Chapter 17 of Ghost in the Machine

Well I’ll be damned, Garrus thought as they entered the Consort’s chambers. He’d never been farther in than the main hall – the so-called ‘waiting room’ – and he’d never seen Sha’ira in person. The theme of the decor was ‘twilight on the lakeshore’. Holos of shimmering water, distant mountains and a couple of faint moons in a pink sky projected on the walls, and noises of night-creatures and the wind in the reeds playing in the background. That smell of wet sand – was that part of the elaborate illusion? Or only in his mind?

In the middle of the room, the famous asari Consort was reclining on a large water cushion that plopped softly when she got up. The magic of her presence was irrefutable and he acknowledged it, watching every graceful movement of her lean body, perfectly traceable through the iridescent gown that adhered so closely he could see her erect nipples and her tiny belly-button.

“Nihlus, darling,” she said, spreading her arms in invitation. Her voice was deep, musical and pleasing even for turian hearing. When Nihlus stepped forward and lowered his head on her shoulder, Garrus snorted. A lucky son of a bitch indeed.

“I need your help,” Nihlus said.

“For you? Anything.”

Almost the exact same words that the krogan, Wrex, had used when Nihlus had asked him to join them. But maybe it shouldn’t have been a surprise. There were few things in existence worth more than the friendship of a Spectre. If Nihlus were to ask some favor from him, would he be capable of refusing?

They weren’t friends, not really, and he suspected that both Wrex and Sha’ira were somehow indebted, unlike him. On the contrary. He felt that Nihlus owed him something. Nihlus owed him for not making him a Spectre. How odd that he should only discover that now, so many years after that ordeal. The rotten feeling he’d always get when meeting Nihlus, that thing lurking under the envy and the attraction that just wouldn’t die – he had finally identified it as simply being wronged.

He shook off the strange thoughts. While he had been pondering, the others had made themselves comfortable on low seats and cushions. There was something fundamentally wrong with the scene: soldiers of all different races, armed to the teeth and in full combat armor, surrounded by the softness and the beauty and the undeniable serenity of this strange place and its mystical mistress. Garrus found a soft seat for himself as well, sinking awkwardly into a huge cushion next to Shepard.

She turned to give him a significant look, shot another in the direction where Nihlus, Sha’ira and Tali were standing, then stared back at him. Like some kind of question.

“What?” he said in a low voice. It didn’t feel right to speak aloud in here.

“You’re friends with him, right?” she whispered. “Why is he protecting Saren? I know Saren was his mentor, but to go this far…”

Garrus puffed through his nose. Of all people, why should he be the one to explain this to the human?

“They’re close,” he said.

Shepard’s quizzical expression didn’t change.

Very close.”

“Oh,” she said. Her quizzical expression still didn’t change.

“You better ask him about it,” he concluded.

Nihlus was saying something and Sha’ira was shaking her head, and then Nihlus turned on his omnitool and Tali did the same. Garrus leaned forward to try and catch the hushed conversation, but the seat was too amorphous and he sank back into it again.

“He wouldn’t try to run with the evidence, would he?”

Garrus turned to study Shepard closer. She didn’t appear to be very bright, but in this matter, she mirrored his thoughts. No way around it; he didn’t know Nihlus well enough to guarantee a thing and so he had to shrug, to which she responded by shifting, or trying to shift, into a more alert position. A glance at the other two humans – Alenko and Williams, if he remembered correctly – huddled together on a very low, very soft sofa to the far left of the room, told him they were likely having a similar conversation. Both were following every move Nihlus made with keen, mistrustful eyes. On the other side, Wrex was reclining comfortably in a round cushion that was barely visible under his immense body. He seemed entirely unconcerned.

If something were to go terribly wrong – and there was nothing Garrus could do to stop his mind from visualizing the worst case scenario – it would be him and the three humans against Nihlus, Wrex, and the Consort, who was probably a trained biotic. He snorted at those odds.

Everyone rose to their feet when Nihlus and Sha’ira moved for the far side of the room. A large, pale terminal popped up from a workstation that had been cleverly disguised as a rock. Sha’ira tapped into the controls, and the sounds of the lakeshore vanished together with the fancy lights and holos. With the spell gone, the chamber and its white walls looked empty and clinical.

“Let’s hear it,” Nihlus said, and Garrus was pretty sure that no one but him could appreciate the willpower invested in those three simple words.

Tali started her omni and after a second, the familiar voice echoed through the silent room.

“Set course for Eden Prime. The beacon will bring us one step closer to finding the Conduit.”

“That’s Saren’s voice,” Williams exclaimed. “This proves he was involved in the attack!”

Garrus noted how Nihlus’ complexion had faded. He started to say something, but Tali cut in. “Wait, there’s more. Saren wasn’t working alone.”

She replayed the recording of Saren’s voice, making Nihlus wince. But after that, a female voice spoke in reply. She said: “And one step closer to the return of the Reapers.”

“I recognize that voice.” Everybody turned to Sha’ira. Her violet eyes were round in surprise. “Play it again, please?”

Tali complied, and as the female voice delivered her gloomy line again, Sha’ira nodded. “That’s Matriarch Benezia.”

“Figures,” Nihlus said, running a hand over his tired face. “They’ve known each other for a long time, and have common investments in – what was the name?”

“Binary Helix,” Garrus said.

“That. Thank you.”

“She has solid political support on Thessia,” Sha’ira volunteered, “and a great many followers. Some of whom may even be considered fanatical. But she has all but disappeared from public life in the last year or so.”

“And now we know why,” Garrus muttered.

But Nihlus was shaking his head. “I don’t… why would she want to… what the hell are they doing?”

When nobody spoke for some seconds, Tali cleared her throat. “According to the memory core,” she said, “these ‘Reapers’ are a hyper-advanced machine race that existed fifty thousand years ago. They hunted the Protheans to total extinction and then they vanished. At least, that’s what the geth believe.”

“Sounds far-fetched to me,” Wrex murmured, but Nihlus was frowning.

“You don’t know the half of it,” he said, glancing at Shepard. “See, I had a… vision on Eden Prime, when I touched the beacon. I assume the same beacon he mentioned. And I understand it now. At least I think so. I think I saw the Protheans being wiped out by these Reapers.”

“The geth revere the Reapers as gods, the pinnacle of non-organic life,” Tali said. “And they believe that Saren knows how to bring them back.”

Alenko snorted. “The Council is just going to love this.”

“No,” Nihlus said simply. “I’m not going in front of the Council with myths and visions. We need to stick to the facts.”

“I don’t know about the rest of this,” Garrus said, stepping forward and forcing Nihlus to look at him, “but the clip proves Saren was involved with the attack. Or do you still doubt it?”

Nihlus shook his head. “No. The clip is authentic. The words are clear. No room left for doubt.” He looked like he had more to say, but ended up spreading his mandibles in one of those awful fake smiles, glancing over their expectant faces.

“I still think we should take this to the embassy,” said Williams, talking mostly to Shepard, but Shepard was looking at Nihlus.

“You do intend to inform the Council about this, right?”

“I intend to go after him,” Nihlus said, and there was a new note in his voice. Resolution. “You can come with me, if you want.”

The words were directed to Shepard, and disappointment crawled up Garrus’ chest like some disgusting insect. Up until that moment, he hadn’t really considered leaving the Citadel to go with Nihlus. But now that it started to look like it wouldn’t happen, he found it was exactly what he wanted. The chance he’d been waiting for, after all these years. He opened his mouth to say something, but Shepard was faster.

“I have a better idea.” Her eyes narrowed in calculation. “Why don’t you come with me?”

“You mean, take the Normandy.”

“Why not? I’m sure the Ambassador will send us after Saren anyway, and you know more about him than any of us. So let’s join forces. Surely you don’t think you can go against the geth on your own?”

At that, Wrex let out a deep, amused chuckle. Nihlus shrugged, and Garrus smiled. Damn right he thought he could, and the worst of it was, he probably could.

“Nihlus, that’s crazy.”

“No it’s not,” Wrex said now. “For one, he wouldn’t be going alone.” And he made a barely perceptible bow to indicate himself.

Garrus straightened up and swallowed. It was now or never. “I’ll go with you too,” he said, putting it out there, putting it all out there. And when Nihlus turned and rewarded him with eyes full of gratitude, and perhaps understanding, all Garrus could do was to tighten his mandibles and give a stern nod, loaded with all the false confidence he could muster.

“And so will I,” said Tali.

“I thought you were on your pilgrimage,” Nihlus replied.

“Information about geth activity and their plans would affect the security of my entire people. There is nothing more valuable I could bring back to the Flotilla.”

She turned to Garrus around the half-mark of that speech, the blurry shine of her eyes resting heavily on him. His earlier display of disapproval must have left some impression if this was her way of seeking atonement. And now Nihlus was looking at him too, as if waiting for a recommendation. Fuck. Without her ship, Tali was looking at a year on the Citadel at least, running from one lousy job to another, wasting her talents on fixing broken datapads and garbage compactors for little more than grumbled thanks. And Garrus knew how that felt. He knew all too well and he couldn’t wish it on another, even if she was a slippery little bugger.

He shifted uncomfortably, aware that time was ticking and that everybody was looking at him like it was his decision. “We could use an expert on the geth,” he said at last.

Nihlus nodded. “All right. Welcome aboard.”

Sha’ira laughed. “I suppose I should sign up as well?” She put a hand on Nihlus’ arm. “I am no warrior, but I might be able to help nevertheless. I will attempt to find out more about Benezia’s business and connections.”

“That would be helpful. Thank you.”

“Well, we know that Binary Helix is based on Noveria,” Garrus offered.

“Noveria,” Nihlus repeated quietly, looking through Garrus at something far away, or a long time ago. “Guess that’s as good a place to start as any.”

“Hold on just a second,” said Shepard. “You’re not serious, are you? The Council needs to hear that clip. They’ll…”

“I’ll notify the Council,” Nihlus sighed. “They’ll strip Saren of Spectre status. That will give us a bit of an advantage, though I bet he’s hiding in the Terminus, where that title doesn’t mean a thing anyway.”

“Nihlus. You can’t just cut us out. All of this started with an attack on a human colony, remember?”

“And what do you think will happen if Udina gets his hands on this? He’ll want the Council to send an entire fleet to guard human worlds in the Terminus. Even if they agree, which you and I both know won’t happen, the fuss he’ll make will only push Saren deeper into hiding. Look, I know how he thinks, okay? My best chance of catching him is by going after him alone.”

Your chance? This isn’t about you and your personal business with Saren. Until we find out what the hell is going on, the safest assumption is that we have a war with the fucking geth on our hands. It’s a threat to every species in Citadel space.”

Nihlus stared at Shepard for the longest time, while Garrus, and by the looks of it, everyone else, held their breath.

“Fine,” he gritted at last. “We’ll take the Normandy. But under one condition: we leave Udina out of this. It’s bad enough as it is. I won’t have him using Saren as leverage for his agenda. Speak to Anderson. Convince him to give you command over the ship.”

Shepard blinked at him. “How the hell do I do that?”

“Tell him what you told me. That this isn’t about his personal business with Saren.”

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