Chapter 5 of Ghost in the Machine

Six hours before the attack on Eden Prime.

Saren checked the clock. ETA to Eden Prime, six hours. For the umpteenth time, he inspected the wide pillar of holos with various system updates, projected in the middle of the large, irregular room that they kept calling “the bridge”. It was barely anything more than a glorified information center. A convenient place to store their communication and monitoring gear. Sovereign didn’t need a pilot to navigate it, or a crew to maintain it. It tolerated the presence of organics inside its vast mechanical body only because other arrangements had proven to be impractical.

His gaze traced the graceful curves of the chamber from side to side. For a purely synthetic life-form, Sovereign was remarkably devoid of straight lines and regular angles. Just like its exterior was shaped after some long forgotten organic progenitor, its interiors resembled organs and blood vessels more than rooms or hallways. The sections designated for their usage were sealed off from the rest by fibrous barriers shaped into perfectly spherical domes, presumably by the soft vacuum behind; they appeared brittle, but despite Saren’s foolhardy experiments, he’d never managed as much as to chip them. Sometimes Sovereign would change the configuration of what they called “the habitable zone” by eating away the old barriers and growing new ones elsewhere. It was a disturbing phenomenon, and after each occurrence, Saren would spend hours redesigning his defense strategies. Not that he feared an attack. But being prepared for everything was what had brought him this far. It would not do to grow lax now, at the end of the path.

At the far end of the room, Benezia was sitting in the large “pilot” chair, dressed in a set of light fatigues, with her eyes closed and legs folded beneath her. Unstrapped. Saren clenched his jaw. How could someone who’d lived for centuries be so careless and stubborn? He pushed back the wave of anger and stilled, observing the pattern of her breathing. Meditating, he concluded at last. It might serve him well to do the same, for his heart was drumming heavier than usual. The beats were so loud, in fact, that he could hear them clearly over the buzzing of their equipment and the underlying humming of Sovereign’s engines.

It was a dissonant mixture. Sovereign despised their technology. And it had every right to: compared to its own elegant complexity, the devices they had brought in were clumsy and primitive. Saren could not blame it for allowing only the minimal, most necessary interfaces. It had given them access to its detector array, for it had not a single viewport. They were also permitted to translate and display its top-level system messages, and read out the status streams from some parts of its body. There was one stream in particular that Saren liked to watch: the output from the power core. Normally it updated at regular intervals, approximately the length of the traditional turian second, but it would accelerate during special operations, such as atmospheric entry or firing the MHD cannons, and decelerate while idling. Sovereign’s pulse. Saren was so used to its regular rhythm that he could sense it even when he closed his eyes: like a small mechanical clock, quietly ticking in the back of his skull.

Unlike his own, it was currently beating at its optimal rate. Undisturbed by petty mortal doubts and fears.

Saren turned to his terminal. The empty chat window was staring at him. He reached for it, got half way there, then the weight bore down on his hands. No. No more hiding.

He had taught Nihlus well. Too well. And there he was now, chasing Saren down like a criminal, unaware of what he was after, or whom he would face in the end. He was better than Saren had expected, and the dark admission was mixed with a significant measure of pride. Nihlus was quicker, smarter, more decisive than ever. He had reached his full potential and he was shining with the brief constancy of the brightest young stars.

He was a worthy adversary and for that, even if there were no other reasons, he deserved better than this abominable game of hide and seek. He deserved to know the truth.

This was an old, tiresome, struggle. So far, the side that preferred to stretch things out as much as possible had always had the upper hand. But now a confrontation seemed inevitable. Of course the Council would send Nihlus to Eden Prime. Him and Anderson’s whelp, Shepard. Saren folded his hands under his chin, musing. It would be most appropriate to see Shepard fail under Nihlus the way Anderson had failed under him.

But unlikely. Nihlus supported humans. He would see them join the Spectres, and then, the Council. He would see them rise to power and reap the benefits the other civilizations had had to fight for through centuries – in mere years. He would see them win a war of words without spilling so much as a drop of their precious red blood. Saren subdued a growl. All the more reason to end this masquerade and force Nihlus to choose his true allegiance once and for all.

Perhaps it could all be avoided, though. Again he reached, and this time his hands almost touched the haptic keyboard – but met insurmountable resistance there. Why was it, again, that he had never told Nihlus about Sovereign? At first it must have been an issue of trust and uncertainty. Later, of awkward explanations and questions Saren had never been ready to answer. How was he to speak of faith to the man he’d bound by commitment doomed to end in betrayal since the very beginning?

But it doesn’t have to, whispered his clear-minded, rational self. Tell him now, tell him the truth. Show him your faith, the passion of your conviction. Open your veins for him like you have done for Benezia and he will follow, like she has.

I don’t want him to follow, hissed the shadow, and moved his hands again, quickly now, before his other sees. “I’m on the Citadel. Meet me.”

The message went into the ether and he leaned back, suddenly sweating. A little breathless, even. Why was it so difficult? It wasn’t like he’d never lied to Nihlus before. He’d grown deplorably used to it, during the last few years. It always left a foul aftertaste. This time, however, the discomfort was almost physical. Like an itch, deep inside his body, spreading from nodule to nodule, and there, the sparks of over-excitement erupted all over him. What a miserable display of weakness. He leaned down and touched the floor to discharge, then glanced in Benezia’s direction again, relieved to see her eyes were still closed. Yes. A good long meditation was definitely in order.

A smiling avatar popped up in the chat window to mock his anxiety. “Awww, fuck,” it said. “I can’t. On a mission, far, far away.”

There was a stab of anger at the disrespectful tone. Replying was easier. “Make it wait. It might be a long time before we can speak again.”

Exaggeration didn’t sit well with him. But there was truth in that last statement, a still harsher truth: he might never see Nihlus again. Was that preferable to facing him as an enemy?

Facing him as an enemy. Saren frowned, repeating the phrase like a litany in an effort to absorb the reality behind it. If I meet Nihlus on Eden Prime, he will be my enemy.

Our enemy.

Yes. Our enemy.

There was a hole in the center of Saren’s being that used to open up in face of such gloomy thought experiments, but nothing happened now. He had been preparing for this for far too long, and there was no room left for doubts, no empty places in which fear could settle in.

“Shit. I want to. You know that, right? But I can’t.”

Saren sighed. Let him come, then. He would see the truth and there would be no need to explain in cumbersome words. The resolution was supposed to calm him down, for he had tried, and it was out of his hands now. But instead, everything was turning the wrong way, somehow. Like the entire world stood at an odd angle relative to what he remembered from before. He struggled to make sense of this sudden, dreamlike feeling of wrongness, and more sweating ensued. Was he being… nervous? Because of what was to happen? Because of what was at stake? Was he… making mistakes? Before, his mind was a clean, orderly place, a pleasant abode uncluttered with irrelevant decorations, well organized so that he always knew where to look for answers. Now…

“Saren? Still there?”

Sovereign hummed around him in reassuring notes and Saren slowly relaxed. The shadow departed, leaving him in peace. But soon he grew wary: wherever he looked in the spaces of his thoughts, mirrors awaited. His reflections were faithful, but the worlds behind them were nothing like reality. One showed the green disk of a planet very much like Palaven (only it wasn’t, it couldn’t be, that was the deal), and diving into her misty atmosphere were giant ships very much like Sovereign (only they weren’t, they couldn’t be, that was the deal) in thousands upon thousands and there was no hope for his people.

He jumped. He’d drowsed off, something he’d never been prone to before making a residence on Sovereign. Something about its humming. It was soothing. Too soothing.

On the far end of the bridge, Benezia was sitting in the same position, but her eyes were open now. Saren inclined his head, in part to show that he’d noted her presence, in part to test if she was aware of his. It didn’t look like it.

A glance at the chat window. Nihlus had gone offline.

ETA: five hours.

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