Black Box

Mouse watched the man shuffle through the crowd towards him. The idiot was trying to look casual, but failing miserably: he kept flicking his watery grey eyes nervously in Mouse's direction. Mouse wanted to believe that he himself was managing this trade-off with much more flair: he leaned against a vending machine nonchalantly, trying to channel a drell assassin he'd followed around for a bit when he had been nothing more than a duct rat.

Finally, the man managed to swim against the crowd's current over to where Mouse stood. He must have come straight from the docks, Mouse figured. His contact hadn't even had time to change—just thrown a rancid overcoat over his uniform. Now that the other man was close, Mouse could see the crisp Alliance blues peeking out around the man's collar.

"So," Mouse said, eying the man closely, "we're supposed to call you Lieutenant Scum now, right?"

Scum rolled his eyes, but nervously tugged the uniform deeper into the shadows of the overcoat.

"Don't be an ass, Mouse. I'm never gonna make lieutenant. Especially if you screw this up."

Mouse held up his hands.

"Hey, hey. We were partners once. Fellow duct rats. You and me against the world. Not my fault that you've gone all…right side of the tracks on me."

"Yeah, whatever. You sure you weren't followed?"

Scum glanced around, once again fiddling with the edges of his uniform. It had been years since Scum had found out about his sister's death, back when Chora's was still the place to be and be killed. Years since that day Scum had come up to Mouse and started yelling at him they were finished, that he wasn't gonna be a lowlife anymore and was going to make something of himself.

Scum had been Mouse's friend—one of the few he'd ever had—so Mouse had hooked him up with the right people to forge the credentials Scum would need to get himself into basic training. But not without telling Scum that he wouldn't last two days in the Alliance, forged credentials or not. Scum was still scum, even all dressed up in a fancy uniform. Now, it had been three years and Mouse had yet to be proven right: Scum was not only still in the Alliance, but had leveraged his way into some sort of tech specialist position. They had still kept in touch…kinda. Scum owed Mouse for more than one tight scrap when they'd been in the ducts. And for those credentials. But Mouse had held out: waiting for something big that Scum could do for him.

Finally, today, all that sitting on that debt was going to be paid off.

"Here," Scum said, slipping a data disk into Mouse's palm—a practised maneuver, still familiar after all these years. "And this makes us even, right?"

"Yeah, as long as its genuine," said Mouse, tucking the disk into a concealed pocket in his jacket he reserved for only the most important of smuggled data.

Scum snorted.

"Hell Mouse, do you think I'd give this to you if I thought you had any way of verifying it? I'm not a traitor, okay? I'm only giving this to you so that you can get those angles you need." Scum lowered his voice. "Then, if you want my advice, you'll destroy it as soon as you got what you need. See, there'll be folks out there who would kill you to get their hands on this—and they won't be using it just to program some stupid-ass VI."

"Hey, it's not a stupid VI. This is a brilliant idea. Everyone's gonna want one after the Memorial Service. If you want, I can get you some copies when it's done. You could get in on the profits. See, I betcha Alliance folks are gonna be my biggest custo—"

"No, Mouse. I told you. We're done. I'm done owing people like you." Scum glanced around quickly and then seemed about to leave, but he suddenly stopped and turned back to Mouse. He cleared his throat. "Mouse…could you at least make the damn thing respectful? She saved the Citadel, you know, no matter how crazy she may have been."

Mouse shrugged.

"Fine. Whatever you say, Lieutenant Scum," he sneered.

"My name isn't Scum anymore. I'm better than that," Scum muttered in response, almost like he was trying to convince himself more than he was trying to convince Mouse.

Mouse couldn't resist one last jab at his former friend's retreating back.

"You're still scum."

"Screw you Mouse. And I'm serious about that disk. Destroy it as soon as you can. But if you don't…hell, you aren't my problem anymore."

And with those parting words, Scum moved back into the crowd, adjusting his uniform underneath his coat as he went. Mouse watched him until he disappeared around a corner, becoming just another small parasite moving within the guts of the Citadel.

Mouse thought about the data disk. If there was nothing on it…Mouse was a low-level smuggler and, unlike Scum, he knew that he was nothing more than that. But if Scum had given him a blank disk, he'd seriously consider tracking him down and blowing his head off. Drell style.

Mouse would have bet credits on this disk having exactly what was promise though, since he knew how much Scum had wanted to be free of him and the debts he owed to his past life. Scum was right that Mouse didn't exactly have access to anyone or anything that would prove the footage was genuine but, hell, it didn't really matter for a VI. There would have certainly been easier ways to get the angles he needed…but Mouse had liked the idea of making Scum sweat as he procured something this highly-classified, just so that Scum could be free of the debts he owed him.

Mouse stepped away from his wall and into the flowing crowd. It was hellish this time of day in Zakera Ward, but that's why exactly Mouse had arranged the meet here: lots of people, easy to get lost in the shuffle. He peeled off from the main hallways and made his way to the small storage compartment that was currently home. Lots of lowlifes like himself used these compartments and they certainly had their advantages: no fixed address and even relatively securable—at least once you hacked and reprogrammed the lock. Mouse had his equipment set up in there and he immediately downloaded the disk. He watched the footage crackled into motion on the stolen interface.

There was no sound, which disappointed Mouse, but he guessed that the audio was probably encoded separately and Scum had neglected to include that. Whatever. It's not like he needed it anyhow.

The image from the black box flickered onto the screen: stars burning coolly above a ice-covered planet. Then, a ship—one that was unlike any Mouse had seen ever seen through the windows of the Citadel's various docking bays—suddenly flared into existence as it dropped out of FTL travel. The ship was ugly and bulbous: more like a piece of living rock than a spaceship.

Then, a bright orange beam shot out of the end of the ship, flooding the camera's lens and there was a momentarily pause of shuddering darkness as the Normandy's black box switched to an alternate surveillance feed.

From this new angle, Mouse could see the edges of the sleek Alliance frigate whose black box footage was playing on his screen. There were grey blurs of escape pods firing out past this camera's lens, from somewhere behind where it was mounted on the wingtips. Mouse rolled his eyes.

"Ass," Mouse cursed under his breath, referring naturally to Scum. "I'm not making a god-damned documentary. I don't need shots of the damn ship getting blown to hell. I just need…argh. Whatever."

He hit the fast forward button, rolling his eyes at more footage of the ship as parts of it flaked off into space and more cameras ruptured. At one point, the feed to the box switched through several angles faster than Mouse could blink. And then, a body: a man floating out into the darkness of space with his face stretched into a silent scream. Confirmation of the officer's ID flickered across the side of the screen, where the information being fed from the ship's onboard computers was being displayed. Mouse glanced at the name: Pressly. Then, his finger resumed its location on the fast-forward interface.

"Blah-blah. Ship blowing up. People dying. Whatever."

Finally, the feed settled on that from a sensor that must have been on the ship's roof…but the roof had been split open with the force of that orange blast from the mysterious ship. And Mouse could tell from how the image swayed violently back and forth that the camera had to have been dangling from the roof by its cables. This was finally some luck for Mouse, though, and he immediately took his finger off the interface. Because of the way the camera now dangled into the space that had once been the Normandy's roof, there was actual footage of inside of the cockpit. And finally, there she was, striding up through the debris.

She had her helmet on…but it didn't really matter to Mouse. The diagnostic information running along the side of the footage, taken straight from the ship's computer, confirmed the ID of the figure as Commander Shepard, so that was good enough for him. And he didn't really need her face for the VI anyhow, since he'd already gotten the image-capture he'd needed for the VI's face from Alliance press releases. What he'd really needed from Scum and his fortunate assignment to the Normandy clean-up mission was shots of her body and, especially, her…ahem…back. News footage doesn't usually give you particularly good shots of the first human SPECTRE from behind. But this shot Scum had passed along was perfect. Mouse immediately started up the VI image-capture software and started inputting the coordinates.

He watched as Commander Shepard walked up the length of the ship and even paused for a moment. That struck Mouse as odd: the ship was exploding and clearly there some business in the cockpit before she could evacuate with the others, but she was still pausing to admire the view? The helmet inclined up towards the space where the ship's roof had once been and was now nothing but space. The ragged edges of the torn metal glowed red, almost making the torn hull seem like it was bleeding: the split edges of flesh rather than metal.

Then, she resumed her painstakingly slow walk to the cockpit, shoving floating seats out of her way. She passed through the artificial shields surrounding the cockpit and, through the glimmering blue light, thought he could see movement in the pilot's seat. And then this camera blew out too as another orange blast tore through the lens.

The last feed switched to an external camera that had to have been mounted on a wing or something. For a moment, it was just stars again. Then a shower of red-hot debris blew across the screen. And then Commander Shepard was thrown in front of the camera's range in the same way, as if she were just another piece of the debris the Normandy had left behind.

There was a moment where she floated, dazed perhaps, but then she seemed to notice that there was air escaping from that tear in her suit. She contorted, but Mouse couldn't tell if it was some desperate, futile maneuver to close off the suit or if it was from the pain of the blood vessels that had to be rupturing throughout her body. Still struggling, she floated out of the camera's view: accelerating as the cold planet below pulled her into the burning embrace of its atmosphere.

Mouse looked away.

But then he inputted the angles from the footage into his software. After only a few minutes of adjusting a few of the computer's calculations, he cued up the VI in test mode. The Commander Shepard VI looked at Mouse with steely eyes.

"I delete data like you on the way to real errors," she said, before her eyelid twitched twice and then the entire VI froze.

Mouse grinned as he reset the system. Sure, it was a bit buggy, but this was definitely his best VI yet. He made a mental note to thank Scum if he saw him at the Memorial Service. Maybe he'd even try to slip Scum his own copy, by way of thanks. Scum would like that. And Mouse was in a particularly charitable mood.

Scum had probably spent hours watching this footage over and over again as he pieced together all the footage from the Normandy's black box together for whatever report the Alliance was demanding. And he was sure that Scum would certainly want to know that his efforts hadn't gone to waste.

Orlin silently congratulated himself as he slipped through the service corridor. The salarian licked his lips in anticipation as he stopped to crouch behind a crate, cueing up the footage on his omnitool. There was no one else in the corridor this time of day, and he knew from the information he'd hacked off Avina's low-security systems that maintenance wasn't expected to have any business in this corridor for at least another hour. It was as good a place as any to investigate his prize.

The footage was not exactly high-quality: it was obvious that Alliance personnel had stitched it together from the feeds of various cameras that had been recording directly into Normandy's black box during the attack from the unknown vessel. But that was only to be expected with this kind of emergency footage. Besides, the footage itself was negligible: what was truly valuable was the information from the ship's onboard computers scrolling along the edges of the frame. It confirmed that the identity of the struggling body hurtling towards the planet below was, indeed, Commander Shepard. This kind of thing was very difficult to fake, if not impossible, considering this was military-grade software designed to positively ID crew members in exactly these kind of situations. And, although the footage was clearly a copy, it had obviously been copied directly from the black box itself: the encoding signal hadn't degraded the way it might have if it had been copied several times.

Yes, he thought, licking his lips again, this footage was as close to a confirmation of Commander Shepard's death as you could get. And it was, therefore, an extremely valuable piece of information.

Once again, Orlin couldn't help but be astounded by his own brilliance. He'd thought it curious when, as he'd been liberally skimming the pockets of the crowd at the human's public memorial service, he'd noticed a low-ranking Alliance soldier punch one of the Citadel's more charming local VI smugglers square in the face. C-Sec had intervened immediately and neither human had been forthcoming about the reason for the scuffle, but Orlin's curiosity had been piqued. He'd trailed after the smuggler, bought him a couple rounds of alcoholic beverages, and eventually had the human admit that he had a prime copy of the Normandy's black box footage. The human was an idiot, more interested in using the footage for some glitchy VI program rather than recognizing its true value. But because the human was an idiot, Orlin was able to convince him rather easily to sell him the footage for what must have seemed an exorbitant amount of credits to the human, since the idiot accepted the deal in less than a heartbeat. But Orlin knew the sum was trivial compared to what he could make in the long run.

He immediately began parsing the footage, taking a few of the early shots as samples and putting them together into encoded data packages. He began to think of all the potential clients. The Shadow Broker, of course. Orlin knew a handful of Broker agents and, if he negotiated carefully, he might even be able to get the agents competing in a bidding war among themselves, making them pay for the privilege of presenting this choice cut of information to their master. And, naturally, this wouldn't prevent Orlin from making a few similar deals on the side: the big mercenary organizations, terrorist organizations, maybe even militaries.

Orlin sent the data packages to all of the contacts he wanted: just a little tease of the footage they could buy, enough to know that it was real. He knew that it wouldn't take long for them to flock to him. He could be a very rich salarian after any one of these deals. And Orlin was planning on making several.

Fleck paced around the C-Sec interrogation cell. He knew that they were watching him in the surveillance cameras, so he measured his pacing into slow, careful strides. He didn't want to make it seem like things had spun horribly out of control. Even though they had.

Betrayal. Someone in the organization had cracked, he knew. That was the only explanation for how they would have found him and why they would have dared to arrest him. C-Sec couldn't have figured it all out without inside help.

He knew that they'd found what was left of the turian kid a few days ago, after one of the Keepers had pulled the body out of the duct where Fleck had instructed those batarians to stow it. Maybe it had been one of the batarians that had cracked? He should just stick with humans from now on. It had been a mistake to hire aliens. Or maybe C-Sec had found something on the kid? Either way, it couldn't have been too conclusive, because, if they had found proof, he'd have been thrown straight into one of the cells in the back—not an interrogation room like this one.

The key, he thought, was going to be figuring out how much they knew. C-Sec thought they were interrogating him, but Fleck knew it was really going to be the other way around.

He was surprised when the door opened and his interrogator finally entered the room. It wasn't either of the human officers who had arrested him, but a turian. The turian barely spared Fleck a glance as he flipped through a datapad he clutched in his talons. Fleck returned to the table in the middle of the room and sat down. After another few seconds of scrolling through the datapad, the turian sat down on the other side and fixed Fleck with a cold stare.

"You should know," the turian drawled casually, "that this interrogation is merely a formality. Some…anonymous do-gooder left a bloody crowbar on an officer's desk. Blood matched the remains of a kid pulled out of the ducts a couple days ago. And the fingerprints…unfortunately for you…match yours."

The turian inclined his head towards Fleck. Fleck tried to look as impassive as possible.

"Stupid," the turian said simply, saying it like it as a fact, rather than an insult. Which, of course, made it all the more insulting. Fleck's hands tightened into fists.

Then, the turian sighed. "So this is it for you. But we'd like to know why you did it. Besides the obvious fact that you are…clearly…a monster."

Fleck looked down at the table. He didn't like this turian's stare and the utter contempt in the one ice-blue eye Fleck could see. The other one was shielded by some kind of visor: non-standard for C-Sec. Fleck had to process this stuff about a crowbar. Despite the turian's opinion of him, Fleck wasn't stupid. He hadn't used a crowbar and left it lying around for just anyone to drop it off at C-Sec. No, Fleck had beaten the kid to death with his bare hands. But, clearly, someone in his organization was trying to set him up for it. And they wanted him caught badly enough to manufacture false clues for C-Sec. Because C-Sec was obviously too stupid to actually catch him with real evidence.

Fleck looked up and leaned back in his chair. The turian had returned to his datapad.

"I don't know anything about some dead duct rat," he said casually. "Probably saw something he shouldn't and got what was coming to him, if I had to guess. But I wouldn't know. 'Cause I didn't have anything to do with it."

"Oh, I'm sorry," the turian said, looking up from the datapad. "Could you repeat that? I wasn't exactly listening, since this interrogation seems to be a colossal waste of my time so far."

"Oh, you're hilarious," Fleck hissed. "I said—"

"—nothing that was remotely close to what I asked from you," the turian said, suddenly pulling his talons away from the datapad and under the table, out of sight.

Fleck's eyes narrowed as he heard an omnitool gear up. All this time, the turian continued to stare coolly at Fleck there he was waiting for something. And then a faint popping sound as electricity suddenly sparked from the surveillance camera in the corner of the room.

That wasn't good.

"I want a reason," the turian said, "and I want it now."

And the turian suddenly lunged across the table, talons curling into fists faster than Fleck could blink. Then, Fleck was on the floor, his nose crushed and blood dripping down the back of his throat.

"What the hell kind of cop are you?" Fleck screamed, his attempts at a calm exterior broken in synchronization with his nose.

The turian had sat back down into the chair, looking perfectly at ease while Fleck spat blood onto the floor. The turian's only response was to shrug. It occurred to Fleck that maybe this turian wasn't actually C-Sec. He certainly wasn't wearing a uniform or anything. A Spectre, maybe? That could explain the apparent disregard for any kind of civilian rights. Still, the turian spoke like a C-Sec officer…

"I'm not interested," the turian said carefully, voice flanging around the edges, "in wasting time with scum like you who beat children to death."

"I got nothing to tell you," Fleck muttered, pulling himself back into the chair.

Fleck stared at the turian again. He needed to regain the upper hand in the interrogation. He needed to figure out who, exactly, this turian was. But, in lieu of any kind of official armor or insignia, all Fleck had was a quick glance at the datapad the turian seemed so interested in. There was nothing particularly exceptional on the screen: just survey information from some planet out in the Terminus Systems.

But then Fleck stared at the planet again and suddenly realized that it looked familiar. He'd seen this planet before—recently. He looked away from the datapad, ignoring the turian's eyes, and tried to remember. And then he had it: this was the same planet as the one from the Shepard footage his men had pulled off that stupid salarian who thought he could double-deal with the Shadow Broker agents and get away with it.

And, suddenly, Fleck knew who the turian was. And he understood that he had a way out of this mess. He glanced up at the camera, but he assumed it was still suffering the "malfunction" from the turian's earlier trick with his omnitool.

"I want a deal," Fleck said.

The turian immediately stood up.

"Lawyers do deals. I don't."

Fleck smiled and a hint of unease crept into the corners of the turian's unbreakable stare. The turian had sensed that Fleck's mood had changed—that his prisoner had figured something out. Fleck's smile broadened. Good.

"No, Vakarian, I think you'll be very interested in what I have to say," and Fleck couldn't help but let a chuckle escape from his lips at how beautifully everything was going to work out. "You're going to find some reason that proves I was framed. It shouldn't be hard since the weapon really is a fake. Then, you're going to let me go. And maybe I will be…hmm…grateful for your help in proving that I've been wrongfully accused. And maybe, to express my appreciation, I will give you a prime copy of the black box footage from a…particular Alliance frigate you may have spent some time on."

The turian's face had gone very still. Fleck didn't know whether that meant he had him or not, yet he knew he had no choice but to continue now.

"You see, Vakarian, I've heard rumours. Rumours of a certain turian who's been looking for copies of that footage. Of a turian who's been trying to track down transport to an obscure planet in the Omega Nebula. Maybe," said Fleck, grinning, "I'll throw in a seat for you on an untraced cruiser I got heading down to that particular area of the galaxy next week. Though I don't think you'll need it after you've seen the footage," he said, grinning. "I've seen that footage. It proves she's dead."

This time, the blow hit Fleck across his jawline and he suddenly found himself pinned against the wall. All of the unconcerned—almost casual—nature of the turian was gone. Fleck found himself staring into eyes that burned with rage. He thought to himself, mildly, that if Vakarian had worked for him, he would have ordered someone to put him down a long time ago: the turian was clearly a loose cannon. Clearly dangerous.

It made Fleck wonder just what kind of devil he was making a deal with.

"Liar," Vakarian hissed into Fleck's face, mandibles flaring.

Fleck struggled against the wall, trying to speak around the pressure building on his windpipe.

"No…but if you don't believe me, take my deal and I'll give you the footage. My tech experts tell me it still has the Alliance codes that confirm it's genuine, unlike the other copies you'll find floating around…"

Fleck felt the pressure on his neck increase. He had one last chance. But he was certain—almost certain, at least—that he had this particular turian figured out.

"If you don't take the deal," Fleck croaked, "you'll never know what happened."

And that was enough. Something in the turian's furious stare flickered and faded back into the recesses of the turain's eyes. Fleck fell to the floor, gasping air back into his lungs. He found himself looking up at the turian towering above him.

"Show me."

Fleck nodded.

"I need to make some calls…"

The turian pulled him roughly to his feet, shoving Fleck towards the door with talons digging into his shoulder.

"Then let's go."

Officer Mia Alden hadn't been happy about bringing Vakarian in on the case. It wasn't Vakarian's jurisdiction by anyone's definition. He'd just happened to be there when that Keeper had pulled the poor kid's body out of that duct and started dragging it through Zakera, completely oblivious to the shrieks of horror coming from the people around it. It had taken half a precinct to restore order, wrest the remains away from the Keeper (who, in the end, seemed simply pleased that it no longer had to deal with the body any longer), and convince the crowd that, no, the Keepers were not rebelling and killing everyone, so please go back to your usual business and let C-Sec do its job, thank you very much.

It had been easy to identify the kid as some duct rat who'd been nabbed once or twice before for minor trafficking charges. The small turian couldn't have been no more than twelve. Officer Alden wanted to catch whatever monster had done this as much as anyone, but she'd been there when Vakarian had first caught sight of the body. He'd been…on edge…ever since the news about the Normandy—everyone knew he'd served some time on the ship—but the sight of that small human's broken and bloodied remains had sent him over. Not in a crazy meltdown sort of way. Not in a human way, Alden couldn't help but thinking. Instead, as she and the other officers starting scanning the remains, she'd looked up to see Vakarian looming over all of them: his mandibles pressed against the side of his face and something terrible burning in his stare.

Then, as Alden had stood up and instructed forensics to take their time going over the scene, Vakarian's expression had morphed into one of complete disgust.

"Send them out to find the bastard," he hissed at her, folding his arms across his armored chest.

"That's the plan, Vakarian. But we need to know who we're looking for first."

"Fleck. Obviously."

"We can't bring him in until…unless, I mean…we have something linking him to the crime. We don't even have an ID on the victim yet. We need to gather evidence and—"

"Spare me," he had growled at her, walking away and leaving Alden standing in the hallway, blinking.

Privately, Alden agreed that Fleck was likely involved and, at least on some level, responsible. They traced the clotted blood trail back to ducts that were deep in his territory. And then that bloody weapon had appeared on her desk. She knew it was from her batarian contact, but she also knew that C-Sec was full of leaks at the moment, so she had kept that bit of information to herself. Besides, it was odd that the weapon fit so neatly...or so neatly except for the fact that the coroner claimed that the child had been beaten to death without a weapon.

Vakarian, hovering over her shoulder when she'd found the weapon on her desk and still very much out of his jurisdiction by even being in her office, told her that it didn't matter if the weapon didn't fit the crime. That they needed to take Fleck in for questioning, at least. And he'd been so persistent that Alden had, more out of exasperation than anything, had gone and detained Fleck herself and tossed him in a cell.

She left Vakarian to the interrogation, thinking that if he was so bloody keen he could deal with Fleck's unpleasantness himself. While he had Fleck in the interrogation room, Alden called up her contact.

"Why does it matter?" the batarian muttered slyly and she could tell by the way he smiled that her investigation was in serious trouble. "I can assure you that Fleck killed that child. The little turian just happened to be going through a duct overhead while Fleck was making one of his deals…It wasn't pretty sight when he caught him. I saw it happen. But you won't hear me say it in court or the same thing'll happen to me. So I'd just take that crowbar as the…gift…that it is and move on."

Officer Alden rubbed her forehead.

"You're an idiot," she said quietly. "I can't do anything with the so-called 'evidence' you brought me."

"Why not?" the batarian said, almost hurt. He sounded like he genuinely believed fabricating evidence was some kind of favour to C-Sec.

"Because there's a few things called Justice and Reasonable Doubt and—"

The batarian looked at her, confused. Officer Alden sighed.

"Nevermind," she said, killing the feed.

She held her head in her hands for a moment, wondering if she was ever going to manage to find some kind of peace for that kid whose only sin had been, apparently, to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. She sighed, cueing up the feed from the interrogation room where Vakarian had Fleck now. Maybe if Vakarian managed to pull a confession out of Fleck, it all wouldn't matter anyhow.

The feed from the interrogation room was nothing but a sizzling canvas of grey snow. Officer Alden glanced across the office to the interrogation room's door.

"Hey," she called over to the salarians at the tech desk, "feed's out on the interrogation room camera. Can you get that fixed? I'm checking on Vakarian. Making sure he hasn't killed the prisoner yet."

She'd meant it as a joke, but then as a dull thump echoed from the room—the sound of something approximately human-sized hitting the wall—she wondered if maybe, given the way Vakarian had been acting lately, it wasn't an unreasonable concern. She sprinted across the room, hand reaching for the door's interface. But the door slid open before she could reach it. Vakarian stood there, talons draped threateningly across Fleck's shoulder. Fleck's face was a mass of blood.

"Vakarian! What the hell are you—?"

"Oh," said the turian in a voice that was dangerously mild, "were the cameras out again? Tech really should fix those. Fleck here…tripped."

Alden could only stare. Vakarian stared back.

"Look," she began, shocked at how completely out of line this was, "I don't know how stupid you—"

"Fleck's agreed to talk," Vakarian snapped, fiercer than Alden could ever imagine the turian could be. "But he's taking me to the evidence first. I'm going alone. Don't try to contact me."

He muscled past her, pulling a grinning Fleck along in his wake. For a man walking out the door with a clearly enraged turian, Fleck looked suspiciously pleased with himself. Alden knew that she'd lost complete control of the situation the moment that Vakarian had lost complete control of himself: all the growls, the snide remarks, the frustrations over C-Sec procedures she'd heard over the past few weeks had finally built up to the point that Vakarian had gone utterly insane. The look in his cold blue eyes…Still, she had a job to do.

"Vakarian," she said, running after him as he made for the door, "you can't seriously expect me to just let you walk out of here with a suspect, do you? And alone? That's against so many regulations I can't even—"

He whirled around at her, mandibles flaring in a full-out snarl that made Alden draw back.

"Damn your regulations," he growled.

And then he pulled Fleck out of the station. Officer Alden blinked, but followed, refusing to let this happen without a fight, but Vakarian stuffed the man into the seat of a skycar and immediately gunned the engine.

Officer Alden considered going after him, but she wasn't sure what that would do. She didn't know what Vakarian was playing at. Maybe this had been a plan…an act that she was supposed to have picked up on? He'd been a C-Sec investigator for a hell of a lot longer than she had. She couldn't believe it had been faked but…

And, suddenly, her own frustrations at the job: the red tape, the paperwork, the rules and regulations, came boiling to the surface. She believed that rules existed for a reason. But her rules were not out there getting any justice for the kid whose bloodied remains lay on a slab in the coroner's station.

And maybe Vakarian was.

So she retreated back into the office, sitting down in front of her desk. She tried Vakarian on his comm, but he kept his word and ignored the hail.

"I'll give him two hours," she muttered to herself. "Two hours and then I'm calling it in. And, in the meantime, I can be useful."

But it was with a distinct feeling of unease that she returned to her console, scrolling through forensic reports on the case and praying that there was something they missed. After nearly an hour, her comm link chirped at her and she pulled it up. It wasn't Vakarian though. It was Johnson: one of the other human C-Sec officers who, like herself, was rapidly making his way up the C-Sec ranks due to the decimation of so many non-human officers during Sovereign's attack.

"Officer Alden?"

"What? It's not exactly a great time—"

"We're…we're getting reports of a disturbance. Turian residences in Bachjret Ward."

"Why would I care about—?"

But then Alden suddenly understood.

"Damn it."

"Exactly," said Johnson. "I thought maybe you'd want to check this one out yourself, given how you've been working together. And…how he's been lately."

"I wouldn't exactly call it 'working together,' but, yeah. I'll check it out. Gunfire?"

"No. Neighbours report crashing and stuff coming from his apartment. Sorry about this. I can call it into Central if you'd prefer."

"No. You're making the right call. Vakarian walked out of my office an hour ago with Fleck in tow."

"What?" Johnson looked suddenly nervous. "What was he thinking?"

"Don't ask me. You better get me some back-up standing by. I'll go in first and then contact you when I know what's going on."


As she gunned a C-Sec skycar, sirens blaring, out of Kithoi ward and into Bachjret, Alden slammed her palm against the dash. This case had been a disaster start to finish. She was going to have to clean house once she got back to the officer. She formulated her to-do list. First, tell the batarian that if he wanted to remain in C-Sec's generous employ, he'd have to get over his damn cowardice and testify as a witness against Fleck. Second, find that kid some relatives—no matter how distant—and try to get him a proper cremation. Third, tell Vakarian to screw off. She'd tried to afford him some respect because of his position, but…but he'd gone too far this time. She'd have to talk to her supervisors about him. Although only if she didn't arrive at Vakarian's apartment to discover that Fleck had killed Vakarian and currently had his gang ransacking the turian's apartment…

She stepped out of the elevator onto the sixth floor to nothing but silence. A door cracked open nearby and Alden discovered a female turian poking her head through the gap.

"It was coming from next door," she said quietly, "but it's all stopped now. Do you know what's going on, Officer?"

Alden simply told her to remain inside her unit. She approached the door to Vakarian's apartment slowly, but she couldn't hear anything coming from the other side. After pressing the console several times with no response, she breathed out, drew her pistol off her shoulder, and opened the door. It slid forward to reveal a dark room: furniture turned over, various turian-esque objects scattered across the floor. There was still no response from within, but Alden thought she could hear a faint buzzing, like someone had left a console on.

She stepped over the threshold and into the room. Finally, she saw him.

The only light in the room came from the neon lights of the ward filtering in through the windows and from the console in front of Vakarian's still form. He stood over the console, staring so intently at whatever was playing on the screen that he continued to be unaware of Alden's presence. She was about to clear her throat—to ask him what the hell was going on—but she caught sight of the footage playing in front of him.

Above an ice-blue planet, the body of an Alliance soldier somersaulted through space: her suit clearly ruptured and bleeding air out into the blackness. The computer analysis scrolling along the side was flashing one line of text repeatedly. ID Confirmed: Shepard, Commander. ID Confirmed: Shepard, Commander. ID Confirmed: Shepard, Commander.

Alden couldn't turn her eyes away from the screen as the body continued to hurtle through the black. And then the body began to flare in a bright aura of light as it reached the threshold of the planet's atmosphere. The body grew smaller and smaller until it seemed to Alden that it was easy to forget that she was watching the last moments of the great Commander Shepard, savior of the Citadel. The bright speck of light could have been just another falling star.

"God," she breathed.

And suddenly there was pistol pressed to her forehead as Vakarian whirled around. He stared at her with cold, unseeing eyes and, for the first time since joining up with C-Sec, Alden felt truly afraid.

Then, as recognition dawned in Vakarian's eyes, the moment was over.

"Sorry," he mumbled, lowering the weapon. "I didn't know it was you."

"I signalled my presence at the door the required four times according to C-Sec regulations before entering. There were reports of a disturbance—"

He glanced quickly around the room.

"Ah. That…" and he coughed. Was he actually embarrassed? "…that was me."

"Damn it," said Alden, horrified. "You killed him, didn't you? I knew I shouldn't have let you take him. Do you have any idea—?"

He raised his brow plates at her.

"Fleck? What? No, of course not." And he almost looked insulted that she'd think that was even a possibility. "I threw Fleck back into a cell at C-Sec. They didn't tell you? Probably still filling out the processing clearance…" he muttered, some edge creeping back into his voice. Then, he cleared his throat again, watching Alden carefully. "Fleck may be…a bit upset whenever you do get around to interrogating him properly. He may have been under the impression that we had some kind of deal." Vakarian's gaze darkened. "But I'm not in the habit of keeping promises to murderers like him."

"Then the mess here is…?"

He coughed again, perhaps realizing for the first time how strange the entire situation seemed to her.

"I may have…taken out some frustration on my furniture."

Alden mentally added this to the list of evidence she would present to her superiors about how unstable Vakarian was. He must have seen something in the look on her face, because his eyes suddenly narrowed.

"Is there anything else, Officer?" he said, his tone cold and almost dangerous again.

"No," Alden said quickly and, since there was nothing more to say, she began to make her way back through the rubble towards the door.

Vakarian turned back to the console, the last image of Commander Shepard's body falling towards the planet still frozen on the screen. Alden saw his talons tighten into the console, leaving marks in the dented metal. She quickened her pace.

"Officer?" he called, just as she was almost at the door.

She stopped and looked back at him, but he was still hunched over the console, so she couldn't see his face.

"If you're looking for some reason to infuriate Fleck," he continued, "feel free to share with him the little fact that I'm still taking that transport to Omega he…graciously…provided. I may not make it as far as Alchera…he's right that there doesn't seem to be much point, after seeing this…" he was mumbling, speaking more to himself than to Alden. "But I'll see how far I get."

Vakarian turned around, but Alden couldn't read the expression on his face. She was still standing there, staring.

"I'm done," he said.

"What?" she asked, confused.

"I'm done with this place. With the rules and regulations. With everything just…getting in the way of what needs to be done," he shook his head, disgusted. "You won't be seeing me again, so good luck in your investigation, Officer. I sure as hell hope you can nail the bastard." And then his mandibles flared, and Alden couldn't tell if it was a snarl or a grin. "If you can make it through all the red tape."

Alden was so finished with him that she just shook her head—relieved that he wasn't going to be her problem anymore—and stepped out of the room. The door slid shut, but not before she glanced over her shoulder, just in time to see Vakarian pluck a data disc from the console and stare at it, but only for a moment.

Then, he crushed it between his talons.