Chapter 6 of Ghost in the Machine
Nihlus listened to Anderson’s speech with half an ear as the Normandy dived into the dawn on Eden Prime. He checked his suit, counting the seals under his fingers before he finally put the gloves on and sealed them as well. He took off the sniper rifle, extended the barrel, reassembled, put it back. Then the assault rifle, and finally his sidearm. His hands went through the motions. His mind was somewhere else.
He had a bad, bad, feeling about this mission. It had been growing in the back rooms of his mind like an unchecked infestation for quite some time now and once he opened the doors to acknowledge its presence, he was overwhelmed by its scale. By its malignancy. Too many things had happened just at the right time. Too many people he knew suddenly found themselves involved in this. Too many coincidences. And as Saren liked to say, coincidence is a coward’s word for conspiracy.
First there was that strange conversation he’d had with Councilor Sparatus. They only spoke only when absolutely necessary. The other two, they respected Nihlus’ ability, his dedication. But Sparatus was a son of the Hierarchy from fringe to toe and he couldn’t bear having a Spectre with his own colors crawl out from under some Spirit-forsaken pirate-infested rock. Oh yes. Even after a decade of exemplary service, there were still people, both turian and alien, who assumed that Nihlus had risen through the tiers as quickly as he did because he was Sparatus’ relative. The perceived kinship was an insult to them both, but unlike Sparatus, Nihlus had never been one to take that kind of thing too seriously. He never made light of it either – in part out of his sense of duty, but mostly out of consideration for Saren, who counted Sparatus among his very few friends. So when Sparatus declared that he had words to share, Nihlus received them with due attention.
The words had been, “If you know what’s good for you, you’ll distance yourself from the humans.”
A day later, Nihlus had received orders to pick Shepard up from Earth and begin her evaluation for the Spectres. In theory, he could have refused. It wasn’t the usual order of things, but he had enough experience under his belt to pull it off. Of course he remembered the advice; only in the meantime, he’d started suspecting it was actually a thinly disguised threat. And Nihlus didn’t like being threatened. Threats triggered his spite. He’d never sent a more enthusiastic ‘mission statement processed’ reply in his entire career.
Then there was that odd warning issued by the C-Sec. It had been addressed to the Alliance HQ on the Citadel, and if Nihlus hadn’t been subscribed to their top-level message queue – by the grace of the former ambassador, Anita Goyle – it would have gone unnoticed. But Nihlus knew the name behind it. Garrus Vakarian. To say that Nihlus knew the man behind the name as well would be a bit far fetched, but unless Garrus had developed some severe psychological issues during the years since his nearly successful attempt to become a Spectre, he wasn’t the type to make things up. The warning had been worded in such a non-committal way that it left more room for interpretation than a fortune cookie. Still, the very fact that it contained the keyword “Eden Prime” just as Nihlus had been setting out was more than enough to make him pay attention.
Next came Saren’s… demand for a meeting. Calling it an invitation just didn’t seem to cut it. Nihlus could count on his fingers the occasions when Saren used such strong words, such a dramatic tone in any form of communication, and they had been friends for more than ten years now. But it was more than the tone. Asking Nihlus to make his mission ‘wait’ was far out of character. It made him turn in his squeaky bed during the whole flight, fighting the anxiety and dark premonitions. What if Saren was in trouble? What if he needed help and couldn’t bring himself to ask for it directly? Now that, that would be very much in character. Spirits. If it had been any other mission, anything other than a functional Prothean beacon, Nihlus would have done it. He would have made it wait. But this was too damn important.
And apparently he wasn’t the only one to think so. The image of the bizarre vessel that had attacked Eden Prime less than an hour prior to their arrival flashed before his eyes, making him shiver in the howling draft as the drawbridge of the cargo bay lowered. How about that coincidence, eh? It was almost as if… as if whoever was behind the attack, and presumably, behind the other raids as well, had access to Nihlus’ intel. The discovery on Eden Prime had been kept classified. As much as was humanly possible.
Ha. In any other circumstance, he’d have smirked at how Saren-like that sounded in his head. But now he had another idea, one that smothered his humor with cruel efficiency. Suppose the enemy did have access to his intel. Then they also knew about the Normandy. About her stealth systems, and more than likely, about her presence, right here, right now. He shuddered again.
“Nihlus, you’re coming with us?” someone said, interrupting his train of thoughts. He turned to the young human. Jenkins, if he recalled correctly. Behind him, Shepard rolled her eyes. All the patience of an enraged thresher maw; her own words, and Nihlus smiled at the memory. She hadn’t slept during the flight either. Nervous about commanding a new unit, she’d said. He could relate, though his concerns were of a far more frightening nature.
Frightening? He supposed it was, all of this. A forgotten feeling, creeping under his fringe like a pair of cold, dead fingers. He was afraid. And with this realization, the threads suddenly coalesced and the ‘bad feeling’ took definite shape, screaming at him in the violent wind raving from the open door. Stay the fuck away, Kryik.
Shit. Too late for that.
“I move faster on my own,” Nihlus replied to the young soldier. He gave Anderson a firm nod, then ran down the drawbridge.
About fifteen minutes later, he crouched behind a large rock, trying to get his breathing under control. The air was dark and heavy with smoke and smoldering ashes, whirling in the breeze like black snow. His heart pounded, his eyes stung and his throat burned. And so did the low, tumultuous clouds, painted red by the fires and the carnage below. There was a foul humming carried by the wind. Nihlus couldn’t tell where it was coming from, and but for the disconcerting way it was resonating with his vocal cavity, he’d have ascribed it to the foreboding that hadn’t left him for a second, not even during the gunfight.
A glance at the heat indicator on the barrel of his assault rifle: in the red. He couldn’t remember when he’d last been so rattled as to keep shooting until his weapon overheated, but the occasion was deserving enough.
The geth. The geth had attacked Eden Prime.
It should have been a mind-numbing realization, but it wasn’t. For one, “the geth” had been the other alarming keyword in the warning from Garrus Vakarian. But even without it, there had been rumors, hints and whispers of geth activity, scattered over the span of two years and a handful of systems outside the borders of Citadel Space, all properly investigated to reveal nothing substantial. And the attitude of the Council hadn’t been helpful. After all, “nobody has seen the geth on this side of the Veil for two hundred years.”
Oh yeah? Well now I have.
The geth were real, they were there, and by the looks of it, they had destroyed the settlement surrounding the dig site with the same meticulous thoroughness that had been the hallmark of all the previous raids. Spirits! What if it had been them from the start? Their presence here could not have been a coincidence. Oh no, there had been too much of that already. They had come for the beacon, there was no way around it. But what possible reason would the geth have to collect Prothean artifacts?
Nihlus used to have many theories about the raids, all gone up in smoke now. A multi-trillionaire with a good taste and both the mindset and the resources to appropriate the entire Prothean black market, such as Donovan Hock or Solem Del’Serah. A religious organization lead by fanatics and funded by political factions, such as the Order of Word and Light or recently, the Valluvian Knights. And of course, Cerberus was the stock suspect in all things murky and expensive. But the geth were certainly not in it for credits or enlightenment. So what then? Technology?
Lesson number seven, Kryik, Saren’s voice echoed from deep within the well of memory, driving shivers under his plates. Always assume the worst and learn to enjoy disappointment. Nihlus nodded. Yeah. Mass relay technology. With ships like that surreal monstrosity and the ability to build their own relays…
Whatever their reasons, they had to be stopped.
His combat scanner was jammed, but he could hear the geth doing something, dead ahead. He propped up to look over his cover and faced a phantasmagoric scene. Several prefabs in various degrees of ruin stood in the wide clearing, well lit by fires. A dozen or so human bodies were strewn about in an almost casual fashion, and the ground beneath them was black with blood. And then there was the pair of geth… caressing a dying human in their arms, and communicating in a language he imagined an engine would use to talk to an antenna, clicking and clacking and popping and sparking. What the fuck were they doing?
Nihlus was all but ready to open fire when a sharp, metallic sound pierced his ears, reverberating off the sides of the ravine. The human body – dead now, or so he hoped – became impaled on top of a tall spike that shot out of the ground. Nihlus winced, stepped on a loose rock, and the geth heard him. Shit. Shit shit shit.
The exchange of fire was brief but intense and by the time it was over, his rifle was blinking warnings at him again. Shit, he concluded, then tapped his ear-piece. “I’ve got some burned out buildings here, Shepard. A lot of bodies. I’m gonna check it out. I’ll try to catch up with you at the dig site.”
The reply came with a delay, and was barely distinguishable over the sounds of a hail of fire. “Don’t count on us! We lost Jenkins and we’re pinned! Fuck, Nihlus! What the hell is going on?”
Damn. Nihlus shook his head as the fresh memory of a young human face and its enthusiastic smile lit up briefly in his mind’s eye. “I don’t know,” he said, and it was the naked truth. “I have to find the beacon. You’re on your own.”
He switched off the radio and ran for the next convenient cover, the soft, moist ground absorbing the sound of his footsteps. Despite the urgency, he was drawn to the spiked human by morbid curiosity. The body was hanging a meter or so above his head and something was eating it from within. Its pale flesh had become translucent and there were tubes and wires under the skin, interwoven with dried-out tissue. Tiny blue lights pulsed inside the neck and armpits in winding lines and clusters. What in the world…?
As Nihlus stared, transfixed, the cadaver suddenly jerked. He jumped away, aiming his rifle at the thing. It wasn’t alive, it couldn’t be alive! The ground under the spike was a grisly shade of maroon; not even a krogan could have survived being shot, speared and bled like that. But it did move. It turned to look at him with gooey, discolored eyes, shining a luminous blue as if from some deeply nested implants. Then the spike collapsed into itself with a faint buzz and the creature rolled over, uttering a deathly groan. It raised itself on all fours and started crawling towards him, dead hands and dead knees leaving deep imprints in the bloody mud with a sordid sloshing sound.
“Stay back,” Nihlus warned, stepping backward, and the undertones of his own voice terrified him even further, for they were filled with panic and a disgust so primal it bordered on superstitious. This thing, this husk that was once human, offended all his senses, insulted his deepest instincts. It was dead, and it wasn’t supposed to be moving. It wasn’t supposed to be looking at him, with those empty, mindless, eyes. And it certainly wasn’t supposed to lurch at him!
The creature leaped forward with frightening agility. Nihlus shot it without thinking. He shot it and kept shooting until it slouched on the ground in a pool of fluorescent green liquid that had nothing, nothing, in common with the crimson of human blood.
“Fucking hell,” he muttered, a bit breathless with fear. He kept his gun trained on the corpse. Nothing he’d ever heard about the geth covered this particular brand of insane. He kicked the thing, half expecting to see it rise again like a “zombie” out of human horror vids from pre-contact times. It didn’t.
He tapped the comm again. “Shepard. Stay clear of the spikes. They’re…”
“I know,” said her voice, now calm and black with hate. “Someone’s gonna pay for this, I swear.”
“Yeah,” he breathed. No mistake about that. “Yeah. What’s your situation?”
“Checking the camp for survivors. I’ll try to… Shit! Here we go again!”
The comm went dead. He heard single shots, followed by entire barrages somewhere ahead. Human weapons, geth weapons. At least Shepard wasn’t fighting the fucking undead. He shuddered, then hurried up a narrow, beaten path.
As he reached the top, a new wave of smoke and ashes swept over him, blinding and choking him. He fell flat behind a low wall, coughed and blinked, then stilled, feeling the sickening vibration through the ground before it became audible, making him look up. Nothing he’d ever heard about the geth covered their apparent ability to build city-sized ships either. The grotesque vessel was climbing through the atmosphere on fat pillars of fire and smoke, and reddish power discharges blazing between its insect-like legs illuminated the low-hanging sky like lightning. Nihlus had never seen a ship so big enter the atmosphere, much less leave it. He watched its ascent, unable to tear his eyes away, until the dark clouds hid it and the red flashes were all that remained. The strange, omnipresent humming disappeared with it. Nihlus had already grown used to it, and he only remembered it on account of its sudden absence.
He shook off the fascination. Get a grip, Kryik. The sounds of gunfighting had died in the distance. And down below, there was a cargo platform on fire. A long, narrow AS-A7 freighter that had been parked along was nearly cut in half by some heavy weapon, and black smoke was roiling from the hole, carrying a sharp scent reminiscent of labs and chemistry, burnt rubber and molten plastics. No sign of the geth.
His ear-piece cackled. “Nihlus? We’re at the dig site, and the artifact is missing.”
Nihlus cursed. If the geth had taken the beacon, it was probably out of their reach by now, loaded on that giant ship. The Normandy wouldn’t stand a chance against the behemoth – even if they had a way to track it in FTL. Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck!
“Um… that didn’t translate but I think I get your point,” Shepard said. “But wait… Got a member of the security detail here and she says that maybe it was moved by the research team to facilitate extraction.”
“Change of plan, Shepard,” he replied, glancing at the platform with newfound hope. “There’s a small spaceport up ahead. I wanna check it out. I’ll wait for you there.”
Nihlus sprinted a short way, then bolted behind a large, sturdy crate when he spied motion on the platform. He peeked around the corner and gasped. It couldn’t be. It was his mind playing tricks on him. He blinked, once, twice, swallowed, then span out of cover and aimed his rifle at what he felt sure had to be an illusion. For there on the cargo platform, stood none other but Saren, pacing with his back to Nihlus as if he hadn’t heard him approaching – or perhaps pretending that he didn’t care. As Nihlus stepped closer, slowly lowering his weapon, Saren kicked a pile of burning rubble and a gust of wind picked up the embers like autumn leaves.
Saren turned, and Nihlus put his rifle all the way down, clenching it tight to hide the quiver that ran through his entire body. The bad feeling, the bad feeling was upon him like a physical presence, whispering strange heresies on the morning breeze.
“Nihlus,” Saren said.
The dark voice resonated with something deep inside him in a way that could not be replicated by any dream or hallucination and if there had been any lingering doubts, this one word was more than enough to blow them away. Nihlus holstered his weapon and sighed with relief.
“This isn’t your mission, Saren. What are you doing here?”
Saren covered the distance between them in three deliberate steps and laid his right hand on Nihlus’ right shoulder even though it would have been more natural to use his left. It was a dance Nihlus knew all too well. No matter how many times he assured Saren that he had no issues whatsoever with his prosthetics, apparently Saren had, even in a situation such as this. In fact, it seemed that Saren had more issues with it than the last time they’d met: he used to carry two pistols, and now he only wore the one for the right hand. Maybe the prosthetic arm wasn’t fully functional. Maybe it hurt. It wasn’t something Saren would ever complain about.
“The Council thought you could use some help with this one,” he said in a strange tone, looking at Nihlus in a strange way. He was tired, that much Nihlus could gather effortlessly from his silver features. Tired, and tense, and… lying? There was a nervous edge in the way his grip tightened on Nihlus’ shoulder before he let go and resumed his pacing.
What he said made perfect sense, though. Saren had been on the Citadel at the time the distress call was sent from Eden Prime. Yes. It was possible. The matter was certainly serious enough for the Council to deploy their top two agents. But Saren had all but retired from active duty; perhaps that was the lie? Perhaps he’d come on his own accord? That was possible as well. Saren had always been disturbingly well informed about the doings of other Spectres. Well, at least about the doings of this one Spectre.
Not that it mattered. His presence would make the fighting a lot easier, but it didn’t lessen the gravity of the circumstances. Nihlus glanced about, half expecting some new unpleasant surprise – as if it hadn’t been enough of that already.
“I wasn’t expecting to find the geth here,” he said, turning to see if he could catch a glimpse of Shepard. The dig site was just down that hill and she was to arrive any moment now. “The situation is bad.”
“Don’t worry,” Saren replied. “I’ve got it under control.”
Nihlus smiled; these were exactly the words he wanted to hear. The bad feeling dissipated into nothingness just like the cloud cover that was now giving way to a clear, serene dawn. For the first time in ages, he actually felt calm and safe, despite the undeniable, acute danger inherent to any combat situation, let alone one so unpredictable. No matter how many years passed or how many decorations the Council chose to pin to his chest, Saren was still his senior, his teacher, his superior, and if he said everything would be all right, than by the Spirits, everything would be all right. Nihlus turned, perhaps even to say something to the effect, and froze.
Saren was aiming a gun square at his head. He opened his mouth to ask what the fuck, but he wasn’t quick enough. The gun blazed, deafened him. A hot streak on his cheek. Pain and confusion. What the fuck? Nihlus stared in the eyes he knew better than his own, looking for an explanation, and found nothing but raw horror staring back at him. But Nihlus wasn’t angry. He wanted to say so. To comfort the man who had just shot him. He was just…
Grazed. He lifted a hand to his face and felt the burn. It hurt like a bitch but it was no more than a scratch. Nihlus turned again, following the direction of the barrel, and saw a geth collapse and roll behind a cliff overlooking the path to the dig site.
“Uh…” Nihlus muttered, dazed.
“You’re welcome,” Saren said somewhere behind his back but there was no time talk about it, for suddenly there were rounds flying everywhere and he had to take cover, behind the same crate he’d used before. He returned fire, and heard Saren’s pistol drumming its deadly beat. The enemies were coming in increasing numbers, taking advantageous, elevated positions, and he was just about to comment on being as ridiculously outnumbered as ever when the characteristic barrage of Hahne-Kedar assault rifles echoed from up ahead.
Shepard had finally made it, and now they had the geth caught in crossfire between them. The machines had good cover; but they had biotics. Nihlus could trace the wave of dark energy as it rippled from Shepard’s position, finally collapsing the rock around the enemy in a cloud of dust with a deep, satisfying rumble. So the Normandy’s designated biotic, Alenko, was someone to be reckoned with. Nihlus turned to say so to Saren, hoping that the compliment might mitigate his distaste for working alongside humans. But the words died out before leaving his lips.
There was no one on the platform but him and the body of a human dock worker, a bullet hole right between his eyes. He couldn’t remember seeing it before, but he had been a bit distracted.
He looked around and called out. Waited. No reply.
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