Warning

Chapter 3 of Ghost in the Machine

Five days before the attack on Eden Prime.

Tali didn’t think her heart could possibly beat any faster until she opened the viewport on her tiny vessel and saw the thing with her own eyes. The sight stole the breath from her lips and sent freezing shivers down her spine. The ship was definitely there. It was definitely real. And it was definitely designed by the geth.

She stared at it, transfixed, with wide open eyes and wide open mouth until her quickened, shallow breathing started fogging the mask and the soft buzzing of the suit air conditioning unit snapped her out of it. Dead, she remembered, the ship is dead. It had been passing just above the corona of an old, orange sun, presumably trying to avoid accidental thermal detection, when a sudden flare burst out, frying all its systems. At least she assumed so, because it was sinking. With no propulsion and no mass effect drive, it wouldn’t make it past half a revolution.

That thought set her hands in motion, despite the fear that was making them shake. She scanned the ship again; she had to be absolutely sure. The schematics she’d pulled from the databases of the Flotilla were old. Really old. But the key design points matched with the frightening correlation coefficient of 0.99. It was a geth ship. In the middle of Citadel space!

“Keelah,” she whispered in the deep silence. The flare had left her own ship without a number of systems as well, and the humming of the Lilei was strangely subdued. Another wave of shivers shook her. She looked around, trying to get her brain back online. What to do?

Call for help.

Yes. Help. She requested the Lilei’s VI to open comms to both the Flotilla and the Citadel. But the VI couldn’t: there was still too much interference from the material ejected during the outburst. What now?

Go get help.

Oh, but that wouldn’t do. She ran another calculation to make sure and yes, the ship didn’t have enough angular momentum to maintain a stable orbit. By the time it would take her to fly to the relay, pass through and find someone she could persuade to come back with her – and people in Citadel space were generally not inclined to go out of their way to help quarians – the ship would be sucked into the atmosphere of the star. Or perhaps it would repair itself and go away? That was unlikely. As far as Tali could determine, all its systems, and presumably all the geth inside it, were fried for good. But maybe there were more ships in the vicinity and they could haul it away. In every scenario, leaving now meant that she’d return to find nothing.

That was not acceptable. Fresh information about the geth was the ideal material for her Pilgrimage contribution and she would not see it wasted. What options remain?

Help yourself.

Her chest started heaving with deep breathing and the suit responded by releasing more oxygen into the mixture. But she couldn’t afford to ponder. As soon as she realized what it was she had to do, Tali instructed the VI to dock alongside the geth ship immediately.

The wait was agonizing. Tali spent it clutching the hand rests of the pilot chair and sweating profusely. As the Lilei descended, now busy with all the minuscule course adjustments needed to match the trajectories exactly, the geth ship grew closer, larger, and more ominous. Its curves were strangely organic. Almost elegant. Tali tried to shoo away the heresy, but then another detail drew her attention. It had viewports. They were all closed, but they appeared to be functional. Why would a hive-mind machine intelligence need… windows?

Her trepidation grew by the moment and when the geth ship overfilled the viewport, she felt as if entering the jaws of some horrible monster. The most important lesson that every quarian child had ever learned about the geth was that one could never, ever, trust them. What if she was wrong, and there were still operational units inside? What if they were pretending? Playing dead for some sinister purpose? Was she ready to die?

She considered recording a goodbye message for Father and programming the VI to run back to the Flotilla with it in case she didn’t return, but decided it would be too morbid. Of course she’d be back. She simply couldn’t die before having out-of-suit sex at least once. Yes.

Finally the Lilei latched onto the larger vessel. It wasn’t without shaking and coughing, but it sounded reasonably safe. Tali checked and rechecked her suit and donned her weapons, then added an additional shield generator and the EM stunner to the usual arsenal. Armed with her faithful shotgun and courage borrowed from the romantic adventure novels she was shamelessly addicted to, she went through the airlock and entered the geth ship.

For a moment, she just stood still in the pitch-dark airlock, peering towards the meager lights ahead, listening, and scanning. She was the first quarian to set foot inside a geth ship in more than two hundred years. That made Tali stand tall and hold her shotgun even closer. But before she ventured further, she deployed her combat drone, Chiktikka, to scout ahead. Just in case.

According to the outdated schematics she had studied, this vessel evolved from an antiquated quarian troop transporter. The design was simple and to the point: a long hall with the ‘sleeping racks’ stacked on the sides. Of course the geth did not sleep; but they would fold into their compact forms and hibernate while inside, plugged into the ship’s power core and the central network hub. Some of the racks seemed to have power still; there were lights on the floor, twinkling in suspicious greens, and Tali pointed her shotgun at them. But there were no sounds, save for her respiration. There was no movement anywhere.

Until there was. Up there, near the cockpit! Tali’s heart climbed into her throat, the frenetic beating making her vision pulse. There was a geth there, an operational unit. Chiktikka hovered above it. Why wasn’t the stupid drone doing anything? Tali pointed her shotgun at the geth, barely resisting the instinct to shoot it, shoot it right away! But soon she saw it was not a threat. It was squirming, clicking and buzzing. It was dying.

Chiktikka wasn’t attacking it because Tali hadn’t thought to add the geth to the list of viable targets, as she remembered now through the haze of fear and vague hopes. How stupid of her. A mistake she could have paid for with her life. She had been lucky.

And now it was time to be smart as well. Smart and fast, because the ship was crackling and creaking in alarming ways around her. She put the shotgun away and brought up her omni, setting up a link to the dying geth. “Shhh,” she told it absently. “Don’t worry. This won’t hurt.”

But of course the geth wouldn’t just lie still and take it; as soon as she started reading out its memory core, it started deleting it from the other end. “Come on,” she urged the omni through her teeth. “Faster!”

Readout speed was what it was though, and since Tali had only very, very ancient versions of the geth hardware protocols loaded into her omni, it was no wonder that the deletion proceeded some hundred times faster than the copying. Still, she would salvage something, which was so much better than nothing. Yes. What a profound thought. Now hurry up, you bosh’tet!

Suddenly the ship shook and she lost her balance, falling hard on her bottom. The visual unit of the dying geth blinked, once, twice, then went out. It was dead. And the ship was falling apart. “Yes, yes, I get it,” Tali muttered. “I’m going, all right? I’m going!”

The ship stilled, but the floor became inclined at a ridiculous angle and Tali had to climb it like a ladder to get back to the airlock of the Lilei. It was difficult and it was scary, and all the while she had to fight the images of mechanical hands clawing inches from her feet, drawing near enough to grab her ankle and pull her back just when she climbed within reach of salvation!

Another tremor went through the vessel, nearly dislodging her. Panic took hold and inspired her body into frenetic motion. She scrambled across the threshold and slammed an overexcited fist into the airlock control panel.

The Lilei managed to pull away seconds before the nose of the geth ship started to glow red.

#

Three days before the attack on Eden Prime.

Tali had been on the Citadel before. Sadly, she’d been forced to register at C-Sec on two of her three previous visits, so she knew her way around. The narrow corridors with office doors on both sides were packed with all the people waiting. While many were transmitting signs of discomfort brought about by the crowd on all the frequencies, fanning themselves with hands and datapads and puffing out air in loud gestures of exasperation, Tali was actually feeling quite at home. She had never been comfortable in large, open, empty spaces.

There was a keeper running diagnostics on a control panel a few steps away from the door Tali was waiting at, and she thought about stepping a bit closer to observe it. She wouldn’t dare scan it here, in front of all the curious, hostile eyes. But she’d be damned if she didn’t catch one in some dark, concealed corner sooner or later, and saw for herself if they were really impossible to hack. Just as she started to move, the door suddenly opened, and Tali’s number popped out above it in huge asari, salarian and turian scripts with an unpleasant beep that made everybody in the corridor jump and stare in her direction.

She passed a large hanar on her way in; the poor thing had most of its glossy, violet tentacles covered in bandages. “What was that all about?” she said, looking after it until the door closed.

“Oh, the usual,” said a pleasant turian voice and she turned around. “That one went to preach in the Wards and when it wouldn’t leave, some teenagers decided to pull its legs a bit. Literally.”

The turian was sitting behind an incredibly cluttered desk covered with everything from datapads and weapon upgrades to plastic bags labeled ‘evidence’ and a remarkable stack of hardcopy books that looked like… the famous Tal’Moret’s “Principles of Geth Construction.” Tali’s eyes widened in surprise. Of course it was the abridged version, but even those were notoriously difficult to come by. That she ended up in the office of someone in possession of the whole series, given what she’d come to report, seemed like a profoundly fateful coincidence.

The rest of the tiny room was no better than the desk. Every speck of space was taken and the chair she was probably supposed to sit on reminded her of the void that a shield generator would make in a space junk-yard. Her eyes darted from the blue stripes on the turian’s face to a lonely leg of a YMIR mech, severed rather cleanly at the hip, standing just behind his chair. Not that the turian could see it, but Tali was grinning from ear to ear. It was almost as if she’d stepped into her own cubicle on the Rayya.

“I’m Garrus Vakarian,” the turian said, sounding more than a little bored, then pointed to the chair. “How can I help you?”

“Tali’Zorah nar Rayya,” she said, making a slight bow with her head.

“Let me guess. You’re here on your Pilgrimage and someone’s been molesting you. Accused you of robbery, made nasty threats… no? Hired you to fix something, then refused to pay? Not that either?”

Tali chuckled, taking the seat and letting him squirm. The funny thing was, these were exactly the things she’d reported on her previous visits. But now his browplates fell low and he leaned forward. “You weren’t… attacked, were you?” His sharp blue eyes started searching her for signs of injury, but of course, couldn’t find anything.

“It’s nothing like that,” she said at last. “I… I intercepted a geth transmission. I think they are going to attack Eden Prime.”

The turian became motionless, his steady stare bearing down on her. Then he leaned back in his chair, with a deepening frown. “Come again?”

Tali swallowed. She had her fears, coming here. Fears of being ignored, distrusted, or perhaps even prosecuted. People in Citadel Space were so wary of quarians, and she could understand that, or at least she could keep trying to. But there was nothing other than her word, the voice clip, and a couple of encrypted encyclopedic entries to prove her claim. The geth she’d extracted the information from was gone; the entire ship was gone. It would be easy… it would be trivially easy to dismiss her warnings as some fanciful fabrication.

Still, she had to try. “I intercepted a geth transmission indicating that they could attack Eden Prime. It’s a human…”

“I know what it is. Where did this happen?”

“In Denetus.”

The turian typed into the terminal on his desk and frowned even more. “No outstanding reports from that system.”

Tali took a deep breath. “Of course not. The ship was hiding in the corona.”

“Is it still there?”

“I don’t think so. There was a flare that disabled it. It was already burning up when I left.”

“A flare.” He typed into his terminal again, and raised his browplates in surprise, presumably upon discovering there had indeed been a flare in Denetus. “So you intercepted the signal before that?”

Tali sighed. “All right. I’ll tell you the whole story. But you have to believe me.”

She hated that he could not see her face – if only he could, he would know she was telling the truth. One of the reasons her people were so widely distrusted was surely the fact that they must have appeared to be hiding something behind their masks. But there was nothing she could do about that and she could only pray that her intuition about this man was correct.

Unfortunately, turians wore masks of their own. They were very apt at hiding their feelings when they wanted to, and although this Garrus Vakarian hadn’t seemed particularly shy in the beginning, now his face became as impenetrable to her stare as hers was to his. He listened carefully, though, that much she could tell. And when she was done, he sat watching her in silence for an uncomfortably long time.

“Do you have the voice clip with you?” he said at last.

“Of course. Do you want to hear it?”

He nodded, and Tali played the file from her omni.

Something happened the moment the turian voice from the clip filled the little room. Garrus bolted upright and his eyes widened with alert.

“What is it?” Tali asked, cutting the audio off before the part where the asari spoke – it wasn’t relevant anyway.

“Play it again,” he said, and there was a definite air of excitement about him now. She did as he asked. “I know that voice,” he said then, his wide, armored chest heaving. “Let me copy the file so I can verify.”

“Sure.”

She followed his hands as they danced through the interface, briefly and deftly. The output was hidden from her, but she thought she could read the results directly from his face. “Who is it?”

He shot an unnerved glance at her, then asked the inevitable question. “What guarantee can you give me that this data is authentic?”

“No offense, Officer Vakarian,” Tali said with a tired sigh, “but even if I had manipulated the recording, you would never be able to tell. You’ll just have to take my word on it.”

After a few moments of staring one another down, the turian grunted an annoyed admission. “Garrus,” he added, and Tali replied with a nod, her smile hidden behind the mask. He tapped his fingers on the desk, then typed some more into his terminal. “I sent out a warning to the Systems Alliance,” he said. “Don’t know if they’ll take it seriously, coming from a random C-Sec cop, but that’s their problem now.”

With that, he stood up, picked up something from the desk, and turned his back to Tali, studying a large map of the Galaxy plastered to the wall. Hardcopy too. How old-fashioned.

“Denetus, you say,” he muttered, and attached a red pin to mark the coordinates. Now that Tali looked more carefully, she saw that there was at least two dozen pins all over the map, but mostly out of Citadel Space.

“What is that?” she said.

Garrus didn’t answer immediately. He stepped back, and Tali was about to warn him that there was a tool box in his way, but obviously he knew his mess very well and elegantly stepped around it. “I don’t see a pattern here,” he said. “Do you see a pattern here?”

Tali stood up and approached him, careful not to step on anything. She gave the map her best scrutinizing stare. She even tried to defocus her eyes in order to allow the red blur of the pins to jump out from the bright blur of the star map. “No, I don’t,” she said in the end. “What is it?”

He took another pin from the desk, this one yellow, and attached it to the Exodus Cluster. Eden Prime. Tali gasped, the realization making her hair stand on end. “These are all geth attacks?”

Garrus huffed. “Not if you ask my superior, they aren’t. You see, nobody ever catches them at work. They leave nothing behind.”

“So why do you think it’s them?”

“A lot of circumstantial evidence,” he shrugged. “And a feeling in my guts. Which amounts to nothing.”

Tali studied him, fighting a sudden urge to comfort him, somehow. As a quarian, she knew all too well what it was like to be ignored and brushed aside. Perhaps that was why he was so quick to believe her? Because he too felt like they had something in common?

“You were lucky to get away with it,” he turned to tell her.

She replied with a serious nod. She had been very lucky indeed. “So now what?”

“Now I try my luck.” He returned to his desk. “That usually ends in misery and disappointment, but I’m stupid enough to keep doing it.”

You’re not stupid, she wanted to say, and even blushed a little, but he had already dialed another office, or so it seemed. “Is Pallin still there?” he asked.

“The Executor is just about to leave,” replied the voice of a human female.

“Hold him for me?”

“Hold him? Are you cra…”

“Please, Helen,” he drawled, and Tali giggled at how his voice become deep and seductive. “I beg you.”

“Awwww god,” Helen said in a tone of mock desperation. “You turians and your bloody voices. Fine. But hurry!”

Garrus hung up and winked at Tali. “She likes me. Don’t go away?”

He was out before Tali could confirm. I like you too, she thought, giggling some more. Turians and their bloody voices indeed. But after a few seconds the spell wore off and she realized she was alone in his office, with his terminal wide open, unsupervised and unprotected. And as she went behind his desk to look at it, she though that perhaps there was some truth in the way everybody perceived quarians as sneaky snoops. There was no way in the universe she could ever resist this temptation.

The voice recognition program was still on and she tapped at it. As she suspected, Garrus had gotten a match. With no less than sixty percent confidence. Probably not something he could use in the court, but rather good, all things considered. Tali squinted at the turian name. Saren Arterius. She kept repeating it in her head until she typed it into her omni. And as the search results poured in, her eyes grew wider and wider.

“Keelah…” she whispered, slowly grasping the astonishing scale of what she had stumbled upon. Tali realized that there must have been many people, powerful people, rich people, who would pay a lot of credits to get their hands on this voice clip. Credits that could be used to finance the rest of her Pilgrimage… perhaps even enough to end it?

A part of her started nagging about the suspicious nature of the plan that was taking shape in her excited mind, but she shut it up quickly. She had carried out her moral obligation and warned about the possible attack on the human colony with no hope of being compensated for the effort and for risking her own life. It was only fair that she should get at least something out of it after all. And besides, the clip belonged to her. She had every right to use it however she saw fit.

Suddenly Tali’s heart was pounding as if she were on the geth ship again, but she clenched her jaw and got to work. Her fingers moved through the interface expertly and in a matter of seconds, the voice clip and all traces of its existence were erased from the terminal and any servers the information had managed to reach.

By the time Garrus returned to his office, there was no trace of Tali there either.


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