Departure

Chapter 4 of Ghost in the Machine

One day before the attack on Eden Prime.

Shepard had never been to Earth and a part of her was frustrated at being so near, yet unable to land – again. She watched the attractive blue globe in its halo of space-junk and blinking satellites, and the desolate white moon next to it. She huffed at it. Of course she’d been there, on Luna, for six months of advanced tactical training. With each passing year, the feeling that the fate had allotted her to repeatedly hang just out of reach of the finer things in life, grew stronger and more tangible.

Like the farewell presents. Both she and Julia had been reassigned from the Trafalgar at about the same time; Julia, a tall blond with an impressive bust and a butt that could barely fit the standard hard suit, got a fantastic, hand-spun, sun-silk scarf straight from Armali in a color that would match Shepard’s eyes perfectly, and what did Shepard get? A model of the Destiny Ascension. Yes, yes, she loved it, and the entire crew knew about her collection of toy ships, but still.

Or like the time when Major Hendricks needed someone from special forces to escort Lionel Martin to a concert in some famous hall on Palaven. Shepard wanted to go more than anything. First, because she thought that Martin was incredibly hot; second, because she was unbearably curious about the turian homeworld (even more than she was about her own); and last but not least, because the only other N7 on board at that time had been Jameson (god rest his soul), a mountain of meat with a huge bullet hole in his cheek and a shaved head riddled with tattoos. It had been all but settled, and then she received orders to go to the Citadel for an ‘informal hearing’ about Torfan instead.

It was very fitting to remember that now. An easy shift of focus, and she could observe the perpetual commotion behind her back, reflected in the thick inner glass of the viewport. She was on the Cauchy, an L5 station that used to be a military asset until the Alliance relinquished it to civilian contractors, who retrofitted it into a sprawling trade center. The main street ran along what probably used to be the spacecraft hangar, now lined by three stories of shops and stalls and brimming with people of all species, shapes and sizes. Her mark, a tall, dark-skinned turian with prominent white stripes decorating his bird-like face, was browsing the wares, and as far as she could tell, he was blissfully unaware that he was being watched.

“Nihlus Kryik,” she whispered, tasting the name. She’d been following him around for the better part of the hour, since she’d spied him wading through the crowd, towering a head above it, about as inconspicuous as a broken thumb. What was a turian Spectre doing on Earth? She didn’t want to think it, but of course her first idea was that he had come for her. To question her again. To threaten her again. To judge her again. She absently touched his reflection on the glass. Despite the fear of reopening that old wound, she harbored no ill feelings for him. Quite on the contrary. That interview had proven to be a cathartic experience, the handful of earth to finally bury Torfan in her memory for good. In a strange way, that brief conversation had done more for her than years of therapy. It had absolved her.

“Nihlus Kryik,” she whispered again, and swallowed before she turned to watch him directly. He seemed to be interested mostly in the food stalls and now he appeared to be negotiating the purchase of a large coconut with a volus merchant. There was no one else at the stall, as his heavily modded Phantom hard-suit and an impressive arsenal of prototype weapons were quite efficient at keeping the people well away. Which was why the volus was in a hurry to get rid of him. As Shepard approached, step by careful step, she caught up with the conversation.

“Of course it’s safe for turians,” the merchant was saying. “It says so right there on the label.”

“I want to hear it from you,” Nihlus replied, and Shepard smiled a nervous little smile; he’d said something just like that to her two years ago, and she remembered his piercing gaze with startling clarity. She’d felt like she’d been talking to a god damned lie detector.

“All right,” the volus said. “It’s safe for turians.

“Thank you.”

Nihlus tossed his credit chit across the stall. The volus failed to catch it, and had to bend over to pick it up, muttering untranslatable curses between loud intakes of air. Shepard stopped a few steps away, still unsure if she really wanted to make her presence known. But then the merchant scanned the chit and tossed it back – and of course Nihlus caught it with a careless twitch of his right hand, holding the coconut in his left. He turned and stepped right in front of her.

“Hello,” she said, deliberated for a second, then saluted, even though she was off duty and wearing civvies.

“Commander Shepard.” Nihlus gave her a wide smile, looking anything but surprised. “I was hoping you’d quit avoiding me. It will give us a chance to talk on our way to the Normandy.”

Shepard took a double take. “The Normandy, sir?”

“They haven’t told you? We’ll be boarding together.” He cast a casual glance at his omni. “We have about half an hour. Buy you lunch?”

Shepard shook her head helplessly. “So you’re not here because of…?”

“Oh! No. No, no, no.” Nihlus laughed a little then grew serious, or at least, more serious, by degrees. “Spirits, you’d think that, wouldn’t you. I’m sorry. No, this has nothing to do with Torfan.”

“Thank god,” she muttered, deflating. Only now did she realize that her heart was thumping as if she were in the middle of a wrestling match. Nihlus was observing her with a ghost of a turian smile still keeping his mandibles somewhat apart. She tried to smile back. “I put that behind me a long time ago, sir.”

“Good to hear.” They looked at each other for a couple of breaths, and then he said, “Call me Nihlus.”

“Yes, sir – Nihlus.”

For some reason, she blushed a little, wondering if he expected her to extend the same courtesy in return. Not something she’d normally be comfortable with, but she found that she’d do it anyway, in order to please him. It seemed important, to please him, just like the last time, and even though the situation could not have been more different, the feeling was the same. Whatever power he’d had over her then, it was not inherent to the circumstances of their first meeting: it was inherent to him.

So she swallowed and made ready to offer her hand, but he spoke again before she could. “So how about that lunch?”

“Uh… I don’t think there’s time.”

“Let’s walk, then.”

They started down the main street in the direction of the Alliance compound and the starport. Shepard’s head was buzzing with questions. About the Normandy, about the mission, about all the hush-hush. About why he was here, and what could he possibly want to talk to her about, if not Torfan. But the busy street was too noisy for such serious topics.

“What’s with the coconut?” she said instead, taking the offer to speak informally.

“It’s a gift.”

“Hopefully not the romantic kind.” She thought back on the model of the Destiny Ascension, still unwrapped in the army bag that housed all her earthly possessions, and decided that she had probably been lucky after all.

“It’s the perfect gift,” Nihlus insisted. “It’s endemic to Earth, so it’s a good souvenir. It’s a symbol of how resourceful you humans are, so it has a meaning. Perhaps even a message. Every part of it can be used for something. You can drink from it, eat it, dry it or cook it, and I intend to make a lamp out of the shell. And last but not least, it won’t go bad in a hurry, so I don’t have to think about it.”

“Must be a cultural thing. A human woman would want a gift that looks nice, or makes her look nice, rather than something so…”

“Practical?”

“Well, yeah.”

“Most turians – women or otherwise – appreciate practical gifts.”

“Right. You know, if we’re going to travel together – or serve together – I ought to warn you that I don’t know the first thing about turians. Well, except how to kill them.”

Nihlus laughed and nodded. “Don’t worry. You’re in good hands.”

What the hell was was supposed to mean? She had no idea, so she just smiled back. The contrast between how she remembered him and what she was seeing now was making her nervous. A glance at her omni: barely another twenty minutes before she was due to report for duty. That was what she was supposed to be nervous about, not the damn coconut. But now they were at the end of the main street and as soon as they passed the discrete security scanner on the way to the elevators, the air became quieter and cleaner.

“So,” she said then. “What brings a turian Spectre to Earth?”

“Several things. As an agent of the Council, I’m supposed to keep an eye on their investment in the Normandy. That’s the official story, anyway. Haven’t you been briefed?”

“Yeah.” Talking about the job at hand was a safe territory and she relaxed a bit. “Yeah, I have. But it’s a load of crap, isn’t it? Systems testing with the full marine complement and a Spectre observing the first flight? Right.”

Nihlus was silent for several steps. “I’m interested in this world we’re going to,” he said then. “Eden Prime. I’ve heard it’s quite beautiful.”

“I’ve never been there.” Of course not. From what she heard, it was a prime vacation destination, but if she ever got shore leave, she’d probably end up on Omega, or worse.

“But you know of it? It has become something of a symbol for your people, hasn’t it? Proof that Humanity can not only establish colonies across the Galaxy, but also protect them?”

Shepard stopped. “If you have something to say, just say it.”

“Let’s keep moving.” He took her by the arm and nudged her forward, leaning his head closer and speaking in a subdued voice. “Eden Prime might be in danger. They unearthed a Prothean artifact that appears to be functional. And with the frequency of the raids of Prothean sites and collections…”

“What frequency are we talking here?”

“A dozen raids in the last month? It started about a year and a half back. Not at this intensity, of course, but the scale of some of these operations got my attention quickly. Also, the subject matter,” he grinned sideways. “You could say I have a thing for Protheans.”

Shepard grunted some indeterminate response, trying to connect the dots. She’d heard about the shortage of Prothean artifacts on the black market; during the recent months it had become a subject of public speculation. But so far she never thought to put that in the context of a dozen fragile, barely settled human worlds in the Terminus and the Verge. All riddled with Prothean ruins. And the Alliance was stretched thin trying to protect them all even without the added angle of fucking treasure hunters.

“So you think Eden Prime might be the target of a raid?”

“I’m almost sure of it. I warned your people there to keep a lid on this thing, but word always gets around.”

Something about this didn’t sound right. Shepard stopped again and put a hand on his chest. “Now wait just a second. What’s the Council’s interest in this? Securing the artifact, or the colony?”

Nihlus held her gaze, though his mandibles were twitching in a way that suggested uneasiness or perhaps frustration. Or something else entirely, given the level of her ability to read turian expressions. “Securing the artifact is my top priority,” he said at last.

“I fucking knew it,” she snorted.

“This goes beyond mere human interests, Shepard. This discovery could affect every species in Council space.”

“Oh, come on. That’s not what I meant and you know it. See, there I was, thinking that the Council finally decided to show some balls, give us a warning, send a Spectre to help defend our colonies – but noooo. The fucking Spectre is here to play archeology.”

“The fucking Spectre is here to evaluate you, Shepard.”

She opened her mouth to continue the barrage of complaints and insults against the Council that she’d been growing in there for some years already, then suddenly stilled. “What? Didn’t you say…”

“Walk,” he said, tugging her forwards again. “You might be surprised to hear this, but I was impressed with you during that interview. That’s why I put your name forward as the candidate for the Spectres.”

“The Spectres?”

“Don’t act surprised. The Alliance has been pushing for this for a long time, and your name came up on every list they’ve sent us in more than five years. I need to see your skills for myself, though. Eden Prime will be the first of several missions together.”

Shepard stopped in her tracks, and this time, when he tried to move her, she didn’t budge, even though they were only a few meters short of reaching the destination. “Oh god,” was all she managed.

Nihlus looked at the time on his omni, but then dismissed it with what she decided to interpret as a what-the-hell kind of smile, and simply laid his armored hands on her shoulders, stooping a little so that he could look into her eyes.

“It’s okay, Shepard,” he said. “You’ll do fine.”

“Yeah,” she whispered, then cleared her throat. One surprise too many, and she wasn’t all that good at dealing with surprises; at least not the kind she couldn’t shoot dead or blow up. She was grateful for the weight of his arms, pinning her to the ground, for otherwise she’d fly off like a feather in the wind. “Yeah. Just tell me what I need to do.”

Nihlus tapped her shoulders. “That’s the spirit,” he said, and she thought, or perhaps just wished, that he looked… proud.

#

Six hours before the attack on Eden Prime.

Shepard puffed out a giant breath of relief when the door of the cabin finally closed behind her, giving her a moment of privacy she’d been longing for since setting foot on the Normandy early in the afternoon.

The cabin was nothing more than a windowless cubicle like all crew quarters: two-tier bunks to the left and right of the door, a water dispenser and a row of lockers on the far wall. The Normandy was a small, stealth frigate and space was scarce. What made this particular cabin special, was that it would house only two, whereas the others housed eight, in two shifts. Luxury accommodation for the XO and the honored guest. Yes. She was to share quarters with Nihlus.

She didn’t mind. God, she didn’t mind at all. There was so much she wanted to ask, so much she needed to learn. A Spectre! She would be a Spectre! It didn’t feel real. It felt like a really weird, drawn out dream that just wouldn’t end.

With a soft chuckle, she threw herself on the bunk she’d marked as hers by leaving her civvies there in a very unladylike pile; the coconut on the other one marked Nihlus’ territory. She drew a deep breath: it had been a long day. A procession of new names and faces marched behind her closed eyes. Anderson she knew from before. He’d seen her in action, which was why he wanted her as his first officer. She also knew dr Chakwas; they had served together for a short while aboard the Beijing. The others… Moreau, Adams, Pressly, Alenko – all new.

Was that supposed to be exciting? She could no longer remember. It used to be, when she was younger. Stepping on a new ship for the first time used to bring about the butterflies. Not anymore. She focused on the sounds, the multi-layered noise of a running battle ship, and discovered she’d already learned to filter them out pretty effectively. Very few things could bring about the butterflies in Shepard nowadays. A worthy opponent. A clean kill. A good snatch.

That reminded her. She tumbled over to the other side of the cot and rumbled through her discarded clothes until she dug out the scarf, and then wrapped it around her neck. Julia had enough pretty frocks anyway, and she would only miss it in that she wouldn’t be able to show it off in front of her new crew on the Kilimanjaro. Shepard, on the other hand, had plans for it. She smiled, absently sniffing the corner of the fabric. The scarf smelled of fine Armali incense that many asari shopkeepers liked to burn around their merchandise. Jo would love the scarf. It would look so perfect, under the heavy curls of her copper hair.

A glance at her omni: there was plenty of time before hitting the relay, and this was probably the last opportunity for loitering in a while to come, so she cleaned a portion of the cot and configured her omni to project the keyboard on the blanket. All right. Think happy thoughts, Shepard.

Dear Jo,

I know it’s only been a couple of days since my last message, but I just settled on the Normandy and I’m itching to tell you all about it.

It’s not bad at all, considering what I expected from a hybrid human-turian design. It’s so much smaller than the Trafalgar, though. I keep hitting things and stumbling across cables. Heh, you know me. But the people look decent so far. Had an informal chat with my marines and I think they like me.

She paused to consider the white lie. It was far too early to tell if she’d get along with the crew or not. The Normandy was new for everyone – which was helpful, but far from reassuring. Shepard had no illusions about her people skills: intimidating the shit out of them was the only one she excelled at. A useful trait in her line of work. Now if only she could turn it off while trying to make friends.

Happy thoughts, she reminded herself and continued typing.

We’ll see how it goes. Might turn out all the fuss was for nothing. See, it looks like I’ll become a Spectre. (Don’t ask me what it is; if you don’t know, go look it up.) I’m already registered as a ‘Spectre in training’ in the Council database, but I don’t really know what that means. I don’t think there will be any real training. Probably just special assignments with my ‘mentor’ (don’t know what that means either). But I’m not sure if I’ll keep my commission here or… I don’t know. So many questions! God, I hate being kept in the dark. I had no idea that the Alliance has been putting my name forward as a potential candidate.

But you’ll never believe who gave the final recommendation. Remember that whole panic about reopening the Torfan investigation two years ago? Remember I told you I talked to a turian Spectre about it? Well it was him. And he is going to be my mentor. Can you imagine? I nearly jumped out of my skin when I saw him. But he’s turning out to be… totally okay. More than okay. I think I like him. :)

A dusty memory of Jo’s efforts to befriend the little turian girl who’d lived next door suddenly surfaced to make Shepard smile. No amount of cuts and bruises could persuade the seven-year-old Jo that she was too frail to play war games with a turian child of nine or ten, and Mom’s desperation over washing off the war paint from her face thrice a week was a definite bonus to the fun of it. She had been devastated when the girl’s parents found better employment elsewhere and moved.

Shepard was sure Jo would adore Nihlus. And for some reason, she thought that Nihlus would like Jo as well.

There’s a lot of stuff about him on the extranet. You can try to look him up too: type, ‘Nihlus Kryik’ (watch the spelling; I typed Kyrik the first time and got flooded by pop-ups). I bet you’ll think he’s hot. And… well, he is. Oh god, I can’t believe I’m writing this.

Shit, here he comes! Will continue later… if I can… gotta run!

Love, Sis.

“Nice scarf,” said Nihlus as the door closed behind him. Shepard looked up with an innocent face just in time to see him taking off his gloves and throwing them on his bed. He went to the water dispenser and drank directly from the tap.

“Original,” Shepard said. “Hand-spun sun-silk, straight from Armali.”

“A gift?”

“From the crew of the Trafalgar.”

He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, narrowing his eyes at her and damn, there it was. The lie-detector thing. How the hell could he tell?

“Well, okay,” she added after what felt like a natural pause, blood rushing to her cheeks. “From a very specific crew-member of the Trafalgar.” Which was, in fact, sort of true.

“I see,” he smiled, then released her from the x-ray stare and sat heavily on the little bed. It gave out a sad creak. Nihlus bounced up and down, making it creak some more. “I can tell this was made by humans.”

“Maybe they didn’t think people would lie down in full armor.”

“Well, they were wrong.” He folded his legs under him and nestled with his back in the corner. Shepard watched him maneuver, more than a little curios: for such a large man, wearing such a heavy hard-suit, he seemed very flexible, and somehow he managed not to catch a single edge with his long fringe-blades. But when he finally settled, she had to chuckle at how uncomfortable and restricted he looked and he sighed in response.

“How was the first day?” he said.

“Good, I think.” Shepard measured the words that came to her mind next for a couple of seconds before deciding to deliver them. “I’m yet to hear a single ‘Butcher of Torfan’ whispered behind my back. That’s something, right?” She offered a strained smile, but this time, he didn’t smile back.

“From what I could see, the men like you well enough,” he said after a pause, then made another one before continuing. “No way to tell, really, before you take them out.”

“Can’t be worse from how they received me on the Trafalgar. That was one damn rocky start.”

“But it ended well, didn’t it?” And he gestured at the scarf, making her blush again for reasons that had nothing to do with his optimistic assumptions. If only he knew. In the three years of her service there, she had not a single conversation that could stand up to the friendliness of these relaxed exchanges with Nihlus, a complete stranger. He appeared to be one of those people whose charm you could simply not resist. Not that she’d known many such individuals. In truth, she’d known only one. Major Kyle had been like that, before he went crazy.

Don’t go there, Shepard. Happy thoughts, remember? She stretched her lips into another fake smile.

“Almost forgot,” Nihlus said after a while. “The crew is gathering for dinner or drinks, I don’t know. I’m dead, but you should go.”

Shepard rolled her eyes. “That an order?”

“Told you already. As long as you’re on Anderson’s ship, you…”

“… take his orders. I know. It was a joke.” She didn’t feel like going any more than he did, but she knew she had to and now she picked herself up with a sigh. “All right.”

“Wake me -”

A beep from his omni interrupted him and he opened the incoming message. Shepard was about to stand up, but then she froze as some profound emotion ghosted over his face, brightening up his eyes as if someone had turned on a light-bulb behind his carapace. For a second he looked… happy, as far as Shepard could tell. And then, no longer. He frowned and moved as if to start typing a reply, then gave her a glance, telling her in no uncertain terms that she was supposed to run along now.

But she hazarded a lopsided smile anyway. “Girlfriend?”

“Tell the crew I said hi,” he replied. “Bye bye, Shepard.”


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