Chapter 8 of Ghost in the Machine
Shepard was sitting on a hospital bed with her legs tucked under her, biting her thumbnail vigorously. On the other side of the med bay, Nihlus was lying unconscious. Technically, he wasn’t sleeping, or so Dr Chakwas had said, but apparently that didn’t mean he couldn’t dream. His eyeballs were moving frenetically under his dark eyelids and every so often, his arms and legs would twitch as if he were trying to run. She could relate to that sort of dream. Someone had once told her that you dreamed of being chased and unable to move except in god damned slow motion when your legs got entangled in the sheets. Shepard had tried sleeping without sheets. Didn’t help. Her shrink had laughed his ass off when she’d told him. Good man. God rest his soul.
“Tell me what happened again,” Anderson said. He was standing next to her, also watching Nihlus struggle with his nightmares. Perhaps Nihlus could feel them looking, and was trying to hide? To be sick and helpless away from hostile, alien eyes? Someone had also told Shepard that there was no worse thing for a turian than to be helpless, at the mercy of others. That their old and terminally ill killed themselves three times more often than in any other space-faring culture.
“Yes, sir. He said he saw Saren. Saren Arterius. When he said, Saren, I said, Saren Arterius? And he said, yes. It’s all in my report. How many times do I have to repeat it?”
“But you didn’t see him.”
“No, sir. By the time we got there, Nihlus was alone. A bit rattled, I suppose, but lucid. This was way before he activated the beacon.”
“Did he say anything else about the encounter?”
“No, sir. There was no time. We detected large amounts of ordnance on the railroad and had to hurry to disable the charges.”
Anderson huffed, frustrated. It was plain that she wasn’t telling him what he wanted to hear, but that was his problem, not Shepard’s.
“Lucid, you say,” he muttered after a while.
“Perfectly lucid, sir.” She blew a breath through her nose. “Hell. He was perfect, period. I’ve never seen anyone fight like that.”
It was the truth. The way Nihlus moved, the speed at which he’d cover a completely unfamiliar piece of terrain, the accuracy of his shots, the confidence behind his orders – it was beyond anything Shepard had witnessed during her entire military career. But she was too nervous to sprout poetic descriptions, and when Anderson turned to look at her with eyebrows raised in polite suspicion, all she could do was shake her head and repeat, “Never, sir.”
“His reputation is well earned, then,” Anderson agreed, albeit reservedly. “But so is Saren’s. He hates humans with a passion. After everything he’s done to sour every step of our damned way, his presence on Eden Prime – and just as we were this close to losing the colony – it can’t be a coincidence.”
Shepard eyed him with a frown. It sounded as if he cut the speech just as he was about to deliver the main point. Instead, he held his air, and bit his lip. Interesting.
“What then?” she said.
Anderson gave her a significant look.
“You think he was working with the geth?” Shepard snorted. “That’s a bit far-fetched, sir.” To say the least.
He didn’t answer. They watched Nihlus in silence, and after a while, she got back to biting her nail. Prior to bunking with Nihlus, she’d never seen a turian sleep. Or ever lie down, for that matter. Well, a living turian. She’d seen pictures and vids all right, but none of it conveyed the sense of natural grace emanating from Nihlus on all wavelengths. Even with the pointy fringe, the awkward spurs and all the plates and scales, he looked so… comfortable. “Is it true that Saren was his mentor?” she said absently.
“So they say.” Anderson sighed. “Listen, Shepard. Saren is a psychopath. Make no mistake about that. And the apple never falls far from the tree.” He lowered his voice into a whisper. “I know you like Nihlus; hell, I like him too. But you’d be wise not to turn your back on him.”
Shepard held his stare, wondering where this was coming from. He hadn’t asked her half as many questions about finding the fucking geth on Eden Prime nor about that behemoth of a ship. She knew Anderson for a stable, reasonable man. This wasn’t like him. “You’d be wise to keep these accusations to yourself unless you can find something to back them up with,” she said. “Sir.”
“Something will come up sooner or later. Mark my words.”
She looked away, unconvinced, and resumed biting the nail. Soon there would be nothing left of it and she’d have to wait for a day or two before she could vent her stress on the poor stubby thing again. She left the others alone, though. That way, the thumbnail could be the tormented hero, and the others, the rescued innocents.
Innocents. She closed her eyes over the memory of the impaled bodies. No longer human. Her stomach turned. That was what Anderson should have been questioning her about, damn it, not some misplaced turian.
“Why don’t you go get some rest as well?”
“I’d rather stay here, sir.”
Anderson nodded. “Suit yourself. Call me when he wakes up.”
She shuddered in the slight draft as the door opened and closed behind the Captain. On the other end of the med bay, Dr Chakwas was sitting in the lab, busy working at a terminal. Shepard deliberated for another couple of breaths, then hopped down and went over to Nihlus’ bed to observe the rhythm of his breathing, the jugular pulsing in the strange, compound meter of his alien heartbeat. Her eyes traced the vivid pattern of white stripes on his chest, similar to his facial markings. They were hypnotic, waving in perfect symmetry away from the protruding, sharp-looking keel down to where the plates gave way to the dark skin of his waist; whirling on his shoulder-plates, flowing down his thigh-plates… converging on his pubic plates. Shepard bit her lower lip, craning her neck for better view.
She’d never touched a turian before. Oh, she’d shaken hands with some, punched others, and even snapped one’s neck with her bare hands during a raid on an illegal arms shipment bound for Elysium. This was so very different, though. Her hand hovered above him almost against her will. There was a halo of warmth surrounding his body like a silky cobweb, readily felt from ten inches away. It was inviting, welcoming, and finally she gave in to it and laid her fingertips on his chest. The plate was warm under her touch, smooth and strangely alive. She wanted to touch his face. There was a faint burn mark on his left cheek that she hadn’t noticed earlier and she should examine it. Yes.
He moved, and she pulled her hand back, curling it reflexively into a fist. “Water,” he muttered, then smacked his tongue a couple of times, turned his back to her, and seemingly resumed his sleep. Shepard went to the other side of the bed and waved a hand in front of his face. Nothing.
“What is it, Shepard?” said Dr Chakwas, leaning backwards in her chair so she could see through the door. “Is he awake?”
Shepard shrugged, watched him a bit longer, and finally gave a decisive shake of the head. Chakwas returned to her work, and Shepard started back to her post on the bed.
But then her eye caught a tempting glint from Nihlus’ armor, piled up unceremoniously in the corner. When they’d brought him in, limp and lifeless like a sack of sand, the first order of business had been to strip him and check if he’d been wounded. All of his possessions – other than the coconut – were there. He’d brought nothing with him that he couldn’t fit into the pockets of his hard suit. Shepard glanced over her shoulder towards the lab again, then crouched next to the pile.
It felt wrong to go through his things while he was lying unconscious just a step away, but there was no harm in taking a look, was there? She was curious to see what kind of trinkets a turian Spectre would carry in his pockets – she’d put them right back and he wouldn’t even know.
The right thigh pocket held nothing of interest: a block of ammo for an assault rifle (really, Nihlus? In case you run out?), something that looked like a heat sink, only smaller, and a pocket-knife. There was a pouch on the belt, filled with miscellanea such as pieces of wire, credit chits, tiny probes and tweezers and a petrified, half-eaten protein bar. In the left thigh pocket, there was a datapad and… bingo!
A jewelry case. Shepard smiled as she opened it. Coconut my ass. Of course Nihlus had a perfect grasp of what would make a woman happy – turian or otherwise. Even to someone as bad at reading alien social cues as Shepard was, he definitely seemed like somewhat of a ladies’ man. The shiny thing in the case was a necklace pendant, shaped like a tear, intensely blue and… beautiful. She touched it. Ceramics, and not just any kind: it was the same stuff the hard-suits were made of. Huh. There were tiny letters on it, but she couldn’t make out the writing; it could have been turian. It could have also been one of the ancient human scripts. Shepard couldn’t tell, shameful as that was. She observed it for many seconds, and her heart fluttered like a nervous bird. It would look so perfect, against the ivory skin of Jo’s neck.
But the sounds of labored breathing drew her attention and she hurriedly returned the case to the pocket, biting back the onset of panic. She stood up, flushed and wide-eyed, and found that Nihlus’ back was heaving. He let out a quiet groan that sounded like fear or pain and his hand crumpled the sheets and pressed into the mattress. Shepard tiptoed around the bed. His eyes were open, but when they darted to track her movement, there was no sense in them, just blank, animal fright. Chakwas peeked out of the lab again and this time Shepard waved her to come over.
“Let’s see…” Chakwas approached the bed with no trepidation, laid a confident hand on Nihlus’s cheek, and shone a little flashlight in his eyes. He winced and slapped her hand away. “Good to have you back, Spectre,” she said, moving back to a respectable distance.
“Where am I?” he said, but it was more of a growl: deep and daunting. As he pushed himself up on his arms, Shepard involuntarily slipped into a state of yellow alert, muscles going taut under her fatigues, for there was something extremely menacing about his posture and the wild shine from those green eyes. So much like her own, yet so profoundly different.
“This is the SSV Normandy, an Alliance vessel commanded by Captain Anderson,” Chakwas recited, apparently unconcerned. She turned on the bedside scanner and nodded at his vitals. “You’ve been knocked unconscious after approaching an alien artifact. Physically, you’re fine, but… what is the last thing you remember?”
Nihlus frowned and shook his head, then brought a hand up to his forehead. “The beacon,” he said. “Spirits. It put shit in my head. I can’t…” The words trailed off into quiet wheezing. “It hurts to think,” he whispered at last, bringing himself up to sit. “When they told me it was a beacon I didn’t think it would be a fucking telepathic beacon… Shit. Head hurts. Hurts like a bitch!”
“Give him something for the pain,” Shepard said. Chakwas gave her a don’t-you-tell-me-what-to-do-in-my-med-bay kind of look, but turned to rummage through the medicine cabinet anyway.
“Shepard, right?” Nihlus said.
“Yeah.” She paused. “And you?”
“Nihlus Kryik, Special Tactics and Reconnaissance.”
“This should help,” Chakwas said, and delivered a quick shot into the side of Nihlus’ neck. “Lt. Alenko says it works miracles with his migraines.”
“That’s the biotic, right?”
“Your memory seems fine. Take these, but only if you must, and no more than two a day.” Chakwas gave him a small white bottle and Shepard could hear the comforting clacking of pills inside. “Also, light food and lots of fluids.”
Nihlus grunted something, looked around, then took the large plastic tankard from the bedside table and drank from it directly. Shepard and Chakwas exchanged a glance: there was a glass right next to it.
“As far as I can tell, you’re fit for duty,” Chakwas said when he seemed to have sated his thirst. “But when we dock, I recommend you visit a turian physician. Just in case. I’ve worked with aliens before but it’s not what I specialize in.”
“I’ll remember that.” He pushed himself off the bed gingerly and flexed his neck and shoulders. “That thing really works miracles. Hope the pills are as good.”
“No more than two a day,” she replied, wagging a finger at him in the universal gesture of mothering. To Shepard’s amusement, he stuck out his tongue at her by way of an answer. Chakwas waved her head with an exasperated sigh before retreating back to the lab. “Soldiers, ha!” she muttered. “Children, all of you.”
Shepard cleared her throat. “The Captain will want a word. You think you’re up to it?”
“Hell, no.” He glanced around, still looking rather groggy, then scrutinized his arms and legs and ran his hands down his chest, feeling for injuries. Then he put a hand on the left side of his face and frowned. “So I passed out?”
“Yeah. That thing… it held you up in some sort of a mass effect field, and you were shaking, like you were having a seizure. And then you fell down. Been unconscious ever since.”
Finally he spotted the pile of armor, and stalked that way. “What happened after that? Did you meet Saren?”
Nihlus turned to look at her with something like distress on his face, freezing in mid-motion as he was trying to pull out his undersuit. Which had been on top of the pile, but ended up under the thigh guards thanks to Shepard’s little search. She felt the heat spreading through her cheeks – but what he said had absolutely nothing to do with that.
“You didn’t find any… turian bodies, did you?”
Shepard shook her head, relieved. Nihlus deflated visibly as well, for entirely different reasons.
He proceeded to dress, and Shepard watched him, vaguely displeased. If it were up to her, she’d order him to stay in bed for another day. He didn’t look well, and his movements were drunken, shaky. Even so, he was quite efficient. Turian hard suits were a lot more complicated than human models – though maybe that was just the perception born of buckling up her own suit for so many years while never having been in the situation to help an alien into (or out of) theirs. Nihlus picked the gloves up last, but didn’t put them on. He appeared to be counting the seals on the sides of his chest-plate. Then he stopped, as if he’d lost count, and did it again. Finally he took a deep breath, and looked at her. His eyes were dark and heavy.
“You owe me big time for pulling you away from that damned thing, Shepard,” he said. “It was fucking horrible. Makes me sick to think about it.” And as he put a hand over his mouth and a spasm went through his body, Shepard realized he was not exaggerating. She stepped towards him, but he dismissed her with a wave of a hand. “I’m fine,” he said, with the tiniest of grateful smiles. “I don’t remember much. But there are images… feelings. Terrible feelings. Like… something worse than torture, worse than death. Like… the death of everything. That makes no sense, does it? Unless…” Nihlus paused again, his breathing deep and raspy, and she thought she could see sweat on his face. He blinked at her under a frown of deep focus. “Spirits, Shepard. I think I saw the end of the Protheans. I think I saw the death of their entire species.”
His voice trailed off and he seemed to be looking through her at something far, far away. To her surprise and alarm, turians could apparently go pale despite the thick hide. The skin on his neck lost a solid shade, turning ashen. She reached to tap his shoulder and snap him out of it, but he came to on his own.
“They didn’t just disappear…” he said at last.
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