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Ghost in the Machines

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Against the burnished vault of sky, the jagged remains of London's hardier—or just luckier—buildings gnawed into the ruined mouth of sunset. Without vertical walls bisecting the open spaces around him he felt dangerously exposed and his trigger finger itched, restless. These past few months, he didn't know what to do with his empty hands or the irritating compulsion to do anything other than let them just dangle uselessly. They were a soldier's hands in a post-Reaper galaxy; hands that had no skill for rebuilding infrastructure or resolving the food shortages or suturing together torn limbs and grafted skin. 

Kilometers of squat makeshift and pre-fab temporary shelters clustered in the shadows of shattered skyscrapers, already forming a new, diminutive city in the bones of the old. A group of human children darted around in the winding paths formed by the shelters in the powdered concrete and vaporized metal haze and he wondered darkly if they knew their childhoods would be lost to this dark gap in civilization, their lives spent reconstructing what was lost in victory. Humans had a phrase for victories that looked like this: pyrrhic. Turians didn't bother with the distinction. To a good turian, victories always had the expectation of sacrifice. Only fools expected to win without suffering. Only ungrateful fools lingered on the cost.

But he wasn't a good turian anymore. Even in this.

Garrus shuddered violently and sucked in a breath, sharp and sudden, pain tight-gripped around his throat like a fist, dust clotting on his teeth and tongue. It tasted like metal and char— like a pyre. 

The huddled crowds gathering between the broken corpses of London's skyscrapers weren't mourning. Energy imbued the city with the sharp, electric crackle of life. It reminded him of Purgatory after Cerberus hit the Citadel, with its fierce denial of mortality throbbing through subwoofers. Voices bubbled up from the tents and the faint bass of music thumped an insistent tempo in the distance. The children with lost childhoods were laughing, chasing a black and white ball through jagged chunks of concrete. She'd smile to see it— a little pained maybe, but still: a smile. He hated the thought as soon as it came to him, nearly as much as he hated these people celebrating her victory as if it didn't cost everything. As if the devastation was over for good instead of still looming, biding time out in dark space with most of the relays still down from the Crucible's blast. 

He yearned for his Mantis. All the denial of the surrounding and impending destruction would just be easier to handle with a gun in his hand. An 'illusion of control' was what his recently failed psych eval had called it. Well, he called it damn common sense. Two months since the last Reaper sighting was too soon, much too soon, to be celebrating. Too bad the Mantis was long gone by now— buried beneath the ruined remains of an upside-down IFV somewhere in the far reaches of this very city. He had a standard issue rifle now: a Krysae still new in its case, packed away with the rest of his equipment and locked to his psych VI progress. 

 “Scars! Don't you have your own messed-up planet to get to?” A meaty hand clapped him on the shoulder. “Man, when I was ordered to rendezvous with the turian VIP, I thought they were talking about someone important at least.”

Garrus managed a look of the severely put-upon.  “You can imagine my own disappointment then. I take it you are the Alliance liaison?”

“Sure am, straight off the Normandy and into a cushy diplomatic gig in couple months. Wonder who I impressed when I helped save the galaxy?”

Garrus felt his mandibles flicker, unsteady, his mouth twisting into a grimace. Something about Vega's tone said that 'impressed' wasn't the right word. Last he knew, Vega was supposed to begin N7 training after the war, a far cry from escorting washed-up turians around London. The man's eyes were anywhere that would not mean continuing eye contact.  

Vega cleared his throat, awkwardly, and after a beat, asked, “ you just want to stand here and enjoy the view or do you want me to show you to your luxurious accommodations?"

The grimace wouldn't smooth out and Garrus didn't try very hard to help it along. It was like the twitch in his hands that wouldn't go away. They all flared in fits and starts; tics with minds of their own. Doctors thought nerve damage and they might be right. He had his own theory. He'd known soldiers with amputations and while they waited for their vat-grown limbs or prosthetics to finish developing, they'd described phantom pains and sensations. He knew someone who felt as if his whole arm was still on fire; another who felt like she was squeezing always down on an invisible trigger. That's the closest description to what the tics felt like to Garrus, like they were happening to a part of him that wasn't actually there anymore.  

With a terse nod from Garrus, Vega started forward and gestured for him to follow. As they walked, he launched into a rundown of the situation in London that Garrus could've just as easily read in a dossier but saved them both the trouble of talking about more unpleasant things, like the current sorry state of their lives. 

“The Alliance is running the show here. European Union civil leadership got taken out early in the war and it'll take another year before they sort that mess out and hold elections. While they sit with their thumbs up their asses, these crazy bastards start staking out claims in the middle of Trafalgar Square. Couldn’t let them just sleep in the rubble, anything still structurally sound has been repurposed for military defense operations until we know for sure the Reapers aren’t just taking a breather. So we're doing our best with makeshift shelters."

They drew closer to a vast bridge of a strange, ornate architecture: a relic of history juxtaposed against the attempted decimation of humanity. The smoke-stained stone was surprisingly intact. On either side of its stone edifices, filthy water churned in sluggish brown currents. He glimpsed the remains of a burned-out shuttle partially submerged, an Alliance logo bisected by a charred gash through the metal.

Noticing Garrus’s attention drifting to the water, Vega stopped.

“You up for a swim or something Scars?” He joked, then paused, brow furrowing. “Can turians even swim?”

Suddenly, Garrus saw her grin. Eyes bright and her hair mussed as she searched the floor of the skycar for a piece of clothing. He didn’t say it, but he loved her seeing her that way—hair matted and messy,  the metallic gleam of strands sticking out in odd directions, ruffled by her shirt. Maybe it was a streak of possessiveness on his part; this was the Shepard only he saw: the flush on her neck and face, the moisture dotting her skin, not the hero, just the woman. He couldn't look at her properly without his breath catching and he had to clear his throat and pretend to search the car as well when really he was wondering how it was possible to be this lucky while the known galaxy was on the brink of mass extinction. 

“Looks like I’ll be heading back to the Normandy to take a shower before I can get anything done. You and those vids are a bad influence Vakarian.”

His smirk was anything but repentant. 

“We could always take a dip.” He gestured towards the distant blue of the Presidium reservoir glinting beyond the dark tint of the skycar windows.

She flashed that grin at him and leaned forward to brush her lips against his jaw. "I think I prefer you without water in your lungs."

His chest tightened, paralyzed with a physical jolt to the sternum so inexpressibly painful, he couldn't even think through it— couldn't breath through the fist clamping down on his throat. He just had to let it pass on or kill him. Whichever happened first. 

 “No.” Garrus finally said, dragging his eyes from the murky water. His sub vocals were a strangled croak. “No we can’t.”

"Just as well," Vega nudged towards the line of the horizon with his chin. Straddling the water edge, far in the distance, black smoke billowed, blotting out the sky. At the base of the smoke, Garrus glimpsed a massive slope of concrete made smaller by the distance: a power plant cooling tower, cracked open and spewing out irradiated ash. He flinched, the taste of the pyre still lingering on his tongue. 

"You'd probably come out glowing." Weak slanting sunlight wavered through the smoke, catching on a film of deadly blue light radiating off the edge of the city. Vega smiled grimly. "This place will look like Tuchanka if we don't get our act together soon. Don't worry though," he said, "I got some dextro anti-radiation med rations for you."

The London that laid on the other side of the bridge was in much better shape than the London they had just left. The ground had been completely cleared of rubble and a hastily constructed wall stretched far to the left and right of the military checkpoint. Powerful kinetic barriers hummed, low and loud. 

Vega waved at the soldier slouching in the armored view box and a second later the massive metal doors before them opened with a long metallic creek. 

Identical rows of portable field bunkers formed perfect lines extending off into the far distance. To his immediate left hulked a host of IFVs gleaming in the red cast of sunset. The space swarmed with soldiers, platoons of marines performing drills in the vast dirt fields, the expanse of ‘road’ before them packed with people hustling from one side of the base to the other, puffs of dirt kicked up to haze the world in dust.

The air held none of the celebratory energy from the rubble of London. Here it was thick with anticipation, the weighted moment of tension when hell is just about to break loose. It was a balm against the frayed ends of his nerves, stilling the frenetic movements of his fingers and jaw.

This was the way it was supposed to be. 

Vega led him the way to a bunker indistinguishable from the others but relatively easy to locate being that it was closest to the wall. It was the kind meant to fit in a few rows of cots, packing a whole unit into a single space. When they stepped inside, there was only his footlocker and gun cases set at the foot of a single cot and a workbench and a terminal.

His browplate shifted upwards, a human expression he picked up at C-Sec and never got rid of. 

Vega caught the inquisitive look, gesturing to the vast open space.

“Higher ups figured you'd want the executive suite,” he joked, big white teeth a stark contrast to his tan. When Garrus failed to respond in kind, the smile faltered.

“Jeez Scars, take a joke. Probably thought you didn’t want to be bothered by a bunch of marines while you were calibrating or whatever you do with your free time.”

The dark line of his eyebrows furrowed deeply and Garrus realized that the grating show of humor had all been for his benefit, not Vega's own attempt at normalcy. Embarrassment and anger fused together into a lump of sinking metal in his gut. He nearly snarled for Vega to take the damn jokes elsewhere and find him a new liaison while he was at it. As he opened his mouth a new sensation smothered the rancor in his throat and caught his breath.

Vega, of all people. With the ridiculous musculature, stupid nicknames, the naïve enthusiasm not yet twisted by war and death into practiced cynicism. The eagerness made him seem younger than he actually was, despite his combat prowess. Garrus had always found himself checking his pessimism whenever Vega was around. And now here was Vega doling out the same protective treatment to him.

Garrus took a deep breath and it helped but his voice was still jagged. “I could use a drink. You?”

“Well, technically I’m on duty.”

“Consider hitting up a bar with the ‘turian advisor’ to fall under those parameters,” Garrus said.

“I’m pretty sure the place I’m thinking of doesn’t have turian beer.”

Garrus strode over to the footlocker, snapping it open to pull out a half-filled bottle of turian liquor. The bottle glowed soft aquamarine, deceptively pretty. It was potent stuff, he sometimes used it in a pinch to dissolve industrial-grade sealant.

“I’ve got that covered.”

 To call the place a bar would be something like calling the pyjak an intelligent species: it only fit in the loosest of definitions. Garrus hadn’t been expecting much, but he also didn’t quite expect this. The design was an ingenious use of salvaged materials. Rows of bright vending machines formed the walls and the roof was a quilted tarp of silver emergency blankets. A portable generator hummed in a dark corner, providing the energy to power the garish fluorescent designs on the machine walls.

It was packed.

Vega approached the bar, which looked to be two dented metal bookshelves placed on their sides and covered with a sheet of equally scarred metal, and shouted his two drink order above the din. The crowd shifted, allowing the bartender to open up a vivid panel on the machine and withdraw a dark bottle from the refrigerated racks. Garrus pushed against the surge, finally making his way to the marine.

“Not really what I had in mind,” Garrus shouted.

This was the opposite of taking the edge off. Serving on freighters during his time in the military cured him long ago of any discomfort in closed spaces, but this place was stifling, thick with the scent of unwashed humans and warm, sour beer.

“Don’t worry,” Vega shouted back, setting one of the drinks— a glass with a finger of whiskey— on the bartop beside him and clinking the lip of his beer bottle against it ritualistically. “Just wait.”

Garrus eyed the whiskey and settled in, best he could, as far from it as possible. The bar had a cracked but functional vid screen hooked up and perched on a toppled-over vending machine. The sound was off and captioned, the screen showing an Alliance News Network broadcast update. A burly man spoke to screaming crowds packed into a stadium. People in the crowd were holding handmade signs his heads up display translated as 'No blood for aliens' and various other anti-Council, anti-alien slogans. "The time for bending over backwards for the Council is over. This is our system. Our food. Our fuel. If they don't like it, they can get out." Garrus glanced again at the untouched whiskey and frowned over his bottle.

After ten minutes, the place emptied out.

“Curfew,” Vega explained, searching the caches in his armor before finding a silvery blister pack of pills stamped with signs for dextro-chirality and sliding them across the dented bartop towards him. Garrus popped one free and chased it with a swig from the bottle. It burned all the way down.

With the crowds gone, it was possible to hear the music. It was slow: a human song with a woman’s husky voice crooning out melancholy lyrics over the sound of mournful instruments. Garrus found it oddly fitting for a salvaged bar in the ruins of London. A shot of aquamarine disappeared down his throat, searing the lining of his esophagus and creating a false warmth in his stomach.

He noticed Vega avoided asking what he was doing here, what he was supposed to be advising exactly. Garrus filed the observation away and tried to get what news he could about the rest of the planetside Normandy crew and what they'd been doing over the past two months. Reliable information was hard to come by, given the handful of functional comm buoys.

“Alenko is busy coordinating colonist refugee evacuations. Lots of people still stranded but it's the same story here as it is everywhere: supply shortages. We're scrambling to find them a place on whatever we can reach by FTL. But H3's getting scarce. " 

Garrus nodded. Much the same as it was on Palavan. The Trebia, Aralakh, and Parnitha relays were operational days after Sol’s, allowing the fleets to retreat back to their respective  home systems. But the Reapers were cunningly efficient in the careful destruction of supply lines during the war. What wasn’t already destroyed was now feasibly unobtainable without relay travel. Fuel, food, and raw material shortages abounded; asteroid and planet mining brought to a near standstill; productive colonies cut off in systems with dark relays. 

The political embroilments occurring over the devastating shortages were only increasing in tenor over the past month and diplomacy was wearing thin. Already, the quarians were threatening to cut off all aid to Palavan without concessions for an embassy and a Council ambassador as a reward for their efforts against the Reapers. Meanwhile, the humans weren't even bothering to fill Udina's Council vacancy, preferring to make relief coordination as difficult as possible. 

“Got family in Elysium myself,” The bartender spoke up, looking up at them. “Can’t wait for that damn relay to self-repair.”

Garrus maintained a carefully neutral expression. Not that it mattered, humans generally couldn't read turian expressions well enough to tell neutral from anything else.

Vega just drained the rest of his beer in a long, gulping draw. “This isn’t bad Malone, where’d you find this stuff?”

“Alliance still hasn’t tracked where those radiation spikes in the sensor data came from?” Garrus asked the bartender.

“They think that it was a burst of energy from the relay itself and not ships like the data first suggested.”

Garrus leaned forward on the scratched metal bar top. “Really,” he said, catching Vega's glance. “That’s interesting.”

He had a hunch that whatever Hackett’s request to meet was for, it had something to do with the shroud of mystery surrounding the ‘self-repairing’ relays and the ghostly echo of radiation along with the last known Reaper sighting, right here in Sol. By EDI’s and the heirarchy's analysis, the thermal signatures indicated multiple sources. Large sources. Dreadnought-class drive core sources. Which shot to hell whatever information the Alliance was publicly propagating about miraculous self-repairing relays. 

“We should head back Scars." Vega downed the rest of his beer and poured out the untouched whiskey onto the hardpacked floor. "Some of us have to be up at the crack of dawn.”

They walked back in silence. The acidic burn of the alcohol lingered with none of its relaxing haziness. This was a disturbing revelation given that he'd finished off the bottle. He'd never been one to fall into drinking. Too much of a stereotype: the washed-up C-Sec officer hanging around seedy clubs and staring blearily into the bottom of an empty glass. Any minute now, a human soldier would march up and tell him to get his act together and stop moping—he'd been too hard on Oraka in hindsight.

Vega stopped without warning, chin tipped up, eyes on the distant object fixed into the night sky. Distant pinpoints of light bloomed like stars arranged into a pattern too regular to be natural: a shape faintly visible against the dark haze of the atmosphere.

The Citadel.

Another thing stranded in the Sol system. Another thing reaped and left listing on Earth's desolate horizon.

Garrus looked away almost immediately, blinking back afterimages of red and heat.

"Heard repairs were going well; keepers must be helping them along. Surprised that thing is even still there after the Crucible took out every relay in the galaxy," Vega said. "Don't know how it survived the blast."

He'd heard more than half of the station was missing, presumed dead and the other half was dealing with radiation sickness so bad, they'd be on meds for the rest of their shortened lives. Garrus kept walking. Fast.

“So why’d you come here?” Vega asked his back. "Don't they need you on Palavan? Heard it was even worse there with the food shortages."

Garrus stopped. Truth was, he didn’t have a good answer yet.  The last place he wanted to be was on Earth with the Citadel looming in the sky. Getting the relays up and running again to save his species from slow starvation— that was the objective and the answer to the question of what to do with a washed-up, newly alcoholic Reaper advisor with dismal psych evals and nerve damage. But that was the question Victus was asking, not him, and he wasn’t about to tell anyone the truth about what questions he was asking himself. 

The truth was something he hid deep in his bones, away from the harsh scrutiny of realism and better judgement. The truth was hope that only a fool could entertain, buried in his marrow with the stubborn denial of that metal plaque fixed on the memorial wall on the Normandy. Was it possible? A victory without sacrifice. At least— a victory without that one sacrifice. But he'd been a fool from the moment he saw her storming in with those mercs on Omega. It was Shepard. She always made him ask impossible things. She was the kind of person who could change the definition of what victory meant to a turian. 

“Just can’t shake the feeling that there’s more left to do,” he finally said, glancing back at Vega over his cowl.

“Still stuck trying to save the galaxy huh?”

The tic dressed up as a twisting smile stuttered his mandibles. Saving the galaxy: a routine of heroism ingrained by habit. Ex-C-Sec, former military, failed vigilante, an advisor to an enemy that had vanished into dark space. There was a time when he'd talked about an early retirement after the war was over. But those plans were always dependent on her and she was gone and they went with her.

What was left of him except habit? What was left outside of a collective of severed nerve bundles pantomiming the last action they remembered before an explosive blast seared through his hardsuit? 

It was the kind of question he avoided asking himself lately. Introspection left him in the same dark alleys of his mind and it was harder and harder to find his way out the more he wandered down them.

 "Well hey, Scars, its good to see you here...because I'm pretty sure you're right."

Alone in the bunker, Garrus set himself to the task of checking the private messages that awaited him. With comm buoys down, communication with Palavan would be spotty, arriving sporadically with whatever courier ship would take on the data to ferry through the relays before transmitting on lightspeed tightbeam. Not that there would be any messages from Palavan worth couriering—just missed appointment reminders with his doctors, and a thousand requests for help that he lacked the expertise and the ability to give. But nothing from Solana. Nothing from his Dad.

He did, however, already have a few messages from people in Sol system. Most from the new turian councilor begging him to use some of connections with the quarian admiralty board to negotiate more dextro rations. Garrus snorted, deleting the message. He had no intention of entangling himself within trade politics no matter how far he had moved up through the gaping vacancies in the meritocracy. 

Won’t be able to make it to Earth. Spiked a fever. Nothing serious.
Eat something, 

There was no doubt in his mind that it was, in fact, more serious than Tali let on. Anything really minor and she would be on her way, sniffling and sneezing. 

Garrus shut the terminal off, browplates drawn together in thought. His mind drifted to Shepard, a tidal surge caught in the inexorable lunar pull of her.

His omni-tool blinked, a flickering  appointment reminder with his grief counseling VI program. Not a voluntary install. 

"Good evening Mr. Vakarian. How is your progress on what we discussed before on modulating your alcohol intake?"

He glanced at the empty bottle, still where he left it by the edge of his footlocker. "Well enough."

"That is excellent news. Do you feel that you are ready to continue our discussion about the last moments with--"

He groaned and powered off his omni-tool and flicked the terminal back on to read over the forensics report again. It was detached and clinical, incongruous phrases like ‘incineration thresholds’ and 'inconclusive scorching patterns' attempting to apply logic to something that belonged more in the realm of mystical. Vanished, without a trace, the recording of her last known words on the comm trailing off into pained breaths—an ellipses where a period should be.

He had looked out at the wreckage of London framed by the shuttle door and turned on instinct to say something to her, something comforting and reassuring, to the spot where Shepard should be but wasn’t. No wry twist of lips, no flutter of cropped hair, just a gap in the universe that swallowed him whole.

Mud squelches into the spaces between her toes as she wriggles them deeper into the cool earth. Star-bright air glows between the gaps in the trees, crescents of silver forming intricate patterns on the shadowed ground. It smells like summer is fading, the high, sweet note of adolescence transforming into the tenor of autumn and burgeoning responsibility. She knows these moments are slipping out of her fingertips faster and faster: nights sneaking into the reservoir after 10:00 when it finally got dark, dares and shy kisses, bare knees scabbed over. 

A pebble bites into her heel but she doesn’t stop. Air streams around her body and she can almost feel it lift her off the ground, she’s running so fast.

Her lungs expand and fill with wind-whipped oxygen, it circulates through her veins, effervescent and heady like a sip from a can of beer stolen from a parent's stash. 

A vista of soy fields meets the edge of blue, two hemispheres welded together in the distance. Grass pillows her fall and she gulps down huge drafts of summer sky.

Underneath her back, she imagines she feels the vast movement of the planet, Mindoir’s tectonic plates shifting below, muffled and rumbling echoes dwarfing her very existence. Above her, the dome of sky and stars stretches on forever.

The world tips and she falls into an infinite sea of stars.

She falls and dissolves into ripples of spacetime.