I am endlessly thankful to Yawning Dragon, Gladius, Distractables, Misfire Anon and ex-Clusum for reading the manuscript at various stages of completion and providing me with invaluable feedback and insights. Also to Heavenly Eros for taking my crude cover design (based on "Presence" by Jesus-Tks on deviantArt) and making it look gorgeous. To all the devotees of Mass Effect who keep the fandom alive with wonderful art and writing. And finally, to the authors of the series, for creating an amazing world and allowing us to extend it.
THINKER TRAITOR SOLDIER SPECTRE
Chapter 1 - Adrift
One day in the third quarter of 2172, Captain Tirren of the STG reported an incident so incredible that he was initially suspected to be making some kind of a joke.
Marked URGENT:GENOPHAGE, the report stated that only hours earlier, a top-secret military research facility located in the largely uninhibited Dio-Oroch nature reserve on Sur'Kesh had been assaulted by a small multi-species team led by a krogan identified as Warlord Okeer. The assailants had arrived in a standard shuttle after disabling the regional anti-aircraft defenses and cutting off all communications to and from the facility by means unknown. In the time it took the STG to notice the facility had gone silent, Okeer and his men had decimated its security forces and murdered all the research staff. Arriving at the scene a minute after the assailants had departed, the STG team that was sent to investigate discovered that Okeer had effectively stolen all the classified research data stored in the facility using a highly sophisticated VI to encrypt the data and all its backup copies with a biometric key.
The STG was able to track Okeer's shuttle to the nearest civilian spaceport and determine that he had taken off from Sur'Kesh in the fast attack craft, the Wisp, equipped with all the permits required in Council space, alone. His collaborators were found dead on the abandoned shuttle. One of them was identified as Lieutenant-Commander Marash of the STG, who had been missing in action for three years and presumed dead or defected. His involvement could explain Okeer's miraculous success in bypassing some of the highest security in Citadel Space.
At the time the report was received and verified by the ST&R, the Wisp was still in the Pranas system, but she was expected to reach the mass relay before any of the salarian ships could respond in an appropriate manner. By fortunate coincidence, one of the top agents of the ST&R happened to be in the vicinity of the Pranas relay in the Widow, on the way back to the Citadel from an unrelated mission, and promptly committed to the task of apprehending Okeer.
The agent was Saren Arterius. His ship, the Virial, was a Giliath-class corvette favored by the turian cabals for speed and maneuverability. According to the specifications, she was supposed to be 2% faster than the Wisp in FTL and only 5% slower in normal space. But the observations contradicted the theory. Even after taking into account that one ship was brand-new and the other was getting old, the Virial was supposed to be gaining in FTL, no matter how slowly—not lagging.
Saren pulled up the schematics for the Wisp and had the on-board VI compare them to the customs scans taken on Sur'Kesh. And indeed, the parameters of the mass effect core seemed to have been tampered with. To increase fuel intake efficiency at the cost of range. His inclination, to blame the STG for failing to include this detail in their report, was moot, as learning about it half an hour earlier would have changed nothing. He watched the two ships on the navigation console: the red pointed triangle leading and the blue one following on a course for the Caestus relay. Their relative motion was imperceptible, but the numbers did not lie. Even the smallest advantage in FTL could affect the outcome of the chase significantly.
The Virial's kinetic barriers cut through the glowing gas of the Serpent Nebula, setting it alight and painting the bridge with colors of daybreak. Saren could see his ghostly reflection on the viewport.
He tapped the comm link once more. "Okeer. It's not too late to stop this nonsense. Surrender at once and I might let you live."
Okeer's laughter boomed through the speakers. Saren cringed and lowered the volume as soon as the upload started. "Or what?"
"Or I'll blast you to pieces."
More laughter. "If I die, you'll never recover the data."
"I could live with that." The upload was almost done.
"Empty threats do not become you, skullface. You won't—oh."
The comm link blinked out abruptly. But the upload had completed. Saren tapped the dead link. Nothing. He waited a few seconds before trying again, and there: the Wisp's telemetry started streaming in—as unformatted text. Okeer must have interrupted the software setup. Still, it was better than nothing.
"Virial, can you read his fuel level from this?"
"Affirmative," the Virial's VI said. "Current fuel volume relative to fuel tank volume: 28%."
"Will it be enough to get him to Invictus?"
Of course. Okeer wasn't stupid. "Status?"
"Disengaging FTL drive in forty-three seconds. ETA to Caestus relay, seventy five seconds."
He sat in wait for the FTL engine to unwind. Should he put on his helmet, just in case? It was nowhere in sight. He debated with himself about the probability of actually needing it, then unbuckled from the pilot seat and went in the back to fetch it. He planted it on the console and buckled up again. Just in case.
Okeer was anything but stupid. What if he was to set up an ambush, going behind the relay in order to shoot the Virial when she emerges? Unlikely. There wasn't enough time for complex maneuvering. No, he would probably fly straight for the planet. The Wisp was designed for steep re-entry. Once she started the suborbital descent, there would be no catching her. The planetary defenses would shoot her down, but Okeer would eject by then and crash somewhere in the jungle and good luck finding him there!
It wasn't an option.
The Virial fell back into normal space. Saren searched the viewport and caught the soft blue flash of the distant relay as the Wisp passed through. He was no more than a minute behind.
"Approach vector acquired," the VI said. "Relay jump in thirty seconds. Countdown options…"
"Silent countdown," Saren said. "Link me to the comm buoy as soon as we clear the relay."
"Link with Invictus comm buoy pending."
The straps tightened around Saren's chest and shoulders. He forced himself to relax back into the seat, but his heart hammered as if he was chasing Okeer on foot. His hand hovered over the console, ready to override the autopilot at the first sign of trouble. The relay lit up in a dazzling burst of light, growing larger and larger until it could no longer fit the viewport. Saren closed his eyes and held his breath. A moment of stillness, a brief peek into the void, and thousands of light years skipped by in a heartbeat.
When he opened his eyes, the bile-green disk of Invictus was fifteen degrees wide in the viewport.
"Jump complete," the VI said. "Link with Invictus comm buoy pending."
A coordinate grid projected over the viewport. The red and blue triangles raced along the trajectory for suborbital descent. Saren tapped into the haptic interface and the distance meter appeared, increasing mercilessly. Okeer was descending at a steeper angle and much faster than Saren would dare. Their projected paths diverged completely near the surface.
"Link with Invictus comm buoy pending."
"What's taking so long?"
"Planetary security protocols may take up to… Link with Invictus comm buoy established."
"Patch me in with the command of the Justice. Flag as urgent."
Justice, the turian dreadnaught, was a yellow octagon on the tactical map, lumbering in the planet's L4 point.
A woman's voice sounded through the speakers. "This is the TMS Justice. Identify yourself and state your business."
"This is Saren Arterius with Special Tactics and Reconnaissance. I'm in pursuit of a ship on steep suborbital descent. I need you to bring it down—safely."
"Verification in progress… Verified. Welcome to Invictus, Spectre. We can try to disable the target with a disruptor torpedo before it reaches the atmosphere, but unless you change course or speed, you will be caught within the blast radius."
"I'll slow down," Saren said, and his fingers were already dancing on the console. "Do it now."
The dreadnaught was too far to actually see through the viewport, but the disruptor torpedo was visible as a hairline trail of yellow off to Saren's right. He tracked it on the tactical map, an arrow converging on the path of the red triangle with agonizing deliberation. It wormed closer, and closer, and finally, the red triangle disappeared.
And reappeared on a new trajectory.
The VI and the voice from Justice started talking at the same time.
"Warning. Vehicle on collision course…."
"Partial hit. We confirm minor damage…."
Saren cursed. Collision course? Really? The Virial's thrusters fired up as the VI executed the default evasive maneuver and his stomach lurched in protest. If only he could shoot down the damned krogan, everything would be so much simpler. A part of him wanted to. What did he care if salarians lost a lifetime of research? He could afford one mission failed in his spotless service record. And the Galaxy would be better off with one deranged krogan criminal less.
"Collision imminent in… one minute seven seconds," the VI announced.
"Do you copy, Spectre?" said the voice of Justice.
Saren frowned and retracted the hand that was halfway to the main cannon controls.
"Negative, Justice." Saren switched to a different pattern of evasive maneuvers. He knew Okeer wouldn't kill himself. But if he was to eject just before impact, he could still link into the comm buoy using his omni-tool and bribe someone to pick him up. Invictus certainly didn't lack the sort of people who'd welcome the credits for whatever dirty work. "Repeat."
"I repeat," said Justice, "we're registering an increase in the energy output of the vehicle. They're targeting your propulsion systems."
At that, Saren finally glimpsed the Wisp through the viewport. She was still far away, but her torpedos, sparkling white and blue like malicious little eyes, were closing in quickly.
"Virial, launch decoys," Saren said. Adrenaline flooded him in a sudden surge, breaking through his strange detachment.
"Decoy bundle, launched."
The missiles veered away from their linear path, going after the decoys. The decoys caught one missile, then the other, but the Virial was affected by both blasts. The cabin and everything inside shook and tilted, then overturned and started spinning. Saren's helmet took flight and hit him in the forehead. The lights twinkled in and out a couple of times before settling on a dull orange, indicating lack of power.
"Status!" Saren barked, struggling to keep his last meal down.
"Main power supply failure. Auxiliary generators online. Navigation online. Propulsion offline. Weapons online. Shields at sixty percent. Life support online…"
"Enough!" The spinning was making him dizzy. He reached for the control panel and closed the viewport. "Justice, what's the situation?"
"The target has disengaged and returned to its original trajectory."
"Shoot him with another disruptor."
"Negative, Spectre. It… would appear… that our torpedo targeting protocols are incompatible with the IFF signature of your decoys. They would be targeted instead. We apologize for the inconvenience. Should we use conventional weapons?"
Saren pressed his mandibles tight to hold back a growl. Having the entire senior crew of the Justice summarily executed for failing to keep their damn backwater VIs up to date would be highly satisfying, but hardly constructive at this point. He forced himself to unclench his jaw and take a deep breath. Calm down. No more mistakes.
"No," he said at last. "Let him land. He might eject and let his ship crash. Have air and ground teams ready to sweep the area and secure the crash site. The subject is a krogan, biotic, alone but armed and very dangerous. I want him alive. I repeat: alive. Make sure they get that."
"Acknowledged, Spectre. Our scanners indicate your propulsion is offline. Do you need assistance?"
Saren snarled and struck the nearest bulkhead with an armored fist.