Arbiter

Chapter 1 of Ghost in the Machine

Two years before the attack on Eden Prime.

If you were to ask, Nihlus would probably tell you that he loved his job. On any other day, that is. Right now, he imagined that being anything, anything at all, from a mercenary looking for easy credits among the arms dealers in the Verge to a lap dancer in Afterlife on Omega, would be better than being a Spectre. Because, most days, being a Spectre meant eliminating the scum of the Galaxy. It was as simple as that, and it was something Nihlus was extremely good at, although to say he enjoyed it would be taking it a bit too far. But there were days, the never-ending, dreary days, when the Council expected their top military operatives to don fancy civilian suits and act as diplomats, negotiators, or, like today, arbiters.

Nihlus knew all too well why the Council had set him up with this particular job, and not some other Spectre (or Spirits forbid, an actual expert in interstellar law). In part, they had done so because Nihlus was reputed to be a keen judge of character. And then there was the fact that, unlike most Council agents, Nihlus actually liked humans. Assigning him as the arbiter in the reevaluation of the Torfan incident carried the subtle message that the Council supported Humanity in this matter.

Still, he didn’t like being in the middle of it. There were so many things he’d rather be doing than interviewing nervous humans all day long. For example, going for a good run around the Presidium Lake with the fantastic soundtrack from “Confederates” turned up on his earpiece. Or having a drink or a dozen down in Chora’s Den and checking out their new human dancers, rumored to be identical twins.

He shook the wistful thoughts away, forcing himself to focus on the conversation at hand. The interview with ex-Major Frederick Kyle, the Alliance officer in charge of the vicious attack on Torfan in ’78, had already taken more than two hours. This human put Nihlus’ patience to the test more times than he cared to admit, despite the awareness that he was dealing with a psychologically unstable individual. Major Kyle had been sweating profusely, avoiding eye contact, and on more than a few occasions, speaking incoherently. Which was unpleasant, but perhaps understandable. What Nihlus could not understand, however, was the Major’s unconditional refusal to partake in responsibility for the darker aspects of the operation. To lay all the blame on a junior officer was not only a disgusting display of cowardice, but also a shameful admission of incompetence.

But now he was finally ready to let the Major leave and it was a relief. He stood up and offered a handshake, conforming to the human custom, but regretted it at once, as the Major’s hand was limp and cold and wet. When the door closed behind the human, Nihlus glanced at his asari assistant, seated meekly in the corner of the little office, and she gave him a sympathetic shrug. He looked at his right hand, then wiped it on his pants.

“Who’s next?”

“Lieutenant Shepard, sir.”

Ah. The famed culprit. Nihlus typed into his terminal and a picture of a smiling woman popped up, along with his notes. For some reason he’d thought that ‘Butcher of Torfan’ was a title better suited for a man. Not that it mattered. She was the last and the prospect of calling it a day woke him up like a shot of stims. He stretched, then drank the last of the water from his glass and gestured to the assistant to refill it and put up a fresh one for the guest.

“Call her in.”

The assistant went to the door and peeked through. “Lieutenant Shepard? We’re ready for you.”

Through the open door, Nihlus could see the Wards, stretching behind the glass wall of the Citadel Tower. A white reflection of a person approaching at a brisk, confident pace ghosted over it before the Lieutenant walked in. An exemplary human female of fine proportions, with an impressive ribbon rack on her white dress uniform. Nihlus could recognize most of the Alliance decorations, but his gaze lingered on the Order of the Silver Spire, awarded by the Council – in most cases, posthumously – for “extraordinary valor at the risk of her life above and beyond the call of duty against an enemy of the Citadel Space.” It was one of the few medals that Nihlus had, and Saren didn’t. At least, not yet.

She gave him a crisp salute and stood at attention as the door hissed closed behind her. Nihlus took a moment to study her face: perfectly expressionless and pale beneath strikingly red hair, held back by a simple band. Her lips were pressed tight and almost colorless, and her eyes, planted firmly into the wall behind him, were an intensive green quite alike his own.

“At ease, Lieutenant,” he said. She relaxed into a more comfortable stance, and her eyes darted left and right, taking his measure, before focusing on his face with a familiar wince of confusion. Nihlus smirked. “No, I regret to say that I am not Councilor Sparatus,” he said. He’d been through exactly the same ritual with all the humans he’d interviewed today. “My name is Nihlus. Nihlus Kryik.”

He hesitated for a second before offering a hand, but her shake was firm, dry and comfortably warm. “Sir,” she said in a pleasant voice betraying only the slightest hint of stress.

“You know why you’re here, right?” he said, indicating the guest chair with his chin, and sitting down on his own.

“Yes, sir,” she replied, but remained standing. “To answer for Torfan – again.”

“Sit down, please.”

She seemed ill at ease, something like resentment flashing over her face.

“Relax, Lieutenant. This is an informal hearing. I don’t intend to question the findings of the SACOM inquiry. I just want to form my own picture of what really happened.”

“Who are you?”

“A Spectre.”

Nihlus had to smile at the way she puffed out a sigh of relief. She’d probably thought he was some lawyer or a clerk. That she would be more comfortable talking to a fellow soldier came as no surprise. “Nothing worse than explaining a military operation to a politician, eh?”

“Yes, sir,” she said, curling her lips into a small smile. She took a seat then. “So what’s this all about?”

“Several things.” He leaned back into the chair. “The Council is trying to negotiate some sort of a trade agreement with the Hegemony, and the batarians named reparations for the Torfan incident as one of the terms. But more importantly, it’s in keeping with the open records policy.”

“Right.” The sarcasm in her tone was unmistakable. “Anything for a seat in the Council.”

“You don’t support the efforts of the Alliance to join the Council?”

“What I don’t support is all the ass kissing. Sir.”

Nihlus huffed at that. Humanity was expected to do a much better job at ass-kissing than they had been doing so far if they were to gain more political power in Citadel Space. Most humans believed it was worth it, but there were others, like the Lieutenant here, who would rather shoulder their way in. Which was, strangely enough, an equally viable option. The Council had no misgivings about letting the humans do their dirty work; Torfan was an extreme example, but a definite case in point of this double-faced politics.

“Ass kicking works too,” he said, wondering if she’d catch the context. “As long as it’s directed outwards.”

“In other words, you’d rather have us inside the tent, pissing out, than outside the tent, pissing in.”

“I’m guessing that’s a reference to the specifics of human anatomy?”

The Lieutenant changed color at that. Her face looked much more interesting, perhaps even pretty, with the blush and the embarrassment livening her eyes. “I apologize, sir. That was out of line.”

“It’s fine, Lieutenant. You’re right, of course. What happened on Torfan was grim business, but the Council stood to profit from it. And you made sure of it.”

She arched her eyebrows at him, looking as if she wasn’t sure she’d heard him right. Nihlus shrugged. “A half finished job would have benefited no one,” he said. “That was never in question.”

“So what is?”

“The people who surrendered.”

Nihlus hadn’t exactly planned to deliver the blow just when he saw that she’d put her guard down, but it turned out rather well. Her attitude morphed from cocky and almost playful to tired, beaten and bored in a matter of seconds.

“I have nothing to say about that,” she said, tossing her head back in a challenging gesture. “It’s all in the file. Sir.”

Now he planted his elbows on the desk and studied her face up close. The color had drained from it again, and the eyes were now animated by something Nihlus recognized with a pinch of unease, as it reminded him of his own main defense mechanism. Spite. The self-destructive kind.

“Just tell me why, Shepard,” he said at last and she jumped a little at the sound of her name. “Were you ordered to?”

He had to ask the question even though his judgment of her character had taken shape already. She appeared to be a proud and honorable woman, and would not attempt to displace the blame. Unless it was true, of course; but then she would have said so on the trial that had taken place immediately after the incident. Nihlus knew very well how these things worked: she might have received informal instruction to leave no loose ends, but certainly not to execute the prisoners. For a big-shot such as Admiral Hackett, it simply wouldn’t have been worth all the inevitable fuss.

So when she shook her head, he believed her.

“It was a tactical decision,” she said. “My decision.”

“What possible tactical advantage can you gain from killing unarmed prisoners?”

“It’s all in the file.”

“I want to hear it from you.”

“Why?”

“Because I’m to decide if the inquiry should be reopened. Or promoted to a war-crime trial before COIL.”

From the way her throat started working, Nihlus concluded that he’d executed another well placed stab. He couldn’t help thinking that Saren would’ve been proud, which didn’t exactly make him feel good about it. It had to be done, though. He liked this Lieutenant for her spite and her pride, and yes, for the very impressive band of decorations on her chest. She reminded him of everything he admired about Humanity. But also, of everything the Council feared about it. In both politics and application of military force, humans were ruthless, and as Saren liked to put it, they needed to learn their place.

“You son of a…” she muttered. “You said this was an informal hearing.”

“It is, for now. But I will make if official if I have to. So talk to me. Explain the necessity to slaughter two dozen people. Or was it pure cruelty?”

“I didn’t have the manpower to secure prisoners,” she said through her teeth. “It’s all in the fucking file. I had to choose between pressing forward or securing the prisoners until reinforcements arrived, which would have cost us all the momentum. I chose to press forward. That’s all there is to it.”

“Most of these people were slaves. Harmless. You could have just left them behind.”

“They weren’t just slaves,” the Lieutenant gritted, then made a circle with her jaw, as if trying to loosen up. “They were implanted.”

The word triggered a strange grimace on her face, but it only lasted a second before she managed to erase it and Nihlus couldn’t catch the meaning. That was fine; he prided himself as an excellent reader of human faces, but some things were simply too personal to be read by anyone, especially an alien.

However, the word had probably triggered a strange grimace on his face as well, which wasn’t fine, because he had no idea how well versed she was in reading turian faces. One of his first missions as a Spectre had involved finding and, unfortunately, executing, a number of young girls – practically children – implanted and trained to be sex slaves. But things had changed since those times. He clenched his mandibles tight to hide the unease summoned by the decade-old memory. Things had changed.

“That’s treatable,” he said at last.

“No,” she whispered, lowering her eyes.

Nihlus sat back and sighed. “Thought so. It wasn’t cruelty. You think you’ve done them a favor.”

“You don’t?”

“It’s treatable. It wasn’t ten years ago, but it was in ’78.”

But she was shaking her head. “I don’t believe that. What does that mean, anyway? Treatable? Being lobotomized and then spending the rest of your life in an institution? Fuck that kind of life. I’d choose death over that any day.”

“Me too,” Nihlus said, and that made her pay attention again. “But that doesn’t give us the right to decide for others.”

Now she laughed, and the cynical note made Nihlus cringe, for it was another thing that reminded him of himself and it was disturbing on a deep, private level.

“Nihlus, right?” she said, and he nodded absently. “Nihlus. You should run that calculation again. They can’t think straight with the implants. How the hell are they supposed to decide anything? Sure, the basic instinct is to survive, but you can’t call that a decision. And not all of them wanted to survive.” Her chin shook, but she stilled it quickly. “You wanted me to talk? Here’s something you won’t find in the file, so let’s see if you’ll listen: they begged me to kill them. Not all of them. But many. They begged.”

“Yeah,” Nihlus said. Almost whispered. “I can believe that.”

She nodded. “You’ve seen it yourself?”

“I’m asking the questions here.”

“Yes, sir.”

But he didn’t, not right away. He couldn’t help remembering. He had been young and impressionable, but there was more to it. It had been one of those missions where the work itself seemed less relevant than the stark contrast between his own reluctance and the ease with which Saren had executed the targets. And indeed, Saren had been impressed by the reports from Torfan. Had he been in Shepard’s shoes, he’d have done exactly the same, and nobody would’ve thought twice of it because he was a Spectre. The kind of man the Council turned to when failure was not an option, no matter the price.

“What of the rest?” he said at last, checking the file on the terminal. “Three guards, batarian; one guard, turian; two techs, batarian; two techs, human. Why did you execute them?”

She looked at him with a tired sigh. “I told you already: holding prisoners would have endangered the mission, and my only concern was to see it through, no matter the cost. Those were my orders. I had split seconds to make decisions. I simply did what I had to do. And I have nothing else to say about it. Sir.”

Nihlus watched her in silence for a while. He knew what she was talking about. Even the most experienced soldiers could lose their wits in the heat of combat. The brain resigns and the body does what it’s been trained to do and when you come around with dried blood and alien entrails on your hands you can only thank the Spirits that you’re a Spectre, working alone, so nobody will ever know.

Oh yes. It had happened to him. Nothing on this scale, but he had been in the business for long enough to accumulate a decent collection of things he’d regret for the rest of his life. But did she regret? Nihlus couldn’t tell. In fact, he had the feeling that no amount of further questioning would answer that.

He took a deep breath. “From everything I’ve seen here and read about the mission and the trial, you coped with it remarkably well,” he said. “Unlike your ex CO.”

Shepard looked down at her hands, folded in her lap, and huffed. “Well is not the word I’d use.”

That sounded incredibly honest and Nihlus had to smile. “Fair enough,” he said. When he looked closer, he noticed that her hands were not only folded in her lap: she was squeezing them with a desperate urgency that made him feel sorry. The kind of reaction Saren would despise him for. Yes, she was nervous and perhaps even scared, and no, she was certainly not the heartless monster the title of the Butcher of Torfan suggested. But she had executed more than twenty men and women, and it was his fucking duty to rub it in.

Be careful with pity, Nihlus, said his teacher’s voice in the back of his mind, sending chills down his spine. Pity is only a gift when you bestow it on the truly helpless. Otherwise, it’s nothing but an insult.

There were several more items on the list he’d scribbled next to her name, but those that mattered – was it an order? was it cruelty? – had been checked and he decided it was enough.

“I’ve no more questions,” he said, standing up. She did the same. “You’re free to go.”

“So what’s it going to be?”

“Hm?”

“What’s the verdict?”

Nihlus snorted. “I’m no judge, Shepard.” But she kept looking at him, insisting, until he deflated. “I’ll recommend against further legal action.”

She let out a huge sigh of relief, which he rewarded with another appreciative grin. Most people lacked the courage to put their fears and hopes out there where others could see and abuse them. And Nihlus appreciated courage. Despite everything, he liked her. A lot. He wouldn’t forget her in a hurry.

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