Chapter 30 of Ghost in the Machine
At the same time…
Shepard had been shocked when she saw the geth for the first time, because hey! Nobody had seen the geth for three hundred years so obviously there was no need to fear them, right? Right?
And now that she was standing atop a dead rachni, she didn’t know how she was supposed to feel. Because nobody had seen the fucking rachni for three fucking thousand years and they were supposed to be fucking extinct. Since ‘shocked’ had already been taken, what then? Nerve-stripped and mind-wiped? What the hell was next, eh? Prothy the fucking Prothean?
Everybody else seemed equally lost for words, standing at a respectful distance around the twisted, shriveled up corpse of what looked like a disgusting, mutated, but above all, giant hybrid of a shrimp and a cockroach. How they had managed to kill the thing was anyone’s guess. It had jumped at them, like bugs do, from some locker that Liara just had to open – and they had all screamed, like experienced professional soldiers (and an archaeologist) do, and then there was chaos and shooting and it was dead. Yeah.
Nihlus had been the first to speak. He’d said, “It’s a…”
Liara had been the first to actually gather back her wits. She’d said, “It looks like a rachni.”
Garrus spoke for all when he’d said, “Impossible.”
And now it was Shepard’s turn to say something but she really didn’t know what to say. She hated that: people looking at her, expecting her to be all smart and authoritative. Give me something to do, something to steal, something to kill, sure! Just don’t ask me to give speeches, and toasts, and be dramatic and romantic and all that crap. She looked from face to face, and decided to say exactly what she thought:
“We should go.”
A sobering notion, and they all started fidgeting, like travelers leaving a space shuttle and looking around for stuff they might have forgotten.
“Wait,” Liara said. “We should examine it before we leave. I can take some scans and samples. After all, nobody has seen the rachni for two thousand years and… Shepard. That is very mean of you.”
All eyes turned on her, accusingly.
“What?” She had only been mimicking Liara’s incessant blah-blah-blah. Liara should have been grateful, because Garrus did a much worse impression.
“We don’t have the time to study it,” said Nihlus. “And… I don’t want anybody to mistake me for a pessimist, but I have the feeling that we will meet more of these.”
He kicked the corpse, and it twitched, and twitching rachni corpses made professional soldiers shoot what sounded like entire slabs of ammo until they were sure the corpses were actually dead.
“I need a drink,” Shepard said. She didn’t expect the declaration to do anything other than break the tension, but to everybody’s surprise, Nihlus reached into the magic pouch on his right thigh and produced a flask. He took a long drag, then offered it to her.
“It’s ryncol,” he said, coughing a bit. “It transcends the chirality barrier. Trust me.”
“Okay…” She took the flask. The smell was horrible, but in a good way. She became aware that Garrus and Liara looked intensely mortified. “What?”
“You shouldn’t be drinking on duty,” Garrus said, sounding like a bad stereotype of a cop in some extranet sitcom. It was directed at Nihlus as much as at her.
“So when am I supposed to drink, eh?” said Nihlus. “Or don’t you know?” He cleared his throat, squared his shoulders, and spoke in a different tone, as if quoting someone else: “A Spectre is never off duty.”
That sounded like an attempt to make a joke, but by the looks of it, nobody got it. Garrus, in particular, didn’t seem amused. There was an almost hostile glint in his eye. Couldn’t Nihlus see it? Perhaps he was ignoring it on purpose. How odd. Just hours ago, she could have sworn the two were flirting.
She took a swig and managed to spit out most, but the bit that went down her throat was like liquid fire. “Fuck,” she said, voice raw and deep from the alcohol. It certainly tasted toxic. Nihlus chuckled, and Liara was staring like she had never seen a woman drink from a flask before. And perhaps she hadn’t. Shepard took another sip, swallowed it whole, and this time, kept her face straight. “Nihlus,” she said. “Please tell me you’re joking. About that always-on-duty thing.”
He shrugged. “A Spectre is also above the law, so we can drink whenever we want.”
“But Shepard is not a Spectre yet,” said Liara.
“Go ahead and file a complaint,” said Shepard, giving the flask back. “I don’t care. If this is what Spectre work looks like, I’ll rather drive a sky cab anyway.”
That was a tad too honest and Shepard realized too late that there was an annoying whiny undertone to her words that made everyone quiet down. Nihlus gave her a serious, questioning look, but she waved him away. Of course she didn’t mean that. She’d drive a space cab at the very least.
But now Liara knelt down and touched the dead beast, carefully, like she suspected it was diseased. “What in the name of the Goddess are they doing?”
Trembling chins and teary voices usually had little effect on Shepard, but something about Liara’s words got under her skin and she shuddered. The wisdom of bringing a civilian along had always been suspect, but only now did Shepard consider the fact that they were after Liara’s mother. What if it all went to hell and—
“I wish I knew,” Nihlus muttered. “Raising an army? The geth, the rachni… all they need to complete the circle are the krogan.”
“Keep that up and nobody will mistake you for an optimist again,” Garrus said.
Shepard started to offer her idea about the Protheans as a way to lift the mood, but then she saw Nihlus’ face light up like a little sun.
“Hey! What if they’re raising an army against the Reapers?”
Everybody peered at him incredulously, and Liara’s huge eyes, filling with tears, were a sign that it was really not a good time to joke about this. Only Nihlus wasn’t joking.
“Just think about it, okay? Bear with me, just for a second. What if Saren found out about the Reapers and – suppose they are real – so, knowing that nobody would believe him, he started to gather forces to fight them on his own?” Nihlus looked from one to the other, trying to get them to smile with him at the brilliant new idea, but no one moved a muscle. Somehow he took that as encouragement to go on, sounding a little hysterical. “And… and… what Benezia said, in Tali’s voice clip – she said, ‘and one step closer to the return of the Reapers’ – she could have meant, one step closer to the victory over the Reapers and just… shortened it a little. You know.”
But even before he stopped talking, his smile fell off and his brows furrowed above his eyes, misty with disappointment.
Shepard frowned, trying to connect the dots. There was something missing, some hidden component to make his odd behavior make sense. It was related to Saren, that much was plain; it was personal, and it went deep. She had thought about it a dozen times already, in the lonely dark of her cabin, watching the stars trail outside the viewport; and still she didn’t know what position to take. Could losing a friend, even a close friend (if that was what Saren had been to him), to some crazy excuse for grabbing power over thousands of dead bodies, dead human bodies, be this… devastating? Because, at times, that was how Nihlus looked. Like now. Devastated.
A strange, almost palpable wave of empathy rolled across the group from Liara to Nihlus and for the first time, Shepard felt sorry for him. For whatever he was going through. It was always a mystery to her, why adding your own sadness to the sadness of another made for less sadness all around instead of more, but she wanted to try it nevertheless. She wanted to touch him. She even started to reach—
But Liara was faster. She stood up, and did something that made Shepard’s stomach flip over. Liara laid a hand on Nihlus’ face, and he leaned into it, closing his eyes.
Shepard couldn’t watch, so she turned to Garrus, just in time to see him mirror her movement and, as far as she could tell, her sentiment. He too felt like a third wheel. Or worse. They looked at one another, longer and more focused than ever before, and Shepard wished she had the nerve to play the smartass and do with him what Liara was doing with Nihlus. But it would be too cheesy. So she just made a face, and he replied by rolling his eyes and then they smiled at each other and that had to suffice.
When they finally moved out, they found that Nihlus had been right. The upper floors were crawling with the rachni but, isolated as they were from each other on a personal level, in combat they worked well as a team. After the first few encounters, they became proficient at dispatching the monsters. Despite her personality flaws, Liara was a formidable biotic. Garrus could do wonders with his sniper rifle. And Nihlus— well, he performed to perfection in any role the situation demanded.
Oh yes. He was still as perfect as that day in the med bay, when she spoke about him with the elation of a true fan. If that was what being a Spectre meant, she would do her best, and more, to deserve the title. But she kept a wary eye on him, adrenalin kicking in each time she caught him staring at nothingness with foggy eyes. Because Anderson’s cautions no longer sounded paranoid.
The apple never falls far from the tree.
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