Chapter 23 of Ghost in the Machine
Daylight, reddened by the pyre, faded quickly as they descended into the mine. Nihlus kept a wary eye on Shepard. She was pulled taut. He could see it in the way she jumped at every sound, hear it in her dry voice and her clipped, monosyllabic responses. If it were anyone else, he’d write it off as edginess before a fight. But he had seen her prepare for deployment on Eden Prime. Shepard was the type to feel the pressure after a mission, not before.
Nihlus was the type too. Countless runs just like this one flashed before his mind’s eye in an instant. Some were relevant. Like when his platoon had been sent to rescue an engineering team babysitting seven fucking tons of freshly refined eezo from an orbital mining station that had had a close encounter with an asteroid. Most of the survivors had been evacuated immediately after the accident, but the unfortunate engineers had been ordered to part with their treasure no sooner than with their lives. Nihlus remembered pitch black corridors and petrified corpses floating in airless zero-g, and how running in mag-boots had been no fun at all. Near the end they had witnessed entire sections breaking off. Rooms and hallways torn in two, naked fuselage bending and twisting in that creepy, unnatural silence of hard vacuum, with all the mundane artifacts of day-to-day life flying out to be consumed by the vastness of space like flocks of startled birds disappearing into the night sky.
That had been one of his first deployments. He had been wet behind the crest but he’d kept his cool even when some of the veterans started to sweat. Lieutenant Neis had wanted to promote him for going back to fetch a pair of lost crewmen after they had been ordered to retreat, but the Captain had been one of those ‘good turians’ who didn’t appreciate cocky young upstarts with tempers and accents climbing through the ranks. And that had done what the disintegrating station, falling apart under his feet, hadn’t managed to do: it had made Nihlus edgy.
He was sure there was something personal in it for Shepard.
Just like there was something personal in it for him.
Sudden anxiety gripped him by the throat and he swallowed. Oh yes. He too jumped at every sound, but – Spirits forgive him – it had nothing to do with the dead humans outside, or even the frightening notion that a second attack on a human colony could mean a full-out war with the geth.
He had tried imagining what it would be like to meet Saren again, now that the cards had been laid down. What he would say, what he would be told in reply.
How long have you been lying to me?
Yes, that would be a sensible thing to ask. Only Nihlus wasn’t sure he wanted to know the answer. There was a part of him, a small, secret part of him that still didn’t believe this was happening, even now, on the way to arrest him.
Arrest him. Nihlus snorted. He’d never allow himself to be taken alive.
They encountered resistance near the elevators. Nihlus went through the motions. Roll, fire, take cover. Wait for the shields to recharge, pick another target. It was just the geth. Many, but alone. They had prepared a position at the mouth of the access tunnel, improvising with various pieces of mining equipment. A couple of well-aimed grenades and there was nothing left of it but scraps, wires, and synthetic limbs twitching among the scattered flames. Nihlus paused to study a geth arm, severed at the shoulder, oozing an oily, fluorescent liquid. The design was eerily familiar.
It was impossible not to remember the dreadful moment when he’d seen Saren’s artificial arm for the first time. It took him no effort whatsoever to recall the shock, and not because of the scale and the crude, robotic appearance of the prosthesis. A hack, and not a particularly good one; field-work to save his life with no thought spared to either looks or comfort. But Nihlus didn’t care for looks or comfort no more that Saren did. He had been shocked because he’d had no idea. Saren had told him there had been an injury but he had made it sound like no more than a broken talon. He’d have kept it quiet for who knows how long if Nihlus hadn’t insisted on seeing him. Fucking idiot.
Nihlus ran a hand over his face. Spirits. Just thinking about it…
“Think we got them all?” said Shepard, waking him from his reverie.
He cleared his throat. “Depends on how many fit in a dropship.”
“Twenty. Same size as a standard transport.”
“Make that fifty,” Wrex murmured. He was walking around, destroying the few units that were still moving in an almost casual manner. “They don’t need much room. Pack up like cheap furniture.”
“Since when are you a geth expert?”
“Since you two had the wit to bring a quarian along but didn’t think to sit down and question her about them.”
“Ha,” Nihlus said, but that was all he had. Bottom line, Wrex was right. The quarian was Garrus’ concern, and perhaps Garrus had talked to her about the geth, but of course Nihlus hadn’t been talking to Garrus. Explaining this to Wrex would likely result in loud and undisguised contempt. The thought was almost enough to make Nihlus smile.
Shepard had been busy with the elevator controls. She waved them over. Nilhlus leaned over the railing to glance down the shaft. A bottomless pit, dotted with strings of twinkling lights. The excavation was hidden by a veil of dusty darkness.
“It will take us forever to get down there,” he said.
“Not with the safeties off.”
He looked up and met her dirty little smile. Not the first operative in his acquaintance to acquire a sense of humor in the midst of combat. And as they stepped inside the cabin, bracing themselves for what Nihlus hoped wouldn’t be free-fall, Wrex elbowed him in the ribs and grinned:
“I like this human.”
The fight at the bottom had been chaotic but brief and the sudden silence settled around them like black fog. Nihlus was breathing heavily. Only now did he notice how heavy the air had become, how grainy and opaque with dust. He gestured a silent question at Shepard: there was blood on her neck. But she waved his concern off.
She was like a hurricane in close-quarters combat. They had taken some fire during the ride, from the geth positioned on the platforms running the circumference of the shaft, and that had burned her fuse down. Once they were out of the elevator, she’d moved with such deadly purpose that even Wrex had lagged behind, reduced to covering her furious advance with quick biotic strikes. She’d nearly knocked the head off that last geth with the butt of her rifle, and her triumphant, savage scream was still ringing in Nihlus’ ears.
“I don’t like it here,” Wrex said, looking around. “Smells like a disaster just waiting to happen.”
Nihlus had to agree. He had never been so deep under the ground before. Once, he’d spent two months on a submarine, sweeping the bottom of the Forey Ocean on Trelis for the wreckage of a STG frigate that had happened to carry a shitload of highly illegal biotoxin – for science, of course. But that hadn’t been too different from living on a space-ship. A million tons of water threatening to crush and drown you was only scarier than hard vacuum threatening to freeze and suffocate you because Nihlus was no better a swimmer than your typical turian.
But this place… this place threatened to bury them alive. He looked up, and for a moment, the inversion made him vaguely nauseous: now the top of the shaft was invisible, enshrouded in dark mists. It will take us forever to get up there. Only there were no safeties to cut to shorten that journey.
They jumped off the catwalk and landed on a field of debris outlined by flickering holo-tape. Nihlus became acutely aware that the things crunching under their feet were the remnants of some ancient Prothean structure.
Absurd. He dismissed the idea, but not before it had given him shivers. It would be all to easy, with the knowledge that he had, to start thinking of all the Prothean ruins as mass graves. He wasn’t superstitious. He didn’t really believe this act of disrespect would desecrate the spirit of this place, which could have been no more holy than a public restroom. But the Prothean legacy imprinted into his brain was stirring, working to reassert itself. Horrid flashes started striking him at random, rising above the continuous roiling at the threshold of his awareness, something he’d learned to accomodate. Like a hundred voices whispering all around him. Words and pictures surfaced from the sea of gibberish, reminding him of the sickening hopelessness. A thousand worlds, obliterated; a lonely voice, echoing in millennial silence.
They cannot be stopped.
He had to pause, close his eyes, try to focus on something, anything else (I’ve got a lovely bunch of coconuts there they are all standing in a row big ones small ones some as big as your head give them a twist a flick of the wrist)to keep the tide at bay. It almost worked.
“Shepard,” he breathed, opening his eyes to find her studying him. He couldn’t tell if her frown expressed concern or annoyance, but he had her full attention, and that was all that mattered right now. He leaned to whisper in her ear: “There’s another beacon here.”
She took a step back. The frown was definitely not friendly. “What? Why do you think so?”
He started to reply, then realized that this sudden certainty – a drive, a tug, an invisible hook lodged in his gut, pulling him somewhere – was far beyond his ability to explain. All he could give her was an apologetic flare of the mandibles. “I’ve no idea.”
“So what do you want to do about it?”
“Do about what?” said Wrex.
“Nothing,” said Nihlus after a second, answering both questions. “We move out and keep our eyes open.”
They found the asari behind a wall of azure light from some sort of mass effect field. She was motionless, suspended in air by ghostly filaments. Although her eyes were wide open, Nihlus wasn’t sure she could see them approaching.
But then she spoke. “Can you hear me?”
Her voice was badly distorted and the translator cackled before delivering the question. Nihlus nodded.
“I’m trapped in here and I need help!”
“Liara T’Soni, I presume?”
“Thank the Goddess! I did not think anyone would come looking for me. Listen. This thing I am in is a Prothean security device. I cannot move, so I need you to get me out of it, alright?”
While she was speaking, Shepard had taken a step closer and touched the glowing wall. Nihlus bit back a curse. The same reckless hands-on approach had resulted in having his damn head filled with Prothean laments.
But nothing happened. When it wouldn’t give under her hand, she turned to him and shrugged. He gave her a disapproving shake of the head. Waste of time. Shepard wasn’t the type to be discouraged by head-shaking.
He turned to the asari again. “There’s some kind of a force field in the way.”
“It’s a Prothean barrier curtain. I knew it would keep me safe from the geth, but when I turned it on, I must have hit the wrong combination again and I was trapped in here. You must get me out, please!”
That sounded too close to hysterical for comfort. Nihlus started to say something soothing, but Shepard cut in.
“Your mother is working with Saren. Whose side are you on?”
She’d spat the name out like something rotten and Nihlus felt his chest expanding with anger. She sounded just like Anderson. He too spoke about sides. Since when are we picking sides? Nihlus turned to glare at her, but she ignored him, staring at the asari with a lot more hostility than the situation warranted.
“What?” said the asari, her eyes growing even larger. “I am not on anybody’s side. I may be Benezia’s daughter, but I am nothing like her. I have not spoken to her in months.”
“What about Saren? Is he here?”
Fuck. The million-credit question.
“No! Not that I know of. What is this? Who are you?”
Nihlus stifled a sigh of relief. Thank the Spirits.
“So you don’t deny you know him?”
“I have met him, yes.”
Figures. He knew next to nothing about the nature of Saren’s relationship with Benezia. Saren called it friendship, but he used the word as shorthand for a lot of things, from inconvenient political arrangements to passionate love affairs. It was one of those subjects they had never spoken about, bound by a silent agreement. If they were lovers, Nihlus preferred to remain uninformed. Just like he’d have preferred to remain uninformed about this whole fucking mess.
“But not recently,” the asari hurried to add. “Why should I deny it?
“How did you end up in there?” Nihlus said before Shepard could go on with her interrogation. He put a hand on her elbow. She jerked her arm away and gave him an angry sideways glance, to which he responded in kind.
“I uh… We were exploring the ruins when the geth showed up,” the asari said. “We heard shots, and then they were here, in seconds! We did not know what to do. I tried to tell them that it would be safer here, but they wanted to get out… Nimui wanted to fight… I think Dolneon remained on this side, but I have not seen him.” She paused to take a shuddering breath. “I do not know what happened to the others. Did you… did you find anyone else?”
“I’m afraid not,” Nihlus said, and her chin trembled, face crumpling. Shepard rolled her eyes. He hurried to change the subject. “Any suggestions on how we could help?”
The asari blinked, trying to hold the tears in, and nodded. “The controls are in here with me. You’ll have to find a way around the curtain. But be careful.”
“Don’t worry about us,” Nihlus said. He signaled the other two to follow him back to the middle of the shaft where they could speak freely.
“She’s not worried about us,” Shepard snorted, glancing at the asari over her shoulder. “She’s worried about her precious artifacts. I know the type. And I don’t believe a word of her story.”
“I don’t know, Shepard,” Wrex murmured. “She looks pretty harmless to me.”
“Yeah. ‘Pretty’ is the keyword. Come on, guys, we talked about this already. She’s Benezia’s daughter, and a Prothean expert. There’s no way she isn’t working with them.”
“Then why send the geth for her?”
Nihlus shook his head. “We’ll have to figure it out later. Let’s get her out of that thing and then we’ll see.”
“But what if she’s working with them?”
“We’ll have to figure it out later,” Nihlus repeated, emphasizing each word. He leaned down to look straight into her eyes. “Don’t fight me, Shepard.”
Her stare was every bit as fiery and defiant as his must have been on all those training missions, all those many times when his ideas on how things should be handled diverged from Saren’s. And pulling rank had never worked well with him either. But this was not the time for a debate.
“Hey, kids? Look what I found,” Wrex said, interrupting their little battle of wills. He was standing next to a truck-sized mining laser. “I wonder…”
Before they could stop him, he turned the thing on and all hell broke loose. The beam was aimed downward, arm-thick and furiously red, and it made a hole in the floor, blowing up a thick, black cloud of dirt and rubble. He had the good sense to turn it off immediately, but a few minutes of coughing and cursing passed before they could see each other again through the settling dust.
Nihlus was about to give Wrex a lecture but his mouth clicked shut when he saw the lights. There were lights coming through the hole in the floor.
They stood in a silent circle, studying the thing from a respectful distance.
“Shit, Nihlus,” Shepard whispered. “This looks exactly like the beacon on Eden Prime. How the fuck did you guess?”
He shook his head, at a loss for words. The hook in his gut was wrenching him forward. He curled his fingers into vicious fists, squeezed like a man hanging above an abyss, trying to resist.
And that was when the first tremor shook the ground, followed by a deep rumble, like an approaching thunderstorm.
“I don’t like the sound of that,” Wrex said. “Come on, kids. Take it or leave it. We can’t stay here.”
“Right,” Nihlus muttered, recognizing the sudden feverish drumming of his heart for the fear he was supposed to be feeling. His body wanted to turn around and get the hell out of there, but his mind was already determined to go through the terrible ordeal again. He just… had to.
Shepard took hold of his arm to stop him. “What are you doing? It almost killed you the last time. We need to get the crew here, load it on the ship…”
“There’s no time, Shepard. Wrex is right – this place is going to crash down on our heads, I can feel it.”
“Leave it, then, let’s just get-”
“No. I have to do this. I have to know.”
He yanked his arm free and stepped into the circle. Shepard’s curses faded behind like memories of a dream. The beacon and the ancient terminals around it suddenly sprang to life and there was a brief moment of lucid horror before the wave hit him, before that terrifying sensation of being stripped of physicality flooded his senses. Unable to speak or move or breathe, he lost all notions of space and time and his mind was thrown into a whirlpool of alien thoughts and desires, a lonely particle hurling on a ballistic trajectory to the unknowable thing that resided inside the well. Nauseating, exhilarating and most of all, horrifying, the sensation of whirling out of control, carried on a torrent of words from a language lost long before the dawn of his species, threatened to rip his mind to shreds. Ideas and images rained on him, like before, only now they seemed less random, at moments even recognizable, like pieces of a giant puzzle falling in place, and even though he had never seen the whole picture, there were recognizable sequences, notions and processes stitching together behind his tightly-shut eyes.
It ended as abruptly as it had begun and he dropped to the floor, limp and numb, barely conscious. Shepard and Wrex hovered above him, speaking, but he didn’t understand a word and could only keep blinking, trying to smile in order to let them know that he was okay. Though he wasn’t. When they lifted him up, he thought he would vomit, but, fortunately, he had eaten hardly anything for lunch. Sorry, Shepard. The food on the Normandy is really that awful.
Wrex half-walked, half-carried him into the light of the asari’s blue prison. The ground was shaking all the time now, or perhaps he was? He could stand now, but everything was blurry and the sounds were strangely muted. Somebody shouted, hit that large button! And he did. The next thing he knew, the asari was walking right into his face, growing in his vision like a balloon animal, her huge eyes threatening to swallow him. She hugged him. Almost toppled him. He tried to explain that he had done absolutely nothing to deserve her gratitude, but she wouldn’t listen, or perhaps the speech remained confined to his head.
There was more shaking. Rumbling more readily felt than heard. Something about the dig being unstable and the mining laser. Well done, Wrex, well done indeed. Worse than Shepard. Just had to try the damn thing, didn’t you? But then that same krogan summoned a biotic bubble to keep the rubble from killing them and he concluded that the ‘Prothean barrier curtain’ had nothing on the beauty of a living field. Had he ever told Saren how much he envied and admired his biotics? He should have. He should have told him a great many things.
Daylight, dust and sand pouring through cracks on the ceiling of the access tunnel. How had they gotten there? He coughed, a lot, and ended up vomiting after all. Shepard held him, one hand around his back, the other supporting his sweaty forehead. The asari shouting, we have to move on! And Shepard snapping, hold your horses, princess. He tried to laugh, but it wasn’t working. There was hardly any air. He could barely see a thing.
And then they were speeding. Shepard behind the wheel again. His stomach, lurching with every insane maneuver she’s pulling to get them away from what he supposes is a full-on volcanic eruption.
Violet tears on the face of the beautiful asari. Lost, her lips said. All gone.
The Prothean ghosts in his head silently agreed.
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