Off With the Gloves

Chapter 12 of Ghost in the Machine

Garrus stood in front of the Council Chambers for a long time after Nihlus had disappeared within. His omni was open, and Dad’s picture was staring at him from the contact list, with that signature frown furrowing his thick browplates. It wasn’t difficult to imagine the heart-warming greeting that would open the conversation – “What do you need now?” Or maybe a “Can it wait? I’m in the middle of something important.”

He shuddered. He didn’t want to call Dad, not now, not ever. The last time they had spoken was almost a year back – and even then, it had only been on account of Mom’s transfer back to Palaven. Dad had been so reserved and reticent it had felt like talking to a wall.

But who else was he supposed to turn to, now that Pallin had pulled his support for good? Dad had friends in high places and would be able to get him the kind of authorization needed to smoke the damn quarian out of hiding – but would he be willing? Would he listen? He never had, but… maybe it was worth another try.

His gloved finger hovered above Dad’s picture, closed in, jerked back, closed in again, and then he curled his hand into a fist to stop it from shaking. No. I’ll do this on my own. I can do this on my own.

He dismissed the interface and inhaled a giant breath of air, like a man saying goodbye to life. And in a way, he was. From here on out, it was a one-way trip, as exhilarating as it was horrifying.

#

Docked between two almost identical, brand-new Darwin-class freighters, the Lilei looked like a piece of space junk. A turian interceptor, decommissioned more than twenty years ago, she had probably been sitting in a scrap yard before some enterprising quarian – perhaps Tali’Zorah nar Rayya herself – had given her a new life. Garrus spent some minutes eying the vessel through the viewport. The ship’s manifest belied her battered appearance. There were so many custom-modded systems attached to the hull that the graceful lines of the ship beneath were barely discernible.

There was no one in the dark, claustrophobic access tunnel. No surprise. Garrus swallowed back the familiar discomfort and pinged the control panel on the hatch. Just in case. Not that he seriously thought she’d let him in even if she was inside, but it was the gentlemanly thing to do.

He waited for a minute, then brought up his omni. His heart rate spiked as he shut down the C-Sec listening ports one by one. Sure, he could go to work tomorrow and pretend his omni had been broken – or try to. The humans would probably buy it, but lying to Pallin was impossible. It was no more than pointless theorizing, though; after their conversation today, he’d sooner go pole-dancing in the Dark Star than back to C-Sec.

The override came through a lot faster than he’d expected and he went for his sidearm on reflex as the hatch hissed open before him. Something was wrong; he could feel it in his gut. No thermal signatures on his visor, but a sealed suit could mask them. He stepped inside, frowning at the dense darkness and the faint smell of smoke. The motion sensors in the airlock turned the floor lights on, painting the choked space in faint yellows; modded, Garrus thought, pressing his back against the bulkhead at the entrance to the cabin. They’d have been blue on a turian vessel.

He spun around the corner, aiming his pistol at the shadowy compartment ahead, striped by silver light coming from the viewport.

“Aw, shit,” he muttered, lowering the weapon. There was nobody there now. They had beaten him to it. The Lilei’s interior was in a state of complete chaos.

Everything was open – the miniature restroom, the two rows of closets, even some of the maintenance panels. Every container, every nook and cranny had been emptied and overturned. Bullet holes on the far wall – small caliber, low dispersion – no, those were too worn to be new. No blood that he could see or smell, and no signs of struggle. Well, that was something. The smoke was coming from a power junction behind a pried panel, intermittently lighting up with sparks. Garrus looked up to where he’d put a cryo-foam dispenser if it had been his ship, and sure enough, he found one. He sprayed the junction, making a circle of fine white powder under it.

“Shit,” he repeated, surveying the scene. A pile of miscellaneous stuff, from spare suit parts to tubes of quarian nutri-paste, littered the navigation console, with error messages blinking in urgent reds underneath. He pushed some of the things over the edge to clear off a portion of the display. The core was offline, reporting critical levels of impurities in the mixture. Garrus shook his head: the flight that had brought the Lilei to the Citadel had been her last. It was a brutal tactic, to disable the ship beyond repair. Someone really wanted to keep Tali on the station.

Someone. Ha! Garrus could practically smell Saren’s presence in the air. Son of a bitch.

Most of the systems were either fried for good, or had been shut down by the C-Sec lockout. Garrus tapped the comms. Nothing. He rummaged around a little, looking for something, anything, but it was an exercise in futility. A hard-copy book lying haphazardly on the floor caught his eye and he picked it up. There was a slim, nicely proportioned quarian woman on the cover, held in a protective embrace by a bulky turian man pointing the barrel of an over-sized pistol at the viewer. “Broken Chirality” was the title. Garrus snorted and was going to drop it when his omni buzzed.

Dr Michel. A hushed whisper. “Garrus, I need help,” she said, looking over her shoulder. The recorder was set to face-scan only and he couldn’t see her surroundings. “They’re trying to break in, and-”

“Are you in the clinic?” He was already on his way out, a sudden surge of adrenalin racking through his nerves like chemical fire. By the Spirits, if something happens to her –

“Yes! I’m in the back but there’s no other way out -”

“Stay calm, Chloe,” he said, instinctively weaving a deep, parenting undercurrent into his voice although calm was the one thing he wasn’t feeling right now. His battle reflexes were kicking in. Find the shortest route. Evasive maneuvers through the crowd in the waiting area; civilians, Vakarian, don’t trample the civilians. “Don’t panic. Don’t fight. Stall them, I’ll be there in-”

Shit. It would take him the whole fucking day to get there on foot.

“It’s that quarian you told me about, Garrus. She was here. She told me there were men after her but I didn’t listen-”

“Yeah.” Nobody listens. Nobody ever listens. He steered towards the first parked skycar. Fancy colors, last year’s model. He used his C-Sec credentials to get in, scenarios playing out in his mind already, each worse than the last. He goes in, finds Chloe dead, end of story. He goes in, finds nothing, spends the next decade looking for her, his soul withering, lamenting his many failures. He goes in, she’s a hostage, she’s killed in the gunfight and he can’t tell if it was their bullet or his that killed her and he fucking shoots himself. Shit. The one friend he’d made, despite himself, in all the years he’d spent in this C-Sec prison. If something happens to her, someone’s going to die, and it’s going to be ugly. It’s going to be fucking ugly.

Garrus was usually a careful driver but this time he didn’t even stop to strap himself in. The traffic was exactly what he’d expect it to be at 1600 hours and the stream of profanities, flowing through his mind like a radioactive river, was only held back by Chloe’s presence on the other end of the line, by her uneven breathing. She was scared out of her mind, he could tell from the cadence of her voice, from the pitch of her whispers. Then he caught the crackling of overloaded electronics. They had given up the attempt to hack the lock. They were forcing their way in.

The line went dead and his heart with it.

#

Two minutes and one suicidal ride later, he “parked” the sky car in the middle of the Upper Market Square, sending the crowd scurrying away in panic.

He crouched in front of the entrance to the clinic, pistol readied in his hands, pulse racing. The door was wide open, a shower of sparks falling from the console, and there were voices inside. A weight rolled off his heart. She was still alive.

But she was a hostage. A peek around the corner, just enough for his visor to register three thermal signatures: a small one smothered in the embrace of a larger one, the third on the other end of the waiting room, leaning over the terminal with the patient records. All human.

“I didn’t tell anyone, I swear,” she was pleading in a broken voice. Another quick peek, then he used the rising clamor from the Market Square to sneak in and press his back against the counter, staying low. He could take out the one holding her. Clean line of sight, and at this range, one bullet would blow his brains out. Instant kill, no twitching.

Well; that was the theory. Going by the book, he was supposed to try and negotiate.

“Now if that cop comes around, you stay smart,” said a gruff human voice. “Keep your mouth shut or we’ll-”

Garrus recommended his aim to the Spirits, stood up and took the shot. Chloe screamed, but the splatter of blood and brains on the wall wasn’t hers. In the second it took him to ascertain that, the other human opened fire. Garrus threw himself down towards Chloe, sweeping her over the slippery hospital floor with him until they were both safe under the row of seats on the other side of the waiting room. The human shot a few more rounds, uselessly. He wasn’t getting away: Garrus had the exit covered.

Chloe’s breathing was quick and shallow, like a hunted animal’s. She was staring at him, bloodshot eyes wet and glistening in gratitude and trust and… something he didn’t have time for.

“Stay down,” he whispered, and she gave him a feverish nod. The human reloaded, and Garrus ducked out, took the shot. Another clean kill, but not before he got a good punch in the shoulder.

“Garrus!”

“I’m fine,” he grunted, feeling the cracks in the ceramics of the suit. “The armor took it. What about you?”

Instead of replying, she stepped right into his personal space, clung to his neck, and sobbed into his collar. Humans. He patted her shoulder awkwardly.

“It’s alright.” Despite the discomfort, his voice reverted to the low, comforting modes that translated over the racial barriers surprisingly well. A few moments later, she released him, rubbing her eyes like a child. He holstered his pistol and looked around. “I’m sorry about this, Chloe. I should have know better than to drag you into -”

“Don’t be absurd. You saved my life. Again.”

“Aw, come on, Chloe.” Garrus crouched next to the corpse by the counter, scanned the omni with his own. “That blackmail thing was nowhere near this bad.” There was nothing in the armor compartments and he moved to the second body, not quite daring to look at her. “This thing? This is really bad. You need to lay low until it blows over.”

“What does that mean?”

The hysterical note was back in her voice and he paused to turn to her. His mouth spoke before he could stop himself. “You can stay in my apartment. You’ll be safe there.”

She blinked at him a couple of times. “What about you?”

He dug out a datapad from the pockets of the dead human, but there was nothing on it except an outdated version of Space Conquest. “Don’t worry about me.” He stood up and faced her. “Can you find someone to replace you here for a week, maybe two?”

For a long time, she just stared at him as if the translators had gone offline. It didn’t take much effort to imagine what was going through her head. After all the years she had invested, all the sacrifices she had made for the noble goal of providing free medical care to complete strangers – this is what she got in return? The injustice of it made his vision darken, and she must have sensed it, because her shoulders slouched even lower.

“If you think it’s necessary.”

“Spirits, Chloe, I’m not angry at you.” It was the truth, but the anger was real and he couldn’t keep it out of his voice. “I’m angry at – this.” And he gestured at the mess around them. “You deserve better than this, and I should have been here in time to stop it from happening.”

Two huge tears rolled down her cheeks and Garrus looked away, trying to keep his mandibles still. After a while, the silence became unbearable.

“Tell me about the quarian.”

Chloe wiped her face, moved as if to sit on one of the chairs, but there was a blotch of red blood and gray matter on it and she straightened up, glancing at the others. The entire row was sprayed. She ended up leaning against the counter, shaking slightly, but his visor said her vitals were within normal ranges, so he let her be.

“She came here this morning. Exit wound through the upper arm, some fragments in the bone but no fracture.”

Garrus frowned. He’d seen that report. It hadn’t rung a bell. Damn.

“I wanted to call you right away,” she hurried to add, mistaking his expression. “But the infection was setting in already and I had to work fast. I gave her a large dose of wide-spectrum antibiotics and I wanted to give her an injection of medigel, but she only allowed me to apply it locally. She didn’t want any sedatives either, even though she was very tired and frightened. I told her she should remain under observation for at least a day, but she wouldn’t hear of it.”

“Did she say who was after her?”

“She mentioned the Shadow Broker.”

“The Shadow Broker?” It shouldn’t have been a surprise. What else would the quarian do with the kind of intel she had, if not sell it to the highest bidder? Now that he had the idea, he looked at the dead humans again. “Chloe, do you know these men?”

She nodded weakly. “I’ve seen them before. They work for Fist.”

Of course. But if the quarian wanted to sell the intel to the Shadow Broker, why would his agent try to kill her? Shooting at suppliers wasn’t good for business. There was more to this than met the eye. He could almost feel Saren breathing down his neck.

“I’m going to pay Fist a visit,” he muttered. Then he snorted. “I was on my way to the Den anyway.”


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