Chapter 14 of Ghost in the Machine
Nihlus didn’t know what to make of the fact that every single waitress in the Den recognized him. He had no memory of any of them. He downed a shot of quarian tequila, then asked for the whole bottle and settled into one of the secluded booths in the back. The slow rhythm of the music – drell, as far as he could tell – was resonating with his vocal cavity in a pleasant, dreamy way. For the first time since setting foot on the Normandy, he could relax, let his head roll back, let his eyes focus on infinity. With each drag from the bottle, he was feeling more and more like doing exactly what Saren had suggested: forgetting any commitment ‘he thought he owed him’ and reliving one of the hottest experiences of his youth: Garrus Vakarian.
Why hadn’t he thought of drowning his problems in alcohol before? Oh, right. He was on duty. A Spectre is always on duty, he told himself in Saren’s’voice, and tried to gauge the fidelity of his impression of Saren’s face from the distorted reflection on the bottle. But no amount of pressing mandibles tightly to his chin and squinting eyes in parody of never-ending suspicious calculation could make him look like Saren. Just like no amount of disdain or carefully-maintained detachment could make him be like Saren, the cold, emotionless, barefaced bastard.
Stop it. You know better than that.
He rummaged through his left pocket for the little plastic case. The temptation to open it and touch the memento inside was overwhelming. His hand clenched into a shaking fist above the magnetic lock. He was barely holding his head over the water as it was, and the badge packed the kind of sentimental punch that would sink him as surely as a ton of rock tied to his ankle.
Hurriedly, he put it away and folded his hands in his lap. One of the dancers was measuring him up from the stage; she spun around the pole, gripping it tightly between her legs and turning her head gracefully throughout the pirouette so as to keep eye contact as long as possible. Her bright eyes were twinkling, her dark lips curling up. Nihlus was about to give her an inviting wink when an armored figure eclipsed his view. In the hushed red light, the blue of the C-Sec uniform looked black and it took Nihlus a second to realize it was Garrus.
“I came as soon as I could,” he was saying, slightly breathless.
Nihlus smiled, stood up and pulled him into a brief, rough hug. The hardsuits made it awkward, but when he leaned in to touch cheeks, Garrus returned the gesture with genuine affection.
He smelled of sweat and excitement, and Nihlus saw the new crack in his armor. “Straight from a fight, eh?”
“Nothing to worry about.”
They regarded one another for a few seconds, just breathing, testing the water. It wasn’t uncomfortable. Nihlus gestured at the table. “Look what I’ve got,” he said softly.
Garrus gave a humorous huff. “And there I thought all those promised drinks were empty words.”
Nihlus laughed a little, sitting down and motioning Garrus to follow. He had grown, Nihlus decided, and not just in the breadth of his shoulders. He had been little more than a wiry teenager when they’d first met, and though the years hadn’t yet marked his carapace, they showed in his cynical stare as he studied Nihlus’ face. Nihlus allowed him to feast; he let his smile wilt and relaxed into an expression of profound sadness that he was only beginning to acknowledge.
“And here I am, falling apart again,” he said.
Garrus took a sip from the bottle. The burn made him choke. “Damn. I’m out of practice.”
“Being a cop does that to you.”
“Has being a Spectre done that to you?” And he gestured vaguely with his mandibles.
“No. Saren has.”
“Oh.” Garrus took another drag, longer, and this time he didn’t choke. “Figures,” he muttered.
“That the two of you are… close.”
“Not anymore.” Nihlus swallowed, his pulse suddenly drumming in his ears. Perhaps saying it out loud would make it real, make it stick, make him believe it. It certainly made it hurt. Spirits, it was like a stab in the gut. He reached for the bottle and Garrus passed it over, wiping his mouth with the sleeve on the underside of his right wrist.
Nihlus snorted at how his eyes lit up with understanding. “Shit, Garrus. Can’t you at least pretend you’re sorry?”
“That’s not… Damn.” His mandibles flickered nervously. “I’m sorry to see you’re in pain.”
“Yeah.” He could believe that. Garrus was a good sort. “What of you?”
“Me? Pfff. No ties whatsoever.” His expression changed from amused to something between bored and disgusted. “I hate this place.” He whirled a gloved hand to indicate their surroundings, then stilled and stared deeply into Nihlus’ eyes, returning the favor by allowing all his misery to come out on the tones under his words. “It’s like a disease. Killing me slowly. Every day I do nothing, I die a little.”
The way he spat out nothing made Nihlus wince. “What do you mean, nothing? Without C-Sec, this place would fall apart in a matter of minutes.”
“I guess being a Spectre doesn’t stop you from being naïve,” Garrus said, and the sudden iciness of the insult reminded Nihlus so vividly of Saren that he had to take another drag from the bottle to hide his confusion. “The leash is so short you might as well call it a fucking shackle. Your boyfriend is a perfect example. Look me in the eye, Nihlus, and tell me you honestly believe that his hands are clean. I dare you.”
Nihlus put down the bottle and straightened himself in the seat. “No need to be rude. If you have something on Saren, I’ll listen. But I’ve heard more than enough name-calling for today. You know as well as I do that Saren is a great man. He’s done more for the Hierarchy and the Council in the last twenty years than all their armies together in the last century. If you knew the kind of shit we have to wade through so you people wouldn’t have to smell it on your streets, you’d have more sense than to talk about ‘clean hands.’ Fuck, Garrus. I thought you knew better than that.”
“All right,” Garrus said, leaning back and folding his arms across his chest. “All right. Let’s see if you’ll listen.”
Nihlus nodded, but when several seconds passed with nothing other than nervous mandible-clicking, he urged Garrus with his chin. “Out with it.”
“Saren’s working with the geth,” Garrus said in a low voice. “I’ve known about it for years now, but I couldn’t find anything on him that would stick. Until a few days ago.” He leaned across the table, and when he spoke again, Nihlus could smell the alcohol on his hot breath. “I have proof. I just need a little help to recover it.”
“You’re joking, right?” Nihlus wanted to laugh, but there was no humor in him. “You want me to help you find evidence that will prove… what exactly? That Saren has gone rogue?” Now he did laugh, but the ragged sound of his own voice scared him more than anything Garrus could have told him. Nonsense, it was all nonsense, right? Had to be.
“You can’t even begin to imagine just how much that doesn’t make sense. Sure, Saren believes the end justifies the means, but that end has always been the security of Citadel Space. Garrus, I’d put my life on it. I can see him doing whatever it takes to serve the Council – and sometimes that means getting dirty. My hands are far from clean and I don’t hear anyone calling me out on that shit.”
But Garrus’ face remained stony. Nihlus took a deep breath. “I could believe that he’s working with the geth – if, somehow, it leads back to serving the Council,” he concluded in the end. “Why else would he do it?”
“To hoard Prothean artifacts,” Garrus said. “That much is pretty clear from the evidence I gathered, even if it is all circumstantial.”
“Yeah. Don’t ask me why. To study them, sell them? Hell, maybe he wants to make a private collection. But the fact is, he’s been implicated in both the artifact raids and the geth reports. Again, nothing substantial enough to actually do something about it.” He growled in frustration. “But you don’t need to be a genius to make the connection. I’ll show you.”
Nihlus was transfixed, searching his drained, overloaded and – on top of it all – drunk mind for memories of reports about raided dig sites, kidnapped scientists, missing shipments, and yes, even robberies of museums – wondering if he could have missed it. After Eden Prime, it didn’t take a lot of effort to imagine that the incidents involving the Prothean artifacts were correlated with geth activity, but hell, none of it pointed to Saren, and he’d be damned if he’d let Garrus or anyone else drag his name through the mud based on nothing but a bunch of blah-blah. He started to say so, but found that Garrus had moved to sit next to him in the meantime, and was now showing him something on his omni. A star map with at least two dozen pins that he expanded one by one, explaining.
“Vernio, SGD 2182-12-10: a strange vessel is reported by the Solstice, an asari research ship; emission spectrum doesn’t match anything from the Citadel register. The next day, a minor Prothean site on the third moon of Polissa is raided. The dig is the destroyed and three of the four attending archaeologists killed. The survivor says she saw, quote, ‘a man that looked half turian and half mech and had blue eyes that shone in the dark.’ Sounds familiar?
“Silean Nebula, SGD 2183-02-10: turian freighter Hostia loses propulsion and drifts into the asteroid belt in Nahuala. In their last transmission, they reported the appearance of a large ship that doesn’t match any known spectra. I’m sure you see a pattern forming. Hostia was transporting a shipment of Prothean artifacts from Palaven to Belan. When the Alliance cruiser Shikoku found the wreck, the crew was dead, the shipment gone, the ship’s VI purged and rigged to self-destruct. One crew-member left his omni open during the attack and recorded one point three seconds of video from which I was able to make a partial facial reconstruction that fits Saren’s face with 60% confidence based on unique features. Turns out, the threshold to admit a facial reconstruction into evidence is 75%.
“Bellenas Range, SGD 2183-04-15: the negotiations over the exploitation of the asteroid belt in the Lobei System are postponed for a day because Saren, who is supposed to be the mediator, is late. Hours prior to his arrival, the colony museum was robbed by unknown assailants and their entire Prothean exhibition was taken. Later that day, a volus trade vessel, Navarie, reports seeing a huge ship of unknown design and signature orbiting the L3 point of Lobei’s substellar companion.
“Iunctio Cluster, SDG…”
Each stab of his finger in the starmap interface was a stab into Nihlus’ soul and he felt his very life ebbing through the holes. “Stop it,” he whispered.
“… the illegal batarian colony built on top of a Prothean site is attacked from orbit…”
“Stop it,” Nihlus said, louder, and Garrus stopped. But Nihlus had to take another drink before trusting himself to speak again. “Any… pictures of that ship? Scans on other wavelengths?”
“Yeah. One. But it’s barely…”
Garrus stabbed one more time, scrolled through the files, and produced a blurry thermal image that would have looked like a shapeless blob just two days ago. But now, Nihlus could recognize the ‘head’ and the ‘tail’ and the ‘legs’ all too well. His stomach turned and he swallowed back acid.
Garrus was studying him. “You’ve seen this before?”
Nihlus didn’t want to answer. Instead, he put a slightly shaking hand on top of Garrus’ arm. “I see how this makes Saren a suspect for the raids. But even if I believed he was behind all that… the ‘proof’ you mentioned earlier. What is it?”
“A voice clip where he says something to the effect of ‘let’s go attack Eden Prime.'”
Nihlus closed his eyes and ran a hand over his face, trying to make sense of it all. He couldn’t believe it. He just couldn’t believe it. None of it. None of it made sense, none of it could be true. No. Because if it were true… if Saren had gone rogue, pillaging Prothean sites for artifacts and annihilating anything that stood in his way, because that was his way – if there was a voice clip confirming that he’d planned to attack… then he hadn’t been on Eden Prime to help. Not to help Nihlus, or the colonists. He’d been there to steal the beacon and… and…
He didn’t want to think. He didn’t want to remember. He didn’t want to be eyeing the sky again, smelling the smoke again, turning to face the barrel of Saren’s pistol again. What the fuck?
His fingers touched the burn mark on his cheek and he shook his head, eyes shut tight. No. No. It wasn’t like that, that was not how it happened. It’s something else, some misunderstanding, and Saren will be able to explain it perfectly. He has not gone rogue, he has not broken up with me, he still loves me and he most certainly did not consider shooting me in the back on Eden Prime. Nihlus laughed, and he cared little for the hint of hysteria in his subvocals. Ridiculous. It was all completely ridiculous and he would not believe it.
“I can’t accept that.” When he put his hand down, he found Garrus looking at him with concern. “I can’t help you,” he said to cement it.
“You have to.” The reply was delivered in such a matter-of-fact tone that it got Nihlus’ full attention, despite the turmoil in his mind. “If Saren has really gone rogue and you do nothing about it… then you’ve gone rogue as well.”
The simple statement slapped him in the face. “Right,” he said, mostly to himself, fuzzy ideas about duty and honor and courage slowly coalescing into something that resembled a decision. “Right.”
Garrus regarded him for several long breaths before his ice-blue eyes softened a little. “I’m sorry, Nihlus.”
“Don’t,” Nihlus said. Pity was the last thing he needed right now. The first thing was to drink himself under the table. He took a long, scorching gulp, savoring the burn. When he opened his eyes, Garrus was back on the other side of the threadbare sofa, looking uncomfortable. That’s right. He came here asking for help. “What do you need from me?”
“I’m looking for a quarian. She has the voice clip I told you about, and she wants to sell it through Fist.”
“Fist? As in, the human who owns this place?”
“Yeah. He’s an agent of the Shadow Broker.”
“On the surface,” Nihlus heard himself say. He couldn’t believe he was doing this. But his mouth kept speaking. “He’s working for Saren.”
At that, Garrus laughed. “I knew it. I fucking knew it. Listen, Nihlus. We don’t have a lot of time. If we don’t find her first, she’s dead. They already tried to kill her.”
Shit. If Saren was worried enough to risk exposing Fist… He shook his head, trying to clear his mind. Everything was a blur. “So you want to…”
“Press Fist. But I can’t do it alone.”
Yeah. Nihlus looked around with a tired sigh, remembering the angles. The Den was a fucking fortress. He could probably get them into the back, but if things went bad – and they usually did – there would be a mess, what with all the civilians in the club and everything. He wasn’t up for this shit. He was drunk and sad and all he wanted was for everybody to leave him the fuck alone.
“We could use more hands,” he said in the end, thinking of Shepard. But just as he was about to say it, a large, strangely familiar shape went by their table, leaving a wake of cold air and a scent Nihlus could not ignore.
He turned around, making Garrus jump. Sure enough, there was a huge krogan headed for the VIP room. Nihlus shot up and found he was a bit unsteady on his feet.
“What is it?” said Garrus.
“If I’m not too drunk to tell,” Nihlus replied, stifling a hiccup, “that was Urdnot Wrex. Talk about good timing. Come on.”
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