Dead Hearts I

Chapter 34 of Ghost in the Machine

Tali cursed aloud, then remembered where she was and quickly glanced left and right. Phew. Nobody within earshot. There were more people in the hangar than usual, but they all seemed preoccupied. Ashley and Crewman Harriswere sparring just outside Wrex’s cubicle. Wrex was in; he was cleaning his weapons and humming some horribly dissonant tune. He looked up from time to time, prompted by grunts and profanities issuing from the combatants. On the other side, near the drawbridge, Donnelly and Kaidan were leaning over the microfacturing unit, mostly just frowning and shrugging, and only occasionally erupting in short bursts of conversation.

The troublesome thing had been producing brittle slabs of ammo and no two people aboard could agree on the most likely reason why. Impurities in the ingredients? Mechanical malfunction? Stray gas bubbles in the mixing chamber? Sediment? A roundoff error in the mass effect stabilizing routines?

“But that would have showed earlier,” Tali muttered to herself, looking back at the code displayed on her omni. She was convinced it was a bug in the unit’s VI. Unfortunately, she had managed to convince Shepard too — and had subsequently been assigned to find and fix it. She had been poring over the code the whole day; she knew it by heart by now… or did she? Hmm. Was that bracket supposed to be there, or there? Let’s see…

She caught herself swaying this way and that to the rhythm of Wrex’s tune while the module was compiling. Her attention was letting up. Like all puzzles, this had been a challenge in the beginning, but the time wasted in trying out increasingly desperate ideas had turned it into a frustration. She was a mechanic, not a programmer. The concept of staring at a piece of code for hours, then suddenly exclaiming “Ah-ha!”, changing one digit, and calling it a day was as alien to her as spending half a day in the gym and the other half at target-practice.

The code compiled. She pressed the green button and on the other end of the hangar, the unit came to life, drowning out Wrex’s singing with a few seconds of monotone, low-pitched droning. The new slab fell into the empty receiving chamber with a loud clank, but only Kaidan and Donnelly were paying attention. Kaidan slid the slab inside the charger of the Lancer they had been using for tests. It entered smoothly, but when he tried to click the charger back into position, it got stuck halfway and the rifle let out the hated beep of doom.

He shook his head in her direction but she was already cursing between her teeth. She had only agreed to look into the mystery of the microfacturing unit because Garrus had asked her, and he hadn’t even asked her nicely. Where was he while she was slaving over it? Watching the security feed from the women’s washroom with Joker? Bosh’tet!

Kaidan extended the charger on the rifle again, and the cringe-worthy dinging produced by pieces of slab hitting the floor echoed through the hangar. Donnelly kicked one before it reached the ground, cursed — something about intercourse between someone’s mother and some kind of a domesticated animal from Earth — and at the same time, Crewman Harris let out a particularly pained moan. Tali turned to look. Ashley was apologizing; at least, the tone of her voice was apologetic. Most of her words still translated as profanities. Then, she took a towel to help stop the bleeding from the poor man’s nose. There was a lot of dark, dense blood. On Ashley’s bare hands. Unease and anger mixed into faint nausea inside Tali’s guts. She had to remind herself that humans weren’t likely to contract diseases from simple exposure to the blood of their own kind.

But the anger wouldn’t go away even when she suppressed the disgust. She was as nervous as everyone else. It was like a contagion, spreading by touch; a careless shoulder hitting you in the narrow hallway, or a slap of a meaty human hand on your butt. Or by sound; thriving on all the hushed whispers, secrets, and suspicions, transmitted through numerous curses, kicks and shouts. Or perhaps it was carried by photons themselves, because it had obviously affected her, too. Never mind her suit, her mask, her air filters, and, most importantly, her isolation from recent events.

She dismissed the code listing and heaved a tired sigh. If there was a bug in the VI, it would be there tomorrow as well. There were things to make and do with the new geth samples from Noveria. She would go to her cabin…

On second thought, no, she wouldn’t. Liara was in the cabin. And Liara was not to be disturbed, by explicit orders from Shepard.

Tali slouched back in the uncomfortable chair. Against all odds, Liara had become dear to her, and her plight touched her deeply. To witness your only parent die a violent death was bad enough; to be part of what caused it — even in the most circumstantial way — was unimaginable. Poor Liara. She hadn’t spoken to anyone since the ground team returned from Peak 15. When they had come aboard, she had been so pale that Tali had barely recognized her face.

A shudder went down her spine and she cursed again, albeit to herself, as the suit turned on the heaters. The damn thing needed some serious calibrations. She brought up her omni to turn the heating off just in time to see an incoming message. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Ashley and Kaidan bring up their omnis too.

“Senior crew meeting in Comm Room in ten minutes. Attendance mandatory, especially for the non-human crew. Shepard out.”

A minute later, the heaters in her suit finally went to standby — probably on account of her accelerated heartbeat when she ran into Garrus in the crew-deck hallway. Tali stopped short and held her breath along with her greeting. He hadn’t seen her. He was standing in front of the door to his own cabin, but it didn’t look like he was about to go in. He was just standing there, breathing. She could see his chest heave, and his mandibles work, and his eyes stare the door down like an enemy. Then, suddenly, he grew completely motionless and reached for the lock.

He didn’t get to it in time. The door lit up yellow from the inside. Garrus flinched as if he’d burned his hand, and hurried down the corridor, never turning back.

Nihlus appeared behind the open door.

“Oh, hi,” he said, and smiled. His voice wasn’t smiling, though. “Going to the meeting?”

“Yes,” she said distractedly, one eye still on Garrus’ back, disappearing at the first junction. She started to tell Nihlus about what she’d just witnessed, but somehow couldn’t.

“Come on,” she said instead. “The Commander doesn’t like to wait.”

#

Garrus surveyed the faces in the circle.

To his right was Wrex, reclining comfortably in a chair that was squeaking under his weight and drowsing. “Got to sleep wherever and whenever you can if you want to live to be a thousand,” he’d confided a few days back when Garrus had found him snoring in the Mako. The old krogan didn’t give a damn for the interpersonal drama that was likely to escalate into something ugly during the next half an hour or so.

Next to Wrex was Alenko. He looked completely abstracted from the situation at hand; bored, even, if not for his eyes, calmly focused on an unmoving point on the floor. Patient, waiting. Garrus had seen his share of humans like that, enduring entire nights cuffed to the table in the interrogation room, wearing that carefully maintained appearance of resignation no matter what threats were issued, what tricks tried. Some would talk after being beaten. But Alenko was the type who could take more than most cops would be comfortable dealing. Garrus was sure of it. And he didn’t like it. He didn’t like people you had to pry opinions from. Peacemakers, conciliators, negotiators. Politicians. People striving to agree with everyone. To sit on all chairs at once.

His eyes shot across the room before he could stop himself. Had they been equipped with microscopic lasers, they’d have cut Nihlus in half. Nihlus wasn’t looking at him. He was looking through the dark viewport, as distant as the passing stars. Garrus took a deep breath, pushing the anger back. Now was not the time.

Next to Alenko sat Williams. What a stark contrast. She was fidgeting and glancing around with those nervous, paranoid, black eyes of hers. It looked like the meeting announcement interrupted her in the middle of training: the sleeveless shirt she was wearing had dark patches of sweat under her arms and breasts, and her fingers were dirty. Garrus sniffed discretely. Blood and hormones, unmistakably feminine. He wouldn’t spar with her at this time of the cycle. Not that he’d spar with any of the humans on board. Talon-marks on human skin would be looking for trouble even if there wasn’t so much tension all around.

Williams didn’t mind the tension. On the contrary. She was primed for a fight, and although Garrus didn’t like that either, he could at least understand, and begrudgingly respect it. She never hesitated to speak her mind, no matter the consequences. Presently she was watching Liara across the room and making grimaces of annoyance and resentment without as much as a hint of effort to hide her displeasure.

For poor Liara looked horrible. The dark circles under her eyes extended all the way down over her cheekbones, now an unhealthy hue of azure; her lips were pale and dry, and her hands were constantly shaking. She had been refusing food, drink and company since they had returned from Noveria. When her wondering, blank stare crossed paths with Garrus’ eyes, she looked away in a hurry. She had gotten it inside her head that Garrus was Shepard’s ally, maybe because of the way they had been paired up during the mission. And in being Shepard’s ally, he partook of the blame for her mother’s violent death.

This time when he looked, Nihlus was looking back. Garrus’ heart rate jumped, stubborn hopes rising inside him and entangling with the hurt and anger into something that didn’t belong on a staff meeting. Hell, it didn’t belong anywhere outside Tali’s romance novels. He shook his head disapprovingly, and when Nihlus inclined his own, asking a silent question, he dismissed it with a flick of the mandible. Now was not the time.

He focused on Tali instead. She was facing him, but that was a broad term. In some lights, or rather, some shadows, her eyes could be made out as two hazy, almond-shaped highlights, blinking not all that often. Now, they were hidden. She could have been watching him, and he had the idea that the look in her eyes wouldn’t be benevolent. Perhaps it was something about her posture, the nervous knitting of her fingers. He made a mental note to drop by her later. Maybe tell her about that air filter mod for her mask that he’d been working on before Noveria. Or maybe just thank her for getting that microfacturing unit thing off his plate.

Far too much crap on his plate.

He glanced at his omni. Just as he was about to break the silence and announce that Shepard was now more than ten minutes late, the door swished open and she entered. Wrex jerked from his sleep, and Garrus was as amused as always to see Alenko twitch, as if to stand up and salute. Shepard was very relaxed regarding regulations and formalities; too relaxed, in the whispered opinions of more than a few humans, wishing for the good old times under Anderson’s command. His opinion was that none of them had any business complaining. Shepard was a fierce warrior and a fine commander.

“Pressly just confirmed,” she said. “There’s a planetary system capable of hosting a mass relay at the coordinates we got from the rachni queen.” She glanced at Liara. As far as Garrus could read human faces, her intent was to give credit where it was due. Without Liara’s help, communicating with the queen would have been impossible. Garrus wasn’t entirely sure what to make of Nihlus’ decision to release the creature. Both Shepard and he argued on the side of destroying the queen along with her brood, but Nihlus wouldn’t hear of it, and Liara backed him up, going as far as to promise the freedom to the queen in exchange for information.

She didn’t deign to look at Shepard and turned away to stare through the viewport instead. Shepard’s face darkened, but she didn’t comment.

“How long will it take to get there?” said Tali.

“A week. The nearest relay is almost a parsec away.”

“That’s near the limit of our fuel supply,” muttered Alenko. He shrugged when nobody spoke back. “It’s a risk in any case. For all we know, the relay might be damaged, or worse, it might look undamaged, and send us god knows where. We don’t even know where it’s supposed to lead.”

“Ilos.”

Everybody turned to Liara, then remained motionless for a few beats in the silence that followed her one, scratchy word. She cleared her throat.

“The Mu Relay leads to Ilos.”

Shepard frowned, then brought up the auxiliary star map and typed something in. “Nothing under that name,” she muttered. “Maybe I mistyped. What did you call it again?”

“Ilos,” Nihlus said. “Come on Shepard. You must have heard of it.”

“Everybody knows about Ilos,” Tali agreed.

“Hell, even I know about it,” Ashley said. “It’s like Atlantis. In space.”

Shepard grunted, turning to scrutinize Liara. “Some long lost place?”

“The dream of every archaeologist.” Liara’s chin trembled, and she averted her eyes from Shepard’s inquisitive gaze. “But of course Kaidan is right. We should not assume the relay is still functional, or if it is, that it will be functioning correctly.”

“And even if it is, and we go through,” Alenko said, “we still don’t know what it is we’re looking for.”

“The Conduit,” Nihlus said.

“Well, yes. But we don’t know what that is, or if it’s even real.”

“Oh, it’s real. Saren wouldn’t be out looking for some fantasy construct.” Nihlus looked down at his hands, folded in his lap. “At least not the Saren I know.”

“Whatever it is, if it doesn’t happen to be floating right next to the relay on the other side, going through will do us little good,” said Williams, then snorted. “Unless we’re ready to do a month’s worth of planet scanning.”

Shepard was nodding. “Agreed. Too many unknowns.” She leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms. “So, what’s out next step? Nihlus? Any ideas?”

Nihlus shifted uncomfortably, knotting his fingers. “Spirits, I wish these things that are playing in my head all the fucking time made some sense. It’s like something you’re trying to remember, and it’s at the tip of your tongue but no matter what you try – thinking about it, not thinking about it, sleeping on it – it refuses to come out.” He looked up at Shepard now, then at Alenko. “I know the Conduit is real, all right? I can’t tell you what it is, but I know it’s not a place, nor a ship, nor a weapon. It’s like… like it’s too complex to name, you know?”

But nobody did, and when their eyes met, Garrus could only lift his browplate at the desperate plead for understanding. It wasn’t that he didn’t believe Nihlus; he just didn’t — well, it wasn’t actually a matter of not trusting him, but—

“Yeah,” Nihlus said after finding no support on the other faces either. He shook his head. “Still doesn’t help us actually find it.”

“Come on, Nihlus,” Shepard said. “You know what I meant. Give us something. What’s Saren’s next step?”

“You have no idea what you’re asking,” Liara whispered and all eyes turned to see her chin trembling again. Going to Noveria had been her suggestion.

“Here we go again,” Williams sighed, rolling her eyes. “How about you just say what’s on your mind and be done with it already? Or should I say it for you?”

“Come on, Ash,” Alenko said in a low voice, “don’t be—”

“A bitch? Well I am. This shit is getting ridiculous. Everyone tiptoeing around her like she’s some fucking princess. Look, hon,” she addressed Liara directly, “here’s the naked truth: you volunteered for this. We could have dropped you anywhere, but noooo. You wanted to see some action. Big men with big guns. And you got your share. So how about—”

“That’s enough,” Shepard said. “Williams, stand down. This is between Liara and me. And if she doesn’t want to speak—”

“You could have shot her in the shoulder,” Liara gritted, still stubbornly looking through the viewport. “You could have shot her in the leg. You didn’t have to kill her. What else is there to say?”

“She wasn’t herself. Didn’t you hear a word of what she was saying? She said she’d never be herself again. She called her life a terror, for God’s sake.”

Finally Liara turned, eyes suddenly boring into Shepard in a dark, dangerous way, and Garrus sat up, unsure what he was supposed to do if a fight broke out. Liara was a formidable biotic, and in such close quarters…

“Don’t you dare,” she said in a trembling, undulating voice. “Don’t you dare pretend you did it out of mercy. You killed her to take revenge for Eden Prime and Therum and we all know it. You’re nothing but a cold blooded killer, Shepard. Just like him!” And she laughed hysterically. “Just like Saren.”

An electrified silence stilled around them. Liara kept bulging her bloodshot eyes at Shepard, who finally lowered her head.

Nihlus ran a hand over his face. “About that,” he said. “Don’t know if you heard about it from the Alliance channels… Saren’s been to Feros while we were on Noveria.”

All the humans jumped at the declaration, but it took Garrus a second longer to remember they had a colony there. “What happened?” he asked.

“No one lived to tell.” Nihlus smiled, and Garrus frowned. To say the smile was mirthless would be an understatement. It was dead and decaying and deeply disturbing and Garrus felt like punching Nihlus in the face to wipe it away.

“Keelah,” Tali whispered.

“Nihlus,” Shepard said after a while, somewhat pale and uncharacteristically serious. “You’ve got to help us stop him.”

“You mean, kill him,” Liara said and covered her face, but she couldn’t hide the way her shoulders started shaking.

Shepard didn’t reply, holding Nihlus’ gaze. Garrus looked from her, to Nihlus, to her again. Like at a clawball match. The question was fair, and it was the reason they were all traveling together. If Nihlus refused to give information, he’d be stepping over to Saren’s side, and there was no telling what Shepard would do in that case. And Garrus realized that, despite everything, he wasn’t sure what he would do in that case either. Which was more than a little troubling. But the silence didn’t last long enough for him to untie that particular knot of doubts and dubious desires.

Nihlus tucked his mandibles and made another circle around the room, looking for support, failing to find any. Somehow his hand found a way to the back of Liara’s neck. Garrus couldn’t ward off a snort of disgust, but nobody was paying attention. They were all waiting for Nihlus to speak up.

“I’ll talk to you in private,” he said to Shepard in the end. Everyone seemed to slouch down and Garrus shook his head. Not worth the lead-up.

Shepard kept staring at him for several more seconds. Then she nodded, though Garrus doubted it convinced anyone that she was satisfied with the answer. When she glanced at him, he could swear he could hear the wheels turning, mirroring his own thoughts.

Last chance.


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