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Chapter 9: Once and Future Kings

"Chaos is a ladder. Many who try to climb it fail, never to try again. The fall break them. And some are given the chance to climb, but refuse. They cling to realm, or the gods, or love...illusions. Only the ladder is real. There is only the climb."

-Lord Petyr Balish, Game of Thrones (TV Series)

Debriefings had always seemed an odd spectacle for Garrus. Missions deemed important enough for Turian SPECTRE's on "loan" from the Citadel were not typically the kinds of situations that had a middle ground between stupefying failure and overwhelming success, and as the greatest agents of an entire species, high achievement was demanded and expected as the norm. Therefore, there tended to be 2 flavors of debrief: apathetic acknowledgment, and barely controlled rage. Given how the Illium situation turned out, Garrus suspected what road this particular meeting might be traveling. After being released by the locals and making his way wearily back to his "headquarters," he had made the obligatory contact with his superiors, not relishing in the likely chewing-out he was due to receive as he explained the blow by blow of how everything had so quickly gone to hell.

His vid-com ended up being considerably more perfunctory than expected, however, as the Illium Executor Board had already contacted Palaven to make a formal protest, including the reports of the Illium security forces and a few rather impolite inquiries as to the competence and parentage of Vakarian's immediate superiors (likely a personal addendum from the messenger). After requesting his own official record of event, he was immediately recalled back to Palaven for a more formal debriefing. With no business left on the planet, he requisitioned a transport from one of the Hierarchy-owned docking pads and took his leave of this damned affair. As with most traveling in space not related to combat, it was a relatively smooth journey, the only distractions being the feeling of the vessel during its initial acceleration before the engines were cut upon reaching the desired velocity and the later reverse acceleration to slow the transport as it approached the Mass Relay. All in all, nothing of particular interest, much to Garrus' chagrin. He would have more than welcomed a distraction from the cauldron of inconvenient thoughts he had simmering in his mind.

The mission had been an unprecedented disaster, never before had any assignment he had been involved gone so completely wrong. Even with the handful of new facts he had managed to acquire, he was left with nothing tangible to show for his efforts. No names, no suspects in custody, not even a hint of why they were on the planet. The only real breakthrough he had managed to score was visual data with his ocular implant. Not for the first time was he grateful for the device, if for no other reason than now having a thorough physical and facial profile on at least one of his targets, even if it was in the form of a recording of having his ass handed to him by a woman nearly a dozen centimeters shorter than him. And even this particular line of thought was a preferable distraction to the thoughts he had been cursed with since his conversation with his old friend Saren.

Garrus had never really been one to question the so-called "morality" of war, or more specifically, the turian way of waging it. War was hell, a bloody and terrible singularity of events without mercy or compassion. There was no point in pretending it was anything else, and in order to carry it out successfully, the conflict had to be brought to all levels of society. The turian refusal to recognize the existence of non-combatants, while seemingly cruel to outsiders, was in his mind perfectly logical. The more ferociously battle is brought to all levels of the society being fought against, the sooner it can be ended and all the more lives saved as a result. However, even Garrus had felt his stomach turn slightly at the thought of what he had heard, of the true depths of the savagery committed against the colonists of Mindoir.

Oh, he could understand well enough the conditions that might drive a man to it. A long, bitter campaign, a world that refused to be pacified, thousands of soldiers perishing as they tried to bring under control what had already been theoretically conquered. But to kill so many, most of whom were largely confined to labor camps, simply to prove a point? Even if under turian doctrine there were no non-combatants, that would still technically make them prisoners of war. And even during the Krogan Rebellions, there had been protocols for dealing with POW's. The fierceness of the human liberation campaign now carried new weight. Turian ferocity was being responded to by Human savagery, with both sides stepping up the scale of their retribution on one another, and it was increasing in intensity as time went on. They were not armies any more, they were hordes. Not soldiers anymore, just killers. Saren's words were becoming all the more poignant so long as he reflected upon them: "I want this war to end, before it ends us." The war with humanity had cost them so much, changed them so much, that even if there was final victory, who they once were would likely be lost forever.

Finally after several days of prolonged exposure to the nothingness of space and the bleakness of his own thoughts, the shuttle finally arrived on the homeworld. Unlike his last visit, however, there was no casual meandering through the capital to enjoy familiar surroundings for a moment. His superiors were no doubt aware the moment his shuttle had touched down on the planetary surface and he very much doubted they would tolerate any delay. He flagged down a nearby air-taxi and was swiftly whisked to the Ministry of Intelligence.

Garrus could feel a slight churning of nervousness in his stomach as the building came into sight, but he quickly subdued it. Whatever their reaction or consequence, he would face them head on, own up to what happened and hope that his record would be enough to stand on as they decided what to do with him for the immediate future. Odds were relatively good he would retain his rank as a Spectre. These days there was nearly always a shortage of available agents with his abilities and experience, so there was little doubt that they would continue to need him no matter what problems the incident on Illium had churned up. But there was always a chance that he could be placed on temporary suspension while they waited for things to blow over, or even reassigned to something less critical. Garrus sincerely hoped this would not be the case.

Whatever this human was involved in, she was a severe threat to the Hierarchy. She was cunning, a skilled fighter, and clearly more than willing to do whatever she considered necessary to achieve her goals. Coupled with the fact that she was clearly backed by a well-funded and capable terrorist organization with access to highly advanced military technology, Garrus was more than convinced she was deeply involved in something very likely to be a direct threat to his nation and species. And no one else had enough exposure to her or her activities to track her down and stop whatever plot she was behind. However, considering his recent failure and the fact that he had nothing but a list of materials delivered to her vessel and conjecture as evidence, there were at the moment no guarantees he could convince his superiors of the immediacy of the threat or the fact that he alone was the one to stop it.

All these considerations came to an abrupt halt as he entered the antechamber of the Ministry and he suddenly developed tunnel vision focusing him on the path to his destination. Nodding curtly to the guards, he strode to the elevators and made his way to the top floor, where Primarch Sparatus' office was located. There was, however, something of a twist to this journey. As he approached the Primarch's office, Garrus could clearly hear shouting being exchanged by 2 voices which were quite clearly did not belong to Sparatus. This minor mystery was quickly resolved when the door slid open to reveal a somewhat unusual entourage. A small group of officers from the Turian High Command had crowded into the room along with, oddly enough, Urdnot Wrex.

Wrex was something of an anomaly, though quite an infamous one, recognizable even to Garrus by reputation alone. The first mentions of his existence went back to the Krogan Rebellion and likely only stopped there since records prior to that time were incomplete and of questionable accuracy, likely making him older than the most ancient of modern Asari matriarchs by centuries. Following the rebellions he appeared sporadically throughout galactic history, usually as nothing more than a simple mercenary following his failed attempt to rally something of his people together for more than pointless crusading following the genophage. Then, several years ago, seemingly out of nowhere, he made rapid movements through the ranks of the feared mercenary organization the Blood Pack, finally emerging as 1 of the 3 leaders of the organization, with absolute authority over all Blood Pack activities outside of the Terminus.

And there was little doubt to any who encountered him how he had earned that position. Possessing a ruthlessness and brilliance of leadership that only came with countless centuries of experience, combined with pure physical ability and force of will, he was a force to be reckoned with, beating what was once an army of thugs and gangsters into a disciplined, professional fighting force, ultimately proving himself utterly indispensable to the Turian government. With so many of their fleets and armies drawn to the war against the humans, internal policing actions against the Turian client species' and handful of separatist groups which still lingered centuries after the Unification Wars, had been largely outsourced to Blood Pack mercenaries, with most of the Turian mercenaries of the Blue Suns having answered the clarion of war calling them to return to service, and the Eclipse not having the stomach or specialists necessary to carry on planetary suppression campaigns. The largely Krogan and Vorcha force (along with a growing number of Batarian expatriates) maintained a sizable naval force and army moored at various Lagrange point stations between Palaven and Impera in the Trebia System, ensuring that they could quickly reach any hotspot within the Hierarchy's sphere of influence, while also ensuring that the Turian home fleet can keep an eye on them and quickly summon reinforcements.

At the moment, however, even the giant Krogan was rendered largely irrelevant in the face of the 2 Admirals currently engaged in a rather heated exchange of words.

"This entire campaign was a mistake from the outset! Nearly 70 ships lost in a single engagement, with an additional 500 tied down in one system doing absolutely nothing! Guarding an untapped well and scratching their asses while other sectors now lay virtually unprotected!"

Ah, good old Lucanus. An admiral representing the old guard of Turian military tradition. There was little surprise in his position. Their kind had long favored the older style methods of Turian campaigning: a slow, methodical advance, ensuring all avenues of retaliation were protected and the Hierarchy proper rendered untouchable. The reverses and stalemate against the humans had made them only more cautious, reluctant to commit too much of their already stretched fleets to any one engagement.

"They only remain there because of your damned recommendation to the Council of Primarchs! The human withdrawal was a major opportunity! If we had moved quickly enough, we could have pushed them out of that star cluster all-together and seized the only Primary Relay in that entire sector!"

And in typical fashion, stood against him one of the leading voices of the younger members of the Turian High Command, Admiral Tullia Oraka, daughter of the recently deceased Septimus Oraka. She was of the generation that had only ever known humans as the hated enemy of her people, and had grown up learning of human tactics and strategy. They were in turn, only too eager to try and pull away from the old ways of waging war and ceremonial natures of Hierarchy martial tradition, much to the consternation of the older generation.

"Of course I made the recommendation they go no further! There aren't enough supply ships within a dozen parsecs of Mjolnir to maintain a sustained attack on human territory. A logistical issue, I might add, only made worst by this ill-advised and poorly conceived attack!"

"We're not going to beat the humans hiding behind our relay defenses and hoping for a mistake! Every day their fleets and industrial capacity expands while we remained boxed into our old territorial sphere! If we want to have even a chance to bring this bloody affair to an end, we have to take the fight to them to maintain pressure on their stockpiles of strategic resources!"

"And we're not going to beat them by simply throwing our ships pointlessly at random sectors of the front and hoping for the best!"

"We had no choice! Every day we were bleeding ships and soldiers in that system. Over time, we would have lost several times what we lost in a single decisive battle."

"And in exchange for holding Mjolnir, you have left vulnerable every colony world from Macedyn to the fucking Galactic Accretion Disk!"

Their argument was an old one, betraying an underlying weakness of the Hierarchy's position. The Turian sphere of influence, including the territory of their client species', was absolutely enormous, easily exceeding the combined volume of the Asari Republic and Salarian Union. This was however, not a matter of pride, but necessity, as it was (from the Turian perspective), largely uninhabitable. In the grand scheme of things, the universe was by and large ridiculously hostile to life, most of it filled with worlds which no creature could ever hope to walk upon. For every 1,000 planets in the galaxy, there was perhaps 1 or 2 which were habitable without transformation.

It was, however, an even crueler situation for life based upon dextro-strand DNA, since for every 15 or so of those ever so rare habitable planets, 1 could be inhabited by the Turians (or Quarians were the Council ever to feel inclined to reverse its policy on them), and generally not cost efficient to terraform an entire world's DNA structure to compensate. It was, by and large, the primary driving force of their imperialistic ambitions, and the reason for the unusual distribution of a small number of highly developed colonial worlds spread out across a massive volume of interstellar territory, the rest mainly used for resource extraction or as military outposts. Each world that was inhabited by a substantial Turian population represented centuries of development and investment in an extremely limited living space, and were zealously defended at nearly any cost by the Fleet.

The only systems considered nearly as valuable as those possessing colony worlds were those possessing Element Zero. Due to the incredibly rare events that produced it, it was the only substance rarer than worlds habitable by Turians. And the Mjolnir system was unique even by those standards. Preliminary mining tests showed the eezo in that system to be absolutely pure, containing none of the trace elements which so often slowed down the processing of the substance. A solid month of mining in that system would yield enough processed element zero to build drive cores for an entire carrier fleet, or equip a dozen turian legions with mass accelerator weapons and vehicles. A most tempting prize, and thus the argument that now occurred in full view of a dozen staff officers and a Primarch. However, as much as Sparatus appreciated a good argument, they were all there for a different purpose.

"Enough! This is pointless. We could stand here arguing the merits of the Mjolnir Action until we perish and get absolutely nowhere. What's done is done, and we are here to deal with the immediate consequences."

Lucanus and Tullia continued to send vicious looks at one another, but were cowed. Though largely symbolic, the authority of a Primarch was not something to be ignored. Satisfied that the situation was under control for the moment, he turned his gaze towards the stoic Krogan standing in their midst.

"Overlord, as you are no doubt aware, the attack and holding actions in Mjolnir have pulled a significant number of ships and personnel from key sectors at a crucial moment. To compensate, we're going to have to re-shuffle a number of flotillas normally reserved for internal policing actions. The terrorist organization Facinus has been getting increasingly bold as of late, and may view this as an opportunity to raise some hell on Taetrus. Given the preexisting tensions between loyalists and separatist sympathizers, it may blow into a planet wide civil war if shooting starts. Is your organization up to dealing with this?"

Wrex, conveying that look of bored attentiveness he was so deceptively famous for, closed his eyes a moment. Some were surprised, as it conveyed a state of deep thought, something not normally associated with his people, before responding.

"You're not the only one's getting stretched here Sparatus. With your permission, I'd like to contact Garm back in the Terminus and have him send reinforcements as a precaution. This will ensure our continued ability to maintain a rapid-reaction capability."

All eyes turned to Sparatus at this request. No doubt the prospect of bringing in even more Krogan and Vorcha mercenaries was a prospect that would make the average Turian's skin crawl, particularly when it was a symbolic display of vulnerablity. On the other hand, they weren't exactly flushed with an excess of options. After several moments, the Primarch nodded his acceptance.

"Agreed. How many do you want to bring into Citadel Space and when?"

Wrex non-nonchalantly flicked an imaginary insect from his sleeve before tilting his head towards the Primarch.

"I'll draw up a plan to begin phasing them into the Hierarchy. It'll have numbers, time tables, your 'precautionary measures', all that good stuff. We can use that to hammer out the specific details, but I estimate we could start bringing them in as soon as 3 weeks."

Sparatus simply nodded again. He had long ago outgrown his surprise at the intellect and professionalism of the ancient krogan standing before him.

"Very good then, we'll work out the details tomorrow."

At last, Sparatus took note of the presence of a new party member. Spying Garrus near the door, his eyes grew a bit despondent and he turned back to the assembled participants.

"I believe that concludes the discussion for the day. I'll be briefing you all on the progress of the Blood Pack build-up and meeting with all of you over the next several days to discuss the upcoming fleet transfers and war games in the Caestus System. Dismissed."

This served to dissipate much of the tension in the room. Though the 2 admirals previously going at it carried the look of someone with something to say, the remainder of their entourage were visibly relieved to see this day drawn to a close. They filed out swiftly, leaving only Garrus, Sparatus, and oddly enough Wrex. Odd enough, in fact to rouse the Primarch's attention.

"Is there something else Overlord?"

Wrex gave his equivalent of a grin before turning to face the Spectre.

"Just wanted to meet the young Vakarian before I left."

Garrus' eye twitched in surprise at that.

"You know me?"

Wrex nodded his head while giving a deep, throaty chuckle.

"Indeed. Heard a lot about you, though recently it's been nothing good. Leave any chunks of yourself on Nos Astra after your little fuck-up?"

And so was Garrus' twitch made worst.

"Amusing. Glad to see a sense of humor from such a...prolific soldier as yourself."

Wrex just continued to grin.

"Fancy word boy. Got some meaning behind it?"

Garrus just shrugged before crossing his arms in front of his chest.

"Not at all. Just making conversation, though I assume small-talk of your past history of taking whatever you can get from whoever would offer it is probably 'been-there-done-that' dull at this point."

Now there was something. Wrex's eyes furrowed and he glanced down his snout at the audacity of the smaller sapient in front of him.

"Careful there boy, because it sounds like you're coming dangerously close to questioning my professional commitment to my contract."

Bored at the gamesmanship, Garrus just reached for the immediate point.

"You've worked for the humans though I assume? Maybe made contacts or even friends amongst our enemy?"

Wrex's response was unchanged. An unconcerned shrug and a slight neck twitch.

"I've worked for many people Turian. Some of them were human. Some of them were asari. Some of them were species whose names I can't pronounce and looked like a holographic projection of someone's idea of a sick joke. What of it?"

Garrus just continued to eye him warily, his taloned-hands never wavering from their lock positions over his chest.

"Quite a free-spirit aren't you? I'm just wondering why we should trust some ancient freelancer with such a massive mercenary force in the heart of the Hierarchy."

Wrex manged to crack a toothy smirk at the brash Spectre agent.

"Simple: there aren't enough of you to carry out oppressing your clients on your own anymore. Not that it matters to me. A job's a job. You're worried about me boy? Don't be. Sure I've worked for the humans before. The pay was good and my contacts were professional, but they weren't fans of long-term arrangements. They preferred to handle their own shit in their own way. An admirable attitude after a fashion, but it meant I could only expect to be hired once in a while for single missions. I'm old as hell Vakarian, and I like a little job security. And so, here I am, ready to carry on the ancient and venerable cause of lining my own pocket with blood money. And as long as that work remains regular, you can trust me as surely as you trust the spinning of your planet."

Garrus' eyes narrowed. This was what they had to turn to?

"How comforting. Glad to know we can depend upon the upright character of men like you for our security."

Wrex's eyes glinted with humor. Few things he enjoyed more than baiting a turian with a little fight in him.

"Don't look down upon me too much boy. You're people want to keep being the biggest swinging dick in the universe, they're gonna have to get used to it."

Garrus took this as an opportunity for a bit of posturing, at last letting his arms move across his chest to continue staring down his adversary.

"Is that so Urdnot?"

Wrex just continued to smirk.

"Of course pup. It's a big galaxy out there, full of all kinds of people, each one wanting something different. The Asari and Salarians desperately everything the back to the way it was, your kind and the Humans want each others' worlds in ashes, the Batarians and Terminus want this little blood feud to carry on to the heat death of the universe..."

Garrus was not one for run-on sentences it seemed.

"And what about you?"

Wrex was undeterred by the interruption.

"Like I said, I'm an old man. At this point, I just want to live long enough to make my fortune and settle a few scores before the cosmos finally cobbles together something that can put my ass down permanently."

Apparently satisfied that this was the conclusion of their conversation, Wrex glanced behind one last time.

"Good day Primarch."

And then, with a handful of lumbering steps, the stoic giant made his exit, leaving the Head of Naval Intelligence alone with his subordinate.

"Well, that was certainly interesting."

Sparatus merely sighed in response before collapsing wearily in his chair.

"Yes, you could say that about all our interactions. He's an effective leader and shoulder, but he's not the most diplomatic creature in history. However, that's not why we're hear, is it?"

At long last, they turned to the subject at hand.

"I assume you read my report, sir."

Sparatus merely shook his head in response.

"Your official report is neither here nor there Vakarian. No one doubts your account of events, because your account is not relevant. What is relevant is the outcome. I don't care who caused that explosion, because Nos Astra doesn't care. All they know is that an explosion and riot occurred due to an encounter between some random human who may or may not be a criminal by their standards and a Turian Spectre operating on Hierarchy authority outside their jurisdiction. Take a guess who they chose to blame."

Garrus was somewhat taken aback at this. Had the situation really devolved that quickly? However, if there was one thing he was gifted for, it was regaining his bearings.

"Primarch, I realize that what happened on Illium was...problematic for the Hierarchy..."

But, as it turned out, Sparatus was not in the mood for niceties.

"It was a gods-damned catastrophe Vakarian. Dozens were killed in the encounter between you and that woman, along with millions of credits in property damage in the ensuing chaos. The Illium Board of Executors is threatening to freeze the assets and accounts of the Volus Protectorate and forbid Hierarchy ships from entering their airspace for at least a year. I've got Volus business representatives all but demanding we send your head to Nos Astra on a platter to placate the authorities, and more than a few on the Council of Primarchs who want to cobble together a board of inquiry."

Garrus' mind quickly leapt back to his worst-case scenario and then multiplied it by 10. All his work and all his efforts come to this! However, before he could respond, Sparatus, sensing his concern, raised a talon and carried on.

"Don't worry, it's not going to come to that. I've still got pull with the Council, and up to now your record has been impeccable. The Primarchs will shout and rattle their sabers briefly before turning their attention to other matters. And the Volus and Illium authorities will give us the evil eye and put us on ice briefly before Palaven makes a few minor concessions and pays off the right people. However, for the moment, I want you to lay low. Take a sabbatical or something for a month or so, let Nos Astra get that foul taste out of it's mouth."

Garrus, at last, reached a point he could no longer endure.

"Sir, you can't take me off this case! Thus human has already disappeared into the Terminus and if we don't keep the pressure on her, she'll strike again!"

The bemused Primarch merely sighed in agitation.

"Strike again? Garrus, you don't even have proof she struck a first time."

But Garrus wouldn't let up.

"Sir, our the information our contact on Nos Astra gave me all but confirmed she was at the very least tied to a recent, major pirate attack on one of our conveys, if not directly responsible. As the data from my ocular implant will show, she's clearly received advanced special forces training, and has access to technology and money well beyond the means of some random group of pirates."

Sparatus continued to simply look deeply unsatisfied.

"None of which is evidence of anything. All we have is supposition. You don't have a name, a point of origin or destination, something that points to their goals, or any kind of leads. All you have is a transponder signal implicating her in one of the dozens of attacks that take place on our convoys every year and a list of machine parts and material delivered to her ship that could be used for almost any purpose."

Garrus couldn't deny what the Primarch was saying, but he also couldn't let it go.

"Listen sir, I admit I can't definitively prove anything, but I can still read between the lines. She's behind something major. I can feel it in my gut, and if we don't act against her, the consequences for the Hierarchy could be disastrous!"

Sparatus gave him a rather odd look, but before he had a chance to shoot him down, Garrus gave it one last effort.

"You told me to go on a sabbatical right? Fine, I'll do so. If you agree to give me access to my expense accounts and a small ship, I can pursue this on my own. Not as a Spectre or Agent of the Hierarchy, but as a private citizen. I'll do what I can to avoid Citadel Space or any of the particularly respectable neutral planets, and if anything happens I can be disavowed."

That gave Sparatus pause. Leaning back in his chair and lowering his eyes a moment, he gave Garrus the kind of hope that only comes when someone appears to be considering something in your favor.

"How can you be certain you'll find anything, or if pursuing this woman is even within the realm of possibility? For all you know, she could be deep within the Alliance."

At last, a question he could answer without negative consequence.

"The information I've gathered points to involvement with the terrorist group Cerberus. As far as the Ministry of Intelligence has been able to discern, they've been disavowed by the Alliance and operate primarily within the Terminus. And after the Illium incident, it's unlikely she'll be roaming anywhere near Citadel Space or any of the non-Terminus neutrals, for fear of being spotted. As for finding her, I've made a few contacts over the years. Friends who know things that others are not supposed to know. I have a feeling one of them will be able to point me in the right direction."

Sparatus retained his look of wary, not quite convinced interest in the proposal. Garrus decided to push just a bit further.

"Sir. Primarch, please allow me to do this. If I'm wrong, then I'll just spend my time off flying around the ass-ends of the galaxy for nothing, but if I'm right, she needs to be stopped before it's too late."

Heaving one final, resigned sigh, Sparatus at last gave answer.

"Very well, Citizen Vakarian. Give me 3 days, and I'll have a small ship ready for you, and work out a deal to get you access to some of your Spectre accounts."

Managing (barely) to hold on to his professional facade in spite of his inward ecstasy, Garrus saluted sharply.

"Thank you sir. I guarantee you will not regret this."

Receiving a likewise salute from his superior, Garrus made an about face for the door. However, before his exit, the Primarch gave one last command.

"See that I don't, Garrus Vakarian."

A/N: As always: read, review, and mention me on TV Tropes if you're so inclined ^_^