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The sound of gunfire was echoing through the corridors. Closer this time. Always closer. Meanwhile, the governor was pacing back and forth and Variana was making herself as small as possible, careful to stay out of his line of sight. Normally, it would have been tough for a naked asari to stay unnoticed, but the governor was preoccupied and Variana had become quite good at blending into the background when necessary. It was one of the first lessons any slave learned: when and how to avoid drawing attention. Variana had learned it quickly and it had served her well in the months since the passenger ship she had been travelling on had been seized by pirates. Unfortunately, she had not always been able to put that lesson into practice. Not, when it meant that the attention of whoever was near would focus on her children instead.
So far, that had not actually happened, but that was no great cause for comfort. Although both her daughters were young, not even having entered their maiden stage, Variana wasn't so naive as to believe that their age was protecting them. No, the motive was purely commercial. They'd fetch a better price if they remained unmolested. And that was the nightmare that had occupied her thoughts from the beginning. The raiders that were running the Torfan slave market had been hoarding up slaves for a while now, clearly anticipating a large auction, and her daughters were among the merchandise, locked in holding pens in the lower levels of the colony. Once the auction started, her children would be sold, probably to some warlord in the terminus and that would be the last time she would see them.
So, when governor Craldar Gos'radah took notice of her, she had actively encouraged his interest. The Governor thought highly of himself and considered that having an asari as a personal slave was just the sort of perk a high caste batarian like himself was entitled to. He wasn't actually high caste of course. At least, not the highest. They would never dirty themselves with something so minor as the governorship of a planet like Torfan. He was one caste lower. That made him just high enough that the high caste batarians that visited Torfan occasionally didn't feel too dirty when they had to interact with him. Meanwhile, they tolerated his obsequious fawning and allowed him to imitate his betters.
Rather than hiding herself as much as possible, Variana had actually put in considerable effort to make sure Craldar noticed her. After all, if the governor considered himself entitled to one asari slave, why not three. The idea of her daughters joining her in Craldar's bed was utterly revolting, but they'd be performing a similar function no matter who bought them and at least this way, they'd still be together. Unfortunately, while Craldar was hardly the brightest star in the galaxy, he was smart enough not to overstep his privileges too much and, while he considered poaching one slave to be an acceptable exercise of his personal authority, persuading him to make it three had not been as easy as she had thought. Apparently, keeping an entire harem of asari slaves would be considered a bit too presumptuous, not to mention that the loss of income incurred when the governor appropriated slaves rather than having them sold would annoy pirates and raiders alike.
Still, Variana had not given up hope and set herself to persuading Craldar to change his mind. She had begged, she had pleaded, she had swallowed her disgust and without prompting performed a variety of services, some of which the sick bastard had apparently not even thought of himself. That seemed to have worked, but deep down she knew better. He'd keep her hope up to make sure she kept performing, but in the end, her little girls would be sold, just like so many others, into a lifetime of slavery. Meanwhile, she would remain in Torfan wondering about their fate for the rest of her natural life; and for an asari, that could be a very long time.
Of course, all of that was before the gunfire. It was not the first gunshot that Variana had heard since her arrival. Shooting incidents happened occasionally on Torfan, but this was different. Variana had never been a commando, but even she could tell that whatever was happening was no incident. Whoever was out there, they seemed determined to fight their way through the colony. Which left two questions: who would go through all that effort and what were they going to do if they succeeded?
Silence. The gunfire had faded away and governor Craldar had stopped pacing. Both were ominous in their own way. As the minutes went by Variana wondered what would be next. It seemed that the battle for the colony was over and obviously the intruders had won, or the colony security would have contacted the governor by now. For one wild moment, she wondered if both sides had wiped each other out. That would mean that she and the governor would be the only people left alive on the planet, other than the slaves in the holding pens. Then, a new sound filled the room, the faint hiss of something very hot coming from the door. Near the frame, the metal of the door started glowing red, then white, until it became too bright to watch. Smoke started to fill the room as the glow traced a path around the edge of the door. Then, with a resounding slam, the entire door fell inward. From the corner
From the corner of her eye, Variana saw the governor step back to get further away from the gaping hole where the door had been, but her attention was quickly drawn back to the door as two armoured figures appeared through the smoke. The figures were vaguely asari-like but somewhat taller and broader in build. Their armour was heavier than what an asari commando would have favoured and they wore helmets that covered their faces except for the eyes.
Humans. Variana had never actually met any of the newly discovered species, but she had seen recordings on the news.
"Stop right there!" Having lived with Craldar for several months, Variana had come to know him rather well and she would not have credited him with the ability to move quickly. It seemed, that she had been mistaken because he was behind her before she had even realized he had moved. The next moment she felt the hard pressure of a gun barrel against the side of her head.
"Put it down, four-eyes." Even the human's voice, despite the distortion of the helmet and the translation software, sounded vaguely like an asari.
"One more step and she dies!"
"Really? Then I got a riddle for you freak: What has two thumbs and doesn't give a fuck? This guy!"
"Now, now," The other human spoke up for the first time. "Let's not be too hasty. Blue girl ain't half bad. Look at those tits. It would be a terrible waste."
"What, you into xenos?"
"Hey, all I'm sayin', she looks like she got everythin' in the right place and then some."
"I don't know man, blue just ain't the right colour. Besides, I cannot get past those tentacles on her head."
"Okay, to each his own. I'm just sayin', we may want to give this some thought."
He turned back to the batarian.
"Hey, four-eyes! How 'bout this. You let her go, you put down the weapon, and maybe we won't add extra holes to your ugly face."
"You won't shoot me, you'd kill her."
The human shook his head. "I guess four-eyes is as dumb as he's ugly. Pay attention, freak. We don't care. If we got to, we'll shoot straight through her, and then through you, and if you had a twin brother standin' behind you, the bullets would go through him as well. Now, I'll feel bad 'bout wasting such a nice piece of ass. But in the end, it's a xeno piece of ass, so I won't feel that bad, and either way, you're still a corpse, which will make me feel good again. Oh, by the way, you can stop glancin' 'round for help. There's nobody comin'. Just us, and the lieutenant. And trust me, you don't want to wait around for her."
"And why is that?" A new voice remarked. A third human appeared in the door. This one had taken off the helmet, her helmet Variana realized. Even under her present circumstances, she couldn't help but wonder at the cosmic joke that the universe had played upon two species. All this alien needed was some blue paint and her face could have passed for that of an asari on any world in citadel space. Of course, that deception would only work as long as she covered the top of her head, where dark hair had been pulled back from the face in a style that actually resembled an asari's crest somewhat.
The posture of the two other humans changed markedly as she entered the room.
"Sorry, ma'am. We were just havin' a conversation with four-eyes here."
"And why is that?"
"We got a hostage situation."
The human female stepped forward, her eyes scanning the room. A handgun was dangling idly from one hand. Other than that, she appeared to be unarmed. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, even though it had probably lasted no more than a few seconds, she spoke.
"You are Craldar Gos'radah, governor of Torfan." It was a statement, not a question.
"That's right!" Variana could feel the governor's muscles tensing as he pulled her more tightly against him. "And I demand-"
"I don't have time for this." In a single move, the human raised her weapon and fired.
The governor screamed. Understandably, because the bullet tore straight through his wrist, causing him to drop his weapon. Variana also screamed, because that same bullet, most of its energy unspent, went on to slam into her shoulder. Without paying further attention to either of them, the human turned back to the other soldiers.
"Now that the hostage situation had been resolved, get a medic in here. It seems we get to find out if that new medigel formula works across species as advertised."
"Yes, ma'am. You want him to treat the asari?"
"Her?" For a moment the human seemed confused. Then she shrugged, the movement barely visible through her body armour. "I suppose it wouldn't hurt, but not before they've patched up our friend the governor. I have a few questions that need answers before he bleeds to death."
Whatever the substance was that the human medics had used to treat her shoulder, it must have contained some sort of anaesthetic, because the pain had subsided to a dull ache. They had been kind, in their own way, Variana supposed. In fact, one of them had even stripped a blanket of the governor's bed so she could cover herself, though modesty was not particularly high on her list of priorities. She had other things to worry about.
Human soldiers had dragged several batarians, most of them wounded, into the room and tossed them to the ground, while the human female who seemed to be in charge snapped out orders. That had been a while ago. Since then, it seemed as though they were at something of a loss, many of them using communicators, talking quickly and using so much jargon and abbreviations that Variana had trouble following it, despite her translation implant.
One of them, who seemed to hold some sort of limited authority re-entered the room after leaving it a few minutes earlier and approached the woman who seemed to be in command.
"Lieutenant Shepard, ma'am? We've secured the slave pens below, but we cannot open the cages. Not without using explosives. We need a decision now, and it seems you're in command."
"I am? Where's the major?"
"Major Kyle?" Reading human expressions was fairly simple for an asari thanks to the shared facial musculature. In this case, it seemed as though the soldier was carefully concealing any emotion. "He went back to the surface, ma'am."
"He went back to the surface?"
"Yes, ma'am. Some time ago, I believe."
"I see." The human's expression was unreadable, but there was something in her tone that made Variana wish there was a nice, dark place for her to hide in.
"Well, I guess it's up to me then." She turned around at looked at the batarian prisoners that had been dumped together in a corner of the room. "You! Four-eyes. Listen up. I'll make this very simple for you. One of you is having a very lucky day. He's the one that will tell me how to open those cages. The rest of you, well, let's just say that they're not nearly as lucky."
The human officer smiled without a trace of humor.
"Let me break it down into simple words: Cages. Open. How?"
"Fuck you, bitch!" Apparently, one of the batarians had not quite caught up with recent events. In particular, he seemed confused about the changes in his own place in the grand scheme of things. That was remedied immediately. A boot shot out and caught the unfortunate batarian in the face.
"That was not the answer I'm looking for. Please pay attention, because I'm not in the mood to repeat myself. This is how it works: Four eyes talk shit, four eyes get hit. And then-" she drew a knife from a boot sheath. "-then four-eyes get slit. So, let's start this conversation again. Now, I have TWO questions: One: How do we open those cages? Two, which of your eyes would you like to keep?"
"Eh, ma'am." One of the human soldiers spoke up.
"You don't mean to-, I mean you cannot -. Ma'am, they are prisoners of war. You cannot torture them for information!"
The woman looked over her shoulder. "You're sadly mistaken, sergeant. These are not 'prisoners of war' because we're not AT war. They are slavers, and they're pirates. That's all that matters. I can torture a few slavers and pirates. In fact, I can torture hundreds of slavers and pirates. You know why, sergeant? Because nobody gives a FLYING FUCK about slavers and pirates. Now," she turned back toward the batarians. "Where were we? Oh, yes, one of you was going to tell me how to open those cages and, in doing so, he was going to reduce the number of eyes that he was about to lose."
There was only silence and Variana suddenly realized that she was holding her breath in anticipation. She got the distinct impression that several of the human soldiers were doing the same thing.
"No-one had anything to say? Then I can only assume that no-one here knows how to open the cages. In that case, no-one here is of any use to me, other than as target practice. You!" She pointed to the batarian who had spoken up previously and who was still busy spitting out the teeth she had kicked loose. "You had something to say. I suggest you keep talking."
She knelt down before the batarian and pressed the point of her knife against his face, just below one of his lower pair of eyes. "If you know how to open those cages, this would be a really good time to share that information."
The batarian tried to twist his head away, but bumped into the wall behind him. The pressure on the knife increased and blood started trickling down his face. "You don't want to share? That would be very stupid. But then again, you're batarian. Being stupid comes with the territory."
"Damn y-" The batarian nearly choked on the words. "I don't know-"
"Then who does?"
The batarian hesitated again, snarled something as the pressure on the knife increased. Blood was now flowing freely over his face. "He does!" he tried to point at the governor, but his hands had been tied. "Damn it, he has the codes! The governor has-"
"Excellent, we're making real progress here. Now shut up. You!" She truned toward governor Craldar, who was sitting on the ground nearby, nusring his injured wrist. "Your turn. The codes."
"If you think-"
"No, I don't just think that you will give me the codes. I know it for a fact. The only question is how long it will take. The codes."
From somewhere, Craldar seemed to have dredged up some courage. "I will no-"
"Oh, for..." It happened so fast that Variana barely realized what was happening. One moment the human was still several paces away from the governor, the next she had crossed the distance and in the same motion slammed her knife down into one of his legs. He screamed.
"The codes, now." She started to twist the knife. "Remember how quickly we fixed that shot wound? It's called medigel. Wonderful substance. Stops the bleeding, accelerates the healing, even stops you from going into shock. And we just proved that it'll work across multiple species. We're gonna make a fortune with it, the moment we start selling it in Citadel Space. Unfortunately for you, it also means that I can keep stabbing you over and over and over. We'll just keep fixing you up. Now, the codes."
She pulled the knife out of the wound, causing blood to flow all over the governor's robes. "Want me to do that again?"
"No, Stop!" It seemed Craldar's courage had just run out. Or perhaps he had finally grasped the reality of his situation. "They're in my omnitool! I'll show! I'll show!"
It took only a few seconds to activate the omnitool and retrive the codes. The humans checked, double checked, then sent a message. A few seconds later, the one who had been addressed as sergeant received an answer.
"It worked ma'am. Cages are open."
The officer nodded. "Good. Now, before we start the evacuation; you," she turned to one of the medics. "You checked the asari, correct?"
Variana held herself very still. So far, the humans had not mistreated her and watching the governor get stabbed had been a wonderful moment. However, the last thing she wanted was to become the focus of their attention.
"Scar at the back of her skull?"
"Yes, ma'am. Looks like they put in a control chip. Just as intel said there would be."
The officer approached, and knelt down, so her eyes were at Variana's level. "Blue lady. Yes, you. You know about the chip?"
Variana nodded. Of course she did. It was not a though the batarians had used anaesthetic when they inserted it. Besides, Craldar had taken a great deal of pleasure in describing what it could do.
"Just to make sure we've got the right data: what is it supposed to do?"
Variana hesitated, clearly the humans knew something, but how safe was it to tell them everything? If they managed to get the control codes from Craldar, which seemed a rather safe bet, it would give them even more power over her than they already had. Then again, the chip had to be dealt with. Besides, she had just seen what could happen if she refused to answer.
"It..., when it's activated it stimulates the nerves. The pain centre. If I.. if we disobey-"
"Instant punishment with one push of the button. I get the picture. Pathetic bastards cannot even be bothered to put some effort into their sadism. What else? Does it come with a self-destruct, explosives?"
"Yes. They said... They said they could trigger it at any time. Or if we got out of range of-"
"Of a local transmitter. Very clever. No escapes. Well, it seems intelligence got it right for a change."
The woman stood up and looked at Craldar.
"You thought we didn't know? So, what was the plan? We get the slaves out of the cages, put them into the shuttles, lift off and... boom. Instant slaughterhouse. Not a very smart plan. How exactly did you think to get away with that? hell, even if we hadn't known, you think none of the slaves would have alerted us? Or didn't you think at all?" She smiled; it was not a pleasant expression. "Never mind, it makes things simpler." She turned back to the medics. "We've got instructions on how to shut those things down, right?"
"Good, because I wouldn't trust governor four-eyes here to give us the deactivation codes. Test the procedure on the asari. If it works, set up shop at the landing site. Every slave that comes through has to be checked and treated. Sergeant, go down to the holding area and start moving the slaves out. We're behind schedule."
The sergeant saluted. "Yes, ma'am." He seemed to hesitate, as though he wanted to say more. As the officer turned away and walked to the door, he spoke up.
"What about the others, ma'am?"
"Yes, ma'am. It isn't just humans down there. Must be about a thousand of all kinds of xenos. What are we supposed to do with them?"
"Orders are clear. All slaves are to be removed from the colony. No exceptions."
"But what if they start making trouble?"
The woman froze in midstep.
"Trouble? We're saving them from a life of slavery. They should be grateful. In any case, if they start making trouble, we can handle it. That's why they give us airlocks."
Without another word, she stalked out of the room.
And the Butcher of Torfan is born.