CHAPTER 39 OF GHOST IN THE MACHINE
“It was obvious they were hiding something. No wonder the salarians got so nervous. The Commander was whispering something with Nihlus half the time. They must’ve planned it from the beginning.”
“You’re so full of shit, Lester. You were out on guard duty the first shift, so how could you possibly know that? I passed you by on patrol, remember? You asked for a smoke and I told you to wait for Anne to get out.”
“That’s right, man,” Harris said. “I gave you one of my last three smokes. You were stationed well out of earshot.”
“Alright, alright—I never said I was inside, did I? But I saw them whispering. Everyone saw them whispering. Anyone care to deny?” Lester eyed his audience, but nobody bothered saying anything. “My point being, the salarians had no idea.”
“Perhaps,” said Harris. “But that’s not why they were nervous.”
All eyes turned to her.
“Nothing was working out, you know? They couldn’t agree on anything. I swear it took them like half an hour to decide who’d go in with the infiltration team, and who’d go out with the strike team.” She turned and gave Wrex a sideways smirk. “Wrex wanted to go with the infiltration team, but the salarians wouldn’t hear of it. I wonder why?”
Wrex considered saying something to that, but decided to instead use the sudden silence and stage a theatrical belch. That cracked the humans up.
“Anyway,” Harris continued when they settled down, “of course the salarians wanted their own men to go in, they all being ‘highly trained in covert operations’ and whatnot.” A wave of condescending snorts rose and fell around the table. “In the end, Nihlus had to pull rank, which was a tough pill to swallow, I guess. That Kirrahe character said something like, it’s a fucked up galaxy where a captain takes orders from an NCO. Bad move. It made the Commander angry. She stood up and slammed both fists on the table and said that either he takes the goddamn orders or she’ll just leave the lot of them to rot on the surface until the geth hunt them all down one by one.”
“Ok, so now you’re full of shit,” said the other guy, raising his voice with some effort over the murmurs of approval. What was the name? Wrex searched his memory in vain. All human names sounded the same to him, soft and squishy, just like everything else about them. Johnson? Jackson? Jetson? Shit. Let it be Jetson. Not like he cared.
“First, Captain Kirrahe said no such thing,” said Jetson. “What he actually said was that he had seniority because he was there by the mandate of the Council, not just the STG.”
Another salarian bitch had said that about a captain and an NCO. Commander what’s-his-name. Of course the STG would know such things, even about a Spectre. They had their filthy probes up everyone’s ass.
“And there was no standing up and slamming fists.”
Shepard had gone all red in the face, though. Wrex had liked that. His respect for Shepard climbed a few notches after all the shit that happened, despite their argument on the beach. If she or Nihlus had but glanced at him the right way, he’d have twisted that slimy bastard’s head off right there in front of everyone. Hehe.
“The Commander said that if the Captain preferred it,” Jetson narrated, “she and Nihlus would just go ahead with their mission without him and his men, and the salarians could continue their surveillance or whatever the fuck it was they were doing there in the first place. And that’s when they became nervous.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Harris said, waving a dismissive hand. “Whatever, man. You got to admit, though—my version was way better.”
The audience confirmed it with a round of laughs and cheers.
“I guess we can all agree on one thing,” Jetson said, then waited a moment to get everyone’s full attention again. “The salarians were in a hurry to leave the camp. It was round noon when we landed, right? Would’ve been no thing to wait a couple hours and attack after sunset. Who in their right mind would choose a daytime assault over a nighttime assault?”
“Better watch it, man,” said Lester from the other side of the table, making heads turn around en masse. “Your shallow-ass Earth-bound training is starting to show. I mean, it so happens the day on Virmire is about the same length as the Earth day, but that don’t need be universally true, don’t it? And I bet you didn’t bother checking. Just like you didn’t notice that we were way up in the north, and that it didn’t go properly dark for another six standard hours. Plus that huge moon rising when we were about half way to the base. Let me guess—you didn’t notice that neither.”
Jetson took air to defend himself, but Harris was faster. “Would’ve made no difference anyway,” she said. “Do you think the geth give a fuck if it’s day or night? They don’t even have eyes, man. They have built-in radars and god knows what else.”
“Now that you mention it,” said Jetson, eager to change the subject, “that’s exactly what Captain Kirrahe said. He said the Normandy was like a beacon because the thermal cloak can’t hide her from ground-based geth scanners. Maybe that’s why the salarians wanted to move out so quickly?”
“And maybe you have a brain after all, Dave. Who knows?”
Wrex scratched his double chin. Dave. Could still be Dave Jetson, no? He shrugged, trying to make himself a bit more comfortable on the tiny human chair and find some enthusiasm for the awful synthetic swill the humans called ‘whiskey’ that smelled vaguely herbal and even more vaguely alcoholic when he sloshed it around in his mug. Pathetic shit. Still, better than nothing. He raised the mug and took a gulp as the laughs died off.
“Anyway,” Harris said before Jetson could take the stage again, “the final split was a mess. Nihlus, the Commander, half of us and half the aliens—I mean, the non-human crew,” she hurried to say, glancing at Wrex, ”were to be the infiltration team, and the salarians were going to split into three groups and stage a fake frontal assault. The Commander offered to borrow them Alenko and Williams, but after all the bad-mouthing from all sides it looked like they’d say, thanks but no thanks.”
“It wasn’t the badmouthing,” said Markova. She was big, for a human, and had a smiling krogan hatchling tattooed on her shoulder, so Wrex liked her by default. She also had a nice voice. Deeper than most males in the room. When she spoke, the others grew still and listened like a school of pyjacks. “And Shepard didn’t offer shit. Kirrahe’s second in command—what was his name—”
“Rentola,” someone supplied.
Wrex grunted. That was right. Commander fucking Rentola.
“Yeah. He wanted a human officer to join their forces to relay messages and coordinate between teams, but Shepard didn’t like it. So she whispered something with the Spectre—to borrow Lester’s technical term—and then he said he knew all STG protocols so there’d be no need. But yeah. In the end Alenko and Williams got assigned to lead a salarian troop each, along with Kirrahe. Because the salarians were short on officers. And later we found out why.”
“What do you mean?”
“Margo and I were on the infiltration team,” Lester said. “While Anne and Dave here got to babysit the salarian engineers.”
“That’s right, bitch,” Harris said. “Them and their scrap-heap nuclear bomb. You think we got the better deal or something, think again. If I didn’t die of a heart attack when that dude dropped the wrench right on top of the DILDO, I’ll live for fucking ever. And let’s not even go into the radiation poisoning treatment. Why’d you think I shaved my head?”
“’Cos your girlfriend likes you better without hair?”
Wrex snorted some whiskey through his nose as the rest of the room burst in laughter. Harris laughed the loudest. Of course, everyone knew that she was making that shit up. The salarians were slimy, not stupid. There had been no radiation leaks from their ‘bomb’. The fuckers actually crippled their ship to put that thing together. As much as Wrex hated their lot and their purpose on Virmire, he respected their determination.
“Must’ve been some infiltration,” a new voice said. Wrex had given up trying to locate and recognize the speakers. “With, what, twenty of you?”
“Eight,” Markova said.
“Nine,” Wrex corrected her. “I count for two.” He drained his cup and crumpled it into a tiny ball. “I don’t understand what all the fuss was about. I can use the tac-cloak as well as anyone. And I move more quietly than a turian in heavy armor. Bigger feet.” He lifted a foot up as an exhibit. “Also, if we ran into hostile krogan in there, you all would’ve wanted a friendly one with you, believe me.”
“What, there were no krogan in the base?” Jetson asked.
“No,” Lester replied. “We met only token resistance. Automated security and some geth. We thought we hit a jack-pot with the diversion, but it turned out the geth response was a diversion too.”
“Covering up for what?”
“Evacuation,” Wrex said. In truth, he had been disappointed when they met none of Saren’s krogan. He wanted to see what they were made of. If they were really mindless tools like Shepard said, or if they followed Saren of their own free will. An army of genophage-free krogan! Just thinking about that shit made his hearts race. “They managed to get most of the personnel out in time, but all the equipment and research were wrecked.”
Plus-minus a few juicy bits.
Thoughtful murmurs went around the mess hall but in the end no one asked for an elaboration.
“Anyway,” Markova said, “we found a bunch of Kirrahe’s missing people in there. Herded in pens like cattle. And… just…” She shook her head, at a loss for words.
“Brainwashed,” Lester offered.
“More like… brain-fried. Most of them were babbling and drooling and playing with their toes. And those who could speak made no fucking sense.”
“Like from trauma?” Harris said. “Torture?”
“They were lab specimens,” Wrex said. He was rolling the ball of crumpled paper between his fingers, still unsure how he felt about that whole deal. The irony of finding salarians reduced to lobotomized, mumbling husks as a result of some failed experiment that might have plausibly been conducted by krogan scientists was not lost on him. But that… indoctrination thing was foul on a deeper level. “Let’s leave it at that.”
A long, stuffy silence ensued. Markova and Lester kept their eyes down and their faces schooled, no more eager than he to talk about that particular aspect of the operation.
“What did you do with them?” someone said at last.
“Left them there,” Lester said.
Markova sighed. “It was for the best. Not like anyone here had a say in it anyway.”
Well, now. Wrex shifted his butt again and the chair let out a harassed creak. He could’ve argued, he supposed. For what, though? For their wretched lives? Not even gentle Tali had objected to euthanizing the poor bastards. The only question had been whether to execute them on the spot. In the end, Nihlus had just walked away and let Shepard make the call.
“In the meantime,” Harris said, “we sat on the Normandy, watching Garrus argue with the salarians about rigging the bomb for maximal yield.” She laughed. “He gave them the run for their money. Who’d think some C-Sec cop would turn out to be a competent combat engineer?”
“They all go through military training,” Markova replied. “That was probably his specialization before he left the army.”
“I hear he’s a hand-to-hand specialist,” Lester said.
“Can be both, no?” She turned to Wrex with raised eyebrows.
Wrex deadpanned at her. “How the fuck should I know? If there’s anything more boring than drinking whiskey with you lot, it’s pulling turian army trivia out of my ass.”
Scattered chuckles made a round but soon died off. For an alleged celebration of an alleged victory, it was one gloomy party.
“Seriously, though,” Harris said, “those were some sweaty hours. We lost comms with the infiltration team when they entered the base, and listening to the comms from the strike team was frustrating as fuck. When Williams got cornered in that AA tower—”
Jetson waved an arm. “She didn’t get cornered. She was following orders to the letter. Kirrahe was supposed to outflank the enemy while Alenko pressed forward, but he didn’t come through.”
“I didn’t say it was her fault. But it wasn’t Kirrahe’s fault either that he got held back. The response might’ve been a diversion but it sure didn’t look like one. Any idea how many men he lost in that assault? You think he was doing it on purpose, or something?”
“I know as much as you. And we all looked around at each other when Kirrahe told her to take that tower.”
“Well. Nobody’s perfect. You of all people should appreciate that, Dave.”
Wrex zoned out while their bickering entertained the audience. After the encounter with the captured salarians, they had passed through krogan breeding grounds. Many of the pods were still occupied with almost fully-formed adults. They looked big and healthy, but something about the blissful unawareness on their sleeping faces made his skin crawl.
One lab in particular had such a strong odor of krogan presence that the occupants must have left literally a minute prior to their arrival. It was there that Tali hacked into one of the research terminals and Nihlus copied the data onto his omni-tool, while Wrex hovered behind their backs. But Nihlus was a good kid. He had kept his word, and so would Wrex, when time came.
“Ah,” Markova exclaimed, awaking him from the reverie. Or maybe he had dozed off, because he apparently missed a part of the conversation. “I know! That was when we gained access to the defense systems and lowered the comms curtain.”
“I’m telling you, that thing had nothing to do with comms,” Lester said. “It was a mass effect field, I’m sure of it.”
“Oh, come on. How would you know? You’re as biotic as my auntie Laura back home.”
“I served at Grissom Academy for nine months back in ‘79. I’ve gone through more mass effect fields than the lot of you together.”
“Oh,” Lester said and cleared his throat. “Right. Sorry. But there, you tell them, Wrex. It was a biotic field, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah,” Wrex drawled. That had been pretty weird. “Like a really thin, really big biotic bubble. But biotics don’t normally mess up comms, so it was more than that.”
“Well, whatever it was,” Markova continued, “once it went down, we could provide artillery support for the assault team. That’s what you heard.”
Harris nodded, but she let pass several seconds of silence for effect. “And that’s when the shit hit the fan.”
“What do you mean?” came the question from the audience.
“They also disabled the AA defenses,” Jetson cut in, leaving Harris open-mouthed. “So the Normandy could land on top of that… drain pipe or whatever it was.”
“The geothermal tap,” Lester enunciated like he knew what it was. Cheeky little bastard.
“The salarians got the bomb out and went about arming it,” Harris said, grabbing the opportunity to retake the stage. “And we went about securing the perimeter. A fucking nightmare, that place. About… I don’t know… three hundred meters east-west, and about fifty north-south, yeah?” She looked at Markova.
“Sounds about right.”
“And no cover nowhere. Support pillars along the walls, just about wide enough to squeeze behind if you suck in your stomach, but that was no good because the bomb had to be placed right in the fucking middle. I swear it took us half an hour to post the barricades, knee-deep in running water.”
Lester made an annoyed noise. “You exaggerate. It was ten minutes at most. When we got there the barricades were already in place.”
“It was more than ten minutes,” Markova said. “We spent ten minutes with that prothean relic alone.”
Wrex snorted and all eyes turned to him. But he had nothing to say. Calling it a relic was funny, that was all. It was funny because the workstations around it had been arranged to look suspiciously like an altar. Or maybe that was just his primitive krogan brain seeing primitive religious things. He wondered what the others saw, but he wasn’t going to ask. Their ten minutes there were mostly spent reviving Nihlus after his communion with the beacon.
“Fifteen, then,” Lester insisted. He was about to go on, but Jetson rose his voice.
“Anyway, just when Garrus announced that the bomb was armed, the geth dropped on us. A full transport. Two dozen toasters. Troopers, Hoppers, Destroyers, you name it. The heavies dropped later. They came from the west, but they would’ve surrounded us in minutes if you guys didn’t show up to cover our backs.”
“Here’s to the happy reunion,” Markova said, lifting her mug. Everyone cheered and drank while Wrex despondently regarded his crumpled cup.
“And to absent friends,” Harris muttered after the cheers quieted down.
Wrex nodded, though no one was looking his way. Four of the human marines and two salarian engineers had been killed defending the bomb. And another thirty-odd people from the assault team.
“Let’s do a minute of silence,” Jetson said.
“Dave, my friend, that’s the first smart thing you said the whole evening.”
No one laughed. The deep silence that ensued was strange and unsettling. The hum of the ship engines and the soft buzzing of the kitchen equipment came into sharp focus and seemed to get louder and louder with each second. Wrex was sure he’d sneeze or fart, or his stomachs would start rumbling. It was time for supper. He was amused to find he actually felt something like anxiety about it, but suppressed the laughs out of respect for the fallen aliens, even if some of them were salarians. Human customs were weird.
Perhaps it had been a whole minute, though he doubted anyone kept the time. People were just starting to stir from the creepy stillness when the mess door opened and Williams walked in. She froze, assessing the mass of weirdly silent people for threats. But then Markova lifted her mug again—how much booze could fit in there, anyway?
“Gunny! Come join us! We just got to the interesting part!”