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Salvaging from Strife (Chapter Cover Art)

Salvaging from Strife[]

Chapter 14 - Moving On[]

Part 1[]

ComStar Embasst Citidal Station
Widow Star System

"Congratulations are in order, I think," Precentor-Citadel Udina greeted Precentor Kamea Shephard when he spotted her entering the ComStar embassy. She halted to converse with him, dismissing her followers with a quick gesture. Adept Williams looks like she's fitting in with the rest. "I just received a memo from the Citadel Council. The aliens won't be questioning you any further?"

"Not anymore, Precentor Citadel," Shephard replied. "No doubt they have shadows watching my moves for now, but they've accepted the futility of further sessions."

"Well, I hope that bodes well for future negotiations with the Citadel. The sooner Tartarus Relay traffic returns to normal, the better." The statement came from the well-groomed traveller behind Udina, clad in ComStar robes.

"Ah, forgive me, this is Demi-Precentor Mercutio, the latest courier from Terra," Precentor Udina introduced. "He was just telling me about the departure of the Coromodir Expedition from Tartarus to the Capellan Relay." Not that anybody could miss the news coverage, but a first-hand account of the aliens' display of power can be quite illuminating.

"It's the first thing the emergency Star League council on Mars agreed upon. A formality to be sure, given the Great Houses had already agreed on the terms beforehand, but still an auspicious start."

"You would know better than I," Shephard politely accepted. "Is there a chance the emergency council could end the war as well?"

"No," the courier admitted. "The Great Houses only sent ambassadors, none of their blood. I fear the Steiner-Davions will not reconcile, and the other members will be jackals, biting at their realm. The Citadel does not scare them anymore, so long as the faithful guard the gates. Still, the Primus must make the attempt."

"Maybe the threat of batarians conquering their Relay colonies will persuade them, if the Coromodir Expedition and other provocations from the Citadel won't," Precentor Udina suggested. It's the one of the few things the other ambassadors still agree on, at least.

"A batarian incursion into the Inner Sphere will draw their attention for sure," Shephard wryly noted.

"Blake's Beard," Precentor Udina exclaimed, "let us pray it doesn't come to that. The Citadel might grant the batarians exclusive rights to the Skyllian Verge if the Star League proves itself that weak. I would rather talk of happier matters for the moment. How is Adept Williams, Precentor Shephard?"

"She has been very eager to learn what I can teach her. A little overzealous, but none of us are perfect."

"Her siblings on Terra will be pleased to hear that," Demi-Precentor Mercutio noted. "I'll be sure to pass that along when I return. In any case, I must retire to my quarters for now. I have an early flight to Elysium tomorrow."

"We had best be moving as well, Precentor Shephard," Precentor Udina told her. "There are things that should best be discussed in my office." Like chasing down contacts of our still missing Spectre.

Part 2[]

Some time later…

The music was loud, the tables were packed, the mood was high, the kitchens stocked food she could actually put into her suit. Tali nodded attentively as the still wheelchair-bound Chief Engineer Virtanen finished another incomprehensible anecdote to raucous laughter and shouts from the listening crowd.

The mercenaries had a good reason to celebrate. The contract with C-Sec was comfortable and safe, a good omen for the future after the low point of Feros. Now payday had arrived, and the Commander Shephard had decided to sponsor a large celebration for the occasion. He hadn't skimped on the money either, choosing a fancy Presidium establishment for the venue.

SSmithon squeezed in beside her, triumphantly holding up a canister in one hand and a mug in the other. "Hey, I got the flavour concentrate from the kitchens you wanted. Can't believe they wouldn't give it to you. It's all on the Commander's tab anyway, what do they have to worry about." She took a hearty swig from the mug, filling Tali with a pang of jealousy. Her suit couldn't do that.

"Thanks," Tali said, taking the canister from the human engineer. The concentrate would garnish her meals for several weeks. "You didn't have to do that."

"Hey, us exiles have to stick together, eh Tali?" Smithon grinned.

"You're exiled?"

"Eh, not really." Smithon face turned pensive. "But I'm never returning home again. The pay's fantastic, all the good stuff is here, and it's too expensive to return to the Aurigan Reach." She raised an eyebrow at Tali. "What about you? I never learnt why you left your folks. You don't have to answer, I'm just curious."

"I'm on a Pilgrimage," Tali reluctantly explained. "Every young quarian has to leave the Migrant Fleet when they come of age. We explore the galaxy, and return with a gift for the fleet."

Smithon's face fell. "You're leaving?"

"Not so soon!" the Quarian hastily continued. "Every one of us chooses how long we stay on our Pilgrimage. Some travel only a month, others years. But yes," she admitted, "I won't be staying forever. I told the Lady Arano, and Chief Engineer Virtanen as well."

The others nearby briefly fell silent. Some of them looked towards the Chief Engineer, who nodded. "Miss Zorah is only with us for a limited contract, yes. She has the option of extending the deadline if she wishes of course, but that issue won't come up yet." A wry smile crossed his face. "Some of you are planning to retire or move on at some point as well, so there's no need to single her out."

"Yeah, well," Badger, a lanky male with very definite opinions on salarian historical dramas, griped, "going to be hard to replace Bashtech's skill with Citadel tech."

"The Star Hunters existed before Miss Zorah arrived," Chief Engineer Virtanen reminded him. "It would be a shame when you leave, Miss Zorah, but we'll manage. Losing people is part of our work." The table turned somber.

"I see." Uncomfortable with the sudden mood swing, Tali tried to change the topic. "So, um, what do you guys think about the Coromodir Expedition?"br>

Smithon snorted. "I don't see why the Council is making such a big deal out of it. They've already sent convoys to the two capitals of the Federated Commonwealth to evacuate their embassy and civilians from the enclaves. And New Avalon and Tharkad are just as far away from Tartarus Relay as Coromodir is from the Capellan Relay."

"It's politics," somebody to Tali's left opined. "the aliens are sending a message to the Star League."

"Don't be a fool," Badger countered, "it's logistics. Tharkad and New Avalon are core worlds. Those evacuation convoys are travelling through the Inner Sphere with Star League escorts and plenty of resupply options along the way. The Coromodir Expedition is going into the Periphery, where just about no aliens have travelled to. I mean, what's there for them? There's little chance the systems on the way will be able to provide food and everything else to them, especially the turians, who can't eat human food. I don't think there's even a single turian on Coromodir or thirty light years around, and I bet ComStar isn't being too helpful either."

"The aliens are making a big deal out of the evac trips too, guys," another person interjected. "You just aren't watching the proper reporters." The rest of his words were drowned out as others began talking as well, the topic splintering into multiple conversation threads.

"Hey, your quarian fleet is pretty huge too, right?" Smithon asked Tali. "Life support, maintenance must be pretty self-sufficient to keep such a large bunch of ships working. So you aliens must have figured out the logistical problems, or you'll be extinct." The human's face made a very expressive wince. "Ah, sorry, shouldn't have mentioned that."

"I'm used to it." Ever since their geth creations had nearly destroyed the quarian race and reduced the survivors to travelling across the galaxy as a Migrant Fleet three centuries ago, it was a fact every quarian needed to accept and remember. "It's part of the reason for the Pilgrimage. When we return from our Pilgrimages, the gifts we bring back help keep our people alive."

Smithon took another gulp from her mug. "Weird way to do things," she commented. "But if it works, it works. At least you have somewhere to return to. Now, why don't you tell me what counts as a good gift." She leaned back into her seat. "If every other quarian is half as good as you, I want to know how to entice you pilgrims to sign up."

Part 3[]

Citidal Station

"Your people seem to be enjoying themselves, Shephard," Officer Vakarian noted, observing the mercenaries. He looked towards Monty and added, "I hope they won't cause a mess later."

"The officers will keep them in line," Monty assured him. He was sitting in his own small booth with the C-Sec officer and Lady Sumire Arano rather than with the rest of the Star Hunters. The large holoscreen on the farther side of the hall finished it's update on the Coromodir Expedition, beginning a new segment on Solaris Mech gladiator fights. Loud cheers echoed from the mercenaries and other occupants of the establishment as recorded footage played. "Probably."

"They will be held to a higher standard than an average civilian, Commander," the turian warned. "C-Sec has a reputation to uphold."

"C-Sec has been satisfied with their performance, I believe." Sumire spoke up. "Or are there issues I am unaware of?" Monty shook his head. The Star Hunters were mostly involved with the BattleMech department, which had several ex-mercenaries who knew their trade. With the liaison helping to smooth over any friction, the contract had been quite smooth so far.

"I've heard no noteworthy complaints from the rest of C-Sec." Officer Vakarian divulged. "Aside from the fact that C-Sec is now working with a group of Terminus mercenaries being led by the Commander Shephard." He looked between the two humans. "A lot of officers aren't taking it very well. I trust they will act professionally, but you should avoid giving them any excuses."

"Point taken," Monty conceded. "but that doesn't mean I'm forbidding my people from having a good time. They need it." He took a bite from his plate, enjoying the taste in his mouth.

"I take it that C-Sec is not planning to hire more mercenaries anytime soon?" Sumire asked.

"No," Officer Vakarian confirmed, "hiring the Star Hunters was very unusual. Once your contract is done, I will return to my old position, I hope. What would the two of you be doing?"

"I'll be staying on the Citadel," Sumire answered first. "With the current state of the Star League, it is vital for me to keep an eye on the politics here and represent the Aurigan Coalition. As a minor Periphery realm, we need to find allies in the Relay Systems." She was watching the turian intently now, gauging his receptiveness. Monty gritted his teeth. He could guess what Officer Vakarian would say.

"I'm not Harkin, Lady Arano." The C-Sec officer coldly replied.

"That was not what I meant, Officer Vakarian" Sumire denied. "The Relay Systems are filled with people like Harkin, preying on others. Those like you who stand up to such injustice are hard to find. The Aurigans are insignificant compared to the great powers, and there are few who would aid us if we are threatened."

"So you are looking for 'friends' to help you," Officer Vakarian snapped. "I suppose that is why you are friends with Commander Shephard?"

"Lady Arano and I are allies," Monty interjected before the argument could grow more heated. "We share common interests and work together. I know what she is trying to say, even if her choice of words was terrible." Sumire glowered at him. "Lady Arano's not asking you to break C-Sec regulations. She just wants assistance if somebody tries to harm the Aurigans on the Citadel, like how you assisted Matron Helena. With all the recent troubles, that might be very likely. If my word counts for anything, I can vouch for her character."

"This was supposed to be a quiet evening where we got to know each other better," Officer Vakarian lamented. "Protecting people is part of my job, you know." He shook his head. "I won't promise anything, only that I take my duty seriously."

Monty nodded. "Fair enough." He shot a warning glance towards Sumire, but she appeared satisfied, sipping at her drink.

"If we're going to ask each other things like that, I'd like to know something, Shephard." Garrus leaned forwards and stared him in the eyes. "You were in the spotlight when the Feros Scandal started, and I dug around a bit after we met, did some research of my own. There was quite a lot of information on you, even if most of it was poor or probably inaccurate. So tell me, what happened on Torfan?"

Monty frowned. "Is this an interrogation?"

"If you prefer to think of it that way. You were called the 'Butcher of Torfan'. That sort of name isn't given lightly. I'd put some pieces together, and your MRB track record was acceptable enough to gamble on working with you, but I'm still missing your side of the story."

Monty closed his eyes, images of the moon flashing through the darkness. "I don't like to talk about Torfan. It was bad."

"I can believe that. But I'd still like to hear your account of what happened on that moon."

Monty thought, then groaned, "I'm not even sure where to start."

"Start from when you landed," Garrus suggested.

"That wouldn't make any sense." Monty said. He opened his eyes again, attention briefly drawn to the Solaris footage on the holoscreen. Looking at Sumire, still and quiet, he began, "I was a young Mechwarrior serving House Arano, following in the footsteps of my family. My parents and grandparents were mercenaries with close ties to them. At that time, the Aurigan Reach had no Element Zero."

"None?" Garrus asked.

Sumire shook her head. "Some Element Zero had reached the Aurigan Coalition by then, but not much. Except for some traders from outside, nobody in the Reach had Element Zero dropships. My grandmother, High Lady Arano, knew the Coalition needed Element Zero, but obtaining Element Zero is difficult even today. Aside from ComStar's tithe at Tartarus, it is in high demand across the Inner Sphere, so little made it to us."

"So the Coalition was looking for ways to get more Eezo," Monty continued. "There were preparations beforehand, but I was too junior to know the details." Planning must have taken months or years, and he suspected ComStar played a role. "All I know is when news reached the Aurigan Reach of the Second Skyllian Inferno, High Lady Arano decided to join in, and take some Element Zero as spoils of war."

He paused, putting his thoughts together. "The Aurigan Coalition wasn't strong enough alone. We couldn't spare the forces. So High Lady Arano recruited. Independent planets, mercenaries, pirates, from as far away as Tortuga somehow. Everybody who was a thorn in the Coalition's side. They all knew how vital Element Zero was, didn't want to be left out. The deal was, House Arano would fund and lead the expedition, and everyone would combine forces to capture some Element Zero."

Officer Vakarian's face was blank. Sumire looked uncomfortable. "It was the only way," she defended. "Our people needed the Element Zero." And sending the troublemakers on the expedition cleaned up the Aurigan Reach quite cheaply, Monty knew.

"Like I said, I was too junior at the time to know more than the basics. We journeyed to the Tartarus Relay, with a crash course on the Relay Systems along the way. By the time we arrived, Torfan was chosen as the destination." It had been a good choice. The Star League, or rather ComStar, would not have tolerated them plundering human colonies, and the batarian colonies were considered too dangerous for them. An isolated moon, pirate hideouts filled with loot from a thousand raids and defended by disorganized rabble, was far better in comparison.

"ComStar sent some warships to assist us. It was the only way we even made it to the ground." The two frigates were enough to contest the space around the moon and keep the pirates from destroying the Aurigan forces from orbit, but ComStar hadn't spared more, and refused to risk their precious Element Zero warships. In the end, that meant most of the pirates on the moon preferred taking their chances on the ground against what they considered backwater primitives, rather than trying to break the blockade.

"None of us had Eezo. The aliens did. So, a lot of people died. Dropships didn't stand a chance against their AA (Anti-Air), we had to travel on the ground and fight our way to each pirate base. We were scattered by enemy air strikes, and command and coordination broke down quickly. I was left in command of a mixed force at some point. Others formed their own bands, some hostile to us for various reasons." Some of the more treacherous members had joined the enemies instead, seeing a better opportunity. "The fighting took months, and not just against the aliens."

"I remember, the first intact ship we captured, some of the expedition tried to leave. They had enough, and claimed the ship with its crew as their share of the loot. Their leader offered me a ride off-planet, and a part of the plunder. I was young, and patriotic. I couldn't allow that, or the tenuous alliance holding everyone together would collapse. When they tried taking off, I destroyed them. Then I scuttled the vessel and told the rest we were all staying on Torfan to the bitter end, that we would take all the Element Zero on the world or die trying. I think that was the first time somebody called me a butcher."

"He was effective." Sumire added. "My uncle was in command on Torfan, and he told me stories about the campaign. Monty was in quite a few of them."

"I kept my word," Shephard continued, "and I made sure everybody else did as well. When all was said and done, most of the expedition was destroyed, but we had recovered a wealth of equipment and Element Zero. Some footage made it offworld, while the survivors spread stories, and so I became known as the Butcher. Some of my former allies became pirates, replacing, or joining those they had defeated. The Aurigan Coalition took its share and established the Aurigan Trading Company. I went mercenary with my prize money, alongside some other like-minded comrades. That's what happened on Torfan."

Montgomery fell silent. The music continued, sounds from his mercenaries drifted over. "You're satisfied?" He asked Officer Vakarian.

The turian slowly nodded. "I've heard enough. Thank you for telling me. I know it was hard." He turned his head towards Sumire, then back to Shephard. "A turian is expected to act for the good of the many and do what needs to be done. I suppose you think you did what you had to."

"The Aurigan Trading Company is the sole source of Element Zero for the Aurigan Coalition. It was necessary, and I don't regret helping that."

"And now you're a mercenary."

"Yes," Monty shrugged. "It pays well, and I like to think I'm doing my part for the Reach by working with the Aurigan Trading Company. I do have family there."

"I would think there are better choices than being a mercenary, but it is what humans are known for." Vakarian shook his head disapprovingly. "I suppose you'll be chasing Saren?"

Monty laughed bitterly. "Saren's far out of my reach now. I won't have a chance. No, I can't waste time trying. As much as I hate him, employers double cross mercenaries all the time. My time will be far better spent rebuilding the Star Hunters. The Skyllian Verge would be a good place for that. The MRB already has several contracts lined up for us there, once we are finished with the C-Sec contract and the Citadel decides we are free to go."

"It shouldn't be too long now," Sumire supplemented. "The Star Hunters are no longer the focus of any investigation, nor are they key witnesses. It's frankly only Saren's influence and the red tape that's keeping them stuck here." Monty took another bite from his plate during the lull in the conversation, Officer Vakarian griping about his own experiences with bureaucracy.

Dimly, he became aware of a change in atmosphere. The racket from the mercenaries and other customers was dying down suddenly. He looked towards his people, to see them turning one by one towards the holoscreen. Directing his own eyes towards the giant screen, he saw the Solaris broadcast had been replaced by a shaky 2D image. It was a familiar skyline, one he recognised even after a decade, and it was burning. He did not need to read the words flashing by below to identify Cordia City, Capital of the Aurigan Coalition.

Somebody cut off the music completely. The audio was distorted, covered by static. Even so, there was no mistaking the voice of High Lady Arano, not for someone who had grown up under her in the Aurigan Reach.

<<"The city is lost. Continue with the evacuation, save as many as you can. My unit is closest, I shall do what I can.">>

The view shifted, looking down towards a half-molten BattleMech. The camera was mounted on a BattleMech as well, Shephard realized.

Another voice replied. <<"High Lady, it is too dangerous for you. You must withdraw.">>

<<"I will not abandon my people, Captain." The voice of the legendary Sword of Restoration was still strong and clear despite her old age. "My Atlas is still fully operational, unlike your BattleMech. I will take point. Killing Saren won't end this madness, but it must be done.">>

The image shifted again, now bouncing up and down as the camera moved rapidly down a major road. Shephard found himself pushing into the crowd gathering before the holoscreen, straining to discern anything from under the crackling and hissing sounds of the poor audio.

<<"…the HPG compound for as long as possible," High Lady Arano commanded in response to an indecipherable transmission. "The other systems must be warned." The image quality briefly degraded and shuddered. The camera spun sideways as the Atlas continued moving through the outskirts of Cordia city, catching a glimpse of an alien organic-looking BattleMech emerging from an intersection. The image turned white briefly as the sound of heavy weapons fire filled the room, before dimming again to reveal the strange BattleMech collapsing into a crumbling building. Two smaller, yet similar BattleMechs appeared and were dispatched just as rapidly by the still advancing Atlas. The camera looked down towards their broken forms as it passed them.>>


Atlas Assault 'Mech

<<"Keelah, those are Geth…" Miss Zorah, the quarian, exclaimed. Murmers broke out among the watchers.

<<"…arriving at Saren's … known position.">> Silence descended once again as the Atlas stepped towards the wreckage of a lance of small Mechs. The camera panned rapidly around, too fast for Shephard to pick up the details. <<"Continuing to pursue.">>

The image quality waned and recovered, but Shephard could see the Atlas was running at full speed. More Geth BattleMechs appeared, but fell before the assault Mech's firepower. High Lady Arano talked with her Royal Guard captain, but nothing understandable reached Shephard. The view was changing now, leaving the built-up areas of Cordia City towards the lower outskirts.

<<"…Saren…be close…">>

<<"High Lady, watch out! The warship-" The screen lit up with a bright light, and sound cut out entirely. When it dimmed again, the Atlas was looking towards a massive crater in the ground, ejecta still plummeting downwards. It turned sideways and upwards. There was something on the horizon, Shephard realised with a start. He had dismissed it as a new skyscraper, but the tall, dark squid-like structure was clearly moving like a living creature, something resembling a tentacle raised and pointed towards the camera.>>

<<The tip of the tentacle glowed brightly, and the image cut out, replaced with a filler image of the network.>>

"Kerensky preserve us," somebody whispered in the hushed silence. "The Black Ghost of Shengsi."

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