Sarnak stood confidently with his fellow slavers at his back as they waited to board the Kowloon. Five men stood with him, each tall and frightening in armour the colour of dried blood, all brandishing shotguns and assault rifles.
The batarian's mouth twisted into a smile. For a freighter this size, the small group would be more than enough to corral the animals together for submission and branding.
Beside him, Rednar Druka stirred. He was the captain's right hand and the only krogan on the crew, a head taller than them all and more aggressive than the rest combined. He had shared Sarnak’s plunder and chaos for over two decades, and when he spoke the crew listened.And when I speak
, Sarnak thought to himself, his grin widening, Druka listens.
'I don't like this, Boss,' Druka grumbled, the sound like distant thunder in his throat. 'I ain't ever seen a ship surrender so fast before. Never. Something don't smell right.'
Sarnak dismissed the krogan’s fears with a wave of his hand. 'They're only humans, Druka. Cowards, every one of them. Scans showed only six crew members and light cargo, first-timers on their way back to Illium. The pilot's story checks out. Besides, you really think a bunch of freight jockeys are going to give us trouble? If they do then you ain't doing your job.'
Druka's booming growl mingled with the ship's ever-present hum to create a bass sound that churned the men's stomachs. Two of the others shuffled back a step and Sarnak tutted to himself at their cowardice.
The airlock door pitched and whined as servos engaged, the sound of a dozen small motors filling their ears as it prepared to open. The rushing of air was next, along with a subtle pressure against their skulls as the two ships' atmospheres were equalised. Finally, the hulking metal barriers ground apart and Sarnak frowned menacingly at what he saw.
It was a lone human man. He was not young, with greying hair shaved close to his skull yet Sarnak saw his body was anything but frail with age. A dark shirt outlined muscle as hard as stone, and the human’s eyes were thin, pale blue slits in his flat features.
Something about him set everyone on edge and Sarnak almost laughed aloud in disbelief at the thought of being intimidated by an unarmed man.
'You the captain?' he snarled. 'Where's the rest of your crew?'
The man spoke and behind Sarnak, Druka narrowed his reptilian eyes suspiciously at the human's apparent calm in the face of half a dozen heavily armed and armoured pirates.
'My name is Captain Dukov. The others are in the cargo hold, prepping everything for transfer to your ship,' Dukov replied in a clear, commanding voice. 'We know the routine with you pirate types and we don't want any trouble here, so just take it easy and we can get this over with before any law enforcement patrols show up.'
Sarnak snorted. 'We know you didn't send any distress signals, human. Nobody is coming to help you.'
'Be that as it may,' Dukov answered with a shrug, 'you're just outside the Terminus border. The locals do send out patrols occasionally and we'd rather be on our way to Illium as quickly as possible than be pawns in a hostage situation. Not to mention the authorities might…frown upon some of the goods we’re carrying.'
The two men stared at each other for a time and Sarnak's eyes flitted behind Dukov anxiously, though he could not have said what he was watching out for. Everything this captain said made sense and yet Druka was right. Something was odd about this ship.
Beyond Dukov, Sarnak could make out the familiar lines of the Kowloon, its simple design firmly ingrained in his mind after dozens of raids. They were simple vessels with a small number of hiding places for the animals to take shelter. Even once the idiot humans were aware they were dealing with slavers, there would be no hiding from them.
Sarnak’s confidence quickly grew at the thought, and he silently admitted the mention of illicit goods had piqued his curiosity. He hadn’t come across a decent haul of red sand in a good many years.
With a quick glance to the men at his side, Sarnak firmed his resolve and his voice was a bitter snap, 'All right, Captain
. Take us to your crew, but no sudden moves or I’ll have you liquidated on the spot!'
The tramping of hard boots could be heard throughout the ship as they marched, sending shivers through the superstructure. They all took heart from the intimidating sound and Sarnak's trepidation began to melt away.
He had no reason to be concerned. These humans would soon be collared and broken, and he and his men would eat well for months.
‘You look a little…seasoned
for a freighter captain,’ Sarnak remarked as his eyes passed over the hard ridges of Dukov’s shoulders. This one would fetch a good price for those in need of manual labour, or even gladiatorial combatants. ‘Most spacers I see are so soft you could cut them open with a spoon.’
Dukov’s step faltered slightly. ‘Ex-Alliance military,’ he answered, his voice even. ‘Twenty years.’
‘Twenty years?’ Sarnak growled and his voice became unpleasant. ‘That’d mean you were around for the Skyllian Blitz. Lost a lot of friends on Elysium and Torfan, you know. Those debts still haven’t been repaid.’
‘I wouldn’t know about that,’ Dukov replied steadily. ‘I was groundside during the whole conflict, training recruits of out Pendleton. Not much action for an old man when there’re plenty of young ones around for it.’
Sarnak accepted his words with a quiet nod, his attention drawn back to the ship and the plunder it held. An ex-Alliance marine would be a whimsical addition to the slave quarters of any batarian, and the price would be suitably high.
The first sight of the cargo hold lifted Sarnak’s spirits further. The lighting was kept to a minimum to conserve power but the clear ceiling panels bathed the entire bay in a cold wash of starlight, steeping the edges of the room in deep shadow. Though there were few containers, most were marked with the logos of Bekenstein shipping companies, promising luxury goods within that would fetch handsome fees.
Sarnak drew his heavy Brawler pistol and gestured towards the crates.
'What's in these?' he asked, keenly aware that his men were also throwing covetous glances in their direction.
Dukov spoke over his shoulder as he walked, 'Mostly electronics, omni-tools and the like. Some jewellery, fine art and textiles too, lot of demand for those on asari worlds.'
Sarnak swallowed drily at the thought of such riches.
Druka's lips, however, were lifted in a dubious scowl and the krogan let his gaze wander across the gloom, wary of any sudden movements.
'I don't see any crew,' he barked. 'I thought you said they were getting this stuff prepared?'
Sarnak turned his head and glared at Druka angrily. 'Quiet, you idiot. I do the talking around here.'
Again, Druka rumbled his frustration and Dukov raised an eyebrow in surprise. 'Is there a problem?'
'Silence!' Sarnak snapped as his patience frayed. 'I'm in charge here. You just…just get your crew out here! We'll decide what to do with you then.'
Nodding, Dukov faced forward once again. The gentle glow of a hatch panel grew stronger from behind a large crate and Sarnak spoke once more, his voice heavy with agitation as he realised they were approaching the back of the hold.
'All right, that's far enough. Call out the rest of your crew or I kill you right here and now!'
The rest of his men stood ready, their weapons pointed squarely at Dukov.
The human stopped beside an enormous container before letting out a breath and turning to face them, his weathered face rendered ghostly in the eerie light.
Slowly, he brought up a hand to scratch the back of his head. 'Okay, if you insist.'
Suddenly, his hand swung down and rapped the side of the container hard. All four of Sarnak's eyes widened as he caught the signal and he opened his mouth to cry out a warning. It was too late.
All around them, container doors crashed open and the snaps of rifle fire followed. His men were so focused on Dukov that they could not react in time, and within only a few seconds they were falling like leaves, cut down where they stood.
Druka yelled out as a heavy slug cracked through his armour, his own rifle chattering as his finger clenched the trigger in reflex, cutting a clumsy arc of fire through the air before he finally fell.
Sarnak tried to raise his own weapon but the action was painfully slow as his body and mind went numb with shock. He struggled to focus on the humans that poured from the crates, each one efficiently picking their target the moment the doors opened before dispatching them with ruthless discipline.
Dukov strode towards the slaver leader, his features emotionless. His hand reached out to a small indentation on the side of the container he had struck and smoothly pulled out a concealed Raikou pistol.
Sarnak knew then he had been outplayed. He could not even be bothered to try and fire one last shot. He could only stand there in mute defeat as his men lay dead around him in the icy glow, surrounded by dark gore and glittering fragments of armour.
Dukov did not even pause. He raised his weapon to the batarian's head and pulled the trigger, blinking as flecks of blood spattered across his face and Sarnak dropped lifelessly to the ground.
After the scant few moments of chaos, the ship was quiet once again and the team shuffled close, surrounding Dukov in a loose circle.
'Assemble at the airlock,' he said, eyeing each one of them in turn. 'We only have a few minutes before they realise something's wrong and I want to keep the element of surprise. Kristen...' He looked at Weiss and she returned the stare intently. 'You'll take Chen and Taylor. Winterbourne, Miller, Hammond, you're with me. We hit through the umbilical and secure the ship floor by floor. My team will head for the bridge, Kristen, you've got the engine deck. Radio silence until I give the all-clear. Any questions?'
No one spoke and Dukov nodded firmly. 'Good. We have the upper hand. Now let's take us a ship.'
The security scanner beeped wildly, an irritating wail that drew the attention of everyone in earshot. In a city as large as Illium's Nos Astra, there were many in the spaceport even at that early hour and Keller glared balefully at the customs clerk who barred her path.
'I'm sorry ma'am,' the young asari said, her voice a drone that implied many hours spent repeating the same lines to dozens of different individuals, 'it's something else in the bag, it has to be.'
Keller gnashed her teeth in frustration and hung her head, turning her eyes to the ground as her voice became an angry growl.
'You made me empty the damn bag. You made me empty my pockets. You even made me take my freaking combat armour out of its case, dismantle the freaking kinetic barrier emitter and pass it through the scanners fourteen freaking
She lost her patience at last, leaning in close to the clerk and lowering her voice threateningly, 'I swear to your Goddess, if you don't let me through in the next five minutes I'll slap a pair of cuffs on you and chain you to the nearest shuttle!'
The clerk looked back at her, her expression blank. Then, she too shuffled close to Keller, and in a low, firm voice said, 'We have clearance to perform cavity searches here, ma'am. Just so you know.'
Keller paled visibly at the thought and with an annoyed huff, she turned back to storm through the scanners once more.
Some distance ahead, Arlen regarded the scene with quiet affection, grateful his own passage through the checkpoint had been free of incident. He'd managed to grab a decent meal and a few hours’ sleep on the way over, though it was only what he owed his body after neglecting it for so long.
The dawn air still held the icy snap of night, waking his senses and refreshing him in an instant. He was glad he was not alone on the strange world. It was the first time he had been to an asari planet, and he immediately found himself awed as he stared out of a large window onto fields of sleek, curved skyscrapers and elegant domes.
Everything seemed so impossibly huge there, as if every new construction was purposefully built in an attempt to dwarf its neighbour, so different to the strictly-ordered and stylistically modest cities of Palaven. The sky was as deep a blue as the skin of the city's mistresses, lightening in the distant east as the sun promised a warm, balmy day.
Arlen watched as a few spots of cloud drifted idly by, lined with pink as the sun began to rise. He did not know how long the view had held him, but it took the gentle touch of Keller's hand on his shoulder to bring him to his senses.
'Thank God that's over with,' she sighed, her voice edged with irritation. 'I swear, if all asari worlds have travel security this invasive than I-'
She paused, her lips moving slightly without sound. The sun had begun to peek over the horizon, flaring brilliantly over the jagged, dark lines of the city. She looked up at Arlen, her eyes bright with interest.
'Are you ok?'
He blinked as if coming out of a trance before returning her gaze. 'It's beautiful, isn't it?'
Keller smiled and joined him in looking out on the dawn. 'Yeah. It really is.'
Countless citizens flooded by as the seconds passed and the noise in the terminal grew steadily. It all seemed muted to Arlen, however. Something about the sun was so settling as it gradually lifted into the sky, bringing about the same sense of peace as the pearl-white curves and clear fountains of the Presidium back on the Citadel.
It was something he could not describe, nor understand, more like a deep sense of nostalgia that couldn’t be tied to any one thing.
Shrugging, he glanced back at Keller. 'I'm sorry, I shouldn't be standing around, gawking at nothing.'
Keller smiled warmly at him, and in the burnished glow of the rising sun her hair was like gold.
Arlen felt something odd, pleasure with a distinct edge of nervousness that seemed to still his heart for just a beat. When she replied, her soft voice matched the visage perfectly, and Arlen had to remind himself to begin breathing again.
'If there was anything I learned when undercover, it's that you have to stop and enjoy these things while you can, Arlen. You never know where the job will take you next and even when you get there, you're never certain if you'll return. Treasure moments like these as if they're your last. That said,’ she added with a playful smirk, ‘we do have a terrorist to catch, so you can stop gawking now.'
After a few moments of thought, Arlen nodded. 'You're right. Thanks.'
Patting his shoulder, Keller let her hand slip down to gently press against his arm, urging him on.
'The heavy gear, armour and the like is still being held,' she said, frustration working back into her voice. 'They'll clear it within the next twenty-four hours.'
'That's not fast enough,' Arlen grumbled. 'We need to be fully armed when we try and take Vastra in. He could have half a platoon of Legionaries protecting him for all we know.'
Keller's feet skipped as she moved aside for an elcor, its enormous weight shaking the ground as they passed by. 'Tell me something I don't know. Still, JSTF came through for us on this one. They set up a meeting with local law enforcement, who've agreed to help us take Vastra in. It's a good thing we're on a council race-owned world; the asari respect Citadel law more than most species and the locals were pretty quick to pledge their support.'
'Who're we meeting?'
Keller nodded in the direction of the terminal entrance, where the city beckoned through a large set of open doors. Framed by the rectangle of pale light, a lone figure stood, arms crossed as it appraised them coolly.
As Arlen drew near, the asari's features became clearer. She wore a police uniform of patched grey, striped with blue and bound with bands of pitch black. Her skin was dark for an asari, with lighter lips and the dull, grey scales along the curves of her head that denoted her passage into the matron stage of life. She stared at the newcomers with a guarded expression as they approached.
'You must be the C-Sec agents we were told about,' the asari said as she offered her hand in greeting.
Arlen took it first and shook, noting the strength in her grip. 'Yes, thank you for meeting us on such short notice. My name is Arlen Kryik, C-Sec Interceptor. This is Detective Amanda Keller, of C-Sec's Investigation Division.'
The asari nodded at Keller with professional courtesy and the pair relaxed. They were both afraid Illium's own police force would resent others interfering with their jurisdiction but their host gave no sign of it.
'Captain Anaya,' the asari said, bowing her head formally, 'I run the spaceport terminal precinct, which happens to be one of the busiest on Nos Astra. We received a short set of instructions from JSTF but nothing in the way of why exactly we're being asked to follow them. I was hoping you'd be willing to follow me to the station and fill me in?'
'Of course, Captain,' Arlen replied, and with a gesture from Anaya they strode through the open doors and out into the cool morning air.
Already Arlen could feel the first touches of warmth as the sun continued to creep above the skyline. Illium was a hot planet, he had read on the way over, and he suspected that was why all the pedestrian walkways were built so high off the ground, hugging the tall buildings closely. The higher altitude took the edge off the heat, though the thinner air was already lightening Arlen's head. It would take many days to acclimatise to the new atmosphere but that was a luxury he could not afford.
Thankfully, Anaya did not have to lead them far. The precinct was part of the spaceport, with dozens of freighters docked overhead while autoloaders and cranes carried the cargo. It was a bustling place, where the trade of Nos Astra came and went without rest.
The police station itself was small and well kept, with barely a dozen asari officers hunched over their desks, buried in their work. The gentle beeps and chimes of haptic interfaces were broken only occasionally by a muffled cough or muttered remark from one colleague to another.
Next to C-Sec, it was almost serene, Arlen mused.
'Through here, please,' Anaya said as she briskly led them through a small door in the far wall.
It was a secure area, and the captain had to key in a password to open the way. With a slight groan, the door slid aside to reveal a narrow corridor of sterile grey.
Nothing moved inside, and Anaya spoke in a hushed tone, adding to the air of mystery, 'As you can probably tell, we hardly ever use this area. Nos Astra used to be a hub of organised crime, back when the colony was new and a lot of the city was still under construction. From these secure rooms my predecessors worked with asari Commando units to put down the worst of the rogue elements.'
'That's a switch,' Keller commented. 'We hardly ever get asari criminals on the Citadel. We just assume you're all too nice and mature to get tangled up with the wrong crowds.'
Anaya smiled humourlessly. 'Our race has just as much criminal potential as any other. The difference is with our longevity, a crime lord inevitably has the knowledge and experience of centuries on her side. When an asari takes power in the underworld, more often than not they're there to stay and they know better than to broadcast their presence. All-asari criminal organisations aren't too common outside our space but those that do take root can prove almost impossible to eradicate. That's why Commandos were used in the initial purges, all conducted from the rooms you see around you.'
'Did it work?' Arlen asked.
With a derisive snort, Anaya looked at him as she unlocked a sturdy-looking door.
'If it had then my job would sure be a hell of a lot easier.'
The door opened into a darkened room much like Chellick's office in JSTF. A large holographic screen filled the back wall, already churning with various security feeds and reports. A round meeting table dominated the centre, around which clustered several officers and detectives who stood up immediately as Anaya entered.
'All right, people,' she said sternly, 'this is Interceptor Kryik and Detective Keller of Citadel Security.' She turned to Arlen. 'This is the team we put together when we got word you were coming. My district commander wasn't too happy about committing resources to this but after being told what happened to the Jamestown
, well, you couldn't hold me back.'
Arlen let out a breath of satisfaction. 'Thank you, Captain. It's good to see there are people in the galaxy who want to see justice done, even if it means intrusion on their home turf.'
She nodded. 'We're all on the same team here. I believe your commander wanted to brief you himself when we were all together.'
Anaya walked to the table and tapped commands into a small terminal set up at the edge and with an audible click, a connection was established.
Chellick's pale brown skin was rendered a bright red by the projector, though his angular white markings were distinctive enough. His voice thrummed from the speakers as clearly as if he were in the room with them.
'Thank you for contacting me, Captain. Arlen, I see you and Detective Keller made good time getting to Illium. I take it you're ready to go?'
Keller answered for them, her brows knotted in frustration, 'Yes, Sir, as soon as customs lets our gear through.'
Beside her, Arlen smirked and Anaya shook her head. 'Damn bureaucrats. Don't worry. I'll have your equipment released as soon as we're done here.'
'Excellent,' Chellick remarked. 'If everyone would care to take a seat, our people here have taken the liberty of drawing up a game plan.'
'Commander,' Anaya interrupted, frowning at him while Arlen and Keller sat down, 'that won't be necessary. My team and I are more than capable of handling this ourselves, in fact we've been working through the night, planning every detail to ensure your agents can get straight to work as soon as they arrive.'
'And the effort is appreciated,' Chellick replied and Arlen frowned at his superior's dismissive tone, 'but this is too important, Captain. Not to mention that should the operation go south, the fallout would be much more than you can handle. No, JSTF will oversee the op, with myself in overall command. I'm sure you understand.'
Anaya stared wide-eyed at Chellick as if he'd slapped her. Her face twitched subtly, changing between expressions of anger and outright disbelief and Arlen wanted to speak, if only to clear the air but thought better of it.
It was a fiendish thing, to wrest control of the operation from Anaya at the last moment but he could understand Chellick's reasoning. Vastra was their target and they had more riding on his capture than anyone. They could not let him escape, and for that reason alone they had to maintain as tight a grip on events as they possibly could.
Anaya composed herself long enough to make a tight-lipped response. 'Very well, Commander, have it your way. I don't like someone else having the final say over my people but in the interest of professional unity, I can make an exception this once.'
'And thankful I am to hear it,' said Chellick before he turned his gaze to Arlen and Keller. 'While you were on your way to Illium we went over the schematics of Vastra's building, as well as the surrounding area. Captain, I understand you've had units in place for several hours now. Do you have anything new to report?'
Anaya shook her head. 'Surveillance teams report one turian male living in a crappy dump of an apartment, hidden deep in the city's industrial sector. Description matches the pictures you sent, no visitors, no calls in or out. He's just waiting there, alone.'
They all seemed to feel the same pang of concern at the same time and every eye in the room turned to another as they wondered what would be keeping Vastra there.
'It doesn't make sense,' Arlen murmured. 'He must know he's making a target of himself by waiting out in the open like this. What could he be waiting for?'
'Do you think it's a trap?' Keller wondered aloud.
'Unlikely,' Chellick answered. 'The Legion are laying low after a major success. They want to draw as little attention to themselves as possible until their next strike. To ambush their pursuers on their home ground would be too great a risk.'
'Attacking the Citadel was a risk too,' Keller argued, 'but they still pulled it off. Something here doesn't add up and you know it.'
'Regardless,' Chellick said, his voice strong, 'the plan hasn't changed. We need that man and you people will be the ones to bring him in. Your team is assembled, I take it, Captain?' Anaya nodded silently. 'Good. We're patching through the details now. Stand by. Lorica? They're ready.'
Captain Anaya visibly fought to hide her surprise as an asari maiden materialised next to Chellick, the delicate youthful curves of her face clear despite the static of the comm-buoys linking their systems.
Before she spoke, Lorica kept her head down as if typing on a keyboard and in a matter of moments several displays popped up beside her. Images of blueprints, along with pulsing red circles dominated the additional screens, each marked with designated numbers and letters.
'The plan is simple,' Lorica said clearly. 'Arlen moves in, alone and on foot. The aim, of course, is to apprehend Coleran Vastra but an even more pressing concern is the whereabouts of the Forgotten Legion. If possible, Arlen is to interrogate Vastra on-site and act on any information uncovered while our own men bring the suspect back to C-Sec on the Lightning.'
She paused and another flurry of movement saw additional displays blossom into existence.
'There will be two teams in support. Sniper team will consist of four officers while the ground team will be composed of six, with Detective Keller in command.'
'Wait,' Anaya interrupted. The captain rose to her feet, her hands still in the table. 'That wasn't the deal, Chellick. Overall command is one thing but I can't allow anyone else to have direct control over my own people on the ground, not in my city.'
Her voice was fierce and protective, and Arlen knew she spoke out of loyalty to her subordinates. Any leader would be loath to place the safety of their men or women in the hands of a stranger.
Keller shifted, uncomfortable with the position she had been placed in.
Unmoved, Chellick replied without compassion, 'JSTF operates with the direct authority of the Citadel Council, and by extension your direct superiors.' His voice hardened and Arlen almost grimaced at the words. 'Make no mistake, Captain, the 'request' was a matter of professional courtesy, nothing more. You'll answer to Keller during the op and follow her every instruction. If anything should go wrong, you may consider your rank in jeopardy.'
Anaya appeared gaunt and drawn in the false light of the briefing room. She swallowed, fighting against a palpable rage that was mirrored in the asari around her.
Arlen raced to think of some kind of sign that would separate him from the grim-faced turian on the screen but he knew such a thing would be foolish. JSTF had bullied their way onto the scene on Illium and he was part of it, willing or not.
'As you say,' Anaya finally replied, her voice like ice. Her mouth worked soundless as she tried to force a civil tongue but her body was failing her.
In the face of her difficulty, Arlen stood and directly addressed Chellick. 'Is this a good idea, Sir? Captain Anaya and her team know the city, they know the locals and they can read the signs of trouble better than anyone. Not to say the detective isn't up to it,' he added quickly with an apologetic glance in Keller's direction, 'but I'd feel better going in knowing Nos Astra's finest are operating at their peak.'
Chellick's expression darkened and his response was a snap that cracked though the air, 'I won't be second-guessed, Interceptor. The order stands; Keller will be in charge and I expect you to remember whose side you're on.'
Arlen swallowed hard, his every instinct rebelling against his impulse. He had been bred to accept any order without question, to treat the word of a superior as law. Still, it felt wrong
, and another furtive, sidelong glance at Anaya only stiffened his resolve.
'Excuse me, Sir
,' he said pointedly, 'but I was under the impression we were all on the same side.'
The room plunged into stunned silence. Even Arlen himself released a long-held breath, astonished at his own behaviour. Nearby, Keller smiled at him but Chellick would not be swayed.
'You have your orders,' he said brusquely. 'I want everyone in position by midday. That gives you six hours to set everything up and I expect a link established to this command centre thirty minutes before that. Move it, people.'
Before anyone could respond the connection was cut and the image faded abruptly from the screen.
A sourness had come into the small room. Everyone felt it and they looked at one another, unwilling to be the first to speak. After a few moments, Anaya prised herself from the table and paced slowly across the room.
'I appreciate the effort,' she said to Arlen. The gratitude was thin in her voice but the overriding tone of bitterness was well-deserved.
'I'm sorry,' he said with a sad shake of his head. 'I had no idea.'
Anaya snorted softly to herself, her mouth upturned in a resentful smile. 'At least it's just my career on the line. You better come through on this one, Interceptor. If you don't I could well be back on the streets chasing down leads and I don't look forward to facing all that paperwork again.'
Tilting his head, Arlen tried to lighten his tone, eager to lift the mood. 'There are worse outcomes.'
Anaya chuckled, though there was not a shred of mirth in the sound. 'Not in this city.'
Jacob watched as the Corsairs formed around him.
In front, Weiss and Chen stood ready with their rifles raised, occupying the right-hand side of the docking umbilical. To their left, Dukov led the second team, each and every one ready to spring into action.
They all wielded Tsunami assault rifles, Ariake-built weapons that had been surprisingly easy to acquire on Bekenstein. They were reliable but more importantly, they could not be traced easily and every piece of their gear was civilian grade, with the exception of the explosives and grenades. Those were off the grid, sourced in Bekenstein's black market, courtesy of Dukov's network of contacts.
Nothing, from the weapons they carried to the boots they wore, could be tracked back to the Alliance. To the outside world they were just spacers going about their daily lives and the slavers on the opposite side of the airlock door would know no different.That complacency will mean their deaths,
Jacob grimly surmised.
No one spoke as the airlock hissed and sharp bursts of vapour jetted from the vents at the top. Their eyes remained on the door, fixed on the centre.
The layout of the slaver vessel was simple and Weiss had given a rough description as they jogged to their destination. It was not enough, of course, but it was better than nothing and it was enough to form the simplest of plans. That simplicity was the key, Jacob knew. It was one of the fundamental rules of a successful special operation. The plan had to be uncomplicated enough that his first instincts would snap to it even when anarchy had engulfed them.
As it stood, each team had a clear objective and they devoted all of their wits to accomplishing it, each one of them visibly coiled and ready to act.
After what seemed an age, the airlock doors cycled and began to open.
Dukov was the first to move, his rifle fitted snugly to his shoulder. His advanced years melted away as he crept forward, showing an ease of movement that came with a life of combat training. Behind him, Miller, Winterbourne and Hammond followed closely.
The airlock gave way to a vision of decay and despair. The umbilical hatches for batarian ships were located towards the back of the superstructure, as with the Kowloon, though the interior was a far cry from the clean lines and placid colouration of the commercial freighter.
The slaver vessel seemed to have been designed, or at least modified to break the wills of those they captured the instant they arrived. The bulkheads were an eye-searing red, pitted and stained with brown, rusty scars that etched the rough surface every few feet. Condensation lay glistening in thick sheets, falling from the ceiling in fat drops onto a deck made from jagged, metallic mesh.
Through the gaps, bronzed pipes and darker insulated cables ran with seemingly little order to their layout. A light shone from somewhere but the source could not been seen, instead burning through the humid air in a sickly yellow haze.
Nothing moved within and Jacob frowned in confusion. Usually the shipboard VI would pipe the opening and closing of the main entrance of the ship. Its absence, along with that of any crew and coupled with the appalling state of the ship itself, led him to believe the slavers were simple thugs with little care for procedure.
He hoped the same could be said of their combat ability.
As Hammond passed her, Weiss too began to move ahead carefully. Dukov's team turned left and she peeled right, hugging the wall as tightly as possible.
The two groups separated, each moving to their assigned area of the ship. The Razor would not have a CIC as such; rather the small ship's nerve centre would be the bridge. This would be Dukov's first target, Jacob ran through in his mind, to silence their comms and ensure no one compartment on the vessel would know what was happening to the next. His own team would seize the ship's drive core and shut it down manually, preventing the slavers from making off with their prize.
Weiss' knowledge of the batarian vessel showed in her every movement. Her eyes were constantly shifting, picking apart every detail around her and without warning she darted to the left, down a well-hidden turn in the corridor.
Her team mimicked her steps, their weapons trained in individual arcs of fire that swept every darkened corner and musty space. Their feet clanged against the deck, which vibrated precariously beneath them. The sound was quickly masked, drowned out by the incessant growl of the ship’s inner workings.
The passage they had taken was lined with the same brown, sweating pipes that ran beneath the deck. They looked incredibly hot to the touch and the team kept their distance, pressing in as far as they could. A corner loomed ahead as the passage turned sharply to the right, a black line against the murky orange.
They did not slow. Jacob kept his rifle on the corner as they approached and with only a brief tensing of his brows, registered a shadow moving in on their position. It was impossible to hear the footsteps to gauge distance. All he could tell was that the contact was humanoid in appearance.
The others in the team did not react; the fire sector was Weiss’ alone and only she needed to respond. The warrant officer's feet crossed one another as her torso turned slightly, taking the corner at a wide angle to lessen the chance of ambush.
Jacob followed and the rest of the passage emerged from the corner, a long, thin stretch of the same rusted walls and coppery piping. The choking steam was thick, creating a blanket of stifling heat that soaked his clothing and slowed his thoughts.
Ahead, appearing as a blurred, shifting grey shape, an enemy crew member stumbled. He was batarian, and had his back to them as he went about some maintenance task. He was completely unaware of their presence and Weiss twitched at the advantage.
Gently easing her rifle down, she let it hang by her side by the thick sling wrapped over her shoulder and Jacob’s eyes caught a flicker of silver as she drew a combat knife from her belt.
She moved quickly, carefully managing the weight on her feet to reduce the noise of her steps, reaching the batarian in moments. All sound was swallowed by the din of the ship as she plunged the knife into the crewman’s neck, cutting deep into the flesh as she wrapped her other hand around his mouth. She lowered the batarian to the ground, her features emotionless as she held him until the final twitches of life left his body.
As the team moved on past the dead crewman, Weiss led the way again and shifted, this time to take in a sudden left turn.
Jacob blinked sweat from his eyes. The tension sapped his energy with a strength he could scarcely believe. It had been a long time since he felt the thrill of battle and yet it was nothing like this, nothing so close or spontaneous. They wore no armour, could expect no reinforcements and the only chance they had of victory was their own superior training and experience. The endless drills, exercises and simulations were never enough to prepare him for the knowledge that a single round could end his life. This time, however, that danger was more real than he could remember.
The Razor was a small ship and it did not take them long to reach the engine room. At that point the roar of the drive core was deafening, a wall of sound that nothing could penetrate.
A set of wide doors shuddered aside, their surface caked with crusted minerals from the ever-present vapour hanging in the air.
The Corsairs streamed into the room. It was large and dark, with great vents and shafts running up the wall, only to disappear into inky shadow. The core was set into the far wall, a great sphere of energy surrounded by thin metal gantries. It pulsed with crystalline waves of energy that washed over everything in the room, illuminating swathes of it for just a heartbeat before it sank back into darkness.
Standard room clearance still applied, and Jacob settled into the role with routine familiarity. As the last one through he skirted to the right as Weiss and Chen moved in the opposite direction. They would all take a route around the outer edge, eliminating anything in the middle before finally linking up at the far end of the room. It was a tactic developed centuries ago and yet it still worked to this day.
Several slavers stood dotted about the chamber, absorbed in their own tasks. No one spoke to one another. It would have been pointless; nothing could be heard in that tumultuous space.
Streams of rifle fire erupted across the room as the Corsairs opened up, tearing into slaver bodies while their companions ambled only feet away, completely unaware.
It was one of the most surreal things Jacob had seen, half a dozen men dropped with only the vicious drone and sporadic light of the drive core filling his senses.
The final batarian was poring over the core readouts at the end of the room. He hung his head wearily and wiped his first set of eyes with the back of his hand before turning around.
Immediately, the man froze at the sight of his crew lying in bloody ruin before him. His gaze raked the engine room for a moment. Then, without warning, his body convulsed as slugs ripped into his flesh and he slumped backwards over the gantry railing.
Weiss strode up to the body and shoved it methodically aside with her boot, not bothering to watch it plunge down into the black recesses of the chamber. Jacob approached a moment later, his sweep complete.
With quiet satisfaction, he looked on the scene of destruction. A lot of slavers lay dead with no alarm raised. That would soon change, but the advantage was theirs.
An omni-tool sprang to life on Weiss' wrist and she sent the clear signal to Dukov. Even if he had not enforced radio silence, nothing could be heard in the engine room and so they had to rely on visual communications. A reply flashed and Weiss looked up and nodded to the others. Dukov had taken the bridge.
Suddenly, the drive core grew quiet and the groans of machinery ceased around them. They looked at one another in surprise as emergency lights fluttered to life, replacing the pulsing blue of moments earlier with dozens of small pools of red.
Jacob's ears rang mercilessly and he fought back the urge to shake his head clear of the fuggy haze the engines had brought about.
'That's the drive core sorted,' Weiss muttered loudly, her voice uneven as her own ears struggled to adjust to the sudden change in volume. 'The major just sent his own signal. They have the bridge.'
Chen smiled broadly. 'So what's next, ma'am?'
'Life support,' she replied instantly as she checked her weapon, 'to make sure they don't shut it off in panic when they realise what's going on. None of us have suits or helmets on right now so if these pieces of varren shit vent the compartments, we'd be sucking on vacuum in less than a second. Hopefully it'll just be a precaution. Now the Major's got the bridge, he can distract them.'
'How's he gonna do that?' asked Jacob.
The answer came a heartbeat later, as a high-pitched drone began to scream through the ship, sending jarring echoes across the core room.
Chen and Jacob glanced at one another in confusion, and after a few seconds another sound added itself to the din. It was difficult to detect at first against the shrill cry but gradually the deep, ugly tones of a batarian VI overpowered the alarm.
'Abandon ship, abandon ship, abandon ship,' the VI droned staidly. 'All hands to escape pods. All hands to escape pods. User alert; engine deck unresponsive. Bridge unresponsive. Abandon ship, abandon ship, abandon ship.'
The brief instruction continued to blare out, repeating every few seconds and Jacob permitted himself a cautious grin. The crew would be in chaos, with their officers unresponsive and minimal power to the rest of the vessel. What little discipline the slavers had would be evaporating at that moment.
Nodding to herself, Weiss brought her Tsunami into her shoulder once again and looked at the two men.
'That should send 'em packing.'
The JSTF command centre was alive once again. Men and women who had been working for over three days with little rest still typed busily or spoke with far-flung agents at their terminals without pause. It was still a place of energy that crackled with life as everyone worked ceaselessly to bring the Legion down.
Chellick watched them all from the central dais, resuming the supervisory role he had been forced to neglect as of late. He relished the feeling that came from standing on the raised platform, watching out over the heads of his team as haptic displays shifted around him, bristling with the latest information.
It was a feeling that had been denied him as meetings, briefings and other tedious details prevented him from attending the duties that befitted him the most and the turian smiled tightly as his eyes passed over Lorica's desk.
He had given the asari the role of co-ordinating the Illium operation and was curious to see how she would handle the responsibility. Technically, she was still under Lina but he knew the quarian had her hands full with the virus research. Lorica would have to step up to the task or be forced aside, as was so often the case in a profession that could brook no error, where everything had to be done perfectly the first time. Such pressure bred a certain kind of person as they were pushed to their very limits, and it was that very kind of which JSTF had to be comprised.
It was then Chellick frowned as he noticed Lorica was not at her desk. In fact, he could not remember seeing her there for some time.
He recalled Lina had mentioned the problem earlier and cursed softly to himself. Lorica knew they had only a few hours before they launched a raid that could bring a prominent member of the Legion into their custody. What is she thinking, going missing at a time like this?
As he ground his teeth in frustration, Chellick did not notice Lina as she bounded up the dais ramp.
'Chellick,' she gasped between breaths. 'Chellick, we have a problem.'
Sighing inwardly, he clasped a hand to his temple. It was just one thing after another. He let his voice escape, unable to completely conceal his anger.
'What is it, Lina?'
'There's someone to see you,' she said and the seriousness in her tone made Chellick sweep aside his misgivings. Lina was not the kind of person to let trivial matters intrude on his time. 'At the front entrance. He's being handled by security but…' She trailed off and Chellick cleared his throat impatiently. '…but I don't know if we can keep him there for long. He wants access to the command centre and I'm not sure if his clearance level is low enough to deny him.'
This time, Chellick sighed aloud. 'All right,' he said wearily, 'I'll go now. Keep an eye on things here and let me know immediately if there are any developments.'
Lina nodded and Chellick strode purposefully down the dais ramp.
The compound's main entrance was discreet. Located within the bounds of C-Sec headquarters, it lay down a side corridor that branched off the main lobby, protected by a pair of armed guards and an airlock-style system of security doors and monitoring instruments.
The outer doors were closed but the inner ones were open, and the guards barred the way, making Chellick frown in sudden concern. Their backs faced him, as if to block passage.
As he drew nearer he saw one of them motion roughly towards the outer doors and the murmurs of raised voices began to drift down the corridor.
'What's going on here?' he demanded as he approached.
One of the guards, a fellow turian, snapped his head around at the commanding tone and immediately brought himself to attention.
'Sir,' he began, his expression a mixture of discomfort at his situation and relief at the arrival of someone else who could deal with it, 'we have a high-priority visitor. He wanted to go straight inside but due to the sensitive nature of JSTF, I-'
'You did the right thing, officer,' Chellick interrupted. He had neither the time nor patience to listen to his nervous babbling. 'Who is this so-called VIP?'
Slowly, the guard shuffled aside to reveal Ambassador Udina, his dark skin deepened with a flush of anger and indignation.
Chellick's heart felt as if it had ceased to beat and he cleared his throat, forcing a neutrality into his voice that he did not feel, 'Ambassador Udina,' he said lightly, 'this is an unexpected pleasure. Very unexpected indeed. We're not in the habit of receiving uninvited guests.'
Udina glared at him bitterly through narrowed eyes. 'Yes…Commander Chellick, I remember you from the meeting with the executor. I would express regret over the abruptness of my arrival but, frankly, it would be a lie. On behalf of the Systems Alliance, Commander, I am requesting a tour of these premises and an update on the status of the investigation.'
Chellick could only stare back at him with a carefully blank expression. Inside, his mind seethed with fears. Could Udina have discovered the intrusion into his office, or the Mantius program?
After a few, achingly long moments, Chellick forced himself into a more collected frame of mind. He could, under no circumstances, allow Udina to enter. If he saw them preparing to apprehend Vastra then he would ask questions, difficult ones, about how they came across intelligence that had been stored on diplomatic servers.
It worked both ways, he quickly realised. Udina would then be forced to admit they were withholding the information to begin with but the implications were hardly worth the risk.
With another frown, Chellick replied, betraying nothing of the maelstrom of thoughts turning inside his head, 'I'm sorry, Ambassador, but the answer is no. We're running under the highest possible security levels, even for politicians. At the moment, the only people cleared to enter these grounds are members of JSTF, the top three C-Sec officials and members of the Citadel Council. No exceptions.'
'I see,' Udina responded thoughtfully, his eyes travelling down momentarily before flickering back up. 'If my own status as a representative of humanity is not enough, then perhaps this will suffice.'
It was then Chellick noticed the datapad Udina was clutching, and he took it hesitantly. His eyes widened in their sockets as he read with increasing horror, and Udina grinned slightly.
With deliberate satisfaction, the ambassador stated the contents of the datapad aloud, smiling at the look on Chellick's face as the situation became shockingly clear, 'By the order of the asari councillor herself, I am to inspect the Joint Security Task Force and present my findings to her on completion. Is that enough authorisation for you, Commander?'
Chellick felt cold and distant. He nodded numbly at Udina before looking back down at the pad. The electronic signature was unmistakable and the seal of the Council offices clear and precise. The wording was curt, formal and broad, something Udina would no doubt take advantage of.
Possibilities swirled through Chellick's thoughts. As the seconds ticked by he ran through plausible scenarios, discarding impossibilities and retaining only the facts. One thing made itself absolutely clear to him; Udina had to be stalled at all costs.
Mustering his strength, he beckoned mutely to Udina and the two men made their way into JSTF.
The Razor's cargo bay was tiny compared to the sizeable hold of the Kowloon, Jacob saw as he stalked through the gloomy chamber.
Around him, the anarchy that had engulfed the ship had receded, the jettisoning of the last escape pod sending a resounding thump through the deck only minutes before.
All but three of the crew had run in blind terror. Those who had remained behind turned out to be the senior officers, all murdered by their fellow slavers as they’d tried to prevent the evacuation.
Jacob shook his head. In less than twenty minutes the Corsairs had completely subdued and conquered an enemy ship, killing sixteen crew and sending the others scrambling, all without sustaining a single loss. It would be one for the textbooks; if they were allowed to record it.
He grunted to himself as he wondered how many other such victories this squad had achieved, all to the ignorance of everyone around them.
The hold was still and silent, its racks filled with provisions and ammunition. The storage of the latter in such a place was another sign they were dealing with amateurs; one stray GARDIAN burst would find the stores and blow the ship in two.
'Hey!' Chen hissed from one of the dark corners. 'Hey Taylor, you'd better see this.'
Firming his lips, Jacob trotted to the source of the harsh whisper. He found Chen steeped in shadow in a dirty, neglected corner of the bay. His fellow sergeant looked troubled.
'What's wrong?' Jacob asked immediately.
Chen opened his mouth to reply, but held back and instead merely nodded to his left. Frowning, Jacob stepped forward and was surprised to see the darkness drop away suddenly as a small room loomed on his approach.
He raised his hand, unable to trust his eyes and the feeling of cool, roughly cast metal greeted his outstretched fingers. It was a mesh fence, he realised, crudely made and stretched across the room's entrance. He narrowed his gaze as he caught movement beyond. Something was inside, and he reached for his omni-tool, intent on finding out what it was.
'Careful now,' Chen mumbled as the flashlight turned on, painting a white circle at their feet. Jacob ignored him and turned the beam towards the darkness beyond the fence.
'Oh my God…' he said aloud.
It took several moments for him to recognise the things inside as living creatures. There were six in all - full-sized adults, thick with dirt and encrusted filth and dressed in the tattered remnants of clothing. Four were humans, two males and two females. All shielded their eyes from the light but the last, a young woman with matted, unwashed blonde hair, stared out at them blankly.
Something about her eyes chilled Jacob to the bone. They were dead, devoid of emotion or feeling. They peered out from a bony face smeared with scrapes and stains.
The final two figures were an asari and a salarian. Each had sunk back to the furthest corner of the cell, and the asari had drawn her knees up into her arms, rocking gently on the spot.
'Slaves?' Chen asked, his voice quiet with dread and shock.
'Looks like it,' Jacob spat in disgust. 'God only knows how long these people have been here. We need to get them out.'
Chen nodded. 'I'll call it in.'
Jacob spoke in low, reassuring tones as he pried the fence open. It had been hastily erected, he found, clearly a temporary measure.
The slaves regarded him with their dull eyes, and made no effort to speak. Even when the fence was torn aside and Jacob calmly goaded them out of the cell, they moved obediently and silently, their heads bowed deeply so as not to meet his gaze.
'I can't believe this,' Jacob said, his voice barely more than a whisper.
He could clearly see them now. All six were malnourished and filthy, appearing almost skeletal as what little flesh they had was drawn tightly across their bones. Collars bound their necks and Jacob’s teeth ground together in rage as he saw brand marks had been seared painfully onto the skin of their backs.
'This is a slaver ship,' Chen pointed out. 'What did you expect to find?'
Jacob didn’t reply. No one had raised the question before the assault. There hadn't been time. Now they were faced with an even greater problem than before.
'What do we do with these people?' he wondered. 'Do we take them with us?'
'That's up to the major,' Chen responded. The young man looked over the squalid group, his appalled expression deepening with every second. 'This is inhuman. The damn Council should be trying to put an end to this.'
'If they did, I'd volunteer in a second,' Jacob concurred furiously.
Weiss emerged at their backs, her surly expression drawing dark shadows across her face. 'What's all this bloody noise about? Can't you two-'
Her words were stolen by the sight of the slaves, and her next was barely a faint muttering under her breath.
'Prisoners, ma'am,' Jacob reported formally, 'all branded and broken, by the looks of it. They haven't made a sound since we found 'em.'
'Probably been here a while, then,' she said. Even the warrant officer's stony façade had fallen at the sheer horror of the scene before her. 'My guess is they were bought elsewhere for sale on the market. If they were new captures then they'd be screaming at us to free them. Right now though, they're…'
Weiss trailed off as her eyes met those of the blonde girl. The warrant officer swallowed hard before forcing her cold face.
Jacob pressed closer, unwilling to let her drop the subject. 'Ma'am, we have to free them. The Kowloon's big enough and look at them; they're in no position to pilot a ship. They're barely able to move. If we leave these people alone, they're going to die.'
The warrant officer pursed her lips, clearly at a rare loss. 'This isn't our decision,' she said evenly, 'and the mission has to come first, Taylor. It always has to come first.'
'And how are we any better than those terrorists if we just leave them behind?' he asked. 'Ma'am, you know it's the right thing to do. We can take them aboard the freighter, turn them over to Illium's police force and keep the Razor for ourselves.'
Another voice rang out from the darkness, 'And do you think Illium's security officials will just let us walk away after turning them in?'
Dukov stepped into a nearby pool of light, his arms folded sternly.
'Or do you think they'll want to question the men and women who liberated them? Do you think they'll be a little curious as to how a freighter crew barely more than half a dozen strong managed to seize a batarian slaver ship?'
He was followed closely by Winterbourne, Miller and Hammond, their faces grim masks, impossible to read. Jacob straightened and replied with as much conviction as he could muster.
'We could just say we found the ship adrift, abandoned. Hell, an anonymous tip would do; it’s better than leaving them to die. The authorities might not believe it but who's gonna argue?’
'Besides them?' Dukov replied, nodding towards the slaves.
Jacob looked to the ground. He did not believe the pitiful bunch were in a state to tell anyone anything. It would take years of therapy to even begin to undo the damage that had been done to them.
Dukov placed his hands on his hips and shook his head slowly. 'Under ordinary circumstances, Taylor, I'd agree with you. I’d cast them off with a distress signal and pray a patrol found them first but things are far from ordinary right now. We have a job to do and we've already wasted enough precious time. We need to focus on getting to Illium and taking down Vastra.'
'Sir,' Chen spoke up, his expression filled with doubt. 'I know it’s a risk but Jacob's got a point, we can't just leave them here. You were there for the Blitz, you saw what those batarian animals did to people back then. We all saw it. Can you honestly let these ones die after what we did trying to save them all those years back?'
Chen’s eyes searched his comrades' for support, resting on Miller at the last. He gazed at his friend pleadingly but the big man turned his head, unwilling to take sides.
Dukov's features softened for a moment in sympathy. 'I know this is about Lynn,' he said quietly, 'and I can't blame you for wanting to save others from her fate. But this is more important than you or me, Sergeant. This is about the lives of thousands, perhaps even millions of people. This isn't just about the time we'd lose. If anyone, anyone
finds out who we are, if any of these people ID us, it could start a war. I can't take that risk.'
Jacob scowled at the major. He could not believe what he was hearing. 'So that's it?' he asked, angrily. 'We're just gonna leave these people to starve?'
Weiss stepped forward. 'You're going to follow orders, Jacob. None of us like it but if you can't do something so bloody simple then we'll leave you here with them.'
Jacob returned her cold glare as the others looked on in silence. 'I can take that chance.'
The sergeant turned his back to Weiss and made for the asari slave, reaching out to comfort her.
Suddenly, the slave shook as her chest was torn to wet, purple tatters and she dropped to the ground without a sound.
Jacob blinked as her blood streaked across his face and watched in terror as the other prisoners too were executed, falling to the floor in a series of dull thumps.
His horrified gaze swept across the bodies, their eyes as still and lifeless in death as they had been moments before. The moment pressed in on him, bringing on a sudden feeling of nausea, and the ringing in his ears that had accompanied the assault on the drive core returned.
After what seemed an age, his eyes finally turned to Dukov. The major still held the pistol, outstretched and smoking from the barrel. His features were as emotionless as the corpses at their feet.
'We're moving on,' Dukov announced clearly, his voice husky yet still strong enough to command. 'Kristen, you and Hammond get your rack time. Miller, Winterbourne, I want you on cleanup. Dispose of the bodies then get some rest. Chen, Taylor...' He hesitated at Jacob's sullen expression. 'Taylor?
Hearing his name seemed to snap Jacob out of his malaise, though he still appeared unsteady. The others took a step closer, well aware of what the shock of seeing such a thing could to do someone the first time around.
They hid their relief as finally, Jacob responded with a shallow, silent nod.
'You guys get up to the bridge and begin your watch,' Dukov continued. 'This is our ship now. Good work, people.'
The team murmured their agreement without enthusiasm. The final act of the assault had wiped clean the surge of confidence they had felt at pulling off the daring attack, and they shuffled away without a word to one another.
Not one of the others could meet Jacob's eyes.