Small Talk

Chapter 19 of Ghost in the Machine

One day before the attack on Therum.

“What really happened between Anderson and Saren?”

Nihlus looked up from his datapad. On the other side of the featureless table sat Ashley Williams. She was balancing her chair on its hind legs and staring at him almost accusingly beneath a raised eyebrow and a sharp black line of hair savagely pulled into a bun. To her left, Shepard stopped what she was doing. The parts of a disassembled Kessler were laid out in front of her like the pieces of a children’s puzzle. She’d been tinkering with it for hours, trying to fit it with an obviously incompatible, high-capacity heat sink. To her credit, she seemed to be possessed of an unlimited supply of patience. Seated on the opposite end, Kaidan Alenko stopped chewing on a sandwich that smelled of fish and something faintly sour. Only a biotic would eat this late into the night cycle. Other than the four of them, the mess was deserted, and every sound they made echoed off the tiled floor and the gray bulkheads.

It had been less than a day since they’d left the Citadel. Sha’ira had come through even before the transfer of command was made official; the journey to Therum, where Benezia’s daughter, Dr Liara T’Soni, was excavating a Prothean site, would take about as long. They had all agreed that it was too much of a coincidence to pass up. Nihlus had been strangely relieved. He didn’t want to go to Noveria. The wardrobe in Saren’s apartment was full of his civvies and now his mind latched on mercilessly to a pair of very old slippers, remembering a bit of nonsense Galea had told him a long time ago: you know you’ve moved in when you leave the slippers behind.

He swallowed, glancing from one human face to another. What a surprise it had been to discover that among all the people constantly seeking his company, this trio of humans was the least bothersome. Well, except for Wrex. But Wrex had taken up a cubicle down in the hangar and Nihlus was giving the hangar a wide berth because Garrus was there as well, fiddling with the Mako and possibly even sleeping in it. After Shepard had moved her stuff to the captain’s quarters, she had graciously assigned the vacancy to Garrus, for what could be more natural than putting the only two turians on board in the same room?

Neither of them would dream of complaining, of course. They would simply spend their time elsewhere.

Oh yes. Garrus was the most bothersome of them all. Not his fault. On the contrary: he’d read the signs well and wasn’t insisting. He was bothersome because he made Nihlus doubt and yearn, then feel guilty about it. He made Nihlus think, and Nihlus didn’t want to think. He just wanted the damn time to pass faster.

Might as well spend it talking.

“Eh.” A tired sigh. “Anderson was supposed to be the first human Spectre, and they assigned Saren, of all people, to train him.”

“No shit,” said Williams, the other eyebrow going up as well.

Shepard put down the tweezers and wiped her hands on her pants. “He never told me.”

“I’m not surprised. It was a mess. They were to eliminate a group of terrorists who holed themselves up in an eezo refinery on Camala. Thing is, they were holding Anderson’s woman, and, if you go by Saren’s version, Anderson endangered the mission because he put her safety above other priorities. So Saren blew up the refinery.”

Alenko choked on his sandwich and sprayed wet crumbs all over the table, earning himself a disgusted grimace from Shepard: some of it ended up on her pistol. “He blew up an eezo refinery?

Nihlus shrugged. “That wasn’t unusual for Saren, back in the day.” He half-smiled to himself. During the decade of their friendship, Saren had definitely softened, and Nihlus liked to think it was due to his influence. “Anyway, they killed the terrorists and saved Anderson’s woman, but Saren’s report buried his candidacy.”

“You don’t sound like you believe that story,” Shepard said.

“Ha.”

“What does that mean?”

“Between Saren’s distaste for humans, and Anderson’s distaste for Saren, who knows what really happened?”

“Oh, come on,” said Williams. “You must know something.”

Nihlus tucked his mandibles. He didn’t, and even if he did, he was certainly not obliged to share. But Alenko spoke before he could. “The Council arranged that on purpose. And got exactly what they wanted: two decades before Humanity proposed another candidate for the Spectres.”

Shepard narrowed her eyes at Nihlus. “By that logic, assigning you to train me would mean that now they want a human in the Spectres?”

“Probably, yes,” Nihlus said. “As a test before they consider giving you a seat in the Council.”

She hummed some unintelligible reply, folding her arms. There was no mistaking her attitude about the political aspect of the position. Nihlus could sympathize to a degree. He’d been wary in the beginning as well, but he’d adapted quickly, and even enjoyed the publicity from time to time. Not all agents were expected to, however. Which was good for Shepard, because she really didn’t seem like the type. He glanced at Alenko, who had finished his meal and was measuring Shepard with vaguely disapproving eyes. He seemed like the type.

Nihlus snorted to himself. Slow down, Kryik. One human Spectre at a time.

“Why does Saren hate humans?”

Williams again, with that same tone and the hostile gleam. Of course she’d ask that. And why the hell not? Still, Nihlus wished the conversation would steer away from Saren. He didn’t trust himself to talk about him. Never had, but now it was even worse than usual. He had no idea what his face looked like, what his eyes betrayed. The need to be alone suddenly turned into a physical sensation, like a thirst, deep inside his chest. Nowhere to hide, though.

“Saren doesn’t hate humans,” he said at last, wondering if any of them could pick up how tired he was from the tones of his voice. He’d met only a handful of humans who seemed to have an intuitive understanding of the mid-range harmonics that made it through the translators, but most couldn’t recognize anything but the strongest emotions. With Williams, even that was in question. Alenko’s face was unreadable, and Shepard was looking at him expectantly. If we’re going to work together, I should warn you: I don’t know the first thing about turians.

Shit. Explaining one of the most complex individuals his race had birthed since the times of Clausius would be a challenge even without the cultural barriers. And the dull throbbing inside him turned into a stab of pain as he remembered: he was no longer qualified to claim that his understanding of Saren was superior to anyone else’s.

“He believes that every individual must earn their place in society,” he said at last. “That is, by the way, one of the core values of turian culture. Unlike the other species in Citadel space, the humans are acting like they have… a birthright, I suppose. Like the very fact that you’re here makes you deserving of respect and worthy of trust. Most turians take issue with that attitude, not only Saren.”

He was half expecting Williams to interrupt him, but she didn’t open her mouth before he finished, and then Alenko spoke instead.

“Okay,” he said. “That makes sense. But you can’t deny that the Council has been treating us with a double standard. They don’t mind us colonizing the Terminus and the Verge because it suits them: they get to expand, and don’t have to risk a thing. When our colonies are attacked, they can turn a blind eye and make up for it later by letting us tap into the development funds, but–”

“Oh god,” Williams cut in. “I know that look.”

Nihlus blinked. “What look?”

“It’s-your-own-damn-fault look. It’s how Councilor Sparatus looks whenever he speaks about humans on the net. He hates us too.”

“Not true. Sparatus is a practical man before anything else. Of the Three, he’s the most likely to recognize the potential of your people.” He paused to study her expression. “Fine… don’t believe me.” I don’t care to defend him. He turned back to Alenko. “You’re right. So what? They get their influence, you get your worlds, and everyone’s happy.”

“Everyone except those dead colonists,” Shepard said, landing her elbows on the table and making the assembly of weapon parts jump with a loud clang. “A minor detail you keep forgetting.”

Williams chose that moment to quit her balancing act, as if to underline Shepard’s point. Nihlus winced. “I haven’t forgotten.”

Shepard raised her eyebrows in suspicion, as if challenging him to defend that statement with more zeal, but even though he wanted her to believe him, all he could do was shake his head. I haven’t. He hasn’t. Especially the impaled dead colonists. Spirits. He didn’t have it in him to talk about that now. Politics and space weather would do just fine for off-duty chatting, thank you very much.

Finally she relaxed back into her chair and started pushing random pistol parts around. The tension was slow to dissipate in the silence, but at last Alenko yawned and stood up.

“Yeah,” said Williams, standing up as well and stretching. “We should go.”

Alenko paused on the way out, however, and reached between Nihlus and Shepard for the disassembled Kessler. He pushed his fifth finger into the empty heat sink slot and appeared to feel for something inside with an expression of profound concentration. There was a tiny click. He took the stubborn mod then and slammed it into the slot with a lot more force than was generally recommended. Brutal, but apparently effective. Shepard’s face lit up like a mass relay as she took the pistol back from him, but was quickly eclipsed by a dark realization.

“You son of a bitch. You watched me toil over that the whole evening!”

Alenko curled his pale lips in a small smirk. “Goodnight, Commander. Spectre.”

Nihlus watched Shepard reassemble the pistol, then turn it on. It sounded healthy, and the status indicator turned from red to yellow to green without so much as a stutter. “Son of a bitch,” she repeated, examining the weapon and grinning in disbelief.

They sat in silence, but it wasn’t uncomfortable. Quite the opposite. Nihlus turned off the datapad he’d been holding the entire time; he wasn’t going to get any work done, tired and nervous as he was. Shepard was watching him, and at last she said:

“So how come you like humans?”

The million credit question. One he’d been asked too many times over the years and still had no answer to. He rolled his head back, staring into the white panels on the low ceiling. “I guess you could say that I’m about as far from a typical turian as you are from a typical human.”

“I wouldn’t know a typical turian if he pissed in my soup.”

Nihlus laughed. “You’re a real piece of work, Shepard. I ought to write these down.”

She smirked in response and fell silent. Then, after a while: “Would you say that Garrus is a typical turian?”

Interesting. He peered into her, trying to guess the subtext. She was careful to maintain a politely disinterested expression: making small-talk, nothing important. But there was a certain glint in her eye. Unutterable expectations. Nihlus smiled.

“Are you asking me if he likes humans?”

She was running a finger up and down the barrel of the Kessler. “Does he?”

“I’ve no clue.”

“Come on. You’re friends.”

Nihlus snorted. Is that what we are? Shit. It seemed like there was nothing he could talk about without risking to expose some dirty little secret. Suddenly it was all just too much. A change of topic was in order.

“How come you know so little about turians? You didn’t get all those decorations by pushing papers somewhere on Earth.”

“I don’t know,” she shrugged. “It’s not like I’ve never met any. I even worked with some. Just never talked to a turian before. You know? Like this.”

He flicked his mandibles. “How about we do more than talking?”

She became very still, and then cocked her head to the side. “Like what?”

Nihlus got up and stretched, amused to see how easy it was to confuse her. “I could really blow off some steam.” And with that, he started to undo the jacket of his fatigues.

Shepard blushed fiercely, and he thought it made her pretty. It also made him feel guilty for pulling her leg. When he added, “In the gym,” her face turned dark with outrage and he couldn’t hold back the laughter. She launched herself at him over the table and landed a mock blow to his midsection.

“Asshole.”

“An asshole would’ve waited for you to say, oh yes, please, sir, show me your big–”

She didn’t really wind him with the second punch, but he doubled over, laughing hard. When he looked up, slightly breathless, he found her wearing a thoughtful smile.

“What?” he said.

“Nothing. Good to see you laugh again, is all.”


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