Whispers

Chapter 25 of Ghost in the Machine

Ten hours before the attack on Feros.

“…and then she took her shirt off – just like that – and showed her breasts to me. Can you imagine? I was never so grateful for the mask in my entire life. Yes, yes, I know what you’re thinking. It’s nothing I haven’t seen before, right? Well, wrong. I have never seen anyone else’s breasts. Not in person, anyway. I blushed so hard I thought my mask would melt. She does have a very lovely pair of breasts, you know. Round and full, but not heavy. The bruise was really bad, though. A black patch, about the size of my hand. She started crying when she saw it. I told her she was lucky to get out of there alive, but that made her cry even more.”

“Drill,” Garrus said, and after a moment, he felt the weight of the tool in his outstretched hand. Tali talked a lot, but she was the perfect repair assistant, and today, the Mako deserved the best care available. Garrus had hardly been able to recognize it after the adventures it had had on Therum. It had been shot, burned and hammered; the protective monocarbon layer had peeled off from more than half of its hull and the suspension system had been bleeding its precious eezo-tainted oil in dark rivulets. The deep cobalt of the toxic mixture had made Garrus feel a certain kinship with the vehicle. And perhaps just a hint of rivalry.

Despite the Mako’s grievous wounds, Garrus envied it. Unlike Garrus, the Mako had seen combat. It had fought to the best of its ability, and protected the lives of its crew at the cost of its own safety and integrity. And what had Garrus been doing? Playing cards with Joker and Alenko.

He tried to loosen his mandibles. Keeping his jaw clenched was giving him a headache and there was still a ton of work to be done. He surveyed the greasy underbelly of the vehicle, encrusted with a layer of reddish dust that made it look rusty. The smell of smoke, burned oil and rubber had already become too familiar to register, but the dust had a sticky sulphuric stench, making the roof of his mouth tingle. He made a mental note to replace the filters on the air-conditioning unit after the repairs were done.

“Where was I?” Tali said. The fact that Garrus had been entrenched under the Mako during the entire length of their ‘conversation’ didn’t bother her any more than the fact that his contribution to it had been limited to naming various items from the workbench she was sitting on, her feet dangling just at the horizon of his vision. “Ah, right,” she answered herself. “Liara’s breasts. I think she should be grateful to have gotten away with nothing but a bruise. Just look at the poor Mako. You’re doing a great job with it, Garrus. I don’t know what these people would do without you.”

He snorted.

“What was that?”

“Nothing. Pliers?”

“Here. I also told her not to take the cold reception to heart. We’ve all been through that. But whenever I mentioned Shepard, she became quiet and dark, somehow.”

Tali fell silent. After a few seconds, Garrus stopped what he was doing, wondering if she was expecting feedback. She rarely did. Listening to her was no chore, though. Much as he was loath to admit it, the C-Sec work had made him develop a habit of paying attention to all kinds of trivia related to the personal lives of other people, and Tali’s gossip complemented his observations by supplying the famed female perspective. Between the two of them, there were very few secrets on the Normandy.

“And you know what?” said Tali just as he was about to ask for a repair implement he didn’t really need. “I think Liara’s not the only one. I think half the human crew is afraid of Shepard.”

Garrus shrugged. Humans seemed to behave a lot better when feeding off of love and admiration rather than fear. Not that it really mattered, as long as everyone did their duty and carried out the orders; Shepard’s heavy hand wasn’t likely to ever meet resistance in that sense.

The ship was new, the crew only beginning to form attachments. In time, their fear would turn into respect, and respect into admiration. And after Shepard had saved their sorry asses from certain devastation a couple of times, they’d start loving her all right. Just like an adopted child learns to love a strict caretaker.

There was a quirk, of course. Shepard wasn’t going to spend enough time on the Normandy for all that to happen, because Shepard was going to become a Spectre. He shifted to find a more comfortable patch on the perfectly level floor. The inevitable questions bubbled up to the surface of his mind yet again. What did she have, that he didn’t? What had she done to deserve the candidacy? He had no doubt that she did deserve it, but it irked him that he was unable to find out how. How did she get that ominous nickname, whispered in the hallways with a mixture of dread and awe? Was N7 training comparable to his own? Did she volunteer, or was she recruited?

Nobody knew her well enough to give him the answers. There was Doctor Chakwas, who’d served with her before, but she wasn’t spilling. Well, at least not to Garrus. Shepard didn’t seem the type to talk about her past or boast of her achievements, nor to make friends among subordinates. Her records were sealed, and not just by the flimsy Alliance security protocols. Garrus had checked. As a Spectre candidate, she was under sovereign jurisdiction of the Council. About as untouchable as Saren himself.

Fuck.

“What?”

He cleared his throat. “Phase coupler.”

“Just a second… There.”

“Thanks.”

“Not a problem. Anyway. I’m not afraid of Shepard. I mean, I wouldn’t like to get on her bad side, but she’s kinder than most other humans here. I don’t think I told you… After the debriefing, she called me to her cabin and started asking all these questions about the geth. At first it was kind of trivial. Basic things, you know. Where their data is stored and how they communicate with their network, what happens when a unit is isolated – that sort of thing. But then she started asking about their strategies during the Morning War, deployment patterns, supply lines, airborne units, tunneling machines… I don’t even remember all the terms she used. She lost me in minutes. It was… impressive.”

“Twelve-point socket wrench.”

“After she was done with me, she invited Wrex over. Do you think she’ll be doing interviews with everyone, or just the non-humans?”

He mumbled some indeterminate response. It was probably a rhetorical question. A one-on-one with Shepard sounded like an interesting prospect, though. He wondered what she’d ask him about. Surely not his previous employment, or the status of the repairs. Perhaps she’d ask him about Nihlus. The thought made him feel uncomfortable in his own skin, so he tried to think of something he’d ask Shepard instead. How can you be sure you’re making the right decisions?

“I wonder how Liara will take that,” Tali resumed in a thoughtful tone. “Did you know that she’s over a hundred years old? I’d never have guessed. If I were to guess, I’d say she’s younger than me. It’s always difficult to tell with the asari, but she’s nothing like the other asari I’ve met. She’s so odd, Garrus. She’s been all over the galaxy, and knows so many things, and still she gets so nervous around people, it’s funny and sad all at once. Especially around men.”

Tali chuckled, and Garrus paused again. He could tell something awkward was coming.

“Especially around Nihlus,” she added, and chuckled some more. “Not surprising, I suppose, since she offered to… you know… meld with him.”

The wrench slipped between his fingers and struck him right between the eyes. He cursed.

“Yes,” Tali replied, unperturbed. “That was my reaction too. She explained to me that she’s hoping the meld will make it easier for him to cope with the Prothean visions, and that experiencing them herself might allow her to come up with some interpretation. But I’m not sure I really understand.”

Garrus wasn’t sure he really understood it either. The socket had rolled off somewhere under his crest and suddenly he couldn’t remember why he’d asked for it in the first place. After a few seconds of silence, he started rattling the fan belt to keep up the appearance of working, but in truth he was just staring at the filthy underside of the Mako, biting his mandible, and thinking. Nihlus had hardly said a word to him since they had taken off from the Citadel. Garrus was fine with that. It was obvious that Nihlus needed some space and since space was in short supply on the Normandy, Garrus had been making an effort to stay out of his way. Because it wasn’t difficult to understand a craving for privacy after everything that had happened. It wasn’t difficult to understand compartmentalizing. It wasn’t difficult to understand that, whatever it was – that thing going on between them – it was anything but one-sided, and this wasn’t the time and place to deal with that kind of shit.

But suddenly deciding to ‘meld’ with a perfect stranger? That wasn’t difficult to understand. It was fucking impossible.

He blinked at the Mako. “Hand me the torch.”

There was a minute of precious silence while he welded, but Tali didn’t waste a second after he had finished.

“Do you know if the asari can meld without… you know…”

“Fucking?”

Tali cleared her throat. He could almost hear her blushing. “That,” she said.

He wasn’t sure if he was supposed to be embarrassed by the the fact that he, a good-looking turian in his prime with an assortment of interesting experiences under his belt, didn’t have a clue whether or not fucking was requisite for melding with an asari, but it was becoming increasingly obvious that it hadn’t been just another rhetorical question. A sudden urge to pull out and walk away washed his neck in cold sweat. He needed a minute alone. A minute to think. To make himself get back into a practical mindset. What Nihlus chose to do and where Nihlus chose to invest affection was none of his damned business anyway. Right? Right.

He looked around. “Uh… I think I’m going to need an F-33 matrix.”

Which she’d have to go look for in engineering. A brief stab of guilt almost made him retract the request, but he shook it away with a grimace. He was doing her a favor, not the other way around. He had vouched for her, and kept her indiscretion secret, and made it clear to the few troublemakers on board that they shouldn’t mess with her unless they wanted their bones rearranged into creative new configurations. But it was getting more and more difficult to think about it that way with each cycle spent in her company. He’d learned more about geth technology inside the last week than during all his years of poring over Tal’Moret’s Principles. Tali’s expertise had surpassed all his expectations, and in the rare moments of solitude, when unburdened by the notion that making a show of holding a grudge was somehow good for her, her competence was deeply attractive.

She sighed and hopped down from the workbench, but her footsteps, dragging with more than a hint of boredom, didn’t get half way to the elevator before heading back, in company.

Garrus peeked. The standard-issue Alliance boots that stopped next to the workbench were neither large enough to belong to Adams, nor small enough to belong to Shepard. He pulled out from under the Mako.

“Hey, Garrus,” said Alenko. “Mind if I go in for a minute?” And he gestured at the Mako with his chin.

Garrus stared at him for a beat, then shrugged. “Be my guest.”

So much for his moment of solitude. By the time he got up and wiped his hands on his smeared blue overalls, Alenko had already disappeared inside the vehicle, which was now swaying and bobbing in time with his movement. Garrus looked at Tali, but she just shrugged.

They watched the Mako bounce in silence for a minute before Aleko emerged with a strange expression on his face. He stood motionless, then scratched his head in the universal gesture of confusion.

“What is it?” said Tali.

“You guys haven’t seen…” He stopped, rubbed his forehead, looking intensely uncomfortable, which was interesting enough in itself. Both Garrus and Tali were helpfully standing in silence, with their arms crossed over their chests. “You wouldn’t know what a tasbih is, would you,” Alenko muttered.

Garrus and Tali shook their heads, only slightly out of perfect sync.

“A rosary?” he offered, with the same result. “Prayer beads,” he said in the end, clearly getting frustrated.

“Some kind of jewelry?” Tali said.

“No. Well. Kind of? It looks like a small necklace. About this big? Light blue glass beads with… eyes painted on them.”

More head shaking ensued, and Alenko’s shoulders slouched.

“You think you lost this somewhere on the ship?” Garrus said. Alenko’s uncharacteristically irritable behavior had piqued his curiosity.

“Looks like it,” Alenko said, but after a second, he shook his head. “It’s just… it doesn’t make sense. I didn’t carry it around in my pocket or anything like that. And I don’t… lose things. Never lost a thing in my whole damn life. But it’s gone and I thought…” He gestured vaguely at the Mako, or perhaps the entire Normandy. “I don’t know.”

“Is it valuable?”

Alenko snorted. “Only to me. It’s just glass beads on a silver string. Why? You don’t think…? You think someone stole it?”

“Hmm. Mmm.” Garrus shifted from foot to foot, wheels turning, mandibles working. Could be something. Could be nothing. Scattered words from unrelated conversations, crewmen whispering in the mess hall, secrets told behind bulkheads that were way, way too bare to conform even to the lowest turian standards for acoustic isolation. And one coincidence too many.

“It’s not the first time I’ve head a story like this,” he said carefully. “Adams lost something too. A uniform patch with a fortress or a tower on it. He came here to look for it, like you. Said it was in his cabin one day, and gone the next, just like that.”

Alenko was nodding. “Yeah, same here. I only took it out of my locker yesterday, while I was digging out that damn teeshirt from the ’76 Olympics that Shepard just had to see. I searched my cabin. The bunk, the lockers, every nook and cranny and – nothing!”

His voice had been rising at a steady pace, but he only seemed to realize it once he stopped speaking, and the low drone of the mass effect drive that passed for silence on the Normandy engulfed them. He sighed and lifted a hand to his brow. “Sorry. You know what? If you happen to see it, just bring it back to me, okay?”

Tali and Garrus nodded at the same time and he turned to leave, but Tali spoke before he made the first step. “Kaidan? You’re a biotic, right?”

Alenko stopped short and gave her a quizzical look. “Yes?”

“Maybe you know, since it’s a biotic thing. Or at least I think it is. Do the asari need to have sex in order to meld?”

He blinked at her, then looked at Garrus with a blank what-the-fuck expression that translated just fine over the racial barriers, and Garrus communicated a don’t-look-at-me by lifting his hands in the air with palms out. Which was more than a little hypocritical, since he was curious about the answer as well – but unlike Tali, he would have gone to the extranet for it.

Alenko grimaced, then marched away without another word.

“How rude,” Tali muttered after the door of the elevator closed shut behind him. “But you know, now that I think of it, it’s been an awfully long time since I’ve seen my Kaia bracelet. Maybe you remember it. I usually wear it on my upper arm, like this.”

Garrus snorted.

“What?”

“Please. You could lose a yahg in your quarters. With all the stuff you keep collecting, I’m surprised the accumulation hasn’t started affecting the jump calculations yet.”

“Excuse me? The ‘stuff’ I collect may help us win the war against the geth. Besides, look who’s talking. I won’t forget that office of yours in a hurry. You had enough material in there to build a scrap-heap dreadnought.”

“Yeah, yeah. Very funny.”

“Seriously, Garrus. Do you really think there’s a thief on board?”

Garrus harrumphed, idly scratching off a patch of burned monocarbon from the hull of the Mako. Just thinking about this shit made him unbelievably tired. So far, the mysterious disappearances of personal objects had been limited to the human crew. Tali’s case was far from clear-cut. Wrex came in a monolithic package containing only himself, his armor, and his weapons. If something of his went missing there was no doubt Garrus, and the entire crew, would know about it. Garrus had nothing on him of value, personal or otherwise; and Nihlus…

Nihlus was standing at the bottom of the stairs, looking straight at him. Something about his stance, or perhaps something about his countenance – inviting and challenging, open and resigned at the same time, a man about to take the plunge – reminded Garrus so vividly of their time together on Ganima that despite all rationalizations, a pit opened in his gut.

“Hey, Nihlus,” Tali said.

“Hey,” he replied, but his stare was pointed at Garrus. A discrete flick of the mandible. Let’s get out of here.

Garrus couldn’t help but smirk. He unzipped his overalls and let them pool around his ankles, handing the wrench he’d picked up a minute ago to Tali like a relay baton. “I need a break,” he said, intoning an unambiguous message in his undertones. I’ve been waiting a long time to hear that.


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