Chapter 29 of Ghost in the Machine

Saren didn’t want to think it, but after some moments of internal struggle, he realized resistance was futile. He wished Nihlus was there. The sight of Feros, the Prothean megalopolis, with needle-like spires casting long shadows over the pristinely white clouds in the pale, chilly dawn was something Nihlus would revel in, saying poetic things in his orator voice (which ran more than a few keys lower than his normal speech), and blinking tears of high emotion from his eyes when he thought Saren wasn’t looking. Perhaps he’d even be moved to immortalize the scene by painting. A quick sketch with a pencil, then a minute of biting his right mandible, then a high-resolution shot from the visual detectors – to keep the light steady, he’d explain.

An alarming stab somewhere deep inside his chest compelled Saren to reach up with his right hand, but he checked the impulse in time and remained motionless, staring at the desolate, abandoned world.

He had been thoroughly surprised, and even distraught, to find that Nihlus had developed a lasting fascination with Prothean history in the recent years. Nothing other than pornography and painting had ever seemed to capture his interest for long. When they had first met, it had been famous human philosophers. Later, there had been singing. After that, a brief period of feverish immersion in early salarian cinematography, then more recently, in elcor poetry, and who knows how many other things that had either been too fleeting or too mundane for Saren to register. Nihlus’ flights of fancy were as difficult to predict as they were to influence; there had been nothing Saren could have done to steer his attention away from Prothean lore without piquing his curiosity even further. He had never seen Nihlus so taken, so absorbed, and if not for the constant fear of being discovered, it would have been an enthralling experience.

There had been a time, long ago, when Saren had been equally enamored with the Protheans. But even before he’d learned about their inglorious fate from Sovereign, he had looked down upon the irrational idolatry of their existence and disappearance as distasteful, almost offensive; and later, he had fantasied about revealing the sad truth for the entire Galaxy to see, and possibly, despair. Better to die knowing the truth than to live hiding from it, isn’t that right, brother?

And the truth was that the Protheans had been just another client race of the Reapers, playing in their sandbox, using their mass effect technology just like the space-faring species of this cycle. They were no gods; they were no superior beings. On the contrary: they had proven to be inferior, imperfect, and for that, they had been destroyed.

Perversely, he derived comfort from the horrific images the beacons had imprinted on his mind. Saren wouldn’t let that happen to his people. He would save them from that destiny, no matter the price.

Another stab in the chest. He glanced at the place where the artificial limb came in direct contact with living tissue under the armor. It was malfunctioning. It had to be. He was growing more certain of it with each passing day.

He had never trusted it completely. Somewhere in his brain, the memory, a collection of horrific images of his own, was lost beyond his reach. He knew how the accident happened. He had even watched the security footage that had caught it, but he couldn’t remember. A flaw to cover up a weakness. An intelligence such as Sovereign’s had neither, and he envied it deeply. He loathed the idea that there was something inside him, something not only out of his control, but also outside his ability to analyze and understand, that worked against him, that defied his wishes and ignored his orders, something that was hiding things from him under the pretense that it was trying to protect him. It was insulting.

A terminal beeped somewhere behind his back and he turned away from the drawbridge, absently memorizing the positions of the ships in their escort, trailing behind. The interior of a geth dropship was possibly the most uninspiring thing he’d ever seen: a monolithic hallway lined with racks where the geth slumbered, folded in their compact forms. Other than weapons and other equipment mag-tied to the floor between the racks, there was nothing in the hallway. No seats, no bunks. No bulkheads to separate the hall from the cockpit. The barrier sealing off the drawbridge was installed for the sake of the organics. He had ordered the drawbridge lowered. Having a window to look through was a luxury after the long months spent on Sovereign.

Shiala looked up when he approached. “Sir? We’re going under, sir,” she said.

He took a seat in the co-pilot chair and strapped himself in. They descended under the cloud cover, and the light dimmed by several degrees. The sight lost much of its beauty and all of its innocence as the clear white of the cloudscape was replaced by the dull grays of a decaying cityscape. Saren frowned at the display, then pulled down the tactical overlay. A couple of distant towers lit up with labels and readings.

“That’s the human settlement, sir,” Shiala said. “Other than them, there’s only flora. And not only here. The whole planet is like this.”

Saren snorted. Protheans sure knew how to squeeze the life out of their worlds.

“Who would want to live in this place?” she whispered. “They will need a hundred generations just to clear the rubble.”

“No, they won’t.”

“Yes, sir. We’ll make sure of that.”

“Not we,” he muttered, then turned to study her. He liked Shiala. Intelligent, efficient, and a formidable biotic. She had probably lived half a dozen of his lifetimes, but unlike Benezia, she was a soldier, and that was something Saren could understand. Reading her reports would have been a pleasure if not for all the negatives: the sweep of the surface turned up no promising sites to search for the beacon, and there were no traces of the elusive emissions characteristic of active Prothean technology. Sovereign would scramble all communication attempts from the human colony, but their defensive capabilities were unknown, and the nature of the research Exo Geni was conducting was classified. Something that wouldn’t have been a problem just a week ago.

None of this was Shiala’s fault, however, and he was making her nervous for no good reason. “Relax,” he said. “You’ll do fine.”

“The Matriach trusts me, sir, and so can you.”

Saren hummed some indeterminate response to that. Trust was a heavy word, but this wasn’t the time for semantics.

“Take three units and go to the colony,” he said after a while. “I’ll take care of the research center.”

“Yes, sir. What should I do about the civilians?”

“Keep them out of my way.”

“Yes, sir.”

Just as the dropship latched onto the side of the building taken up by Exo Geni, his omni buzzed again. He exchanged a glance with Shiala. She unstrapped and left the cockpit without a word. After a second, the heavy beat of her boots was drowned in the clicking and clanging of the awakening geth.

Saren hesitated for another moment, then clicked the message, and a wave of adrenalin washed through him like a shot of stims.

“Nihlus is here. Liara is with him. They are traveling on that Alliance vessel and I do not have the numbers to hold them back. They have just landed, but I fear there will not be enough time to extract the information we need. Saren, I am scared. Please, advise.”

He heard himself breathing deeper and deeper, louder and louder, until his exhales turned into quiet growls. He had known this would happen, but still he had to employ every iota of his self-control to contain the burning, helpless anger. To hell with Nihlus and his human pup! And now that he had Benezia’s daughter with him, Benezia didn’t stand a chance. She would either be killed or captured, or seduced to join them and there was nothing to be done about it, because the alternatives were even worse.

The prosthetic hand curled into a vicious fist, and it hit the console with all its strength before he could rein in the rage. The display shifted and quivered, then snapped off with a quiet hiss.

There was a momentary pause in the clamor behind him, and he could picture dozens of geth heads snapping in his direction to witness yet another outburst. He massaged his forehead, bearing down on the plates. Calm down. You’re better than this.

He took a deep breath and typed a reply.

“Release the experiments.”

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