SV: Anthologies

Chapter 3. Xeno Noir

Disclaimer: Before you read it and go 'Wow CunkToad, what an amazing writer you are'. This is a guest story authored by AdmiralSakai, someone who's been elemental when it comes to helping me sort out a lot about SV's main story. While everything that's written here has been green-lit by me, it's not my brainchild. (which is a shame because it's really good.)


Two years after Sovereign's attack, a series of grisly murders in the turian community on Eden Prime lead an honest cop to facts the HSA would rather not see exposed.

"Living on a human colony this deep in human space is… certainly an interesting experience. Shipping to anywhere worth talking about -Earth, the Citadel, what have you- takes forever, and the Extranet is a lot slower, of course, and it really is true that humans absolutely love the cold and will air-condition the life out of you if you give them even a mandible's-width of room to do it. But there's a deeply ingrained integrity in these people, a sense of justice, that makes me feel more at home here than on the Citadel or Taetrus, or… well, anywhere outside the Hierarchy core colonies. I wouldn't give Xenograd up for anything, and… I know this might sound odd, but the whole "Killer" affair only made that more true. What happened was… was tragic, of course, but at the same time it really did bring out the best in my comrades. And they deserve to be honored for it."

~Major Tokka Avissian, chief liaison officer for the Fifty-Sixth Combined Forces Legion military police detachment, in an interview with the Hierarchy News Service, 2417 AD

"I get surprisingly few questions about that one, actually, and I'm afraid there are still old… compromises, that have become obligations, that prevent me from being as honest with you all as I'd like. But I wouldn't call it a scandal. A scandal implies exposure, implies embarrassment for the parties who perpetrated it. Here, the only people to be exposed and embarrassed were… grieving colleagues and family members, and upright Eden Prime Colonial Police officers who truly did all they could, as quickly and efficiently as they could, to see the whole bloody saga brought to a close. I can tell you right now there's no truth to the claims that the Xenograd Killer is still out there. I also don't think there's any connection between him and the Teysari Ripper, save for a single very tenuous one that I'm not at liberty to disclose, for reasons I also cannot disclose. Yes, I think you're starting to see the magnitude of my… compromises. Would I make them again, knowing only what I did at the time? Absolutely. Would I make them again if I'd known of any of the other avenues available to me, even the most tenuous? Absolutely not.

The Xenograd Killer is, indeed, quite dead. The people who put him there? I wish I could say."

~Retired EPCP Homicide Department Director Dominic Atu, during the "Conspiracy Theory and Mental Health" panel offered by the C-SEC Academy Symposium Board, 2417 AD

21. November 2416 AD, Eden Prime

It was a warm, clear night, a little after 20-hundred local time, and the street-level Diwali celebrations were just starting to kick off in earnest in Navi Bhopal. The first wave of colonists to settle here had overwhelmingly been Hindu. Two centuries later their frontier outpost had grown into a sprawling metropolis of ten million -the second-largest city on the planet, in fact- and their descendants had been left a tiny minority amid newer arrivals from Terra Nova and the Fringe Worlds and a thousand other places, but their traditions had left a lasting impact that even contact with the Citadel Council hadn't diluted.

In addition to its human residents, Navi Bhopal was home to the largest single alien population in the HSA in the form of roughly eight thousand turians- roughly two-thirds of them temporary participants in the joint exercises traditionally held at Cooper Wells Combined Forces Base on the city's outskirts, and the remainder long-term liaison staff and civilians offering comforts like fresh dextro-amino meals that would otherwise be difficult to find this far from Hierarchy space. The fact that their yearly deployments began at the start of the week-long festival and ended when it concluded was not a coincidence. Arrivals got a chance to explore the city and experience human culture at its liveliest, departures got one last celebration among friends before shipping off to parts unknown, and the long-term residents didn't exactly resent another excuse to socialize with their neighbors either. The traditional boxes of mithai candies now included a little shrink-wrapped sachet of spiced jerky, walks-of-honor with veteran legionaries found their way into community parades, and Navi Bhopal accepted the aliens just as it had accepted the Fringer refugees who had come before them. This year's festival was particularly special, coming as it did a little under two years since the geth attack on Eden Prime had left Cooper Wells in flames and nearly three thousand Navi Bhopalis dead. The first Diwali after that had been a subdued affair, of course, but with the rubble now long since cleared away and repair work completed there was finally something worth celebrating. The firepower demonstration the turians always conducted in the Kolar Mountains just outside city limits was even supposed to include a big sheet-metal Sovereign as a target this year.

Unfortunately for him, though, the turian male splattered across the concrete in front of Detective Weihong Chen wouldn't be enjoying any of it.

He was dressed in the sort of loose, baggy, brightly-colored one-piece coverall that counted as turian casual wear, and judging by the impressive spray of royal blue blood surrounding him and the nasty cracks running through most of his plates, he'd fallen from a pretty good height. In all likelihood, he'd died immediately on impact.

The apartment building he was in front of was twenty-six stories tall, with balconies on every other floor, and it wasn't hard for Chen to put two and two together. Somehow, he must've flipped over the railing -or, perhaps, been flipped- and from there the rest was just an exercise in physics. There must've been at least fifty people out and about in the street right nearby when he fell, and just about all of them had decided to call emergency services when the turian had hit the ground, and so by the time Chen had been yanked away from a late dinner with her husband and two children to arrive on-scene a small army of regular patrol officers had already set up barricades and secured most of the surrounding block.

Chen looked up from the body to where her partner, Junior Detective David Mosehni, was currently engaged in collecting statements from the crowd. She was the first to admit that the two of them made an odd pair- Chen herself was short and heavyset and could most days barely be bothered to smooth the wrinkles out of her single decades-old suit jacket; while David was a tall, vaguely Mediterranean figure with a perfect wardrobe, perfect haircut, perfect smile, and the slick plastic charm of an extranet news anchor. The people they interviewed generally assumed that Chen was there to either fix or clean something and Mosehni was there to try to sell them something, and that suited her just fine.

Mosehni loped over as if summoned by thinking about him, and repeated her process of looking first at the body, then at the building up above, then at the surrounding streets. "Shit," he finally muttered, "first Venari Drecius, now this."

Chen nodded. "Damnedest thing."

Navi Bhopal's turian residents, temporary exercise troops and long-timers alike, generally got along well with the humans and with each other- the mixed crowd out celebrating just beyond the barricades was proof enough of that. Even after three decades of economic initiatives and human elevation to a voting position on the Council, the Citadel credit had a lot more purchasing power behind it than human banking. That also made the turians among the city's wealthier residents, which might have made them tempting targets in other circumstances, but the disproportionate number of them involved in military pursuits and their strict discipline had given them a deadly reputation among the Navi Bhopal's criminal underbelly. Always happy to assist an ally in need, panhandlers and con men found them to generally be easy marks, but the death of a dextro cafe owner in a mugging that had gotten out of hand was the first time a violent crime had involved a turian in the two years since the geth attack. Two dead spikies in as many weeks nearly qualified as a major diplomatic incident.

Again Mosehni seemed to pick up on Chen's line of thinking. "Do you think this might've been a suicide? Or did somebody push him, or… what?"

The fireworks display downtown had started at some point not too long ago; Chen could see it reflected in the building's full-length glass windows in between the red and blue strobes of police lights. In between the windows themselves, there were support pillars covered by artsy-looking metal grilles. An experienced burglar could climb something like that easily, but why would an experienced burglar decide to rob a turian apartment block in the early evening, in full view of dozens of revelers, and then get into a confrontation with someone inside?

"I don't think it was a suicide," she finally said, and waved the small holographic pointer projected from her police-issue omnitool over the corpse's splayed right hand. "Look, his talons are extended. He'd only do that if he was trying to hold onto something, or fighting for his life, or both." They'd have extended naturally under the influence of rigor mortis eventually, of course, but the man hadn't been dead nearly long enough for that to come into play yet.

Absentmindedly, Chen stared at the advertisements in the windows of the shops that filled the complex's ground floor. One of the ads stared right back, and in many other different directions as well. They were deep enough into the turian-heavy "Xenograd" district that stores were comfortable advertising the sort of alien cuisine that never got levo-amino versions- braised eyeballs, for instance. Mosehni was talking with an older, bronze-skinned human woman in a smart business suit- the building's property manager, Chen guessed- and he walked off with her presumably to secure a positive identification of the deceased and access to whichever apartment the witnesses were saying he'd fallen from.

She turned back to the corpse, switched her omnitool into full-display mode, and began a preliminary toxicological screening. The days when Chen would have had to have waited hours or even weeks for lab results to come back from the city coroner's office were blessedly long gone, although of course a proper MD would need to sign off on her scan data before she was permitted to use it in an arrest warrant or other legal document. She could say what she would about the Citadel Council as a political body, but they'd brought humanity some damned useful new toys- stuff the Army hadn't even had when Chen had been serving as an ordinance tech.

The scan took only a few seconds to complete, and revealed only small amounts of alcohol and chuwin in the turian's system- a mild, legal cannabinoid-analogue that Chen had never heard of causing anyone to panic and jump off a building. She switched to a three-dimensional deep tissue scan and paused. "Hmm. That's weird." She tapped a holographic control and transmitted the scan results to Mosehni's expensive, turian-style eyepiece display. When he'd had the thing shipped special-order from the Citadel, he'd gone on at length about how his girlfriend Celanix had one exactly like it and how she said it made him look just like Garrus Vakarian. Weihong Chen had long since decided that the eyepiece made him look like a defective geth; that (even assuming one was into that sort of thing, which Chen very much was not) having a girlfriend in the Turian Army wasn't really that impressive given the city they were in; that Garrus Vakarian was a much better Hero Of The Citadel than he'd ever been a police officer; and that having a visual display over only one eye was entirely unsuitable for detective work. She much preferred her old graphics-enabled wraparound shooting glasses- monochrome amber display be damned.

"What am I looking at?" her partner asked.

"Both this guy's shoulders are dislocated. Broken, in fact, which takes a lot of force to do on a turian. But he landed on his side."

"Yeah, you know, that is weird." Unconsciously, Dave brushed a few specks of imaginary lint from the front of his jacket. "Whaddaya think could do that to a guy?"

"Krogan, some kind of industrial equipment… biotics, maybe?"

Another siren, higher-pitched than the ones the Colonial Police used, heralded the arrival of an airborne transport from the coroner's office. A pair of medics jumped out of the rear hatch with an antigrav stretcher held between them, then shrugged when David motioned for them to back away. A proper forensics team was still on its way to do more than just run scans, and they couldn't have medical personnel disturbing the crime scene.

"Huh. Well, I got a positive ID from the landlady, at least. Physician-Colonel Sammek Aril, resident of this very building for the last fifteen years. Lived on the sixteenth floor. There's a few more people they're holding for me to talk to down here…" he fished a small plastic card out of his jacket and tossed it to Chen. There was an apartment number stamped on the back under the words 'MAINTENANCE COPY'. "You wanna go ahead and take a look around?"

"Can you think of anybody who might've wanted to hurt Dr. Aril?"

"No, not… really? He never bothered anybody here, certainly. He's -uhh, he… was- pretty quiet, he kept to himself mostly, kind of a loner. I don't mean that in a… a creepy way, I guess, he was polite if you talked to him and I've seen inside his apartment a few times, but he just… seemed to like being by himself is all. It's hard to believe he's gone."

"Didn't have any family that I know of, definitely not on Eden Prime."

"If he was involved in anything, you know, dishonorable he'd've had to either do it from his apartment or from the medical center; the only time he ever really left was to go to work. He had food and things delivered, or brought stuff back from the shop in the hospital."

"Did you see anything going on on the balcony?"

"Well, no. I wasn't looking right at that particular balcony until I heard the guy yell and he was already falling. But I remember seeing him sitting up there maybe, five minutes before? And I was looking at the side of the building the whole time, because, you know, they were doing the light show and everything, and there wasn't anybody up there with him and there wasn't anybody around. He just… fell."

Dr. Sammek Aril's apartment was unusually tidy, unusually sparsely-furnished, and unusually small for such an obviously expensive building in such a nice part of town- all of which fit pretty well with what Weihong Chen knew of turian living habits. What decoration existed was mostly abstract and profoundly hard to make much of any sense of. The only exception was a big glass-front cabinet in Aril's combination living room and office, which held an impressive collection of early cinema works, on original media ranging from data chips in little fancy display cases to more than a few strips of actual honest-to-God physical film. Chen recognized District 9, The Five Companions of Tokka Lorthus, Avatar of Victory, and many others besides, but what interested her more was that the material was reasonably portable and would've been worth quite a lot if handed off to the right sort of art dealer, but there was absolutely no sign anyone had attempted to get it out of its case.

In fact, there was no sign that anything in the apartment had been disturbed at all. The sliding glass door that led to the balcony outside was wide open, admitting the faint sounds of laughter and some stragglers' amateur fireworks. While that left the apartment a little warmer than Chen was entirely comfortable with, Aril evidently had not minded and the air conditioning was turned off. Some sort of fruity mixed drink that, to the detective's levo-amino senses, smelled like a dry erase marker sat untouched on the arm of a deck chair. A data pad on the floor next to it was still displaying some complicated Palaveni text that the translator overlay in her shooting glasses claimed had something to do with the Fringe Wars as explored in nonhuman cinema, as though the doctor had simply dropped it. A proper forensics team was en route to go over the place with a fine-toothed comb, but Chen doubted they'd find anything. If it wasn't for a few scratches left on the balcony railing that perfectly matched the spacing of an adult turian's talons, Sammek Aril might as well have just evaporated into thin air where he was standing.

She stepped back inside and moved over to Aril's desk. There was a banner identifying one of the legions of the Hierarchy Medical Corps hanging over it, decorated with an impressive number of little metal distinguished-service clips, and the computer terminal underneath powered up as soon as she tapped the touch-sensitive screen. It was password-locked, of course, but a status indicator in one corner suggested that the last time anyone had interacted with it had been two hours previously. Aril had only been attacked thirty-odd minutes ago.

The desktop, and a few holographic frames around it, displayed photographs of the same group of smiling humans, some in medical scrubs and some in uniforms, sometimes including the turian doctor among them and sometimes in front of structures Chen recognized from the main hospital complex at Wells CFB. She'd have to call the hospital administrator some time next morning to deliver the bad news; that was a conversation she never looked forward to, but at least this time she'd only need to do it once and then it would be the other guy's problem. In fact, perhaps this time she'd just make Mosehni handle it.

"Chen? Chen." She twisted around at the sound of the junior detective's voice and found him standing in the doorway. "Sorry, was I interrupting anything?"

"Other than an all-too-rare chance to savor my briefly Dave-free existence, no, not really."

He shrugged, then stepped further inside to peer at a vaguely turianoid metal figurine sitting on Aril's coffee table. "Well, that about does it for the neighbors. The guy across the hall was holding a big welcome-to-base ceremony for some new transfer troops, so people were in and out of the hallway all night, but it wasn't like there were eyes on Aril's place every minute. I did get a couple people mentioning that he sat out on his balcony every year and just watched the parades, but that doesn't mean too much either. Your killer could've known him for a long time, or just watched him for a few days and saw that he was usually out there at about this time of night, or they could've just gotten lucky."

"Yeah." Chen turned and made to leave, and then stopped. The apartment door was the same sort of sliding model most modern buildings in Navi Bhopal used, but a boxy silver device with a tiny touch-sensitive screen had at some point been fitted over the usual, simple two-function locking mechanism- an extranet-enabled "smart" lock. "Hey, Dave, take a look at this."

"Oh, hey, that's neat. I've been thinking of getting one of those, can't be too careful these days."

"Yeah, well, if you want to be careful, just buy a combination lock. You know these things are constantly linked up to… I think Hahne-Kedar, the article said, transmitting encrypted data about something?"

'Smart' home appliances followed a roughly 20-year cycle throughout Citadel space. Everyone bought them at first because they decided it was for some reason necessary to be able to change the color of their desk lamps by omnitool from three blocks away. Then it was inevitably revealed that the devices were difficult to configure, prone to unexpected failure, and contained numerous security holes. Buyers fled in droves, companies imploded, and then the whole craze was quickly forgotten. Then, after a while, some fresh-out-of-college network engineer developed an amazing idea for a new product line featuring color-changing lamps, assumed everyone in the previous generation was simply too dumb to not have thought about it beforehand, and the whole process began anew.

Sammek Aril's door controller had probably been included with the apartment.

David Mosehni peered at the device for a few moments and then shot Chen a confused look. "Wait, why would Hahne-Kedar be interested in people's door data?"

"Hell if I know, but I bet that thing keeps all kinds of logs."

By the time all of the necessary formalities surrounding Dr. Aril were dealt with it was pushing 3 AM, but Weihong Chen was running on coffee and adrenaline and sleep was the farthest thing from her mind. Her family would understand. Erich knew she was a cop when he married her.

Sprawling across the thirtieth through thirty-eighth floors of the T. Kieth Glennan City Services Building, Navi Bhopal Central Precinct didn't really have quiet hours. However, the big open field of navy-blue carpet on the thirty-fifth where all the homicide detectives' cubicles were set up in more or less random patterns was a lot quieter at three in the morning than it was at three in the afternoon. They'd had proper offices, back before Sovereign's attack, but the razing of a few outlying municipal buildings meant that more people had been sent up to Glennan. That, in turn, gave the operations types up above the excuse they'd needed to "consolidate" the entire Homicide department onto a single floor- the need for a private space to conduct interviews be damned. It would have to do, though, as Chen suddenly found herself in particularly dire need of some substantial uninterrupted quality time with her Extranet connection.

Getting the appropriate paperwork to access Sammek Aril's various accounts and personal effects wasn't hard. HSA policy guaranteed the validity of any legal ruling anywhere in its territory at any other location also in its territory, so she simply needed to message a branch of the Justice Ministry operating in a time zone where normal business hours were still running. As far as Chen was concerned, the relative ease with which one could navigate its standardized, centralized, systematized bureaucratic system was the only reason she'd ever need to favor the HSA over the IFS and its alphabet soup of successor organizations- although, then again, they probably implemented those policies in the first place specifically to keep people like her happy.

Thus legally armed, it wasn't hard to get a detailed look at the late doctor's finances. A disturbing amount of the human underworld had moved onto Citadel banking platforms in the year since full Council membership, so her entire department had been getting a lot of practice in navigating alien banking systems. Unfortunately, in Aril's case, there wasn't a great deal to actually find- despite his expensive taste in cinema, the turian wasn't in debt to anyone and bought all of his artifacts legitimately through reputable historical conservancy groups.

The information from his automatic door lock, however, was another matter entirely. Several unrelated tech and engineering sites she consulted -including a complete, honest-to-God cryptographic analysis study published by the University of New South Wales- confirmed that the devices did indeed keep logs of every communication device and life sign that passed by them; but the only instructions on how to acquire that data referred to real-time collection. Once uploaded to a remote server in some Hahne-Kedar data center, the garage-dwelling technicians all seemed to agree that the data was for all intents and purposes unreachable.

The Extranet site for the locks themselves included a discreet link in the bottom left corner referring inquiries to a portion of the main Hahne-Kedar main site, but the Hahne-Kedar main site then proved itself able to automatically detect that she was accessing it from an Eden Prime Colonial Police account. It repeatedly switched out the page in she was seeking for something called the "Law Enforcement Expo" offering to sell her police-issue mechs and other technology- as if Chen had anywhere near that level of authority. After half an hour's fiddling she figured out where in her client settings to change her credentials from those of Weihong Chen, Detective to those of Weihong Chen, private citizen, at which point the site finally yielded up an "access request form" which required entering her name, birth date, and other personal information as well as selecting whether fifteen pieces of what appeared to be security footage were "happy" or "sad" to prove that she wasn't a virtual intelligence. She failed the test, twice, before being allowed into a purchase form for the locks that included her home address- which she was reasonably certain she'd never entered on the previous form. There was, however, a "change address" button that allowed her to enter Sammek Aril's, which also didn't work because she was a private citizen and not a police officer. Finally, in minuscule text at the very bottom of the page, she located a members-only voice-over-Extranet link to technical support, where a very polite gentleman or possibly a VI verified her EPCP credentials and informed her that as a citizen of the Turian Hierarchy Aril's data wasn't stored in the main Hahne-Kedar database but rather the affiliate Hahne-Kedar Citadel. Thus, she would have to repeat the entire process again.

At the end of all of it, she discovered that nobody had entered the apartment between the time Sammek Aril himself had the evening before, and she and Mosehni had overridden the security lock.

That was curious. The lock itself, or the remote server, could have been tampered with and the records erased, but all of the methods the garage-dweller tech sites suggested were delicate and time-consuming to effect. That didn't mesh with the obvious haste of the attack on Aril. If the killer had wanted to spend time covering his tracks, he could just as easily knifed or strangled Aril once the doctor had gone inside his apartment- provided he was out of sight, his body might not have been discovered for days until the week-long holiday had ended and he didn't show up to the hospital again.

Chen leaned back in her desk chair and rubbed her eyes. She'd been staring at holographic menus for long enough that she was starting to see license agreements on the inside of her eyelids, so she left her desk and headed for the soda machine in the kitchenette on the far side of the office block.

On her way back, Diet Tupari in hand, she decided to take a slightly different route that passed by Mosehni's desk. To her surprise the junior detective was currently occupying it- Chen had figured he would've gone home once the majority of the paperwork was taken care of, but apparently she hadn't given him enough credit.

"You find anything interesting?" she asked.

"Oh!" He jerked upright in his seat as though electrocuted, then re-situated himself and turned around. "Oh, yeah, actually, I think so. Take a look at this."

He twisted the holoprojector of his terminal around a hundred and twenty degrees so Chen didn't have to look over his shoulder, and tapped a key to enlarge one browser window out of the several dozen that were currently open.

Inside, a group calling itself "Biotics for Healthy Living" accused Doctor Sammek Aril of collaborating with major biotic amp manufacturers to cover up links between the new generation of amps and a variety of virulent cancers, all spelled out in eye-searing yellow and green text against a dark background of repeatedly tiled drawings of brains.

Links off to one side offered more information about the genophage variant currently preventing humans from attaining a "Biblically confirmed" natural lifespan of five thousand years, Saren Arterius's survival following the Battle of the Citadel, an "electron diet" able to cure Vroleg's Syndrome, the "true history" of something called a "Raggedy Anne" doll, and ancient krogan cosmonauts having built the Great Pyramids of Giza.

Another page right next to it claimed Sammek Aril was head of a program deliberately introducing Element Zero into the water supply to "breed a new generation of super-soldiers".

The one immediately after that proposing he was part of an operation filtering naturally-occurring Element Zero out of the water supply to eliminate biotics.

Then the tab after that one was just an incoherent mess of center-justified rainbow text with alternating words boldfaced, having something to do with raising "indigo children" to resist "the pernicious influence of oily tones from Dark Space".

Chen whistled.

Dave shrugged. "It gets even worse from there, I'm afraid. I was just running a regular 'net search to see if there was anyone who'd worked particularly closely with Dr. Aril outside the hospital we might need to interview, and all this stuff started coming up instead. As near as I can tell his actual medical practice is all above board- dude's even got a flat ten out of ten on RateMyDoc, which I didn't even think was possible- but I think he's made a lot of enemies on the fringier side off the Extranet that he probably didn't even know about."

Chen slowed her scrolling as a step-by-step guide on founding an all biotic commune suddenly transitioned into bomb-making instructions mid-sentence. "Fringey with a capital 'F'?"

"Sometimes, kinda, yeah, but mostly anti-Cabal types and different flavors of biotic supremacist."

The senior detective nodded. There'd already been controversy surrounding the HSA's biotic military programs back when she'd been in the Army and they were just starting to actively be implemented, and it hadn't gotten any better since. Some thought Grissom Academy's aggressive recruitment tactics were unethical. Some thought the militarization of biotic training didn't go far enough and wanted blanket conscription. Some said biotics were simply too dangerous to be allowed to move freely through society, or even continue to live. Some seemed to want to prove the previous group right by calling themselves "the next stage in human evolution" and promoting some kind of modern caste system or outright exterminating "the telekinetically challenged". Chen wasn't quite sure how she felt about any of those issues herself, but if anyone on any side of it was willing to kill an innocent medical doctor just to make their point she was more than happy to arrest them.

"Hey..." Dave continued, staring off into space through the glass wall of the building visible over his cubicle partition, "Do you think a biotic could pull somebody over a railing from, like, ground level?"

Chen ran through some quick mental calculations, recalling that the biotic-on-biotic combat in Citadel was supposed to have been praised for its accuracy. "I dunno, maybe? Or from across the street, on one of the other balconies… you'd probably need some kind of military amp to pull it off, but I don't think anybody actually got into the apartment proper, so…"

Officially, the Human Systems Alliance did not monitor or track the movements of biotics in any way. What it did do, however, ever since the Kamarov Incident two decades ago, was routinely sweep spaceports, transit systems, and some public buildings for any traces of Element Zero. Biotics by their very nature showed up on those scans, and were thus obliged to carry around little chipped ID cards that excused them. Since one could easily use biotic Element Zero traces to mask a weapon or bomb, those chips also had to include the exact amount of natural Element Zero in one's system down to the microgram.

Thus, while the Human Systems Alliance officially did not monitor or track the movements of biotics in any way, it wasn't at all difficult for anyone with the legal authority to compel information from the Navi Bhopal branch of the Bureau of Environment and Health to find out who all of the biotics in the city were, what their baseline energy potential was, and most importantly where they had been.

That turned out to be a list of nearly five hundred names, seeing as the city hosted a functioning joint-exercise base, although most of those could subsequently be discounted. Even assuming the best-possible training and the best-possible amp, the amount of Element Zero in most of their systems was simply insufficient to generate the amount of force necessary to inflict the sort of damage seen in Sammek Aril's shoulders from the distance of the building across the street. After about three hours of fiddling with the online "Potential and Effect Calculator" not-that-helpfully provided by the Grissom Academy extranet site, the list shrunk from over five hundred, to forty-four.

Thus began the laborious process of running down contacts, conducting interviews, and double-checking alibis. Even though most of the suspects lived on a military base and thus in theory would have their various goings and doings monitored relatively closely, that was still far from an easy task. Nearly the entire complement of Cooper Wells CFB had been granted leave due to the holiday, and most had made use of it. Modern biotic amps were designed to be partially removable and were thus covered under the same "check in, check out" policies as any other military weapon, but that by no means eliminated the possibility that Aril's killer had gotten a replacement from the black market or otherwise off the record. The problem wasn't that every person of interest on that list of forty-four had an alibi, but rather that most of the persons-of-interest did not. They had all been out moving around in places where they wouldn't necessarily be remembered at the time of Aril's death, and in many cases didn't remember themselves; if one dug deep enough they all had one bizarre political view or another that might in the right light constitute a motive; and they all had among their collections of friends and associates someone who might know someone who might know someone who could get a hold of a military-grade biotic amp. Then again, all of those things were also very likely true about two-thirds of the population of Navi Bhopal that wasn't on the list. Forty-four "prime" suspects was nearly as bad as none at all.

It took nearly a week just to shave those forty-four names down to thirty-six, and the whole time every shocking tidbit of information and misinformation imaginable about the untimely death of Dr. Sammek Aril circulated through the local media like mites in a varren pack.

Then, with zero effort from the Homicide Division, one of the names near the bottom of that list of thirty-six managed to land himself very squarely at the top: a nasty bar fight had started up on the south side of the Theater District in the wee hours of the morning on December 5h, and the police had to be called in to break it up, and by sheer luck one of the responding officers noticed that the primary instigator was a very properly-identified biotic civilian with a very much improper military-grade amp occupying the port implanted in the back of his skull.

That was how Weihong Chen found herself three floors below her usual office in a spare, utilitarian, white-walled observation room, chewing on some reheated pork-fried rice on one side of a two-way mirror while Dave interrogated one Mr. Paul De Vries on the other.

De Vries was big for a human, pushing two meters even, fair-skinned and fair-haired, sporting the ponytail and full beard with lambchop sideburns that had for whatever reason become something of a trend among the tough-guy crowd as of late. He wore combat boots, rumpled brown work pants a size too big for him, and a muscle shirt that probably intentionally- and definitely unfortunately- exposed an impressive number of tattoos: black and luminescent-yellow hazard striping around each bicep; a red blodge at the base of his neck that looked just enough unlike the Final Wave emblem to avoid lawsuits; and a whole lot of vaguely kroganoid text that the translator Chen's shooting glasses informed her read "CDEM Medical Aid Drop Package" and "Sample Text Sample Text". A little red icon helpfully informed her that the second "Sample" was misspelled.

According to the file on the pad in front of her, De Vries had been dumped from Grissom Academy for disciplinary issues at the age of seventeen, then three years later found himself on Eden Prime facing a five-year sentence in a medium-security prison for punting another guy through a prefab wall in an argument. That was a felony, making his possession of an already-restricted military amp doubly illegal. His last listed employment was as a nightclub bouncer, but that was two years ago, and while he had no previously-listed history with biotic extremists this would not be the first time somebody had gotten out of Veale Correctional Facility crazier than when they'd gone in.

Beyond the two-way glass, Dave brandished a small plastic baggie with the contraband amp inside- unlike the old L2 series, the component surgically implanted in De Vries' skull was for all intents and purposes just a standardized socket. "Where'd you get this?" the detective asked.

"I've never seen that before. What is it?" Paul De Vries squinted at the device through bloodshot eyes, and moved to pick it up.

Dave snatched it back with the speed and finesse of a stage magician. "Uh-uh. Nice try. You know damn well what that is, and I wanna know where it came from."

"I dunno." De Vries leaned back and, to Chen's amazement, seemed about ready to prop his feet up on the table before apparently thinking better of it.

"Then how'd it get into the back of your head? Did it just… grow there on its own?"

"I dunno, you're the detective, you tell me."

Chen, for her part, had already taken a look at the device in question and identified it as an old L1-series military implant with the electrodes snipped off to fit in a modern Citadel-standard multifunction port, and numerous additions built from a seemingly random assortment of human, salarian, and batarian components. It had probably originated from a big trade hub like Bekenstein or possibly somewhere in the CIP, but that was ultimately Drugs & Firearms' job to figure out. They'd interrogate De Vries themselves when Mosehni was done with him- for fairly obvious reasons, Homicide had priority.

As planned, Dave abruptly switched topics. "What were you doing on November 21st between seven and eight PM?"

"I was out screwin' around with some buddies. Whuzzat got to do with anything?" While he hadn't looked particularly in command of his surroundings beforehand, Paul De Vries now appeared completely baffled.

"And can I get some names for these… 'buddies'?" Dave waved one hand in a quick 'go on' motion. "Addresses? Omni handles?"

"And what if my buddies ain't in the mood to get hassled by the cops?"

Dave leaned forward and smiled what Chen could only describe as a serial-killer smile- and she knew a thing or two about serial killers. When he wanted to, the junior detective could look and act quite creepy indeed. "Well, then I think that's your problem."

His behavior seemed to have the desired effect, and De Vries sat up a little straighter and seemed to be paying at least nominal attention. "Look, none of us were sober so what's even the point?"

"I don't know, maybe you could tell me." Without waiting for a reply, Mosehni continued, "Does the name 'Sammek Aril' mean anything to you?"

De Vries squinted and rubbed at his temples. "Wazzat, some kinda' skullface restaurant?"

With community newsgroups and local network affiliates currently milking the question "who killed Sammek Aril" for every conceivable viewership eyeball, Chen might've found his ignorance difficult to believe and a good bit suspicious. However, he wasn't by any means the only person they'd interviewed in the last week to have that reaction- it turned out that a good portion of otherwise perfectly normal Navi Bhopalis did indeed just so happen to live under a proverbial rock.

"Not a fan, are you? Of the skullfaces, I mean," Mosehni continued.

"Well they can't drink regular beer, and they're too stick-up-the-ass to be much of any fun to hang out with, I know that. Ugly sons-a-bitches, too, you know if you kill one of 'em in single combat you get to marry his wife, but noo thank you…" Chen wasn't quite sure what to make of that last bit; she knew quite a bit about turian marriage customs, mostly because Dave had decided to explain them at enormous length not long after he and Celanix had gotten involved. The closest thing she could remember was an old unofficial policy allowing the spouse of a murder victim -of any gender- to participate in the firing squad that executed the killer.

"What about… how they treat biotics?" Dave continued. Generally it didn't take much prompting to get Noble Cause types to start rambling and say something incriminating- after all, they wouldn't be Noble Cause types if they didn't have opinions they wanted everybody else to hear.

"What you, mean all that weird cabal shit? They're space aliens, they're damned creepy, everything they do is weird."

That wasn't particularly conclusive, but it also wasn't notably obfuscatory; De Vries' complete non-reactions just weren't giving them much of anything to go on.

Her omnitool buzzed with an incoming message. She scanned through it, then buzzed Dave's omni in turn- their prearranged signal to wrap things up.

"Well, that's a shame, because you're currently suspect number one for using that amp I'm holding to kill a skullface. So in a couple of days, you might be on a be on a ship heading for a turian military prison, and that means you're not gonna be my problem any more." That wasn't remotely how the HSA's extradition process to the Turian Hierarchy worked, but then again De Vries probably didn't know that. Dave was still treading dangerous ground here, though- technically, saying De Vries "might" be extradited to the Hierarchy didn't literally mean anyone was lying about the state of the case against him, but it was still enough to land them both up to their eyeballs in lawyers if he had the sense to talk to anyone about it. Chen would have to talk to the junior detective about this sort of cowboy antics sometime soon. But given the contents of the message she'd just received, soon would have to wait.

Dave braced both hands against the desk, leaned forward, and smiled that serial-killer smile again. "Do you have any idea what they do to guys with krogan tattoos in turian military prison?" Then he stepped outside, shut the door, and left De Vries to stew on that thought for the foreseeable future. Chen took that as her cue to join him.

"This is like interrogating a buggy VI," the junior detective began as soon as she was in earshot, "Any chance you could get a hold of some of that 'truth serum' the military uses?"

"That's not a real thing, Dave, if it was don't you think somebody'd've leaked the formula or whatever by now?"

He shrugged. "Well, you can't blame me for tryin'. I need to sit down and think about this one for a while, there's gotta be something that can get through a skull that thick but damned if I know what it is."

"Actually, I think your friend in there might be going back to the contraband guys a little earlier than we were expecting. I just got a message from Dispatch- there's been another killing."

5. December 2416 AD, Eden Prime

"Ho-lee shit."

After eight years of working for the EPCP Homicide Division in one capacity or another, there weren't very many things left in the galaxy that could truly surprise Weihong Chen. Walking into a tidy, comfortable study to find the corpse of a silver-plated turian woman effectively nailed to the back wall with a half-meter-long serrated blade stuck through her neck was most definitely one of them.

Not really knowing what else to do, the detective flicked open her omnitool and started scanning.

The sword went right through the turian's trachea, but that wasn't what had killed her. Instead, the force of the impact had snapped her head backward so strongly it had broken her neck. The whole thing had probably happened before she'd even realized what was going on; indeed, a quick glance at her hands confirmed that this time her talons were completely retracted.

Chen left the body alone for the time being -according to the call from Dispatch her name was Ta'liira Krytos and she'd lived here with her family for the last seventeen years, not that that was particularly helpful- and adjusted her omni's scanner system to pick up the denser materials of the wall itself. In addition to utterly disintegrating the glass front and plastic backing of Krytos's floor-to-ceiling bookcase, the blade had managed to penetrate about ten centimeters into the sheetrock wall behind it- stress patterns highlighted by her omni's x-ray detector showed that the metal had bent significantly from the force applied at the handle. That was interesting, because unless an object was extremely large -which this sword wasn't- a biotic would probably try to lift it by generating a uniform force across its whole length. This was done by someone actually holding onto the sword.

She cleared the overlay from her HUD and returned her attention to Krytos's body. There were no visible bruises or signs of restraint, and the turian's neck was flush with the back of the bookcase while the back of her head was tilted forward and down. She wasn't held up against the wall and stabbed so much as just run clean through and carried backwards by the sword's own momentum, possibly with a running start. That wasn't how the ancient-weapons enthusiasts who sometimes practiced in the park across from Chen's office used swords; this was more like a rifleman with a bayonet.

After the mysteriously perfect condition of Sammek Aril's apartment, part of Chen had been expecting to find the rest of the study's contents completely undisturbed- apart from the rather obvious presence of its late owner, in any case. That was indeed almost true, but on Krytos's desk one of the two holographic emitters connected to her terminal worktop had in fact been pushed off to one side from what was obviously supposed to be a symmetrical arrangement. Behind it, an open window looked out onto the red-and-blue-lit street outside, and only when something small and black with more than its share of legs few in through the opening did Chen realize it was missing a screen. Looking outside, that proved to be carefully propped up against the house's prefab siding directly underneath, neatly and carefully unscrewed from its mounting.

It didn't seem to be meant to be particularly tamper-resistant. After all, this was a nice, safe, low-crime area of the city, a suburban residential belt near the administration section of Cooper Wells -which, like many military bases in Chen's experience, was split up into multiple geographically remote zones for no readily explicable reason. But that raised other questions. Most notably, it put the Krytos family halfway across the city from Sammek Aril, in an area with few if any other turians.

"Uhh… ma'am? Can we… go in?"

Chen twisted around to find two humans in neat blue uniforms carrying a gravity stretcher standing in the doorway in front of her- and realized she was unintentionally blocking their way. She stepped back out into the house's big combination sitting-room-dining-room-kitchen, and let them get to work.

"So, do we… take the sword downtown with the body? It looks expensive," the female medic asked.

"How do you figure we get it out of the body if we don't?"

"Out of the body? How do we get it out of the wall?"

The entire house was starting to smell like burning cardboard. There was a big round pot of some kind of sauteeing vegetables sitting in the middle of the kitchen, and none of the first responders had thought to turn off the hotplate underneath it. Chen left the medics to their work and stepped out the open front door, wending her way between the squad cars parked outside to try to locate Mosehni.

"Can you tell me… what happened?"

"I was reading, on the back porch, waiting for the stew to finish. Ta'liira had gone into her study to work on her training schedules about an hour before. I heard her… yelp, sort of, surprised more than anything, and then right after that glass shattering and a loud thud. Then it was quiet. I asked if she was all right and she didn't answer, so I went back inside and asked again. She still didn't answer, and she'd left the study door open like she usually did, so I went inside to check on her and found her like… well. I shut the door, ran upstairs to find Litak and Solona, and while I was doing that I was talking to your dispatcher on my omni. You have everything from there."

"No, nothing. I couldn't tell if the screen was attached or not at the time, but I must've been looking that way for about ten minutes, off and on, either directly or, you know, around the display, and I'm positive I would've seen anybody lurking around. I saw Mr. Lethe… uhh, James Lethe from down the street, go past and stop and start walking again, but that's it."

"Must've been about… here when I heard it; from the direction of the window. One big loud noise and then stuff shifting around. I thought somebody inside'd knocked something over, and didn't think much of it…"

"Can you think of anybody who might want to hurt Ta'liira Krytos?"

"Hurt the Krytoses? No… they're… everybody liked them, they never caused any kind of trouble. They've been in this neighborhood for years, I sent my kids to stay over with them when Ashwin and I had to go off-planet for a week, they even came to all of Mickey Washington's stupid outdoor barbecues even though they couldn't eat anything, for Chrissakes! I'm sorry, Detective, I wish I had something more for you, but I just… I can't imagine why anybody'd do this. I really can't."

She found Dave sitting at the kitchen bar in the house across the street, where the remainder of the Krytos family had been temporarily set up. Beyond his perch, an older male turian was sitting on a couch in the sunken living room, holding a small boy with the same bright silver plating as Ta'liira Krytos on his lap and humming something complicated and melodic that Chen's translator couldn't make a lick of sense out of. There was an older girl sitting beside him, leaning on him really, reading the same page over and over again in a physical book filled with text and confusing alien insignia. She looked about fifteen, her fringe just about fully grown in, and Chen found herself wondering if the Hierarchy had any kind of hardship exemption for cases like this or if they were just going to pack the kid off for military service regardless. Then she found herself wondering if, all told, the kid might be better off if they did.

The neighbors -the descendants of first-wave colonists, if their Hindi accents were anything to go by- were talking with what sounded like their own children in the other room, and Dave was fiddling with something on his omnitool as uniformed officers bustled around in the first stages of cleaning up the scene. Chen scuffed her well-worn civilian work boots on the spotless hardwood floor for a few minutes, uncertain what to do, and thought back over the evening's events. There had to be a connection between the murders of Ta'liira Krytos and Sammek Aril; the extreme force inflicted on both of them, and the fact that both killers left zero physical evidence in an area with only one logical entry point that was apparently not used, were too big a coincidence to be ignored. But other than that, the methods employed could not have been more different; and aside from both being turian permanent residents of about the same age there was precious little Krytos and Aril had in common- especially when they were killed halfway across the city from each other.

"Chen. Any luck figuring out what was up with that sword?" Mosehni had, apparently, finished whatever he was doing and stood up at some point during her pacing.

The senior detective shrugged. "I dunno, you're the spiky expert, you tell me."

"I meant something more like, you know, fingerprints."

"We should be so lucky."

There was a long pause. The uniformed cops were starting to clear out, leaving just her and Dave and the locals. "Seriously, though, Dave, I didn't think the sword itself was that important. Krytos had one of those unit banners hanging back opposite her desk, don't those usually have a sword with them? This one didn't, so I figure the killer must've grabbed it on his way in and then… you know." She made a vague, noncommittal upward-stabbing gesture.

Mosehni shook his head. "Actually, no. Ta'liira Krytos was career a hastatim, until they sent her here to teach the Marines close-in urban warfare. She was never in a legion with a ceremonial sword, all the Hastatim Corps units all use this kind of an abstract wire thing." He flicked his omnitool back open, scrolled through a few images, and produced a three-dimensional projection of something that looked like a blind scrap dealer's jungle-gym. "This one's for Celanix's unit, but they all look pretty similar." Now that she had something to compare against, Chen did indeed recall seeing a similar construct on one of Ta'liira Krytos's bookshelves next to her banner. In retrospect it made sense- most of the mainline turian legions had ceremonial swords and other bladed weapons because they traced their jobs all the way back to a time before gunpowder. The Hastatim, however, if Chen was remembering Dave's endless small-talk on turian history correctly, had only existed since the Unification Wars and had no clear earlier analogue. He banished the hologram and frowned. "You know, that sword didn't look like any of the kinds of blades the combat units use, either, at least none that I've seen. I'm not actually sure what it is."

8. December, 2416 AD, Eden Prime

If the newsnets had taken an outsized interest in Sammek Aril's case beforehand, the murder of Ta'liira Krytos sent them into an outright orgy of speculation. Seemingly overnight every Extranet talking-head on local broadcast had somehow become a qualified criminologist, social psychologist, or "xenosocial relationship dynamics therapist", whatever that was. The tip line downstairs had to pull in a dozen additional desk officers and three VI programmers to cope with the flood of anonymous contributions- and the VI guys did not work cheap. A disturbing number of tips even found their way directly into Weihong Chen's personal inbox alongside the endless promotions she was now receiving from Hahne-Kedar Citadel, and subsequently proved to be just about as helpful. The turian MPs were forced to station armed guards outside the tiny mausoleum at Cooper Wells to deter pilgrims- some with gifts and flowers, and many more with cameras. The name "Xenograd Killer" was quickly floated, over the protestations of pedantic commentators who remembered that only a single victim had actually lived in the famously turian-heavy part of the city.

Thus, only an hour after making the call to Base Services, Chen and her partner had an unlimited-duration appointment to sit in the comfortably messy office of the turian military detachment's chief historian, who turned out to be a volus Auxiliary Forces officer by the name of Major Ben Folokh.

"This -hsssk- is the murder weapon?" The Major asked, peering with beady mechanical eyes at a three-dimensional reconstruction of the blade they'd found in Ta'liira Krytos's neck- the genuine article was in an evidence locker downtown and wouldn't be seeing the light of day again for a very long time indeed. Someone -Chen's money was on one of the paramedics- had leaked some of the gorier crime-scene photos to NB-Net's social media pages about a day ago, but it was possible Ben hadn't looked at those. The detective couldn't blame him… couldn't blame her? Ben's entry in the base directory didn't say and damned if Chen could tell.

NB-Net, for their part, had decried the flagrant invasion of a grieving family's privacy, dutifully repeated the EPCP's warnings about encouraging copycat killers, and then run the pictures anyway.

For a while the archivist just sat there, seemingly immobile and inanimate save for repeated, periodic wheezes. Despite the claims repeated on the volus embassy's extranet page that their pressure suits were more comfortable for them than many types of civilian clothing were for the more temperate species, Chen thought his raspy breathing and slow movements looked downright painful.

"The victim was a member of the Third Hastatim Legion, Sixth Order, working as an urban warfare instructor with the, uhh, HSAMC Five-Sixteenth Training Battalion," Dave supplied, no doubt fully aware that if anyone in the city already knew that information it would be the head archivist for all turian units at Cooper Wells.

"Well, -hsssk- I'm afraid I can't tell you how it ended up with Krytos," the Major finally said, "-hsssk- But I thank you for seeing it returned. "These markings here -hsssk-" with Ben's three-fingered claw twisting a control, the hologram zoomed in on a particular golden symbol that to Chen's eyes looked just as indecipherable as the others adorning the blade, "belong to the First Blackwatch Legion, Eighth Order… -hsssk-... that's Saren Arterius's old unit! -hsssk- Their barracks was destroyed during the geth attack -hsssk- and some of their regalia was never recovered."

"Do you think we can take a look at it?" the senior detective asked, "the barracks, I mean." There were all sorts of people who would be interested in filching a historical artifact like that, for reasons financial or otherwise- after all, Saren Arterius had been dead and disgraced for nearly two years and was still apparently receiving about two or three marriage proposals each week. Most of the people who might be interested in the Spectre's old gear were unlikely to use it to kill a seemingly unrelated woman and then leave it behind, but a lead was a lead.

"-hsssk- Base security can probably get you a pass, -hsssk-, but I don't think you'll find anything. The -hsssk- cleanup crews swept through there right after the attack… -hsssk-" Ben banished the image of the sword and pivoted his terminal around to type away at something Chen couldn't see, "and I'm afraid all their reports are classified."

Chen vividly remembered being press-ganged into standing guard alongside hundreds of other "nonessential" officers right after the attack, while those same HSA military crews had descended on Navi Bhopal like hazmat-suited locusts and removed entire blocks' worth of material wherever there was the slightest bit of damage. A report by the Engineering and Infrastructure Board claimed they'd ultimately excised a solid one percent of the city by mass, and scandals were still winding their way through Colonial Affairs regarding misplaced bodies and emergency services being pulled away from life-or-death rescue efforts to secure seemingly unimportant areas.

Anything that might've been of interest at that barracks had no doubt been carefully collected, analyzed, catalogued, and then buried in a database somewhere far outside of the reach of mere homicide detectives like Weihong Chen. Such was the downside of the supremely efficient colonial infrastructure of the HSA.

Dave was fiddling with his omnitool again, and Chen realized he'd pulled up both Aril and Krytos's case files as well as Saren Arterius's public Codex page. "Hey, Chen, notice something about these guys?" He twisted his hand around and the senior detective took that as permission to begin scrolling down through the projected articles. In Saren's, the section labeled "Death" contained about three lines of text before a subheader reading "Theories of Survival" and a bulleted list filling up the entire rest of the page. "No no, up top."

Chen returned to the box of biographical information at the top of each page. "They're all… close to the same age? Or, well, Saren would be if he was alive."

"On the Palaven calendar they're exactly the same age." The junior detective turned back to Ben Folokh, rubbing his hands together and grinning like a kid on Christmas. "Major, can you tell me what Sammek Aril, Ta'liira Krytos, and Saren Arterius were all doing right after they started compulsory service?"

"-hsssk- Saren's record is sealed, I'm afraid, but I can, -hsssk- pull up the others and, -hssk-" More tapping ensued, and the strange little plastic mustachios on either side of Ben's snout shifted outward. "That's odd. -hsssk- Both of the victims participated in the same demonstration exchange program with human military. -hsssk- Look," a three-fingered claw pointed at a particular line of text, "Saren Arterius is -hsssk- listed as well."

Dave's smile took on an almost predatory quality. "How many other people were in this program?"

"Over -hsssk- three hundred. It was a multi-branch diplomatic effort covering -hsssk- medics, technicians, and support staff as well as -hsssk- naval and ground combat forces."

It was beginning to dawn on Chen exactly what her partner was thinking. "Can you tell me how many of the participants either are or were on Eden Prime over the last… let's say six months?"

"-hsssk- Seventy-six."

That made sense; people involved in the early joint exercise programs typically kept up with that kind of work. "How many of those are currently in Navi Bhopal?"

"Four. There's -hsssk- only four. Physician-Colonel Sammek Aril, Captain Ta'liira Krytos, -hsssk- Technician-Major Quintillius Raban, and Master Sergeant Venari Drecius."

Now, that was interesting.

"Is that last one the same Venari Drecius who was killed about a month ago? The guy who ran the Half-Track Restaurant?" Dave asked.

"… indeed, -hsssk-, but I don't know what any of that would…"

Chen thought back to her own boot camp days. She'd gone on to serve out her deployment with a good number of the same people she'd trained with, which was pretty standard HSA policy. She'd married one of those people, and still corresponded with several of the others. She didn't know if the turians had that same approach, but if their killer was a human who'd served in the human military- and now that she thought about it only the humans and batarians used charging-style bayonets as close-quarters weapons- it might not matter. She turned back again to Dave's still-open omnitool and the kilometer-long list of conspiracy theories in the Codex article it was displaying. "Saren. I think our perp's trying to get to Saren Arterius by killing his old boot-camp buddies. But Saren's not listening, so he's getting more and more desperate each time. That's why his MO keeps changing. And Venari Drecius wasn't just mugged…"

"He was just the start of that escalation," Dave finished for her. "Fucker's getting bolder, he's getting more confident, he's starting to show off."

Ben's metal eyelids disappeared into their housings. "Wait, but if what -hssk- you're saying is correct…"

"Major," Chen continued, "I think it'd be really great if you could put us in touch with base security and have them get this Quintilius Raban guy to a safe location, sooner rather than later."

9. December 2416 AD, Eden Prime

"… so I'm proposing we exploit this obsession. If our mark is trying to make some kind of a statement by knocking off Saren's old training buddies, then we give him an obvious time and place to go for Raban, in a controlled environment where we have officers waiting and ready to go to move in on him."

Chen swiveled her chair slightly to try to gauge the reactions of each of the officers sharing the bland little Homicide Division conference room with her. The division director, an imposing older Congolese gentleman by the name of Dominic Atu, didn't look particularly impressed, but then again he rarely looked otherwise. Tokka Avissian, their liaison with the turian military police currently guarding Quintillius Raban, looked more openly interested. Dave, of course, already knew what her presentation was going to contain. The only person she couldn't get a good read on was also the only unfamiliar officer in the room, a tall, light-skinned man -pale, really- with hair the color of wet sand and dull blue-gray eyes behind thin, metal-framed rectangular glasses. The tag on his blue dress uniform provided the name "MORAVEK" and included the emblem of EPCP Central Administration, which was strange because nobody from Central Administration ever bothered to wear a dress uniform unless they were attending a commendation ceremony or a funeral; Atu and Avissian were both wearing regular civilian suits.

Across from the newcomer, Mosehni fiddled with his omnitool for a few seconds and then managed to successfully project an article about memorial ceremonies commemorating the second anniversary of Saren's attack on the Citadel onto the conference room's big wall-mounted display screen. "How's this for bait? We get NB-Net to run a video interview with Raban, about Saren, as part of their programming for the anniversary? They promote it all over the city ahead of time, planet-wide and if we can swing it get HSA-wide or Citadel syndication. Make sure everyone knows about it."

The big Extranet news sites had indeed been pulling a lot of turian-focused content from Eden Prime in general and Navi Bhopal in particular recently. Conspiracy theories about entire colonies disappearing in the Attican Traverse had made the joint exercises occurring at Cooper Wells suddenly interesting again after nearly a decade of relative obscurity. Convincing a gaggle of media execs to participate in a stakeout might be a tough sell, but if they got exclusive information on the arrest of the much-promoted "Xenograd Killer" out of the deal, Chen figured they could probably make it work. Dominic Atu could be pretty persuasive when he wanted to be.

The Director nodded. "On a soundstage, we can control entry and exit, watch everything, and make sure Raban's protected. I think I'm starting to understand."

For the first time since they'd all sat down, Mr. 'MORAVEK' opted to speak up. "Is… is Raban… have you told him about this?" He had a strange accent that Chen couldn't quite place, more of an anti-accent really, like those VI announcement systems that were deliberately programmed not to sound like they came from anywhere in particular. "Is he OK with this?"

"He's a turian," Mosehni answered, "He'll do what it takes to keep himself and his friends safe."

Avissian still didn't seem convinced; her mandibles were still twitching in and out slightly. "What's this… interview going to be about?" she finally asked, "What's the Major going to say?"

"He can say anything he wants," Chen supplied, "just as long as it sounds convincing and chews up thirty minutes of airtime. We can script out the whole thing, questions and answers, and have the studio people put it all on a holoprompter for him. You know, like a Parliament subcommittee hearing!"

Nobody laughed.

"I don't know," Dominic Atu finally said. "This is an awful risk, and mostly based on guesswork. All we really know about this… 'Xenograd Killer'," Chen could pick up on the Director's palpable distaste for the name, "is that he goes to great lengths to keep himself from ever being seen. What makes you think he'll put in an appearance in front of eight different cameras?"

"He wants to keep himself hidden, sure," Dave retorted, "But I'll wager he wants an audience for what he does. Weather permitting, Sammek Aril went out on his balcony for an hour at sundown every single day, just like clockwork. Why'd the, uhh, Xenograd Killer wait until Lakshmi Pujan of all nights to toss him off? Ta'liira Krytos liked to hike out in the Kolars on weekends; why go to her house to kill her? Why wait until there was a witness to attack Venari Drecius?"

MORAVEK stared into the disposable plastic cup sat directly in front of him. He'd filled it with plain black coffee right at the start of the meeting, and hadn't touched it since.

Tokka Avissian's mandibles pulled back inward. "Right now, we don't even know if Drecius was actually connected. Until you can get me some kind of physical evidence linking these incidents together I just can't characterize the leads this whole operation depends on as anything but speculative at best."

"And what if the man does show up?" Atu continued, "He's been very adept at avoiding detection so far, and shown a great variety in his methods. I'm not certain we can guarantee the safety of Tech Major Raban or the studio staff."

Chen had been expecting this sort of resistance. That was exactly why she'd decided to propose this scheme now and not later. It'd take time for people like Atu to get over their -wholly understandable- caution. "These are all valid concerns," she said aloud, "and we're still actively going over everything related to the Drecius case…"

"… we just wanted to keep everybody informed of our progress." Mosehni finished, as agreed. "Although since there is a relatively narrow window available for us to do this in," he waved back at the memorial announcement on the big screen, and the famous holographic display board that adorned the entire front section of NB-Net Studio Tower on the other side of the park. If Chen had known it would be visible through the conference room's windows, she wouldn't have bothered downloading it to his omni. "Since this'll take some time to fully set up, we thought it might be a good idea to start taking preliminary steps to reach out to the studio, even if we end up not going through with this."

Dominic Atu took a long, slow sip of his own coffee, staring off at nothing in particular. Tokka Avissian flicked open her omnitool and began scrolling through a collection of Palaveni-language reports Chen couldn't make much sense of, occasionally typing in a few annotations as she went. Then, quite unexpectedly, MORAVEK slapped one hand against the imitation-wood table, nearly upending his drink. "The detective's right," he said without a trace of hesitation. "I think we should proceed immediately."

David Mosehni turned to look at the man in dress blues, doing a very good job of hiding his absolute confusion. Avissian and Atu both just sat there in silence for a good long while.

Finally, the Director leaned forward. "I'm… sorry?"

"I mean, what are our alternatives? Do nothing?" MORAVEK shook his head. "If we're wrong and we go through with it we don't lose anything but money. If we're right and we don't… worst case scenario our guy gets desperate, and kills somebody else, or a lot of somebody elses, before we can get to him. Best case he gives up, and disappears, and Major Raban spends the rest of his life looking over his shoulder and checking in the closet every night when he comes home, and Litak and Solona Krytos never get so much as a bone chip to lay in front of their mother's grave."

Dave raised an eyebrow and whistled, softly. Chen, for her part, wasn't entirely sure what that last bit had even meant, but it certainly seemed to have had a pretty significant impact on Captain Avissian. She turned to Dominic Atu and nodded, ever so slightly.

"I… suppose I could go ahead and contact NB-Net," the Director finally said, drawing out each word as if he was trying to disarm something explosive, "The head of programming still owes me… a few favors, from the raid on Cooper Wells."

"I'll go ahead and run this proposal past Major Raban," Avissian added, "The sooner we get him in the loop the better."

"That won't be necessary," MORAVEK said, just slowly enough to avoid cutting off the end of her sentence completely. "I'll take care of all the details." He interlaced his hands together in front of him, one knuckle barely nudging his untouched coffee cup an infinitesimal distance forward. Chen realized the entire time he had been holding a slim metal stylus in between his thumb and forefinger; the kind that came with expensively old-fashioned glass data tablets, although no such device was anywhere in evidence. "Detective, keep looking into this Drecius business. Maybe you can find something else that'll give us an edge over this… Xen-o-grad Killer. You've all done excellent work so far, and very soon I predict it'll start to pay off."

28. December 2416 AD, Eden Prime

Chen had anticipated that the next few weeks would be extremely busy for her and Mosehni, and indeed they were. There was, after all, a lot that had to be done in a very short period of time. An appropriate soundstage had to be selected, and made defensible with multiple fallback positions, calculated sightlines, and cleverly-concealed armor grade plating in the backdrop. Wherever possible, studio staff had to deliver a crash course on how to carry out their jobs to veteran plainclothes officers who would be replacing them. Meetings and visits had to be canceled to guarantee that the absolute fewest number of people possible would be in the studio building the day of the event. The few absolutely essential staff had to be run through training as comprehensive as possible on what to do if things got unpleasant- which essentially boiled down to "hit the ground, stay still, and don't try to do anything heroic". The city's lawyers, NB-Net's lawyers, and NB-Net's business insurance company's lawyers all had to sit down over the course of several different 24-hour marathon meetings in order to make sure that everyone was properly indemnified against everything that could possibly transpire. Even as the building around them was rapidly being fortified, the newsroom staff had to work around the clock to hastily assemble all of the promotional materials and networking necessary for a major expose on Saren Arterius's younger years. There was a long and nasty debate about whether or not Raban and the reporter conducting his 'interview' should actually be onstage, or if the Xenograd Killer could possibly be fooled by color holography; eventually someone came up with a complicated system of good old-fashioned mirrors to keep both of them off to one side and presumably out of danger. And all of it had to be done under some measure of secrecy, lest the entire purpose of the operation be undone before it began.

The only problem was that Weihong Chen and David Mosehni weren't really allowed to have much of anything to do with any of it. All of the big decisions, it seemed, were being made more or less without any external input by a gradually-shrinking committee that had once consisted of Dominic Atu, Tokka Avissius, the media execs from NB-Net, and the Mysterious Mr. MORAVEK; before too long at had shrunk down to just Atu and the execs and MORAVEK without Avissius, and now it was looking like Atu himself had been given the boot and it was just MORAVEK and the executives.

In the meantime, the two detectives who were still nominally in charge of the case were being run ragged with what Chen could only describe as busywork. Some of it was important but not urgent, like tracking down who'd leaked the photos of Ta'liira Krytos's corpse, and then suddenly became urgent for no reason that she could tell. Some of it was simply pointless, like following up on every anonymous tip from every Joe Chemtrail in the greater Navi Bhopal area who was positive his neighbor was the ringleader of an entire spiky-killing cult with people all the way up to the Chancellor's Cabinet. None of it was in any way related to the loose ends still remaining in the Venari Drecius case. She pursued each lead anyway- with Central Administration peering over her shoulder, sometimes literally, at every opportunity, there wasn't much opportunity to do otherwise.

Thus, it was only about half an hour before the 'expose' was scheduled to go live that she was finally able to manage to schedule an interview with the sole witness to Drecius's supposed mugging. She'd initially been a little concerned that they'd been wrong about the killer's target selection, and that he'd forget about Raban and take advantage of the delay to kill someone else entirely, but thus far nothing untoward had happened. Indeed, even as Dave piloted their four-seat patrol shuttle deep into the backstreets of the Caeau Blodaua district, the police communication net remained blessedly, unexpectedly quiet.

The name "Caeu Blodaua" was supposedly Welsh for something along the lines of "Flower Fields", although in fact it contained no fields and few if any flowers. Back during the early days of Navi Bhopal and of Eden Prime in general, it was decided that the Hindus -who were, at the time, still a narrow majority- were exerting an "undue influence" on the city's culture and Navi Bhopal should instead "represent the totality of human culture". Thus arose the multilingual morass of Welsh, English, and the odd standouts like the mangled-Russian Xenograd. At about that same time, the Colonial Planning Working Group had decided to aggregate a variety of unsightly city services- sewage treatment, solid waste recycling, and the like- into one single, efficient, environmentally friendly district. This actually worked out fairly well for the first few decades, but then the tensions that would eventually flare into the Fringe Wars had led to political compromises and the dismantling of the CPWG as a political entity. Zoning restrictions were lifted, city services were privatized, shady developers moved in, and little by little Caeu Blodaua became the very-definitely-bad side of what was supposed to be a model city on a model colony of an upstanding Council member species.

Dave set them down in the middle of an empty lot that looked like it might once have been someone's attempt at a park, although any benches or playground equipment it may once have possessed had long since been disassembled for scrap metal. If they'd come in an unmarked, wheeled car like Chen had originally planned, their vehicle might in short order have been confronted with the same fate, even at four in the afternoon. ECPC unmarked cars included a small trade show's worth of security lockouts and alarms, of course, but that wouldn't stop the enterprising residents of Caeu Blodaua from making a scene when they tried. Neither detective particularly needed a scene right now, but fortunately there was something about a converted Turian Army four-seater pursuit shuttle topped with strobing red-and-blue lights that very effectively communicated "fuck off if you know what's good for you".

Just down the street from the park was a grubby little prefab apartment complex. Kicking aside plastic garbage bags and stepping over puddles of things best not thought about too deeply, they made their way over the sidewalk to it and up the stairs to the shared balcony on the second level. Chen spared a look at the file on her omnitool and continued on down the discolored plastic until she was standing in front of Apartment 210- "Chett Durham".

Dave gave the buzzer button on the keypad a few experimental taps, then banged on the door itself with one hand after the pad failed to produce any visible sign of activity. That initiated a faint but audible process of shuffling, shifting, clicking and rattling, at which point the door finally opened to reveal a rail-thin, light-skinned, prematurely balding human man. His eyes were slightly bloodshot, his T-shirt and track pants wrinkled and stained with sweat, and what thinning red hair he possessed was braided into a sort of skinny little tail that flopped down in front of his right ear. That was probably fashionable somewhere, although it hadn't been present in the photo ID the city database had pulled up. Weird.

"Look, for the sixth time I'm tellin' y'alls, I don't-" His heavily-accented voice cut off abruptly as he seemed to finally register that both of the people in front of him were wearing badges- or at least what passed for badges. Chen still hadn't forgiven the EPCP for replacing their old, durable, easy-to-recognize metal cards with a little strip of luminescent plastic. "Can I… help you?" he finally asked.

"Uhh, yeah," Dave paused for a moment, seeming to gather his wits, and then continued, "I'm Detective David Mosehni, this is Detective Weihong Chen. We'd like to ask you a couple of questions…" Further down the balcony, a man with the same stupid caution-stripe tattoos as Paul De Vries was eyeing them suspiciously from where he sat in a folding chair, feeding chunks of sandwich to a miserable-looking animal that might have been a Doberman pinscher before someone had buried it under an additional ten kilos or so of genetically engineered muscle. "… Can we step inside?"

Durham's watery eyes narrowed still further. "Y'all got a warrant?"

"No." Dave idly flicked open his omnitool. "Should we get one?"

Durham seemed to mull that over for a little while, before he stepped out of the doorway. "Go on ahead."

Chen hadn't been able to get a good look at the interior of Durham's apartment from the balcony- the famous Navi Bhopal sun was out in full force today, and he didn't seem to have turned on the lights. Now that she was inside it, she discovered the place to be packed with every imaginable kind of junk- from video game consoles, to display screens, to sports equipment, to empty food containers, the only commonality being that none of it looked in anything close to usable condition and all of it was filthy. The only real trend seemed to be a marked fondness for posters and collectibles related to several the weird, computer-generated asari Extranet series that had been trickling into the HSA recently with new English translations.

This one seemed to feature almost exclusively busty, primary-colored asarianoid creatures possessed of two, three, or four pairs of arms each, all engaged in a variety of mundane maintenance, agricultural, and office tasks. Back when Chen had been growing up, the only alien media available had been mindlessly literal overdubs of turian military epics- and those had been plenty good enough, god dammit. There were still entire Extranet communities dedicated to explaining how it was not only acceptable but enhanced one's understanding of the narrative of The Five Companions of Tokka Lorthus to refer to the demonic Nightmare Akizzra as "The Moon's Bad Sleep-Thought"; and that the first squad to land on the shores of Elapri should indeed be composed of Fire, Nurse, Star, Scientist, Muscles, Kevin, and Ross H. Strømsjordet.

Chett Durham scraped some old pizza boxes off of a sofa that might in fact have originally been that awful shade of yellowish brown; it was difficult to tell with any certainty. "Why… uhh, why don't y'all go ahead and have a seat?"

Dave adroitly navigated one of the narrow foot-paths through Durham's garbage collection and perched himself on the very edge of the sofa.

"I prefer to stand," Chen said.

"Suit yourself," Durham joined Dave on the opposite side of the couch. "So, uhhh, what can I do y'all for?"

"We'd just like to follow up on the report you gave Officer Rethko on… the mugging you witnessed," Dave supplied.

"Oh! Oh, yeah, damn shame, that…" Durham squirmed slightly in place and drummed his hand against the top of a stack of empty cardboard boxes. "But, I mean, I already told the other guy everything that'd happened…"

Chen had read up on the Drecius mugging in one of her few quiet moments back downtown about two days ago- she'd wanted to simply bring the case file home with her, but it was suddenly disallowed for anyone to take that kind of data off of EPCP official terminals.

Venari Drecius had lived on Eden Prime for about a decade; he'd made a career as a noncom in a Hierarchy armored division until a nasty neurological injury had left him blind in one eye and reliant on some form of seizure medication. At that point, he'd mustered out and opened what would become the famous Half-Track Cafe. According to his friends and waitstaff he'd been fond of exploring unfamiliar parts of the city, often on foot at unusual hours, and that was what had brought him into the rougher side of the theater district at a little after twenty-two-thirty on November 4th. That was where the testimony of his coworkers ended and Chett Durham's began.

According to the initial statement, Durham had been closing up the retail strip where he worked as a janitor and hadn't actually seen Venari Drecius confronted by anyone, but had heard the gunshots that had presumably led to the turian's demise and immediately come running. He'd found a human male in a hooded, dark gray coat searching through Drecius's clothing; this individual spotted Durham almost immediately and took off down an alley between two shops, and rather than pursue the janitor had decided to call emergency services and attempt to minister to the fallen noncom. At that point Drecius had still been alive, but unconscious and fading fast; paramedics had arrived in under three minutes with an EPCP patrol shuttle not far behind, but on his way to the more comprehensive medical facility at Cooper Wells Drecius had expired from a combination of blood loss and massive seizures brought on by his plummeting blood pressure.

The conclusion that it had been a mugging at all was more speculative than Chen had liked. An immediate search on foot and camera of the surrounding area hadn't turned up anyone matching Durham's description of the assailant, and while all of Drecius's credit chits had indeed been taken his expensive Citadel-made omnitool had been left behind. Furthermore, the detective in charge of the case had found it particularly odd that the victim's Hierarchy ID card had been taken out and left sitting face-up next to him, away from his other personal effects. Ultimately it had been decided that one of the paramedics must have moved it- none of them specifically remembered doing such, but they'd of course been focused on other things at the time, and the fact that all of them were wearing gloves would explain the lack of fingerprints. Even two years after the geth attack the EPCP were still somewhat undermanned as far as patrol officers went, so if Chen was being entirely honest with herself the initial search of the area probably hadn't been that exhaustive, and by that same token this was by no means the only cold case someone in her department had simply had to stop pursuing.

Back on the couch, Dave asked "You're sure there's nothing you left out. Maybe something you didn't think could be important, or maybe it was… too crazy to believe?"

Chen wanted to add "Like Drecius actually got shot from around a corner, or from a direction you were looking right at and didn't see anyone," but knew better than to potentially lead their witness on.

Durham's face scrunched up in concentration for a few seconds, and then he shook his head. "Eeeh… nope."

"Really?" the senior detective asked, and then flipped over a reader pad sitting on the table to reveal a small stack of turian credit chits. "Then what's his money doing in your apartment?"

Unlike the multiple others scattered at random around the apartment, that pad had still been on when she and Mosehni had arrived; indicating that it had been moved some time in the last minute.

Navi Bhopal really needed better criminals.

She figured the only reason Durham even still had the money was that his dealer or loan shark or fence or what-have-you knew it was connected to a Hierarchy account number, and followed the local news, and knew better than to accept a dead man's credits. There were people in Caeu Blodaua who could make that not a problem, of course, but people like that didn't talk to people like Chett Durham without a substantial down payment.

"Hey, hey, whadda y'all's doin', y'all can't do that, listen-" Durham lept to his feet with surprising swiftness, but Chen was faster. She planted an arm on his shoulder and sat him right back down again.

"You know, tampering with a crime scene and making a false statement are both serious charges," Dave continued, "especially in a felony murder case. But the prosecutor's office might be willing to overlook this kind of thing if it gets us a lead on someone a lot worse- like, you know, the guy they're calling the Xenograd Killer? Of course, if you can't help us, we'll just have to tell the turian military police that our best guess for who killed Venari Drecius is the guy who currently has his money." He leaned in close. "Do you have any idea what they do to murderers in turian military prison?"

Visibly shaking, Durham looked back to Detective Chen. "Fine, fine, OK, look, I really needed the money for… a friend of mine, who's going through… going through a tough spot right now, and… and… look, the only reason I told the other guy there was a mugger was 'cause if I told y'all the truth I was worried y'all'd think I was back on the hard stuff."

Dave nodded, slowly. "Go on…"

"So, I saw the guy. The spiky. Dressy… uhhh, what y'all said. Before he got shot, you see. I thought that was weird, you know, 'cause they dun' usually come down to that part a' town, y'know? But he's walkin' along, mindin' his own spiky business, and he sees somethin' outside the store, you know, down the street, and he stops. And this soldier-lookin' guy comes up to him, you know, helmet, body armor, the whole nine yards, looks beat halfway to shit, and they talk for a little while. I can't hear what they're sayin, ex-ectly, but it dun sound like a fight or nothin', and then this soldier guy just pulls out a gun and shoots the spiky. Just right in the middle a' the street, three times in the chest. I'm just standin' there, I dunno what to do…" By now Durham's voice had taken on an almost pleading quality, "and the soldier guy goes through the spiky's stuff, and then he turns around and I swear to God he looks right at me, and this is the weirdest part, he starts to shimmer. And he just kinda half-fades away, right there in the middle a' the street. When he's just a kinda' ripply rainbow shape he goes off, and that's when I finally thought ta' grab my omni and call somebody." The janitor sat his hands on his knees and shook his head. "And that's the honest truth, I swear to God."

Chen looked at Mosehni. Mosehni looked at Durham. Durham remained fixated on the little patch of clear floor between his feet.

"I think we should talk outside," Dave finally said.

"So..." Chen asked, as they let the apartment door slide shut behind them. The tattooed bruiser and his freak of a dog had at some point left to parts unknown. "What do they do in turian military prison?"

The junior detective shrugged. "I dunno, but I bet right now that reject in there is thinking of something a lot more fucked-up than anything we could come up with."

Chen scuffed one boot against the smudged concrete. "You know, this all reminds me of something. Back when I was in the Army, we had to share a troopship out to the Skyllian Verge with some special forces troops. 'ASOC', they were called. Very hush-hush, they didn't really talk to anyone, but I managed to get into one of the armories where they were testing their gear." In fact, she'd left a datapad full of systems checks in there the night before, and only realized she was going to need it just before her shift had started, "They were using some kind of… optical camo, I guess, that worked a lot like what that guy was going on about."

Dave nodded. "You think that's what our guy is? What's he got against Saren? Where'd he get that kind of gear?"

"I dunno, but they say a lotta special forces guys got killed when Cooper Wells got hit. Maybe he's out for revenge?" If that was the case, that said some troubling things about the accuracy of their target profile. "Doesn't explain the damage he did to Krytos's neck and Aril's shoulders, though… those guys are tough, but not superhuman, and they don't really have, like, motion-amp armor or anything." They were also rarely if ever biotics.

"Well, you know, the spikies have all kinds of enhancement drugs for the Aux-Forces guys." Chen had indeed heard about those; the goal of the Turian Auxiliaries, after all, was to create as much of a standardized force as possible from highly disparate recruits, so the idea of making their humans as fast as salarians and their salarians as hardy as humans held obvious appeal. "If these guys are really that good at getting in and out of places undetected…"

"They're the best," Chen confirmed, then quickly found herself wondering if a raid on Cooper Wells itself was even necessary. In terms of the actual population of Navi Bhopal there'd been extremely little looting following the geth attack, but a few opportunists had made off with a disproportionate amount of other people's property- including from the wreckage of the military base. Turian weapons and stims were still showing up on the black market from time to time, and likely would continue to do so for years.

"… he might've just walked off with a whole pack of levo stims without anybody even noticing."

Chen was already making her way down the stairs and back to the shuttle, mentally rehearsing everything she knew about the security precautions put in place at Studio Tower, Chett Durham more or less forgotten. "If he's not a biotic, and isn't using some kind of… power armor, or something… you can't jam stims, Dave."

"Christ, then I don't think the SWAT teams we called in're gonna be much more than a speed bump to this guy."

She climbed into the shuttle's pilot seat and powered it on; fired the thrusters and started gaining altitude while Dave was still pulling the passenger-side door closed. Then she hit the sirens, which didn't really accomplish anything because only emergency services and the extremely wealthy had access to personal aircraft in Navi Bhopal and there was zero congestion above street level, but it was the spirit of the thing.

Without needing to be asked, Dave turned on the shuttle's comm system and paged the operations center at Kolar Park.

There was a brief exchange of electronic blips before a male human's voice became audible. "Shuttle Echo One-Nine-Two, this is Sergeant Negel with operations command; would you mind telling me why the hell you're heading right for us?"

"Chuck, it's Dave," the junior detective answered, "Chen and I finally got a chance to follow up on the Drecius case and I think we were wrong about our guy using biotics. I need you to get them to move Quintilius Raban to a more enclosed location right now, OK?"

Underneath their shuttle, the smog-covered lowrises of Caeu Blodaua were rapidly transitioning into broad, blocky utilitarian structures of a more respectable industrial district; Chen could see the thick gray band of one of the big highways leading into Downtown cutting through it off to the left.

Someone else was talking to Negel on the other side of the comm link, too quiet and far away for Chen to make any sense of. After a few seconds the sargent came back more clearly: "Listen, I've got a half-dozen different Central Admin types crawling all over my trailer, and every plainclothes cop in the city inside that building, and three different SWAT teams waiting on standby in the parking garage, and the whole place is wired up with kinetic barriers and eezo detectors and shit I've never even heard of before. You want me to mess with any of that setup, you're gonna have to give me a little bit more to go on, okay?"

They were passing over the old theater district now, almost unrecognizable in daylight without its usual coating of neon and holograms. That marked the rough halfway point to the city center, where the sensible square blocks were replaced by the older, radial street map.

"Well he's not a biotic, he's a sneaky sonofabitch who likes to get in close, so none of that's gonna do Raban any good," Chen countered, "You need to tell people to keep checking for shimmers or visual aberrations consistent with optical camouflage. If there's… I dunno, dust or sand or concrete powder somewhere in the park I want somebody to try and spread it around as much as possible."

"Wait, optical camo? You mean like the Spec Ops Ultras in Fringe Command?" Negel asked, then laughed nervously.

"Exactly like that, actually," Dave said.

They passed over the spaceport, and a flashing orange icon on the shuttle's console informed Chen that she was entering a Class Safety-IV no fly zone. She ignored it. They would've lost something like a minute and a half going around.

"You can't be serious," Negel snapped.

"I'm totally serious. And Raban's gonna be in a lot of trouble really, really soon if you don't do what I say."

"… Fine. Yeah. Ok, fine. Just give me… just give me two minutes." Chen heard the sound of fingers on a keyboard and shifting office furniture, and the communications connection went silent. Then after a little over thirty seconds other voices began to come through.

"Overwatch East, nothing's happening."

"Overwatch West, nothing at the service entrance."

"Sound room's all good, they're just sitting there talking."

"Nothing in the front lobby, I'm not… wait a minute, I think that plant just moved… What the-" The comm system picked up the sound of boots on carpet. "HOLD IT! DOWN! DOWN ON THE GROUND, PUT YOUR HANDS BEHIND YOUR HEAD!" After that came the unmistakable sound of gunfire- more than one weapon, from more than one direction. Then the signal cut out entirely.

"Front lobby? Chatterjee? Chatterjee please respond!" Negel demanded, and then after a few seconds, "We just lost everything out to the parking lot. Dammit, can somebody get Moravek on the line?"

They were close enough to see the NB-Net tower downtown, now. The big holographic media wall was currently displaying the most evil-looking image of Saren Arterius the network executives could find that didn't have him doing anything that violated broadcast content standards, with a bright red "ERROR" message in the center.

"Hold on everybody, we're almost there!" Dave said.

Their shuttle blew over the roof of the Glennan Civil Administration building and across Kolar Park, already filling with SWAT vans and pop-up barricades.

"Mosehni, Chen, this is Director Atu. I'm authorizing you to take whatever steps you believe necessary to…" There was a long pause filled with more inaudible conversation. Then, "On second thought, you'd best keep well away from here. We… wouldn't want to destabilize the situation any further."

"I'm sorry, what was that? You're not making any sense," Chen replied as she set the shuttle down on the roof of Studio Tower. She cut the power and stepped out of the cockpit, and immediately the ruby-red dot of a laser sight appeared directly over her badge. Nice touch.

"Detective, you need to get back in your shuttle and move out to the parking lot," a female human's voice informed her from her omnitool's speakers.

"What're you gonna do, shoot me?" Dave asked as he led the way across the landing pad.

That shut her up right quick.

They were halfway to the little enclosed half-story that served as the rooftop personnel access when the sniper spoke up again, sounding much less sure of herself. "You… you guys know Atu's not sending anybody in after you if you get in trouble, right?"


The double doors to the rooftop didn't seem to be powered, but when Chen worked her fingers in between them and pulled they slid apart easily. Inside, a perfunctory little lobby was illuminated by dim red emergency lighting, deserted and utterly silent. She tapped the "DOWN" button next to the elevator and was rewarded with a flashing, caution-striped error message asking her to contact the building administrator. Activating the police-and-fire override program on her omnitool caused the fault code at the bottom of the message to change, but nothing else occurred.


Judging by the little plastic sign next to the elevator, that meant they had forty-eight stories of climbing ahead of them.

Dave grabbed ahold of the door to the stairwell and hauled it open. "Ladies first?"


They started downward.

There was only a single emergency light on each landing, pale blue this time, and it offered precious little in the way of illumination. That was probably a building code violation, and once all of this was over she would definitely be contacting Engineering & Infrastructure about it. Assuming she survived, of course.

She tapped her omnitool and summoned the night-vision filter on her shooting glasses, coating the entire stairwell in high-contrast amber, before she realized the glow was probably bright enough to be visible externally and cut it off again. She was trying to move as quietly as she could in the echoing metal tube that ran the whole length of NB-Net Studio Tower, but that wasn't all that quietly. After the first few floors, she abandoned quiet altogether and just aimed for fast.

Sgt. Negel had done the right thing and avoided mentioning where exactly they had put Quintilius Raban while a perp they knew could mess with communications might've been listening in. The problem was, that meant she didn't know where the turian had been put either. She didn't need to catch Raban, of course, she needed to catch whatever insane ex-Spec-Ops freak was trying to put an end to Raban, but he in turn was presumably going where Raban was or where he thought Raban was. That was presumably down, since all the actual soundstages were on the first ten floors, but that was still a lot of ground to cover.

In between Floors 30 and 29, her omni and shooting glasses both lit up with a small flurry of different "connection interrupted" messages. That was interesting. Negel had been outside of the range of… whatever their target was using to jam communications, but the rest of the SWAT teams in the park had been silenced. That was one data point. This was another. Chen pulled up the calculator utility on her omni -that was still working, at least- and ran through some basic trigonometry. Assuming the jamming effect was spherical and located somewhere in the tower, its epicenter was approximately twenty meters underground- and according to the plans they'd all been shown by MORAVEK and his crew, Studio Tower had an entire third-level subbasement dedicated to equipment and building services.

Make that fifty-one stories.

Just after passing the ninth, she felt Dave's hand tap against her shoulder.

"Hold up," the junior detective muttered, and pointed at the wall to Chen's right. It was bare concrete until it got to the landing, at which point the surface was broken up by a constellation of bullet holes and a few small scorch marks.

They kept descending, more cautiously this time, and then when Chen spotted what looked very much like a figure in black SWAT body armor slumped against the railing two flights down she picked up the pace again.

Another figure came into view, and then another, both immobile and splattered with dark red. The scanner on Chen's omni was currently indicating an effective range of two millimeters from her hand, so she made a quick 'cover me' gesture back towards Dave and slipped towards them as quietly as she could. The first officer she encountered was unconscious but breathing, her helmet seemingly ripped off with great force and her hands bound behind her back with a set of her own zip-ties; the second, however, turned to look at Chen as she approached. His eyes were glassy and unfocused, from shock or painkillers or both the detective couldn't tell, and both of his legs were covered in medigel. If she had to guess, she'd say the man had been shot cleanly through both kneecaps.

"Hey, uhhh… you're… Wei… Wei-somethin', right?" he asked, barely above a whisper. "I heard you on the radio just before it cut out."

She stole a look at the nametag on the front of his armor. "Patrolman… Fisher? What happened here?"

Fisher leaned back, seemed to try to pull in a deeper breath, and winced. "We were waiting in the back… by the freight entrance… just like we'd planned. We heard the order to move Raban come down, then Chatterjee at the front desk say he'd spotted something, there was a commotion and… gunfire, so we moved into the stairwell to try to cut 'em off. Vance… Lieutenant Vance saw something move and opened up, I… I think he hit it, and we all started moving into the hallway. Then… whatever it was, hit Malik and Cronyn in the rear… I think… we were down two other guys when we came back out here… I got a suppression charge off, and he didn't like that… whatever he was doing to turn invisible cut out right about then… big tall guy in a green armorsuit… he didn't like that and just opened up on us… I got hit and must've blacked out for a while because when I woke up I was sitting here with a case of gel packs next to me and he was gone."

"Do you know how many casualties total…?" Dave asked.

"I dunno. I think this guy was shooting to maim, but… he definitely messed up with Wang and Carusoe." With some effort, Fisher tapped the railing behind him. Chen got back to her feet and peered over it, and at the very bottom of the stairwell spotted another body in EPCP tactical gear sprawled on the concrete. There was no bright spray pattern of blood this time, blue or red or any other color, but the awkward position of the man's neck left little doubt as to his chances just the same. "Montgomery… probably woulda' bled out too if I hadn't given 'er the last two gel packs…" Fisher continued, and shoved the insensate officer next to him. "Guess that's what I get for turning down that spot in plainclothes…"

"Is there anything else we can do here?" Chen asked, more as a formality than anything else. Technically she supposed she could drag some or all of the survivors to another location, but their target had obviously ignored them as soon as he was satisfied they weren't a threat and that would take time Quantilius Raban very much did not have.

"Not… really?"

"Ok, then, do you know where the guy who did this went?"

"Down the hall, I think. There's… I can see footprints."

"Good." Chen gave him a light squeeze on the armored shoulder. "Stick here."

"Yeah, sure." Fisher prodded at a section of particularly thick gel coating, hissed in pain and jerked his hand away. "Not like I've got much choice."

The door to the subbasement was already open; on the other side was a big concrete-and-metal room that by Chen's estimate took up the entire footprint of Studio Tower. It was broken up by support pillars and a bewildering array of electrical and ventilation equipment and seemingly random sections of fencing around particularly important, dangerous, or fragile elements; a lab rat's maze blown up to human scale and lit with intermittent red emergency lights. There had to be a thousand different places in there her target could've been hiding, but he'd left a nice thick trail of blood for her to follow.

She and Dave advanced along it slowly and carefully, checking each shadowy corner along the way- of which there were quite a few. Down one long alleyway of machinery, she spotted a humanoid figure wearing what appeared to be body armor, or perhaps some sort of bulky coverall; even with the enhancements of her shooting glasses it was hard to say for sure. Ever-so-briefly she paused, finger on the trigger of her weapon, wondering if there were other SWAT officers or even some unfortunate civilian maintenance personnel still wandering around down here in the dark with no way to communicate.

That was all the delay the figure needed to open fire with a sidearm of its own.

Chen hurled herself backwards out of the enemy's line of sight, roughly shouldering Dave aside in the process, and when she dared to look around the corner again whoever-it-was was nowhere to be seen.

"Hey. Unless you're here to tell me where they packed Quintilius Raban off to, you should probably back off," said… someone on the other side of the machinery bank. The voice was a human male's, calm and articulate, in no obvious distress. Given the amount of blood he'd left behind just to get here, that was impressive in and of itself.

The detective made a few quick hand gestures, motioning for Dave to circle back and keep watch over the exit. She had absolutely no illusions that their oddly-talkative Xenograd Killer wouldn't jump at the opportunity to come back out the way he'd come and lose them in the maze that was the rest of Studio Tower. Then she spoke in turn. "Help you kill another innocent spiky? I doubt it."

This time, the voice came very clearly from Chen's right. "What's your angle, anyway, lady? I could've been in and out of here in five minutes with zero collateral damage if you hadn't called in the Third Battalion on me."

Chen decided to take the calculated risk that she could move faster than he could in his current state, and kept on following the blood trail forward rather than break off and try to echolocate. "What makes you so sure I'm the one who called anyone in?"

"You get sent after enough kingpins and top brass, you start to develop a sixth sense for how to pick them out."

The detective laughed- keep him talking, keep him engaged. Noble Cause types like nothing better than to talk about themselves. Focus on the military angle. "Well, maybe your 'senses' need a tune-up, then, 'cause I never made it above Spec-4."

"Hmmm." Something squeaked off in the distance; perhaps the rubber sole of a combat boot sliding against a metal pipe at an angle the wearer hadn't quite been expecting. "Maybe if the HSA promoted more people like you, then I wouldn't be in this mess."

This line of reasoning was getting her nowhere. "I didn't come down here to argue politics with a serial killer."

"Serial killer!" Now it was his turn to laugh. "That's certainly a new one!"

The blood trail turned another corner alongside a big wastewater-return pipe thicker than Chen was tall. She leaned around the elbow joint for just a moment, and was rewarded with a fresh spray of semi-automatic gunfire. Then, when that let up, she ducked to the side again and sprayed the area with pistol rounds of her own. She'd definitely hit him, that time, with at least two shots, and while his armor clearly possessed energy shields there seemed to be something very wrong with them- they kept activating and flickering all on their own.

He fired back, of course, but Chen was already out of sight, and this time something he hit behind her crackled and buzzed and briefly lit up the whole room magnesium-white with a shower of electrical sparks. Chen's shooting glasses filtered out the worst of it, but from what little she'd been able to gather during the split-second he'd been in her crosshairs, her opponent had at some point completely lost whatever helmet he may once have been given.

There were no more shots after that, and when Chen ducked around the pipe again he was nowhere in sight. That didn't stop him from talking. "So, tell me, Detective… I'm assuming you are a detective, you're wearing a suit instead of a uniform… why are you going after me and not that traitor Saren Arterius?"

"Saren Arterius didn't kill five people in the last month," Chen snapped as she ducked around the machine he'd been attempting to climb. It was a big fan unit, part of the ventilation system, and she could figure out from just looking at it what he must not've realized until he was most of the way atop it- that none of the ducts connecting to it could support his weight.

"Is that really how long it takes for the HSA to forget about Saren? About what he did?" Chen was pretty sure she'd heard the mystery man's voice crack a little on that last part. It was the first genuinely emotional reaction she'd observed from him- aside from the grisly executions, of course.

Judging by the sound, he was also nearby. She picked up her pace. When he'd been off by himself, it was possible he couldn't hear her footsteps if she tried to move quietly, but now that was a lost cause either way. "Nobody forgot what Saren did. Certainly not anybody on Eden Prime. But what's a doctor, or an urban warfare instructor, or a goddamn cafe owner, got to do with any of that, huh?"

"Casualties of war. They'll be remembered." That icy-smooth military calm was back in force completely, now. In fact, the soldier's replies sounded rehearsed in a way they hadn't previously, like he'd memorized a script.

"As what, innocent people who died so you could get your fucked-up revenge?" Chen stole a brief look at the small section of building blueprints her shooting glasses displayed in the bottom right corner of her vision- she'd saved the plans from one of MORAVEK's interminable briefings to her glasses' local memory, so there was nothing to jam.

"No, you know what they are? They're bait. I know the big guy'll come after me sooner or later now that I'm killing his buddies."

In retrospect, that explained a great deal.

"Now, assuming Saren is still alive, which I don't really know anything about one way or another, what makes you so sure he'll care? He's a traitor, you said it yourself. What're a few more dead Hierarchy citizens on top of what he's already done?"

"Ohh, he'll come. He's gotta come." That shakiness was back in the soldier's voice again, tension and anger, which was exactly what Chen had been hoping for. "What kinda soldier just… runs away and hides while the guys he's fought and bled with die, huh? We don't do that, spikies don't do that, not even the fuckin four-eyes do that!" He was yelling outright, now, and that meant he wasn't paying attention to what was going on around him.

Weihong Chen rounded the corner, saw him with his back to her sizing up the fenced-in tool locker she'd guided him into, and emptied most of a full magazine into his back.

His shields finally hissed and flickered out, just in time for David Mosehni to step out from where he'd taken up position between two shelving units and unload two more rounds.

The soldier fired again, and Dave cursed and dropped back out of sight. Then Chen fired, one last round, and caught the soldier square in the neck.

He remained standing, for a good solid second -turian stims were serious business- and for the very first time Chen was able to get a proper look at him. He was tall, and on the thin side, with dark skin and unkempt dark hair and a scraggly little beard, probably North African if the detective had to pick a specific terrestrial origin. All of the equipment on his tactical vest looked decidedly mil-spec, and most of it looked like it was held together with little more than duct tape and omnigel and no small amount of ground-in dirt; the grimy little nametag on his right breast included only a lone square signifying a sergeant's rank and the name MARIAM. He seemed to be about to say something, despite the bloody mess where his windpipe should've been, but then he collapsed backwards against the back wall of the tool locker and lay still. More than anything, Chen thought he looked surprised, that after coming out on top against Iffies and Hegemony Internal Forces and geth combat drones and God only knew what all else, he'd finally met his match in a retired ordinance tech with a bad suit and a handgun.

After that, she dashed over to where she'd seen Dave fall. He was trying to prop himself up by the time she got there, grimacing, with one hand pressed against a bright red stain centered just above his ribs.

"Mosehni! You OK?" she asked, already selecting her omnitool's first-aid package and then realizing a bit too late that it likely wouldn't dispense medigel without the ability to take scans.

"Yeah, I… actually, I think I am. He… the guy just grazed me…" He stuck out his hand, and Chen grabbed ahold and tried to pull him back upright, and as soon as she did the junior detective yelped and went right back to lying on the concrete. "Ok, maybe more than grazed me, but the point is I'm not having any trouble breathing, and… I don't think this is enough blood for, like, a major artery or anything." He laughed, with some difficulty, and winced again. "God dammit… Celanix really liked this suit…"

Reluctantly, Chen concluded that he was probably right, and turned back to the deceased Sergeant MARIAM. She quickly identified what looked to be a power pack, and some gadget in a bandoleer on his right shoulder that seemed to possess more than its fair share of antennas, and yanked on the wires connecting the two.

Almost immediately, her omnitool lit up with a dozen different urgent emergency communiques all at once. She opened the one with Dominic Atu's name first.

"Chen! Detective Chen! Report! What the hell is going on in there?"

The detective wiped one hand on her jacket, then the other- it was going to have to be cleaned anyway after this, and she supposed it wouldn't do to leave bloody handprints all over NB-Net's precious tower. "We… well, we got our guy, I think. And we've got a lot of people who are gonna need medical attention."

12. January 2417 AD, Eden Prime

They held a formal memorial for the two SWAT officers who hadn't made it, of course, in the big assembly hall on the ground floor of the Glennan Civil Services building. Weihong Chen figured it was only appropriate that she attend- she'd had to move up her yearly dry-cleaning appointment for her jacket anyway, on account of Dave getting himself shot, so she might as well get some use out of it.

Dominic Atu gave a very nice speech about duty and sacrifice and all the other expected things. It was polite, un-controversial, and inspiring, and for all those reasons the detective highly doubted he'd written it himself. Chen had always thought Atu was a very good public speaker, as far as such things went, and she guessed it was only because she'd worked under the man for about three years now that she could tell he spent the entire time looking like he wanted to throw up.

He disappeared as soon as he was done. There had, apparently, been talk of awarding some kind of commendation to Dave and herself, but obviously it would've been in poor taste to do so quite so soon after two other officers had lost their lives. Instead, Chen was left alongside a few dozen others to mill around aimlessly in the front lobby with no particular direction. She spotted Dave leaning against the far wall, conversing with a short gray turian woman in a hastati uniform who was presumably the much-discussed Celanix. Tokka Avisssius and a few other dignitaries from Cooper Wells had formed their own little cluster of army grey and navy-green and were making noises about finding some sort of venue that served proper dextro alcohol. There were even a few of the suits from NB-Net in attendance, along with what they laughably got away with calling reporters; they didn't interest Chen nearly as much until she spotted the one Emily Wong wannabe from Local Pulse -Patricia Patel or Prachi Patrick or something else equally saccharine- discussing the importance of reaffirming City Services' commitment to stim addiction education programs with none other than MORAVEK.

She shouldered her way past a bored-looking news director without much difficulty. "Mr. Moravek! Wasn't expecting to meet you here."

He turned away from the newscaster mid-sentence. "Oh. Yes. Detective… Chen, wasn't it? I… figured it was only proper to express my condolences on behalf of all of Eden Prime Colonial Administration."

"I'm sure you did." There was a long, dead silence. Finally realizing they were no longer welcome, the news director and the talking head both wandered off in search of a more receptive audience. Finally, Chen continued. "You know, Mister Moravek, I'm not usually the kind of person who pays attention to this kind of thing, but you are attending a funeral. I'd think it'd only be polite to come in a uniform that fit you a little better."

He tugged at the hem of his blue dress jacket, perhaps for some reason assuming the comment was meant literally. Then he stopped, and didn't correct her, which told her he'd figured out what she was actually getting at.

"I'm not sure what you mean?" MORAVEK's voice stayed perfectly casual, but Chen could pick up the microscopic shift in his posture. It reminded her a great deal of the family trip she'd made once to the desert, where her younger daughter had unearthed one of the sidewinders some idiot had introduced to Eden Prime years ago. You are obviously too dangerous to be prey, that posture said, But I am still trying to decide if I need to bite, or can just slither away.

"Well, when I was heading into Studio Tower I spotted three SWAT teams out in the park, and then ran into another already in the building. But there's only three SWAT teams attached to the Central District, and when I messaged some people I know in East and West they told me they hadn't even been called in. And I read over the after-action reports from the guys Mariam engaged, and even talked to some of them face-to-face. They're all positive Mariam came up from the lower floor in the stairwell first, not the upper. But Chatterjee definitely shot at something in the lobby- one of the bullets we picked up had hit kinetic barriers."

MORAVEK shrugged, an awkward movement in his stiff dress blues that probably wouldn't have looked any more natural without them. "Well, ASOC troopers are supposed to be experts at misdirection."

"There's misdirection and then there's being in two places at once. Or should I add 'teleportation' to the list of super-high-tech ASOC gear us civilians aren't supposed to know about?"

"If there are discrepancies in these reports, you should probably bring them up to Chief Atu. That sort of thing is… really not my department."

"Yeah you're probably right. You do seem like more of an… internal affairs type."

He just stood there for a second or two. Then, "Does it really matter which department I'm attached to? Ultimately, you, I, Director Atu… we all work for the same people. We all work for the HSA."

He might as well have just handed her a notarized confession.

"That's certainly one way to look at it," the detective continued, "And I guess if you look at it that way, there's nothing at all wrong with sending a few rapid-response teams into an already high-risk stakeout to quietly dispose of some mentally disturbed black-ops commando instead of coming clean. So what if a few up-and-coming young cops get killed? The HSA comes out looking at lot better than it would've otherwise. And that's the important thing."

MORAVEK smiled at that, thin and predatory, and Chen figured that was how she knew the expression was genuine. "That's a very interesting theory, Detective. Although it's probably for the best that there's zero concrete evidence, really, in support of it, and so it's almost certainly false. If it were true… and I say this not out of any direct knowledge but because my time as a civil servant has conferred on me a bit of a sixth sense for how large organizations usually operate… if it were true, then the cowboy cop who charged into such a recovery operation and sent it all sideways could find herself in very hot water. One might even be able to make the argument that her actions, and those of a certain junior detective who tended to follow her lead in operational matters, were what got two promising young officers killed- not the HSA's. And one could add Omar Mariam himself to that list as well, perhaps. You do seem like the sort who'd be happier if he stood trial for his actions, and didn't just bleed out alone on the floor. Rapid-response teams know how to bring an ASOC operative in alive. SWAT officers generally do not. It's a simple matter of equipment and training."

Chen wasn't about to give up on him just yet. "And, if this hypothetical recovery operation had gone off without a hitch, what do you think would've happened then? Omar Mariam quietly disappears, the whole stakeout ends in failure, and… what? 'Major Raban spends the rest of his life looking over his shoulder and checking in the closet every night when he comes home, and Litak and Solona Krytos never get so much as a bone chip to lay in front of their mother's grave'?"

She'd been expecting that to have at least some kind of visible effect on MORAVEK. It did not. "Something like that, probably, I'd imagine. But I think you'll agree that one cold case versus one closed case in a city the size of Navi Bhopal is a silly thing for people to die over?"

"I… can't really argue with you there." MORAVEK seemed to take that as his cue to turn around and leave, but then pulled up short when Chen continued. "You know, a buddy of mine who's still in the service managed to get ahold of Mariam's personnel file for me, or parts of it at least." In fact that data had been in the Hierarchy Liaison Office's copy provided by Ben Folokh, but damned if she was going to tell that to MORAVEK of all people. "Sergeant Omar Mariam was reported MIA right after the geth attack, when his whole unit got taken out by none other than Saren Arterius. That means he spent two whole years in the second-biggest city on Eden Prime, surfing trams and eating out of Dumpsters and chugging black-market stims and just going crazier and crazier the whole time… and nobody ever bothered to even tell us we should've been looking for him. Maybe if they had, Venari Drecius and Sammek Aril and Ta'liira Krytos and Vincent Wang and Erika Carusoe and Omar Mariam might all still be alive. Why don't you go ahead and think that one over."

"Do you really think anyone would pay me to make that kind of decision? I know this might be difficult for you to believe, but I really am just an Internal Affairs officer with a somewhat unusual mandate. People hand me problems, and I do my best to keep them from becoming disasters."

"Then you're an idiot for following the orders of the people who did make that decision. If they trusted you with a stakeout, or state secrets, or even a loaded rifle, then we're all in very big trouble. Did you know people like that are why I quit the Army?"

That seemed to get a reaction out of MORAVEK, even if Chen couldn't quite figure out what the reaction was. "Believe me, I would love to explain everything that led up to this moment. All the unforeseen complications, all the calculated risks, all the… compromises. But people in my line of work don't get the luxury of being able to explain ourselves to regular, honest civil servants like you."

"Oh, yes, woe is us, burdened with all these horrible secrets that'd melt ordinary people's brains if anyone ever knew about them, what a shame we must shoulder this burden alone…" People were staring at Chen, now. She didn't care. "You go and you make people like Omar Mariam into weapons, and then you drop him like a hot potato and forget about him after all his buddies die, and you don't even tell anyone why, and then you come up to me and act surprised that he snapped? It's like putting a gun into the worst part of town. Leave it lying long enough and it'll get fired eventually."

"I'm not surprised by any of this," said MORAVEK, "I'm not surprised by what happened to Mariam and I'm not surprised you're angry at me over it. I could tell you the alternative is worse, that the people we train to be weapons are trained that way for a reason and that if you thought Saren Arterius was bad there's a lot worse waiting out there, but you'd never believe me either way. And you, and everybody else in this city, are damn lucky I'm not allowed to tell you about it."

"Well, you won't know for sure until you do tell us. Maybe we'll surprise you."

"Maybe you will at that. Possibly sooner, rather than later."

"The hell do you mean by that?" Chen demanded, and strode after him as he turned and walked away, but somehow MORAVEK had already managed to put Tokka Avissian and some other turian between the two of them, and by the time Avissian stepped aside again the man in dress blues was already gone.

The other turian, though, was looking at her with a curious sort of bewilderment. "You are… Detective Chen, yes?" he asked. He was small and compact by turian standards, more round than in any particularly good shape, and his large eye sockets and triangular white facial markings over light brown plates conspired to give him a profoundly owl-like appearance. "Major Avissian was just telling me about you. Apparently, this whole operation was your idea?"

"Well, the parts of it that worked, anyway," the detective replied, with not a little bitterness.

He laughed, almost on reflex. "Well, I just wanted to thank you. If you hadn't caught that crazy ASOC man… I don't want to think about what would have happened!" Finally seeming to realize her confusion, the turian stuck out a hand for her to shake- his left, palm upward. This is how humans perform social interaction, yes? I have read a number of books on the subject! "I'm Technical Major Quintilius Raban."

"It's… umm, nice to meet you?" Chen answered, uncertain quite what to make of the alien. "You know, my… husband worked as a combat engineer too?"

"Well that is very impressive, but I'm afraid I'm actually a researcher, not a combat engineer. Cybernetics and… neural prostheses." Chen was about to point out that she hadn't asked, when his expensive Citadel omni lit up with indecipherable Palaveni text. "Oh, I am sorry, but I need to get to the spaceport for my flight."

As opposed to getting to the spaceport for dinner, apparently.

However, all Chen did outwardly was gesture to the now MORAVEK-free section of floor beside her. "Seems like a common problem these days."

"Oh, no no, it's not… like that. A colleague of mine in the… exchange program… we're a part of… a Doctor Newman working on Palaven… wants me to take over a very intensive rehabilitation case… for your military… didn't give me all the details but I gather it's rather beyond his team's expertise at the moment… tell me, Detective… you've never heard of a place called Cronos Station, have you?"

"It was never my plan, and it wasn't the generals'. It wasn't anyone's plan, it was dozens. Strategists. Logisticians. Statisticians. Physicists and chemists. Geologists, medics, clerks, security officers, and the cadets we had cleaning the floors each day. That was how the bomb was made, and the war won. Each and every one of us, doing our part. Working day and night. To keep up the fight."

~ Researcher-General Nyreen Menaus; speech refusing the Order of Karia, the Cipritinian Hierarchy's highest scientific honor, for the development of fissile nuclear weapons. 872 BCE.

A/N (From AdmiralSakai):

So, here we are. My first time since high school writing something at the behest of someone else, with someone else's editorial oversight, that wasn't just a technical paper. It was a weird feeling at first, but very quickly CT and I just "clicked" in a way that my old English teachers never did. So I am immensely grateful to him, of course, for giving me this opportunity to make my mark on what has turned out to be SV's quite sizable world.

10/10, would ghostwrite again. However, simply for logistical reasons, this will probably be my last contribution of actual prose to the story, unless I decide to straight-up start writing recursive fanfiction of the SVerse on my own. There is a slight chance I'll someday write another Anthologies story, but it would crib pretty heavily from my own potential future work and at the moment is less a plot and more a premise. From time to time CT does actually ask me about things, and I suggest things in return, and I'll probably continue to serve that role for a good while yet. In fact, I really do need to get back to cooking up titles for the next big "thing" the 'fic will be doing.

A few odds and ends:

I actually did create a reason why Hahne-Kedar would be marketing electronic door locks, or rather two different business strategies implemented concurrently. The first strategy is to sell the locks very heavily in the cyberpunk corporate nightmare that is the CIP, as part of their overall city-wide surveillance net package. That way, those in charge can track who goes in and out of what building, constantly. The other sales line involves collecting this same kind of data non-exhaustively from all throughout Citadel Space, in order to try to build statistical profiles of the movements of people of different demographic categories like species, age, gender, etc. This would then be used to build a "predictive movement model" that will be included in their drones, mechs, and military software (I'm assuming they also sell things like armory management programs and the software that coordinates HUDs). It will cost them a lot of time and money and probably get people extremely angry at them when it is made public, and also won't work, but that has never stopped "entrepreneurship" before. The whole thing is actually based off of a real pitch that someone in my undergraduate class did as a senior project, although their system involved showerheads that reported back on water flow and temperature, instead of door locks.

CT originally thought the conspiracy site about protecting Indigo Children was written by the Rachni Queen herself. I didn't have exactly that in mind, but rather that the author was an ordinary humanoid who happened to be particularly attuned to the Queen's psychic "wavelength", and also stark raving bonkers (the two factors very possibly being related). "Indigo children" are an actual thing in New Age circles, named after the supposed color of their psychic auras, and were attributed powerful psychic abilities. The idea of "ancient astronauts" having built the Great Pyramids is a little more familiar. This sort of talk was most common in the 90s and early 2000s, and has slacked off since with the rise of social media, so most of our readers probably don't know about it.

Crap, now I feel old.

The show Chett Durham likes isn't really based off of or referencing anything in particular; I just started with a broad stereotype of anime and added elements that I thought were so ridiculous only aliens could have come up with them. Weihong Chen's mangled turian war dramas, on the other hand, take a lot of inspiration from the Google Translate text-hack Book of Mario; as well as some material from various 'fics featured on Library of the Damned. LOTD is also the source of the "true history of Raggedy Anne" conspiracy theory, and Chief Dominic Atu.

The named buildings in downtown Navi Bhopal are ones I have worked or lived in; Chett Durham's apartment shares a number with my current lab, although it contains substantially less junk and is easier to navigate.

The Five Companions of Tokka Lorthus is, of course, actually My Little Pony.

The concluding quote is loosely based off of something one of my other collaborators, Serketry, put together for a tabletop game that sadly is not available on public Internet, plus a small part of the MLP Season 5 ending. Friendship is metal.

A/N (from CunkToad):

Well, I don't have a lot to add to what admiralsakai said, other than that I'm blown away by how good this thing turned out. Personally, I feel like it's never been more evident than now that SV isn't written by a native speaker because as far as writing skills and speech usage and generally the rules of the English language go, this is easily the best SV content that's ever been written and no way in hell will I ever reach that level of English. No shame in admitting that.

Setting his talent for english aside, you can clearly see that he's got talent. I might have formatted a few things here and there, but the entire concept of the story, the characters, ever scene. That's all him and it's really, really good. (I'm starting to sound like either a broken record or an obsessed fanboy at this point, I know.)

And since I know some of the projects he's talking about, I can only suggest that you keep an eye on him. I think XenoNoir made it abundantly clear that he knows what he's doing, both in terms of writing and narrative structuring. If you like quality content, do yourself a favor and follow his FFnet account and check out his other works over at library of the damned (which is a place where they rip bad fanfiction to shred, it's hilarious AND educational, so give it a look. I certainly know it helped me to avoid some traps of bad fanfiction, so anyone aspiring to be a writer really ought to at least skim some of the stuff on there.)

Since this story is scheduled as a Christmas release (despite me writing this at the end of November), all I'm left with to say now is that I wish you all happy holidays and a happy new year. To 2021, may it not be a continuation of 2020!

In that spirit, here's to another year of SV and another entry in the Anthologies.

More are sure to follow. For SV, probably regularly, for Anthologies… who the fuck nows? Probably when they're done.

See you around next time. Whenever that may be for SV:A.