Deal or No Deal?

Shepard wasn't the only one that was keeping a brisk pace.

He didn't realize it at first, not with the Council meeting on his mind coupled with his overwhelming desire to piss. But after handing him Von's card, Udina grudged him the use of his lavatory, before sending him to the blonde for further directions. To his surprise, the ambassador had a leaning more Spartan when it came to his inner sanctum. Based on what he saw everywhere else, Shepard half expected floating rose petals and a chorus when he flushed.

Tension was thick in the air: simmering beneath the senses but tangible enough to slice. As he crossed the bridge he saw the upper crust of the galaxy moving to and fro with stiff gaits. A certain restlessness gripped their feet and hands when they chewed the scenery, and whenever they spoke it was almost always in low voices.

One pair of Salarians eyed him warily from their bench, the torrent of low whispers dissipating when he passed them. Their bulbous eyes following him for an eternity before steering back to themselves and their conversation. Supposedly, the bridge he was using was a shortcut for this section, but if the elevator shaft was anything to go by he'd have to spend no small amount of time covering ground.

The vendor stall in the middle of the bridge might have been the hint for that.

Rather than bat an eye at the man's morsels, he instead glanced upwards towards the sky…or at least what passed as such in this place. Clouds of white sailed lazily on a blue plane, but the birds were wingless and metal things. Aircars soared underneath and above vast buildings built lateral from one end of the presidium to the other.

It was a hologram: vast and powerful and expanding the entire ring of the station. According to Udina, the day setting was the dominant one, and was kept running almost constantly. Periodically, they would shift it to a 'night' cycle for a few hours before brightening the artificial world once more.

Shepard glanced over the bridges railing and saw that same world curve upwards in a mix of green blue and white. His eyes went upwards to those lateral structures built from one end of the ring to the other: could a man traverse across it? It did make another bridge of sorts, but barring an aircar he couldn't imagine getting up there…or evading arrest once he did manage. Call it a hunch but he figured Citadel security would sooner piss a brick than allow anyone access that high.

He stepped over the last step of the bridge and found himself near a merchant's quarter of sorts: aliens who offered the greatest of material quality to the only clients who could afford them. Near a pillar that led further downward into to the area, he saw a woman in blue uniform shoot the breeze with a Hanar. Williams positioned herself so she could observe the people coming and going, and nodded ever so slightly when the commander made his way past her.

Imperceptibly, he nodded back to her and kept his pace. The Hanar "stood" over the sergeant, but most of its height was its six tentacles. It lifted one in a gesture to something outside his peripheral vision, but he could make out the three fingers at the tip, and the way it would glow in sync whenever it "spoke" in turn. The jellies evolved in the oceans of their world and it was evident most in their need for micro mass effect emitters. Having representatives drag themselves around on the floor instead was most unbecoming-

"Welcome to the Presidium! Do you have an inquiry?"

Shepard turned and saw a naked asari standing next to a tree. Data lines scrolled across her pink form and she shimmered in patience. Apparently, the ghostly woman thought he slowed down to use her terminal. "No thank you," he said and kept walking. The virtual intelligence nodded and replied, "Thank you for using Avina. If you require a guide to the presidium please see Avina for all yo…" but the commander was long gone.

More tree's of tasteful cut, more people in expensive suits and more metal that gleamed in the light from on high. When he beheld the monument, he felt a pang of relief that he was on the right track and kept moving. The statue was massive: at least three tons worth of platinum metal carved into the armored figure of a krogan warrior.

It stood tall and defiant of the universe which spawned it. The hunchbacked giant made the figure at the base seem like a gnat in comparison. He couldn't make out the words, but he could see "Avina" conversing with Alenko. The lieutenant stood and with his arms across his chest and seemed to be listening intently. Shepard whistled and the dark haired marine turned at nodded to him.

From then on, the lieutenant would keep an eye on the door and Williams would find a reason to come on over as well. The lieutenant had hatched the idea to the Captain when Shepard was otherwise preoccupied, and approved accordingly. He could see the reasoning well enough: it'd make things less conspicuous than all of them going at once, give the other marines a chance to scout ahead before him, and be his backup at each interval if anything hit the fan. He didn't know how exactly something could go wrong this close to the heart of galactic power, but if the Shadow Broker was feeling less than magnanimous to the Alliance than he supposed anything was possible.

He clicked his tongue between his teeth as the doors parted before him. The Shadow Broker was the largest information dealer in the entire galaxy, the kind of man that could incite rebellion with a document, collapse economies with a whisper and start a war in the time it took to brew coffee. His (or theirs if you believed some theorists) moods were all but unknown, and his price was as exorbitant as to the value of his information. Shepard felt a worm of unease at the thought of how low the Alliance might have to stoop to appease him, but desperate times called for desperate measures: if anyone could prove that Balak was brewing for a war, than it'd be him.

The secretary was a petite asari, who gave him a smile as warm as her pink dress when he told her who he was. She pointed to him a chair next to an odd looking plant and a crescent shaped cushion. Shepard sat himself next to it and grabbed a magazine. He flipped it over in his hand and registered it as a glamour issue. The Asari dialect was easy enough to follow, but he searched through the pile for something more familiar.

He ceased when his eye caught the cover of a lush landscape. Pulling it out, he saw it was a Turian issue: camouflaged fighters holding rifles of some type prowled through what looked like a swampland. Their would be murderer was a thin looking turian solider (female most likely) that was half cloaked behind a tree and holding a wicked looking knife.

Turian was not his mother tongue, but Shepard found he could follow some snippets as he browsed the pages. The words, "Taetrus," "separatists," "crushed" and "victory" stood out easily enough and the sentences that came with them. The rest? Not so much, but he could at least appreciate the imagery if not the wording…and the unapologetic heaping of gun porn that came with it. Nothing like the Gorillaz with Guns series, but he could see in it a kindred spirit of sorts.

The door parted once more, and a tiny figure waddled in on short legs and reached the desk with equally short arms. *Ssshik* "I have an appointment," he said through the speaker in his suit. "Of course ambassador Din Korlack, please…have a seat in the lobby."

Rather than reply, the little alien made that breathing noise the Volus make whenever their ammonia recyclers replenish themselves. He waddled in and worked his way into the odd chair next to the commander. He settled his spherical bulk into it and seemed to sigh with pleasure: what sounded like a venting tire escaped from his vocalizer, along with a question, "Do you have an appointment?"

Shepard turned, "What?"

*Ssshik* "I said, do" *Ssshik* you have an appointment Earth clan?"

Shepard regarded the bulbous little creature. His pressure suit was patterned in gold around his frame, complimented with red trim at the seams, and silver coloring along his boots, hands and face. He looked up at the commander with beady little green eyes, and the silver flaps that extended half a foot down from his mouth gave the impression of a long moustache. He waited patiently for the commander finish his assessment before responding with an honest, "No…I don't."

*Ssshik* "Truly?"

"Yes."

*Ssshik* "Really?"

The question was so simple and casual that Shepard felt that there was more depth packed into it than a public restroom. He didn't know what rules to the game he was evidently playing, but he answered honestly enough, "Really."

The ambassador seemed to chew on that for a moment before spitting out another question, *Ssshik* "Tell me Earth clan" *Ssshik* "do you know where you are?"

Shepard looked to him and replied slowly, "The Citadel…on the Presidium…at the office of Barla Von financial advisor-"

The Volus wheezed in, "Yes." *Ssshik* the fact that he's on the presidium means that" *Ssshik* he is very good at his work." *Ssshik* Very good indeed."

"I grasped that."

"Have you now?" *Ssshik* "Have you also grasped that people have to arrange" *Ssshik* "for an appointment weeks," *Ssshik* "even months in advance to see him Earth clan?" *Ssshik*

Shepard had a feeling he knew where this was going, "I suppose it's justified…if there's a high enough demand for his services."

*Ssshik* "It is Earth clan. Now, tell me" *Ssshik* "do you have the time?"

A glance at his omnitool informed him, "Eleven minutes to three."

*Ssshik* "That Earth clan" *Ssshik* "is my designated appointment. *Ssshik* "and it does not surprise me in the least" *Ssshik* that you are arrogant enough to think you can take it from me."

Shepard flipped a page and pretended to read it for a moment to buy time for his response, "I'm not trying to take anything from anyone ambassador," he answered evenly.

It was a mistake, and unfortunately he realized it only when the last syllable left his mouth. *Ssshik* "Really?" *Ssshik* "Then the proper thing to do" *Ssshik* "would be to file your own appointment and wait accordingly don't you?" *Ssshik* "A fair action…but what do your superiors know about fair?" *Ssshik* "Let me guess, you're here to set up a retirement plan?"

Be diplomatic

Shepard cocked his head to the right and inquired, "Tell me ambassador Korlack…do you see the uniform I'm wearing?"

Korlack looked him up and down, "Officer marks…" *Ssshik* "…a decorated officer."

Shepard nodded, "I'm here on business concerning nothing less than the security of the Systems Alliance. I wouldn't presume to be here if it wasn't anything less. Do you'd think I'd be petty enough to barge on in here just to talk about investment opportunities?"

He meant that as a rhetorical question, but Korlack took it as a literal one. *Ssshik* "Why wouldn't you be?" *Ssshik* "Every other Admiral and General" *Ssshik* "that walked through here had similar" *Ssshik* "issues of security when it came" *Ssshik* "to their governorships. Squeezing all that profit from occupation control" *Ssshik* "must be a taxing exercise indeed."

Shepard looked surprised, "Really?" he said, "I can't imagine it would be. Given all the investment we've seen from the volus after First Contact, you'd think those territories would be more secure... unless of course…those generous investors were more concerned with getting the Old Hegemony's infrastructure up and running, than they were in investing in-I don't know-humanitarian aid for the Restricted Zones. But what does a jarhead like me know? Feeding all those starving and naked aliens might eat into those quarterly revenue reports."

The ambassador turned to stare at him. Shepard didn't turn to regard him, but merely tore out the page about Saren's obituary and stuffed it into his pocket. Don't sit there and tell me your shit don't stink either you little round bastard.

"Perhaps," he said at last, with all the restraint that comes from a lifetimes worth of political fencing. *Ssshik* "And I imagine it would just eat your superiors, if their first spectre" *Ssshik* "was anything less than a baby killer."

Shepard closed the magazine.

*Ssshik* "A creature of obedience and no morals?" *Ssshik* "You will go far commander. An efficient murderer like yourself" *Ssshik* "will earn the moon of your namesake before you hit your next promotion" *Ssshik* "or perhaps you honestly think that you're the only one in this room that" *Ssshik* "has issues unrelated to investment?"

The door to Barla Von's office chose to open at that moment.

*Ssshik* Honored Visitors!"

A little round tub of a creature stood still in a pressure suit of dark browns and blacks at the entrance to it. Shepard didn't feel all that surprised to see it was a volus in charge of the place. A dozen quips' he remembered from basic about their money making culture were crushed before they could form though. It certainly didn't help that they played up that sole strength, or that the Hierarchy granted them their client race status to get some use of it. Besides…he couldn't imagine that tiny, three clawed alien, being capable of inspiring fear into anything on its own.

As if vindicating that belief, Barla Von chose to roll towards the both of them: head first across the carpeted floor like a giant bowling ball until landing at his feet in front of them both. *Ssshik* "Please, my office is a much more choice locale for our discussion then here!" *Ssshik* "We had some business to discuss you and I."

Din Korlack rose from his seat, *Ssshik* "Yes, we were going to discuss the situation" *Ssshik* regarding the Bl-"

With a flourish, Barla Von raised a hand so quickly in front of the ambassador's face that Shepard thought he was going to clock him. Din Korlack must have thought so as well, given the way he jumped and hissed back into his chair. Instead Von held out a data chit, small and darker than his own suit.

*Ssshik* "What's this?"

*Ssshik* "Everything that you would have asked for and then some."*Ssshik* "Be so kind as to leave the agreed upon payment with my secretary."

The little financial advisor turned to the marine, *Ssshik* "As I said, please come into my office we have some business to discuss."

Shepard rose from his seat and Korlack seethed, *Ssshik* "I waited four months for this meet-!"

Von dismissed him with a wave of his hand, "Tell you what ambassador,"*Ssshik* "if the results from that chit are less than satisfactory" *Ssshik* I will offer a full refund. Now commander…" He made one noisy inhalation and rolled backward the way he came. Shepard followed suit, and ambassador Din Korlack stood there, staring after the both of them with the data chit in hand.

The doors closed behind him, and the commander watched with suppressed amusement at how the alien bounced off of his desk, an adjacent wall and into a finer upholstered seat like the one outside. As the hover chair floated upwards he reached over to a shaking knick knack and grabbed to stop its violent rotations. Shepard noted that the hula girl's dance became that much tamer as Von settled in.

*Ssshik* Now, about that attack of yours on Eden Prime" *Ssshik* "…that is why you're here I take it?"

Shepard nodded and the little broker seemed pleased at that, *Ssshik* "Good. I like to stay on top of such things." *Ssshik* "Truth be told, I was expecting this visit sooner or later, and before you ask the *Ssshik* answer is yes, I can help you."

The commander could appreciate the man's directness, but he played his share of poker games before. He kept his face still, even when his tone was light and casual, "I can imagine a lot of people would be greatly pleased to hear that."

*Ssshik* "Even better when they hear tell that I'll give it you for free."

Shepard raised an eyebrow, "Really?"

The volus dipped his head.

"I'm not one to look a gift horse in the mouth…but I would be lying if I wasn't just the least bit curious as to why." If that wasn't the understatement of the year it was running a close second. Reaching for a favor maybe?

But the broker replied, "Consider it a gift from one of the galaxies elites to another: from a humble purveyor of knowledge *Ssshik* "to the Butcher of Torfan."

Shepard looked at the little alien closely. If he was at all bothered by that title he kept a remarkable lid on it. He told Barla Von as much.

"Why would I be bothered?" *Ssshik* "The operation was nothing less than a bloodbath. And you" *Ssshik* "a lowly lieutenant, clawed your way out of a mountain of corpses" *Ssshik* "and to certain victory. *Ssshik* "I like how you made an example out of the whole affair," *Ssshik* "such viciousness is something stock brokers can appreciate."

Barla Von stroked one of the long dark flaps near the slit of his vocalizer. "A bit poetic if you look at it I suppose," he said with some thought. *Ssshik* "An exemplar of your species: uncompromising, unyielding and above all else" *Ssshik* "quarrelsome."

Shepard cleared his throat, and Barla Von looked up at him. Taking the wordless hint, he dashed the commanders hopes as fast as he raised them, *Ssshik* "No. I don't have any direct proof regarding *Ssshik* Balak's involvement…"

"And indirect?" asked the commander, and the Volus leaned back in his chair with his claws across his wide frame. Shepard couldn't tell, but rather felt that the alien was smiling behind the impassive stare of his mask. He waited…waited…and waited still as a statue, letting the silence fill in between them. Barla Von waited too, but his patience ran out first.

The broker leaned across the desk and whispered in a low and merry buzz, "I have two leads for you…"