Gates of Hell

Chapter 22 of Ghost in the Machine

Two hours before the attack on Therum.

The atmosphere in the mess hall wasn’t going to improve Shepard’s mood, that was damn sure. She wasn’t hungry, either, but she was obliged to attend because there was no telling what would happen otherwise. Following Alenko’s advice, she had ordered all the officers to sit at the same table with all the aliens who had suddenly made themselves at home on the Normandy, but she was no longer sure it had been such a brilliant idea. The several meals they had all taken together during the two days of flight from the Citadel had been a study of intercultural screw-ups on so many levels that it was difficult to keep count even without the added angle of being constrained to a seat that granted a direct line of sight into Wrex’s mouth. He was sitting at the head of the ‘alien’ side of the table, to Shepard’s far right, and when he noticed human stares, he belched so loudly that the plates shook. Then he started picking his teeth with the three-inch talon of his index finger.

On the other end, to Shepard’s far left, Pressly’s face was continuously morphing through expressions of discomfort, distrust and disgust. Williams was sitting next to him, occasionally whispering something to his ear, and he was nodding, keeping his gaze firmly locked on one alien or another as if expecting them to erupt into a murderous rampage any moment. That Anderson had chosen to assign Williams to the Normandy for keeps was a surprise Shepard was yet to recover from. Not that she minded; Williams was an experienced Marine and would definitely do better than a replacement, but the situation was tense enough even without another outspoken xenophobe on the ship.

Tali and the turians kept together by necessity of eating the same kind of food, and complaining about it. Not out loud, of course – one thing everybody seemed to agree on was that exchanging suspicious, hand-covered whispers was the most appropriate form of communication at the table. But Shepard could see well enough how Tali was pushing the unidentifiable morsels around her plate, and the faces Vakarian was making upon swallowing his own transcended the inter-species barriers just fine. Nihlus would glance at Shepard every now and then, wrinkling his segmented nose, and she’d respond by stubbornly staring back. Really, Nihlus? Why didn’t you think to bring groceries when you invited all your friends over? If not for Alenko’s last-minute reaction before leaving the Citadel, there would have been nothing but nutri-paste.

Alenko. She took the opportunity to study him while he was busy eating with the ravenous appetite of a healthy biotic. Most of the time he appeared to be as discontented as everyone else, but she could only guess at his reasons. He didn’t have a problem with the aliens; on the contrary, he was among the few humans on board who could talk to their guests without making a fool of themselves. No, it looked like he had a problem with her.

Perhaps it was her unorthodox style of command? But the Normandy hadn’t spent enough time under Anderson for anyone to be inconvenienced by the change of pace. Perhaps it was her casual behavior. Alenko seemed to revel in military formalism and indeed, never missed a chance to call her sir. Whatever it was, though, it was confined to his calculating stare and occasional fleeting frowns; Shepard had no doubt she could rely on him, and seated as they were, one across the other in the middle of the table, it was like they were standing guard together, keeping the embers from bursting into flames. Keeping things professional.

Williams cleared her throat. “So. Who’s going planetside?”

What little chatter there was in the rest of the mess hall died out and the tension between the segregated sides spiked. The Mako could only take four, and one seat was reserved for the asari.

“Nihlus, Wrex, and me,” Shepard said, putting her spoon down next to a barely-touched bowl of beans. The decision had been Nihlus’ to make: they had agreed beforehand that he’d be in charge of the ground team, but wouldn’t interfere with the chain of command on the Normandy. Good thing he hadn’t tried to make Shepard stay behind though; that would have ended poorly, because she was in no mood to play games. She had kept her fingers crossed for Garrus as the third, mostly out of curiosity. Of all the aliens, he was the most quiet and reserved. Moreover, it looked like the two turians were ill at ease around each other, which made little sense, given how easy-going and friendly Nihlus was with everyone else. So when he’d chosen Wrex, she’d been a bit disappointed, but certainly not surprised: the three of them made a well-balanced team.

“You sure you can’t squeeze another human in, Skipper?”

“If you need some squeezing, just say the word,” Wrex replied and chuckled at his own wit. Nihlus’ mandibles flared briefly, and Williams made an outraged face, but Tali spoke before the exchange could continue:

“We’re not expecting any trouble.” She turned from Shepard to Nihlus. “Are we?”

“I’m always expecting trouble,” Nihlus said.

Pressly rolled his eyes and snorted, getting up. “If I may be excused?”

Shepard gave him an absent nod. The whole thing was shaping into one hell of a ride.

#

An unfortunate metaphor, she realized while struggling with the impossible controls of the Mako, an hour after going planetside. Almost as soon as they went out and started sweating in the tropical heat that was barely tolerable even within the arcologies, Joker reported spotting a geth dropship lifting off the surface, and a panicked colony official hit the emergency channel to tell them that they had received a distress call from one of the EAE mining outposts near the urban area. And not just any outpost: it was the one where the asari archaeologist and her team were holed up, looking for Prothean ruins. Figures, they all agreed. The Normandy made quick work of the geth ship, then went into stealth mode in case others appeared, while the ground team started the torturous ride to the site.

It was fortunate that neither of her companions was in the mood to comment on her suicidal driving. Complaining was probably below a krogan battle-master, and Nihlus was quiet and distant again. Fearing or hoping that they would find Saren? Shepard wished she could tell. She wished she knew him better because among all these strange new people who had unexpectedly become her team, Nihlus was the one she cared for the most yet, sadly, trusted the least.

She glanced at the combat scanner. “We’re almost there,” she announced.

“Finally,” Wrex mumbled from behind, and Nihlus sat up as straight as the straps allowed, balancing the helmet on his knees.

He turned on his omni. “If I were in their place, I’d set up turrets there,” he said and pointed at a narrow passage between two steep rock formations. They would have to go through it.

“You’ll have to do the shooting,” she said. “My hands are full.”

“Yeah. Good thing there was nothing for lunch.”

“Whiny son of a-”

Something hit them and Shepard jumped, making the Mako swerve left and nearly into a rock. “Fuck!” she yelled, regaining control. “Shields?”

“Sixty percent,” Nihlus said. “Drive straight, damn you, or I’ll miss the whole fucking mountain.”

“Next time, you’ll drive and I’ll shoot.”

“The way we started, there won’t be a next time,” said Wrex, and laughed.

The cabin shook, but in a good way, when Nihlus fired the main cannon. “One down,” he said, and Shepard envied his calm. Just like on Eden Prime: she was drowning in adrenaline, and he sounded like he was going to a goddamn picnic.

On her right, the combat scanner was showing another turret, and Nihlus took it out with the second shot, but not before it landed another hit on them. “Twenty percent,” he said before she could ask. At least this time she didn’t allow herself to be surprised and kept the Mako on track.

They emerged into a huge, roughly circular basin with unnaturally smooth, steep sides. Like a fucking pot, she thought, or maybe even said out loud. An enormous tunneling machine, at least ten stories high, was parked on the far end like some slumbering titan. There was a small prefab-settlement around what looked like a mining shaft half way there.

The geth were grouped near the shaft. Their small-caliber weapons were no threat to the thick hull of the Mako and Nihlus downed most of them in one sweep with the machine gun. Shepard drove as close to the entrance as she could; the prospect of staying out in the heat was disheartening, to say the least.

“Gear up,” Nihlus said, and they all put on the helmets and sealed suits before jumping out into the misty reddish air.

“Doesn’t look good,” said Shepard through the intercom, looking around. The prefabs were burning, and there were at least two dozen impaled bodies, grouped in several clusters interconnected with fat cables curling and knotting over the blood-stained ground like snakes.

“What the hell is that?” said Wrex, his voice even raspier and deeper in her earpiece than in person. Good question, she thought grimly, suppressing a nervous shiver. ‘Dragon teeth’, the men had named them, for who knows what reason. She imagined a winged mechanical monster, spewing fire and lashing its long, segmented tail. A demon that would fit this place all too perfectly.

“The geth inject the bodies with something,” Nihlus started to explain as they fanned out to look for survivors. Not that Shepard had much hope. It looked about the same as the dig on Eden Prime: deserted, dead, defiled. “I’m guessing, some nano-probes that multiply and grow various cybernetic replacements and enhancements…”

His voice faded away, and Shepard shook her head in the privacy of her helmet. She’d done some digging of her own. On Saren, among other things. He had so many cybernetic grafts that he could barely be called turian anymore, and some of them looked eerily similar to the things eating the corpses from within. Poor people, Shepard thought, and tried to swallow back a tide of anger and hatred. She was better than that. Better than Anderson. She had to be. But right now, the only thing she could focus on was stringing a prayer together from heated promises of retaliation. Protheans and Reapers and visions aside: for this, for these people, her people, dammit – for this she would have Saren’s head, and if it meant taking Nihlus down with him, then that was what she was going to do, so help her God.

“No survivors on my scanner,” Nihlus announced. “We should burn this place before we go in. I don’t want nasty surprises waiting for us on the way back.”

They ended up rigging the entire settlement. And as the flames licked up the prefabs, blazing and dancing in the dry desert winds, Shepard thought that this pot-like basin with its walls of red rock was the closest thing to the pits of hell she was likely to see with living eyes.


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