Played

Chapter 13 of Ghost in the Machine

Shepard watched Nihlus stalk away with the Councilors. She was concerned. He looked like shit. His eyes were foggy, his voice lacked its usual strength, and his movements were sluggish. Two days had passed since Eden Prime; he wasn’t getting any better and attending the hearing had probably drained him of his last reserves. He excused himself from the company and went behind a door. The restroom.

“Alenko, go see if he’s ok.”

“Why me?”

She raised an eyebrow at him.

“Yessir,” he said, and jogged away.

Shepard shook her head absently.

“Why does he do that?” said Williams.

“Hmm? What?”

“Call you sir.”

“I don’t mind.”

“Should I call you sir?”

Shepard focused on her, perhaps for the first time since the debriefing. Was she serious? It was difficult to tell. “As long as you follow orders, it’s all the same to me.” And what the hell did it matter anyway? It wasn’t like Williams would stay on board.

“Can I call you Skipper, then?”

“Sure.” Whatever.

Williams was obviously craving more conversation, but Shepard’s thoughts were elsewhere. Nihlus wasn’t her only concern. What the fuck was Anderson doing? She had no idea he harbored such hatred for Saren. Or perhaps for turians in general. Not every veteran of the First Contact War did – only the vast majority.

She snorted to herself and Williams gave her an eager look. Shepard looked away.

Hatred, true hatred, was a feeling as far removed from anything she’d experienced in her violent life, as true love. And just as well. Hatred was counterproductive. Perhaps a scheming little slime like Udina could afford it, but a professional soldier should know better than to let his feelings run rampant like that. Anderson hated Saren’s guts so hard he couldn’t hide it. That outburst had been a fucking disgrace. And then, after they had all been dismissed, he’d given Nihlus a piece of his mind, in front of everyone. Shepard had thought that she’d have to hold them apart, or worse, but Nihlus, at least, had shown some restraint and left before things could escalate beyond bared teeth and angry stares.

Damn, she wasn’t ready for this shit. She’d never signed up for meddling with diplomats and Councilors and whatnot. Whose brilliant idea was to put her through as the first human Spectre anyway? It was a lousy fucking idea. Give me something to kill – whatever! – no problems there. But this was dirty and cowardly and required acting and lying and stabbing people in the back and it made her sick to her stomach.

She wasn’t used to feeling inadequate.

At the other end of the hall, the restroom door opened and Alenko emerged with Nihlus right behind him. They exchanged a nod, and Nihlus hurried off. Alenko came walking back at a brisk pace, but when he arrived, he just stood there, silent.

He was weird. Competent, and not overly verbose, which was to her taste. And good looking, which was also to her taste. Perhaps it was the biotics and all the associated baggage. Not that she had any business talking about other people’s baggage. Or perhaps it was the way his eyes didn’t always smile with his lips. There, that stare again. He didn’t approve of her.

But that she was used to.

“So?” she demanded when it became apparent he wouldn’t speak up on his own.

A shrug. “He’s fine, as far as I can tell. Popped another Dextrocodone. I told him it’s addictive. He told me he appreciates the concern. That’s it.”

“Mmh.”

What had she expected? She opened her mouth to ask more questions, but Anderson and Udina were approaching them.

“It was a mistake to bring you into the hearing, David,” Udina was saying. “You and Saren have too much history. It made the Council question our motives.”

Damn right. But she held her tongue in check, making a note of ‘history.’ When Anderson spoke about Saren during the debriefing, he’d sounded more than well-informed; but ‘history’ was new.

“I know Saren,” said Anderson, voice still soaked with acid. “His reasons for working with the geth could be anything, but one thing is certain: every colony we have is at risk. Every world we control is in danger. Even Earth isn’t safe.”

Alenko and Williams exchanged an embarrassed glance, and Shepard felt the same way. That was way, way out there. Saren was a dangerous son of a bitch, that much was obvious, and the way he played them at the hearing was no less formidable than his reputed performance in combat. But Anderson was beginning to sound outright paranoid.

She cleared her throat. “Tell me about this history between you and Saren.”

Anderson turned with a surprised expression, as if he’d forgotten all about the rest of them standing there. There was a bewildered gleam in his eye. “I worked with him on a mission a long time ago,” he said at last. “Things went bad. Real bad.” He paused, as if weighing whether he should say more. “We shouldn’t talk about this here. But I know what he’s like, and he has to be stopped.”

Shepard shook her head. “So what’s our next step?”

The only answer she wanted to hear was retaliation, but that was her heart speaking, not her head. The Council had made it clear a long time ago that no help from their fleets would be forthcoming in protecting human colonies, and for all the outrage, the geth attack didn’t seem to stir up anything more than vague sympathy. So the only reasonable course of action would be to find out what they were dealing with, and quickly; prioritize, in the meantime. Pull troops from the smaller settlements to fortify the developed worlds and hope this was an isolated incident, not the prelude to a war.

What Udina actually said was so removed from her chain of reasoning that she had difficulty parsing it. “As a Spectre, he’s virtually untouchable.” He mused for a second, barely long enough for Shepard to figure out that he was speaking about Saren. “We need to find some way to expose him.”

Right. That’s obviously our first order of business. Fuck the dead on Eden Prime, fuck the Prothean artifact and fuck the way it made Nihlus sick. Saren is what matters. Saren, Saren, Saren. She was sick of hearing that name and had to fight the urge to roll her eyes.

“What about that C-Sec officer?” Alenko said. “We saw him arguing with the Executor.”

“That’s right,” Williams joined in. “He was asking for more time to finish some investigation. Seemed like he was close to finding something on Saren, or the geth, or both.”

“Thank you,” Shepard cut in, throwing them both a warning glance. Way to go, feeding right into this madness. What the hell was wrong with everyone today?

“Do you know where to find him?” said Anderson.

Shepard sighed. Talk about a waste of time. “Yes, sir,” she said in the end.

Udina looked impressed. He nodded, pouted his pale, flat lips, and said, “Carry on, Shepard. Find this man and see what he knows.”

Anderson shifted from foot to foot. “Ambassador, I’m…”

“I don’t want the Council using your past history with Saren as an excuse to ignore anything we turn up. Shepard will handle this.”

They stared at each other for a time, and then Anderson subsided. “You’re right. I need to step aside.”

Udina nodded again. “I have to take care of some business. David, meet me in my office later.”

He left and the four of them stood in silence for a while. Anderson was studying his toes, and when Shepard finally spoke again, he jumped a bit.

“So you and Saren have a history. What happened?”

He looked up at her, thinking, then shook his head. “Alright,” he said. “About twenty years ago, I was part of a mission in the Skyllian Verge. I was working with Saren to find and remove a known terrorist threat. Saren eliminated his target, but a lot of people died along the way. Innocent people. And the official records just… covered it all up. But I saw how he operates. No conscience. No hesitation. He’d kill a thousand innocent civilians to end a war without a second thought.”

Shepard frowned. Not exactly what happened on Torfan, but close enough. Which raised the question: if he had a problem with this, why the fuck did he want her on his team? “Sometimes a thousand people must die so a million can live,” she said, cautiously.

“But only if there’s no other way,” Anderson insisted. “Saren doesn’t even look for another option. He’s twisted, broken. He likes the violence, the killing. And he knows how to cover his tracks.”

“You know him that well?”

“No, not well.” Thinking again, measuring what to say. “I’ve been tracking his career. Public records, extranet appearances. I haven’t seen him up close since…”

His voice trailed off, eyes distant, frown etched deep, and she couldn’t help but wonder… But no. She most definitely had no business talking about other people’s baggage.

“Udina was right,” Anderson concluded. “You’re the better choice for this, Shepard.”

Finally, some reason. She relaxed a notch, offered him a small smile. “Thank you, sir.”

He grunted some reply and walked away with long, thoughtful strides.


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