The Candidate – 13
Disclaimer: I don't own Mass Effect. It belongs to Drew Karpyshyn, and Bioware. I am merely playing in their world.
When Alenko, Shepard, and Williams returned to find their superior officers, they found Capt. Anderson and Adm. Mikhailovich deep in conversation. The three Alliance officers saluted their superiors and were waved into chairs by Capt. Anderson. Alenko swiftly narrated their success in finding the bomb set by Charn, and how it had failed to explode. Capt. Anderson and Adm. Mikhailovich cursed under their breaths. Shepard questioned, "So what do the engineers saved by Charn say, sir?"
"We've only interviewed two of them – a woman named Kate Bowman and the Chief Engineer, Simon Atwell," sighed Capt. Anderson. "The others are being interrogated now."
"And what do the two say?" inquired Shepard.
Capt. Anderson narrated, looking into his datapad to make sure he missed nothing. "Atwell saw nothing of Charn. He says that he and his group of two more engineers managed to sneak away from a group of Batarians who took the rest of his squad prisoner. The group of Batarians he describes agrees with the description of Charn's group. They were trying to contact the outer world when the Normandy's ground squad met up with them."
Alenko nodded at this description. His own experiences harmonised with the details provided by the engineer. Capt. Anderson continued, "The other engineer we questioned, Kate Bowman, says that she was working on the roof of the bunker, trying to tune the antennas. She hid there while the Batarians captured the rest of her group – they apparently did not search diligently enough to find her. She says she overheard the searching Batarians speaking about their numbers and positions, and sneaked into the camp radio hut, and began broadcasting her distress call. She was found there a couple of hours later by a group of Batarians, but one Batarian – probably Charn, she cannot distinguish accurately enough between Batarians – persuaded the others that she was more valuable as a hostage than dead, since the Normandy's ground team had already landed by then, and there was a chance that a live hostage could be more useful."
Adm. Mikhailovich nodded grimly, and turning to Cmdr. Shepard, "Shepard, what work has this Charn done for the Alliance?"
The tall man adjusted solidly framed glasses, as he considered the question for a moment, and spoke carefully, "He's one of our best Batarian agents, sir."
Mikhailovich's frown deepened, and he spoke quietly, but grim menace overhung his voice. "I am afraid I must ask you to be a little more explicit. What exactly does he do for the Alliance? How does he come to work for you?" Seeing Shepard's hesitation, he continued coldly, "I need full details, Shepard, and you would be wise not to try to hide anything from me!"
Johann Shepard sighed. This was what he had feared. But there was no choice now, and therefore, began, "This is where it all begins, I suppose. In the aftermath of the Torfan raid, the Batarians, both in Alliance space and outside, were more than a little angry and offended by the victory of the Alliance. After all, they believed themselves superior, and this devastating defeat was seriously detrimental to their self-confidence. Also, as you may remember, there were a few excesses committed by the Alliance soldiers on Batarians in Torfan. Even though the Hegemony had used, abused and abandoned these Batarians while their officials and criminals escaped, the Batarians, in general, were still far more resentful of us than of the Hegemony. The Hegemony even had some sympathy among the Batarian civilians. There was a lot of talk about soldiers going underground and continuing the fight against the Alliance." Seeing Capt. Anderson and Adm. Mikhailovich nod, he continued, "Even then, it was apparent that the attacks against Alliance interests were not going to cease, sir. Torfan, as far as the Hegemony was concerned, was just a setback – a severe one, to be sure, but ultimately, not lethal. We in the Intelligence were painfully aware that, in the coming months, the attacks would likely continue, possibly even intensify, but would simply be more distributed, instead of coming from a single source like Torfan. It was clear that the stage was set for surreptitious attacks on Alliance interests by Batarians in Alliance space. We needed clear intelligence about these coming attacks if we were to have any chance of stopping and preventing them."
"Go on," said Adm. Mikhailovich shortly.
Shepard's lips quirked in a withered smile, "Even during the war on Torfan, some Alliance officers and I had begun rescuing Batarian soldiers from the victorious Alliance troops, and protecting them from abuse. Everyone assumed that it was merely my sense of morals that prompted me to help the Batarians. While that motivation doubtless existed, it served another purpose. Many of the soldiers we rescued were genuine Batarian patriots, who had believed in the Hegemony. When they realised the depths of the Hegemony's betrayal of them, some of them would turn against the Hegemony for its betrayal. Their Batarian patriotism would turn into a poisonous hatred when they realised the extent of the Hegemony's betrayal, and the duplicity with which they had been handled, along with the far better behaviour of the Alliance. This, I hoped, to capitalise on, and turn them into sources of information. Thus began an Intelligence operation we called `Operation Faithful'."
The other Alliance officers exchanged glances. Capt. Anderson admonished, "Most would not agree to work for the Alliance, Shepard. And some of them could have pretended to work for you, while working for the Hegemony."
"Both perfectly true, sir. But we were careful. From the set of nearly two hundred officers and soldiers whom we Alliance officers had clearly helped, only six were finally selected to work for us. We tested their reliability towards us for months in far more innocuous tasks – like identifying the prisoners we had taken on Torfan."
"Why was that so important?" asked Ashley.
Shepard turned to the Gunnery Chief, "During the mess following our victory, Williams, we had plenty of prisoners with no identification. While some of them had genuinely lost their IDs, many others had thrown them away for good reasons. The criminals would simply give us an assumed name, mingle with the other Batarian prisoners, and then get away when they were repatriated or released. Who was to say if a man had given his true name and was or was not born on some obscure planet deep in the Hegemony space? It is estimated that about twenty percent of the wanted criminals were in our hands after the Torfan business and who we inadvertently let go, simply because we did not know whom we held. Given that the Asari and the Turians refused to help us with finding the criminals among the prisoners – only the Salarian Union helped us - these Batarians whom we had rescued were really our best hope of identifying criminals. We would have them mingle with the suspected prisoners and help us in catching those who were faking their identities."
"And you recruited Charn, Shepard? He doesn't look like he likes humans to me."
"No, he doesn't," agreed Shepard. "But he hates the Hegemony more than he hates the humans."
Adm. Mikhailovich asked, "Okay, Shepard. So you had recruited them. What were they doing?"
Shepard smiled, "We formed our own organisation – Central Committee for Underground Batarian Resistance – and let them pretend to be the hub of those who wanted to attack the Alliance. Undom'aal Charn was the head of this group."
"I doubt it would be that easy," frowned Alenko.
"It wasn't," returned Shepard distastefully. "We had to work for a long time to establish their credibility. And I don't even want to think of some of the things we had to do to get there. But we succeeded, and managed to lure some very important criminals into our trap. Remember the death of Akuraban three years ago at the hands of the Alliance Special forces, Alenko?" The other officer acknowledged it, and Shepard continued, "That was because he was lured there by Charn and his men. But more importantly, we used him to funnel false intelligence to the other Batarian agitators. Remember the failed attempt at rebellion by the Batarians on Gilead, sirs?" There were nods from the other officers, as Shepard explained, "That rebellion was way smaller because Charn and his men fed Batarians on Camala false information that more Batarian allied mercenaries were on the way, and they must wait for reinforcements before helping in the revolt on Gilead. By the time the Batarians on Camala realised that no forces were really coming, it was too late for them to intervene and the Alliance had stepped in in force and the situation on Gilead was under control." Shepard finished, "Outwardly, Charn has operated a mercenary group who hired out to whoever paid them the most, but he has been working for us for the last five years."
"So why did he join an attack on Terra Nova?"
Shepard wearily brushed his hair from his forehead. He sighed, "Charn and Balak have a personal score to settle. Charn's unit was decimated during the Torfan raid and forced to take brutal casualties, often at pistol point, so that Balak and his Hegemony officers could escape. Also, Charn's brother was hanged by Balak – allegedly for cowardice, but more probably as a warning to everyone that they all had to fight and die where they stood, no matter the casualties or the situation on the ground."
"And so he was willing to endanger Terra Nova?" asked Capt. Anderson accusingly.
"He didn't intend to," pointed out Shepard. "If his plan had worked, Balak would have been blown up and there would have been no attack. A win-win situation for everyone."
"But it didn't, Shepard," pointed out Adm. Mikhailovich. "His `plan' very nearly wiped out the colony."
Shepard shrugged, "So, what happens now, sirs?"
Adm. Mikhailovich answered, "He and his men will stand trial for making war on the Alliance. It is upto an Alliance court to decide his fate."
"I see, sir." Shepard's voice was arctic. "But in the meantime?"
"In the meantime, he shall be escorted to the prison in Scott "
"If I may make a suggestion to the Admiral?" demurred Shepard.
"Please release him into my custody. I promise to make him available in any Alliance court, and I will stand guarantee for his appearance. In the meantime, he is vital to our investigations in the Traverse."
Adm. Mikhailovich didn't even hesitate. "I'm afraid that is impossible, Cmdr. Shepard."
"May I inquire the reason, sir?"
"His conduct here leaves a lot unanswered, Cmdr. Shepard," replied Adm. Mikhailovich, frowning.
"He is part of my team, sir, and I will answer for his conduct."
"By all accounts, Cmdr. Shepard, you might be answering for some of your own conduct one of these days. Ignoring commands, running your own private intelligence networks with Alliance money, thwarting Alliance plans for personal benefit - did I leave anything out?" purred Adm. Mikhailovich. "Anyway, this Batarian's crimes cannot be simply swept under the carpet."
"Crimes, sir? The evidence here inculpates him nowise. All he's done is help the Alliance, in despite of his ties to his own flesh and blood. He brought many of the worst Hegemony criminals to book for the Alliance, and you want to treat him as a war criminal?!" There was disgust in Shepard's voice.
"Cmdr. Shepard," replied Adm. Mikhailovich sternly, "your protege nearly destroyed a planet. No evidence here exculpates him. We've only your word that he really is your agent and that he tried to kill Balak. The fact that he is your agent makes your evidence hardly impartial. In fact, if you weren't a Spectre, you would be accompanying your minion to the prison in Scott. Unfortunately, you are beyond my jurisdiction. The only certainty now is that your agent tried to destroy a colony, and nearly succeeded at it!"
Shepard gave no indication of discomfiture at the Admiral's threat. "Very well, sir!" he replied.
Capt. Anderson intervened diplomatically. "Shepard, we simply cannot let him go. You've no authority to take charge of Alliance prisoners, even if you are a Spectre. Surely you must realise that we cannot eschew due process?"
Shepard shrugged ungraciously, as he returned coldly, "I understand a lot more. However, I should like to speak to Charn before I leave - privately."
Adm. Mikhailovich and Capt. Anderson exchanged glances. Both of them had realised that Shepard would demand an interview with Charn, and that was something that could not be denied him. As a Spectre, it was his prerogative. Adm. Mikhailovich sighed, "Very well, Shepard. You have one hour."
Shepard and Ashley Williams were seated with the tall former Batarian State army captain. Shepard spoke calmly to Charn, "I have spoken to the officers here, but they have refused my request to release you conditionally. However, I shall take it up with their superiors on Arcturus. I hope to get better results there."
Charn sneered, "Good luck!" He added resignedly, "I shall probably be dead by then."
"The Alliance does not murder prisoners!" protested Williams angrily. Her outburst caused both Shepard and Charn to glance pityingly at her.
"I don't think, in this instance, you have to worry too much, Charn," returned Shepard cynically. "You are Adm. Mikhailovich's ticket to further promotions. Your trial will bring him much prestige. Dead, you are of no use to him. He won't kill the goose that lays golden eggs."
"A comforting thought, I am sure," muttered Charn.
Shepard spoke, and his voice was low and worried, "In the meantime, Charn, please don't do anything that might even remotely give them an excuse to harm you."
The tall Batarian laughed, "Don't worry, Commander. I am not suicidal. Nor are my men." He broke off his sentence, and tilted his head left – a clear sign of the respect he felt for Shepard, "It's been a privilege working for you, Commander."
"I'm not letting you off the hook that easily," smiled Shepard. "You and I still have a great deal of work to do."
"Even if I am acquitted, my cover is blown, Johann," The Batarian's eyes were fixed on the Commander's midnight black eyes, framed by the solid glasses.
Shepard shook his head, "There is a lot you can do for the Alliance even without the double game you have been playing. And that – well, we both knew that it wasn't going to last forever." He continued pensively, "I fear that your cover had probably been compromised before now, Charn. That was why Balak wanted to recruit you to this mission. He must have suspected something – after all, it is only so many of the Hegemony's raids that could fail before the penny dropped somewhere in Khar'shan. He suspected your allegiances and wanted to bind you closely enough that you could never return to the Alliance, even if you were aligned with it at any time. With genocide on your soul, you would be forced to be loyal to him for eternity. That was one reason why he was keen on such a destructive raid."
Both Ashley and Charn looked askance at that Commander's observation. "What other reasons could be there, Commander?" asked Williams.
"The Geth attack on Eden Prime, of course," returned Shepard unhesitatingly. "If this attack had succeeded, Terra Nova would have been destroyed, and it could have also been blamed on an accident or the Geth. There would be no evidence to show that the Batarians perpetrated it. The Alliance would have looked weak, and incapable of protecting its citizens. That would have probably meant an exodus of humans from the Traverse and the Batarians would have been the winners by default, since they could colonise the planets at leisure."
They all paused for a moment, and then Charn continued, "Johann, the marines you asked my people to look out for – well, we found them."
"Go on," encouraged Shepard.
"My men found them on Edolus – some of their bodies, at least."
"I don't understand," replied Shepard frowning.
"They seem to have been killed by a thresher maw. Most of the bodies were … mangled beyond recognition."
"Himmel! A bunch of marines would not be so careless to walk into a thresher maw nest!"
The Batarian shrugged, "They seem to have been lured there by a false distress beacon."
"But who?" broke in Ashley Williams.
The Batarian conceded, "I have no idea."
"Do you have the false beacon core?" asked Shepard.
The Batarian reached into an inner pocket, and handed a small packet to the Commander.
"Good luck, Charn. Take care of yourself. I will see Matron Laelia Crispon on Ilium, send her here within four and twenty hours, and take your legal defence on myself. In the meantime, I will also make sure that the rest of our men are safe," promised Shepard. With that, the Spectre and the Gunnery Chief bade goodbye to the Batarian prisoner, and left the asteroid.
The return trip to the Citadel on the Normandy was tense. Ashley was conscious of the glares of the crew, and was sitting quietly on her chair with Shepard opposite her in another. After the Shepard had returned to the Normandy, he had turned extremely uncommunicative and had immersed himself in his datapad and omni tool, working on something that Ashley could not fathom. When he gave an astonished exclamation, Ashley Williams looked up and was shocked at how much his appearance had changed. Gone was the quiet, self-confident officer that had handled the situation on Terra Nova's asteroid with a calm grace. He was now white as a sheet of paper, and his lips were clamped down in an attempt at a semblance of control. He had draped a shawl around his shoulder, even though the controlled climate inside the Normandy did not warrant it. Ashley got the distinct impression that he was doing it to keep from shivering. "God, commander! Are you alright?"
Shepard answered jerkily, pouring himself a glass of water from the carafe on the table. "Yes. Yes, I'm fine." She could see that he was trying to get his thoughts in order, and his emotions under control.
"Are you sure, Commander? You look like death!"
"I'm fine," returned Shepard almost impatiently. "Don't worry, Williams!"
Ashley Williams nodded, and questioned, "What now?"
"I'm off to Arcturus," replied Shepard.
"Why, Commander?" inquired the surprised Gunnery Chief.
"Charn had a lot of men still out in the field. If he was compromised, and Balak was on to him, his subordinates are in danger. They need to be warned. Also, Charn has a family – they need to be moved to safety. Barzilai needs to be warned about this."
While Shepard had told Williams the truth about his destination, his reasons for going to Arcturus station were much more complicated. After he had met with Adm. Barzilai and told him of Charn's predicament, he was assured by his former superior that everything that could be done would be done.
Having finished his meeting with Adm. Barzilai, Shepard booked into a small hotel. An elderly receptionist sat reading Voltaire's `Le Siecle de Louis XIV'. Seeing Shepard's entrance, she murmured, "Est-ce-que je peux vous aider, monsieur? (Can I help you, sir?)
Shepard replied politely, "Ma cle de chambre, madame." (My room key, madam.)
The woman inquired, "Numero de chambre?" (Room number?)
The Spectre returned, "Cinquante." (Fifty.)
The woman fumbled beneath the desk, extracted a key card and beckoned, "Suivez-moi!" (Follow me).
The Spectre followed the woman into an elevator, and then was led into a dimly lit corridor. The woman opened a door that was clearly labelled `50', and led him inside. They duo were barely inside, when the woman closed the door and Shepard found himself hugged by the woman. "Johann!"
He returned the hug, "Mutti!" (Mummy!)
After the usual greetings and protestations of affection from both of them, the elder Shepard gestured her son to sit on the sofa, "So what is so important, Johann, that you had to see me at top priority?"
The Spectre spoke carefully, "I came across some information that is … extremely sensitive. You will have doubtless heard of Adm. Kahoku's missing marines?"
His mother nodded, and Shepard continued, "One of my people in the Traverse found them on the planet Edolus in the Artemis Tau cluster. They had all been killed by thresher maws – lured into it by a false Alliance distress beacon, in fact."
Capt. Shepard's nose wrinkled in distaste. "Batarian work? Or is it other pirates that did that?"
The Spectre's face turned absolutely serious, as he leant forward and whispered in reply, "It is possible, but I don't think so. In fact, I think it was done by someone within the Alliance!"
"What?! You are joking!" Captain Shepard's mouth was hanging open in utter astonishment.
Commander Shepard looked at her solidly, but said nothing. The older woman composed herself in a few seconds. "You are serious about this," she murmured. "But how can you be so sure?"
"Because most of the code used in the beacon was written by me! I disassembled the software in the beacon core and I found that most of the code is mine, right down to the comments, and dummy variables! Only some parts of the code, which refer to the regiment's ID were altered!" returned her son grimly.
"What do you mean?" Capt. Shepard's lips had thinned so much that they seemed in positive danger of disappearing completely.
"Mutti, as you remember, I wrote the code for the Alliance Distress protocols as part of my masters' thesis. The person who altered the code to what I found in the beacon needed access not only to my source code, but also to the original keys I used while writing the software. The only copies of the source code should be in your department! Every other copy has been erased – even I, who wrote the software, don't have a copy, nor does the university where I did my work have one. So how did someone get round to altering the source code to fake the distress signals?"
There was a long silence, and then finally, Captain Shepard spoke, "Anything else you have discovered about this attack?"
"Only one thing. This is not the first attack on a unit of marines by the thresher maws. The first attack was on Akuze five years ago. And two years ago, there was another similar attack on Asahi – marines lured using a false signal. Same modus operandi in the second case."
He continued, "I would say, Mutti, someone is deliberately targeting Alliance marines luring them into thresher maw nests. Someone who has full access to Alliance records, including those of your department."
Captain Shepard rose from her seat. "Thanks for bringing this to my notice, Johann. I will look into the matter."
I am using the ranks of the army, and navy separately. In the game, they are a mish-mash, and very confused. I prefer to keep them separate.
By the way, do guess where the inspiration for `Central Committee for Underground Batarian Resistance' comes from. Hint – Moscow, 1921. There is a considerable amount of curious history here.
Congratulations to Janizary for correctly recognising that Charn's bomb plot was based on `Operation Spark' – an attempt where Generalmajor Henning von Tresckow and his adjutant Fabian von Schlabrendorff tricked Col. Karl Brandt into taking a bomb disguised as bottles of cognac on board Hitler's special plane. However, the bomb failed to go off and surprisingly enough, Fabian von Schalbrendorff managed to retrieve the package from Karl Brandt, without the SS ever finding out what the two officers had attempted.
As usual, all comments and criticisms are welcome.
 - Scott is the capital of Terra Nova.