A Justicar, the pirate king had called her.
Iu’Sa had never heard of such a thing, though a cursory assessment had given the clever quarian all she needed to know. The Justicar was beautiful, even more so than the typical attractiveness Iu’Sa had come to expect from the aliens. The asari’s eyes were closed in deep concentration and she did not move, showing an indifference to her surroundings that both awed and frightened the young quarian captain. The figure-hugging suit the Justicar wore was flexible yet strong, and thickened in the vital areas to offer additional protection without impeding movement. It was battle regalia, of that Iu’Sa had no doubt though the presence of a warrior did nothing to ease her anxieties.
Iu’Sa felt an odd sensation deep within her gut and she knew it had nothing to do with her inner fears. It pulled at her insides, twisting them ever so slightly, just enough to make her uncomfortable. It was like the sickening vibrations caused by a loose momentum dampener or wildly oscillating kinetic barrier and as soon as she felt it, Iu’Sa recognised it. The Justicar was a powerful biotic. The power radiated from her in throbbing waves, invisible and yet incredibly potent. Still, Iu’Sa could feel the rage in those terrible, furious pulses of energy and she knew then that the Justicar had suffered at Fisty’s hands.
The thought made Iu’Sa’s throat run dry and she turned her eyes to the ground in sudden hopelessness. If Fisty had gotten the better of such a powerful woman, then what chance would a mere quarian have? Had she been able to conceal her omni-tool then she might have stood a chance but the pirate crew had been thorough and removed the device before taking her aboard their vessel. Iu’Sa tried to bury her despair as she looked around.
Captain Fisty’s private quarters were large but ill-kept. The dull, bronzed metal walls were cluttered with various collections of art and weapons, and some items that could have been classified as both.
Iu’Sa ran her eyes along a particularly beautiful spear and identified it as ancient asari, the sleek shaft of gleaming, blue-tinted wood gracefully giving way to an iron tip that still looked capable of rending flesh. Beside it lay a batarian cudgel, an ugly thing of brass and steel that made the spear seem all the more exquisite by comparison. She doubted any of the artefacts had been garnered peaceably and, shaking her head slowly, Iu’Sa let her shoulders sag.
It had only been a few hours since she had been in another man’s cabin, its own furnishings so tasteful in both their beauty and arrangement. The man himself had outdone each and every one of the treasures on his bulkheads, stealing her heart as surely as these pirates had stolen Iu’Sa’s crew.
‘Maximus,’ she whispered longingly into the silence and closed her eyes. Beneath her visor, a white glint caught the light as a tear wound its way over her skin in a silky line.
Beside her, the Justicar stirred and her eyes snapped open. The asari glanced at her curiously, her features filled with recognition.
‘You speak of General Naughtius Maximus, yes?’ the Justicar asked in a low, husky drawl.’
Iu’Sa nodded without looking at her. ‘That’s right.’
The Justicar’s expression softened and returned her sapphire gaze to the walls in front of her. ‘I see. Perhaps things are not as hopeless as they first seemed.’
‘I don’t know how you can say that,’ Iu’Sa answered glumly. ‘He’s probably in another system by now.’ With another woman, she failed to add as she raised her head. ‘We’re doomed, aren’t we?’
‘Hope is not yet lost,’ the Justicar replied with a strength that drew Iu’Sa’s gaze. The Justicar met her eyes without hesitation and spoke calmly. ‘I am Orea Lovewind, follower of the Justicar Code. I was captured while investigating this pirate band out on Omega. I have been a prisoner here for four days now.’
The revelation hit Iu’Sa like the heady inertia of a relay jump and her eyes widened into pale discs behind the violet glass of her visor. This Justicar must have suffered horribly at the tentacles of Fisty and his crew over the past few days, most likely used in every way imaginable. The thought that Iu’Sa herself could share the same fate brought a sobering jolt of panic to the quarian. She had to get out, and the Justicar was the only one who could help her.
‘I am Captain Iu’Sa Vas Eline,’ she said formally, pushing strength into her voice. ‘My ship was boarded only an hour ago and they brought me straight here.’
‘Then the pirate king has something in mind for you. Usually new…acquisitions…are taken to the cargo hold, where they can be broken over the space of many weeks. That you have been brought straight to the captain’s cabin can only mean one of two things. Either you are too valuable to let the crew have their way with, or…’
Orea’s eyes shone with unfathomable sadness and the sorrow in her voice was unmistakable as she finished. ‘Or Fisty has taken a special interest in you.’
The words chilled the flesh beneath Iu’Sa’s exosuit and the quarian let out a deep, aching shudder. ‘Is there no hope for us?’
‘There is only little hope, but it is still hope nonetheless,’ Orea said smoothly, with a confidence Iu’Sa could only envy.
Their attentions were snatched by the sudden hiss of the cabin door and both women narrowed their eyes in disdain as Captain Fisty entered the room. The hanar was visibly trembling with excitement and Iu’Sa felt a fresh surge of disgust. The pirate king was obviously pleased with his latest catch.
‘And now it has a quarian to add to its collection,’ the hanar droned. ‘Most excellent. This one has been hunting for one of your kind for more than-’
An enormous crash interrupted Pallo and he turned in surprise to the source of the noise, his coloration fluctuating with both embarrassment and confusion. Surely it was not time for Ganorn’s entrance yet, before his great villain’s monologue? Another rumbling crash sounded from beyond the edge of the set’s walls, this time accompanied by the thin smashing of glass. Raising a tentacle in warning, Pallo looked on with ravenous interest as Ganorn stumbled clumsily onto the set.
The turian’s skin was even darker than usual and his face paint looked as if it had been applied with a bent toothbrush. The lashings of white were spattered in uneven lines across the width of his fringe, barely touching his mandibles before ending in a thick blob on his nose. His eyes were dull and glassy, and in his hand he waved a glittering glass decanter of luminous green liquid. He was completely naked save for an undersized prop hat; a wide-rimmed purple monstrosity with a feather sticking from it that wasn’t even meant for the head of a turian.
‘No so fasht!’ Ganorn yelled out at the top of his voice, the liquor having removed his penchant for subtlety. ‘I am Naughtius Maximus! Actor to a ruined career! Owner of a murdered sense of worth! And I will have my revenge, in this or…well, this life will actually do rather nicely!’
A short distance away, Freeman’s hand rose to cup his forehead in silent lamentation. He could not even be bothered to shout ‘cut’.
In his paralysed uncertainty, Pallo looked askance at Dana and Kia, both of whom were still kneeling and unable to rise even if they wanted to. Their gazes were firmly clamped on Ganorn as he staggered about the set, the bottle in his hand sloshing with each swaying movement.
Ganorn sniffed and attempted to stand still, pushing his shoulders back and lifting his chin. When he spoke, his voice snagged in his throat and the first few words came out as a squeak. ‘How little you all must think of me.’
He looked about the cast and crew as he spoke, his eyes oddly fierce as they held each one of them in turn. ‘Here I stand, the great Ganorn Firaxis, a man nominated for a Silver Moon for his part in Rikena’s Etherium. Here I stand as a lesson in failure and degradation. Look at me, all of you. Look at me and know that no matter what you decide, be it reality or the lie you choose to tell yourself, no matter what; it’s all the same. Fame and fortune, respect and all that, it’s all…it’s all fleeting. At the end of the day, all you have is your last sodding bottle of whiskey and a bed of broken dreams and promises waiting for you when you sober up.’
Kia shifted awkwardly, her head turning as she gauged the reactions of everyone in the studio. No one seemed to want to make a move and stop Ganorn and so she settled back down, happy to wait out his outburst and be glad he was not looking in her direction. It was then she noticed Dana’s expression.
The asari’s eyes shimmered with liquid emotion and the faintest smile tugged at the corners of her mouth, teasing an expression of proud satisfaction. Kia could only wonder at it as Ganorn shouted again, whirling on the spot and sending sparkling drops of turian whiskey in every direction.
‘But it’s never too late! Everyone has the power to take hold of their own life,’ he said and accompanied the words with a raised hand, clasping some invisible object tightly in his fingers. ‘Everyone can take the reins of their future and shay no! I will not be used in this way, no matter what, or who, or what anyone says!’
Ganorn’s leg buckled suddenly and his arms windmilled as he stumbled backwards into a wall. The prop weapons display collapsed around him with a noisy clatter and a heavy axe fell onto his foot, making him hop and curse in pain.
‘And to top it all off,’ he mumbled, his voice muffled as he doubled over to test his now-sore foot, ‘the only woman I endured all this for, the only thing that kept me returning to this daily humiliation, thinks I’m a coward. And she’s right! I only decided to take action now, after I sold my soul and my dignity!’
He lifted his gaze and captured Dana in it, his flanging tones becoming solid and serious in an instant. ‘I let myself down in her eyes. I am Ganorn Firaxis and I…do not deserve her.’
Silence descended on the studio and everyone appeared to be holding their breath, as if waiting for some kind of sign to release it. Dana held Ganorn’s eyes in mute awe until eventually, the turian shook his head roughly and strode off the set and into darkness.
Ignoring the stupified stares of all around her, Dana shed her prop security cuffs with a deft flick of her wrist and followed him.
As the rest of the crew became unstuck and began to murmur their thoughts on what they had witnessed, Moxi approached Freeman carefully. The director still had his face buried in a hand and Moxi knew well enough to be careful when Freeman was enraged. The impact marks of a dozen hard, sharp and heavy objects still littered the volus’ body beneath the suit, each a testament to Freeman’s temper and somewhat preternatural throwing skills.
‘Oh, Mister Freeman,’ Moxi began, his distorted voice filled with sympathy. ‘Don’t despair! Things aren’t all that bad, really. Perhaps we can find another actor?’
‘Another actor?’ Freeman replied waspishly from behind his hand before removing it and glaring at his squat subordinate. ‘You really are thicker than elcor breast milk, aren’t you, Moxi? Do you honestly think that we’re going to be able to cast and shoot every one of Garn’s scenes again before five ‘o clock tomorrow?’
‘Well, Sir, technically they won’t be re-shoots.’
‘Oh yes,’ Freeman muttered, ‘how silly of me. A scene can only be re-shot if it was filmed in the first place, and not had its camera bots operated by absurd, fat little specks of pointless genetic material like you.’
Moxi let out a low, wheezing chuckle. ‘Your flattery means a lot to me, Mister Freeman, but believe me when I say we have nothing to worry about for I have a cunning plan.’
‘A cunning plan?’ Freeman asked, his eyebrow raised sceptically. ‘Is this plan going to be better than your bright idea to swap the dildo batteries with miniature element zero drives?’
‘That was a little ill-advised, perhaps,’ Moxi replied, wagging a stubby finger, ‘but the results were most intriguing!’
‘I don’t know if you could call it intriguing. Kia passed out into a five-hour coma at the very sight of them and it took several more to get Dana out of the ceiling, though I still don’t know what propelled her up there; her orgasm or the mass effect field that ballooned around her when she switched it on.’
‘Still, Mister Freeman, it made quite an effective climax to the story.’
Freeman ignored the unintended pun. Of course it was unintended. Moxi wouldn’t know wit if it turned blue, grew head-tentacles and gyrated its crotch in front of him for hours on end.
‘Well,’ Moxi said, ‘it would’ve done if…’
‘If you’d have switched the cameras on,’ Freeman finished. He gave his scalp a good scratch before clapping Moxi on the shoulder in false affection. ‘Well, while I would love to stay here with you all day and wax moronic, I’m afraid suicide beckons. This plan of yours will just have to wait until I’m a lump of frozen human in orbit around Illium.’
As he turned, Freeman hesitated and looked back at his volus compatriot. ‘By the way, that little job I asked you to do yesterday?’
Moxi saluted proudly. ‘Mission accomplished, Sir! I transferred the program from the datapad you gave me to Xantar’s terminal with great haste and speed, just as you asked!’
‘Did anyone see you?’
‘No, Mister Freeman, Sir!’
‘Good,’ the director said with a sly, oozing grin. ‘Then it looks like my little trip out the nearest airlock can wait. Now get out of my sight at once. I need to think of a way out of this little mess of ours before Milana Orenya arrives this afternoon or we’re all deader than an asari maiden’s innocence.’
Giving another clumsy salute, Moxi waddled off and Freeman shook his head in exasperation. ‘If only natural selection had found its way to Irune.’
'Quarians are people too!' shouted the hairy, foul-smelling creature. His coarse voice belted out in putrid, lentil-filled grunts of effort, making the batarian security guard grimace as he held him back.
'Shame on you people!' the thing cried out again as shaggy, unwashed hair crept over his eyes with every syllable. ‘You are responsible for the exploitation of the helpless! You take innocent quarians who have nowhere else to turn and make them your unwilling slaves to this sick industry!’
Xantar squinted, unable to tell if the rancid little animal was human. It certainly was human-shaped, with two arms and two legs, though his clothing was loose and seemed to have been merely draped over a malnourished frame in stinking drabs. The cheap materials of his pants and jacket were stained with what looked like months of muck and food detritus and his hair was in even worse condition, being nothing more than a straggly mass of filthy, straw-coloured fibres.
The batarian guard lost his patience and gripped the protestor by the collar of his jacket, roaring his frustration. ‘That’s enough out of you, human! Stay outside with the rest of your vermin!’
Nearby, Xantar let out a deep rumble of discontentment. He knew the guard was not referring to humans by the word ‘vermin’, but rather the multilateral congregation of species that had accumulated in the station’s hangar bay, apparently protesting the use of Kia in the movie. Freeman had called them ‘hippies’, though Xantar had not known what to make of them at first. He did not even know how they got into the shuttle bay, but the gathering had been there when he arrived, brandishing banners and placards and chanting the most irritating of songs alongside a badly-tuned human instrument. Freeman had referred to it as a ‘gitarr’ and Xantar had never heard anything quite so awful.
Pallo floated up to the elcor, pulsing with worry. ‘This one is concerned, Xantar. This is the third time one of these ‘QRA’ activists has been able force entry into the studio. Kia was quite upset upon seeing them on her arrival and it may impact on her ability to work today.’
Xantar’s sigh made the ground tremble. ‘Sympathetically; I understand the appearance of the Quarian Rights Alliance has come at a bad time, but we cannot deviate from the schedule. We have less than forty-eight hours left and on top of the recent outbreak of thievery, any further setbacks will mean the end of this production. Regrettably; Kia must persevere, for the sake of all our careers.’
Pallo raised a tentacle in objection, though it faltered after a moment. The hanar knew and respected Xantar. The producer was fair and respectful of his employees, and even if Dana had not whispered of the troubles facing the studio Pallo would have believed him. Sinking slightly, Pallo glowed softly with resignation.
‘It sees your point. It will do its best to support Kia at this time.’
‘Gratefully; thank you, Pallo. Your friendship with Kia is a great help to us, and a reflection of your value as a whole to this studio. I hope yesterday’s incident with Dana did not trouble you too greatly.’
‘Oh,’ Pallo said, suddenly nervous. ‘It was no trouble at all to this one, not at all.’
The slight change in manner was not lost on Xantar and he inclined his great head. ‘With mild concern; is something wrong, Pallo?’
‘No,’ the hanar replied immediately. ‘This one is simply a little tired with everything that has happened. If you will excuse it, Xantar, this one must prepare for this afternoon. It overheard one of the salarian writers saying he had finally completed the ending to this movie and it anticipates a long night ahead.’
‘With concealed relief; that is good to hear. Milana Orenya is due to arrive shortly and she will be most pleased with this turn of events. Thank you, Pallo, for this excellent news.’
As he turned away, Pallo thought briefly about telling Xantar that only one of the salarians had been present, and his words of triumphant exclamation had been half-cackled in an all-too maniacal fashion. No, he told himself, best to leave that particular mollusc with its shell on.
Kia was not far away, and Pallo rippled brightly as he spotted her at the water cooler, her head sagging with forlorn regret. His heart heavy, he floated over to her and immediately noted the nutrient paste tube in her hand. It was full and unopened, and their break had ended over half an hour ago.
‘You have not touched your food again, Kia,’ he said on his approach. ‘You promised this one you would try and eat a little.’
The quarian’s suit creaked gently as she clutched a hand to her stomach absently. Her reply was sullen. ‘I’m sorry, Pallo. I’m really not hungry right now. I tried, I really did but…’
‘Are you troubled? By the protesters outside?’
Kia sighed, the sound barely a whisper of air that sent her mouth-lamp fluttering in a soft rhythm of flashes. ‘It’s odd. I don’t know whether I should be glad they care about my well-being or angry that not one of them have asked what I actually want. They complain that I’m being exploited but they haven’t offered a way back to the Migrant Fleet either. I just wonder if they really care about what happens to me.’
Pallo deflated slightly as he was filled with confusion. ‘This one does not understand. Why does it matter what those people think? It gets the impression they are simply here to disrupt our work.’
‘Surely it can’t be as simple as that?’ Kia asked, shaking her head. ‘It’s kind of nice to think that there’s another way. I…I was never totally happy with doing this to begin with, you know that.’
His tentacles twitching slightly, Pallo gripped a plastic cup in a tentacle and filled it with water from the cooler. The action confounded him, as his species didn’t even drink in the same manner as others but he moved without thought, his body filled with numb worry at the direction of the conversation.
‘What is on your mind, Kia? Do you wish to leave?’
The young quarian didn’t answer immediately, choosing instead to gaze longingly into the large, deep blur of the water bottle atop the cooler. Through the heavy, round bottle, everything appeared warped, misshapen. It seemed to be a perfect representation of her thoughts.
‘I don’t know what I want,’ she finally murmured. ‘I think I just want a clear path ahead, for the future to be free of doubt and ambiguity.’
‘This one believes everyone desires the very same thing,’ Pallo said, turning slightly to face the rest of the bustling studio. ‘But it doubts even the Enkindlers themselves had such powers.’
Something came over Pallo, then. It was only a subtle shift in the air around him but Kia sensed it all the same. The quarian lifted her head questioningly but Pallo spoke before she could and the sudden change in the very language he used said all that needed to be said.
‘I will find a way, Kia. For my dearest friend, it is all I can do.’
It was late afternoon by the time Milana Orenya’s shuttle arrived. Xantar felt an odd twitch deep in his stomach, not unlike bad po-po fruit and he was thankful that only another elcor could have detected the foulness in the air around him. His species communicated a great deal through scent and Xantar was certain his own distinctive odour of rotten mulberries and waste would be enough to make the staunchest of his kind retch.
Before him, the modest shuttle bay of the Fornax orbital studios hissed with overloaded pressure valves and thrummed with heavily-taxed kinetic barriers. Only two shuttles were docked, civilian models of the Alliance Kodiak design, acquired at an auction on the Citadel a few months ago.
A much more expensive model roved into view beyond the shimmering blue veil of the kinetic barrier, a shining, sleek shape against the black carpet of space. The craft passed through the barrier with a low hum and the engines pitched and whined as they tasted the station’s atmosphere.
Xantar shuffled on his knuckles impatiently as the shuttle touched down with a piercing hiss and his mouth flaps twitched when the doors opened immediately, swinging up with agonising laziness even before the shuttle had fully touched the ground.
Milana’s thin legs swung out and she dropped the last few inches, staggering slightly as her dark heels hit the ground awkwardly. Her body emerged a moment later, a curved vision of asari beauty made stern by a sharp black business dress. The expression on her face was blank as she straightened and locked eyes with Xantar instantly, as if she’d known where to find him right from the beginning.
The elcor groaned inwardly. The look on her face could have meant anything but he knew she had nothing to be happy about. He could practically taste her rage like bitter wine in his throat. It made his elbows weak. She approached him, neither smiling nor scowling and as her lips parted, Xantar braced himself.
‘Xantar,’ Milana said stiffly. Then, her lips curled into a smile. ‘You’re a genius!’
Xantar blinked hard. ‘Surprised…what?’
She continued, suddenly overjoyed as she touched his arm, guiding him towards the hangar’s exit. ‘You know, when I stepped into that shuttle I was ready to nail your big, grey ass to the wall. I mean seriously, I was getting ready to take you and Freeman to the fucking cleaners, but a quick look at the studio’s accounts on the way over proved how wrong I was to doubt you.’
‘Confusedly…I am confused.’
‘What’s to be confused about?’ she went on. Her lean blue hands cut arcs in the air as she gestured enthusiastically. ‘I asked to you find who was taking our money and you not only got the credits back, but almost doubled the balance sheet!’
Again Xantar thanked his creators that Milana could not detect the massive influx of emotion that churned the air around him. She continued, oblivious.
‘I don’t know how you did it and to be perfectly honest, I don’t care. I’m just glad we managed to pull something back from this.’ She stopped suddenly and looked at Xantar sharply.
It was only then the elcor noticed the dark rings around her eyes and the paleness of her skin. Milana had always been somewhat gaunt and pasty for an asari, but she also trembled, a muted shaking that made her look as if she were trying to suppress a bout of wind.
She fixed Xantar with a stare that displayed the whites of her eyes. ‘In fact, I’m so impressed with your ability to get the job done, I have an offer for you.’
Xantar’s great lungs heaved in a gasp. ‘With a heavy sense of dread, I’m afraid I am not available, Milana, flattered as I am.’
‘What?’ Milana asked, frowning. ‘I’m not asking you out, you fool!’
The elcor released his breath. ‘Relieved. That is good. I would not even want to contemplate the logistics of-’
‘Xantar,’ Milana interrupted, ‘shut up and listen to me. I’m only going to say this once.’
Rima bit his bottom lip in worry, turning the dark flesh an even richer hue of red. A small glint of green worked its way out and the salarian frowned as he realised he had bitten down a little too hard. He gave a small shrug as he stormed through the studio, weaving between two batarian techies who grumbled alien curses at him as he passed.
His stomach churned. He hated being the bearer of bad news at the best of times. He’d hated it when he’d been forced to tell his family of their great plan to become successful screen writers, remembering with perfect clarity their ashen faces as they watched a promising breeding contract get flushed right out of their cloacas.
He’d hated it when telling Listor that their only chance to avoid starvation and obscurity, though they couldn’t decide on which was worse, was to write a screenplay for a Fornax movie. And, of course, he still hated it now as he approached Freeman.
The director’s dark eyebrows were crushed together in deep concentration and his usually pale skin was mottled with barely-concealed rage. Or perhaps it was nausea. Rima honestly couldn’t tell with the prickly human.
‘Mister Freeman,’ Rima announced at his shoulder.
‘Ah yes, if it isn’t the lesser of two idiots,’ Freeman sneered. ‘What is it this time? Finally gotten fed up of that Tupari-addicted basket case you hang around with?’
‘Ah,’ Rima sputtered. He could not tell him that Listor had run off that morning to check into the Betick Forash clinic in Nos Astra at Rima’s own urging. The Tupari had finally proven too much for his erstwhile partner to handle and it was with a heavy heart Rima had finally sent Listor away. At least picking up the entirety of their paycheck himself would provide some solace.
'Mister Freeman,' the salarian began again, 'I have some very good news for you!'
Freeman glanced at him with raised eyebrows. 'Unless you've managed to discover a way to reverse time itself and warn me against undertaking this joyous little endeavour, I believe your enthusiasm is a bit premature.'
Rima was unperturbed, and raised a finger in triumph. 'On the contrary, maestro, I have not only shed the weak link of our creative ensemble, but also managed to complete our contractual obligations!'
Freeman's reaction was more muted than Rima had anticipated, being little more than a puzzled frown. 'Are you sure?'
'Of course!' Rima exclaimed and held up a datapad. 'I have in my very hand not only the title but the entire ending! A work of art, a masterpiece!’
‘Yes,’ Freeman murmured doubtfully, ‘well forgive me for not leaping for joy but considering it took two of you three weeks to come up with nothing, it’s going to take a little more than brainless optimism to win me over.’
Rima grew desperate and pressed the datapad to Freeman’s chest. ‘Please, just give it a look. I promise that if you’re dissatisfied I will bear myself away on the next shuttle immediately!’
‘Preferably by way of the station’s engine wash,’ Freeman mumbled as he looked down at the datapad. Immediately his eyes snapped back up. ‘Naughtius Maximus: Call of Booty?’
Rima nodded. ‘Yes.’
‘This is your title?’
A look of supreme exhaustion washed over Freeman’s face. ‘You do realise this title sort of…implies that it is part of a series of films?’
‘Y-yes, Mister Freeman,’ Rima stammered. ‘It’s a play on words, you see; instead of “call of duty”, it’s call of booty!’
‘So assuming people actually know who Naughtius Maximus is, which is unlikely seeing as this is the character’s first appearance, the only clue as to what the movie is about lies within a pun that could have come from the mind of a lobotomised pyjack?’
Deflated, Rima bobbed his head. ‘Yes, Mister Freeman.’
‘You do understand that if this ending isn’t monumentally good, chances are I’ll have your legs cut off, marinated in garlic and sent back to France as an exciting new hors d’oeuvre?’
Rima didn’t know who this “France” was but they sounded simply awful. He kept his mouth firmly closed, his heart pounding as Freeman looked up at him after a few seconds of intense reading.
‘This is it? This is your masterpiece?’
The salarian let out a quiet, nervous laugh. ‘I know, right? It’s genius!’
Freeman turned his eyes back down to the datapad and read aloud from it. ‘Maximus shoots the reactor on Fisty’s ship, blowing it up while Iu’Sa and Orea crash land inexplicably on a random jungle planet without any explanation whatsoever. Cut to black. The end.’
It had seemed like a good idea at the time, Rima thought to himself with a wince. Actually, no, it hadn’t seemed like a good idea at all but what choice did he have? Half the studio’s writing team had been banished, their publishers had forced a deadline that precluded a satisfying conclusion to the narrative and the project director was a lying, self-obsessed lunatic. Rima shrugged. It still beat working in the games industry.
‘See, it’s a masterful piece of abstract symbolism!’ he gushed, almost believing his own lies. ‘It allows the audience to draw their own conclusions, lets them ponder the outcomes within the limitless boundaries of their own imaginations!’
‘Utter crap,’ Freeman replied slowly. ‘Aside from the fact that this ending bears no resemblance to the rest of the film and makes no logical sense whatsoever, it will require a leading actor to actually shoot it, something of which we’re sadly bereft at the moment.’
‘Oh,’ Rima responded, downcast. He clutched his bony chin between two fingers. ‘To be honest, we can just cut Maximus from that scene entirely. I don’t think anyone will notice since people don’t usually get to the end of a porno anyway.’
Freeman sighed. ‘In the absence of time, money and better writers, I’m forced to accept. See if you can find Dana and Kia, we’ll shoot it right away.’
Unwilling to test his good fortune, Rima nodded and quickly made his way off in search of the actresses in question. He saw Kia in the distance and was tempted to follow, though the thought of catching Dana in her Justicar outfit was too much for him to resist. Smiling, Rima’s pace increased as he wandered the set.
The loud groan, similar to that of a wounded animal, was what finally drew Dana’s attention. Though she didn’t drink herself anymore, she knew the sound well. It was the stinging talons of an encroaching hangover digging into someone’s brain and she followed the sound into a dark room off the empty corridor she had been searching.
Even if the storage closet hadn’t been tiny, it would have been impossible to miss Ganorn. The turian was still naked but had lost the hat, something which Dana oddly lamented.
‘That was quite a show,’ she said, announcing her sudden presence with all the grace of a tap dancing elcor. It was intentional, of course, and she enjoyed his response.
Ganorn was suitably startled, and tumbled off the flimsy box he had precariously perched on in his panic. He stood up quickly, holding himself bolt-upright in the manner of someone who was trying desperate not to look drunk.
‘I-I’m so sorry, Dana,’ he mumbled. The paint on his face had smeared further, becoming a streak of white that gave him a ghostly appearance.
To his shock, the asari laughed delicately. ‘Why? It was the most interesting thing I’ve seen in centuries! Oh, if it’d been a smooth shoot then I would’ve been annoyed at the interruption but nothing about this mess has been smooth so far.’
She stepped up to Ganorn, close enough for him to smell her sweet air of lotion and day-old perfume.
‘I have to admit, when I first met you, I thought you were a boring old stiff, someone who was all about turian dignity, who didn’t know how to have a good time. I liked the actor in you but the way you went on and on about Freeman…’
Ganorn looked away in embarrassment. ‘That man has cost me more than I can possibly describe.’
Dana placed a hand on his face, interrupting him as she guided his eyes to hers. ‘No. I think he’s set you free. Look at you. You’re naked, drunk and so very interesting. You’re still an actor, Ganorn, but you’re also you.’
A dark gap appeared between the turian’s lips, hovering between them as he struggled to find his voice. Was it so simple? Had he been hiding behind the veneer of flawless professionalism all this time?
To his own surprise, Ganorn grinned. ‘You know, I think you may be right. I don’t have to let those hacks make me feel inferior, not Freeman, not the Ciptritine Artists Guild, not anyone! I have more talent and personality in one talon than the rest of them have in their entire bodies! I don’t need to hide anymore!’
Dana beamed at him before slowly snaking her arms around his neck and pulling herself close.
The motion held an intimacy that made Ganorn’s heart hammer in his chest. It was nothing like her movies. It was sensual, even a little vulnerable, and it was all for him.
‘You are Ganorn Firaxis,’ she murmured into his ear, ‘and you deserve more.’
The words hung around them like a mist, making Ganorn shudder. He had to force strength into his voice, and his flanging brogue wavered at first until he found it. ‘I cannot stand another second of this place. I’m leaving, Dana. Will you come with me?’
She pulled back slightly and her eyes were full of mischief. ‘My contract with this train wreck of a studio expired yesterday. Let’s get the hell out of here.’
Grinning Ganorn, pulled her firmly into his nude grasp, making her gasp aloud with excitement.
‘I do still have some contacts within the theatrical agencies of the Citadel. I think they would be interested to hear of Ganorn Firaxis’ return to the stage and screen. Of course, they are always on the lookout for promising new talent…’
Dana grinned at that and leaned in to kiss him. Her Justicar costume creaked as she raised a leg behind her, shutting the door behind them with a toe and hiding them from the eyes and ears of anyone passing by. The sounds of muffled exertion and ecstasy soon followed, with no one around to hear them.
‘What do you mean “they’re gone”?’
Freeman’s eyes bored into the batarian security guard, who shuffled nervously under his scrutiny.
‘As I said, Sir, they took a shuttle off-station twenty minutes ago down to the surface. They didn’t give an explanation and I didn’t think it was my place to ask.’
Freeman’s mouth moved without sound. It felt dry and gritty as the reality of Ganorn and Dana’s departure took hold. He didn’t bother to ask the hapless guard if they’d said whether or not they were coming back. That should have been obvious enough to anyone.
Staggering away from the entrance to the shuttle bay, Freeman lowered himself into a crouch and curled his hands over his head, until he was a skinny ball of despair and frustration.
He did not hear the rhythmic hiss of Moxi’s respirators until the volus had stopped by his side and even then, Freeman did not want to look. He wanted to remain there, curled up in his little knot of isolation, free of idiots and imbeciles. He heard Moxi’s mechanical voice. It sounded infuriatingly calm.
‘Are you all right, Mister Freeman?’
Freeman’s muffled voice came from somewhere between his arms and his legs. ‘Oh, just fine, Moxi. Never better. What in Hades would make you think otherwise?’
‘Oh yes, I did just hear about Ganorn’s departure but I have been anticipating this for some time and I’m pleased to say I’ve come up with a solution.’
‘And what could that possibly be?’ Freeman asked.
He knew he shouldn’t look, that Moxi would even get excited about putting his suit on the right way around in the morning but a sheer sense of morbid curiosity made Freeman unfurl like a drab flower. He kept his hands firmly pressed into the waxy skin of his face as his legs straightened, and only when he was certain he could finally look did he uncover his eyes.
Moxi had outdone himself. An over-sized top hat sat on his domed head, above a suit that had been re-coloured to vaguely resemble a tuxedo. He awkwardly gripped a cheap, thin cane of black-painted wood while perhaps most pointlessly of all, a monocle had been stuck over his left eye. What purpose it served, Freeman could not imagine and he could only ask one question.
‘I am Moxi no longer,’ the volus proudly announced, hefting his cane. ‘May I introduce Wilson. I am the other leading man, old bean!’
Words were difficult to find for Freeman as he sized up the proposed addition to his cast.
‘Yes, old chap,’ Wilson replied affably and took a deep breath before speaking again. ‘And I do say, this is a spiffing spot of derring-do you’ve got going on here! Why, it reminds me of the most delightful soiree I attended over on the Citadel a few years ago. There were the most wonderful-’
‘Moxi,’ Freeman interrupted, burying his face into his hands, ‘first of all, shut up and never say anything else for as long as you live. Then, go away and take off that ridiculous outfit, and be thankful that the fine print of your indentured servitude contract forbids me from killing you in the most brutal and sadistic ways ever devised by the minds of man.’
Moxi’s mouth-lamp flickered as he considered speaking then, slowly, he conceded the point. He waddled away, narrowly missing Pallo as they passed in the corridor.
The hanar approached Freeman in a fluster, his tentacles raised in horror. ‘Mister Freeman, this is most terrible! She is gone! She has been taken!’
Freeman grimaced, an expression of agony, apathy and immense, uncontrollable defeat. He sighed as he spoke, so that his words were little more than a disinterested drone.
‘Yes, Pallo? What is it now?’
Pallo’s body pulsed with a multitude of blues and purples, like the dance floor of a Nos Astra nightclub. ‘Kia has been kidnapped by the extremists, the ones protesting outside! She went outside to take a break and never returned. When it went out there to investigate, the protesters were gone and Kia with them!’
‘Oh god,’ Freeman moaned, clutching his head. ‘Why is this happening to me? First Garn and Dana elope into the bastard sunset, now Kia’s been snatching by a bunch of unwashed, malnourished hippies! When will it all end?’
‘This one must leave at once,’ Pallo said, ignoring Freeman’s groans. ‘It knows the QRA terrorists can be easily traced through Illium’s docking authorities. If it moves now, it may not be too late!’
Freeman waved his hand dismissively. ‘Oh yes, by all means, you’re only my last remaining actor so please bugger off before I decide to fire the rest of the crew. In fact, I might just burn the set down if only to save time.’
The hanar did not seem to hear him and turned to leave. Before he left, however, Pallo pointed a slender appendage at Freeman and spoke quietly.
‘Oh, and this one must remind you of article thirty-eight, clause b of Kia’s contract, which states that in the event of kidnapping, arson, extortion or extreme buggery, any exosuit-wearing employee is subject to compensation equal to two-fifths of their total income. It also believes this is in addition to all monies owed for services rendered unless exempted in advance by completion of Illium servitude contract waiver 32c. It would be happy to provide you a copy of the clause, if you require.’
Silently, Freeman waved him away and Pallo obliged eagerly. As the hanar wandered off, Freeman cringed. All of his actors had gone and it wouldn’t take a genius to guess that without a cast, there could be no movie. The fates had conspired to bring his project down like a gaggle of cackling crones, building his hopes and dreams, only to disappoint at the very last moment. The metaphor was too close to that of his own sexual performances for comfort and it was almost with relief that he spotted Xantar lumbering towards him.
The sight of the elcor raised Freeman’s spirits a little and the director even managed a smile. At least he had a Plan B.
Xantar was hesitant as he approached. ‘Carefully; hello, Jon. You look unwell.’
‘Yes, well, having your entire cast walk out on you in quick succession will do wonders for your complexion. So, I hear you’ve been on the hunt for whoever it is that’s been draining our accounts. Tell me, have you found the culprit?’
The nervous edge to Freeman’s voice went unnoticed as Xantar shook his head. ‘Uncomfortably, the situation has been resolved.’
‘Uncomfortably?’ Freeman’s brow twisted in confusion. ‘But surely that’s a good thing?’
Xantar’s massive head swung from side to side in the clearest physical sign of surprise he could give. ‘Astonished; you can read me like a book, Jon. Yes, there is something I must tell you. With awkward satisfaction, I have managed to somehow retrieve not only the funds for the studio’s account, but also a large amount in addition. We now have more money than when we started.’
If Xantar noticed the colour suddenly drain from Freeman’s face, he did not say, and the human uttered a single word in response.
Bobbing his head, Xantar’s eyes narrowed. ‘Somewhat ashamedly; I don’t know how the money found its way into the account but I will not ignore good fortune when it comes my way. Milana Orenya was so impressed with my performance that she has offered me a job as her fraud investigation consultant. I will have my own office in Fornax headquarters in Nos Astra, with a huge salary and pension plan.’
Freeman’s eyes were dull and listless. ‘You…have another job. The money in the studio’s…’
Xantar did not let him finish his dazed mumbling. ‘Regrettably, I am afraid this is where we must part ways, Jon. I am finally able to pursue a lucrative career without the stress and humiliation of pandering to egos and hubris. With false affection, I wish you the best of luck with the rest of the production. You will need it.’
Some part of Xantar’s long-held excitement finally surfaced as he held his head up high and raised his voice into a deep boom.
‘Triumphantly; so long, bitches!’
And just like that, Xantar was gone.
Freeman felt the muted thumps of his footsteps long after he had disappeared from sight into the shuttle bay. The actors and actresses had left. His producer had deserted him. What else could go wrong?
As if by divine providence, Moxi shuffled back up to him sans the top hat and cane. Freeman’ head turned towards him with malevolent sloth, his words dripping from his lips like poison, slow and deliberate.
‘Moxi. When I gave you that datapad and asked you to run the hack on Xantar’s office terminal, there were two numbers on the program. My account number and that of the studio.’
‘Yes, Mister Freeman.’
‘And the instructions on the datapad told you to transfer the balance from the studio account to mine.’
‘I believe so, Mister Freeman.’
Freeman took a knee and smiled a shark’s smile. ‘So would you like to explain to me why Xantar just came by to tell me that the studio account now holds all the money I’ve been pinching from Fornax for the past three months?’
Moxi took a deep breath. ‘Whoops.’
‘Whoops?’ Freeman repeated. ‘That is your answer, your great explanation? I find myself penniless, director of a movie without a cast and crew, with an ending that can be likened to a capacious mound of vorcha excrement. My great and cunning plan to steal the studio’s funding instead finds the fruits of my labours firmly in the one place I didn’t want them to be. And all you have to say to that is…whoops?’
‘Well, Mister Freeman,’ Moxi replied innocently, ‘accidents happen!’
‘Accidents.’ Freeman clasped his hands over Moxi’s shoulders and the thick suit depressed in his grip as his fingers closed over the flabby flesh. ‘You know, Moxi, it’s at times like this, when a man’s great schemes come to a crashing halt and all options desert him that he must ask himself one question.’
‘What is that, Mister Freeman?’ Moxi asked.
Freeman’s mouth widened into a smile. It could have been one of extreme desperation, or even insanity, but behind their glazed look Freeman’s eyes were ablaze with one final idea.
‘Do you still have the top hat and monocle?’
Behind his mask, under his rasping breath, Moxi grinned.
‘Indubitably, old bean!’
Later that afternoon, Milana Orenya made the call. The studio was shut down and Naughtius Maximus: The Call of Booty was brought to a premature end.
Ganorn revived his theatrical career for a short time, returning to the stage and starring in several plays to moderate critical acclaim. He then made the mistake of swallowing a thimbleful of ryncol shortly before taking to the stage in the prestigious Dilinaga Concert Hall on the Citadel. It took several hours to extinguish the fires he started, though the incident, along with the guidance of his beautiful wife, Dana Nylendi, only added to his new edgy, rock-star persona. Several film role offers followed and Ganorn went on to become a prolific star in the movie industry.
Kia’Toresh Nar Qwib Qwib was released by the Quarian Rights Alliance back onto the streets of Illium after they admitted they did not have the facilities to assure her wellbeing. Luckily for the quarian, a lawsuit brought against Fornax claiming damages as well as the breaching of the terms of her contract as an exosuit-wearing employee was settled for a sum of twenty-thousand credits. Thanking her ‘guardian angel’, Kia used the money to return swiftly and safely to the Migrant Fleet.
Rima enjoyed his earnings for only six weeks before being confronted by an incensed Listor. The latter, having escaped from a batarian-run ‘rehabilitation clinic’, tracked down his former partner and in a fit of Tupari Sports Drink-induced bloodlust, murdered him by way of empty Tupari bottle. He is still wanted by Nos Astra law enforcement and is considered armed and slightly dangerous.
Only a year after the closure of the ill-fated production, Milana Orenya died from a massive overdose of red sand. The asari dancer from whose belly Milana had enjoyed the drug was held by police for over forty-eight hours before being released, though the local hospital was unable to remove the shot glass from her belly button.
Xantar, who had proven himself a reliable and dedicated employee of Milana’s, eventually took over leadership of the Fornax offices on Illium and the company saw its best returns from the Terminus borders in living memory. Xantar went on to take the coveted top place in Illium Entertainment News’ esteemed ‘Nos Astra’s Top Ten Executives’ four times in 2135 alone.
Wilson the volus became an overnight extranet sensation, earning fame and fortune for Moxi and his agent, the human Jon Freeman. Oddly, the fortune never quite found its way into Moxi’s hands and tragedy struck the extranet legend during a Council-sponsored goodwill mission to the Terminus Systems. The Goodwill Ambassador to Karshan, as Moxi was then known, died when his ship crashed into the Hegemony’s Imperial Palace. The batarian ruling regime’s claims that he was piloting it at the time, and that Moxi himself was a master assassin sent by the Citadel, are still being vigorously denied by the Council.