Six months before the events of Mass Effect...
Turians never break.
The words were first spoken to Arlen by his father when he was only a child and had become a talisman of sorts. They were not a physical barrier. They did not protect him from bullets or blows but they often gave him comfort when he felt distressed and shored up his courage when he needed it the most.
His father also taught him the breathing exercises meant to calm himself in times of stress, though they did little to sooth Arlen’s fraying nerves at that moment.
He inhaled the cool, sweet air of the Presidium again and again, feeling his chest push tightly against his armour. The suit's black and blue panels were polished until free of blemish, and they heaved with every steady movement.
Conscientiously, Arlen brushed off his forearms and began to silently rehearse his cleverly formulated speech, the one with which he would greet his new commanding officer and convince him of his worth.
The C-Sec executor was known as a hard man to impress and Arlen’s jaw moved slightly as he mouthed the words he would speak, his eyes wandering from side to side absently as he toyed with different phrases.
His mental preparations were interrupted as the door slid aside to reveal Executor Pallin at his desk. The old turian's skin was dark and mottled, and his stark white face paint flashed brightly as he worked.
Arlen swallowed and took a few smart steps forward before halting sharply.
'Arlen Kryik, reporting for duty, Sir,' he said clearly before falling silent, awaiting a response.
Pallin did not lift his eyes from his terminal. His fingers continued to glide across the projected keypad, creating a symphony of beeps and clicks as Arlen shifted awkwardly on his feet. Finally, with a gruff sigh, the executor raised his head and leaned back in his chair. His blue eyes shifted in their dark sockets like small crystals, casting a judgmental gaze over his new recruit.
'How old are you, kid?' Pallin finally asked. His tone was not entirely one of disrespect but the words had a distinct, derisory bite.
Arlen's green eyes remained locked, staring at an undefined horizon, as they had been trained to do.
'Nineteen, Sir,' he answered. The words were devoid of all emotion, as they had been trained to be.
'Nineteen…' Pallin grunted, shaking his head, 'How many years' service? Three?'
'Two and a half, Sir.'
'Two and a half years…' Pallin repeated, again shaking his head in wonder, 'And you think you're ready to be a Citadel Security Interceptor?'
Arlen was unsure whether he should answer, so he did as all recruits were expected in such a situation and kept his mouth firmly shut.
'What exactly do you know about the Interceptors, boy?' asked Pallin, appraising the recruit keenly.
'They’re Citadel Security agents, Sir, responsible for the apprehension of fugitives and other individuals wanted by the Council,' Arlen replied without hesitation, 'Alongside Special Response, they are C-Sec's most highly trained operatives, and are often directly responsible for the safety of the Council in times of emergency.'
'That's what the textbooks say,' Pallin said, 'Tell me what you know about the Interceptors.'
Arlen opened his mouth to speak before realising he had nothing to say. The truth was he knew little of the agents beyond their reputation and in any case, he had been picked to join them, not the other way around.
The invitation had come so suddenly that he had not even had the time to look into their history, rank structure, even their current commander. Such things would need to be learned in advance if he were joining a new legion and Arlen felt naked without the facts.
'I didn't expect an answer, kid, so you can wipe that dumb look off your face,' Pallin muttered, 'You can't answer because you're not supposed to know anything about them. Their work isn’t exactly public knowledge. Interceptors are trained to capture the galaxy’s most dangerous criminals and bring them to justice. Their identities and tasks are highly classified, only known to myself and a handful of the highest-ranking individuals in Citadel space. Some call them the Spectres of C-Sec but…'
The executor's expression twisted into one of grim distaste and Arlen shifted his weight uncomfortably as Pallin's voice deepened.
'Interceptors always, always answer to the law,' he said forcefully, as if trying to push the words into Arlen's skull, 'They capture their targets alive and ready to face justice in a Citadel court. If you think you'll be able to roam the galaxy doing what you please like the Spectres, think again.'
Arlen allowed himself a sharp blink, a brief flicker of his eyelids. He was well-used to the hard words of superior officers and like any good turian he absorbed it all without reaction, still and obedient.
'Interceptors have more freedom to operate than average investigators but their actions are accountable and anyone caught acting with disregard for C-Sec regulations will face the consequences in a military tribunal. They aren’t your standard C-Sec officers like you see out there,' Pallin said, tipping his head back to the balcony behind him, 'You won’t see them writing tickets or busting drunks. Interceptors are usually hand-picked by myself and C-Sec's top echelon; named men who've faithfully served C-Sec for many years. In a lot of cases only their past experience has seen them through the job alive, which leads me to wonder why you're here; a green-as-grass recruit without a single tour of duty under his belt.'
Arlen still said nothing, choosing instead to keep his eyes fixed on that interminable spot in the middle-distance. The balcony beyond Pallin overlooked a vast swathe of the Presidium and Arlen found himself calmed by the white curves of the architecture and splatters of lush vegetation lining the walkways.
'You were trained by your father, is that correct?'
The question broke through the tenuous serenity Arlen had found and he blinked, distracted. 'I'm sorry, Sir?'
'Your father,' the executor barked irritability, 'He was the one who gave you your...extensive training in hand-to-hand combat, am I right?'
'That's right, Sir.'
Pallin nodded slowly and his tone grew slightly more approving, 'That alone interests me more than anything else. Though I can't say I personally approve of your father's more...controversial actions, he was respected by many, including myself.' He waved a hand. 'In any case, I recognise potential when I see it. You set personal combat records in boot camp, records established by your father himself.' He sighed. 'If old Renius could see you now, would he be proud?'
'I don't know, Sir,' Arlen admitted, 'I didn't know my father well.'
'No matter. We'll see how well you perform while under the supervision of one of our veteran officers and if he likes what he sees then we'll get you set up with a minder, ready for your first assignment.'
Pallin leaned forward and resumed his work, lost once again in the dull orange glow of his terminal.
'Unfortunately, we'll have to cut this interview short. The Council is holding a high priority hearing in only a few hours so I have my hands full. Give me your omni-tool and I'll give you your stamp. For now, I want you to report to Garrus Vakarian in C-Sec headquarters. He'll show you the ropes until you can stand on your own two feet.'
'Yes, Sir. Where can I find him?' Arlen asked, relieved to escape the office.
'He's been pulled from his current investigations and reassigned to the Joint Security Task Force. They're handling the Council's security detail during today’s hearing. He should be down in C-Sec headquarters. Just ask around, somebody will know where he is.'
Arlen turned smoothly and had almost reached the door when Pallin spoke again, 'Kid...'
Arlen waited expectantly.
'Your stamp?' Pallin asked with no small amount of condescension.
Blinking in embarrassment, Arlen stepped forward to receive Pallin's fingerprint on his omni-tool. The device beeped softly as it acknowledged the executor and Arlen nodded with satisfaction as his security clearance was approved.
'Thank you, Sir,' he said appreciatively.
Pallin did not answer and merely waved him away. For his part, Arlen was happy to oblige and he marched out of the office, almost gasping as the pressure left him.
Ensuring the door was firmly shut, he sagged against the wall and closed his eyes. His father's spirit must have been shaking its head at that moment. Arlen felt the sting of shame touch him as he pictured Pallin's expression of stern disapproval throughout the interview. The stamp had been the final straw and he shook his head slowly, mortified with himself. How could he allow such a simple thing to escape his notice and still expect to be treated with respect?
Slowly, the tension faded from his senses and clarity returned to his thoughts. He was being childish, he realised, and one thing of which his father would not approve was moping in self pity mere inches from the executor's door.
After taking a few moments to compose himself, Arlen pushed away from the wall made his way toward the wards.
The customs agent cursed loudly as another ship began docking procedures in a distant bay.
He scratched at the thin dusting of greying hair at his temples, a habit that always manifested itself when he was stressed, while all around him the bustle of the port grew into an incessant wall of noise that pressed on the small customs booth from all sides.
'Another bloody passenger transport,' he muttered to his colleague, who replied as one does when they have heard the same complaint a dozen times in one day.
'Yes, Dale, another one,' a slim, middle-aged woman groaned before asking sardonically, 'Do you want to try and be a little more pleasant to this bunch?'
'They don't pay me to be pleasant, Fran,' Dale replied, his voice a mixture of frustration and resentment. He wiped the top of his balding head with the back of a sleeve, adding to the collection of damp stains on the cloth.
Long queues of people started to shuffle their way through the checkpoints, the latest herd to disembark the seemingly endless flotilla of passenger ships and he cared only for sending them on their way with the minimum of effort.
'Look at them,' he grumbled as he watched them approach, 'Five hundred extra bodies, all clamouring to be stuffed into this overcrowded pig sty of a station. It's enough to make you sick.'
Fran turned to him with a sour expression, her brow creased beneath a sweep of dark hair. 'Come on, that's unfair! A lot of these people are only here for the Council talks.'
'You call them people?' Dale mocked, though there was little humour in his words.
Fran glanced at the group, noting the splashes of colour dotting the crowd as turians, asari and hanar walked among the humans.
She frowned at Dale irritably. 'Carry on making remarks like that and you'll find yourself on a pauper's flight out. Besides, you know how important these talks are going to be for all of us. They say the Council's going to grant the Alliance new powers and expansion rights on the borders, which means more jobs and more opportunities for people like us. Anyway, if you hate the Citadel so much why don't you just leave?'
'I will one of these days, believe me,' he answered.
Fran shook her head in exasperation. 'You know as soon as the rush dies down you'll be back to singing the station's praises again.'
The mass of people began to press through the checkpoint gates and a cacophony of beeps and alarms rose as scanners were tripped. Those who didn't set them off began to trickle through in small drabs while those who did grumbled as their persons were searched by waiting officers.
‘Thank God for the bloody scanners, otherwise it'd take all day to see them all,’ Dale mumbled to himself as the first of the passengers arrived at the booth and the loud voices of the customs officers rose over the crowd.
Dale narrowed his eyes as a bold, muscular turian approached, his grey features tinted with bright red paint. Slowly, the turian made his way to the booth before setting down a heavy case and handing over an ID card. Arching his eyebrows pompously, Dale scanned the card with a flick of his wrist.
'Your business in the Citadel, Mister…Siracus?' he asked, glancing at the scrolling reams of information on his terminal screen.
Crixus Nantia smiled at the human customs agent, his calm exterior hiding a glow of satisfaction at the success of the counterfeit ID.
The journey had been a long one, the ship he’d travelled on thick with the moist heat of bodies. It was an exquisite relief to finally step into the open spaces of the Citadel, though it heralded the beginning of challenges far greater than an uncomfortable space voyage.
'I am a close associate of General Septimus Oraka,' he finally replied warmly, 'I'm here for his retirement party.'
'Do you have anything to declare?' the human sighed, tedium clearly getting the better of his manners.
The officer paused and eyed Crixus warily, his eyes travelling down to the case at his feet.
'Are you sure?' he asked suspiciously.
Crixus smiled again and tilted his head coyly, keeping his nerve. 'A gift for General Septimus.'
Again the human raised a thin eyebrow and looked at the case. Crixus scratched the back of his neck in feigned embarrassment and chuckled nervously.
'For his meetings with Lady Sha'ira. I'm afraid I can't say any more, I hope you understand.'
Crixus stood amused as the human’s expression shifted, alternating between confusion and shocked realisation, then finally settling on meek servitude. Grinning apologetically, he handed the card back to Crixus and gestured to the exit.
'Well, we wouldn't want to keep the general waiting now, would we? Please go on ahead, Mister Siracus and please pass on our warmest regards to General Septimus.'
'Thank you,' Crixus acknowledged politely and picked up his case in a strong grip.
As he strode through the large exit and into the Citadel proper his friendly demeanour darkened instantly, and he walked with a dogged determination through the shifting crowds of travellers. They were all cattle to him, blissfully unaware of the predator that stalked amongst them.
Arlen winced, frowning at his inability to scratch an itch on his neck. While he remained at attention there was little else his mind could focus on and the minutes passed slowly as scores of blue-clad officers streamed by.
Above him, the main hall of C-Sec headquarters towered, hundreds of floors of azure-tinted windows stretching up into the depths of the station while crystalline tubes ran their length, shadows of elevators flitting briefly inside.
It was all a staggering spectacle to Arlen, though he didn't have time to enjoy it as he waited for the duty officer to register his presence.
The human at the desk shifted, his feet propped up lazily as he leaned back in his chair. Arlen glanced at his waxy, sallow skin and sunken eyes set under a bare scalp that was spotted with dark moles.
The human looked like he had been living at the desk for months without sleep and Arlen glanced in irritation at the name on the duty roster, projected in bright blue lettering; Duty Officer: Harkin.
'You just 'gonna stand there all day?' Harkin asked suddenly, not even bothering to lift his gaze from the terminal.
The whisper of a noisy crowd rose from the desk and Arlen clenched a fist in outrage. The man was watching sports while on duty, a grievous lack of discipline that would have earned him a serious charge had he been in the legions.
Arlen would not show the same lack of honour and he responded formally, 'Just awaiting orders, Sir. Arlen Kryik reporting for duty, I'm looking for Garrus Vakarian.'
Harkin lifted his attention from the terminal for an instant and a broad smirk crossed his lips.
'Yeah, yeah, you're the new kid. Man, they weren't lyin' about your age. For a second there I thought you were just here to scrub out the filters with the other duct rats.'
Arlen's breathing grew deep as his frustration mounted. He did not know what a 'duct rat' was but he was sure it was not a compliment.
'Garrus Vakarian?' he repeated firmly.
'He's down the hall, third door on your right,' the human replied and Arlen could have sworn his sneer had widened. 'Just be careful of that one, kid.'
'What do you mean?' Arlen asked cautiously.
Harkin seemed to come alive at the opportunity to badmouth a colleague and he lowered his voice while looking cagily from side to side, 'Garrus is…well, he's not all there if you know what I mean. Something happened a while back. Something involving a suspect. I don't know the details but ever since, Garrus has been on edge, you see. No telling what he'll do.'
Straightening once more, Arlen nodded politely though he did not lend much weight to Harkin's words. Those like him had a tendency to speak ill of others to disguise their own failures.
'Well, kid,' Harkin continued as his eyes returned to the screen, 'If you're done then I'll ask you to get the hell outta my sight. I've already lost fifty creds on this game and I don't need you here bringin' down my luck even more.'
Arlen quickly saluted and wandered down the hall, eager to be away.
The pistol lay in pieces on the desk, pointedly set aside from the paperwork and datapads scattered across the workspace.
Garrus Vakarian's brow was knotted in deep concentration as he traced the contours of the barrel assembly, taking the time to carefully check for signs of damage or fatigue before moving on to the sear and hammer, ensuring the movement was smooth and free of obstruction.
With an almost mechanical efficiency he ran his eyes over each and every component of the weapon, each one as well known to him as parts of his own body. Each motion was tested and tested again. Every surface was probed and examined.
Although his small office was constantly filled with the murmur of outside conversations or the feral cries of those being brought into custody, it was the sound of approaching footsteps that finally gave Garrus pause.
Setting down the barrel assembly with an annoyed huff, he turned to find a young turian waiting patiently and obediently at the open door.
'What's the charge, officer?' Garrus asked.
Arlen blinked in surprise at the joke. 'Garrus Vakarian, Sir?' he asked nervously, bracing his body to attention in the narrow doorway and wincing slightly as his armoured elbows caught the sides, 'My name is Arlen Kryik. Executor Pallin told me to report to you.'
'Oh, right, the new kid,' Garrus said, his mood brightening instantly. He stood to shake Arlen's hand. 'They told me you were dropping by. I take it this is your first time out of the academy?'
'That's right,' replied Arlen, relieved to have someone finally speak to him like an adult, 'I never realised how little of the Citadel I'd actually seen until now. I like it so far though, definitely a lot more lively than Edessa.'
'I should have guessed,' Garrus grunted as he looked over Arlen's facial markings.
Like all turians who hailed from Edessa, Arlen sported a dark burgundy carapace etched with a symmetrical white pattern that framed every recess of his face. It was something to which all turians first looked when judging their fellows and Arlen was not surprised to see Garrus do the same.
'Well, you should fit in a little better here than in the military,’ Garrus went on, ‘C-Sec takes all kinds. When I was in your shoes the guys in boot camp didn't care too much for colonials.'
'They still don't,' Arlen answered regretfully, 'but they're a little less vocal about it than they used to be, or so I’m told.'
'Even so, I bet Pallin gave you a hard time,' Garrus said with a small grin.
Chuckling, Arlen relaxed, leaning against the frame of the door. 'Yeah, he was a little patronising about my age and all but hey, it's no worse than I got in the C-Sec academy and even that place was a vacation next to boot camp.'
'I remember my academy days,' Garrus laughed, 'Barely. I lost count of the number of push-ups they made me do for arguing with the instructors. Hell, I should've been kicked out for some of the stunts I used to pull. Is that old bastard Ashler still there?'
Arlen nodded and Garrus smiled at distant memories.
'For a human he wasn't half bad, could take the hump off a krogan at a thousand paces.'
Shaking his head, Garrus cleared his throat and invited Arlen into the office with a subtle motion.
Arlen took a few steps before realising there was no seat and after a moment of looking around in puzzlement, he perched on the edge of a low table set against the wall of the office, pausing guiltily at the rustle of paper from beneath his backside.
'Don't worry about that,' Garrus reassured him, 'I never keep the hard copies. They always seemed pointless when we do everything over the extranet anyway. So,' he said, nodding to his pistol, 'what do you know about the Striker II, Arlen?'
'It's an ERCS manufactured sidearm,' Arlen stated flatly, 'Standard self-powered miniature mass drive, cyclic rate of over thirteen-hundred.'
'Well quoted. You ever used one before?'
'No, but it's almost identical to the Kessler, right?'
'Almost, but the difference is in the stopping power,' Garrus replied, 'The Striker packs a nice punch but that extra kick means it'll feel totally different to what you're used to. It'll be your standard issue and you'll need some time in the ranges to appreciate the difference.'
Garrus' enthusiasm for firearms clearly gave his words energy, though Arlen did not understand why. They were just tools to him, nothing more, nothing less.
‘You really know your guns,’ he said, ‘I feel a little inadequate now, having only handled the basics.’
Garrus grunted. ‘Pallin always said if I was as thorough with my investigations as my weapons training, I'd have made captain by now. He probably has a point.’ He fell silent, his eyes turning to the disassembled pistol on his desk. 'Come to think of it,' he said, his mood growing serious, 'How about a little game? Put my weapon back together. I want to see for myself if you know what you're doing.'
He slid from his chair and allowed Arlen to sit while he folded his arms, watching eagerly. A hush seemed to fall over the small room as Arlen's eyes quickly scanned over the components and he began his work.
Seconds passed and Garrus nodded with silent approval at the sequence of metallic taps as the pieces slotted together, his mandibles twitching with satisfaction as he heard the slide fall into position with barely a whisper.
'There,' Arlen announced, holding the intact pistol up to his eyes in a two handed grip, feeling the bulk of it in his palms. Garrus was right, he found. The Striker was much heftier than the Kessler and it felt odd having to compensate for the extra weight.
'All right,' said Garrus, his voice a sudden bark of authority, 'Now make it ready.'
'What?' Arlen responded in disbelief.
Garrus spoke again, his tone growing hard, 'Make the weapon ready and point it at me, Arlen.'
Arlen frowned but his instinct to follow orders compelled him to press the small button on the right side of the weapon. He felt the pistol vibrate softly as it readied a round to be fired and sensed a distinct warmth beneath his fingers as the mass accelerator began to cycle.
'Point the weapon at me,' Garrus repeated, his mandibles shifting as Arlen brought the pistol to bear, 'Now pull the trigger.'
'What? Are you insane?' Arlen cried in desperation.
Garrus simply stared into the barrel of the pistol, his expression unreadable. 'Fire the weapon,' he repeated, 'That's an order.'
His horror mounting, Arlen shook his head and tried to lower the pistol but his superior's cold gaze held it in place. He couldn't believe Garrus truly wanted him to fire but somewhere within the young turian an instinct took hold and processed the order in spite of his dismay.
He felt it as an itch, one that became unbearable as the seconds ticked away until it overwhelmed him.
Harkin’s words came to mind, his warning that Garrus may have been unstable and Arlen cursed himself for dismissing it so readily.
The moment seemed to hang in the air for an eternity before Arlen's finger finally curled around the trigger and squeezed. As he drew it back, he could only close his eyes in sheer despair as he awaited the shot.
Arlen's eyes snapped open. There was not so much as a whimper from the pistol.
Slowly, he tilted it to one side and observed the blue light indicating a round in the chamber. He could only stare in utter confusion as Garrus grinned and took the Striker from his shaking grip.
'It won't fire without this,' he said smugly as he held up a tiny piece of blue circuitry, 'The ZEI filter,' he explained, 'Without it the mass accelerator won't function properly and all you're left with is a useless piece of metal the size of a grain of sand rattling inside the chamber.'
Feeling somewhat humiliated, Arlen grudgingly relinquished the weapon and sank into the seat behind him.
Garrus chuckled and clasped a hand over the shoulder of his armour. 'That was lesson number one. In this galaxy, even people you trust can turn on you in the blink of an eye. Never accept anything at face value, because out there you'll see scum who’d hand over their own mothers to batarian slavers, just to make a quick credit. Use your instincts and never leave anything to chance, understood?'
'It would have been simpler to just tell me,' Arlen complained angrily. He could not see the value in Garrus' blunt deception and it was not something that would have been tolerated in either the military or the C-sec academy.
'And miss that look on your face?' Garrus retorted with a wide smile, 'Come on, we've got a briefing to get to and then we'll get you a pistol of your own down in the armoury. You'll need it too; something tells me we've got a busy day ahead of us.'
Still unnerved by Garrus' ruse, Arlen stood and followed his new mentor out of the office and into the hectic atmosphere of the main hall, hoping that as the day wore on he would not embarrass himself any further.