Knots and Ties

Chapter 28 of Ghost in the Machine

Shepard squinted through the thick glass wall. Her breaths were drawing white hearts on it, because 286K passed for room temperature on Noveria. It looked warmer in the bar on the other side. Unlike her turian teammates, who were constantly shifting from foot to foot and occasionally emitting sounds suspiciously reminiscent of chattering teeth, the guy sitting inside, three tables to the front and two to the right, didn’t seem uncomfortable at all.

“What’s his name again?” she said, effectively clouding her view. She brushed the glass impatiently with the back of a gloved hand.

“Lorik Qui’in,” Nihlus said from behind her. Packed close as they were, she could feel his breath in her hair. “He’s a senior manager in Synthetic Insights.”

“That supposed to mean something to me?”

“They do AI research,” Garrus said. He was standing to her left and she was strangely conscious of the slight chafing between the shoulder pad of her armor and the upper-arm shield of his. “This place is a haven for all sorts of illegal things.”

“Things illegal in Council Space,” Liara corrected. She was standing to Shepard’s right, and each time their hands touched by accident, Shepard would flinch, inching away from her and closer to Garrus. “Many important discoveries that figure prominently in every-day life have been made through methods that are considered immoral by one culture or another. Take medi-gel. Imagine how difficult your job would be without it.”

“Take the geth,” Shepard replied. “Imagine how easy our job would be without them.”

“Every discovery can be abused.”

“Which is why you scientists should be kept under watch.”

“So that you soldiers can be the first to reap the benefits of our work.”

Shepard aimed a fell stare at her, but Liara was looking straight through the glass with a calm expression and her chin held high. She had gotten cocky since that whole melding business. Shepard wondered, and not for the first time, what exactly that entailed. She started a response, but Nihlus was faster.

He cleared his throat. “How about we save this fascinating discussion for another day? If he leaves, it will be a pain in the ass to track him down again.”

“Why don’t we just go in and talk to him? He knows you, right? Everyone here knows you.”

The question was directed at Nihlus, but it was Liara who answered. “I have never met him in person, but Mother has mentioned him several times. I remember because she rarely gives praise.”

“What did she praise him for?”

“For being a fair, but practical individual and a tough negotiator. I do not think he will give us the pass just because we asked him nicely.”

“Who said anything about asking nicely?” Garrus said, and that put a smile on Shepard’s face.

“If Gianna is right about his trouble with the new Administrator,” Nihlus muttered, “he might be willing to trade the pass for some dirty work. Like you humans say, we scratch his back, he scratches ours. That sort of thing.”

Shepard tried to catch his eyes in the reflection, but they were shifting nervously this way and that. Was this another evasive maneuver? To stretch things out? Delay the confrontation? She had been in a foul mood on Therum, but she hadn’t failed to notice how relieved he had been to find no traces of Saren there. Difficult as it was for her to imagine how anyone could nurture affection for that goddamn murderous maniac, she would have tried, if only Nihlus had trusted her enough to talk about it. To explain whatever the hell was going on in his crazy head. But no. Instead, he chose to meld with the asari. How very fucking productive. Shepard hadn’t fully trusted him nor his commitment to the mission even before that, but now… as far as she was concerned, he was standing with one boot in enemy camp.

“What sort of thing, exactly?” She pretended to be absorbed in looking through the glass like everyone else, while she was actually observing his reflection, waiting for some confirmation of her suspicions.

Nihlus shrugged. “Kill someone. Dig out some secrets. Or bury them. You know: Spectre work.”

“We don’t have time for that,” Garrus said, reading her mind. “The moment we turn our backs on her, Benezia will take off, and she’ll leave nothing behind. You should know better than anyone” – and he glanced at Nihlus – “how good Saren is at covering his tracks.”

Nihlus didn’t glance back. His mandibles were pressed to his face in a strange way, but fuck, Shepard had no idea what to make of it. She frowned. “Spectre work also covers killing him, digging out his pass, and burying the remains.”

“Shepard!” Liara gasped. “You are not serious. Are you?”

Shepard snorted, trying hard not to roll her eyes. How she hated working with civilians! A civilian on the team was like a gangrenous limb: slowing everything down, disregarding orders, always complaining, and putting everyone at risk. Not to mention having no sense of humor. She knew the turians were thinking the same even before Liara’s wide-open eyes turned to Nihlus only to be answered with a dismissive shake of the head. Garrus was actually smiling.

Now, how was it that she could read his face without a hitch?

“There must be a better way,” Liara insisted.

Shepard sighed and turned around to look at Nihlus directly. “Think he has the pass on him?”

“Yeah. He needs it to get around. Why?”

The weight of all the alien eyes on her suddenly became palpable, and she started chewing on her lower lip. “Where would he keep it? A wallet? A pocket?”

“Probably a wallet,” said Garrus, suspiciously, slowly. His eyes were the heaviest, scanning her with his trademark cop stare. “What’s on your mind, Shepard?”

“Oh, nothing… Spectre work.” She gave him a big cheesy smile. “What I need from you, is a diversion.”

Garrus blinked at her a couple of times, as if waking up and remembering where they were and what was at stake. “Like what?” he said. “Starting a brawl?”

“I didn’t mean you specifically, Vakarian. Any or all of you would do.” She cast a pointed look at Liara, who seemed to be having trouble keeping up with the conversation. “Perhaps something a bit more subtle.”

“Ah,” Garrus said. “In that case, he’s probably the better choice.”

It took Shepard a second to process the words, and another to follow his gaze over to Nihlus. And then a couple more, to wrap her mind around the strangely-shaped concept that was seemingly being implied.

“Aw, man,” Nihlus groaned. “Why don’t you do it?”

“Please. When have you ever heard of anyone falling for a guy in a C-Sec uniform?”

“Oh, come on. Guys like that love the uniform.”

“Speaking from experience?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know.”

Shepard followed the exchange by turning from left to right. Although the changing tones in the turian voices and the weird movements of their facial geometry wouldn’t mean much in another context, the message was coming across just fine.

“Fuck me,” she snorted. “So it’s true. All turians are gay.”

Liara’s huge, wet eyes became even larger. “Shepard! What a terrible thing to say! Not only is it rude even by your abysmal standards, but it is also entirely untrue. What?” she barked at Nihlus, who had put a hand on her shoulder. “We are no longer on the Normandy and I do not feel I am in any way obliged to tolerate this kind of uninformed slander.” She took a deliberate deep breath, as if trying to dial back on the excitement, but it had already left round patches of violet blush on her cheeks. It would have been funny if not for the outraged stare and the annoyingly nagging posture.

“The turian word for ‘homosexual’,” Liara resumed in a tone that was supposed to sound calmer, “become archaic more than eight hundred years ago, roughly a century after the admission of the Hierarchy into the Council. It only came back to regular use after first contact with your species.” The blush deepened, and she even lifted a finger now, though not yet high enough to give Shepard an excuse to slap it.

“The overwhelming majority of turians today self-identify as pansexual, although aversion towards relationships with members of different species thrives in conservative subcultures, just like gender-based prejudice thrives in some human subcultures despite the overall positive trends. I do not believe that it is fitting for a Spectre candidate to…”

“Jesus Fucking Christ,” Shepard muttered. She was no longer amused.

Liara couldn’t read the warning signs, but fortunately, Nihlus could.

“Liara, it’s fine,” he said, the hand on her shoulder curling into a grip, eyes boring into Shepard, pleading for patience.

“But…”

“It’s fine,” he repeated, then gestured with his head. “Come on, Shepard. Let’s do this.”

“About fucking time.”

#

“I do not understand,” whispered Liara after Nihlus and Shepard had left. “Surely nothing I said could have been as offensive as what she said.”

Garrus sighed. Why was he always the one who had to explain awkward things to aliens?

“That was a joke, Liara. She meant no offense.”

“A joke?” Her face assumed the textbook dumbfounded expression. “What kind of a joke could it possibly be?”

“A very old one.”

He glanced through the glass. No one in sight yet, and Qui’in seemed comfortably rooted to his spot. He was freezing, however. Why was it, again, that he volunteered Nihlus for indoor work, and not himself?

“I do not understand,” Liara repeated.

“Because you’re a civilian,” he explained distractedly. “Soldiers’ humor isn’t always politically correct, especially when forged during wartime. And this one dates all the way back to Relay 314.”

He saw Nihlus entering the scene.

“See, the human defenders on Shanxi couldn’t tell turian men from turian women.”

Nihlus stood at the entrance for a while, pretending to scan the space, while actually attracting attention. He flexed his shoulder and rolled his head so that nobody would miss his splendid form. Cheeky bastard. As he stalked towards the bar, Qui’in’s head homed in on him like a well-calibrated auto-targeting system.

“So what?” Liara said, reminding him that he had begun speaking.

“War is still predominantly a male occupation on human worlds.”

Nihlus ordered some luminous cocktail that didn’t quite fit with the image his armor projected, and started sipping it, pretending that he hadn’t noticed the only other turian inside. Qui’in was openly staring. What else could one do?

“I am sorry, Garrus,” Liara said. “But I still do not see how that is related to what Shepard said.”

He turned to her, but it didn’t look like she was pulling his leg. She appeared genuinely clueless.

“Sex is a favorite pastime among turian soldiers,” he said. Predictably, her eyes widened. “Oh, please. Everyone knows that. Humans observed this behavior… and made conclusions.”

Inside the bar, visual had been established. Qui’in took his glass to his mouth, and Nihlus leaned back on his elbows, a dark, focused expression on his face. Only a blind man could ignore him. Garrus wondered how far, exactly, did Shepard mean to take this ruse. As far as… drinks? Sky car? Hotel room?

“I see,” Liara said quietly. “I suppose I will have to work on my sense of soldiers’ humor, among other things.”

And there. Measuring the victim under his brow, Nihlus gently flicked his mandibles. Garrus had seen it coming but he flinched anyway. He knew the gesture all too well. Qui’in stood up and started to maneuver between the tables and chairs. As if hypnotized.

It was more than the gesture. All of this hit uncomfortably close to home. Garrus swallowed. His throat was suddenly thick, his skin covered with cold sweat that had appeared out of nowhere. Watching Nihlus at work was like seeing a favorite magical trick dismantled and explained in all its prosaic triviality.

“Look,” whispered Liara, but he’d seen it already. As Qui’in stepped near the bar, Shepard dived out of the shadows behind it, trailing after him. Garrus shook off the strange thoughts, focusing on the show ahead. Timing, improvisation, quick wits – all requisite for pulling a stunt like this, but Nihlus and Shepard were playing like an old, well-trained team. When Nihlus extended his drink towards Qui’in in a salute, Shepard ‘tripped’ and ‘stumbled’, ‘clinging to his arm’ for ‘support’ and pushing him right into the glass that was still mostly full.

Liara gasped. It looked frighteningly genuine.

The next second, Nihlus was obligingly wiping the spilled drink from the victim’s chest with a napkin while Shepard was apologizing, dividing the victim’s attention. Garrus snorted. Nihlus was good, but Shepard was a fucking pro. He knew exactly how these things worked, and he still didn’t manage to catch her in the act. The diabolical smile she allowed herself on the way out left no room for doubt.

She rejoined them looking as innocent as ever, a vibrant air about her slightly flushed face the only sign that something out of the ordinary had happened.

“Let’s see,” she uttered and produced a decadent leather wallet from a belt compartment. She fumbled with it for a few seconds, then handed it to Garrus. “You turians always make everything so complicated.”

Liara took a breath to protest again, but caught his glance and changed her mind.

“Yeah, everything but our pockets,” he replied. “Remind me to keep en eye on my stuff around you, Shepard. That was a textbook operation.”

“Textbook would be snatching his datapad as well. But thanks.”

He looked up, intending to meet her confident grin with a disapproving shake of the head, but what he saw in her eyes wasn’t the mischievous gleam he had expected. There was something else there, something that made him remember what Nihlus had told him during their… training session. Something that made him avert his gaze, feeling all self-conscious out of the sudden, and focus on the stubborn thing in his hands, fingers slow and clumsy from the cold.

“Let me,” Liara said, taking it from him. Her deft little hands opened it in no time, then rummaged systematically through the many compartments, and finally produced a chit-sized card. “This is it.”

“We’re all set, then.”

But something was missing. Garrus looked back inside the bar. “Where’s Nihlus?”

#

Of course his codes were still valid. It would have been stupid to change them. It would have signaled secrecy, mystery, something of value inside. And Nihlus knew better than anyone how good Saren was at covering his tracks.

He shuddered when the door closed behind him, driving a stream of chilly air inside. The fluffy white carpet under his boots soaked up the sporadic sounds of his footsteps. In the pristine silence, his heart was hammering like a war-drum.

What the fuck are you doing?

Not the first time he asked himself that question in the last twenty hours. There, left alone in that gym, the answer had been: Nothing worse than what Saren is doing. A sharp, dry, merciless stab, stirring the anger. There had been no anger before the meld. Just a limp, numb paralysis. It felt like his head was clearer afterwards, but damn, it certainly didn’t look like it. When he passed the tall mirror in the foyer, he flinched away from his own crazed stare.

Whatever Liara had done, it worked. He could still recall the Prothean message, but it had lost its potency, its malicious tendency to invade his thoughts. It was a relief – and also a burden. For there was no postponing it anymore. None of it. It would all have to be dealt with, and he had officially run out of excuses: Shepard’s mistrust, Garrus’ sex appeal, Saren’s betrayal.

Not necessarily in that order, obviously. Garrus’ scent still lingered in his nostrils and, sweet Spirits, it was like a krogan aphrodisiac. The memory made him smile, but he couldn’t sustain the happy thoughts for more than a breath. It wasn’t fair. Garrus was a beautiful man. Clear-minded, out-spoken, somewhat conservative, maybe, but who gives a fuck? He would be good for Nihlus.

Too good? Certainly far better than what he deserved. He and Saren, they were both tired, cynical bastards. Garrus was an idealist. Truth, justice, all that jazz – they only held a marginal value for Nihlus, and none for Saren. But Garrus was – what was that human word? – a crusader. Yes. He had a vision, and it wasn’t some shitty second-hand blood-and-gore thing like the stuff the beacons had filled Nihlus’ head with. It was a vision of a clean, efficient world, with controlled chaos doing regular rounds to keep it that way. He would keep Nihlus honest and focused. He would keep him warm during long nights in FTL. He could also teach him a thing or two about hand-to-hand combat, and that was something Nihlus had doubted he’d ever admit to another man.

You’ve been given a second chance, Kryik.

“Shut up,” he said aloud. Too loud. Were the words really echoing between the naked, white walls, or was it all inside his head? He turned around, inspecting the corners of the high ceiling, the light fixtures, the thin shadows cast by dead furniture. It was more than likely that the whole place was under surveillance. Perhaps Saren was watching him from some remote location, sitting in a hover-chair with his arms crossed, blinking no more often than a few times a minute – a redundant gesture fueled not by need but by mere muscle memory. He would be thinking of Nihlus just the way Nihlus was thinking about him: a perpetual hum of knowing and longing, fading into background while he was busy, say, surviving, but more than able to flood his senses with wishes and memories and render him mute and paralyzed when he was alone, like now. Lonely, like now. Spirits, how he had hoped to meet Saren after that damned hearing! How he had wanted to just… lay his head on Saren’s knees and rest. Would he ever be able to rest again? Be calm and content, free of wants and fears? He didn’t require much for happiness. A warm presence within his reach. Strong arms, to hold him tight. Whispered vows. Trust. Was he never to have that again?

There had been no sadness, before the meld. Just a dumb, deaf disbelief. And now water was gathering in the corners of his eyes. He had only gotten as far as the middle of the living room and couldn’t move one step farther, unseeing eyes wondering from one soulless item to the next. There was about as much of Saren here as there was of Nihlus in that cabin on the Normandy. Less. Nihlus had a coconut. Saren had left nothing here. Not even an impression in the mattress.

What did you expect to find? You already got the farewell note.

Panic gripped him from inside, washed his whole body in cold sweat. The silence, the silence became unbearable. The empty, soundless air solidified into a glacier around him, restricting his motion, restricting his breathing, crushing him alive. He took the first thing his arms could reach – a round white vase, certainly priceless – and hurled it at the far wall with all his might, but it failed to shatter the ice and even the ringing of the shards was muffled by the damn carpet.

He ran for the door.

#

Liara picked up her pace. There was something strangely satisfying in having Shepard struggle to keep up. A thought to be ashamed of, for sure, but there was no helping it. Shepard was a coldblooded killer, a sociopath tolerated by peers and superiors only on account of her ability to do dirty work efficiently and without remorse. Oh yes: Liara had done her homework. The Alliance had none other than the Butcher of Torfan chasing after Saren… and Mother.

She swallowed back the rush of dark fear. Nobody would speak to her about what they intended to do once they reached Peak 15. The savage gleam in Shepard’s eye, the air of passion about her when she spoke of violence… she was obnoxious, yes, impolite and unrefined, but all that was to be expected from a hardened soldier. The sadistic streak, however… Liara did not know what to make of that. It was a thing far more alien than her human hair and the disturbingly green eyes. Only one other person in Liara’s acquaintance had such a dangerous aura of absolute authority. But Saren always looked like a man who knows what he is doing. Shepard, on the other hand…

Another wave of fear washed through her. Oh, Mother! What have you gotten yourself into?

Nihlus was the only one who could keep Shepard in check. And Nihlus was falling apart.

Another thought to be ashamed of, and even more than the first, because she had no right to know that. She had no right to know that Nihlus would go to Saren’s apartment, just like she had no right to know that he would seek solace in the crowd and noise of the Plaza after finding nothing but fading memories there. She had no right to remember… the warmth of the twin blue suns shining on an indescribable emotional landscape… the unwavering wonderment… the gratitude for being the one, the only one, to experience the unbelievable tenderness those hands, covered by the blood of thousands, could caress with.

They both knew the meld had gone wrong. Her intentions had been pure but she had not been ready. There was some comfort in the certainty that no living creature, asari or not, experienced or not – could have been ready for that. But that did not diminish the violation. That kind of breach – into the deepest, most private levels of his being – was unforgivable. Yet instead of being angry, Nihlus had been grateful. He did not understand, even though she had tried to explain it.

She had seen through his eyes; nothing would ever be the same.

They stopped at the southern stairs. The Plaza was a lot more crowded than she had expected. It looked like there were thousands of people down there, a churning mass flowing in turbulent motion between the towering entrance to the Expo Halls, the Spherical Skating Dome and along the pseudo-alleys formed by dozens of restaurants catering to all known space-faring species.

“Lunch-time,” she whispered to herself. Suddenly she was no longer so sure she could find him.

“We’ll never spot him in this crowd,” Garrus said from behind her. “If he’s here at all.”

“I can’t believe he switched off his comms,” Shepard muttered. “Like we’re on a goddamn picnic.”

“You’re sure he didn’t say anything?”

“As sure as I was the first three times you asked.”

A minute of tense silence passed as they watched the mass. With each second, coming here looked more and more like a waste of body-heat.

“This is ridiculous,” Garrus grumbled. “We should go back to the Normandy.”

“They’ll call if he shows up.”

Liara glanced over her shoulder and met Shepard’s eyes. She was the last person Liara would have expected support from, but that was exactly what that strange, intense stare was giving her at the moment. She nodded a silent thanks.

When she turned around again, she saw him. She bounced up and down like a little girl, unable to contain the raw joy of victory. “There,” she exclaimed, pointing with her arm. “By that tree!”

Like a stubborn rock in the middle of a rushing stream, Nihlus was standing still in the middle of the Plaza, defying the flow of the crowd. What a strange posture. Liara stilled and inclined her head, trying for a better perspective. He had one hand on the side of his neck but it was too far to see why.

Garrus stepped forward, adjusting his visor. He observed for a few beats, then shook his head.

“What’s he doing?” said Shepard.

He made a strange gesture with his mandibles. “Remembering,” he said at last, almost too quiet to be heard.

“Remembering what?”

“His allegiance.”


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