Interesting Times

Coming to terms with being reborn? Doable. Finding out you're in the Mass Effect universe? Slightly more difficult. I know I'm no soldier material but I want to do what I can to help save the galaxy. To that goal I will become one of the worst beings in human society. A businessman and politician. #reincarnation #self-insert #masseffect #kingdombuilding #space #star #scifi #war

Zanarkand_Kido · Video Games
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57 Chs

Interesting Times - Chapter 43

October 25th, 2173


Illium, Tesale-System

Nos Astra

Ad Astra HQ - Illium Branch

Secure Conference Room

"So, what does our mysterious and impartial sixth member have to say? And why did she contact you and not any of us? Normally, she would send the message to all of us at once so that everyone knows the same," asked Nisco Ron, and despite being interrupted every few words due to his respirator, the sarcasm and a hint of suspicion were clear to hear in his voice. 

Hearing Nisco Ron speak that way surprised me quite a bit. In the few months we knew each other, he always kept any emotion out of his voice whenever the Circle met, trying not to offend anybody or give any of his cards away, and even if it was just us, it took effort on my side to derive anything from the tone of his voice. 

So, to hear it so clearly did take me by surprise. 

"I do not know why the Arbiter only contacted me. Perhaps it was by design or by necessity. Just like it is with you all, the Arbiter ignores any of my messages unless it concerns access to the Circle's funds," replied Cicerio, clearly annoyed by Nisco Ron's suspicion. "I'll forward you the message so nobody can say I'm lying. I'm sure all of you will find the usual identifiers that prove that the message truly comes from the Arbiter." 

"Nobody is accusing you of faking the message," said Nessara softly, and as Cicerio turned to her, his eyes turned softer for a moment. "It's just that it's different from what we're used to. And any deviations from an established pattern always rouse some suspicion. With everything that is currently happening on Illium, it is only prudent to question such deviations." 

Her words seemingly helped to cool the tempers before they could become heated, and any annoyance that Nisco Ron and Cicerio displayed toward each other disappeared, at least for the moment. 

"We will check the message after you send it to us," I said, trying to push the conversation onward," but that's just standard protocol, at least for me. And I'm sure the others do that as well. So, can you please tell us what this message says? I'm sure you have noticed, but I have a slight mercenary problem that needs my attention. After all, that was one of the reasons why you called this meeting, right? Otherwise, you would just have sent a message yourself." 

Perhaps I wasn't using the most diplomatic or delicate approach, but I didn't want to wait until one of them deigned themselves to direct the conversation that way. Every minute I wasted with meaningless chatter was one minute where the whole situation with Eclipse could change in a dramatic way, and I wasn't in the mood to waste anything at the moment.

The burning look Cicerio sent me for interrupting the time he looked at Nessara like a love-struck puppy was offset by the grateful look and approving nod Nisco Ron sent me. He, just like I, had better things to do and would push the meeting forward whenever it started to drift away from important topics. 

Some you win, some you lose, I thought to myself as I took in the two completely different looks I got. And after comparing the two, I definitely came out ahead in the balance. 

While Cicerio had been an alright partner, Nisco Ron was by far the more important between the two of them, so anything that won me just that little bit of favor from him was worth Cicerio's temporary annoyance at me. The Turian would get over it, and if not? 

Well, he outlived his usefulness for me anyway. 

"Right," said Cicerio slowly, and narrowing his eyes at me, his mandibles flaring, "we have to discuss Denebren's actions. After all, the actions of one Circle member can fall back on the others." 

I narrowed my own eyes as I noticed the hostility hidden in Cicerio's words. How I earned it, I could only guess. Maybe some of the mercenaries supporting the local Eclipse chapter were some of his customers, and with my personnel eradicating them like weeds in a garden, his profits had to take a massive financial loss with their demise. 

No matter what, I wouldn't apologize for that. 

They attacked me first, and if Cicerio took on such poor excuses of mercenaries as customers, then it was his own fault. 

"In fact, the Arbiter's message contains some points concerning Denebren's conduct. While she does not condemn Denebren's actions, as they were clearly in response to being attacked by the opposing party first, she does notify us that the Circle funds are currently unavailable and that this fighting has to be done with their own funds. She does not want the Circle funds to be used in something that could lead toward the destruction of Illium." 

When Cicerio finished relaying the Arbiter's message, he sent me a smile that wouldn't have been out of place on a shark's face. 

Apparently, I really had done something that burned more than a few bridges with him. It wouldn't matter to him that I had done it unknowingly and unintentionally, just that I had done it. 

"Please," interjected Nisco Ron before I could respond to Cicerio's taunting smirk, "forward the message to us now. I would like to confirm its contents for myself." 

His smirk lessening, Cierio turned to Nisco Ron for a moment before looking down and tipping with his claws on a terminal in front of him that I couldn't see as the holographic projection stopped a bit above where a human's bellybutton would be. 

A ring notified me that the message arrived, but I didn't look down. In fact, my eyes hadn't left Cicerio's form since he finished talking. 

I took everything in. 

His posture, which muscles twitched, how often his mandibles moved, in which direction his eyes flickered, the intonation of every word he uttered. 

Something was going on, that much I realized. 

Yet, what had triggered this antagonism? Was he backing my still-unknown opponent? Was he it? 

Questions upon questions appeared in my mind, and before I knew it, the meeting continued as Nisco Ron confirmed the content of the Arbiter's message to me and the others. 

"So, now that you have confirmed that I relayed the Arbiter's message without adding or removing parts, what should we do? After all, Denebren's actions have consequences for us all, and I was about to propose a business venture that would need some of the Circle funds to get off the ground without straining my resources." 

I wanted to scoff at Cicerio's statement. While he knew some powerful people all over the galaxy, if one broke his essence down, he was nothing more than a glorified gunrunner. Any business venture he proposed that would need Circle funds would certainly be nothing more than a gigantic shopping spree. Or perhaps he wanted to buy a small fleet of frigates and cruisers or a dreadnought. There was nothing else that I could think of that Cicerio would show any interest in as a worthy business. 

If Nico Ron hadn't been wearing his environmental suit, I would have seen the same expression on his face that I was trying my best to suppress. 

Yet, there was something else in his posture. 

Turning my attention away while at the same time not trying to be obvious, I studied him. It wasn't even remotely obvious. It wasn't even something physical, and perhaps a holographic image wasn't the best medium to convey those feelings, but somehow, I knew that there was a growing aura of suspicion around Nisco Ron. 

I ignored Cicerio when he opened his mouth again to try to turn the others against me, even once mentioning that my membership in the Circle should be questioned as it endangered each of their own operations. 

It was obvious that the only one interested in his words was Nessara but only to reassure him that it wasn't necessary and that his worries were unfounded. Everyone else just let his words wash over them without caring much about them.

In the end, nothing was decided, and the meeting ended without much fanfare. 

Yet, before I cut the connection, Nisco Ron turned toward me and threw me a meaningful look. 

There was nothing that indicated what he wanted from me, but instead of leaving the room after the meeting ended, I waited in my chair, leaning back and relaxing for a moment. 

It didn't take long before the intercom activated and the voice of the comm-officer came through. 

"Sir, we got a request for another secure connection. The sender's signature reads as Nisco Ron. Shall I put him through or not, sir?" 

It took me only a moment to decide. "Put him through. And make sure that the connection is secured with our highest encryption protocols, even higher than the ones for the previous meeting." 

There wasn't any immediate response, but I could hear the light-tipping sounds of fingers hitting a holographic keyboard. 

"Of course, sir. Our side is secured. I can't say anything about the other. We're rerouting the connection over several server nodes and hiding it among the usual chatter of Illium's business district." 

"Very well, put him through." 

It took only a few more seconds longer before the holographic form of Nisco Ron reappeared directly in front of me on the other side of the conference table. 

"I believe I won't have to voice my doubts concerning whatever idiocy Cicerio wanted us to believe?" Nisco Ron began without any preamble. 

I rolled my eyes and answered: "You mean his constant deriding of my actions? His constant wailing that my actions restricted him in his actions? The only thing I believe him in is that my actions cost him money. But that is his own fault for having such partners who thought going against me was a good idea." 

"You will not hear any different from me," agreed Nisco Ron. "Yet, there is more to his actions than you believe." 

"How so?" I asked, leaning forward in my chair, interested in what he had to say. 

"You must know that I've been a member of the Circle for far longer than Cicerio, so I know that he had problems with an up-and-coming mercenary company, not unlike the situation you're in right now. Of course, that mercenary company wasn't anywhere close to Eclipse, neither in manpower, connections, or resources, yet alike nonetheless." 

I nodded at Nisco Ron's recounting. "And I guess that at the time, there wasn't any meeting or member who tried to censor him. Or am I wrong?" 

"You would be correct with your guess. So that makes Cicerio's actions quite hypocritical." 

"I wouldn't be the first time with a hypocrite. Hell, I'm one at the times, too. And I'm sure you did have your moments as well." 

"That is a statement I can't refute," he agreed. "Yet, that isn't the only thing that got me suspicious." 

"Please come to the point," I said with a sigh. While it was interesting, I knew that Nisco had something far more important to say than this. 

"At the time, the Arbiter allowed Cicerio to draw from the Circle funds to support his endeavors against that mercenary company at a zero interest rate." 

Blinking was all I could do after Nisco dropped this particular piece of information. That... that wasn't what I had expected when this second meeting started. 

"What?" was all I could say. 

"I had the same reaction when Cicerio relayed the Arbiter's message. It just doesn't make sense that the Arbiter is changing their approach. Of course, it could also be that the person who uses the persona of Arbiter changed in the last few years, yet I haven't noticed any other change. Not in their choice of words, nor in their approach. This was the first time they completely changed their way, and I don't like it." 

"You wouldn't contact me if that was all your suspicion was based on. It's nothing more than a hunch right now, and if I know you even a little bit, you wouldn't say anything to anyone if a hunch was all you had." 

There was a moment of silence between us where we just looked at each other, not saying a word. I, because I was waiting for an answer and Nisco, because he was considering how much he wanted to share with me. 

"As you know, the financial world of Illium is my playground. I know the stocks, the various deals the banks here make, and how to follow a money trail further than most. You also know that information here on Illium is its own currency. And when I heard about your problems..." 

"You searched for the money trail to sell the information to me, probably in exchange for the half of the shares I control," I finished for him. 

Instead of answering, Nisco just nodded in my direction, confirming my thoughts. 

There wasn't any reason to be upset with Nisco. It was just business for him. He saw an opportunity to gain something and acted accordingly. If I had been in his position, I would have done the same without any hesitation or second thoughts about the person I wanted to owe me. 

"Yet, it seems like something was wrong on one end of the money trail, or else you wouldn't hesitate so much, and we would discuss a price about now," I continued, bringing an end to the slight pause between us. 

"Sounds about right. But when I followed the money, something unexpected came to light. At first, everything was as I expected. Eclipse, some minor mercenary groups, and some gangs got paid to attack you. Some more than others, but that was to be expected if one takes into account how much they can bring to bear in Eclipse's case. The money got sent over three or four dozen fake accounts and middlemen. I couldn't follow the money to a singular source, the ones obscuring the trail were very good at what they were doing, yet I could identify some of the accounts where the money went through. And what I found does concern me." 

For a moment, Nisco stopped to take a breath, and to me, it seemed like he had to fortify himself before he could speak the words he wanted to say out loud. 

"Some of those accounts are under the control of the Circle." 

When I processed Nisco's words, I jumped up, throwing my chair to the floor in my haste, and hammered the palms of my hands on the table in front of me.

"What did you just say?!" I almost screamed, a growl escaping my throat in my anger. "Is that the truth? What the fuck is going on?" 

Perhaps it wasn't that surprising to me if I took into account Cicerio's sudden hostility. Yet, there was something wrong with that picture. 

"I can understand your anger," Nisco responded with a calm voice, trying to get me to calm down. "It was just as shocking to me when I found out. Furthermore, I know for certain that Cicerio knows about one or two of those accounts, too, since he had to repay his loan into those." 

"Yet, that can't be everything, right? Cicerio knows about one or two of them, as you said, but more than just two accounts belong to the Circle. You wouldn't be so shocked and suspicious if you didn't suspect the Arbiter to have their hands in this mess, too."

"Correct. There is no way that Cicerio knows about the others. A few years back, I tried to identify as many accounts belonging to the Circle as possible, just for fun. Of course, I didn't find them all, but after that, I knew which signs to look out for to identify them. And the only one who knows them all is the Arbiter."

"Any theory why the Arbiter would support those mercenaries?" I asked, knowing that Nisco had been a member of the Circle far longer than I and, as such, had more time to get to know the Arbiter. 

"I don't have the slightest idea. Yet, I suspect one more thing."

"And that would be?" 

"The first time money got transferred from those accounts to those of the mercenaries was a week before the initial attack on you. The only logical conclusion is that the Arbiter is behind the attacks and the mercenaries."

"And Cicerio is following her orders, too. Probably to rise above his station," I grumbled. A long and tired sigh escaped me. "I think I should thank you for your information. At least I know now my enemy, and I only have to look into their identity. It will be troublesome but doable." I send him a wry smile. "Now, let's talk about what you want for that information. You already told me so much without previous payment, but I don't want to owe you anything in the future." 

Nisco Ron shook his head negatively. "I don't need payment for that. This is too important for me than to put a price on it." 

I raised an eyebrow in response to his words. "And is it too presumptuous of me if I ask why? I never expected you to do anything for me out of the good of your heart." 

"It is not. I believe in the Circle and its original idea to support each other to elevate us to greater heights. It turns back to my old mentor, a Salarian who introduced me to Illium's financial world and trained me to take over his Circle seat after his death." 

"And how did he die?" I asked, my eyes narrowing in suspicion. 

Nisco raised his hand and made a gesture of refusal. "I know what you're suspecting, but don't worry, there was nothing unusual about his death. He died of old age. After his death, I got half of his assets, a third went to the Circle, and the rest was shared between the few brothers he could stand." 

"Looks like you want to protect the idea of the Circle in memory of your old mentor." I nodded at his explanation. It wasn't something I could personally understand, as I never had a mentor. But I could draw some parallels in how I would act if someone threatened anything I hold dear. 

"That's right. I also could only rise to the position I now have thanks to the support of the Circle, so to learn that the fundamental idea is being undermined by the Arbiter, the one person who should be absolutely impartial, is something I cannot condone." 

After Nisco finished his declaration with more passion in his voice than I ever heard him use in front of anyone, a moment of silence passed between us. Yet, instead of letting it continue, I decided to ask an important question that would lead us on the correct path to follow through with it. 

"So, what should we do about it? We don't know who the Arbiter is. We don't know if it's the same person that we had always thought the Arbiter was or if it's just someone who can imitate her very well. The last point would at least explain their sudden change in approach." 

"I already thought about that problem. The data I collected when I tried to trace the money flow back to its source should help us in our endeavor immensely. While my contacts are more oriented toward the financial world, I also know the contact details of a few very discreet and capable information brokers here on Illium. Getting them to help us out was quite easy after paying a small amount of advance payment. They should get back to me in a few days at the latest." 

"And what kind of role have you prepared for me? I don't think that you just want me to be the muscle in this operation, ready to bust in the right heads at the right moment." 

"You would be correct in your assumption," nodded Nisco. "As much as it causes me pain to admit, but your resources are by far vaster and more diversified than mine. I will give you the data I have collected so far, and I would like you to start investigating the Arbiter from a different direction than I do. If we compile the information we will come across during our investigation, I believe it will be easy to find out their identity. My suspicion is that the Arbiter is someone close to the Circle, probably a former member at that. In that case, the Arbiter would know how the Circle operates. It would also explain how the Arbiter is selected." 

"You mean in the way of: I benefitted from them once, others will benefit now?" I couldn't help the scoff that escaped me. "That sounds a little bit too idealistic to me. Most people in our position are driven by greed. And there is no place for goodwill if it causes you to lose out on millions of credits." 

"I wouldn't exactly say it that way. Rather, I believe that when the Circle's funds grow, the personal wealth of the Arbiter grows, too." 

"That sounds a lot more believable to me. And I guess that also explains why the Arbiter is targeting me right now. My dealings here on Illium are coming close to an end. Other areas need my overview far more, and because of that, the explosive growth of the Ad Adstra Illium Branch will slow down and put more focus on stabilizing our hold. Right now is the best moment to try to take over when there are still openings to exploit." 

"Perhaps, perhaps not. I don't really know if your suspicion is correct. Your reason doesn't make very much sense to me. After all, even if your Illium branch doesn't grow anymore, it will still bring in a tidy profit for us all." 

Of course, it didn't make much sense to him. I just thought up this reason for him to give an explanation for the Arbiter's behavior. It wouldn't do for Nisco Ron to investigate me and the reason for this escalation. 

I had been truthful when I said that my time here on Illium was coming slowly to an end. Other places needed me more, or perhaps it would be better to say I wanted to be elsewhere. 

Furthermore, my people were getting ready to move against the other members of the Council before this whole mess had started. Perhaps the Arbiter had found out about that or had at least suspicions without concrete evidence, or she would have brought it up with the rest of the Council to unite them against me. 

Anyway, I had been ready to take from the other members what I could before turning my back on them. 

The Council, at first, had sounded like a good opportunity to further my goals, grow my wealth, and make connections with important people, yet, in retrospect, I could tell that most of the time I invested had been a waste of time. The results didn't measure up to the amount of effort I put in. 

The connections were pretty decent, with important people within the Turian military and the seedier side of the galaxy, yet the growth of Ad Astra's wealth had been minimal for such an important world as Illium. Perhaps it would change in the future, with humanities and my own place more solidified in the eyes of the galaxy, but for now, most of my potential customers still went to established companies.

Of course, it was slowly changing, but that was the keyword: slowly.

I could spend the time needed to change that "slowly" into a "mediocre" better at the Citadel. I had been away from Alliance and Citadel politics too long to further my power base in that direction, and the longer I did, the further I would undermine my support in the Alliance by myself. 

I took a small breath, returning my concentration to the here and now. 

"How will we exchange information? While I'm confident in my cyber security that nobody will be able to listen in on our conversation from my end, I think transferring such sensitive data shouldn't be done over such a connection." 

"I think the same way. I believe you should send a courier to my office. There I will hand over a data disk with the information you need." 

"I will send over one right away. The faster we can get started with our investigation the better." 

Nothing more needed to be said, and Nisco cut the connection with one last nod and a promise that the data disc would be ready when my courier arrived. 

I leaned back in my chair, a small, satisfied smile playing over my lips. 

"I'm getting closer to you. I hope you have put your affairs in order because when I'm finished with you, you won't have the chance to do anything ever again."