?' Arlen asked hesitantly. Though his senses pricked at Harkin's tone, he was intrigued by what the officer had to say. Harkin seemed to come alive at the opportunity to bad mouth a colleague and he lowered his voice while looking suspiciously from side to side.
'Garrus is well, he's not all there if you know what I mean,' Harkin murmured and Arlen found himself leaning forward intently, fixated on his every word. 'Something happened a while back, you see. Something involving a suspect. I don't know the details but ever since, Garrus has been on edge. No telling what he'll do.'
Straightening once more, Arlen nodded politely though he did not give much weight to the man's words. He was obviously an undisciplined slob and those like him had a tendency to speak ill of others to disguise their own failures.
'Well kid,' Harkin continued as his eyes returned to the screen. 'If you're done being Mister Model Soldier then I'll ask you to get the hell outta my sight. I'm already fifty creds down on this game and I don't need you here bringin' down my luck even more.'
Arlen quickly saluted and wandered down the hall, eager to be away from the slovenly officer.
The Striker II pistol lay in pieces on the desk, pointedly set aside from the scattered paperwork and piles of data discs strewn haphazardly across the workspace.
Garrus Vakarian's brow was knotted in deep concentration as he traced the contours of the barrel assembly, taking the time to carefully check for signs of damage or fatigue before moving on to the sear and hammer, ensuring the movement was smooth and free of obstruction. The mundane, yet pleasant familiarity of the task now had a therapeutic quality for him, and he relished the feel of the cool metal beneath his fingers.
With an almost mechanical efficiency he ran his eyes over each and every component of the weapon, each one as well known to him as parts of his own body. Each motion was tested and tested again. Every surface was probed and examined. Smiling to himself, Garrus remembered Executor Pallin's words; if he was as thorough with his investigations as his weapon cleaning he'd have made captain by now.
Although his small office was constantly filled with the murmur of outside conversations or the feral cries of those being brought into custody, the sound of approaching footsteps gave Garrus pause. Setting down the barrel assembly with an annoyed huff, he turned to find a young turian waiting patiently and obediently at the open door.
'What is it?' he asked, irritated at the interruption.
'Garrus Vakarian, Sir?' Arlen asked. 'Executor Pallin told me to report to you.'
'Oh, you must be Arlen,' Garrus said, his mood brightening instantly at the sight of the promising young recruit. He stood to shake the hand of his new charge. 'They told me you were dropping by. I take it this is your first time in the Citadel?"
'That's right,' replied Arlen, relieved to have someone finally speak to him like an adult. 'I like what I see so far, definitely a lot more lively than Edessa.'
'I should have guessed,' Garrus grunted as he looked over Arlen's facial markings. Like all turians who hailed from Edessa, Arlen sported a dark burgundy carapace etched with a symmetrical white pattern that framed every recess of his face. 'Well, you should fit in a little better here than in the military. When I was around they didn't care too much for colonies outside Hierarchy space.'
'They still don't,' Arlen answered regretfully, 'but they're a little less vocal about it than they used to be.' The younger turian almost smiled and his stance eased as he shrugged off the cloak of formality. Garrus' laid back manner was infectious and it was clear he did not expect Arlen to continue the charade of military etiquette.
'Did Pallin give you a hard time?' Garrus queried with a slight grin. Arlen chuckled softly and visibly relaxed, leaning against the frame of the door casually.
'Yeah, he was a little patronising about my age and all but hey, it's no worse than I got in the C-Sec academy.'
'I remember my academy days,' Garrus laughed. 'I lost count of the number of push ups they made me do for arguing with the instructors. Hell, I should've been kicked out for some of the stunts I used to pull. Is that old bastard Ashler still there?' Arlen nodded and Garrus smiled at the memories of his youth. 'For a human he wasn't half bad, could take the hump off a krogan at a thousand paces.'
Shaking his head gently, Garrus cleared his throat and invited Arlen into the office with a subtle motion. Arlen took a few steps before realising there was no seat and, after a moment of looking around in puzzlement he perched on the edge of a low table set against the wall of the office, wincing at the rustle of creasing paper from beneath his backside.
'Don't worry about that,' Garrus reassured him, 'I never keep the hard copies. They always seemed pointless when we do everything over the extranet anyway. So, what do you know about the Striker II, Arlen?'
'It's an ERCS manufactured sidearm,' Arlen stated flatly. 'Standard miniature mass drive, cyclic rate of over thirteen-hundred.'
'You ever used one before?'
'Not really, but it's almost identical to the Kessler, right?'
'Almost, but the difference is in the stopping power,' Garrus replied. 'The Striker packs a nice punch but that extra kick means it'll feel totally different to what you're used to. It'll be your standard issue sidearm and you'll need some time in the ranges to appreciate the difference.'
His enthusiasm for firearms clearly gave his words energy, though Arlen did not understand why. They were just tools to him, nothing more, nothing less. Still, he nodded politely and Garrus fell silent, his eyes turning to the disassembled pistol on his desk.
'Come to think of it,' he began, his mood growing serious. 'Put mine back together. I want to see for myself if you know what you're doing.' He slid from his chair and allowed Arlen to sit while he folded his arms, eager to see what the recruit was capable of.
A hush seemed to fall over the small room as Arlen's eyes quickly scanned over the components before his hands began their work. Seconds passed and Garrus listened with approval at the sequence of metallic taps as the pieces slotted together, nodding with satisfaction as he heard the slide fall into position with barely a whisper.
'There,' Arlen announced, holding the intact pistol in a two handed grip and feeling the bulk of it in his palms. Garrus was right, he thought to himself, the Striker was much heftier than the Kessler and it felt odd having to compensate for the extra weight.
'Alright,' said Garrus, his voice a sudden bark of authority. 'Now make it ready.'
'What?' Arlen responded in disbelief.
Garrus spoke again, his tone growing harder with each word. 'Make the weapon ready and point it at me, Arlen,' he said again.
Arlen frowned but his instinct to follow orders compelled him to press the small button on the right side of the weapon. He felt the pistol vibrate softly as it readied a round to be fired and sensed a distinct warmth beneath his fingers as the mass accelerator began to cycle.
'Point the weapon at me,' Garrus repeated and his mandibles twitched as the recruit brought the pistol to bear. 'Now pull the trigger.'
'What? Are you insane?' Arlen cried in desperation. Garrus simply stared into the barrel of the pistol, his expression unreadable.
'Fire the weapon,' he repeated. 'That's an order.'
His horror mounting, Arlen shook his head and tried to lower the pistol but Garrus' cold gaze held it in place. He could not believe he truly wanted him to fire but somewhere within the young turian an instinct took hold and processed the order in spite of his dismay. He felt it as an itch, one that became unbearable as the seconds ticked away until it overwhelmed him. The moment seemed to hang in the air for an eternity before Arlen's finger finally curled around the trigger and squeezed. As he drew it back, he could only close his eyes in sheer despair as he awaited the shot.
Arlen's eyes snapped open. There not so much as a whimper from the pistol. Slowly, he tilted it to one side and observed the blue light indicating a round in the chamber. He could only stare in utter confusion as Garrus grinned and took the Striker from his shaking grip.
'It won't fire without this,' he said smugly as he held up a tiny piece of blue circuitry. 'The ZEI filter,' he explained, 'without it the mass accelerator won't function properly and all you're left with is a useless piece of metal the size of a grain of sand rattling inside the chamber.' Feeling somewhat humiliated, Arlen grudgingly released the weapon to Garrus and sank into the seat behind him. Garrus chuckled and clasped a hand over the shoulder of his armour. 'That was lesson number one. In this galaxy, even people you trust can turn on you in the blink of an eye. Never accept anything at face value, because out there you'll see jackals who would hand over their own mothers to batarian slavers just to make a quick credit. Use your instincts and never leave anything to chance, understood?'
'It would have been simpler to just tell me,' Arlen complained angrily. He could not see the value in Garrus' blunt deception and it was not something that would have been tolerated in either the military or the C-sec academy.
'And miss that look on your face?' Garrus retorted with a wide smile. 'Come on, we've got a briefing to get to and then we'll get you a pistol of your own down in the armoury. You'll need it too; something tells me we've got a busy day ahead of us. A perfect day to consolidate what you've learned so far, if you ask me.'
Still unnerved by Garrus' ruse, Arlen stood and followed his new mentor out of the office and into the hectic atmosphere of the main hall, hoping that as the day wore on he would not embarrass himself any further.