Obsession

Chapter 10 of Ghost in the Machine

Garrus was leading a drunken krogan by the cuffed hands to a padded cell when a familiar smiling face showed up on the news-holo in the main hall of the C-Sec compound. He smiled back at it; no time to listen to the news report now, but he made a mental note to look it up on the extranet later.

It had been nine years since he’d met Nihlus in the Spectre training camp, and Garrus could count the occasions when they’d run into each other after that on his fingers. Nihlus would always greet him with unadulterated cordiality. They would shake hands in the beginning and exchange a brief hug in the end, and it wouldn’t be the hands-on-the-shoulders kind, but the long-lingering, full-body, cheek-to-cheek sort of hug that did justice to their one delightful evening of intimacy. Nihlus would promise they’d go have drinks the next time, for he was in a hurry. He was always in a hurry. Garrus didn’t mind the white lie, though he did still harbor a healthy amount of longing. Mostly he was proud of the acquaintance, and enjoyed the privilege of nudging a fellow officer in the canteen and saying, hey, I know this guy! And the fellow officer would glance at the news report and say, a Spectre, eh? Lucky son of a bitch. And Garrus would say, yeah. Exactly.

With the krogan secured and the forms M2 through M14 filled in and signed, and questionnaires Q3 through Q7 filled and posted anonymously, and the witness statements run through the speech recognition program, checked, rechecked and filed, and the report template signed by the section PI and marked due next morning, Garrus finally took the elevator down to the wards for a lunch break. The speakers in the cabin were busted again, but he could see the report and the same picture of Nihlus through the panoramic window, displayed on the news-holos all over the Citadel. Something big must have gone down.

He picked up his usual order of dextro pastries and vegetables from Hinley’s and took a walk to the rented apartment he’d been sharing with Polox, a young man from Taetrus who was working for Elanus Security. Their schedules were such that they rarely met, and that was just as well; Garrus wasn’t keen on making friends. He hated the Citadel, barely tolerated the work, and lived from day to day, constantly waiting for an opportunity, some opening to escape through and start living his life, the life he wanted. The life of a Spectre.

It was a strange thing to admit, but seeing Nihlus on the news always triggered these spells of foul mood, just as meeting him launched cascades of conflicting emotions. He never stopped liking Nihlus; and he was still to have sex he could honestly call better than that quick, furious encounter. In time, he’d started collecting extranet reports on his activities, like he’d used to do with Saren’s. Saren had fallen off the radar in the recent years, dabbling in politics and accumulating riches, and Garrus was speculating that he’d even gone rogue; Nihlus was the new hero, the new poster-boy, the second most-decorated turian in the service of the Council ever. No, Garrus had never stopped liking him, but seeing Nihlus on the news made him want to snipe someone from the roof of his building, just as meeting him always made him want to beat someone to within an inch of their life with his bare fists.

He sat to eat and brought up the terminal. Scrolled through the daily Citadel headlines, ended up typing “Nihlus” in the search bar to save time. The smiling face came up under the title “Attack on Eden Prime.” Garrus scanned the keywords. And put down the unfinished pastry on the tray.

“Son of a bitch,” he whispered, leaning in to make sure he didn’t misread it. To make sure he didn’t invent it. His chest started heaving with excitement.

For one of the keywords was geth.

Suddenly he was no longer hungry. He stood up and paced to the window, processing. The geth had attacked Eden Prime. He went back to the terminal, checked the report again. Then he paced to the kitchenette, and back to the window. Six paces. That was all the room could take.

“I knew it,” he said to himself, returning once more to look at the text. He tried to read it slowly, but couldn’t. His mind slipped into the overclock mode and his body was swimming with adrenaline. This was it, he realized. Shivers ran under his plates. “I fucking knew it.”

He let out a raspy little laugh, then immediately chided himself for it. The civilian victims on Eden Prime numbered in the thousands. Spirits. The geth had attacked Eden Prime, just like the quarian had said.

Not that he’d ever doubted her word, or her evidence. It fitted too damn well to be a fabrication. Unless someone with a thought process identical to his own had manufactured it. No: the geth were operating within Citadel space and Saren was working with them. And Garrus had guessed it years ago.

“Son of a bitch.”

A blinking icon on his visor helpfully informed him that his heart rate had climbed to 151% of its optimal value and he took the hint, holding his breath, closing his eyes. Slow down, Vakarian. Think. You need to find her.

“Yeah,” he muttered, then dialed Pallin from the terminal.

The VI answered. “Executor Pallin is unavailable at the moment. May I take a message?”

Garrus hung up. He’d need half an hour to get to the Presidium and he could keep trying as he went. Of course, there was always the possibility that Pallin had blocked him permanently. They could talk for thirty-seven seconds, on average, before falling out over one disagreement or another. Not surprising, given how closely Pallin had worked with Dad. It had been Dad’s reputation that had gotten Garrus into Investigations. He knew it in his gut, though it would be heresy to ever say so aloud. As Dad’s son, Garrus had to be good enough to promote. As an ex-Spectre candidate, he had to be bad enough to argue over every damned decision. Nobody ever seemed to give a fuck about what he was really like. Sometimes he wasn’t sure himself.

The elevator ride had never taken so long. He stood in the corner, bouncing nervously on his toes, clenching and unclenching his fists. The cabin was crowded; it was that time of the day. But the passengers could apparently sense the aura of excitement – or perhaps something more sinister – about him, and gave him some space. He looked each alien in the eye and not one dared hold his stare. The only other turian was sleeping on her feet in the opposite corner.

Garrus tried to occupy himself by repeatedly dialing Pallin and Dr Michel, whom he’d asked to keep an eye out for his quarian.

His quarian, ha! He knew her name all right. He knew everything there was to know about Tali’Zorah nar Rayya. Which didn’t amount to much. Just thinking about it made him grit his teeth and clasp his mandibles so close to his chin that they hurt.

It wasn’t just that she’d left him with jack shit to show to Pallin, whom he’d literally dragged into his office in front of a hundred witnesses, making for a month’s worth of chin-wagging material. The moment he’d realized she was gone was something he’d remember for the rest of his fucked-up life.

“Is this some kind of a joke?” Pallin had said.

And Garrus had just stood in the doorway, paralyzed. She’d been there not a minute ago. She’d been right there, all cute and innocent and fuck! Where the fuck was she? He’d gaped at Pallin, and Pallin had stared back with that awful expression of pity, barely suppressed out of some misplaced sense of loyalty to Dad. And Spirits forgive him, Garrus hated him for that.

Finally he’d dived for his desk. The terminal had come to life, a file-not-found exception blinking from the corner of the voice analysis client. All that had remained of the nice, clean spectrum was a solid, dead flat-line.

“Fuck,” he said aloud, then slammed a fist on the table, making the screen flicker and the collection of shit on the surface jump and settle down in a new random configuration. A broken surveillance bot, shaped like a black sphere the size of the palm, rolled over the edge, but Pallin caught it before it fell.

“I don’t have time for this,” he said. His hand hovered over the desk in search for a spot where he could safely store the bot; in the end he pocketed it. “Frankly, Garrus, I was hoping you were over this… obsession.”

“It’s not an obsession,” Garrus gritted. You won’t call it that when I prove I’m right.

Pallin raised a suspicious eyeridge at him, then looked at the star map riddled with pins and notes, and cast a glance around the office as if expecting something to jump him from the cluttered corners. He didn’t even have to say it out loud. What would you call… all this?

“I can prove she’s been here,” Garrus said. His hands were already busy, retrieving the security footage. It would have audio too, though even the original clip was only borderline admissible. At least he could show Pallin that he wasn’t delusional. He was being perfectly rational. “Look.”

Pallin came around with a tired sigh, and stood behind Garrus with his arms crossed over his chest as the interview with the quarian unraveled in low resolution. He put them down, however, when Saren’s voice echoed in the little office for the third time that day. Even with the undertones hopelessly compressed by the third-grade recording equipment, its imperious confidence was unmistakable.

“That’s Saren all right,” Pallin said, and when Garrus turned to look at him, there was a serious frown on his face.

“I sent a warning to the human embassy,” Garrus said. “But I didn’t mention him.”

Pallin nodded. “Good.” He nodded some more. “Good. You better keep this to yourself.”

At that, Garrus laughed, but his head hung low. He’d heard those words so many times before. He hated them with a teeming passion, but they could no longer anger him. Instead, they had a kind of a numbing effect: dumbing him down, taking the edge off everything. Off life itself.

That night he’d drunk himself under the table for the first time in ten years. And the way he’d growled at his colleagues the day after was something he wasn’t proud of. They were good people. They meant well and liked him, for the most part. And if there had been any serious mockery, it had been kept well out of his earshot. In a volunteer police force composed of people with basic combat training at best, his spec-ops qualifications stood out like a broken thumb.

But the rumors and giggles whispered behind his back weren’t what made him angry at the quarian either. He was angry because… aw, hell. She had been so smart and competent. So sure of herself, proud and confident. Not many women like that in his not-inconsiderable experience. He liked her. He’d winked at her, for fuck’s sake, and seriously contemplated asking her out after his shift was over.

The anger twisted his guts and made the acid bubble up. He shifted from foot to foot, and the crowd in the cabin shifted too, giving him some more space. The turian in the opposite corner was looking at him. She was wearing the uniform of the Hierarchy Spaceborne Legions. Fuck, how he envied her!

He dialed the numbers again. Nothing.

The quarian was still on the Citadel, that much he knew for sure. Pallin had approved his request to ground her ship. And now that her warning had come true – perhaps he could even get the warrant to search it.

Oh yes. No more “conspiracy theories.” The geth were a real threat now and no amount of deadpanning would make that fact go away. In a way, his plan was to go and… gloat a bit. Yeah. Say, I told you so. Then move in for the kill and ask for resources to continue his investigation into Saren’s murky business.

Saren, bah! Garrus growled in frustration. The man had his talons in everything: from food to weapons to research and information, all with major shares in big companies like Heliat and Binary Helix. Of course nobody knew exactly how far his influence reached outside the Citadel space. Not only was he rich and powerful, he was also a Spectre. Fucking untouchable. But his political machinations didn’t implicate him in anything other than being a crafty son of a bitch. None of the dozen incidents pointing to everything from racism to corruption would have registered on Garrus’ personal radar if not for Witty, the geth probe.

Allegedly, a geth probe, Pallin’s voice reminded him from the back of his mind, and Garrus huffed. He’d had found it four years ago in one of the service tunnels usually visited only by the keepers. He’d never seen anything like it. It had appeared to be dead, electrocuted. But after days of tinkering in his dark little office, Garrus had managed to bring it back to life. Which had lasted only for a few minutes, because Witty had used its second breath to try and kill him. It had never even occurred to Garrus that the assembly of tools Witty had been equipped with could be used as weapons, but they had been effective. Too effective. Garrus had had to shoot it down.

However, he had been lucky enough – that one time, at least – to have had his diagnostics running throughout the entire event. The true “holy grail” of what would later become his conspiracy theory had been irreversibly destroyed; but Garrus had been left with gigabytes of data that showed, beyond a shadow of doubt, that Witty had been blessed with true artificial intelligence. Hence the name.

Garrus reported it. He took his data and Witty’s bullet-ridden corpse to his colleagues in Forensics, who were as fascinated with the hardware as he. But when he mentioned the possibility that Witty was a geth, nobody took him seriously. He arranged a meeting with one of the quarians on C-Sec payroll for the end of the week; the meeting never materialized, though.

That evening, when he returned to the Compound to pick up a stack of unfinished reports he’d forgotten on account of the excitement, he ran into none other than Saren Arterius. They almost collided in the abandoned hallway. Garrus was both awed and mortified; at that time, he’d still been somewhat of a fan.

“Um… evening, sir,” he blurted out, feeling helplessly inadequate.

Saren narrowed his cold, steely eyes at him under a slight frown of annoyance. He was dressed casually, as much as possible for someone so wealthy and distinguished. The threatening stance, the aggressive set of the shoulders and that colorless, heartless face made him look tall, dangerous and imposing. One thing could not be denied to Saren: he had the aura, and he had the presence. He was the kind of a man Garrus would have followed to death, and proudly, if only he’d been given the chance. The chance to learn, to prove his worth. All this, and a throng of other, blurry, unclear things, went through his mind in an instant.

And then Saren spoke.

“Vakarian,” he said, making Garrus inflate with pride and disbelief like a balloon animal. Saren remembered him! It had been five years since the Spectre training camp, but Saren remembered him! The implications, oh, how sad the implications were, and how happy they made him nevertheless. He had been good enough to be remembered. And his youth had been wasted anyway.

The sudden flurry of notions and emotions wiped away all his natural curiosity, leaving him dazed and breathless. Instead of asking Saren what he was doing there at such a late hour, or what he was carrying in the large, heavy-looking bag he had over his shoulder – not that a Spectre would be obliged to answer any of his questions – Garrus simply stood at attention and said, “Yes sir!”

Saren made the slightest nod, kept his eyes trained on Garrus for a few more seconds, then said, “As you were,” and strode past him down the hall. He disappeared around the first corner like a ghost.

Garrus stood there for an entire minute, wondering if the encounter had happened at all, then shook his head and put cold hands on his very, very flushed throat.

When he’d gone back to his office, Witty was missing.

#

Garrus’ interest in Saren had never been entirely impersonal, but after that bizarre incident, it had turned into what Pallin called “the obsession.” Needless to say, Garrus had been unable to prove that Saren had taken Witty. The surveillance in that entire wing of the building had been conveniently disabled, and an overqualified cop with a bit of a reputation could never hope to win the game of “his word against mine” against a Spectre.

But it had been more than enough to plant the seed of doubt in his brain. He’d started collecting everything about the geth he could get his hands on; reading, watching, listening. He’d kept his eyes open, and more importantly, he’d kept his mind open. Eventually he’d had more than one quarian examine his precious diagnostics; none had the credentials to confirm his suspicions in any sort of official capacity, but none had laughed at him either. And when Saren’s name had started coming up with an increasing frequency in all kinds of dubious reports, Pallin had become vaguely supportive of his extracurricular activities.

Pallin’s interest in the matter seemed mostly limited to his dislike of Spectres in general, and as the evidence wasn’t exactly raining down, he seemed content to let Garrus play detective. Of course, when Garrus dug up a couple of tangible things, it turned out that Pallin lacked the quad to do anything with them. Surprising? Not for a fucking second, but that didn’t make it any less infuriating. Garrus had learned the hard way that to become someone in C-Sec, it wasn’t enough to wear the kid gloves, as humans would say; you had to sing their praises to those below you. That was how the kid-glove culture had been passed on from generation to generation until it became so deeply ingrained in every aspect of C-Sec work that even the smallest deviation from it was looked down upon like some revolting mutation.

Garrus hated the gloves. And as the elevator started to decelerate and he dialed Pallin once again, he’d more than half decided that today, he’d take them off for better or for worse.

“You’re a damned pest, Vakarian, you know that?” said the holo with Pallin’s face, projected from Garrus’ omni, and both he and half of the people in the cabin jumped.

“Yes, sir,” Garrus replied. The son of a bitch had been screening his calls all this time.

“What is it? About that quarian again?”

“Yeah. I…”

“Something new?”

“Well, the attack on Eden Prime…”

“Can’t talk now. I’m on my way to the Tower. Meet me in front of the Council Chambers in… ten?”

“Yes, sir.”

The holo blinked out and the elevator stopped. There was no time to think. Not even to get worked up. Garrus had to run along the lake to catch the cabin for the Tower in time, but he was still late. When he arrived, he found the Executor pacing in an exaggerated display of impatience.

“Sir,” he said, more than a little breathless, “I got here as soon as I could.”

Pallin measured him from fringe to toe. “Speak. I don’t have a lot of time. The hearing is about to begin.”

“The hearing?”

“About Eden Prime. It seems you’ve been right all along, Vakarian. It was the geth.”

There they were, the words he’d been longing to hear for years, and yet somehow Pallin had managed to deliver them in a way that made it impossible for Garrus to take pleasure in the victory. The knee-jerk reaction, of course, was to hate. Hate and be bitter. Hate and bite back the curses because, damn it, Pallin was Dad’s friend.

But then it suddenly dawned on him. How serious this situation really was, now that it had leapt up from his papers and data-pads, from his convoluted scenarios and conjectures. The geth were operating in Citadel Space. And thousands of people had died by their hands already. His petty little victory was the last fucking thing that anybody – himself included – should be thinking or worrying about.

Like a slap in the face, the realization made Garrus stagger back, and Pallin frowned at the unexpected reaction. “I thought you’d be glad to hear your… suspicions have been correct.”

“No, sir,” Garrus said. Though I thought so too. “I am not.” He stood straight, clasped his hands behind his back, just like in the army, and cleared his throat. “Nevertheless, this calls for action. I’d like you to make my investigation of Saren’s connection to the geth official, in the…”

Alleged connection.”

“Yes, sir. In the light of the new evidence…”

“Like what?”

Garrus cocked his head to the side, wondering if they were speaking the same language. What was there to think about? What was there to doubt and hesitate about, now that the enemy had been revealed? “You said it yourself, sir. The attack on Eden Prime? If Saren…”

“How do you know about that? The news-people don’t know that Saren was seen on Eden Prime. Who told you?”

Garrus swallowed. He had no idea that Saren was seen on Eden Prime. But if it was true… “Sir, with the voice clip from that quarian, and all the other evidence we’ve gathered…”

“None of which held under scrutiny, and you know it.” Pallin glanced at his omni. “I thought you had something new to tell me,” he muttered. “The Council is waiting. Is there anything else?”

And there, there was the anger again, and the bitterness, and the hate. They had been asleep for, oh, about thirty-seven seconds. “Please, sir,” he said, although the word burned his tongue. “Saren’s hiding something. Give me more time. Stall them.”

“Stall the Council?” Pallin scoffed. “Don’t be ridiculous.” He drew a deep sigh, then shook his head, something reminiscent of fatherly concern ghosting over his features. But Garrus could only hate him even more for it. “Let it go, Garrus,” he said, in a deeper, quieter tone. “Let it go before it comes back at you and bites your ass. And mine.”

With that, he turned and left. Garrus stared at his back, fighting the anger that was now threatening to burst out from his chest like a grenade forced down his throat. He willed himself to breathe slower, to push it back, because it was doing nothing for him – it was destructive, and unfair, and damn stupid. It wasn’t Pallin’s fault. It was Saren’s.

Saren had been seen on Eden Prime.

“Garrus?” said a familiar voice behind his back. A pleasant, musical voice with a trill of perpetual cheer in it. “Garrus Vakarian?”

He knew the voice. He knew the voice and it made his heart hammer in his chest for an entirely different clusterfuck of reasons as he turned to greet Nihlus Kryik, the face from the news reports, the face from one of his most cherished memories, from a time when he was young and free and ambitious, and had such high hopes for the future.

“Nihlus,” he managed to say, his mandibles hanging loose.

“Boy, am I glad to see you,” Nihlus replied, and although he was wearing his signature smile, it wasn’t doing much to hide his distress. He was in the company of three human soldiers.

“Yeah,” Garrus mouthed, and they shared a moment of singular clarity; he was as sure of it as of the daily traffic jam at 1500 hours. Nihlus was an apt reader of people, and Garrus had become quite good at it himself through years of interrogating and interviewing. While his own voice and stance must have delivered the whole truth about how utterly frustrated he was at this moment, Nihlus’ betrayed a deep well of dark fears and a profound exhaustion. He too had been on Eden Prime. And now that Garrus had the idea, he found that he could actually smell combat on both Nihlus and his human friends: smoke, blood, burnt textile and dirt brought from an alien world.

“This is Lieutenant Commander Shepard with the Systems Alliance,” Nihlus said, gesturing in the direction of a small red-haired woman wearing N7 armor. Garrus met her disturbingly green eyes and gave her a curt nod, which she returned. Next to her was a dark-headed, dark-eyed male, whom Nihlus introduced as Lieutenant Kaidan Alenko. He actually gave Garrus a half-sincere smile, and Garrus tried to reciprocate, but his mandibles were still loose and he must have looked like an idiot. Not that the humans would know. The last to be introduced was a Gunnery Chief Ashley Williams, who wore a hard-suit and a hard face, barely visible through her helmet; nobody else was wearing theirs.

“Meet Garrus Vakarian with Citadel Security,” Nihlus said at last. “Garrus is an old friend.”

Turian hearing translated that readily into, thank the Spirits, someone I can trust.

“I’ve seen the news reports,” Garrus said, carefully weaving a question in his undertones: can we speak freely?

“Yeah,” Nihlus said, but his subharmonics said something else completely. “The Alliance wants to implicate Saren in the attack.” But I don’t believe it for a second. “We’re on our way to a hearing with the Council and the human ambassador.” And I’m scared.

Garrus frowned. “So you’ve seen Saren on Eden Prime.”

Nihlus frowned as well. “Who told you that?”

“I’ve been investigating Saren’s connection with the geth.” He was half expecting Nihlus to cut in and add, alleged.

Instead, Nihlus just frowned even deeper. “Come across anything I should know about?” Say no, say no, please, say no.

“You know better than anyone,” Garrus shrugged. “Most of his activities are classified. I couldn’t find anything solid.” But I know he’s up to something. I can feel it in my gut.

Nihlus shook his head, but Garrus wasn’t sure if it was a gesture of denial, or an attempt to get rid of some unpleasant idea. He was totally confused now, and by the looks of it, Nihlus was as well.

“We’re running late,” said the red-haired woman. She started to leave, with the other two following close.

But before joining the humans, Nihlus grabbed Garrus by the arm. “We need to talk,” he whispered with all the urgency that ran beneath their private conversation.

“I’m on duty…”

“Chora’s Den, after six.”

Garrus reluctantly nodded, but Nihlus was already jogging away. In a hurry. Always in a hurry.

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