Out of the Frying Pan

Chapter 24 of Ghost in the Machine

Liara’s life flashed in front of her. Before, she had thought that no more than a convenient phrase. Something polite to say while avoiding the generally uncomfortable subject of regrets.

Perhaps because she had never been truly afraid for her life before. Not a very accomplished life. Not as filled with memories of exotic places, exciting people, heart-breaking love affairs and adventures as the lives of those few people she had come to admire. All the more reason to cling to it. Save it. Live! Live to see those places and meet those people and have her heart broken and her body taken and experience something worth admiration. For what had flashed in front of her was not a selection of precious moments or the faces of loved ones, but a summary of her recent research results.

Disgusted, she glanced at the strangers riding with her in the vehicle: a crazed-looking human woman behind the wheel, a mostly unconscious, vaguely familiar turian in the back seat with Liara, and a krogan who was yawning despite the fact that they were speeding right into the black smoke and lava boiling out of a huge crack in the ground.

Liara recommended her soul to the Goddess – not for the first time today – and closed her eyes.

But instead of horrible pain, burning and choking, she felt sudden acceleration pressing her back into the seat. She peeked, to see the human pulling the wheel back and down with a feral groan. There was a moment of weightless floating, and then the vehicle hit the ground again. Liara’s head slammed against the hard roof, and then her bottom slammed against the edge of the seat – which was only slightly less hard – on the way down. The turian next to her bounced up and down as well, head lolling and limbs settling at odd angles. Like a dead thing.

For a moment, Liara forgot her discomfort. She glanced at the two mismatched figures in the front, and met the human’s disturbing stare in the rearview mirror.

“Make sure he’s okay,” the human commanded. Her voice was dry, raspy, and loaded with such authority that Liara did not even consider questioning the order.

It was not a trivial task to sit the turian upright in the lurching vehicle. His combat suit was cold and hard under her fingers, his arms limp and heavy in her hold. Half a minute of struggle passed before she managed to strap him to the seat. She placed three fingers on his neck, sticky with grime and sweat. His pulse was strong. His breathing, regular.

“He seems to be fi-”

Another bump on the ground made her rebound between the roof and the seat again, only this time, her right breast landed hard on the turian’s armored shoulder. She bit her tongue, tears of sharp pain trickling from the corners of her eyes.

“You can slow down now, Shepard,” said the krogan.

“Don’t tell me what to do,” the human snapped in reply.

Liara blinked the haze away and looked through the front viewport. A rusty Therum landscape that looked the same in all directions. It was impossible to tell if the ground beneath them was still shaking or not. There was a wireframe map of the area on the navigation console; Liara could not make out the various labels in tiny human script, but the glowing red circle, marking a zone that they had just cleared, required no interpretation.

She buckled up and let out a shuddery sigh of relief. “Where are we going?”

“To the rendezvous point,” the human said, as if it were common knowledge. The tone made Liara sink back into her seat without another word. She could not place the insignia on the human’s armor, and the other two wore none. Although they certainly appeared to be military, it did not seem like they were a part of a regular unit. More like a band of mercenaries.

A new surge of adrenaline washed over her, driving cold sweat out of all her pores. She could not remember the reasoning behind the assumption that they had come to rescue her. What if they had kidnapped her instead? What if…

Just as she gathered the courage to start asking questions, the krogan spoke again.

“What the hell happened there, Shepard?”

“I should be the one to ask you,” the human said. “You were standing right next to him. Why the fuck didn’t you stop him?”

Liara could swear that this Shepard sounded more krogan-like than the actual krogan in their company, who merely snorted.

“Easier said than done. He doesn’t like being told what to do any more than you do.”

A minute passed in silence. With each second, the droning of the engine and the hissing of the suspension system grew louder and more threatening in Liara’s ears. Who are these people?

“The same thing happened on Eden Prime,” the human muttered in the end. “He went near the beacon and it incapacitated him.”

“The beacon?”

The human glanced at her again through the rear-view, and Liara regretted speaking.

“Don’t act surprised.” Princess. “It’s what you were guarding behind that barrier. What Saren sent his geth for.”

“Impossible,” Liara said, hoping that she did not sound as frightened as she was feeling. “Nobody knew about the beacon. We only discovered it today.”

The human raised a suspicious eyebrow, sending a rush of heat up Liara’s cheeks despite the trembling within. She had been called names before (pureblood look at the pureblood it’s like incest it’s like fucking your own mother) but she had never been called a liar.

“Who are you, anyway?” she said. Her voice was trembling too. “What right have you to interrogate me? And where are you taking me?”

“I’m with the Alliance,” the human said.

“The Alliance has limited jurisdiction over sites registered with AFPPOL. As a Council insti-”

“I’m a Spectre.”

“No you are not. There are no humans in the Spectres yet.”

The krogan chuckled, and the human rolled her eyes.

“All right.” Princess.He’s a Spectre.” And she gestured at the unconscious turian.

Liara had already taken a breath to continue her questioning, but the turian shifted, and her gaze snapped to him. He did look familiar, and it was not the superficial resemblance to Councilor Sparatus. She had seen him before. On the extranet? Now that she had the idea, she could almost remember the name. Kyrik? That sounded right. Could the human be telling the truth?

By the time she shook off the fascination and remembered her purpose, the anger had evaporated from her overloaded mind. She had never been so exhausted in her life. She had never been traumatized in her life. Mother’s voice whispered in her head. You wanted experience. Was it worth it?

She swallowed. “Am I… under arrest?”

The human directed a hostile stare at her through the rear-view, but did not answer.

#

It was a relief, to see an actual Alliance space ship at the ‘rendezvous point’. The word ‘Normandy’ was inscribed over the new-looking hull in huge human letters. That put things into context. The Normandy was the first joint turian/human military project, rumored to be packed with top-secret prototype technologies based on discoveries from the Martian Archives. This ship was not only the pride of the Alliance fleet, but also a symbol of the Humanity’s readiness to join the larger galactic society. Liara snorted to herself. They were ready all right. To fill the role of the bully.

She was tugged and pulled along with the procession of humans who had emerged to rush the Spectre into the infirmary. Bewildered by the new scenery and so many unfriendly, alien faces, Liara could process only a part of what was being said and done. The woman who had driven them from the dig was obviously in command, barking short, sharp orders, and the men in uniforms moved swiftly in all directions with dry military efficiency. Hundreds of new smells, colors and sounds assaulted her senses and she was almost grateful for someone’s strong hand, gripping her by the arm and steering her through a network of dark stairs and passages.

Finally she was shoved through a door and white, overhead light hit her forehead like a hammer. The air was suddenly filled with a high-pitched scent of chemicals that told her they had reached the infirmary. As soon as the Spectre was deposited on a bed, the human ordered that Liara be searched and locked up in the lab, with someone named Alenko standing guard in front until further notice.

#

The lab was better than the brig, she supposed. At least the low humming of the medical equipment and the holo screens popping up at her proximity made for a familiar atmosphere.

She stood at the door for many seconds, trying to enumerate her options. But she was so very tired. No, Mother, she thought. It was not worth it. Recent memories started invading her thoughts, mixing with new information and desperate ideas into a dreamlike mishmash of utter nonsense.

Perhaps she should try to contact… who, exactly? The Council? A waste of time: she was being held on the authority of a Council Spectre. The Department? They were no more apt at rescuing… prisoners… hostages… whatever she was now, then volus were at biotics. Unlike this Alenko person. She could feel his field clearly through the door, forceful, hard and unrefined. It was making her spine tingle and running sparks over her skin. He must have taken the order to guard her very seriously, if he was investing all that energy to make sure she did not surprise him. Hah. With what? Spent and stressed out as she was, she probably could not lift a pencil, let alone fight. Her captors… rescuers… whatever they were, obviously considered her a threat. And that Shepard person… who must have done something good to deserve command over the Normandy… she was obviously set upon accusing Liara of being an accomplice in the attacks on human colonies. Accusing her together with Saren and… Mother.

Mother! With some mental gymnastics, Liara could imagine Saren being involved, but Mother? An artist, a philosopher, one of the greatest peacemakers in the history of her people? Ridiculous! Besides, Mother knew she was on Therum and would never allow… but then, Liara had survived, unlike everybody else. The geth… had they really been trying to pass through the barrier curtain? They had amassed there, swarming in front of her frozen, helpless stare, like insects out of a burning hive, shining their cyclopean flashlights in search for something, but had it really been her? It had seemed so clear at the time but the specifics were fading already. Perhaps…

Another chain of quivers ran down her back and she finally made a blind step forward. Tried to log into one of the terminals. Of course it did not let her. Suddenly she hated the thing so intensely that she barely kept from smashing the projector into bits with her bare fists. A pair of tears rolled down her cheeks. She heaved a long, heavy sigh, took a seat and lowered her face into her filthy, filthy hands.

#

The sound of the door, opening, woke her up. She jumped, heart beating wildly against her ribcage, and the light chair she had been sitting on fell back with a racket.

“I am sorry,” she said, picking it up. “I must have dozed off.”

Only when she saw a white-striped turian standing there, watching her with a mildly concerned expression, did she remember where she was. She had woken up thinking she was back in her office on Therum, and now everything came back in a sickening rush.

“You are the Spectre,” she said.

The turian nodded. “Nihlus. Nihlus Kryik.”

“Kryik.”

“I prefer Nihlus.”

“That was not… I have heard your name before and… oh, never mind.” She looked straight into his eyes. “Am I your prisoner?”

“I need you to answer some questions. Then we’ll see.”

His voice was soothing and his eyes, friendly. At least the answer was not ‘yes’. Liara relaxed a little and sat down again. There was no telling for how long she had slept, but the exhaustion still weighed heavily on her limbs.

“I already told you I had nothing to do with the attack. I do not know how I can prove it with everything destroyed and everyone… gone. And I do not believe for a second that my mother had anything to do with it either. Do you know who she is? Do you know anything about her? It is outrageous, preposterous-”

The turian lifted a hand to interrupt her. “I know quite a bit about Matriarch Benezia,” he said. “I’ve met her, twice. She’s one hell of a lady.”

“So why would you-”

“There’s… compelling evidence to implicate both her and Saren in a recent attack on another human colony.” He shifted weight from one foot to the other. “I don’t know if you’ve heard about-”

“Eden Prime? Of course I have. It has cast the entire field into a state of near-panic. And for good reasons, I suppose.” She swallowed. “What evidence?”

He stared at her for several breaths, silent and motionless apart from nervous twitching of his mandibles. As if waging some argument within. Finally he too sat down, and turned on his omni with a deep sigh. “This was salvaged from a memory core of a dying geth,” he said, and played a file.

Saren’s voice echoed in the little room. “Set course for Eden Prime. The beacon will bring us one step closer to finding the Conduit.”

And then Mother spoke: “And one step closer to the return of the Reapers.”

Liara kept looking at the turian’s omni, waiting for more, but nothing came. At last she looked at him, and laughed at his solemn expression, although she was anything but cheerful. “What? Is that it? You cannot possibly think that-”

“Saren led the attack on Eden Prime,” the turian said. There was more mandible-twitching. “He tried to kill me.”

Liara blinked. “Was Mother with him?”

“No. But there’s a lot to indicate that they’ve been working together for almost a year now.”

“Working.”

“Raiding Prothen sites. Looking for the beacons.”

Liara shook her head and started to tell him once more how ridiculous all of this was, especially if that recording was all the evidence he had, but then she suddenly remembered that awful business from… just a bit over a year ago, when Mother actually tried bribing the head of the Department into assigning Liara with a permanent teaching position. Not with credits, of course. Mother was too subtle for that. It had been some political concession or another, and all with the goal of keeping Liara tied up on the University and far away from field work – something Mother had been trying to effect, through less invasive means, for yet another year prior to that shameful event. Liara had never quite recovered from that breach of everything, from privacy and her right to make her own decisions, to common decency and even law. But in the light of everything she’d learned today, she could not deny that the timing was right. Her thoughts went to the last time she saw Mother, on that terrible dinner in Saren’s apartment. To the air of secrecy and their silent communication. And inevitably, to the way she had disappeared with a veritable army of her most dedicated followers.

“It is… extremely difficult to believe this,” she said at last.

“Yeah.”

The strangely sentimental tone, alive with the vibrating of turian subvocalizations, made Liara arch her eyebrows.

“Saren is an old friend of mine,” he explained, then shook his head and his gaze drifted away, searching the floor. “I didn’t see it coming any more than you have. I didn’t want to believe it either. But I’m afraid it’s quite true. Quite real. I had my doubts before what happened today, but it can’t have been a coincidence. The only question that remains is – why.”

“I do not have the answer. Do you believe me?” Please, please, say you believe me. Let this nightmare end, at least.

He deliberated on it for a long time. The silence was excruciating and Liara found it difficult to sit still under his relentless eyes, scanning her for weak spots like a pair of targeting lasers. But she had nothing to hide and she held his stare, awaiting judgment with all the dignity she could muster.

Degree by degree, his expression softened and at last he nodded. “I believe you.”

She did not bother trying to hide a huge sigh of relief. “Thank the Goddess. Does that mean I am free to go?”

“I won’t stop you,” he said. “But it will be safer for you to stay here until this mess is sorted out. And… well. We could use a Prothean expert on board.” He swallowed what sounded like a big knot. “I could. I need your help, Dr T’Soni.”

“Liara,” she said, offering a little smile. It was so much easier to breathe, now that the air was clear of suspicions. Her faculties were returning, bits and pieces from different conversations falling into place. Enough to make an educated guess. “The beacons?”

“Yeah.”

She sat back, tasting salt and smoke from her lower lip. Although it had been worded as an appeal, they both knew it was actually an offer.

An offer she could not refuse.


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