The Candidate – 11

Disclaimer: I don't own Mass Effect. It belongs to Drew Karpyshyn and Bioware. I am just playing in their Universe.

A Few Breakthroughs

Shepard walked back briskly and a minute later, he was at Tali's desk. The Quarian looked up from her work. She made to speak, but Shepard gestured her to silence and ordered her to follow him. They both walked to the Krogan monument, and Shepard led her to a bench adjoining the open space. Shepard smiled and nodded, "Okay, tell me your news now."

Tali, who had been following Shepard's actions with some surprise, finally found her tongue. "I was monitoring all transmissions into and out of C-Sec, as you ordered me to, Shepard. There was a transmission that I thought you should hear."

Shepard nodded, and Tali hit a few keys on her omnitool. A muffled voice – Shepard guessed that it was muffled by electronic voiceprint distorters – began, "Shepard's thinks that the Geth attack originated far from Eden Prime and that dreadnought is the only Geth ship with the required range for Saren's attack. He's activated all his assets in the Traverse bordering Geth space. He's found that Fist's involved with the death of Tarsus. He's got Vakarian investigating Fist. Shepard's been looking into his Prothean beacon visions with that Asari archaeologist. Over and out."

Shepard inquired, "Was this in code?"

Tali affirmed, "Yes, standard Council H7 code. But it was a burst transmission, Shepard." Burst transmissions were very short duration transmissions where information would be heavily compressed and broadcast in a single burst over a couple of seconds. The young Quarian continued, "It was only because you got the new high sampling rate receivers that we were able to catch this."

Shepard was looking into the distance. He inquired mildly, "Any idea where the message originated?"

"It came from one of C-Sec's public terminals."

"The receiver?"

"The signal is weak Shepard. It could not have gone far. The receiver is also on the Citadel, I think."

"Excellent work, Tali. Continue monitoring all transmissions from C-Sec."

"Should we keep an eye on the public terminals?"

Shepard smiled cynically, "Certainly not! And we're not going to do anything to stop our friend from transmitting."

Tali was startled. "Why not?"

Shepard replied, the same cynical expression on his lips. "I have my reasons."

There was a long pause, and then, tremulously, Tali ventured, "Whom do you think is the person transmitting to here?"

Shepard replied, "Well, it certainly is not the Council. They would not need burst transmissions, not when they control all the communications facilities on the Citadel. They could easily get their own secure channel. I don't think it is the Alliance either. They have enough Alliance officers in C-Sec and they have no need for low power burst transmissions to send information."

"So, who then?"

Shepard shrugged, "We must find out."

There was a long silence at this, and then Tali pulled herself out of her reverie. She said. "There is another thing, Shepard. Spectre Tela Vasir wants to meet you in the Flux."

"Thank you, Tali. You've done great work."

-(Scene Break)-

Shepard met Tela Vasir for supper. The human Spectre ate little, but contented himself with a few morsels of barley bread and a handful of fruits. Looking closely at him, Tela realised that he was tired and distrait, with lines of strain around his eyes. They spoke little until the table had been cleared and the drinks had been brought. As they both sipped coffee at the end of their supper, Tela finally began explaining her mission. "Shepard, I've been tasked by the Armali Council to look into the Rachni on Noveria – particularly what Cerberus intended to do with the Rachni. Matriarch Thalia asked me to speak to you first." Tela would have preferred not to tell Shepard who had employed him or what her task was, but Matriarch Thalia had been insistent that Shepard be kept in the loop. She had pointed out that he was the only one she could depend on for any cooperation in the matter, since neither the Alliance, nor the Council, nor Cerberus could be approached for assistance, and that it would be wise not to antagonise him.

"Are we on record, or off it, Spectre Vasir?" Shepard's voice was gentle and grave.

"Off it," replied the Asari.

"Off record, I can tell you that the person you need to find is Capt. Dr. Armistan Banes."

"Who is he?"

"He used to be a former Alliance officer. Officially, he resigned three months ago. Before he resigned, he was the head of Centre for Xenobiological Studies on Tyr. After his resignation, he disappeared."

"What can you tell me about this Banes?"

"Nothing off hand, I am afraid. However, I should be able to get you his career record, and trace his associates for you, if you like."

"How can you get his record?" There was some surprise in the Spectre's voice.

Shepard smiled demurely, "The Alliance is very keen to cooperate with me in this Saren investigation. If I were to request the personnel files of Banes, I should be able to get it. Also, I know how and whom to approach, and, more importantly, whom not to, in the Alliance. Spectre authority, when combined with proper contacts, should go a long way in getting what we need." Seeing Tela Vasir's sceptical countenance, Shepard reassured quietly, "I've no reason to protect anyone in Cerberus, Spectre Vasir. You may rest assured that you will get my full cooperation and complete frankness in this matter."

Tela mentally thanked Matriarch Thalia fervently. Outwardly, she politely returned, "That would be very helpful, Shepard. Any idea where Banes may have gone, Shepard?"

Shepard thought for a long moment, and finally answered, "You'll have a hard time finding Banes. If he's very important to Cerberus, he'll be very well hidden. If he's not important, he'll be dead.

"Is there anything else you can help me with regarding Cerberus?" queried Tela Vasir.

Shepard nodded, "Four years ago, I crossed swords with Cerberus. I had prepared an extensive report on the structure and organisation of Cerberus and its front companies. It is four years old and out of date, but you could probably find some bits of useful information there."

Tela Vasir looked surprised. "You have clashed with Cerberus in the past?" Seeing Shepard's affirmative nod, she inquired, "Why?"

"They were running a death camp for biotic kids at the Teltin facility on Pragia, performing utterly loathsome experiments. I investigated them, but could not progress too far."

"Why not?"

Shepard shrugged, "My superiors in the Alliance decided that the investigations were pointless and unnecessary. On the basis of the evidence I had collected, two low level scientists – if that term can be employed to describe those amoral swine who conducted the barbaric experiments at the Teltin facility – were prosecuted and imprisoned. However, the remainder of the files were sealed and I was shifted to a different assignment."

There was a moment's silence and then, Tela Vasir asked him quietly, "Why do you truly dislike Cerberus, Shepard?"

"They are following a very dangerous path for humanity," answered Shepard equally quietly.

"Because they are xenophobes?" There was some scepticism in Tela Vasir's voice.

Shepard shook his head slowly, "Cerberus are not really xenophobes – not the leadership, at least. They are dedicated to one thing, and only one thing. Human dominance of the galaxy. They don't so much dislike other species, as want humans will to prevail in the galaxy. And that, Spectre Vasir, is a very dangerous goal to pursue."

"I don't understand. Why would you, a human, resent human dominance of the galaxy?"

"Because it is not possible to achieve that goal," returned Shepard drily. "Cerberus are truly the human Krogan. And you saw what happened when the Krogan tried to dominate the galaxy – they ended up with their entire species neutered. Already, we humans are seen as too grasping, too disruptive and too aggressive. Given enough provocation by these madmen, it might well push the Council to drastic action against humans, almost all of whom are innocent of Cerberus' actions. And any of the three Council races are strong enough to crush the Alliance on their own. If, heaven forbid, there is a war, we'll be left looking at the Quarians and the Krogan in envy at the end of the Council's military campaign against us. Besides, the Alliance's dalliance with Cerberus is folly. Plausible deniability works only so long. Sooner or later, it is the Alliance's credibility that will have vanished. Whenever Cerberus does something barbaric, it drags the Alliance into its dirty business. I want to put an end to it."

Tela Vasir slowly nodded. After a moment's hesitation, Shepard continued, "Spectre Vasir, I have a proposition for you, if you care to listen."

Seeing her interest, he continued, "Your task and mine seem to be linked. It is a very odd coincidence that Cerberus and Saren should be mixed up in the same Rachni business. I do not like these coincidences, Spectre Vasir. I am trained not to like them."

"So what do you suggest?"

"You are investigating a primarily human group – Cerberus. I can help you there. If you can bring them down, I will be glad to aid you as best as I can. In return, will you forward me anything that might help me in tracking down Saren?"

Spectre Vasir leant back in her chair with a smile. The Matriarch had asked her to make that very offer to Shepard and here was the human forestalling her. She nodded. "Yes, Shepard. It's a deal."

The two Spectres rose to their feet, and shook hands. Just as they parted, Shepard whispered, "Take care, Spectre Vasir. Cerberus are extremely dangerous and they have many allies in the most unlikely places."

-(Scene Break)-

Shepard was facing the Volus financier. "Greetings, Commander Shepard," was the calm greeting.

"You are very prompt at recognition, Mr. Barla Von." Shepard's voice was quiet and polite.

"In my job, one needs to be."

"Indeed," nodded Shepard. He opened with a much more direct approach than usual. "You may have heard of the attack on Eden Prime?" Seeing the Volus nod, Shepard continued, "You have also heard, then, that the rogue Spectre Saren was behind it?"

"I have, Commander Shepard," answered the financier.

"I am looking into all of Saren's transactions. I looked through the investment portfolio of Saren, and he owned a very substantial amount of Binary Helix shares – shares you helped him acquire."

"Very true, Commander."

"May I ask who stood surety for his transactions?"

"Commander, I am afraid I cannot answer it. You surely know that a financier's great virtue is discretion? If I revealed details of my clients, I should never be trusted again." Barla Von was very officious.

Shepard was smooth as silk, however, "Indeed, Mr. Barla Von. Discretion is, as you say, a very great virtue. However, a greater virtue is prudence." Shepard's voice had sunk into a soft deadly whisper. "And it is this prudence that suggests that you cooperate with me discreetly, rather than compel me to have recourse to extreme measures."

"I have little to fear, Spectre. I have broken no laws." The Volus was making an attempt at bluster.

Shepard almost smiled, "Absolutely. And as I am not an imbecile, it is not the prison I threaten you with. It is adverse publicity."

The Volus was looking furious, as Shepard continued dispassionately, "I could go to the Citadel Magistracy and obtain an order to access your records regarding Saren. You would, of course, appeal against it, but the news that you are acting as a front for a rogue Spectre that nearly destroyed a human colony would be out. How many clients, I wonder, will want to make use of a fund manager that is clearly under Council investigation for aiding an attack on a human colony?" Shepard's voice could not be milder.

Shepard could have sworn that the Volus had quivered under that hit, as he continued calmly, "On the other hand, if you cooperate with me, you should be able to get away without any trouble. I can arrange that much. Do you really want so much trouble?"

Barla Von sighed, "Very well, Spectre Shepard. You make a very solid point. The surety came from the New Provident Bank of Lusia."

Shepard's eyebrows went up. "The New Provident, eh? That puts things in a very different scale."

-(Scene Break)-

Liara had hurried towards the Krogan monument, where Shepard was waiting for her. The Spectre had called her and requested her to join him in front of the Krogan monument, saying that her presence was important for an inquiry. Liara found him standing just off the plaza. Shepard was in civilian clothes, wrapped in a grey shawl as was his wont. Seeing the approaching Asari, his face brightened, "Ah – there you are, Liara. Come – we need to talk before we set off on the next task." He led her to a bench and when they were both seated, explained what he had learnt from the Volus fund manager. "The institution that stood behind Saren's financial dealings is the New Provident Bank of Lusia."

"But what does that mean, Shepard?" Liara was utterly perplexed.

Shepard continued, "Given that Saren has been declared a rogue Spectre, we could get a Council order to attach his assets. But the New Provident will fight it tooth and nail – and I will wager you anything that Saren's assets are very considerable. It would take months to get past all the bureaucratic red tape to see any of Saren's accounts or transactions. And Lusian banks are known for playing fast and loose with every single law to protect their clients' interests. No, no – we have to approach this another way."

"And how do you suggest we do it?" queried Liara.

Shepard reclined on the bench, his fingers laced behind his head. He explained, "The group that has a controlling stake in the New Provident is the Dantius family. Liara, do you know if Matriarch Benezia had dealings with them?"

Liara shook here head, "She may have had, Shepard, but I would not know anything about it. Benezia did not involve me in any of her business. Do you know who they are?"

"Aye," nodded Shepard. "They are a family that holds a large stake in several banking interests on Lusia. They finance everything, as long as the return on their investment is assured. They are also the most successful set of crooks in Council space."

"What?" Liara was shocked.

"Aye. But they are very careful never to break the law in any traceable way. Indeed, for all practical purposes, they are a very well respected group, and are very particular about their reputation – I don't think any of the Dantius family has even been accused of any wrong doing. If I were to speak the words I spoke to you openly, I would be sued for defamation – a foul mouthed Spectre and a slandered banking family would be our respective roles. But they and their minions are the financial muscle behind half the devilry in the Traverse – everything from eezo smuggling to slaving. The group is led by Matriarch Orazia." Almost to himself, the human Spectre continued, his voice gentle and wondering, "She is something of a phenomenon even among the Asari, who are famous for diplomacy. She is an old style queen, Liara – all courtesy and conspiracy. I don't believe she has even spoken a harsh word in her life. But her brains concocts the foulest schemes possible."

"How do you know about them, Shepard?" Liara was fascinated by the information the Spectre was putting out.

"I tangled with them briefly on Torfan. The Dantius family owes me a few favours now."

The human Spectre was lost in his own memory, as he thought about events that had happened seven years ago. What Shepard had not told Liara was how he had met the Dantius family. In the aftermath of the Torfan raid, many of the most wanted criminals, both Batarian Hegemony officials, and otherwise, had escaped justice. What the Alliance had failed to realise at the time was that the disappearance of the top Hegemony officials and criminals was no spur of the moment flight. Each had prepared his own escape meticulously. From the moment the Alliance had gained a solid foothold on Torfan, the top criminals and Hegemony officials had known that the battle was lost. They had screamed at the Batarian army to fight on until the reinforcements, just around the corner, arrived. But there were no reinforcements and the Hegemony officials had known that. The Batarian army had been bullied into taking unbelievable casualties, not to produce victory, but to procure a delay while the criminals and Hegemony officials finalised their own escape plans. Behind the army had stood the Hegemony Security officials, shooting and hanging any that dared take a step back. Many courageous and capable Batarian army officers had died at the ends of the Hegemony ropes for retreating after taking far more punishment than military flesh could be expected to take. Just before the final collapse of the Batarian resistance, delayed three months, the Hegemony officials had disappeared. From one end of the planet to the other, they had quit their posts, changed into civilian clothes, had stuffed their perfectly and officially forged personal papers into their pockets and vanished into the chaos that was Torfan. They had left the old men of the Reserves to greet the Alliance soldiers at the gates of the slave pens, the exhausted Batarian army to go into prisoner of war camps, and the inhabitants of Torfan to live or die under the coming Alliance rule.

However, some of the Hegemony officials were too notorious and too well known to escape detection long. That was where the Dantius family had come in. Theodora Dantius had been the Asari consul of Lusia on Torfan and she had been the chief of the Scarlet Pimpernels. She had issued two hundred Lusian IDs in blank so that the Hegemony officials merely had to fill in their name, affix their holograms to the IDs and voila tout – they were free to board the shuttles to Lusia legally. A cold cynical smile graced the Spectre's lips – each ID had been sold for fourteen million credits.

Shepard, then a lieutenant, had obtained the personal papers of one of the dead Batarian criminals and, after a few artful changes to those papers, had sent an impostor with those papers to Theodora Dantius obtain a blank ID. However, after a long interview with the Alliance prosecutor, Shepard had reluctantly come to the conclusion that there was no way he could secure a conviction of a foreign diplomat on the strength of his evidence. The Lusians would simply have claimed that the blank ID had been lost or issued by mistake. There was not an ounce of judicially acceptable evidence.

Consequently, Shepard had researched the Dantius family for two months, and had discovered that they had only one rule in the family 'The only crime was getting caught, the only unforgivable sin, stupidity.' He had used that rule against Theodora. He had returned the blank ID to the Dantius family through another member – Nassana Dantius – letting them know that he knew of Theodora's scheme. The Dantius family did not forgive mistakes like that. Theodora's career as a diplomat had been finished and she had been dumped in an unwanted place after her faux pas. Shepard, on the other hand, by letting the Dantius family fix their own mistakes, had made a friend of Matriarch Orazia and Nassana who had returned the ID to the Matriarch and thus owed her own rise to him.

Liara roused the Spectre from his reverie gently remarking, "Shepard." The human almost started. "What do we do now?"

"We have an appointment with Nassana Dantius in twenty minutes. She owes me some favours, but it will be much better if she knows Matriarch Benezia. The more the pressure on the Dantius family, the better it will be for us."

-(Scene Break)-

Nassana Dantius was impeccably dressed, looking every inch the top quality diplomat that she was. If she was surprised at the presence of Liara, she gave no sign of it. Indeed, she was suavity itself as she greeted Liara and Shepard. She invited them into the Asari embassy lounge and pressed refreshments on them. "It has been six years since I have had the pleasure of your company, Commander Shepard. The Matriarch and I would both have been grateful for your presence ere now."

"Alas! I am desolate that I could not come earlier. But I am not my own master, Matron Dantius. I had to be where my superiors commanded me."

Liara got the feeling that both the Spectre and the diplomat were playing their roles with style. And she also got the feeling that both were utterly insincere.

"However, now that you are here, we should open a bottle of Lusian chianti to celebrate the occasion."

"You are too kind."

"Will your companion have the same?" queried the Asari Matron, as she drew the cork from a bottle of exquisite Asari brew.

"I truly forget my manners, Matron." Shepard's voice held self reproach, as he shook his head in sadness. "This is Dr. Liara T'Soni. She is a Prothean archaeologist. You are probably familiar with her mother – Matriarch Benezia, the former Councillor from Armali."

The Asari's features reflected surprise. "You are Matriarch Benezia's daughter? A privilege to meet you, Dr. T'Soni."

Liara bowed, "Likewise, Matron Dantius."

As the trio sipped chianti, Shepard and Nassana Dantius exchanged pleasantries and casual inquiries, before Shepard slowly came to the point. "Well, Matron Dantius, we both are in need of your assistance and counsel. There is a very delicate matter and we deemed that you are the best person to aid us prevent a scandal."

"A scandal, Commander Shepard?"

"Indeed. You've doubtless heard of the rogue Spectre Saren's attack on Eden Prime?" Seeing the diplomat's nod, Shepard proceeded, "But what is less well known is that Matriarch Benezia was attacked by Saren around the same time."

Nassana feigned surprise, "I had not heard of it."

"Probably not," returned Shepard. "Fortunately, the Matriarch is out of danger and should recover, given time. Nevertheless, the matter is being kept under wraps precisely in order to prevent a panic. However, as you can understand, the Council of Armali is more than a little outraged at those who perpetrated the attack and those who aided the attackers."

Nassana reclined in her chair and spoke, "I see indeed, Commander Shepard."

"The Council has put me in charge of finding this rogue Spectre, and I have been looking into his activities over the past few months."

"The Council is very wise," returned Nassana. "They could not have put it in more competent hands."

"If I am able to solve this case, it will be only due to the guidance of people like yourself and the Matriarch," answered Shepard quietly.

"If my counsel can aid you in anyway, Commander, it is yours for the asking." The diplomat inclined her head.

"Saren has been involved heavily in investments in Binary Helix. The New Provident Bank of Lusia stood surety for his transactions."

Nassana leant back and raised her well manicured hand. "Say no more, Commander. I understand fully. And it is indeed, as you say, a very delicate matter."

Shepard reminded, "I can be very discreet, as you and the Matriarch doubtless recollect. And with your cooperation, I can arrange things so that no foolish or reckless accusations are made."

"The Matriarch would, under usual circumstances, be delighted to aid your investigations, I am sure, Commander. Unfortunately, she is a little preoccupied these days."

"Indeed? Is there aught that I can do to alleviate her distress?"

"Perhaps, Commander," returned the diplomat. "My sister, Dahlia, has been taken hostage, and is being held for ransom."

Shepard was startled out of his habitual calm. "Gracious! Is your sister alright?"

"Yes, we believe so. She convinced her captors not to harm her, promising that we would pay handsomely for her safe return. Well, we have paid her ransom, but my sister has not been returned."

Shepard bowed, "If you could give me the details, Matron Dantius, I would be delighted to look into the matter."

-(Author's Note)-

Shepard works on the usual intelligence officer principles – the 4Bs, viz, blandish, browbeat, bribe and blackmail – in that order. Here you are seeing some of his favoured approaches to the problems besetting his investigations.

By the way, do guess who was the person transmitting information about Shepard's investigations. Do try to guess the receiver as well.

Shepard is a non-confrontational person, and he will simply find the path of least resistance. His way of doing things is playing with information.

As usual, all comments are welcome.