Nine

Chapter 9 of Ghost in the Machine

Saren froze in mid-motion, listening. He was in his room – a small chamber near the bridge, divided from Sovereign’s “main artery” by a thin, improvised door. Benezia was moving about on the bridge. Pacing to and fro. Then she stilled, and he resumed the inspection, manipulating the camera remotely from the workstation and observing the feed on the screen. Two mirrors would have done a much better job, but he had none. Asking Benezia to lend him hers would have invited too many questions. He didn’t want her to see him like this. He didn’t want her to know about his strange thoughts, strange suspicions. All he wanted was five minutes of peace to see what the hell was that thing on his back, but apparently it was too much to ask for. Always someone watching. Always someone listening.

Calm down. Deep breaths. Focus, damn it. You’re better than this.

He started over, zooming the camera on the back of his head and guiding it down. Counting. The pair of amplifier slots tucked just behind his mandibles was now over three decades old; his first implants. They were fine. Another pair, at the very top of the cervical curve, grafted during the long year after Nihlus had been appointed. They were fine too. Then came the row of two pairs, on each side of the lumbar curve, starting just under the thoracic plates. He’d gotten them three years before. They seemed fine as well. Eight in total.

And then there was the ninth.

He zoomed. On the right side, under the other six. It looked exactly like them. There was some bruising and swelling of the surrounding tissue, which was probably what woke him and made him scratch. Sometimes the implants got inflamed; nothing that would ordinarily cause concern.

The thing to cause concern – a lesser man would have called it panic – was that he had no memory of having an implant there. And worse than that, he couldn’t remember if he was supposed to have eight or nine.

How the hell does one forget something like that?

How the hell could he, Saren Arterius, one of the most brilliant minds of the century, forget something like that? He, who remembered the voices of all the children in his prep-school. Dozens of individual frequencies and hundreds of harmonics! And not only theirs; if he wanted, he could recall the voices, clans and markings of their parents and the names of all their siblings. He, who could reproduce, in voice or writing, the entire score for the Chant of Unification – eleven soloists supported by an eleven-tiered choir, with a total duration of six to nine hours. He, who could recite the Thessian Agreement word for word, and if he really had nothing better to do – recite it backwards. So how in the Galaxy could he forget if he had eight or nine spinal implants?

Like a word at the tip of the tongue, the certainty eluded him. It could have been nine. It could have been eight.

He tried to whisper it, to make it real by voicing the words. “Nine.”

It didn’t sound right.

“Eight?”

That didn’t sound right either.

His first thought had been to look at an old full-body scan. But he didn’t have a single one at hand. He carried only the most necessary data with him. The rest was stored on Virmire, and he couldn’t imagine asking Sovereign to make a detour just to provide him with peace of mind.

How the hell could he forget that? It was worse than forgetting your own name or birthday. It was like forgetting to breathe.

Alone in the dark, cold cell, Saren let out a voiceless laugh.

I’m going crazy.

Or worse; I’m being affected.

Nonsense.

Yes. Nonsense. Of course he had nine implants. He’d always had nine implants.

Unless he’d had eight and one was new.

You’re being paranoid.

Yes. Paranoid. He shook his head clear and reached for his shirt. But then he had an idea. Perhaps he’d caught his own back on camera earlier? There was a small private collection he did carry around. To help pass the sleepless nights in FTL. Quickly, he fixed the gauntlet of his combat suit on his naked forearm and tapped his omni. And then his heart started beating wildly in his chest.

His files were gone. The collection was there – titled “Routine Surveillance Footage” so as to inspire as little curiosity as possible. But it was empty. Somebody had been touching his private files.

Benezia.

Benezia! The anger he’d been suppressing spilled over and boiled through his veins, setting his chest on fire. His hands curled into vicious fists, and the echo of his deep snarling crawled along the glossy walls and the stone-like floor, feeding right back into him. A brief fantasy – of the gurgling sounds she’d likely make if he were to strangle her – wrenched at his guts like desire and a shower of shivers went through his sweat-coated body.

And that was the moment Benezia chose to pay him a visit. Stupid, meddling woman. Things had changed since they took up residence on Sovereign. He used to enjoy her company, crave her insight, value her advice. As one of the eldest asari, and possibly one of the most ancient living creatures in the Galaxy, she used to inspire a sense of awe and admiration in him, like some benign, ethereal deity. He had never presumed to be able to understand her.

Which unfortunately didn’t put her above unnerving him.

The directed motion of her footsteps gave him just enough time to curse and pull on his undershirt. He had barely turned the camera and the screen off when she entered. She didn’t even knock. And when he didn’t look at her immediately, trying to subdue the fresh rage by squeezing the edge of the desk, she cleared her throat.

“What is it?” He stared up at her, caring little for how he sounded.

“A message for you. From Nihlus Kryik.”

Her eyes lit up in the half light as she spoke. She shaped the words like they’d cut her tongue, and he hated her for it. Assumptions were all she had; assumptions and pieces of old conversations, old confessions. She didn’t know; there was no way she could know for sure, yet she was jealous. Saren couldn’t stand it. To make it worse, he was sure she knew he couldn’t stand it. She was doing it on purpose and that made him want to snap her elegant, fragile neck.

“You’ve read it,” he challenged. She didn’t deny it, and his talons curled harder against the smooth plastic of the desk. “Speak.”

“The human colony was saved.”

“And the beacon?”

“Nihlus has used it. It is no longer funct…”

Saren growled and struck the desk with his fists, then stepped forward and towered above her, breathing furiously into her face. She did not flinch and instead raised her chin in defiance. Come on, her stare said. Strike me if you dare. Let us see just how out of control you are.

To which he just wrinkled his nose.

“You do realize what this means?” she continued. “He must be eliminated.”

“I will deal with Nihlus.” He was clawing into his hand again, but now he was doing it on purpose, to keep himself from lashing at her. He used to be better than this. His nerves were at an end, and his real work was only just beginning. “Stay out of it,” he concluded. “And stay away from my private things.”

“What private things?”

“Don’t play games with me. You’ve touched my omnitool.”

“I have not.”

She should have known better than to contradict him directly when he was in a mood like this. He took another step forward, crowding her, and she stepped back. There was no room behind her and now that he had her between the wall and his own body, flooded with destructive energy, Saren could finally smell the fear on her quickened breath. But there was no falsehood in it, nor in her huge, liquid eyes. Damn. She was telling the truth. Perhaps he’d deleted the files himself. If he could forget how many implants he had, who the hell knows what else he’d forgotten?

Another snarl, and she was gone. When did she walk out? Somehow he’d missed it. He was exhausted. His limbs hung limply and his neck was trembling under the weight of his head. He’d had no more than an hour of rest after Eden Prime.

At least that’s what he’d thought. When he sat down heavily on his cot and tapped his omni again, he found ninety-three unread messages in the queue and stiffened all over again. What was the time? More importantly… what was the date?

An entire day had passed since the retreat from Eden Prime. Which meant he’d been sleeping for nine standard hours. That was… disturbing. He’d never slept that long. Not as a child, not in boot camp, not in the cabal, and certainly not as a Spectre.

Perhaps he had underestimated the exertions his mind and body had been submitted to of late. Perhaps he was getting old. Most Spectres didn’t live to enter the third decade of service. Perhaps it was the humming, the ceaseless humming of Sovereign. But still, to sleep three times longer than normal –

You deserved it.

Did I?

Saren waited for a few seconds, but the voice didn’t reply. Good. He preferred to conduct his private correspondence without ghosts looking over his shoulder.

Not that he had anything to hide.

He went through the queue, distractedly eying the senders. Most messages were automated status updates from several ongoing operations. Some were asking for input, but those could wait. One of his agents on the Citadel, Fist, had made an unusual number of attempts to reach him. Saren flagged the stack to look into it later. The report from his agent on Therum was probably more urgent than the message from Nihlus, yet he could wait no longer.

There was a report attached to the message, and it was the first thing Saren looked at; but by the end of the second sentence, he knew it wasn’t written by Nihlus, who had likely been incapacitated after activating the beacon. Anderson’s pup, Shepard, had probably had to do it. Barely literate. Saren snorted at the awkward formulations, then gritted his teeth in anger because the last thing he was supposed to be doing was fantasizing about how Nihlus would have written it. A style minimal yet vivid, light and irresistible like a spider’s web. Like Nihlus himself.

He shoved the sentimentality away and scrolled down to the important bits. Of course Nihlus had reported seeing him. The encounter was described in far more detail than it deserved, but there were no inaccuracies or fabrications. What interested him the most, however, was what happened after he had left.

“Commander Shepard approached the artifact from the south and felt strong headache in its vicinity but stepped closer in order to investigate.”

Idiot. Even humans should have protocols about inspecting alien technology.

“The artifact applied a mass effect field that started dragging Commander Shepard in. Agent Kryik came to the rescue and removed Commander Shepard from the influence of the mass effect field, but in doing so, became trapped in the field himself.”

Nihlus, Nihlus. Always playing the hero. You’d have done it even if you’d known it would rob you of your sanity. How valiant. How foolish.

“The field lifted Agent Kryik in the air and out of reach of the unit. While being suspended, Agent Kryik appeared to be having seizures, and that lasted for approximately five seconds. After that, the artifact deactivated the mass effect field and Agent Kryik dropped on the ground. There were no obvious injuries, but he was unconscious. The artifact remained inactive despite the unit’s attempts to activate it, and it was loaded onto the SSV Normandy in the said state.”

Saren shut his eyes and allowed the disturbing imagery from the beacon to flood his mind. All his attempts to make sense of it had been in vain, and as he tried to imagine Nihlus going through the shock of receiving it for the first time with no idea what it represented or how to handle it, his throat shrunk and he had to swallow hard. Another secret they had in common. Another aspect of his existence that nobody but Nihlus would ever know about, let alone understand.

Nihlus would know. If there had been eight or nine.

Nine.

Yes. There must have been nine. Implantation isn’t the kind of procedure that can be done in several hours. At least, no mortal could do it. Feeling his heart-rate spike again, Saren quickly diverted the hopeless train of thought by finally opening the message.

“I’m okay. Are you okay? Where the hell did you run off to? I looked for you. I nearly died of worry. Now they tell me there were no turian bodies, so.

Look, Saren. I have a rotten feeling that these people will try to pin this mess on you somehow. Tevos tells me they even arranged for a hearing with the Council, but I guess you know about it already. They’ve got nothing other than a bullet hole in some dock-worker’s head: supposedly not from geth weapons. Geth! Can you believe it? And that beacon… Spirits, we need to talk. Why are you never online when I need you?

Anyway, I told them the bullet was probably mine. Friendly fire. Because it probably was. Right?

PS

I’ll be at the hearing. Just so you know. :)”

Saren frowned at the smiling avatar, bobbing up and down and moving its mandibles in a parody of seduction. Nihlus, Nihlus. What do I do with you now?

He didn’t need the voice to answer that question. He bit into his tongue until he tasted blood, then tapped the reply button.

The world is changing, Nihlus. And the past remains the better place.


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