From the moment they stepped out of the drop shuttle, Sharon and Skinner knew they were in trouble. For one thing, the man greeting them was far too friendly.
"Ahh, Cmdr. Skinner! Welcome!" A round, gresy-looking man in his thirties bounded up to them. "We have been expecting you, good sir! And is this your companion?" He gestured towards Sharon, apparently oblivious to the annoyed glare that she gave him.
"Careful. She bites," Skinner said. "Are you Jamal Paquette?"
"Very good, sir! You have saved me the trouble of introducing myself," Paquette said, but then proceeded to introduce himself anyway. "Jamal Paquette, at your service. I am to bring you to the Livis camp."
"I should certainly hope so, for the money I'm paying. Armand sends his love, by the way."
Paquette giggled. "I imagine he does. He is not one to let a few bad deals come between friends."
"Hold on, we were told to go with the other mercs," Sharon cut in.
"I don't intend to entrust my life to a bunch of hired guns," Skinner responded, as Paquette quietly excused himself to go set up their transport. "Besides, we have an errand to run. It's on the way."
"What aren't you telling me?"
"Nothing that you need to know."
"Who is this Armand that Paquette mentioned?"
Skinner sighed. "He's an information broker. I paid him to find someone for me. And no, I'm not going to tell you who I was looking for."
"You don't care about the rescue mission, do you? You just wanted an excuse to come here."
"No, it's more the case that I needed an excuse for you to come here. If you're going to act like this, then it's going to be a long two days at sea."
"Wait - we're sailing over there?"
Paquette had assured them that it would only be two days at most, but Skinner's mysterious "errand" was not, in fact, "on the way", and required them to stop on an island on the sunward edge of the planet's thin habitable zone. Sharon had tried watching Skinner and Paquette from the deck of their boat, but the heat was terrible, and she made the mistake of trying to drink alcohol to stay cool. At some point, she passed out, and when she regained consciousness, she was sprawled over a cot below deck. Skinner was watching her with poorly-concealed amusement.
"Have you ever heard the phrase, 'curiosity killed the cat'?" He asked her.
"You decided to be a very curious - and slightly inebriated - cat."
"Damn it..." She started to get up, but then stopped herself. "Where the hell are my clothes?"
"You spilled your drink all over them when you fell. Paquette insisted on cleaning them for you."
She tried to get up again, but found she was extremely dizzy. "Damn it..."
Skinner handed her a glass of water. "Drink. Your body temperature is so high that you will not be able to sweat until it's been lowered."
Sharon grudgingly drank the water. From the way it tasted, she suspected that she was not going to be getting better any soon. "When I get better, I swear I will..."
"Yeah, good luck with that," Skinner said as he walked away.
And thus began two and a half miserable days in which Sharon was confined to the cheap cot below deck, struggling to maintain some dignity amid the nausea and weakness. Occasionally, she would be treated to more of Skinner's condescension or Paquette's manufactured sympathy. The knowledge that both men probably believed that she was weak and stupid did little to improve her mood.
Through sheer will alone, she recovered in time for the ship's arrival so that she would be able to leave the boat under her own power. The island where they landed was green and heavily wooded. Paquette informed them that the camp they were seeking was at least an hour's hike from the shore, and so Skinner and Sharon set off.
Sharon made a point of keeping a brisk pace, and taunted Skinner whenever he was forced to stop and catch his breath. At one point, she had crested a hill while Skinner was still at the foot. "C'mon, Jim!" she called out, "Can't you keep up?"
"You are a very petty woman."
"You think I'm pretty? Aww, that's so sweet of you!"
"I said petty, not... damn it!" Skinner cursed.
"I can't hear you! You're so far away!" Sharon bolted off, grinning, but Skinner gained on her soon enough; as they got deeper into the woods, the path became much more treacherous, forcing her to slow down. By the time they reached the camp, six galactic standard hours had passed. "How much did you pay that man? Every step of this damned journey has taken longer than he promised." Sharon asked.
"Too much, apparently. That's the last time I hire someone based on Roget's recommendations." Skinner looked at the camp. "At least our hosts are competant."
Sharon had to agree on that score. The Livis Company had made their camp in the ruins of an old 18th-century watchtower. According to Skinner's codex, the asari watchtowers from that era had high-density ceramic frames and aluminum or glass sliding. Whatever the sides of this tower had been composed of, they were long gone, probably destroyed or stolen when the batarians annexed Lorek, but the frame was still there, and the Livis company had set up a dozen prefabs within. Around the base were assembled another two-dozen tents, which Sharon presumed belonged to the members of the Esan Liberation, and several yards out from these were long makeshift barricades. The forest growth was thick enough that anyone attacking the tower would be funnelled to a few paths.
As Sharon and Skinner approached the nearest barricade, three armed huntresses emerged from behind it and trained their weapons on them.
"That's close enough," one of the huntresses said. "Who in the name of the Goddess are you?"
Sharon stepped forward. "I am Cmdr. Emmanuelle Sharon, and this is Cmdr. James Skinner. We were hired to..."
"Are you Alliance?" the huntress demanded.
"What the hell are a pair of Alliance soldiers doing out here?"
"We were hired to escort a mercenary outfit on a rescue mission."
"Well then, why are there only two of you?"
Sharon was taken aback. "They're not already here?"
"If they were, we'd be a whole lot more cheerful. We've been stuck here for weeks waiting for the idiots to send reinforcements."
One of the other two huntresses approached the first. "Ma'am, those mercs could have been the ones who got shot down."
"Shot down?" Sharon asked.
The first huntress sighed. "A few days ago, we picked up some Heg chatter about shooting down an Eclipse transport. That's not so surprising - Eclipse has a couple of bases here, so Eclipse transports land on the planet all the time. But the weird thing was, the batarians were panicking, saying that the transport was about to crash into their outpost. We calculated their position based on the signal strength. That outpost was right in the middle of an island, about 70 miles from the coast."
"How the hell did a transport get that far inland without being detected?" Skinner asked. "Batarians have four eyes! Surely someone would have seen it?"
"Those paranoid bastards stay in windowless bases. They would have relied on LADAR. But even so, they should have detected it long before..."
"This is all very interesting," Sharon interrupted, "But that's not what we're here for. We're looking for Siani T'Nair."
"We don't have anyone of that name in our company."
The third huntress stepped forward. "Ma'am, I think the human's talking about Dantius."
The first huntress turned back to Sharon and Skinner. "We have an operative named Siani Dantius."
Sharon activated her omni-tool and projected the image the Matriarch had given her. "Does she look like this?"
"That's Operative L'Dan. If you're looking for her, you're shit out of luck - she died while on patrol two days ago."
Sharon gave an exasperated sigh. "Terrific. Well, if you could just direct us to her body, we'll take it back to her mother... what?" The three huntresses were looking at her strangely.
"If there's a mother involved, then it's not L'Dan you're looking for. L'Dan's mother was one of us - a former Livis huntress. She's been dead for maybe two decades."
Sharon felt a powerful urge to kill someone. Every step of the way, there's been lies... "You mentioned that you had a Siani Dantius in your company?"
"Aye. She's a technical something-or-other. Works with computers."
"Is she still alive?"
"As far as I know."
"Then point us towards her."
"Can't. She's not here. Cmdr. Ayana sent her into the field for something a few days ago."
"... You have got to be kidding me."
"Can you at least take us to this commander?" Skinner asked.
"She's asleep, and this situation has put her in a bad enough mood. I'm not about to wake her up to tell her that two humans have showed up." The first huntress sighed. "Look, we have some vacant prefabs. Why don't you two take one and grab some sleep? We'll sort this out when Ayana wakes up."
"Very well. Thanks for your help." Sharon said. Her head was starting to hurt, and Skinner looked to be nearing the end of his rope.
As they took off, the first huntress added one final question. "You said you were here on a rescue mission?"
"Then it most likely is Dantius you're looking for. If anyone needed rescuing, it would be her. Don't get me wrong, she's very good with computers and whatever other brainy crap Ayana gives her to do, but I've seen quarians who could fight better than her, and she couldn't find her own ass if you gave her a map..."
"Don't let Arine catch you talking like that!" one of the other huntresses chided.
Who's Arine? Sharon wondered, but Skinner was already heading towards one of the prefabs, so she followed. They found an empty prefab, and as they entered, Skinner bolted for the restroom and retched. "Christ, I thought you two would never shut up," he grumbled.
"You alright, Jim?"
"You going to make fun of me?"
"That was just to get you back for the crap you gave me on the ride over. Did you catch something from me?"
Skinner groaned. "It's this... place. Something in the air..."
"Your implants are bothering you, aren't they?"
He suddenly looked at her like she'd caught him naked in the shower. "How did...?"
"I hear a lot of L2's have issues."
And just like that, he relaxed a little. "Oh, right. They can be a bitch sometimes, and I don't intend to deal with two bitches at once."
There were questions nagging at the back of her head, but Skinner didn't look interested in talking, and she was tired, so she found a bed and lay down.
Her sleep did not last long, though. Someone shook her awake. She looked up into the hardest asari face she'd ever seen. "Wake up," the huntress commanded.
"Who are you?"
"Heard you were lookin' for Siani. You'll be comin' with me. Now."
Sharon got up and followed. Her mystery guide led her out of the prefab to a spot that was conveniently out of sight. And then, suddenly, the asari was pointing a pistol at Sharon's head.
"What the hell?"
The asari's hand was sturdy and her coal-black eyes were locked on Sharon's face. At this distance, she would not miss. "I don't know who the fuck you are, but you won't be hurtin' Siani."
Realization suddenly dawned on Sharon. "You're Arine, aren't you?"