Safehouse

BY MISFIRE ANON

It’s easy to blame oneself after the fact – hindsight is always perfect. Not as easy to pinpoint where it all started to go wrong. If I had to guess, I would say: from the first moment we met.

Falais and I met between blue sky and ochre sandstone, in the company of feral varren and a broken radio. Saren and I met in the Citadel Archives, which, as any visitor can attest, breathed down one’s neck like a ghost even in the absence of translucent holos. He was watching a recording on a private screen; the light flowed over his face, the shadows lingered in every scar. I spared him a glance.

“Councillor,” he said. I had held the title for four months.

“Spectre,” I inclined my head. He probably hasn’t held his for much longer, I thought. Statistically speaking. I wondered about his age, and made a mental note to consult the roster after I retrieved my copy of the Niellan Agreement. He looked to be about thirty.

He seemed to scrutinise my face, as if the fresh white paint wrote out entire novels on my forehead, and finally returned the gesture. I moved on, but took a backward glance. His hood was open, merely a strip of cloth tucked behind curved spines; I smelled dust in the air and heard the echoes coursing through a wind-blasted canyon. He was gone by the time I returned from the depths of the Archives with my document. The screen glowed invitingly. I investigated.

He had been reading about Relay 314. More importantly, he had not bothered to cover his tracks in the least. An instant bond of camaraderie formed between us, for I had been nominated to keep an eye on the humans and, if the access history was anything to go by, so had he.

We both possessed the gift of foresight. Over the next eighteen years, we knew, opponents of human expansionism would grow few and far between, and we would find ourselves alone in a crowd of appeasers. We felt the need to act quickly and decisively, to nip the problem in the bud, if you will. To dissuade them from bandying with words before they resorted to bandying with weapons.

I halt here and admit this: I was wrong. I was wrong about many things.

We were no longer strangers to life on the Citadel, Falais and I. I forgot the scent of rain, and the morning songs of finches. Routine established itself so subtly, eased itself so perfectly into the niches of my life that I didn’t notice until she pointed it out.

“Again with your agents,” she said, sipping amber wine. “I should be jealous.”

I dropped my eyes to my untouched dinner. “It means things are going well. I’ll be busy until the summer.”

“I have here a house for your body, but no reins for your spirit,” she recited with a grimace.

Her premonition was accurate. The lies would be weaved in due time; at the moment, however, I was simply overworked. “For your information, my spirit chafes in the Tower every day from five to midnight. Even without reins, it’s not going anywhere.”

She sighed, her artist’s eyes soft as fleece. “Exactly.”

I had to make a conscious effort to bite between utterances. It wasn’t the same with Saren, across from whom I’d sat for a handful of meals since that day at the Archives. With him, the span of an afternoon shortened to an hour, an hour to the flickering static of a comm-buoy disconnect. And if sometimes he grew taciturn, if some reports seemed shorter than the whole truth, why, I moved gracefully to the next subject. In politics, one learns to let sleeping Harvesters lie. I was no novice in that game. Right, I remember. I was forty-six. The sandstone canyon was twenty years behind me, though its pebbles were still wedged in my soles.

Falais began to work on her most spectacular pattern yet, all shades of maroon and leaves and flowers and fruit. I was overcome by distraction.

I cannot even say why—was I charmed by a word? A glance? A fresh scar on a youthful face? For it was indeed disconcerting to see those accumulate, as if the Spectre wings flew him through hailstorms of shrapnel, while my lot was to mull over the agricultural policies of elcor colonies and analyse their effects on intragalactic trade from dawn till dusk. If anything else drew my attention—say, a cryowrapped bottle of turian liquor that wasn’t there before his visit—I could hardly act on my impulses.

Fortunately, there is no such sound as one hand clapping, and he had impulse enough for the both of us. Or a concoction of cunning and courage that was close enough to the real thing. I couldn’t tell. The neon-red concoction he handed me over the table, however, was real enough.

“Congratulations on resolving the Galerki Belt Dispute,” he said, raising his matching glass.

“To hell with that,” I agreed, and drained it in one. The dry-ice fog around us parted, revealing for a moment the glittering bar, the low chairs, and the hanar tapestries that rippled like water under blue spotlights. The lamps above our heads were dim, encased by bells of copper glass. This was the decadent recipient of one percent of Spectre funds.

“Careful, Councillor,” he smirked.

I dismissed his mock concern. The club was wired from floor to ceiling and wall to wall, he’d told me on our first visit. Even flies had to announce their presence to the VI’s filters. Good catches, he’d said. High yield, small net; well worth the investment.

“I’m incorruptible.”

He hadn’t finished his drink yet. He watched me carefully over the rim of his glass, the lights bringing out the blue in his silver eyes. “Everyone has a price.”

His smile lingered. I shrugged at the figure of speech—it was an unusual one, coming from a turian. “Maybe you shouldn’t have told me, then.” I gestured to the walls with my chin. “Should have tried to find mine first.”

“Only a lesser politician would stumble over drinks.”

“Is that so.”

He drained his glass, exposing his throat in a preternaturally graceful manner. “Ask the two posted to the Citadel. They can give you nine decades’ worth of examples.”

“Any Councillors among those?”

“None.”

Falais and I had been lost that night. Our suits had kept us warm; we hadn’t dared a fire for fear of attracting the wrong faction—or the local wildlife, for that matter. There were no satellites, natural or artificial. Only endless stars.

The centre of galactic power is darker than any nameless, companionless planet, this I know. The flashing advertisements and elaborate storefronts appeared to me as thin plastic films stretched tight about the darkness, breakable by sharp word or talon. I had just signed away the pleas of five thousand lives upon the command of Article CCL UNC 64-13F: All territorial claims must be made through official channels. Even those of batarian ex-slaves facing persecution in Citadel space and execution by the Hegemony. The shockwave of the embassy’s closure had just washed over the tips of the Wards; a convenient excuse for honest citizens to boast of their lack of empathy.

As I followed Saren up the staircase, I reflected on the fact that we hadn’t dispatched a Spectre. I reassured myself that, once again, it wouldn’t have helped. It was up to the overburdened relief organisations now. Out of our hands.

Saren opened the door without a word, an impeccable reading of my state of mind. Gratefully, I sank into the stiff-backed chair like my legs were made of water and my waist of rubber. He set before us an unlabelled flask. I held his gaze steady, and drank.

“Which legion?” I asked.

“Aephus.”

One of the more difficult legions from which to obtain liquor. “Do you have friends there?”

“One of your own agents.”

“I remember. I’ve never met her in person.” I threw him a sideways glance.

He seemed disinterested enough. “Neither have I.”

I sighed. My breath drew a hollow whistle from the lip of the flask.

“Councillor—”

I looked up, catching him unawares. His eyes were wide open, lids unburdened by the usual caution bordering on paranoia. I offered him a drink. He set it down on the table.

“Not much to look at, is there?” I said.

Just like that, the shutters snapped back into place. He took a swig of liqueur, and walked towards a blank wall. The type against which they execute traitors. I grabbed the flask. Emptied it. When I saw the wall again, it was no longer blank.

I had to laugh. “You bastard.”

Saren turned away, crossing his arms behind his back in a stiff, military posture.

The sight outside the newly-materialised window was incredible. The Presidium was clean and proper and had day and night cycles, but it couldn’t compare to the dusky mystery of the Wards. I approached slowly, unwilling to disturb the drowsy, grey twilight. The Ward spread itself beneath my feet like one of Falais’ deep-piled carpets – or like a bed of flowers in a jungle understory, chillingly beautiful and whispering secrets into one’s ear. Cars sped across organic webs of skyways at the pace of an insect’s crawl. The light of millions of windows diffused into vacuum. And beyond, the Widow. I had only seen this sight once before, when my transport delivered Falais and me to the station for the first time. The pilot had made sure to take the scenic route, or so she’d told me. The Presidium pampers. The Wards engulf.

Across the distance, I could see the ring and the needle-like Tower. Small. Almost insignificant. I pressed my thumb against the glass and banished them to oblivion.

“Sometimes I feel the same,” Saren confided with a conspiratorial tilt of his head.

I fought the urge to straighten out a wrinkle in his hood. “How so?”

He made a deep hmm before replying.

“In the Terminus Systems,” he said slowly, “the Council depends upon the Spectres to maintain order. To douse the embers, if you will, and to quash the flames. And, Councillor, there are few things more satisfactory than the conclusion of a Terminus run, especially one that includes the termination of your target from five hundred metres. The field agents are highly autonomous, even for Spectres.”

“Should we be worried, Saren?” I leaned against the glass, holding his gaze. “About you?”

He shook his head. “We all respect the law, even if we don’t obey it.”

“Then what did you mean by ‘you feel the same’?” I glanced at the Presidium. Falais should still be at work.

“Sometimes, justice can do better without the organs that administer it.”

I tucked my mandibles. “That’s hypocritical. Not to put too fine of a point on it.”

He looked directly into my eyes and held his gaze steady. “We deliver justice where it’s due. Don’t you feel that the system gets in the way?”

I moved my thumb. The Citadel Tower was so small. Inconsequential. And the Widow was so grand, majestic, so beautiful. The Citadel could very well have been a Prothean observatory, I wondered.

“On occasion.”

“On this occasion?”

There was a long pause. I thought I could hear music: a single, low, mournful note, like the call of the black-winged scavengers that circled overhead as we huddled in the canyon below.

“Yes,” I finally said, and pressed my forehead against the window.

“Very well.” He sounded closer than before. “I’ll go.”

“You’re on leave.”

“I’ve been idle for five days.”

He was standing within arm’s reach. I looked at him with narrowed eyes. “Spirits, Saren, this doesn’t concern you. At this point, it doesn’t even concern me.  And you deserve a much longer break than five measly days.”

He rolled his shoulder. “There’s nothing for me here.”

“Nothing?” I raised a browplate.

“I don’t concern myself with C-Sec’s work.”

I scoffed. There was a perfectly good bedroom adjacent to the commons, but I pressed my mandibles tight and banished those thoughts. They had surfaced more frequently than ever, then.

“So the Spectre life is not as glamorous as I imagined,” I said instead.

“Do you see the crack in the window frame there, Councillor?”

“What of it?”

“There’s a primed charge inside. Five others are distributed along the other edges. At a spoken signal, they will detonate and expose this room to vacuum.”

I stared at the innocent-looking seams. They were each thinner than a sheet of paper.

“We call this a safehouse,” Saren said.

I took a deep breath. “If it’s peace of mind you need, you can simply ask.”

He mulled over my subtle subharmonics for some time. I continued to gaze outside. The interstellar void was eternal, unerring, faithful. Unlike myself.

“I’ll be back in a week,” he whispered, as if to not disturb my turbulent thoughts. “We can talk then.”

Falais was immersed in an ocean of colour. Green, gold, ocean blue with violet veins. When I entered her workroom, she pulled up another overlay, making the screen between us a little more opaque.

I sighed. She must have noticed, because one of her elegant mandibles pulled into a small grimace. I walked around her desk and embraced her from behind.

“I ordered dinner already. It’s on the way.”

She did not turn, not even a little. Her cool cheek was flush with mine.

“And I’ve brought something to go with it,” I breathed, and set the wine in front of her. It came in a delicate porcelain bottle; white, with yellow engravings.

She pushed it aside. “Not tonight. I need to finish this set for the launch. It’s in three days.”

“Fal…” I bent lower and put my arms around her waist. The back of the chair pressed uncomfortably under my chin. “Come on.”

She pried my arms apart, and then yawned. “Unfortunately, it’s my turn to lose sleep over my job. I thought you’d be gloating right now.”

“Is that what you think?” I straightened up, arms dangling awkwardly at my sides. “It isn’t the case. This isn’t a competition.”

“Oh, good,” she said dryly. “Because I could have sworn you were enjoying it.”

I left the wine behind. As I stepped out, she opened another batch of swatches. The holoscreen hid every square centimetre of her exhausted face.

“I’ve been thinking about what you said. About peace of mind.”

I shifted in my seat, at rapt attention. The tranquil greenery streaking by behind me was nothing but a distraction. “And?”

He glanced at me. On a less dangerous face, that expression might have been coyness.

“Peace isn’t my forte, Councillor. But perhaps it would suit you.”

There was an edge to his tones–some may say a request, but I knew it was merely a suggestion.

I chuckled. “I’m tired of it. The people need peace for growth, but it makes men like us complacent. I exercise my tongue all day while my aim grows steadily worse. I haven’t been in a hardsuit for fourteen years–I can hardly believe it.”

“You feel adventurous, then.”

“Yes.”

Without warning, my gizzard flew up my throat. I grabbed the dashboard, knuckles bulging, bracing for impact. And Saren laughed.

He had pushed the skycar into the steepest dive I had ever experienced, steeper than the one that had screamed across a crimson sky and grazed the edge of an ancient canyon. The Presidium wall was approaching rapidly, and the VI was flashing warnings left and right.

I let go of the dash, noting my distressed gloves, and looked outside. We were about to merge with a lane. The river of cars parted to let us in; a smooth motion, dozens of linked VIs acting in synchrony. And at the last second, Saren pulled up again.

I laughed as well. It was legal, but barely.

We skipped over the traffic like a stone over calm water. I had become inured to my commute over the years; in that hour, I looked at the gardens and the lake, the people and the shops, the apartments, the offices, the commemorative statues, the graceful crested birds, and acknowledged them as if for the very first time. We were flying. Moreover, We were free. Outside of responsibility’s reach. My very breaths felt lighter.

Eventually, we swerved into one of the megaskyways that linked the Presidium to the Wards. An enormous hollow cylinder, painted with symbols in every conceivable language and glowing with holosigns.

I miss the Citadel. I doubt that it will be restored as it was.

We eventually slid into a parking deck, presumably connected to another safehouse. Saren made to lift the door. I grabbed his wrist.

“Wait,” I muttered.

But he had pre-empted me; he was already tapping the locks on the dashboard. I pushed him against the synther seat and bit his mandible. The curve of his throat was tantalisingly close.

“Yours is the one that reclines,” he breathed in-between fierce kisses.

I looked behind me. My seat was also directly adjacent to the wall separating the deck from the concourse. Through two layers of tea-coloured glass, I could barely make out the glittering of neon and throngs of pedestrians.

Brushing those observations aside, I found the catch and slammed the seat flat. It made an angled bench of sorts with the rear passenger seats. I scrambled back, pulling him along by handfuls of his cloak–and by a gentle hold over his windpipe.

“Impatient?”

I felt his skin vibrate between my teeth. It was surprisingly soft and I bit down hard enough to leave marks. The Council may have scarred his carapace, but this would be mine and mine alone. At least for the night.

“Insubordination,” I growled, “will not go unsanctioned.”

“Yes, sir.” He slid down to the floor. I felt a twinge of disappointment when the heavy warmth of his body disappeared, but it was quickly replaced by a rush of pained delight. His head was between my legs, and his fingers were working away at my pants.

It wasn’t what I had expected. I pulled his head up. Our eyes met. Mustering every last gram of restraint, I rumbled a wordless question.

He replied by pressing a series of kisses down my keel, over my stomach, lower. Before closing my eyes in bliss, it occurred to me that his spread cloak resembled a pair of black wings.

I ignored the shape of things to come; it was one of my many mistakes.

Falais had been promoted. One morning shortly thereafter, I had woken up with Saren beside me. My colour-coordinated sheets framed his sleeping face. He was utterly relaxed, perfectly at peace. I recalled our derailed conversation about peace, and laughed quietly to myself. He stirred.

“I was wondering–”

His striking, reflective eyes snapped open; I watched his pupils shrink rapidly in the artificial sunlight.

“What time is it?”

“Five past four,” I replied, somewhat taken aback.

He shot up, tossing the sheets aside. “I have to go.”

“Where?” I blinked, trying to clear the morning-after fog.

“Terminus,” he said as he rushed out.

“Spirits speed,” I called, well aware that my door was soundproof.

The batarian ambassador and his staff of two hundred had disappeared overnight, leaving not a single scrap of paper, a single datachip casing, a single clue as to what in the galaxy’s dark heart the bastards thought they were doing.

Unlike the batarians, Falais had left a note. It was pinned to the dining table by a slender folding knife. Black handle, streaks of silver inlay. The note read:

Found this in your bed. I would return it to its owner myself, but everything’s classified.

I laughed out loud at the unbidden image of a traditional duel between Saren and Falais. Then, I took a handful of pills and slept.

Saren had returned two days ahead of schedule. This fact was far more astonishing than his presence in my high-security apartment. I almost dropped my datapad. I did drop my coat.

“I heard about Falais,” he said.

He was sitting in her damn chair. Maroon, embroidered with gold thread. The tender leaves that curled around the armrests remain my clearest memory of those bygone days.

“What have you heard?” My mandibles were firmly tucked. It was almost painful.

“That she hasn’t been here in a week,” he stated.

“You weren’t misinformed,” I said cooly. I didn’t know for how long he had kept tabs on my mate and me, and I didn’t appreciate it.

“I would like it back.”

I pulled the knife out of my pocket and twirled it between my fingers, surprised that my muscles still retained the motions. Fourteen years. This knife was well-balanced. Deadly in the right hands.

He made to stand. “If you want to keep it–”

“I know what you’re thinking, Saren, and you’re wrong.”

“Am I?”

His very presence was a testament to his seemingly monumental lapse in judgement. The knife was in my hand, not in the table, the carpet, or his chest. He hadn’t been made to vacate the chair, the building, every aspect of my existence. The expression I wore (for I had grown adept at wearing a menagerie of expressions; but this one was cut of truth) was not rage, regret, denial.

Had he asked the right question, I would have chosen him over Falais. I would have faced public disgrace, I would have taken upon my shoulders the disappointment of the Primarchs, the condemnation of the press, the censure of my fellow Councillors. I might even have chosen the cursed relationship over my ascendant career.

Which is precisely the reason why he hadn’t.

This revelation occurred at the dawn of the Reaper War. The politician in me had never thought it relevant. Back in that dimly-lit, incense-scented room, I did not make it past the initial stage: the trap of certainty, the downfall of so many.

“Yes,” I answered.

I led him into my bedroom, but not before leaving our clothes behind.

“Give me the Dusk Patrol.”

The morning came harshly, even though ‘sunrise’ happened at the preset time for the simulated spring. I made a noncommittal grumble and tried to block out the too-bright light.

“Give me the Patrol,” he insisted. “Entaea’s round is ending soon.”

The so-called Dusk Patrol was our network near the Veil. A year of listening for and deciphering geth transmissions, which averaged once every four months. Diverting minimal funds to its maintenance had seemed to me a necessary evil, let alone diverting one of my best agents.

I rolled to face him. “Isn’t that too extreme?”

“I thought you would appreciate the change of pace.”

“Saren–”

“I can also expand its reach. See if more data can be intercepted.”

I didn’t doubt he would, but the set of his mandibles wasn’t entirely sincere.

“Don’t do this for me,” I implored.

“I’m not doing this for you.” He was telling the truth.

I sighed, and nodded. “I will.”

This is all I know regarding the possible discovery of the Reaper Sovereign.

End recording.

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