The Cure

Chapter 38 of Ghost in the Machine

One hour before the attack on Virmire.

The salarians on the beach looked tense. If they were to start shooting, Shepard would be the first to go. She turned and aimed a semi-alarmed glance at Nihlus, who trailed her by a few steps, but he shook his head: keep your weapons down and you’ll be fine.

They were wading through the shallows, stirring up the fine sand and leaving a murky trail in the turquoise water. The morning sun was burning bright and hot on her uncovered head. The ground team was out in force, now that the Normandy had landed, and advanced in a loose wedge formation behind her.

There was a camp set up in the wispy, wavering shade of the trees on the sandy bank. At first glance, there seemed to be enough room and supplies for a whole company, but there were only a dozen men in the welcoming committee.

A green-scaled, red-eyed salarian came forward when Shepard stepped upon dry land. Williams took position to her left. “So what are we supposed to do now?” she whispered, much too loudly. The salarian eyed her, but didn’t say a thing.

“Are you in charge here?” Nihlus said, shaking wet sand off his boots. “What’s the situation?”

“And who might you be?”

“Nihlus Kryik, ST&R. You?”

The salarian blinked, processing. “I’m Captain Kirrahe. Third Infiltration Regiment, STG. You and your crew have just landed in the middle of a hot zone. Every AA gun within ten miles has been alerted to your presence.”

Meanwhile, Alenko had taken up position on Shepard’s right.  The others halted, looked around, and exchanged vague, wordless greetings with the salarian soldiers.

“What’s the STG doing here?” Nihlus said, unfazed.

“Waiting for reinforcements,” the salarian replied, equally unfazed.

Nihlus laughed. “Come on. We’re all friends here, right? I’m sure that whatever it is you’re doing, you can tell a Spectre?”

“We came here to investigate reports of geth activity. And I have already lost half my men, investigating.”

“So what have you found?” Alenko said.

The salarian ignored him and spoke to Nihlus instead. “Saren’s base of operations. I see you recognize the name? Good. Saves me the explanations. He set up a research facility here, but it’s very well fortified and crawling with geth. Am I to understand the Council sent you to deal with him?”

When Nihlus gave a nod of grim confirmation, Williams scoffed. “Right,” she drawled. Shepard shot a warning glance at her. It really wasn’t the best time.

“Is he here?” Nihlus said, ignoring the interruption, and even Shepard could hear the anxiety in his voice. “Have you seen him?”

“No, but the geth are everywhere, and we’ve intercepted some comms referring to him.”

“What’s Saren researching?” said Shepard. Nihlus had given them the where, but couldn’t (or wouldn’t) say what.

But now, the salarian seemed like he was weighing how much he should share. The shiny globes of his eyes changed focus several times between her, Nihlus, and, interestingly, Wrex, before he spoke again.

“He’s using the facility to breed an army of krogan.”

His voice rang clear in the morning air. Tali, Garrus, and Liara stepped closer to listen. Nihlus let out an ironic snort, and Shepard remembered what he’d said on Noveria: with the geth and the rachni, Saren needed only the krogan to close the circle. But if Captain Kirrahe expected them to gape or drop everything they were holding in surprise, he was talking to the wrong crew. After everything they’d been through, this sounded like a regular day at the office.

Perhaps not to everyone, though.

“How is that possible?” said Wrex. He stepped forward, towering over the salarian like a storm cloud over a lonely tree.

“Apparently, Saren has discovered a cure for the genophage.”

Ok, now was time to gape and drop everything that they were holding.

Nihlus spoke first. “How long has the STG known about this?”

“Known? For a week. Suspected? For a decade. Why?”

Nihlus turned away instead of answering and put some distance between himself and the group. Shepard watched his retreat with an uneasy mixture of concern and suspicion. What was on his mind? What did he know that they didn’t? Why was he refusing to share? And most of all: what was he going to do if they found Saren? She hated that she had no clue. Going into battle not knowing what the enemy had in mind was one thing; not knowing what a supposed ally had in mind was something completely different.

Captain Kirrahe watched him leave as well, then turned to Shepard. “Obviously, we must ensure that this facility and its secrets are destroyed.”

“Destroyed?” Wrex said. “I don’t think so. My people are dying. This cure can save them.”

“If that cure leaves this planet, the krogan will become unstoppable,” Kirrahe replied, shrugging. “We can’t make the same mistake again.”

“We are not a mistake!” Wrex snarled. He looked like he wanted to say, or growl, more, but Nihlus had returned and put a hand on his arm, nudging him back. Wrex broke away from the grip and pushed Nihlus aside, then stomped away.

“Is he going to be a problem?” Kirrahe said, and Shepard found herself wishing she could wipe the condescension off his face with a good punch. “We already have enough angry krogan to deal with.”

“He’ll be fine,” Nihlus said. “I’ll talk to him.”

“I’d appreciate that, Spectre. My men and I need to rethink our plan of attack. Can you give us some time?”

Nihlus nodded, then left after Wrex. Kirrahe went into one of the tents without so much as giving anyone another glance.

“Looks like things are a bit of a mess,” Alenko said.

“Yeah,” Williams replied. “I wouldn’t be so worried if it wasn’t for Wrex. He looks like he’s going to blow a gasket.”

“You think I should go see what’s going on?” said Shepard.

“It wouldn’t hurt. Well… it might, actually. Just be careful.”

“Yeah. But be ready, just in case.”

“I’m always ready.”

Alenko snorted at that, and Shepard heard them bickering as she walked away. Wrex and Nihlus had gone a good distance, but now they stopped, and the way they were gesturing didn’t inspire confidence.

“… but we don’t know all the facts yet,” Nihlus was saying.

“Don’t push me, kid,” Wrex growled, pointing a threatening finger at Nihlus. “I followed you this far because I like you, and because I owe you. But if you can’t give me a better reason than this to destroy the hopes of my people, I’m done with you.”

“We can work this out, Wrex, but you’ve got to calm down.”

“Work it out? Work it out? There’s a cure for my people. You want to destroy it. Help me out here, kid. What’s there to work out?”

“You’re not listening,” Nihlus gritted, and Shepard realized she’d never seen him angry before. “We need to stop whatever Saren is doing here. That might require destroying the facility, yes. But not necessarily the research.”

Whoa. Shepard stopped short. “Nihlus? What are you doing?”

“Stay out of this, Shepard,” Wrex warned, pointing the finger at her, but never taking his enraged red eyes off Nihlus. “What are you saying, kid?”

Nihlus glanced at Shepard, then took a step closer to Wrex and started speaking in a quick whisper, but she could hear him well enough. “Listen, Wrex. I know none of you believe in this shit about the Reapers and whatnot – I barely believe it myself, and I’ve fucking seen it happen. But suppose – just for a moment – that they’re real, and that they’re coming. Imagine a hundred, or a thousand ships the size of Sovereign. The Council has nothing against that kind of a force and the others, even less. So… what I’m saying is…” his eyes darted to Shepard again, and they were alight with an excitement that didn’t look altogether healthy. “If we salvage the research… I want your word that the krogan will stand with us against the Reapers.”

Wrex didn’t move a muscle, but his gaze became even more intense. Obviously he was thinking about it. And… hell. It was certainly something to think about, but it was crazy, completely crazy! Everyone knew how dangerous the krogan were, what a threat they’d represent if they were to ever again appear in significant numbers.

“Nihlus?” she repeated. But when he didn’t even look at her, she turned to the krogan. “Wrex? Please tell me you’re not considering this?” Because, she suddenly realized, if there was anyone who could make such a deal in the name of all krogan with a straight face, it was Urdnot Wrex. “Come on, Wrex,” she whispered, something like panic creeping under her skin. “Are you sure that’s what you want for your people? To be puppets again? Tools to be used and discarded?”

Finally he looked at her. “Of course not. We were tools for the Council once, and to thank us for wiping out the rachni, they neutered us all. But without the genophage… we would be unstoppable.”

“I’m not speaking for the Council,” Nihlus said. “We’re not telling the salarians either. This stays between us. Understood?”

That was meant for Shepard, and she could do nothing to stop the laughter. “You’ve gone mad. Can you even hear yourself? This is fucking insane.”

“Perhaps. But tell me, Shepard: how will we defend ourselves if the Reapers really come? You’ve seen what one of them can do, for fuck’s sake, you should be the first to support me here.”

“And what if they don’t come back? What if they don’t exist? You’ll have decided for the whole galaxy that krogan should be given free rein! No offense, Wrex.”

“I’d rather deal with the enemy I know,” Nihlus replied.

“No – no. What you’re proposing here is to counteract a vague, uncertain threat that might not manifest itself in a hundred generations, by introducing a known, and deadly threat that could come around and bite your ass within months!”

“It doesn’t have to be that way, Shepard,” Wrex said. “The rebellions are a thousand years behind us. I have to believe that we’ve learned something in that time. The promise of a cure could unite the clans, and with a strong leader… I know we can keep ourselves in check as well as anyone else. But we never had a chance to try. Look me in the eye, Shepard, and tell me you think that genophage is right. I dare you.”

She stared at him stubbornly. “Fuck,” she said at last, “you know I don’t think it’s right. But it’s not my decision to make. It’s not our decision to make, not here, not like this. This needs to be thought about and considered by people smarter than we are.”

“You think some dalatrass on Sur’Kesh can make a better decision than you, Shepard? An unbiased decision? Think again. If they get wind of this,” he pointed back at the camp, “they’ll make sure none of us leaves this planet alive.”

“The only thing we need to decide right now,” Nihlus said, “is what to do if we get our hands on the research. Nobody’s making any guarantees about the future of the krogan. I offer a chance in exchange for a promise, nothing else.”

Shepard lifted her hands up and ran her fingers through her hair, clawing at her scalp. She didn’t really have much choice. What could she do? Say, nah, I’m gonna tell the salarians after all, and set off an armed conflict or get shot from behind? Wrex and Nihlus would have no qualms about eliminating her over a matter of this scale, and she didn’t need to be told that the salarians would sooner die than let a krogan – or anyone else – get away with the cure. On a personal level, she felt that Nihlus and Wrex were right, that giving krogan a chance was the right thing to do. But the consequences would be impossible to predict. For all she knew, by agreeing to their proposal, she could be sentencing a dozen outlying human colonies to destruction. But if Nihlus was right, and these Reapers were real, she could be sentencing those same colonies to something far worse, by opposing it.

Goddamn it, she wasn’t trained to make such predictions, such decisions. If that was the sort of thing expected from a Spectre, Nihlus should have chosen some general or politician instead. She was trained to follow orders. She’d follow him to death and back, if only she could trust him.

“Fuck,” she repeated. “Alright. Alright. I’ll back you up. But you owe me big time, got it? Both of you.”

Nihlus nodded seriously. “Wrex?” he said.

“I already made up my mind, kid. We can do this, or you can try to kill me. But I’m not letting you destroy the cure.”

“We can do this,” Nihlus said. He drew a deep breath and nodded some more. “We can do this.”

Previous Table of contents To be continued…

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