Athusia, the neurologist, looked at him from across the table. The light of the folding lamp appeared as two tiny pinpricks in dark, violet-framed eyes as he stared, for ten seconds if not more, at Saren’s face.
“At ease,” Saren said at last. Athusia let the datapad fall between his hands. It clacked against the rest.
“You said it yourself: it wasn’t a dream. I shouldn’t keep you,” Athusia replied after another long pause. The chair swivelled to the left as he stood. “I should return to my work.”
Saren picked up the datapad. It displayed a casual email exchange between Athusia and one of the physicists, Dr. Fono, concerning precautions the away team should take in order to shield themselves from the ill-understood radiation issuing from the dormant spaceship. A far cry from the horrors the neurologist had detailed not a half-hour earlier: the desolate battlefields; the wild beasts with a thousand snouts that stalked the crew through empty warehouses; the vacuum of space, the sheen of ice forming over swelling eyeballs; and the turian crewmembers’ own ancestral fears. But the EEGs showed only half the story, he’d said. If the spirits knew the other half, they weren’t telling.
“Explain it as if it were a dream.”
Athusia stopped, his back turned. Frozen as if one of the beasts he’d described from memory had caught his scent. “Psychoanalysis is an obsolete discipline, and I’m unfamiliar with its tenets. I can’t explain it any more than you can.”
“Explain it as a turian, then.”
“The dead stir.” Athusia’s left mandible lifted in a humourless grin. “Ill fortune shall soon befall this land. I think that’s right, that’s what they said. From that Fantasy promo two years ago.”
Saren leaned back in his chair. “Perhaps not too far off the mark.”
Athusia turned halfway around. “Is it?” He began to pace the measured steps of a man often confined to small offices, setting one foot only slightly ahead of the other. “So not all of it is coincidence? You’re right, it’s too unlikely. But I’m even less versed in mythology; spent my history classes dozing, I’m afraid. In my opinion, they dawdled on the ramifications of fiat currency for far too long.
“I’ve had many nightmares, just like the others. Used to get them every so often after studying troubled cases, but not every night.” He glanced at the ancient atomic clock Saren kept on a shelf. “That’s why I’m starting to believe there’s a cause, I guess, like a feedback loop. Like the unavenged have come to lay their claim on the living. That’s how the game adapted the story.”
“A video game is the source of all you know about our mythology?”
“Well, yes. But I didn’t think pre-spaceflight era tales would be relevant.” He caught Saren’s expression. “Are they?”
Saren offered him the datapad back. He took it hesitantly, and did not retract his arm when Saren let go of his end.
“Are they?” Athusia asked, more urgently.
Saren took his measure. His suppressed undertones, the movement of his throat, the tightness with which he pressed his mandibles to his jaw. How his nose twitched, how the reflections in his eyes shone brighter.
“No,” Saren replied. “But the themes therein might be. In those days, our unwieldy, terrestrial armies warred against one another, committing countless atrocities. Cities were levelled, people were massacred, and entire cultures were wiped from the face of Palaven. The Unification War was simply our ancient conflicts writ large, across a dozen worlds. Yet the war did end; far more quickly, too, with far less bloodshed. The tales are a lesson. Even on the darkest of nights, our ancestors would light a spark to guide us.”
“When you fight for the Hierarchy, the Hierarchy fights with you,” Athusia recited. “Isn’t it all propaganda? Unless you’re implying–”
Saren shook his head. “Dr. Zol’Rafa and the other quarians would never obtain the clearance for a Hierarchy operation of such a sensitive nature.”
“I don’t see how this constitutes a spark, but taking the long view on how far we’ve come does help, I suppose.”
After the neurologist had left, Saren remained at his desk and tried to concentrate on the quarians’ voluminous report. None of it boded well. The Hierarchy, with its rigid bureaucracy and comforting familiarity all wrapped into a flamboyant collection of medals tucked away in a crevice on his ship, had never felt so distant. Perhaps when Trebia itself grew cold, there would be another to light a spark. Billions of years hence, an echo of their fabled hope.
The crew would not live to see the dawn. They might be among the first, however, to plunge into the night.