Chapter 16 of Ghost in the Machine

Shepard squinted in the dim light of the nightclub. It smelled like a distillery and there were nearly naked asari pole-dancing and lap-dancing everywhere. Small round tables riddled with bottles and glasses and rubbish surrounded the bar and the stage. There were all sorts of customers: turian, human, salarian, volus. The music was unpalatable, probably drell or something even more exotic, but there was a rhythm to it and the dancers hardly needed anything else. Out of the corner of her eye, Shepard caught a man sniffing something from the back of his hand. It certainly didn’t look like C-Sec maintained a presence here.

“Let’s find our guy,” she said and stepped further inside. The air was thick with cigarette smoke and other, unidentifiable scents. Shepard’s stare lingered on a lonely turian at the table to the far right, but it wasn’t Garrus Vakarian. She scanned the rest of the patrons with waning hope. A glance at her omni told her it was almost seven now. They had missed them.

“He’s not here, Commander,” Williams said. “Neither of them.”

“Maybe they’re in the back?” said Alenko. And indeed, there was a dark passage leading off to the back of the club. But just as Shepard started to say, “Let’s check it out,” shouts and sounds of havoc rang out from that direction and all hell broke loose.

In a matter of milliseconds, the entire club was on its feet: people running for the exit, drawing weapons, hiding under tables that were much too small to give any cover. Shepard dropped onto one knee, readied her rifle, noting that her men had taken cover near the door, then rolled forward and sat pressing her back against the bar, mind and body going into the familiar, wide-eyed overdrive. Even from here she could see the blue trails of hyperaccelerated rounds flying across the room. Screams of panicked dancers came from above – someone had been shot. Shepard cursed. What the fuck was going on?

“Shepard, come in,” boomed Nihlus’ voice into her earpiece just as a bullet slammed into the bar, somewhere above her head. “Come in, damn you!”

“What?” she barked back, ducking lower. Where the fuck were they shooting from? And why were they shooting at her?

“Oh shit. Shit shit shit. I’m in Chora’s Den and…”

“So am I!”

Ah-ha! There he was, a motherfucking batarian, crouching behind an overturned table. Three, two, one, and he got up to fire at her, earning himself a hole under the chin.

“Nice shot,” said Alenko, already running to take the position the batarian had vacated. He lit up in rippling, sparkling blues, and directed a wave of dark energy along the wall, picking up litter and chairs and probably people too. “This side is clear!”

Shepard grinned. Weird or not, he was a damn good soldier and she was glad to have him on her squad.

“Shepard, listen,” Nihlus spoke, but they just couldn’t leave him alone and when he fired from his beautiful prototype pistol that looked like an Armax Brawler but sounded more like a Kassa Razer and packed custom-built upgrades that made her mouth water – she heard the shots both from the earpiece and the passage to the back of the club. A gurgling groan ended a short silence and then the shooting resumed, some of it over her head. She looked about for better cover to her left but there was nothing there but tables. Facing her was a huge potted plant, and now Williams popped out from behind it and fired. There was a meaty thud somewhere on the dancing stage.


“Yeah! We’re pinned! Listen, Shepard. I need you to get out of there, do you copy?”

Her omni gave a soft buzz as it received a tactical update. “Got it.”

“You have to hurry. There will be a quarian there to make an exchange with some people – don’t let her! And more importantly – don’t let her die!”

“Understood,” she said, just as a burst of rounds took out her shields. Williams laid down fire above the bar and Shepard ran for the door with Alenko behind her. Pressed against the side of the entrance from the outside, he launched another biotic strike, so that Williams could roll out and join them.

“What the hell was that all about?”

“Fuck me if I know,” Shepard gritted. “We have our orders. Come on!”

There was no other way to reach the elevators but to run along the open gallery, like fucking pop-up silhouettes in target practice, but it seemed like Nihlus was keeping everybody in the club busy. After exchanging a quick glance, they simply sprinted for it. Shepard hit her omni the second they made the corner, and sure enough, Nihlus had pinned the place on her map. It was just through the service tunnel on the left, but the door was locked.

“I hate this shit,” she said, setting up a quick override. Which failed.

“For Christ’s sake,” said Williams. “Just slap some omnigel on it.”

But then Alenko tugged Shepard aside. “I’ve got this, Commander.”

Williams opened her mouth to comment, but the seal started flickering as soon as Alenko’s omni flashed to life, and the door opened after no more than five seconds. Shepard signaled them to take positions on the sides and cover her as she stepped into the murky air inside, aiming at the shadowy corners. Of course it had to be dark and smelly in there, with garbage containers lining the walls and something that looked like a family of space-rats scurrying away at their approach. The only source of light was a broken, blinking holo-panel on the left. At least there was plenty of cover and they moved forward quickly, until Shepard heard voices in front and signaled her men to duck while she sneaked closer.

Two figures were standing at the bottom of a flight of stairs, leading out to the Wards.

“Did you bring it?” said the turian.

“Where’s the Shadow Broker? Where’s Fist?” asked the smaller figure, and although Shepard couldn’t see clearly, she could tell it was the quarian from the sound of her filtered voice.

“They’ll be here. Where’s the evidence?”

“No way,” the quarian said, slapping the hand that had started towards her hip. “The deal is off.”

The turian stepped back, and Shepard took aim. Two more figures came out of the shadows and, while their intentions might have been entirely honorable, neither Shepard nor the quarian seemed willing to risk it; the quarian started to run, and Shepard shot the turian, with Alenko and Williams taking out the other two in a burst of sound and smoke so quick that it was over before the broken holo had flashed twice.

The quarian had fallen down and just as Shepard approached to give her a hand, the door at the top of the stairs opened. Nihlus came in, with Vakarian and a krogan of imposing appearance following close behind.

“What is this?” the quarian said. “Who are you people?”

“You’re safe now,” said Vakarian. “Remember me?”

“Yes. Yes I do.”

He crossed his arms over his chest, looking down on the quarian accusingly. Shepard holstered her weapon and took a step closer with a disapproving frown. Nihlus caught her stare but deflected it with a flick of the mandible that she couldn’t read, and turned to inspect the nearest body.

“This is all my fault,” the quarian said in a shaky voice. She looked about ready to faint. “I shouldn’t have left that day. It was a mistake, a horrible mistake, and I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

Vakarian was nodding, but he didn’t speak.

“What’s going on?” Shepard said finally. “Nihlus? Talk to me.”

But instead, Nihlus spoke to the quarian. “What’s your name?”

“What’s it to you?”

“I’m a Spectre. Speak.”

But she didn’t. Not right away. She looked at Vakarian, and only proceeded to answer when he gave her a nod. “My name is Tali Zorah nar Raya. Fist set me up. His men tried to kill me. Twice. I knew I couldn’t trust him.”

“Did you?” Vakarian said.

“I’m sorry. It was stupid of me, I know that now. And I almost paid for it with my life.”

“And not just you.”

At that, the quarian let her head hang low.

“These are Fist’s people alright,” the krogan said. He’d been turning over the corpses and taking their helmets off.

“Who’s Fist?” said Shepard.

“An agent of the Shadow Broker,” Nihlus replied, earning a strange glance from Vakarian. Shepard narrowed her eyes at them. There was some communication going on there that she wasn’t in on, and she didn’t like it.

“We took care of him,” Vakarian added after a few moments of tense silence, addressing the quarian. “You’re safe.”

“Thank you. You saved my life. I…”

“Yeah,” Vakarian cut in. “Do you still have that audio clip with you?”

“I do.”

“What clip?” Shepard said. “Nihlus! Talk to me, damn it!”

“Tali has evidence that implicates Saren in the attack on Eden Prime,” Vakarian explained, after it became obvious that Nihlus wouldn’t.

A gasp from WIlliams, followed by a nearly whispered “Fuck,” from Alenko, expressed Shepard’s surprise far better than she could and she frowned deeper, calculating. That was one hell of a U-turn and if it was true… then Anderson had been right all along and…

“She brought it to me before the attack on Eden Prime but…” Vakarian peered towards the quarian, as if measuring what to say next. “But I was instructed to ignore it, so she tried to sell it to Fist,” he said at last. Shepard thought she could see the quarian exhale with relief. Oh yes, there was a lot of communication going on there that she wasn’t in on. Her gaze darted to Nihlus, but his eyes were hidden under his hand, massaging his forehead.

“We shouldn’t talk about this here,” he muttered. He looked even worse than before.

“Let’s take her to the embassy,” said Williams. “The Ambassador and Captain Anderson should hear this.”

“Not before I hear it,” said Nihlus, and there was a tone of finality in his voice that made the complaint Shepard was planning to voice die on her lips. “I know a safe place. Let’s go.”

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