Of Citadels And Castles, Part 12: The High Cost Of Living
By C. Mage
"So, how did it go?" Megani said as Machias arrived. Megani had taken the liberty of arranging some permanent lodgings in five different areas of the Citadel, all under different names and requests routed through multiple channels. She wondered if she was being a bit paranoid.
"Turns out Cerberus is interested in me," Machias said grimly.
That answers THAT question. "CERBERUS?"
"Yes...the question is, why would they be interested?" Machias sat down in an overstuffed chair in the den, his face looking as he'd just bitten into a not-yet-ripe lemon...and chewed five times.
"Unfortunately, I have an ugly feeling I know." Megani sighed. "You're just the sort of person Cerberus would love to have as a poster-child."
"A symbol, an icon, something to show as a paragon of Human-central capabilities."
"...I don't get it."
"Think about it. You're making waves in the galaxy, and people of all races aren't sure what to make of you yet. Cerberus obviously feels that if they can get you to work for them, it'll validate the supremacy of humans in the galaxy. A human Wizard. Something no one else in the galaxy has."
Machias looked at Megani with growing horror. "I heard this before, with that Anderson fella."
"It was speculation before...now it's a certainty. Cerberus wants you on their team."
"I'd rather drink molten lead," he said flatly.
"It appears they're looking for ways to persuade you."
"Then they've picked the Devil's own row to hoe. My life is bad enough as it is." He looked around. "Where's Tali?"
"Sleeping. I fixed up a noise generator to make the sound of ship engines. She can't sleep without it, it seems." She looked at Machias. "I know things are difficult, but as lives go, you're better off…"
"Than what? My old life, which is only a few months ago by my reckoning? Where everything made sense? I had a family, Megani. I had friends, a partner, a life...and then I got kidnapped, kicking and screaming, to this era. I feel like...everything I touch might as well be made of spun sugar!" He stood up, pacing around the room. "All this...stuff that you don't even think about...one careless touch and it's destroyed. And everything is connected to everything else! I need other people to OPEN DOORS for me, like I'm some kind of cripple! And that's the least of it!"
"No, don't 'Mac' me! If people saw what happened to me, they think, 'what are you complaining about, you're rich, you have two women working for you, you can do magic'...and I can't even open a door without shutting off the entire building. Plus, people I don't even like are telling me that I have to go through all this because the world of magic needs me here!" He stopped and put his face in his hands. "It would've been kinder to me if I'd just DIED."
Megani let him vent, feeling this had been a long time coming. She walked over to the chair and took his hand, saying nothing.
"I DON'T BELONG HERE. This isn't my world, my time, my reality! Back then, I had a life, a family, I helped people, I had others I'd known for years and could rely on to help me. I HAD A GOSH-DARNED HORSE. Now look at me." He hung his head. "I'm a FREAK. I should be in a sideshow with people throwing popcorn into my cage!"
"Machias, you're overwhelmed, and I understand this frame of mind. You have been awake for almost a full day, You're tired, stressed and you're not thinking clearly. You're not yourself, and even Marshals need sleep."
Machias sighed. "Fine. But don't think for a moment I'm going to just forget about this. Everything in this whole GALAXY is a reminder of how I don't belong here."
"Mac? Sleep. You'll feel better after you've had a chat with Commander Shepard."
"Hmph," he said sourly, walking to his room. Megani had taken the liberty of making sure it was set to open for him at his approach. She wasn't about to make the same mistake she did when Machias first tried to use a modern bathroom…
Machias woke up and put himself together. He was still embarrassed over his emotional slip the night before, and he dreaded seeing Megani and Tali over breakfast. But it was against his nature to withdraw from trouble, so he decided to tackle it head-on.
Once dressed and clean, he strode out to the dining room where Tali and Megani were already eating. "Good morning, ladies. Listen, Megani, about last night…I said a few things…"
"Did you?" Megani yawned. "I was utterly exhausted last night, so if you said anything, I must have missed it." She gave a slight smile. "Besides, considering how tired we both were, I don't think it's really that important to go over what we said during that time...is it?"
Machias stared at her for a few moments, finding himself saying, "No….no, I reckon not."
"Good. Because we have a lot to talk about, and we're going to have company soon. There's going to be six or seven people showing up and we should prepare something suitable for them. Think you can handle catering, Mac?"
Machias smiled for the first time that morning. "I think I can rustle up some grub…"
"Nice place. I suppose being a Wizard pays well," Kaiden said as he looked around at the property. "Probably got that whole 'changing lead to gold' thing perfected."
"You're serious about this." Garrus stared at Shepard. "He claims to be able to use 'magic'."
"You don't have wizards or sorcerers among the turians, Garrus?"
"Nothing quite like that. I used to hear stories about the vengerus, turians who had honed their martial arts skills to the point where just one of them had the hand-to-hand power of fifty turians. They could go through an army like it was a field of crops waiting to be harvested. But they were nothing more than what humans would call 'fairy tales'."
"I've seen this man fight, Garrus. This certainly…" Williams stopped as she smelled something in the air. "Oh boy…"
"What?" Wrex asked, then stopped and sniffed the air. "What is that...and where can I get more of it?"
Shepard chuckled. "Seems our friend knows how to barbeque. We better knock before Wrex breaks the door down." He walked to the door and pressed the button quickly.
The door opened almost immediately, more cooking scents billowing out of the house. Megani smiled. "Hello, won't you come in?"
It was a good thing everyone there was an omnivore, at the very least. Machias, Megani and Tali had laid out a nice spread of human and nonhuman-friendly foods. The barbequed ribs and brisket were welcome enough, not to mention mashed potatoes, both russet and sweet, corn-on-the-cob (which Garrus took an instant liking to), macaroni and cheese with corn and jalapeno slices mixed in...a heavy table laden with comfort food.
It took less than twenty minutes to clear the table of everything edible.
"If this is your way of bribing us into letting you come with us, Marshal…" Liara smiled as she took another bite of the mashed potatoes, "you make a very compelling argument for joining us just to apply for the position as ship's cook."
"Then it's a good thing I bring more to the table." Machias sighed. "Look, I can help you in more ways than just combat. Two ships can provide more support than one, and I can provide financial support as well. I don't know what kind of problems you'll run into, but I know that I've had jobs that would've gone a lot smoother if I'd had better financial resources."
"He's got a point, Shepard. We need to get upgrades for vehicles, weapons, armor, and we can't always rely on someone needing our help to be able to pay us for it. That'd make us mercenaries."
Wrex looked up while eating a platter of ribs, bones and all. "And what's wrong with being a mercenary?" he demanded.
"Nothing," Megani interjected, "if that's all you want to be."
"Before I answer, I have a few questions." Shepard looked Machias in the face. "Is it true that you've been targeted by Cerberus?"
"You don't miss much, do you?" Megani asked.
"Well?" Shepard asked.
"It's true. Not really sure why, but I've got a few ugly ideas."
"I can imagine. Tell me about this effect you seem to have on technology."
Machias sighed. "I can't get too close to pretty much any technology around here. Magic and technology don't get along. I had to set up the bridge of my ship so I didn't get too close to anything that could short out. Since magic can't be sustained in space, I could probably touch that stuff without my ship going lame, but only if there was no mana left in me...I think."
"So riding in any kind of vehicle is going to be a concern." Shepard nodded in a way Machias didn't much like. "Incidentally, how did you cook all of this? Magic?"
"No, I just used a wood grill and stove."
"Hmm. I've heard about your weapons. Also magic?"
"Yup." He walked over to a box and opened it, taking out his gunbelt. "Two of them are, one of them is my Schofield."
"Ash?" Shepard asked. Williams nodded and looked them over, drawing out the heavy-looking pistol. "What's your assessment?"
"It's a beautiful piece of work, but it's not something that'll do much to any armor out there. Most armor's made to protect against mass-effect weapons. Unless the opponent has no armor and no shields, it won't have much use except as a souvenir." She turned to Machias apologetically. "Sorry, Marshal."
Machias nodded. "Well, my managuns don't suffer from the same restrictions."
"Let's say you fired one of those inside a ship. What would happen if you missed? What would a stray shot do to the interior of a ship or a space station?"
"Well, unless I was using a hex bolt, the effect would be the same as the elemental effect."
Machias nodded and picked up one of the managuns. "If I fired it right now, it would fire hex magic, the kind of raw energy that tends to make technology stop working. For it to fire anything else, I have to concentrate and choose the type of magic to use. For example…" He raised the weapon and aimed it at a wall. "Ignis."
The etchings on the gun went red, and a small flame flickered at the muzzle of the weapon. Machias picked up one of the plates and tossed it up then took aim and fired. Everyone drew back slightly as a ball of fire hit the plate, vaporizing it. Machias held up the gun again, only this time, he said, "Glacies." The fire winked out, and the etchings turned blue, icicles lengthening from the muzzle. He picked up another plate and threw it up, only this time, when the plate fell to the ground, it was encased in a block of ice. "I can use any of the five elements: fire, water, air, earth and spirit energy."
"What does this 'spirit energy' do?"
"If it's a living being, it knocks them cold without hurting them. They'll wake up in a few hours with a headache the likes of which I wouldn't want to imagine...but they'll be fine."
"And you can do other kinds of magic?"
Machias nodded. "Thaumaturgy is one of my main talents, but I work with other forms as well. Potions as well. I can make different compounds for different effects. Problem is, half of the stuff I originally had went bad, so I'm trying to find other means of replacing them."
Shepard considered for a long time. He cleared his throat and said, "I hate to give bad news to someone who made a meal like the one we just had, but I have my concerns. I know you have your own ship, but the facts remain: you're a target for a terrorist organization, and Cerberus might choose to hinder our mission by causing trouble along the way to the people we help. Also, your abilities are, for lack of a better term, potentially disastrous. Can you honestly say that you'll be able to keep from causing magical damage, without fail or exception?"
"No. I'm not going to say it isn't a risk. But what I can tell you is that I'll make it worth the risk."
"You're asking me to believe in fairy tales," Shepard said simply.
"You're right. I am. Because they're REAL."
Shepard looked at Machias for a long time. "Officially, Castle, there is no way I'm going to tell the Alliance that I'm having a magician…"
"WIZARD," Machias corrected.
"...as a member of an Alliance crew." He considered, then wore a small smile. "However, there's really not much I can do about it if your ship just HAPPENS to be in the same places my ship is...or your crew's itinerary happens to coincide with mine. I can't take you on, but I have no orders that tell me to avoid you. But we need to maintain lines of communication and coordinate with your crew, and to do that, there needs to be some sort of oversight."
"Oversight? You insinuatin' that you don't completely trust me?" Machias said defensively.
"No. I'm saying it flat out. But what I want is the chance to LEARN to trust you."
Machias looked at Shepard, then smiled. "Fair enough...since I don't entirely trust you, either. Okay, pardner. Who are you suggestin?"
"Actually, Commander..." Garrus spoke up. "I'd like to volunteer. The Marshal and I have a few things in common, and I'd like to know more about the kind of lawman he is….plus, I'm not entirely sold on the whole 'magic' thing, and I want to see him put his credits where his mandibles are." Garrus gave Machias a challenging look, which Machias completely missed.
"You're a lawman?" Machias asked.
"C-Sec." Garrus crossed his arms over his chest. "All right, Marshal...impress me."
Tali grinned behind her visor. Megani was glad she wasn't facing Garrus, it made it easier to cover her chuckle.
Machias smiled only a little. "Be careful what you wish for. So, Commander Shepard, since I don't want to get in your way, what place would you highly suggest I avoid in the near-future?"
A quick succession of chimes got Tali's attention. "Expecting anyone else?" she asked Machias, who turned to Shepard.
Shepard shook his head. "Unless someone else from the Normandy is coming by about something important."
"Go let them in and bring whoever it is back here." Machias chuckled. "I suppose we'll have to apologize for there not being any food left."
Tali nodded and walked to the front door. As she left, Shepard said, "Well, I would definitely suggest avoiding Noveria, in the Pax system. It's within the Horse Head Nebula cluster."
"What's Noveria like?" Machias asked.
"It's a frozen rock. You could fit all the indigenous life on the planet into a single freighter cargo hold and have room left over. It's extremely popular with corporations, since the planet is not only outside Council space, but it's the perfect place to build a lab to work on experiments that would be hilariously illegal in other star systems. They're…" His voice trailed off as Tali came slowly into the backyard.
"Mac, there's someone here to see you." Her voice was uncertain. "He wants to talk with you about Nihlus."
"Who is it?" Machias asked, picking up on her tone immediately.
Now everyone was looking at Tali. Machias blinked, then said in a harder tone of voice, "Tell him I'll see him in the backyard."
Saren waited at the front door impatiently, wondering what was taking Machias so much time. He smelled cooking food, and got the impression that he might have caught Machias during mealtime. Then I'll just have to interrupt. My time is far too valuable for niceties.
The door opened again. The quarian had returned. Saren was getting more irritated at the delays. Wonder how long she's indentured to him for….probably keeps her around for recreational purposes. "Well?"
"He's in the backyard. Come with me, I'll take you there." She walked ahead of him, leading him through the foyer and the living room to the doors to the backyard.
As she opened them, Saren stepped through imperiously, ready to take command of the conversation, only to find that Machias was not only accompanied by an asari. The last people in the galaxy he wanted to share words with, and they were all there, looking right at him. "You didn't mention that he had company," he said to Tali, sotto voice.
"You're absolutely right. Life's surprising like that," she said with a hint of triumph in her voice at having outmaneuvered the Specter, going to a chair and sitting down as Machias rose from his chair.
"Hello, Saren. Fancy meeting you here. Won't you have a seat?" Machias said politely. Saren stared at Machias, then sat down across from him, not about to let anyone else see that he'd been caught off-guard.
"I came here to talk to you alone, Castle."
"Plans change. But I know why you're here. You're trying to get ahead of the herd, so to speak, since you can't protect Nihlus anymore, you want to regain some credibility by assisting in his capture. Plus, you aren't buying into this stuff about the Reapers, you just want to make sure you're known for bringing Nihlus in, instead of letting him go." Machias smiled. "How am I doing so far?"
"...you are not entirely wrong." Saren growled.
"All right, I'll help you…"
Saren blinked. "Just like that?"
"...IF you tell me everything about what happened on Eden Prime and everything since then. The unvarnished truth. But if I find one falsehood in your explanation, we're done and you're on your own. Have fun with the inquest."
Saren ground his mandibles together. "Fine."
"Start with Eden Prime."
Saren laid it all out, the encounter with Nihlus, the implications of a turian Spectre going rogue and everything he'd done to cover for Nihlus, if only to talk with Nihlus himself and find out why Nihlus went rogue. As Saren told the story, he began to feel more intensely the enormity of what he'd done...as well as a grudging respect for Castle.
However minute it was.
Castle nodded when Saren finished. "All right, Saren. I believe you."
"I'm SO glad you approve," Saren said snidely.
"Now you heard every word I said, Saren. Nothing in there said I approved." Machias looked him over. "Saren, there only one way I know of that'll make us both sure of what we're doing. A Soulgaze."
"What's a 'Soulgaze'?" Liara asked. "It's not like, uh, 'embracing eternity', is it?"
"Not sure what that means, but a Soulgaze enables me to look into your soul, see you for the individual you are. But there's a catch: that is a two-way street. I look into you...and you look into me. No deception. No evasion. Just the truth."
Saren looked at Machias. "Is this some sort of trick where you gaze into my eyes and tell me what I want to hear?"
"Oh, trust me...you'll know when it happens. Do you agree?"
Saren chuckled. "This should be interesting. Very well, I agree."
"Sit back, get a grip on your armrests. I've never Soulgazed a turian before." Machias stood up and walked over to Saren, leaning holding his face a foot away from Saren's. "When you're ready, look me in the eyes."
"Why?" Saren looked into his eyes. "I hope you don't have any ROMANTIC designs…"
….he remembers the Shanxi War and the people that he lost, the incident on Palaven, Eva and Harper, the temple and his brother, the artifacts found and held there...what happened to his brother, corrupted and enslaved…
….he remembers the fight against Torthax, with Jenny laying down support as Machias took the fight to the dragon...flames everywhere, but that was the day he earned the reputation of his family…
...he knew there was something wrong with Nihlus, four years and barely any contact….Nihlus was never the same since the War...not since hearing about his brother and what they tried to uncover…
...the Panhandle Sisters were the worst kinds of witches, they had consorted with the Outsiders, and were planning to feed an entire town to those things in order to bring them through…"Well," Machias had said, "We'll just SEE about that…"
…"Stay down! Stay on their flanks!" Saren couldn't believe what he was seeing. How could these...HUMANS...cause so much grief for the turian forces? "Keep the fire on them! Don't let ONE of them get through!"...
...he smiled as he looked at Dierdre, he couldn't help it. She was the prettiest girl he'd ever seen, now more than ever. Her red hair glowed, like flames on copper. He walked towards her, dressed in his Sunday best, and stood beside her. "Friends, neighbors and fellow Marshals," came the voice from ahead of them, "we are gathered here together to join this man and this woman, in the bonds of holy matrimony…"
...Saren couldn't believe what he was hearing! "REPARATIONS? Has the Council lost their minds? We were perfectly within our rights and authority…!" His commander shook his head, confirming Saren's worst fears. The death of his brother...the turians' decision to...capitulate to these barely-evolved pyjaks who found some Prothean technology and managed to...bang two rocks together and accidentally manage to figure out how to leave their homeworld! NO. I will not accept this…
Saren wasn't sure when he came out of it. He blinked and looked around wordlessly as he realized everyone in Shepard's crew was looking at him. Everyone except Machias, Megani and Tali. The Wizard was sitting in his chair, rubbing his temples, and Megani was checking his vital signs…
Saren suddenly realized that he had thought of Machias as a Wizard without a trace of irony or skepticism. "I'm FINE," he said, getting to his feet.
"Mac? Are you alright?" Tali asked, worried.
"I'm okay...that was weird. Turian minds are very...ordered." He stood up and smiled at them. "Everything's good." He turned to look at Saren. "So...what do you think, Saren?"
Saren cleared his throat. "I didn't believe it...I didn't believe that was possible, but it's true. You're the Simon pure, after all."
Ashley blinked. "'Simon pure'?"
Machias chuckled. "It's another way of saying 'the real thing' or 'the genuine article'. Looks like Saren picked up a few things from my head."
"Does this mean I'm going to be talking more like you?" Saren said, chastened. He hadn't changed his views on humans, though he felt Machias was more worthy of respect. The idea of sounding like him was...deeply troubling..
"This is what I get for gambling with strangers." Saren sighed. "So….what's our next step?"
"First off, Saren, you're going to be on the Tin Star, for reasons I think you already know. Garrus is going to be joining us, so, you boys play nice. From there...we're going to make a little stop at Noveria, look up Matriarch Benezia. She's there now and we think it has something to do with Nihlus and the geth. Based on what I've heard, she isn't there for the weather."
Saren and Garrus looked at each other, and Megani didn't need her doctorate to know these two were not going to get along. As if I didn't already have a trouble patient. "We'd better get going. The Tin Star should leave first, to allay suspicion that we're following the Normandy."
"Smart thinking. Well, gentlemen and ladies, I'm afraid the party's over. We've got to get things settled right quick." Machias turned to Garrus and Saren. "Pack your plunder, boys, we'll be leaving in two hours. You know where the Tin Star's at."
Garrus and Saren nodded, Garrus leaving first. Saren stayed around until after the Normandy crew had left. Machias started cleaning up the grill. "Got something you want to say. Saren?"
"Yes. Don't think for a moment that my views on humans haven't changed just because we're working together…"
"Saren. You don't think I know what happened? It was a two-way street, Saren, and I know everything about you. I know about what happened during the Shanxi War. I know about what happened to your brother…"
"STOP." Saren held up a finger. "Not one more word about my brother, or i'm going to forget that we're working together."
"Fair enough. But let's get something straight. If you are going to continue to ignore what's going on around you, then you better hobble your lip if you feel like making comments. Everything you saw was real, and you know it. And I ain't got time for your prejudices. Not every human is the same, same way no turian is the same. We've got a job to do. So your job, if you want to come along, is to CONVINCE me that I'm not making a mistake bringing you along. Are we clear?"
Saren looked at Machias, looking him in the eyes. "Completely."
"Outstanding. See you at the ship."
Tali waited until after Saren had left to ask, "You're not going to act more like Saren now, are you?"
"I've been through Soulgazes before, I'll be fine. Maybe it's something to do with how turians' minds are wired. However, if I start to act like an annoying turian, let me know."
"I will. I'm more partial to how you are now…" Megani said with a slight smirk, "...as an annoying human."
"So...this is your ship,"
"Yup." Machias smiled. "It's something, isn't it? I'm no real judge of ships, but thanks to Tali, I got something that'll do the job. What do you think?"
Garrus looked it over. "Looks to me like a complex ship. If you want to get the most out of this spacecraft, it's going to need to have its weapons calibrated, so it won't cause so much of a drain on its engines during heavy combat."
"Huh….well, that makes sense. Is that something you know a lot about?"
Garrus smiled. "I know a few tricks."
"Well, if you can help me out, I'd be powerful grateful." Machias leaned on the railing at the dock, looking at the Tin Star. "Is it odd for a captain to not know much about their ships?"
"Not as much as you think." Garrus leaned on the railing. "You've got something on your mind."
"What makes you say that?"
"I'm a lawman too, Machias. A detective. I don't have what you do, but this isn't exactly my first investigation, you know." Garrus took a closer look at Machias' expression. "And you're worried."
Machias slowly exhaled. "Look at me, Garrus. Do I belong here?"
"Who's to say you don't?"
"Garrus, I was born three hundred years ago. For me, the Old West was just a few months ago. All this...THIS...if I told people back home about this, they'd lock me up in a sanitarium and throw the key away. I'm living it and I don't believe it...or understand most of it. The more I know about this galaxy, the less I understand it."
Garrus considered. "Wizards aren't common where you come from, right?"
Machias snorted. "Not by a long shot."
"And it required training."
He sighed. "Years of it."
"And being a lawman was something you had to learn how to do, right?"
"So this place….have to start learning again. You've done it before."
Machias sighed. "A whole galaxy?"
"Take it a planet at a time."
Machias looked at Garrus, then chuckled. "You're a good man, Garrus."
"Just remember that when payroll comes around." Garrus clapped Machias on the back. "Now, figure we have an hour before Saren gets here. I've been curious about those guns of yours."
"All right, Garrus. Might as well show you around the ship, too, seein' as we're waitin'.on Saren. Come on."
"First things first, Machias...what kind of guns you have on your ship?"
Machias considered as they headed for the main hatch. "I have no idea."
Garrus smiled. "Let's go find out."
Saren arrived barely fifteen minutes before the deadline, his gear packed and ready to go. He didn't like being so unsure of what he believed in or thought he knew. Within barely a day, he'd been forced to accept the existence of "magic", a term that wasn't in the turian vocabulary, actually existed...and, even more unlikely, that he'd hold any human in any high regard whatsoever.
And now, he was starting to question his estimation of humans in general...Shepard and Castle in particular. The very thought infuriated him, although he wasn't sure exactly why.
He had to admire his choice in ships. The Tin Star seemed to be heavily influenced by turian design factors, and heavily armed, too. It seemed a little too...pretty to be a combat-ready ship. There were some asari influences as well, clearly.
Saren took a deep breath. Here we go. And with that, Saren Arterius joined a crew under a human captain.
I hope nobody's watching this…
TO BE CONTINUED...