"Lia'Vael nar Ulnay?"
Lia turned around-too quickly, and the room seemed to spin around her. She slumped against the wall to hold herself upright, and crossed her trembling arms over her chest, hoping she looked casual instead of sick as a rabid varren.
She found herself staring at another quarian. An oddly-dressed one, though; over her standard protective suit she wore a long black coat that reached her ankles, a wide-brimmed hat perched on top of her helmet, and boots-all of which appeared to be human-designed, though the boots were obviously modified to fit quarian legs.
Lovely. Must be delirium. I'm starting to see shit that isn't there. Though, she had to admit, wearing a long coat meant one would have more pockets to hold salvaged gear, as well as more places to conceal weapons. And the boots might be a good idea, too. An extra layer of protection could never hurt.
"Um, yeah, that's me." She tried to clear her throat. Moving slowly and cautiously, she pushed off from the wall and tried to stand up straight. "You're the one who bought my contract?"
"No, but I kind of work for them. You'll see once we're aboard our ship." The strangely-clad quarian stepped forward, placed a hand on Lia's shoulder, and looked her over slowly. "I'm Chula'Raalga vas Sulaco."
Lia had heard that name before, around the time she'd ended up stuck on the Citadel. She drew in a breath-and it turned into a rattling cough. No, no, no, damn it! If her employer sees how sick I am, he'll cancel the sale and I'll be stranded here! She forced herself to continue talking. "You mean, nar Idenna, right? You started your Pilgrimage a few months ago."
"Yeah, that's me." Chula shrugged. "My Pilgrimage didn't go as well as I planned. Still haven't found anything worth taking back home, but recently I might've at least found a lead. So technically I'm still nar Idenna, but since I'm now crew of the MSV Sulaco and it looks like that won't change for a fairly long time ... eh, it seemed right." She placed an arm around Lia's shoulders. "You don't sound well. Was your suit breached?"
"No, nothing like that. It's ... it's a result of how I got to Illium from the Citadel."
"Ah. Well, don't worry, the Sulaco has a clean room and all the antibiotics and medications needed for treating quarian illnesses."
"That's a relief."
"Do you have anything you want brought onboard? Tools, supplies, whatnot?"
"No, nothing." Lia held her hands up and let them drop. "I literally have nothing except my suit."
"Okay. Shall we go, then?"
"Lead the way." Lia held back another coughing fit and followed Chula out of the departure area and across a parking lot filled with rapid transit cars.
"So, how did you get sick, if you don't mind my asking?"
Damn. "Well ... I'd been stranded at the Citadel for months. Had no money, no chances of finding work ... no hope. Nobody was willing to hire a quarian for anything. Wherever I went, people looked at me like my mere existence offended them. And C-Sec wouldn't stop harassing me. I was living in a turian shelter and finally realized that I'd never get out of there unless I tried something drastic."
"I know how that feels." Chula patted Lia's shoulder again. "Was that why you decided to sell yourself into indentured servitude?"
"Yes," Lia muttered. "As humiliating as it is, I just didn't see any other way out. I figured this would at least get me away from the Citadel and give me a chance to regain control over my life. Eventually."
Chula stopped at one of the cars and opened the door for Lia. "What happened then?"
"Same thing that always happened there-no one wanted me on their ship. I offered my services as an engineer in exchange for passage to Illium. No pay, just a lift." Lia almost fell into the passenger seat, grateful for a chance to take her weight off her wobbly legs. "Couldn't get anywhere. Just because I'm a quarian, everybody else acted like I was diseased or planning to rob them or some damned thing."
Chula sat at the controls and started the engine. She eased the car into the air and said, "I've been there, myself. Though things do seem worse now than they were a few years ago."
"Yeah. Anyway, I finally ran into someone who was willing to give me a lift. But ... not in exchange for my engineering skills. His ship was fully staffed." Lia looked away and held in a groan.
"Oh, he didn't." Chula glanced at her, faced forward again, and shook her head. "He wanted you to weave his basket?"
"Oh, sorry, that's an old human phrase. I'm kind of fascinated by certain aspects of their culture."
"I think I got the gist of it. Yeah, he wanted sex."
"And from your condition, I take it you agreed to his terms?"
"Yeah. That's how desperate I was." Lia leaned back and let her body go limp. "I used all the antibiotics and immuno-boosters I had, but they didn't help much. They kept me alive-barely-but that's all. I feel like shit."
Chula shook her head. "I've heard of this kind of thing before-sexual favors in exchange for passage to another planet. But this was low-knowingly endangering your health."
"Yeah. Well, it's just another example of how much respect quarians get outside the Flotilla."
"I hope the son of a bitch is satisfied."
"I think he was. I really threw myself into it." Lia almost chuckled, but stopped herself to avoid another rattling coughing fit. "I fucked him silly. To use a human phrase I am familiar with, I banged him like a screen door in a hurricane."
Chula burst out laughing. "Seriously?"
"Purely out of spite. I figured, if this was what my life had come to, I was going to give it one hundred percent." Lia closed her eyes as a wave of nausea hit her. "I wanted to give him the best lay he'd ever had. That way, if I died from an infection, he'd know it was his fault, and maybe he'd actually regret it." She shrugged. "Hell, I don't know, maybe I was already delirious, but it made sense at the time."
"Heh. Almost sounds like something I'd do. Almost." Chula shook her head slowly. "Well, don't worry, we'll have you back on your feet in no time."
"Thanks." Lia tried to keep her breathing steady, and let her mind go blank for the next few minutes. Which wasn't difficult, under the circumstances.
"Well, we're here."
Lia blinked and shook her head to clear the fog that had gradually enveloped her mind. Chula opened the door for her and helped her out of the car. Lia tried to walk on her own, but after a half dozen steps, she ended up leaning on Chula for support.
"Damn it." She coughed and couldn't draw another breath for a few seconds. "I haven't even boarded your ship, and already I'm letting my owners down."
"I don't think they'll mind. After all, the reason they bought you in the first place is to help you out of a jam." They reached the airlock and Chula opened it. Once they were sealed inside, the decontamination sequence started. Chula stared at Lia for a long moment, clearly hesitating. "I ... don't really know how to tell you this, but I don't want you to be caught off guard."
"What do you mean?" Lia leaned against the wall and coughed again.
"The owners of this ship are the ones who bought your contract. You'll probably be scared when you see them, but try not to freak out. I still have my suspicions about them, but they saved my life shortly after my Pilgrimage began. They offered me a ship to live and work on, a way to survive and continue my Pilgrimage; I stayed on partly because of that, and partly because I'm keeping an eye on them. So far, they've done nothing but act honorably, which, honestly, is a continuing surprise to me."
"Okay." Lia's heart had begun to pound, and not entirely from her illness. "Why would I freak out when I see them, though? Who are they?"
The decontamination finished and the inner door slid open. Chula sighed.
"There's no easy way to say this, so I'll just ... say it." She met Lia's gaze. "They're geth."
"They're what?" Lia stared back at Chula and trembled.
"Take it easy." Chula put her hand on the girl's shoulder again. "There's only two platforms, and the crew includes a tech specialist and a krogan. If the geth were going to get out of hand, I'm pretty sure it would've happened already, and everyone else would've been more than capable of handling them."
"Okay." Lia flicked her wide, frightened eyes at the open door. "The geth saved your life once?"
Chula nodded and stepped out of the airlock. "My Pilgrimage hit the skids only a couple weeks after I left the Flotilla. I entered the Terminus Systems and batarian pirates blasted the hell out of my ship. It was a beater-an old rustbucket," she clarified when she saw the confused tilt of Lia's head. She continued talking as they walked through the corridor. "There clearly wasn't anything worth taking, but I think the batarians did it just for shits and giggles. I ended up with a hole blown through my left side and my ship adrift and hemorrhaging air. I managed to send a distress call, but I thought I was hosed. And that was before a geth ship dropped into normal space right in front of me."
"Keelah," Lia said softly.
"Pretty much what I thought at the time." They came to a branch in the corridor and she led Lia down the one to the left. "What they told me later was that they were simply looking around and picked up my distress signal. I passed out moments after I saw their ship arrive, probably from sheer terror. I woke up in a clean room on their ship, after they'd operated on my wound. They had quarian food and medical supplies brought straight from Rannoch; from what I can tell, they weren't planning on bringing any of us aboard, but they tried to prepare for any contingency."
"Food ... from home," Lia whispered.
"Yeah. The real thing. After eating nutrient paste for so long, it took some getting used to, but it's nice to have some actual food from home. Anyway, by the time I was back on my feet, the geth had bought the Sulaco and placed two of their mobile platforms aboard it, and they asked me if I wanted to be dropped off to continue my Pilgrimage or join them in their travels." She shrugged. "As terrified as I was of them, I figured I owed them for saving my life, and I couldn't help being curious. I wanted to see what they were up to."
"I guess I can think of worse situations to be in. If you'd told them to drop you off somewhere, you would've been stranded-maybe permanently. Still ... living on a ship with geth ..." Lia shivered.
"Yeah. I definitely had to go through an adjustment period." They arrived at another cross-corridor, and Chula led her to the right.
"What do they want with me?"
"It was my idea. I was skimming the local job nets, looking for a gig for the crew, and saw an ad for IndentuTech. I'd heard of the occasional quarian getting desperate enough to take that path, so I took a look at their client list. And there you were." Chula patted Lia's shoulder again. "When I was wounded and drifting in a crippled ship, I thought I was about to die. After I was rescued, I swore I'd never refuse to help someone in trouble." She grinned. "Besides, it never hurts to have a good engineer."
"Ah. Well." Lia coughed suddenly. "Damn. I have so many more questions, but I guess I should wait until I can breathe without coughing up my lungs."
"We'll be glad to answer any questions you have, but as you said, first things first. The medical bay is down there." Chula pointed at the door at the end of the corridor.
"Good. Do you have an actual doctor onboard?"
"There aren't any other quarians on the Sulaco, and medicine is pretty far outside my area of expertise. I'm more of a combat specialist."
"Oh. So ..." Lia turned her head sharply to stare at Chula. "It's the geth, isn't it? I have to let them work on me?"
"I know it's hard to overcome a lifetime of fear; I had to, and honestly, I've still got a long way to go, but they know our physiology and I'm proof that they do good work. Like I said, they'll have you back to one hundred percent in no time." Chula opened the door and led her through. "Here's the captain. Well, one of them."
A dark gray geth platform, only slightly taller than the average quarian, waited beside an examination table at the far end of the med bay, covered in sterilized surgical attire.
"Keelah," Lia muttered.
The geth turned and aimed its single, large, glowing optic at her. It spoke in a mechanical yet not quite emotionless voice.
This is insane. This is full-throttle insane. Lia followed the geth through a curved, rotating door at the end of the medical bay, into a sort of mini-airlock. She caught herself holding her breath several times while the decontamination cycle ran, trying not to stare at the geth out of the corner of her eye. She tried to stop shaking, but couldn't.
The inner door slid aside, letting them into the clean room. The geth moved out of her way and pointed at a medical bed off to the right.
"Please remove your suit."
I should run. Just turn and run like hell. She took a few uncertain steps into the room. Oh, screw it. If I don't go through with this, I'll probably die anyway.
She unsealed her visor, took it off, glanced around, and found a workbench on the opposite wall. She placed the visor on it and grimaced at the sight of its interior. All the coughing and sneezing she'd done ...
She took the rest of her protective suit off and piled the pieces on the bench. She shivered as the cool air brushed her bare skin.
From behind her came the sound of an Omni-Tool being activated. Then the geth's voice.
"We are raising the room temperature to a more comfortable level. Please tell us if it is too warm."
Gradually, the chill faded from her body and she stopped shivering. "Um...that's good, right there."
"Noted. We will keep the temperature at this level."
"Um ... thanks."
"You are welcome. Are you ready to proceed?"
Hell, no. "Sure, why not get it over with?" She shuffled over to the bed and practically collapsed onto it. The geth slipped its hands under her back to steady her and lowered her gently to the bed.
She glanced at the airlock door and found Chula standing outside. Chula nodded and gave her a thumbs-up.
The geth passed its Omni-Tool over Lia's body and both of its "eyebrow" flaps raised.
Oh, that's not good. Fortunately, I'm too exhausted to panic.
"We found you just in time," the geth said. "We will begin inoculations immediately."
She managed to nod. She wanted to fall asleep, but doubted she would ever wake up. And she wasn't sure whether to be afraid or hopeful at the thought of all this just being over.
A needle pressed against her arm, pushed, and pierced her skin. Her lips quivered and tears trickled down her cheeks.
A lightly stinging, somewhat fiery sensation spread out from the injection point, then the needle withdrew. Lia held her breath and squeezed her eyes shut.
A gloved metal hand slid under hers and held it in a gentle grip. Startled, she looked down at her hand and found it clasped by the geth.
What the hell?
"Do not worry." Its voice was quieter, less grating. "You are a member of our crew. Your safety and well-being are our responsibility."
"From what I've seen," Chula said through a speaker on the wall, "they take that very seriously. You're gonna be fine."
"Th ... thanks."
"You have not shown as much fear as some when they see us for the first time," the geth said. "This is not the first time you have encountered us."
"Yeah. When I was stuck on the Citadel, a Spectre helped me out of a jam. There was a quarian and what appeared to be a geth with him." She realized that the tightness in her chest was easing up, and the hot-lava sensation that had been in her throat for so long was gradually fading. Her breaths were coming more easily as the seconds passed. "I thought it was a personal synthetic assistant that was just made to look like a geth, but now I'm starting to think it was the real thing."
"It was. That platform became a member of Shepard-Commander's crew. It assisted him and Creator-Tali'Zorah in hunting down and stopping the Collectors. The platform was designated Legion."
"It really was a geth. I'll be damned." The mere fact that it hadn't attacked her on sight flew in the face of everything she had been raised to believe. "Do, uh ... do you have a designation?"
"This platform is called Weyland. The other platform onboard this ship is designated Yutani. They were named by one of the crew. Please turn on your side."
"When the congestion in your chest begins to loosen, you should be on your side to prevent choking."
"Oh. Right." She tried to roll over, but it took too much effort.
The geth-Weyland, she reminded herself-walked around behind her and helped her turn over. It lifted her head and something soft slid under her. A pillow, she realized.
"Thanks," she mumbled. She tried to open her eyes, but couldn't. Shit, I'm starting to pass out. Eh, whatever. "How ... many geth programs ... are in your platform?"
"Two thousand, five hundred seven in this one, and two thousand, nine hundred thirteen in Yutani."
"Ah. Well ... nice ... nice to meet you ... uh, guys."
"We are glad to have you on our crew."
Huh. I do believe this qualifies as the weirdest conversation I've ever had.
She had so many more questions, but awareness was already slipping away. She figured that she should be starting to panic, but instead she found herself relaxing for the first time in what seemed like a lifetime. Only two possibilities lay ahead for her. Soon, she would wake up and be more or less healthy again ... or she would die.
Either way, the ordeal would finally be over.