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Salvaging from Strife (Chapter Cover Art)

Salvaging from Strife
Chapter 5

Lady Arano's visit to the Citadel[]

Citadel Space Station
Widow Star System

Private citizens were generally not permitted to carry military weaponry on the Citadel, not even licensed mercenaries. The rules were tightened further in the aftermath of the Presidium Riots. Even so, Lady Arano's bodyguard detail openly carried loaded rifles, both ballistic and energy, as they escorted her through the alien structure. If certain members of the Star Hunters wanted dead by Saren happened to be protected as well, the C-Sec officers surrounding them did not protest.

Sumire had only been in the Capital of the Galaxy twice, but she was in little mood to admire the sights. As much as the MRB and ComStar had guaranteed her safe conduct in the lion's maw, she had few allies here. Nobody was likely to raise a hand for a minor Periphery noble if she ran into trouble, and Saren was likely plotting their deaths before the MRB inquiry could begin. Her only true protection was the diplomatic fallout, minimal as it might be, from dying to anything other than a most natural seeming accident.

Up ahead, the sanctuary of the MRB Office was blocked between a C-Sec cordon and white-uniformed ComGuard squad. As Lady Arano's entourage approached, a recognisable figure in Precentor robes emerged from the office entrance and strode openly to greet them.

Citadel Space Station

The massive Citadel Space Station, capital of the Citadel Space

"My Lady Arano, I am most relieved to see you here unharmed," the Precentor of the Citadel announced, "please, come in. You shall be most safe in here." He gestured magnanimously to let the humans through, disgruntled C-Sec officers left outside.

"I was not expecting your assistance, Precentor Udina," Lady Arano admitted warily, once she was seated with the man and Commander Shephard in an opulent office. She had expected the MRB representative at most.

"Nonsense, it is ComStar's mission to serve all of humanity, regardless of origin or station. The Blessed Founder would be disappointed in me if I did not aid you to the best of my abilities." The smile on his face appeared genuine, if a tad stressed.

"I, no, House Arano thanks you for your assistance. But all we seek is for Saren's crimes to be recognized, and restitution for his victims." Left unsaid was a request for protection against retribution. The mercenaries and House Arano enjoyed a close affiliation. The Aurigan commander enjoyed a stable source of supplies and recruits, while having a successful mercenary company as a customer did wonders for business. If the Star Hunters fell, the Aurigan Trading Company would lose a major source of influence and protection, likely crippling operations in the Terminus Systems. And if the Spectre bore a grudge against the Trading Company as well? A foe as influential as Saren could easily destroy them from the shadows.

"I admire your humility, Lady Arano and Commander Shephard." The Precentor dropped his smile. "But even those goals will be difficult to accomplish. Understand me, please," he held up a hand forestalling Shephard's nascent protest, "the MRB and ComStar do not doubt the truth of your claims. News of Feros is spreading across the relay colonies, and certainly reached Terra as well. The Star Hunter's sacrifice revealed Saren's treachery, and the Star League Archaeological Mission could not stand by when provoked so brazenly."

A somewhat positive spin on events. The Spectre never attacked SLAG. When Calypso's warning had reached SLAG, Brigadier Westergaard, in a fit of Taurian paranoia, had evacuated and scuttled the research center Saren desired. The Dawn Cormorant had relieved the surrounded survivors of Commander Shephard's company alongside volunteers from the garrison, Lady Arano herself in House Arano's ancestral Kintaro following the Brigadier's Marauder into battle.

Marauder (MWO Davion Guard - Bad weather)

Marauder Heavy 'Mech

Few of Saren's minions had survived the slaughter, Saren himself unfortunately escaping into the ruins of Feros. It was hardly surprising that the comm buoys in the system failed almost immediately upon Saren's betrayal, or that a turian fleet had 'quarantined' the planet on the Spectre's advice, but the HPG station in SLAG was able to contact a nearby colony to request reinforcements and pass on news to the rest of the relay systems.

"The issue lies with the aliens, Commander Shephard," Precentor Udina continued. "Saren is a hero to them. The aliens prefer the whole matter blamed on you and hushed up, all the way up to the Citadel Council itself. Such a gross miscarriage of justice is against the principles of our Order. That is why I am offering my support."

"That's not the only reason, is it, Precentor?" Shephard asked with narrowed eyes.

Lady Arano intervened quickly. "Please forgive his outburst. It has been a harrowing ordeal for everyone on Feros. We will not turn down your help, Precentor Udina. Saren has too many allies for us to deal with alone."

"Your friend has my condolences, Lady Arano." Precentor Udina frowned at the commander, "but rest assured, Commander Shephard, we have our own grievances with Arterius' conduct on Feros. The noble fallen of the ComGuards should have been treated respectfully, at the very least their locations passed on to us. Instead, the Spectre has desecrated their remains, and demolished their last resting places out of spite. ComStar will see justice done. The Blessed Blake would suggest mutual cooperation, when our interests are so closely aligned."

The two men matched tense stares, with Sumire feeling stuck between them. Shephard forced out, "I want Saren dead or disgraced, by my hands if no one else dares."

"Of course, Commander," Precentor Udina promised with a smile, relaxing back in his seat, "of course. Now, shall we start by going over the evidence?"

Discussions with the Citadel Council[]

Widow Star System

"Interrogate the researchers and recover their database." "…Your dropships and sellswords for one raid, right now, no questions asked. There will be no evidence or MRB records, nobody will know you were there." Saren's voice echoed from speakers around the chamber, before Precentor Udina paused the recordings and drew attention to himself once more with a flourish of his robes.

"Saren is guilty, Councillors," Udina repeated once more, "guilty of violating the Treaty of Shensi, of conspiring against the Star League, of killing Star League citizens on Star League soil. That he did not destroy the Star League Archaeological Mission is merely thanks to the honor and valor of the Star Hunters, who risked everything to stop him!"

There was a large crowd today, with dozens of reporters and cameras capturing the occasion. It was almost unheard of for the actions of a Spectre to be openly questioned, such was the trust the aliens placed in their special operatives.

"Ambassador Udina," Councillor Tevos interrupted in a flat tone, "spare the Council the theatrics. This Council session was supposed to shed light on the recent Feros incident and resolve critical diplomatic issues resulting from said incident, not focus on the conduct of a Spectre."

"The Spectre is the very reason the Feros Incident happened. Star League citizens were harmed, killed by his plots. He must be dealt with, or there can be no acceptable resolution for the Star League."

"The actions of one Spectre on one planet," the turian councilor did not bother hiding his frustration in either posture or voice, "hardly justify expulsion of Citadel peacekeepers from the Skyllian Verge by Star League militaries, or the new ComStar blacklist."

Of course it does not. "Of course it does," Udina scoffed. "That Spectre was willing to destroy a Star League base just to get what he wanted, tried to use a Citadel fleet to cover his crimes. If that is the sort of conduct the Citadel condones, then the Star League cannot trust the judgement of the Citadel." Now throw them a bone. "ComStar, and humanity, is not unfamiliar with black sheep staining a noble cause. The Citadel has lofty ideals, ideals Blessed Blake would approve of, and we would mourn the loss of like-minded brethren dedicated to the future, should Saren represent the true face of the Citadel. But there must be justice for Feros, whether with or without the Council."

"And what is the opinion of the other human ambassadors? Where are they?" Valern asked rhetorically.

"They are in full agreement with me, that Saren is an enemy to mankind." Or rather, he is a good excuse to seize control from the aliens. And so long as the aliens are the enemy, the Great Houses will have a safe outlet for their ambitions outside the Inner Sphere. "The ambassadors of the Great Houses are looking to the safety of their people in the relay network, and have entrusted me to represent the Inner Sphere on their behalf." And the other ambassadors are watching from somewhere safe, not that you even care. Oh, Blake keep me sane, is that the Clan spokesman on the left? Please don't make a scene.

Donnel Udina gestured towards the gallery packed with influential personages. "There is one other ambassador of the Star League here with me, Lady Sumire Arano of the Aurigan Coalition. She was on Feros." Bewildered mutters fluttered through the crowd as the Lady stepped out into the central court, followed closely by the Mechwarrior Shephard. Scattered through the public crowd, cheers rang out from agitators planted among them. Good, make her seem important, heroic, not just some nameless minor noble from the Periphery.

"Noble Councillors, I was on Feros when Saren betrayed all the Citadel and its people have stood for," the young noble announced, looking at each Councilor in the eye. Good, just follow the script, and you will get your reward. "I saw firsthand the evidence of his actions."

"I trust Spectre Arterius' methods had a reason. Spectres do not conduct operations on a whim," Valern capitulated reluctantly to the change in topic.

And now for the next act, the Quarian had better be ready. "I cannot claim to speak for the turian, but based on what ComStar knows-"

"You know nothing." A harsh voice cut into his words. "I will speak for myself."

The Spectre strode into the chambers in the wake of deathly silence. He stepped up beside Precentor Udina and bowed to the Council.

Sparatus broke the quiet. "Saren. I was not expecting you here."

"My presence was required here rather than in the field, Councillors." Murmurs whispered through the onlookers. Lady Arano was gripping Commander Shephard's wrist with a deathly grip, while the mercenary trembled with barely restrained fury. Do not cause a scene, either of you.

"Saren Arterius. You stand accused of crimes against the Star League. What do you have to say?" Tevos asked. They look relieved, by Terra. The super spy saves the day again.

"Everything I did was for the good of the Council."

"Then the accusations from ComStar?" Valern inquired, his salarian face calm and expressionless as ever. Go ahead, deny them. Then we'll have you.

"I did order Richard Jenkins' death." The watchers quieted down when Sparatus raised his hand.

"Your service to the Council has been exemplary. I just ask, why?"

"Operational security for my investigation." the turian laconically replied.

"What investigation could possibly be worth the wrath of the Star League," Precentor Udina demanded furiously. What does he know?

"An investigation, Councilors, of a major Treaty violation," Saren paused dramatically, before dropping the bombshell, "by ComStar."

Descending into Trouble[]

Widow Star System

"The evidence is damning." Sparatus confessed, slumping down in his seat. He was no expert on intelligence analysis, but the pieces matched up too neatly. Specialists would go over them later, but the councilors needed to come a decision quickly before they left the private chambers again.

"Saren is correct. The Feros Incident was ComStar's fault." What was ComStar thinking, he wondered. Designing and testing a bioweapon on an entire world, then nuking everybody else and leaving the victims for a long-term study while pinning the blame on their renegade splinter faction? Why?

Contrary to popular movies and shows, the life of a Spectre or Councilor was rarely that exciting. As a rule, galactic conspiracies plotting to topple civilization were perhaps disturbingly common, but none ever got past the initial hurdles. In general, "find suspicious activity, find suspicious evidence, find suspicious people, kill or arrest said suspicious people" was the typical path a Spectre investigation took, with far less violence and melodrama than the stories portrayed.

Saren, of course, did not follow the rules. He had just spun an epic of dark schemes and lies, megalomaniac ambitions, villainous cover-ups and dramatic revelations. Ambassador Udina's protestations of innocence were dismissed out of hand. Just about everybody in the Council Chambers had agreed to a brief recess, overwhelmed by the new information. The extranet was already exploding with videos and analysis of his testimony. The accusations against ComStar were the talk of every channel, blotting out even war coverage of the Human Sphere.

"I have to agree," Tevos reluctantly confirmed. "Saren could not risk alerting the humans of his investigation. As it is, further evidence would be impossible to find now that they can begin destroying any incriminating data."

"We hardly need more." Sparatus pointed out morosely, staring at the files Saren had provided. "There is enough here to declare the Treaty of Shensi null and void. Matriarch Benezia's commando Shiala deserves a posthumous award for her work salvaging the human databanks." He grimly recalled recent discussions with contacts in the turian military. "The Hierarchy will be activating contingency plans for a hostile Star League already." Projections had varied between grim and optimistic for a galactic war, depending on far too many factors.

"The turians must not discard the Treaty of Shensi. We need more time and information," Valern disagreed.

"STG failed to discover this. What else have we been blind to? How many other Word of Blake attacks were cover for ComStar's actions? The humans have clearly not been acting in good faith. The Citadel races must be prepared."

"There is still a chance to keep the Treaty of Shensi." Tevos argued. "The remainder of the Star League can still be members, and ComStar can be reformed under sufficient outside pressure."

The Council VI activated. "Incoming priority transmission from Precentor Donnel Udina, Ambassador, ComStar Embassy."

"Accept the transmission," Tevos commanded, the Councillors quickly making themselves presentable. A hologram of the robed priest appeared before them.

"Udina," Valern spoke bluntly, "we have reviewed the information from Saren. He was very thorough. Old ComStar data logs, medical information, victim interrogation reports, original files from suit recorders. ComStar's violation of the Treaty of Shensi is undeniable."

"The Spectre, whether intentionally or not, was incorrect," the human hologram denied. "There was never any bioweapon project on Feros. I swear by Blake, ComStar was trying to stop the disaster on Feros, but we failed."

Undisguised sounds of disbelief bubbled out from three throats. "You still insist on your innocence?" Sparatus confirmed with contempt.

"Mistakes were made," the Precentor reluctantly admitted. "I have been in contact with ComStar Headquarters on Terra. ComStar confesses that we were conducting a secret research project on Feros, well within the bounds of the Treaty of Shensi. The Primus has agreed to declassify Project Pied Piper, and a former project member is available in Sol to provide testimony. She will be here in one Terran day with data to prove ComStar's innocence."

"And I suppose you want us to do nothing while we wait?" Sparatus questioned.

The human glared at him. "Your Spectre has destroyed the balance of power around the relay systems. How many do you think are watching your every move? How many will see a hostile invasion of the Inner Sphere with any step you take?"

It wasn't only altruistic, Sparatus knew. Time spent idle was time ComStar would use for damage control themselves, but the ambassador's questions were unfortunately quite valid. The three councilors nonverbally came to an agreement. "Very well," Tevos spoke for them all, "we shall extend you the benefit of the doubt for now. And the name of the witness?"

"Precentor Kamea Shephard."

A Lady's Journey through the Stars[]

There was little time for resting on this voyage. She once might have had days or weeks to prepare, the slow trip from planet to jumpship followed by days of waiting between jumps. With the new FTL dropships, a jumpship relay covering the 36 light-years from Sol to Tartarus and the mass relay network from Tartarus to the Citadel. Shephard and her staff had their hands full with preparations. Her mind flashed back to the beginning of her long career.

Her mentor laughed and ruffled her hair. "If that's what you want, I'll put in a good word for you with some of my friends. I'm sure ComStar will want someone like you."

Work had to pause for now, jumpship crew conducting final checks before leaving Sol. The delegation had been careful to remove all Element Zero before transferring from the FTL dropship onto the jumpship's eezoless Union, but the cautious captain was leaving nothing to chance.

A PSA broadcast echoed through the alien docks as she led her acolytes off the dropship. "Please remember: While traces of Element Zero may be harmlessly destroyed during a jump, larger quantities will always cause major damage or misjumps. For your own safety, no Element Zero or asari are permitted aboard a jumpship." The flow of people continued uninterrupted, pushing past each other to their own destinations.

Most of her staff were spending the waiting period praying or reflecting upon the Blessed Blake's teachings. A few were pursuing earthly distractions instead, content with their piety. She let them be. There would be little enough time for leisure on the Citadel, with so much resting upon their shoulders.

She sat drowsily in the back of the chapel, half-asleep after the exhausting drills. "The Great Houses destroyed the golden age of the Star League with their greed and ambition," the preacher droned on, "ComStar kept the beacon of civilization aflame on Terra as the Inner Sphere fell into darkness. It is our responsibility to guide humanity back into the light of a new era."

Quietly retiring to her own cramped quarters, she pulled out her dress uniform. It was a new one, custom fitted just a month ago for a cancelled function at the Hilton Head. Idly, her fingers trailed over the medals laid out before her.

"I am at the rally point, sir." Adept Shephard reported to the Precentor. "The others in my battalion should be here soon." Her Crab's one remaining arm tracked the Tukayyid hillsides for signs of the pursuing Clanners. The fog of war must be bad if the Precentor couldn't reach her Demi-Precentor commander.

The intercom crackled, the jumpship captain announcing the oncoming jump. Shephard sat down on her chair to wait. There was little time to prepare for the Citadel, but she could wait for the jump emergence before changing her clothes. A light smile ghosted across her grim face at a spontaneous memory of happier times.

"I'm really sorry," the young acolyte apologized before dry-heaving again. Her traitorous comrades laughed, apparently unaffected by the combination of jump-sickness and alcohol. Then a second mouth began retching.

"You are related to the mercenary Montgomery Shephard?" The turian Spectre asked.

The small gift from Omega was signed by the young Lady Arano, along with the usual platitudes. It was the only one.

"You know the answer, Spectre. You certainly didn't hire him by chance. He is my nephew, yes. But I have not seen him for years, and my service to Blake lies above my duty to family. I suppose you were disappointed when he knew nothing about Pied Piper." Her eyes stayed on the Spectre. Monty had not been permitted entry. ROM agents reported him aboard the Arano ship, following the hearing from afar.

"But you do know. Tell us about Project Pied Piper then, Shephard."

"If I may suggest, honored Primus," the Precentor said. Her eyes still scanning the reports from the Citadel, she elaborated, "We cannot be certain Saren Arterius is hiding additional information. The light of knowledge shall ward us better than shadows."

"Five years ago, ComStar doctors discovered a neural fungal infection spreading among Feros colonists. The infection appeared benign, with only sudden migraines during the initial stages. Experts concluded it was caused by airborne spores from an unknown xeno lifeform and requested emergency epidemic aid." Images began flashing into existence above the chamber, snapshots from the initial investigations.

"Why was nobody informed of this disease?" The salarian representative asked.

"To prevent panic among the civilians," Shephard smoothly replied, "and once we discovered its properties, to prevent exploitation in a bioweapon program. The colonists were advised measures to reduce the chance of infection, but replacing the open-air settlements with sealed habitats was unfeasible, given the population size."

"And what mystical properties, exactly, did your scientists discover?" The Spectre drew closer, faceplates twisted into an alien sneer.

"They discovered a telepathic aspect of the infection and confirmed the existence of an alien mind behind the spore infection."

"Ridiculous." The turian representative was joined by jeers and taunts from around the chambers.

"Ridiculous," the adept laughed, "The scientists must be making fun of us, Ma'am."

"I have the databases from Project Pied Piper with me. I speak the truth long buried." She pitched her voice over the din. "Do not doubt the knowledge I bring."

The globe of Feros sprung up in the air, tendrils spreading across its surface from where Saren had revealed his true colors. "We tracked the spore currents and located the xeno lifeform, a fungal superorganism spread across Feros, with a central node at this location. It was previously believed to be a harmless but widespread species native to the planet. It was named the Pied Piper, after an old myth from pre-industrial Terra. The project established a research base around the central node of the Pied Piper. I was assigned head of security."

"It's a quiet job, Precentor, perfect for getting used to the rank." Precentor Citadel handed her a datapad. "Security is pretty tight, so you'll get the full details on the ground."

Recordings of the central node played above her, responding to stimuli from the diminutive figures surrounding it. Murmurs of revulsion rebounded through the chambers as the nightmare enveloped a pig in its tentacles, dragging the struggling beast into its maw. Saren stared fixedly at the Pied Piper, only the faintest of expressions flickering across his face.

"A few months later, communication with the Pied Piper remained unsuccessful, and non-invasive study had reached its limit. So the researchers chose more invasive methods. I presume Pied Piper became fully active in response and tried to take over the colonies. We underestimated its control of its victims, as well as the extent of the subversion. That was the mass uprising reported, when its thralls attacked uninfected colonists and garrison units." A single clip looping, over and over. A ComGuard Urbanmech turning abruptly towards the screen, muzzle flashing and APCs crumpling.

"And ComStar then triggered the nukes to contain the outbreak?" The asari asked.

The priority channel dissolved into static. She pressed a few buttons with hushed prayers to the Founder before giving up. They were on their own for now.

"ComStar did not plant those nukes. Such measures are against the principles our Order was founded upon. The research base was overrun in the initial wave. As head of security, I took charge of the survivors. I determined the Pied Piper was a threat to the colonies on the planet, and decided to kill it. So I led what ComGuard units were available towards the central node and damaged it until it was severed from the fungal network."

"So the valiant ComGuard saves the day," Saren sarcastically commented. "Except killing the head clearly did not work."

"We've saved who we could, Precentor," the Mechwarrior in the Victor told her bluntly. VTOLs passed overhead, filled with refugees dying from spore and atom. "Pull back to the safe zone. That's an order."

"It did not stop the crisis, no. There are multiple theories for why the infected remained hostile. I would not presume to know the correct one. But the death of the Pied Piper was the turning point. The details are in the database. The spore infection began behaving in the manner the public is now familiar with, what was claimed to be the Word of Blake bioweapon."

"Why the coverup then? Why not position yourselves as saviors of Feros?" The asari's eyes were flickering between her and the still running footage of the battles with the Piper's victims.

"The truth was considered too dangerous. Better for the galaxy to believe Feros the victim of a terrorist attack, rather than draw interest to the remains of the Pied Piper."

The Spectre drew closer. "Your story is too outlandish to believe without actual physical proof of this… thing's intelligence," the alien stated. "I found no signs of such a central node, destroyed or intact. Matron Shiala found no evidence of that either in the databanks she recovered. Where is the Pied Piper you speak of?"

"What was left of the central node was taken offworld for further study, alongside other samples."

The Spectre was now close enough for her to stab, if she wanted. "Where did the project bring them then, especially this… brain of the Pied Piper? Terra?"

Shephard shook her head. "No, it was too dangerous to bring near the cradle of humanity. We needed advanced facilities in a secure location, far out of the reach of power-hungry ambitions."

"Enough with the riddles, Shephard," Saren barked impatiently. "Where are the samples?"

"Don't forget the bait," the old veteran told her. "Right there, perfect. The heretics won't be able to resist."

She stared him in the eyes. "Coromodir."

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