Authors Note: So…uh… College happened. But, I think I'm gonna be writing semi-regularly now that I've got a schedule settled and not as much stress. Also, apparently I had this chapter done like three months ago and just never published it. Whoops.
Chapter Eleven: Used
He ignored the obvious tone of my voice and stood, scooping his helmet up from the table and moving to stand closer to me. He held a hand out to me while he spoke, "I apologize for the suddenness of this. The chaos on the station threw off our plans and put Aria on high alert, and it was either come to her like this or the both of us would die. I go by Heimdall on official reports, and it would be best for you not to know me as anything else."
I crossed my arms in a Batarian posture of defiance, not standing up or moving to shake the proffered hand. "Caring about what's best for me, huh? That must be new, considering you had my entire shop bugged."
He shrugged, a slight tightening of his facial muscles replacing a frown. "That's standard procedure for freelance and fringe agents. Even without a direct connection to our network, we had to monitor any transmissions and activity to see if other groups were intercepting your data. Traitors are common in the Terminus, and it was better to watch you than risk betrayal and the loss of the not-insignificant funding we've provided you. Had you known about the bugs from the beginning, we wouldn't have known you took an SIU agent on, or the two Terminus Quarians."
"Who I hire is my business, and your bosses told me specifically that I was free to operate as I chose, if I kept up my end of the deal. I've given you information, I've made contacts, and I even worked out a deal with the White Tigers to earn them docking permission outside of Aria's berths." I was positively seething, the pain in my leg ignored. "You weren't remotely honest with me about who I was working for, and you just confirmed that the bugs all through my store and apartment were yours."
"I'm not going to apologize, and even if I did it's not my place to. I've been on this station longer than you, my bosses on Horizon were the ones that hired you. Besides, it's practically common knowledge that the Alliance covertly runs the Corsairs, or at least supports them. The point is, it's your fault for not expecting to work for the AIS after getting an offer as generous as you did. Did you really think that pirate hunters would have enough spare funds to set you up like we did for next to no direct benefit?"
I stayed silent, so he sighed and continued, "Look, kid, I don't approve of how things work either. I can tell you aren't as old as you claimed to be, and I damn well know the men who hold the purse strings on Horizon knew it too. You're not even old enough to join the military, and it was almost blatantly obvious at first that you were a kid from some backwater planet who knew nothing about the galaxy. But they still sent you here to this shithole. I saw the deal with Bern, and I guarantee that anyone who you try to talk business to will peg you as a spook in minutes and you'll end up like the last five people they sent."
"That SIU girl you have working for you, she knows you work for someone. They get the training to pick that out, but I don't think she knows who. She looks more like a trained attack dog for them than a full-fledged agent, otherwise you'd have been interrogated by now. The Quarian has the look of an ex-militia, but she's Terminus stock and we know nearly nothing about them, save for their insane trophy takers. She's clueless, though."
"What's your point?"
"You're putting yourself in as much danger as we have. But now that we're sanctioned by Aria, I want to try to fix that. You're an AIS agent, legally or not, but we're both deniable assets. Our funding and orders come from mostly independent colonies, and there's no official trail linking us back. The same will go for the mercs they're sending in, so we have to try to look out for each other. I'm forwarding my comm address now, you'll be able to call on me if you need anything."
I slowly relaxed, my posture staying fairly stiff, though. Part of me could understand his reasoning and accept that he was following orders. That was part of the Batarian culture embedded in me, and even the Prothean. Obeying your betters was central to any kind of order, unless they had proven incapable. My anger cooled a little as I let out a sigh, my leg almost numb and probably in really bad shape now that I thought about it.
"I can't really believe that this is happening." I was letting myself look weak, which made part of me twinge with disgust, but I had too many things bottled up. "A year ago I was living on a beach with people I'd grown up with, learning to make armor. Now I'm half-crippled and almost everyone I knew is dead, and to top it all off I'm working as a spy on Omega. I'm not even eighteen yet and all this shit is happening. It's…it's a lot to process."
"I get it kid, I really do. Whatever asshole sent you out here assumed that just because you were born in the Terminus you'd be able to handle it all. You've done a better job than half the trained agents they've sent so far, but the fact remains that they didn't train you at all. Even if you end up getting killed, nothing can reflect back on them. That's their goal, and I don't like it. But so far you've done a great job, and so I called in a few favors…"
I limped back into my shop an hour later with my gimp leg almost entirely stiff and blood congealing in my boot, but with an official permit to purchase and sell all military-grade supplies provided by Hahne-Kedar, including armor and weapons above the basic crap that I had been authorized for before. The armor suits were a lot more expensive than guns, as was to be expected, and were above-stock quality. They'd sell well, whenever I could actually afford them. On the walk back, in between paranoid glances around myself, I'd typed up a short message to the supplymaster of the White Tigers informing them of my new inventory.
I'd also been given a small bonus from my new handler's personal funding, which went straight to Mellaris on Xentha, and a set of new codes and basic clearance into what little network the Alliance had in the Terminus, which would only be useful once I had a new terminal set up and code-locked to myself in the shop. I'd been told to expect a long-term contract to supply and fit a mercenary team that would be arriving sometime in the next few weeks that would be inserting itself into the chaos that was erupting in the Terminus now.
My pant leg was stained red below the knee, the fabric shredded even more than my flesh. A grunt from me coincided with a manual override that left that legs armor on the ground, along with streaks of blood. Even just on the way back the gears had gotten stiff, and without the plating I could see congealed blood all through the assembly. That piece was probably scrap at this point, with how hard it would be to clean. But now I had an idea of what needed shifting around to stop it from happening again. It came off with a few fiddled commands, and left me leaning heavily on the workbench. I didn't see my cane anywhere. Irina must have taken it up into the apartment area when I'd left. Or it fell over and rolled under a table. Either way, what came next wouldn't be fun.
I had too much pride to call someone down just to help me, but I still wasn't really proud of how I crawled on my hands and knee, singular, seeing how the other just left a light blood smear from the half-dried scabs and reopened wounds. There wasn't any guard rail though, and after everything that had happened so far I wasn't going to die by falling off stairs. If that happened I was pretty sure the ghost of whatever Prothean whose memories I had would flat-out strangle me whenever I got into the afterlife. Being murdered by a traitor like he had been was shameful, or so the memories would tell me, but dying by stupidity was even worse. So I bit down my pride and made it to the top of the stairs, mentally noting to build a handrail as I did, before lurching onto my feet with the wall as a support. While the airlock cycled I was lost in thought.
I wondered what my parents would think of me if they were still alive. If they'd be disappointed that I was working for the government that they'd fled, or that I was selling guns to criminals. If they'd be proud of how I tried to be there for people, of what I did to improve the lives of those around me. What they'd think of Irina, or of Nia and Mena. Or of Sal'Ris; they might have lived with Batarians for as long as I'd been alive, but that didn't mean they'd trust someone who was SIU.
They never talked about their lives onboard Cessa's fleet. I didn't know if they'd ever killed or helped kill anyone, or whether I'd already caused more bloodshed than career pirates and smugglers. But they'd raised me to be honorable, and in my case, surprisingly even at their encouragement, to follow the wisdom of the Pillars. If I was judged by that, then I was being good. I stood for my own power, and for the protection of me and mine. My property, my friends, and my employees. That was something so few people ever looked into, in the pillars; slavery was meant as a punishment, but slaves weren't supposed to be harmed. Their strength and power reflected on the master, and a thousand overworked and beaten slaves was worth less than a handful of skilled, loyal workers, bound by word and honor rather than chain. But of course, most Highborn chose to interpret that differently. That putting down the power of others proved your own, rather than nurturing it. Which was why my old mentor had left the Hegemony, when his preaching ran afoul of a local Ha'Diq's practices.
The gentle hiss of the airlock opening jarred me from my thoughts, and I took a few wobbly steps into the hall, catching Mena's eyes as she saw my blood-soaked leg. He luminous orbs visibly widened as I grimaced, flicking my own gaze to where Nia was playing with Irina. She seemed to get what I meant and moved to engage the girl, in the process blocking her view of my stumbling gait to the bathroom. We had a small supply of medigel in there, and even if bandages were a lot cheaper, I think a shredded leg with who knows how much mechanical gunk in it called for that. Plus it was close enough to my room that I could easily make the hobbling step across to grab my cane and change into cleaner pants.
By the time I came out Nia was gone, but Irina and Sal'Ris were outside the door, the latter offering me one of my canes. The asari seemed more worried than anything, but the Batarian was hiding any weakness like she'd had earlier, her face and posture both disapproving and intimidating. What was worse that she was in her armor, the patched up but nondescript suit she'd arrived in, not what she wore around the shop.
"Selos, I think you'd better start explaining things."
I gulped. "I…what do you mean?"
"Why your leg looks like a Varren used it as a scratching post, for one. But, most importantly, why you rushed to Afterlife of all places." Her voice was practically a growl. "You know damn well what we want to know. Don't insult us by dancing around the subject."
"For the first part, well, my armor wasn't near ready to be used. But I didn't have a choice." I didn't feel like they would hurt me, even Sal'Ris seemed to care about me too much to do that, but it felt wrong lying. But there was still the fact that she used to be SIU, and this wasn't the best time or place to break it to everyone about working for pirate-hunters and the Alliance, neither of which were well-liked even by the most civilized areas of the Terminus. I made a split-second decision to hide it behind half-truths and omissions. "Can we move this into the living room and bring in Mena before I say the rest?"
She made an irritated nose, but turned and moved into the living room, while Irina handed me my cane and then walked beside me to the couch. Mena came in a few minutes later, still wearing her breather mask and shifting around uncomfortably. She was wearing minimal clothing, still, but her rashes were obviously painful.
I sighed, really not looking forward to this. "Can I at least ask how you know that's where I went? I'm not going to lie or deny it, I just want to know how."
"I followed you. Irina thought you might need help." Sal'Ris answered, a grunt preceding the addition of, "and I had to make sure you didn't get in over your head. Obviously, it wasn't enough."
A few deep breaths later to quell the roiling nerves in my stomach, I told the first of the night's half-truths. "A situation came up with one of my employers."
The motion of my head intended to forestall questions worked. Irina and Mena had picked up that much about mine and Sal'Ris's body language. "It's not really an official job, but a group from Horizon gave me the money to start the shop in exchange for an ear on what's going on here. I was naïve to take it, I know, but I'd just lost everyone I'd ever known. The deal gave me a way to use my only real skills, and if all we've got here is anything to go by I did fairly well, right?"
"The thing is, they still have all the official paperwork for my arms license from Hahne-Kedar. So my contract was…renegotiated. They cut a deal with Aria, and I got called in to Afterlife to hear about it. It wasn't something I could put off, and I had to go alone. I'm sorry."
"Why didn't you just tell us?" Mena asked, her expression drooping sort of in what I recognized as either hurt or sadness. "You could have died you…you keshin."
"It's not that I didn't trust you; I just didn't think it was relevant, or that it would affect any of you until now."
The Batarian huffed, "You're walking a thin line, human. Horizon isn't a very popular colony around here; they openly host and sponsor the Alliance's pet pirate hunters, and that makes up a big part of Aria's income. You're lucky you didn't get a bullet in your head before being thrown down the waste chutes. How do you think Nia would have felt if you never came back?"
I blinked, then hung my head in shame. "I was stupid. I realize it, and humbly ask for your forgiveness. I'll be open about everything, now. You don't need to worry." The words stung as they left, guilt welling up in my chest.
"There's only going to be a few changes, though. I can't tell you everything about the deal without breaking the contract, and my word is all I have. Basically, though, we're going to have Aria's official sanction now. Anyone that picks a fight with us, picks a fight with her. I'll be keeping her supplied with all my experimental gear, in exchange for that honor, but otherwise we can operate however we want."
The harsh look on the Batarian woman eased ever so slightly, the muscles around her gleaming eyes relaxing, as I continued. "On the side of my sponsor, they pushed through permits for me to sell armor and high-end weaponry. Once enough profit comes in we'll stock several special-forces grade guns and the basic range of armor, grenades too. Soon enough we'll have a foundry that can handle some of the more complex customizations, so we can expect even more business and profit. In the meantime, though, we'll have a professional mercenary team on-contract. I don't know what their goal is, and I'd rather not; but we have to keep them equipped, at-cost, if we want to keep selling our current stock."
That soured her expression a little, but it quickly slipped back into a neutral mask that I couldn't read. She had to suspect there was a lot more to what I was saying, but she didn't say anything about it. Mena had relaxed now, and Irina just seemed happy that it wasn't something bad, as evidenced by how she practically smothered me in a hug muttering about how glad she was for just that.
Irina left a little bit later with a list of drinks, courtesy of Sal'Ris, to find and bring back. The batarian was very clear that she was sick of not having any alcohol in the apartment, and insisted rather vehemently that all of us deserved a chance to unwind after all the shit that had happened since our night out at the bar. That left me sprawled out on the shittier couch while Sal'Ris ate some kind of sandwhich at the counter and Mena napped on the good one. Some kind of comedy was playing on the vidscreen but I wasn't paying attention. Instead I was messaging back and forth with Mellaris.
She'd gotten into extranet games in her time at the treatment facility, something which had cost extra funds but which I'd been more than happy to give so she had something to do. We were alternating between me poking holes in the logic of the various fantasy settings and her ranting about how it actually made sense and that the only problem was that the games weren't strict enough on the in-game laws on magic or a character's physical attributes. A lot of it went over my head, but she was really into it and I had to admit that some of the screenshots she'd sent me were beautiful, if unbelievable. For all that meant when I knew for a fact that giant machines had wiped out at least one unified and galaxy-spanning empire, and probably an unknowable number of others.
The gap between Omega's and Xentha's timeframe wasn't all that large, but it was just big enough that about a few hours would change between her time and mine every full set of shifts. That meant there wasn't really any consistent schedule we could get into for video calls, but text conversations were always happening. And there was usually at least one game of basic chess waiting for one of us to make a move, too. I usually lost, despite my mother having attempted to teach me all through my childhood with a glass and ivory set she didn't like talking about.
She signed off a few minutes before Irina got back and before I was even off the couch Sal'Ris was shoving a bottle of some dark purple alcohol into my hands. "You're drinking this whether you want to or not. This stuff's supposedly good, something you humans make on a few of your colonies. Try not to go overboard this time, your bitching gets old fast."
Irina brought me a cup as I shifted over so she'd have space to sit down, and I filled it with the drink. Wine, the label said. I think I'd heard my mom mention it once, but it was a long time ago so I wasn't sure. The first sip was…quite a bit more obviously alcoholic than the Asari thing I'd had last time. Still, the taste was kind of pleasant. Unlike anything I'd had before, and definitely not something to drink fast, but I found myself sipping at it again and again.
Half an hour later and my movements were decidedly more jerky than usual. If I moved too fast the room would start to swim and blur, but otherwise everything was fine. I felt warm and tingly, but I wasn't numb like last time. Which considering what Irina had on the screen was a bad thing.
"Fucking take this trash off the screen!" Sal'Ris grumbled, trying to grab the remote from her position crammed onto the couch next to me, a little of her drink spilling onto my lap as her arm groped across at Irina.
"I've got the controls synced, it's your fault for drinking and letting me pick the show." The Asari stuck her tongue out, grinning. It was nice to see her smile, especially while I kept sipping at the wine. I had no idea how much I'd had. "It's an adorable, deep, and romantic show, so I'm watching it."
"Deep? The plot is shallower than that inbred bitch's personality." I blinked. Mena was never that blunt, with anything. Or that rude. "The bitch gets awards for taking off her suit for a few scenes, but when we do it every day? Nothing. Pampered little bitch."
Mena had gotten drunk at the same pace as last time, and it wasn't long before she trailed off into mutterings that I couldn't hear or understand. She was taking up the entirety of her couch, legs splayed out and covered in a shawl as she scratched absentmindedly at her rashes.
The thing we were all complaining about was Irina's choice of movie, which was a version of Fleet and Flotilla. I was trying not to pay attention, but it seemed way too sappy. Like it was trying too hard at, well, everything. But at the same time it just skimmed over almost everything negative. That was what really irritated me. I guess if I hadn't seen all this shit firsthand while living on Omega, I wouldn't have minded so much. As it was though, we were stuck watching it, since she was the only one sober enough to actually keep the projector synced to her choice.
A few more sips, and in total probably half the bottle, saw me leaning against Sal'Ris so I didn't fall over. Mena had passed out by this point, and Irina had turned the movie up a fair bit to hear over her snoring. It still sounded kinda muted to me, like when I heard things while underwater back home. It was getting harder and harder to keep my eyes open and the tingling had gone a lot further than it had before.
The batarian had actually stopped drinking a fair bit before I had, and even as I thought about it she plucked both the bottle and the cup from my hand, sitting them somewhere out of sight and most definitely out of reach. She was still drunk, though, and more talkative than usual. Irina was politely ignoring our slurred conversation.
"'m su'prised we didn't have any of this back home." I hiccupped afterwards, my face crinkling at the feeling.
"They probably did, kid." Her voice was a lot less changed than mine, but the tone had gone way higher than her usual. Softer, too. "They just weren't going to share it, that far off the trade lanes."
"'aybe I wouldn't go 'erboard if I'd started sooner." I blinked and found my head lolling over onto her shoulder. "'en did you start?"
Her body shifted under me. "I don't remember." There was a long pause. "It wasn't regular until they were gone. The first time I remember I binged, just because they never let me, and then the trainers…" she trailed off with another shudder.
"It might not help me forget…but it's still an escape."
I had no idea what to say to that, and even through the inebriation I felt a twinge of worry. All I could do was connect my arms around her in a hug. After a moment of tenseness that I might have imagined, she just accepted it.