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Salvaging from Strife (Chapter Cover Art)

Salvaging from Strife
Chapter 6

Keeping the Peace[]

Salarian Cruiser, Nootilah
Tartarus Star System

It was an old, grim joke that STG considered Tartarus the most dangerous place in the galaxy. As a popular version went, the Omega Relay might swallow every ship that passed it, but Tartarus was the end of civilization. Like many good jokes, there was far too much truth in there.

Captain Nomeh, captain of the salarian cruiser Nootilah, always told new officers to consider everything in the system suspicious. Aside from a few space habitats around the gas giants and traffic nodes, Tartarus lacked permanent colonies. But with at least seven spy networks, four major shadow factions and an ever-fluctuating number of underground groups from the humans alone, the system was overflowing with subterfuge and conspiracies. Friction between the numerous law enforcement agencies from ComStar, the rest of the Star League and the Citadel did little to ease matters. Nootilah's crew was flat out forbidden shore leave in system after the incident with ROM, the janitor and a plastic sword just five days into their deployment.

"Captain, flight leader just reported in. Malfunction of freighter engine appears genuine."

"Very well. Recall the fighters. Helm, bring us back on route. What about the frigate?"

The situation was scarcely better in space. Even on a good day, the Nootilah was busy patrolling the dense traffic between the relays and authorised jump points, keeping an eye on potential threats. Today was not a good day.

"The Paris is still shadowing us, sir. Active scan, no targeting lock. Still broadcasting prayers. Should I recall our escorts, sir?"

"Negative. The humans are only showboating, utterly harmless. Inform me if anything changes."

Frankly, there had only been bad and even worse days since Archon-Princess Melissa Steiner's funeral. Civilian traffic had reached an all-time low now with the recent ComStar scandal, but the rising military presence from the humans more than offset that. Little of the unrest in the surrounding systems had officially reached Tartarus, both contenders to the FedCom leadership respecting the neutrality of the system thus far.

The stalemate was unlikely to last. The only question was when, who and how.

"The ComGuard vessel just changed course, Captain. Heading towards the distressed freighter."

"It's of no concern to us, then. Perhaps we might actually finish our patrol on schedule."

The so-called Human Sphere possessed only the one primary relay in Tartarus connecting them to the rest of the galaxy. Two other nodes of the cluster still existed, one in Clan space and the other on the other side of Human Sphere, on the border between the two smaller Great Houses. Three keystones upon which the human species depended. Any trade or contact with the wider galaxy flowed through Tartarus, and only the now endangered Treaty of Shensi kept the relays safe and open.

"Approaching convoy now, Captain. Initiating final course corrections."

"Bring the crew to red alert. Hail the convoy leader."

The Noolitus decelerated rapidly to a stationary position ahead of the civilian convoy, matching their retrograde burn and aiming her primary weapon into the engine plumes. The human ships drew closer to one another, their meager weaponry and acceleration of minimal deterrence to the state-of-the-art salarian cruiser. A 2-D video feed appeared in front of his command chair, displaying a disgruntled human face. Despite the lack of facial hair, records indicated the opposing captain was a male.

"What do you want, salarian? This is a civilian convoy, non-combatants. We told your boss already, we're loyal followers of the Archon-Prince. Nobody on board supports Katrina's stupid cause."

"Your loyalty is irrelevant, Captain. New procedures require a Citadel-approved authority to examine your cargo before you are allowed to proceed. Cut thrust and prepare to be boarded."

Captain Nomeh was painfully aware of the political machinations playing out above his pay grade. The Citadel was under pressure to contain the most recent disruption to galactic stability and resolve the Feros scandal quickly. Rumors suggested not it was only the Salarian Union considering unilateral action to stem or redirect the carnage seeping from the humans' succession war into the Attican Wildfires. And a war it was, no matter how words like unrest, dispute or crisis were used. It was standard Citadel diplomacy, using their soft power to exert influence on troublemakers and restore peace and order.

"This is unacceptable! The Archon-Prince promised you aliens he'd stick to the damned treaty! The Federated Commonwealth will not stand for this!"

"The Federated Commonwealth Ambassador is welcome to lodge a complaint with the Citadel. When one has actually been appointed and recognised. In the meantime, you will comply with Citadel regulations and cut thrust."

Up until now, the Citadel, and the Salarian Union by extension, had entrusted ComStar with keeping the rest of the Star League in line and compliant with the Treaty. With the recent revelations of ComStar's indiscretions, the Citadel Council had placed the organization under probation. Accordingly, the Councilors had been announcing new changes to Tartarus' already fraught status quo. Clearly, the politicians had never been to Tartarus themselves.

"Warning from Vernus. The Olivine Purity is on an intercept."

"Expected, unfortunately. Accept their hail when they arrive."

With only the few seconds warning from his sensor officer, the Jade Falcon warship appeared on the Nootilus' flank at close range. A second video feed appeared in front of him almost simultaneously, showing the familiar grim face of Star Commodore Malthus. The convoy commander visibly paled, displaying other traits of caution typical in humans as well.

"Captain Nemo," the Clan captain mispronounced, "these freebirth merchants are shielded by the wings of the falcon. Have you finally found the courage to face our talons?"

"Star Commodore Malthus, I decline your offer of battle. I remind you, again, that the Star League and Citadel are at peace."

Not, of course, that the Clans cared. From what he understood of their barbaric culture, live-fire combat was a perfectly reasonable method to settle dispute amongst friends. Much like the krogans in that manner. Of course, the krogans were neutered now, quite literally, while the Clans were still very much a thorn in his side.

"So, you dare refuse my battle challenge, Captain Nemo, after insulting the Star League yet again. A coward and a fool. Show some honour for once and stand your ground, instead of hiding behind your betters."

"I'm not interested in glory, Captain Malthus, only in my duty. My orders are to inspect the freighters for contraband cargo or passengers, as you should well be aware. They will not be permitted passage through the relay otherwise."

Theoretically, the salarian cruiser had nothing to fear from the Clans. The Treaty of Shensi and ComStar were supposed to restrain their bloodlust. With ComStar on probation though, the Clans were becoming bolder in asserting their position as champions of humankind. Internal dissent among the Clan savages was keeping them busy for now, the Nootilus herself detecting multiple lethal spats between the Clan fighters in Tartarus. With some luck, the Clans would deplete each other without bothering the Citadel races any more than usual. In the meantime, Captain Nometh had to continue with his job.

"My lords, I'm sure we can dock at a transfer station, have everything checked over by the proper authorities…"

"Negative, freebirth! You will not disgrace the Star League with your spineless submission. Proceed to the mass relay at full acceleration. Captain Nemo, you are warned."

Based on his previous experience, more warships would congregate around the convoy over the next few minutes, each with their own directives. Within fifteen minutes, the joint Star League-Citadel traffic control would redirect the civilian vessels to a safe harbor to join the rest of the deadlocked traffic. At some point in the future, the politicians might remember to formalize the new state of affairs. Until then, one wrong move could start the avalanche.

"Captain, message from the Admiral. The Noolitus is to return at the primary relay."

"Cut communications and recall our escorts. Helm, bring us back to the fleet. Sensors, show me the relay."

On the main screen, the Prothean relic floated majestically, ancient systems still working even after fifty thousand years. The long structure with a glowing element zero core was the basis of galactic society, the greatest legacy of the enigmatic precursors that came before the salarians. Three great fleets stood vigil around it, the Citadel Relay Defense Fleet, ComGuard Second Fleet, and the Clan Vanguard Fleet. Outwardly at peace, Captain Nometh knew their weapons were turned on each other, ready to fire at a moment's notice.

Mass Effect Relay

Prothean Hyperspace Relay

With a flash of energy, new contacts appeared around the mass relay, emerging after a near instantaneous transit across thousands of light years. Their shapes were a mix of salarian, turian, and asari, both military and civilian models. Transponders identified them as an official delegation of the Feros Inquiry Committee. Saren had probably run off ahead, as Spectres were wont to do, but bringing an entire armada through Tartarus was much harder. The vessels would likely wait in Tartarus until a consensus was reached between the Citadel and the Star League on the Coromodir Expedition, as the media had begun calling the planned mission to collect evidence for the inquiry.

Most details on Shensi were still classified, but every naval officer knew the theory of Relay Security Factor, also known as the ability to defend a relay from suicidal maniacs. The humans had been major pioneers in the field ever since first contact, and no other species had managed to even come close to matching their achievement. It did not take a prophet to predict Tartarus to be where the next major achievement would occur, or what would happen once mass relays lost their untouchable status.

Watching the chaos throughout the system, Captain Nometh considered whether the survivors of the next galactic war would remember to include Tartarus in their punchline.

Discussions with the Citadel Council[]

Union Dropship, Dawn Cormorant
Widow Star System

After all the high-stakes drama Tali had witnessed in the last few days, it was a relief to be back in the Dawn Coromorant's Mechbay. For starters, machines didn't have nebulous schemes and cut-throat politics. As an additional plus, concentrating on her actual job was better than having to constantly relive those terrifying hours in the Prothean city.

Union DropShip (Underway - BlackpantsLegion version)

Union Class DropShip, Dawn Cormorant

The Star Hunters were gutted. Over half of their prized Mechs were destroyed, with Mechwarriors dead or hospitalized. What hurt the humans more was the loss of their precious starships. Two of the three had been declared unsalvageable where they lay, sold at scrap value to SLAG. Many of the support personnel and guards had also perished alongside the starships, further crippling the mercenaries. Even as an outsider, Tali overheard countless hushed conversations between the humans, worrying over their future. One thing the few veterans quietly whispered to each other, and never when the Commander Shephard was around, was that things were still better than Torfan.

The mercenaries' condition felt sadly familiar to Tali. The Migrant Fleet had many near derelicts, their residents struggling constantly with decaying and failing systems. Meticulous inspections and stringent standards could only keep the old hulks alive for so long before their inhabitants had to be permanently evacuated. Once in a while, accidents happened. Like those Quarians, the humans grieved, pieced what was left together and slowly moved on.

The survivors from Feros had gathered on the Citadel under the diplomatic aegis of the Lady Arano, joined shortly thereafter by remaining members and dependents from Omega. Day by day, the mercenary company shambled on, working to pull what was left into a functional unit again.

"Bashtech, Commander Shephard wants you at the Leopard." the shift supervisor announced over the speakers. From somewhere behind the Shadow Hawk, Smithon grumbled obscenities at the prospect of working solo while Tali clambered down from the Mech's shoulder. The summons had been expected, so the quarian quickly navigated her way out from the human starship.

Leopard Class DropShip (by psicore)

Leopard Class DropShip

The two sentries guarding the docking collar ignored her as she passed through the umbilical to the Citadel docks. The Aurigans and Star Hunters were parked in the partition assigned to human starships, which were often ill-designed for standard cargo bays. Unlike typical Citadel freighter berths, the humans' docking collars merged personnel and cargo traffic, creating an semi-organised clutter of freight and people. An occasional civilian Mech towered above the jumble, foot traffic leaving a wide berth around each machine.

On the viewscreens mounted on the walls, another spherical starship approached its berth languidly, thrusters correcting course with momentary bursts, sluggish acceleration suggesting the lack of element zero needed for FTL travel. A magnified feed helpfully displayed the spindly mothership light-seconds away in the Serpent Nebula, with an estimate for departure time to a Serpent Nebula colony steadily counting down.

Almost nobody paid attention to another suited being in the diversely clad crowd. "Immoral Canopians," a slurred voice called out, "you deviants have no decency." Tali glanced sideways, noticing a slouching dockworker staring at her. She hurried on to her destination, uninterested in correcting his mistake.

Soon enough, the Calypso was visible through a viewing window. Several passerbys slowed as they passed, a few stopping to gawk at the wreck. Tali paused at the window herself for another look. It wouldn't take an engineer to declare the starship unspaceworthy. Gashes and gouges covered its battered hull, with one engine visibly deformed and an entire wing missing. The wing was stored in a depot nearby, but attaching it would be a daunting challenge.

The Leopard had managed to punch out from the freefalling skyscraper, mangling itself in the process. It was a wonder that the starship even managed to survive the inevitable crash-landing. The surviving crew had carried out rudimentary repairs on site and later at SLAG, enough to slowly limp to the Citadel, but little more.

Given the state of the Leopard's interior, Commander Shephard was using a warehouse for the meeting, converted to serve as temporary offices for the Star Hunters. The mercenary guards let her through into the meeting room, where the mercenary commander and his surviving staff were negotiating with strangers.

Commander Shephard, on hearing Tali enter, turned and nodded to her. Standing up from his seat, he interrupted the currently speaking volus. "Pardon me, good sir. May I introduce Miss Zorah, our Citadel technology expert. Miss Zorah, these are representatives from the Serpent Trade Union, led by Sir. Gutenberg of Skye," he gestured towards a group of humans clad in formal business attire. An older white-haired gentleman bowed courteously towards her. "And this is Numo Vos, from the Citadel Shipyards." The commander continued.

The indicated volus grunted with annoyance. "So, you found a quarian somewhere, should I be impressed? If you don't mind, we have a lot to discuss." He turned back towards a floating wireframe of the Calypso displayed in the center of the room. Highlighted portions of the Leopard were accompanied by floating walls of technical jargon.

"Naturally, Mr. Vos," Commander Shephard agreed. "But before we go on, I'd like to address your preliminary proposal. Miss Zorah and my own engineers had conducted their own review of the required repairs to the Citadel technology onboard, which we passed on to your offices, and which you appear to have completely ignored." With the press of a few buttons, a copy of the Calypso appeared next to the original model, surrounded by a different set of details.

"Seriously?" the volus scoffed incredulously. "The Citadel Shipyards have the finest experts and the greatest facilities in the galaxy. You won't find anywhere better than here to repair that junk of yours. Our proposal is of far higher quality and thoroughness than whatever your people suggest.

"Your proposal is not terrible," the swollen face of Chief Engineer Virtanen croaked. He was still in the medical quarters on the Dawn Cormorant, taking part through a holo-interface. "But we don't need such a comprehensive overhaul. Miss Zorah's report outlined the repairs needed to bring the Calypso back to service."

"What?" Numo Vos spluttered for a few seconds. "Are you insane?" He turned to an asari seated next to him. "Go on, tell them."

The asari scrutinised Tali's proposal, shaking her head slightly. With a sigh, she judged, "I do not recommend it, Commander Shephard. Your starship is so badly damaged, it's a miracle she could even reach orbit. I'm sure the quarian did her best, but I have centuries more experience."

"Hey," Tali cut in angrily, noticing a detail in the Shipyard's proposal, "I know my way around ships. The drive core is fine, you're just charging extra to replace it completely. The repairs I recommended will work."

"They would work," the asari grudgingly admitted, "but far below the accepted standards of our shipyards. Maybe the results would be acceptable to your Migrant Fleet, but the repairs we suggest would be-"

"Amazing, I'm sure," Commander Shephard drily complimented. "And more expensive and more time-consuming. The Calypso needs to fly soon, not after a year in drydock."

"I know the Calypso inside and out," Virtanen grumbled, "The old girl doesn't need special treatment. Stock parts and hull plating will cover most of the damage well enough."

"I suppose that is why we are here, good sirs," Sir Gutenberg agreed. "Our warehouses can supply the spare components needed for repairs, and our engineers have experience with the Leopard design. Though I regret to remind Commander Shephard that with the blockade of the Tartarus relay, our own supply chain has been disrupted. However, I'm sure we can come to an arrangement."

"Mister Shephard, we have barely begun diagnosing your ship. It will take time to compile a list of issues, considering there are likely hidden problems neither of us have noticed yet. It is my sincere recommendation that a full overhaul of all compromised systems be carried out immediately."

"Alright, enough with the ship talk." Numo Vos demanded, interrupting the discussion, "I'm here to discuss payment, not listen to you engineers squabble. This was supposed to be a quick meeting, not a debate. I have a busy day ahead of me, and other clients to visit. You need our drydocks for repairs whatever you decide, yes? So, we'll just work out the financial details for now and Alina can explain why you need a full refit later."

Miss Oliveira shrugged ambivalently, dismissing the holograms dominating the room. "As you wish," she conceded, "For the down payment of the drydock, we are willing to pay the standard rate, which in C-Bills would-"

"C-Bills? The Council is imposing sanctions against ComStar for Feros, and you want me to accept C-Bills? Do I look like a fool to you? The Shipyards will only accept credits."

"Our Citadel accounts are still frozen, Numo Vos," the woman complained, "the Star Hunters can pay the drydock fees with credits once the suspension expires, but we can't use credits for the down payment. The C-Bills are reliable-"

"No, you humans can trust the C-Bill all you want, I don't, and that's final. What about the Aurigan Trading Company? They can provide you a credits loan, I suppose. Or find somebody willing to change C-Bills for credits."

Miss Oliveira grimaced. "Unfortunately, that's not possible. Due to its ties with the Aurigan Coalition, the Trading Company is currently under investigation as well and cannot provide further support. We're looking at options for exchanging currency, but there have been…difficulties."

"Well then, this meeting has been a complete waste. You can't pay, don't even bother trying to buy our services. I should have known this was a bad idea. Could have saved myself the walk."

"Perhaps the Serpent Trade Union can be of some assistance in this regard." Sir Gutenberg suggested, eyes glinting greedily, "We would be more than happy to cover the costs for the Star Hunters. Commander Shephard can reimburse us in C-Bills or credits, with a fee of course."

"We'll consider your offer," Commander Shephard grudgingly accepted. "I'm not interested in your proposal, Numo Vos. I trust Chief Virtanen and Miss Zorah's assessment, so unless Miss Alina can show flaws in their proposal, we'll only be renting the drydock at standard rates."

"I certainly have objections," the asari engineer spoke up. Casting an annoyed look at Tali, she haughtily declared, "an amateurish plan for repairs will cost more in the long run than a professional one."

"By all means," Tali countered, "feel free to try."

"My own experts should compare the two options as well," Sir Gutenberg offered, "for the sake of impartiality."

The conference dissolved into two groups, engineers on one side of the room and everybody else on the other. Tali was soon engrossed in her work again. She was the daughter of an admiral, and she certainly wasn't going to be outsmarted by the smug asari.

Family Reunion[]

Aurigan Trading Company
Widow Star System

Montgomery Shephard was certain Aunt Kamea knew he was coming. She certainly showed no surprise when he stormed into the Aurigan Trading Company's conference room.

"Aunt Kami," he announced with mock joy, "how wonderful it is to see you."

"Montgomery Shephard, nephew, Blake's blessing on you," she greeted in a clipped tone. With a nod to her lackeys, the minions filed out of the room, leaving aunt and nephew alone. The two Shephards stood facing each other in the stiff silence.

"You've been doing well for yourself?" the younger man asked awkwardly.

"You know the answer to that question," Aunt Kamea answered primly. "I have more important things to do right now than catching up with family. I am meeting Lady Arano in a few minutes, so be quick."

"Oh, why, dear Auntie," the Mechwarrior snarled, "so quick to brush off your own nephew? ComStar is planning something for Coromodir, and I demand to know what."

Her face turned stony, shedding any pretenses of warmth. "I see no reason to disclose ComStar's private affairs to an outsider, Montgomery. If that is all?"

"No, I want answers." Shephard insisted. Thoughts and suspicions had been festering in his mind since the public hearing. "This whole web of lies is just some scheme of ComStar's. The Pied Piper isn't in the Reach at all, is it?" The capitol of the Aurigan Coalition lay weeks away from the nearest relay in Capellan space. "Comstar is leading Saren on a wild lostech hunt into the Periphery, aren't you?"

His aunt glared at him frigidly. "You're lucky this room is secure," she snapped. "As far as Saren and the Citadel are concerned, the alien samples have always been on Coromodir. The young Lady Arano understands enough to keep quiet, but you need to keep your mouth shut, boy."

"Keep my mouth shut?" Monty fumed. "It's been a week already, and Saren has been missing for just as long. He betrayed me, killed my people, all thanks to your intrigues and conspiracies. Precentor Udina pledged to bring him down. And now ComStar is just letting him go?"

"You should have learnt more and fought less, Montgomery Shephard." Aunt Kamea sounded exhausted, with a tinge of annoyance. "Killing Saren now would serve no purpose and just make him a martyr. A rallying cry for the aliens to impose harsh terms on the Star League-"

"ComStar, not the Star League," Monty slipped in. As much as ComStar liked to pretend otherwise, he knew the difference.

"Blake's vision is the one thing keeping the Star League together, fool!" the Precentor hissed. "How long do you think the Inner Sphere will last when the aliens start playing the Great Houses against each other? Only ComStar's efforts have kept humanity unified. You will do nothing to jeopardise our holy work."

"Or what?"

"Or the Aurigan Coalition dies. You think the Trading Company is enough to keep House Arano in power with its meagre imports? The Capellans and Fedcom have far more Element Zero than the Coalition, enough to roll over the entire Reach. Only ComStar and the Star League have kept them from taking anything more than the border worlds so far. High Lady Arano understood that, which is why she remains in power with Terra's assistance."

"I've heard your lecture before, Aunt Kamea. ComStar does more for the Reach in a single year than I will ever manage and we should all be grateful to Terra." Monty exasperatedly interrupted. He had endured variations of it far too many times. "Is that it? Saren gets away with everything thanks to the Citadel?"

"He is a threat and will be removed, nephew, when the time is right. But not by you, not by your second-rate mercenaries."

There was no point in further conversation, Monty knew. He turned away from the once familiar stranger and prepared to depart. "Farewell, then, Precentor Kamea."

"Monty," her voice, faintly wavering beneath its steely façade, stopped him briefly at the doorway. "I offered you once, to help ComStar bring stability and prosperity to humanity."

"And my answer remains the same." He refused to look back.

Aunt Kamea's parting words followed Montgomery through the door. "Then someone will use you up, sooner or later."

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