Chapter 32 of Ghost in the Machine
Nihlus tried to hold Liara back, but wasn’t quick enough even though he’d known she’d run for it. She had been keeping up a brave front but… oh, who was he kidding. He’d have done the same if it had been Saren there, standing atop the elevated platform, hands against a thick glass cage. As it came into full view, Nihlus saw that it contained an enormous creature, doubtless another type of rachni, but different from everything that they’d encountered. The brood-mother.
He gave a sign to Shepard and Garrus to hold at the staircase while he eyed the room for threats and defensible positions. Liara was up on the platform already, reaching to touch her mother. But when Benezia faced them, Nihlus was shocked by her sickly, drained appearance. The thin, wiry figure clad in dark colors of mourning and wearing heavy violet sacks under its eyes bore so little resemblance with the vibrant, attractive woman of soft curves and one hell of a seductive smile he remembered from a few years ago that, for a moment, he wasn’t sure it was her. And when she spoke, her voice dripped with defeat and despair so deep it sent shivers down his spine.
“You do not know the privilege of being a mother,” she said, turning back to the cage again. “There is power in creation. To shape a life, turn it towards happiness or despair… Her children were to be ours. Raised to hunt and slay Sovereign’s enemies.”
Benezia’s head fell low, a shudder shook her shoulders. She slowly pushed herself away from the cage and addressed Nihlus directly, ignoring Liara’s proximity. “I won’t be moved by sympathy. No matter who you bring into this confrontation.”
“I am right here, Mother,” Liara said. “And I am here because I want to, not because they asked me.”
“Indeed?” Benezia finally looked at her. “They did not ask for your help? Your expertise? Your advice and aid in combat? Your trust?” With each question, Benezia stepped closer to Liara, and Liara stepped back. “You volunteered?” Benezia laughed, having pinned Liara in the corner of the platform. Her back was turned to the rest of them. Nihlus glanced at Garrus and Shepard and they cautiously advanced up the stairs. “Speak up, child. What have you told them about me?”
“What could I say, Mother?” Liara’s voice trembled. “That you have gone insane? That you are not yourself? That my mother would sooner die than condone violence against helpless civilians? Do you even know how many people died by your hands today? Hunted and slain by—” she gestured at the creature in the cage with a shaky hand— “your children? What could I say?”
Benezia let out a gravely, mirthless laugh. “They were dead already. All of them. All of us, too. Dead, or worse. We all bear the curse — though some may learn to call it a blessing, this destiny we share, of being born in time to witness the Harvest. A destiny no worse than any other; but our choices may be. Death or slavery? Awareness or illusion? To hide and cower, lie awake at night while the horror of knowledge, and helplessness, crawls over your skin like a sheet of swarming insects? Or speaking out loud so that everyone can hear and call you insane?”
She directed her attention at Nihlus. “Is that what you think as well? That I am insane? That he is?”
Nihlus was at a loss for words. How many times had he imagined this conversation? Memorized all the questions that needed answers, all the angles to solve this without violence? And still he couldn’t respond to this one simple query. Did he think so? And would his fantasies about giving the proverbial finger to both Shepard and the Council and the whole fucking Galaxy and just falling at Saren’s feet for better or for worse change at all if the answer was yes? He swallowed, mandibles working.
“I can’t believe you’d kill your own daughter,” he said at last, heart drumming in the intense silence. I can’t believe he’d kill his best friend.
Benezia snorted, reading his mind. “Can’t, or don’t want to?”
He started to reply, but she used the opening to charge for a vicious biotic attack. He was ready, though; they all were, thanks to Liara’s warnings and instructions. She struck Benezia’s hand from below, deflecting the Warp towards the ceiling. The overhead lights went out with a deafening crack followed by a shower of blue sparks and glass shards. Nihlus had already leaped forward and landed on top of Benezia before the auxiliary lighting kicked in, painting the scene in nightmarish greens. Her thin, sweaty forearms were slipping through his hands; he barely managed to grab her wrists. Panic struck and she started thrashing about like a wild animal, her tall hat rolling down the stairs. She drove a knee into his crotch with all her might and screamed with sudden pain. Stupid. He flipped her, face down, and twisted her arms behind her back in a painful wrist lock.
“Stop it,” he hissed, struggling to keep her from working out of his hold. Glass was crunching under his knees. “It’s over.”
“Over?” Benezia laughed, tossing her head back to announce a challenge. She went limp in his arms, but he knew it for a feint and replied by twisting her arms further, until she squeaked. But still, she was laughing. “It is not over. It is only beginning! Sovereign is unstoppable. My mind is filled with his light! Everything is clear!”
Nihlus exchanged a look with Liara, who shook her head. No — she was shaking all over, covering her mouth with a hand and looking like she was about to cry. He held her stare, mouthed a silent it will be okay that she had no way of understanding, but somehow she did and it seemed to help. Whispered words sounding suspiciously like “suicide” and “hallucinogenic poison” drifted over to his ears from where Garrus was standing. Nihlus turned to see him rummage through various drawers and cabinets, waking up the lab terminals and scanning with his omni. Good. Then Shepard stepped into his field of view and crouched in front of Benezia’s prone form, resting her readied pistol on her knee.
“Who’s Sovereign?” she asked, her demeanor suspiciously calm and expressionless. Interrogation mode. “Is that how you call Saren? That’s fucking pa—” But then she caught a glimpse of Liara and checked herself, to Nihlus’ relief.
“I will not betray him,” Benezia said. “You will leave with empty hands. You will… you… ah…”
She became boneless again, and Nihlus wasn’t sure what to do. It felt genuine now. Her forehead dropped on the floor with a hurtful thud.
Liara knelt next to them. “Mother?”
She peered into Nihlus pleadingly. “Can you bring her up?”
Nihlus sat back on his heels and pulled Benezia up, still holding her arms in a secure grip. Her head rolled back on his shoulder.
“Mother,” Liara repeated, caressing Benezia’s gaunt cheek.
Her eyes opened then, focused on Liara, and blinked as if she were waking from a long, long slumber. “Little wing,” she whispered, smiling.
Liara’s face crumpled like wet paper. “I am here, Mother. Are you hurt? What is—”
“You must listen,” Benezia said, but her voice lost all of its former authority and turned into barely separable whimpering. Both Liara and Shepard leaned in closer. “Sovereign still whispers in my mind! I can fight its compulsions… briefly… but the indoctrination is strong.”
“Nihlus,” Benezia said, turning to look at him, and against all odds, smiled at him too. He tried to smile back. She looked like she was dying. “Saren’s ship – the Sovereign – it’s alive! It has a mind of its own, and no mercy to temper it… it’s a…”
Nihlus nodded. It made sense, it made perfect sense and the realization clicked in place like a long lost part of some enormous puzzle. One of the images from the Prothean vision suddenly sprang to his mind and cleared into something he could almost comprehend: a bright blue sky, a serene afternoon on some distant world, and dozens of warships diving into the atmosphere, leaving thick pillars of smoke laced with red lightning behind. They looked just like the thing he’d seen on Eden Prime.
Sovereign. A Reaper. How long had Saren known about it? A chill colder than death spread under his plates.
“Listen!” Benezia said, pleading. “When I joined Saren, we underestimated Sovereign’s influence. The ship can… dominate the minds of its followers. I became indoctrinated to Sovereign’s will. The process was subtle… it might have taken days, or weeks… I do not know how quickly I fell. It is true, what you said, Little Wing. I am not myself. It changed me… took my will to fight… but I should have been stronger.”
“How are you able to break free of its control now?” Shepard asked.
“Sovereign is a synthetic life-form. More machine than organic. I do not think that they have… feelings. They can never… understand. I was able to hide my feelings… seal that part of me away from indoctrination…” She looked at Nihlus again. “Remember that, when you meet him.”
He nodded, biting his tongue. It all made sense to him, too much sense. Like whispers from a dream — from another life — suddenly turning into screams. Focusing on the here and now became a challenge as his conflicted mind started spewing holotapes from recent years, loaded with all those little things that normally wouldn’t even cross the threshold and enter awareness; all the little secrets, strange meeting places, all the weird behaviors and ominous declarations–
“It is a terror to be trapped in your mind,” Benezia was saying, her voice sinking lower and lower as if she was constantly losing strength. “To always question, never be sure… if your thoughts are truly yours, your decisions… the blood on your hands. I was a willing ally when I landed on this world… Sovereign needed my biotics to communicate with the rachni queen, to learn her secrets… to find the location of the Mu Relay.”
“Now we’re getting somewhere,” Shepard muttered. “Why is this Mu Relay important?”
“I can answer that,” Liara said. “The first part, anyway. The Mu Relay is one of the most famous mysteries of astroarcheology. Its position has been lost thousands of years ago, before the Rachni Wars. It was struck by the shock wave from a nearby supernova and it drifted away, disconnected from the relay network. Nobody has been able to locate it since.”
“Yeah, yeah. But why does Saren need it?”
Benezia cleared her throat. “He believes it will lead him to the Conduit. I would tell you more if I could, but Sovereign did not share its counsel with us. Not even Saren knows its plans. We are merely servants to its cause.”
“The Conduit,” Nihlus whispered. Like a word at the tip of the tongue, the alien memory eluded his recall. “I can almost…”
“…taste it,” Liara finished.
Their eyes met and he shuddered. “Yeah.”
“You have touched the beacon,” Benezia breathed, then coughed, though she might have been trying to laugh. Nihlus felt guilty for keeping her restrained. “Foolish… children. Saren would not share the message with me. Feared… the damage it could do.”
“Right,” Shepard snorted. “He’s a real hero. He’s done this to you and you still defend him? Talk about indoctrination.”
But Benezia shook her head. “Saren is not to blame. He suffers from the same affliction. He believes… like I did… Goddess help me, I still do… Listen, before it is too late! Two thousand years ago, the rachni inhabited that region of the Galaxy… the rachni can share memories across generations. Queens inherit the knowledge of their mothers. I tried to take the location of the Mu Relay from the queen’s mind… I was not gentle… but it would have worked, if only I had more time…”
“So you don’t have the coordinates?” said Shepard.
“And neither does Saren,” Liara muttered.
“Liara…” Benezia whispered. “If there is to be any hope… you must stop him! You must stop me before… I ca… I can’t… It’s whispering in my ear… fingers on my spine…!”
She was in a lot of pain, it was plain to see. Perhaps she did take something, or maybe resisting this indoctrination was enough to kill her from within. Nihlus felt his heart was beating in his throat. Was this how it ended? Would it happen to Saren too? He tried to shake the selfish thoughts away as Liara leaned in, stifling a sob. “Mother! Don’t give in! Fight it!”
“It’s too late… I am not myself… I never will be again. But you… you always… made me proud, Little Wing.”
Her voice faded out, and Liara started crying in earnest. But just as Nihlus was about to release his grip, Benezia’s body stiffened and started to fight him. Unlike before, this was the savage struggle of a mindless beast that no longer cared about injury or felt pain. His hands reflexively tightened on her wrists and he thought he could feel one of them pop out of its socket. Spirits!
Liara jumped away, shaking her head in disbelief; Shepard stepped back and aimed her pistol at Benezia, who was bucking and twisting like a wild varren. Garrus closed in to help restrain her, but then she started glowing, her biotics spilling over her entire body, burning Nihlus’ face, blinding him, sending pins and needles up his arms and chest despite the armor. He had seen this sort of thing exactly once before, and it wasn’t going to end well.
“Hit her!” he yelled at no one in particular. “Knock her out!”
But it was too late. In the split second it took Garrus to move in for a strike, the field exploded around her, hurling both Garrus and Nihlus away.
They crashed against the railing around the platform. The force of the blow was enough to dislocate his shoulder on impact and Nihlus bit down on his tongue, his mouth filling with blood, his scream turning into gurgling. On the other side, Garrus was rolling on his back like an overturned beetle, hands gripping his head. Shit. Shit shit shit.
And Benezia was free again. Nihlus stole a glimpse of her face and the ultimate resignation on it. She would not be taken alive. Looking into his eyes – as though she could read his mind and see her own despair mirrored therein, she made the motions for a devastating mimetic Nihlus knew, oh Spirits, he knew it all too well for it was one of Saren’s favorites, the deadliest and the most beautiful. His vision blurred, but perhaps it was due to the way the biotic field rippled and boiled around her in the most glorious display Nihlus had ever seen. It looked like she was floating, supported by the filaments, standing on thin air. Somehow, despite the danger, he was reminded of Liara, suspended inside that barrier on Therum. For the first time, he saw the resemblance.
Fortunately, someone had kept the presence of mind to stop her before she managed to unleash the Deccretion Disk on them. Two shots to the chest, joined by another before the body hit the ground. Right through the neck, severing the spinal cord. Quick. Clean. Final. Nihlus looked up in time to see Shepard lower her pistol and Liara charge at her with a feral scream and Garrus leap up from the ground to stand between them. And in the midst of all that chaos, all he could think about was if this was how the inevitable confrontation with Saren would end, and whether he would survive to see Saren fall and never rise again.
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