Chapter 31 of Ghost in the Machine
The security measures at the ExoGeni research station were laughable. Saren went through them like a plasma cutter through omnigel and the building was taken in a matter of minutes. He ordered the scientists herded in a large conference room, and sent out the geth to hunt down those few who had managed to escape and hide on the lower floors.
Meanwhile, the colonists were putting up more of a fight. He hadn’t heard from Shiala for a suspiciously long time; not since she’d reported the humans fighting like “savage beasts”. She wasn’t much of a racist, so he assumed she meant that something was out of the ordinary.
Finally, he grew restless and pulled up a comm link. Sounds of gunfire, screams and her accelerated breathing greeted him from the other side.
“What’s the situation?” he asked, one hand on his earpiece, the other holding the pistol. He paced along the perimeter of the room waiting for Shiala to reply.
“Sir! The colony is almost secured, sir!” A barrage from an automatic weapon. Shiala cursed. Then a high-pitched crackling in the comm. She was mounting a biotic attack.
“I see,” he said. Glancing down at his legs, he noticed that his knees were smeared with red human blood. The color offended him.
“But, sir?” The crackling had ceased. Shots, closer, from a geth pulse rifle. “There’s something wrong with the colonists. This isn’t normal!”
Saren raised an eye ridge. She had reported this twice already. Either he was missing something truly exceptional, or she wasn’t as intelligent as he’d thought. He waited for the sounds of carnage to subside before speaking again. “Could you be a little more vague?”
His pacing took him near the chairs again and he cast a lazy gaze over the humans sitting in them, strapped and gagged.
“I don’t know how to explain, sir! It’s like they’ve all gone crazy! I know it doesn’t make sense…”
“You’re right,” he said, taking aim at the closest human. “It doesn’t.”
The human shut his eyes, his fleshy face crumpling under the adhesive tape that covered his mouth. He had hair growing there too. Disgusting. Sometimes, Saren wished he could have his old eyes back, with all their numerous flaws. His implants recorded everything with clinical accuracy. Every drop of sweat, forming in the reddened pores on the human’s forehead. Tears, shamelessly streaming from the corners of his eyes. Snot, making balloons under his nose. And as if that wasn’t enough, the sniveling creature wet his pants.
Saren moved on, wrinkling his nose.
“No excuse, sir. I’ll interrogate some of them, and…”
“Force one to meld with you.”
He stalked to the next one, a younger woman, dark-eyed and defiant. Even when he put the muzzle on her sweaty forehead, she kept staring into his eyes. Interesting.
The link went dead and Saren turned his attention to the woman beneath his weapon.
“Will you answer my questions?”
She nodded vigorously.
“Every time I think you’re lying, I’ll kill one of your friends. Do you understand?”
Another nod. He nodded too, lowered the weapon, and removed the tape from her mouth, making her jump with sudden pain. Then he shot the man who’d pissed his pants. The woman screamed and all the others twitched, enough to make their chair legs scrape against the floor. Naked metal on naked concrete. The sound was unpleasant. The man had been sitting close to the wall and the blood-slicked pieces of bone and brains oozed down, leaving glossy red trails behind. Effective.
“Why did you kill him?” the woman screamed at him. “You didn’t even ask me any questions!”
“So you would know I’m serious.”
“Turian bastard!” She tried to spit in his face, but she was seated too low and the snot ended up somewhere on his armor. Perhaps he shouldn’t have chosen the most defiant after all.
“What’s a ‘thorian’?” he said. He would give her this one chance.
She looked at him, hatred dripping from her eyes along with tears of utter helplessness. Tears wouldn’t move him, though. Answers might. And, as if she’d read that from his face, she started speaking.
“The Thorian… is a sentient plant… that grows under the surface of Feros. As far as we can tell, it predates the Prothean settlements.”
“How do you know it’s sapient? Can you communicate with it?”
“No,” she said, but something about the way her eyes darted to the side made Saren doubt her sincerity. He turned around, looking at the terrified faces, glossy eyes shining dully, a cluster of dying stars.
“Are you sure?” He took aim at a man sitting next to a pillar. His splattered brain would contrast nicely against the white paint.
“Not directly!” the woman hurried to add at hysterical pitch. “It’s telepathic!”
A telepathic plant, predating the Prothean settlement, and apparently able to survive the Harvest. Saren had to admit it wasn’t something he could have predicted. Could Sovereign? He held his breath for a second, lowered his eyelids to limit input, and waited. But the voice was quiet. The pulse was as calm and uniform as ever.
His earpiece buzzed.
“Sir?” said Shiala, breathless. “Ready to report, sir. But… you won’t believe it.”
He could hear her footsteps on uneven terrain, boots crunching over debris. A tired exhale when she sat down. How long has it been? He glanced at his omni, raising his brows. Six hours since they landed. Odd. He could have sworn…
“The colonists are under the control of something they call ‘the thorian’,” Shiala said, her voice low and somewhat difficult to make out over the noises from the background. “They live for it, and they would die for it, but they don’t really know what it is. All I could pick up is that it’s somewhere near. And it’s scared of us.”
“Interesting,” Saren said, looking up and capturing the stare of the woman he’d been interrogating.
“Sir? Do you know what it is?”
“I’ll get back to you.”
If there was something that never failed to amuse Saren, it was how people liked to use him, his name and his ways, as a synonym for ruthlessness, maybe even evil – while comfortably wallowing in the products of, or blindly participating in, or, even worse, consciously participating in an entire spectrum of cruelties the likes of which he’d never even conceive of committing. Like these people here.
The woman was looking back at him, fear mixing with exhaustion, but also a bit of curiosity. He waited to see if she’d dare ask him what was going on, but apparently she was too smart for that. They were all too smart. All brains and no heart.
Look who’s talking, said a voice in his head, the other voice, and then there was laughter, as smooth, alive, and unrestrained as a rushing mountain stream.
The expression on the woman’s face was puzzled. Saren realized he’d lost some seconds. Again. He swallowed.
“Tell me about the colony,” he said.
“What do you…”
“Speak!” he yelled, getting into her face.
She tried to wriggle away from him to no avail: he had put a hand on her shoulder, the scary hand, and curled his fingers, giving her a little taste of the razor-sharp claws that the hand sported. Why, why would these people want to risk anything, especially their lives and the lives of their coworkers, to keep the dirty secrets of some company? He couldn’t wrap his mind around it. If they were in a war between, say, his people and her people, and if he were asking for vital strategic information, then such bravery would have made some sense, but this? This was just plain spite.
And Saren had no time for spite. He stepped back and shot the human next to the pillar.
After the screaming and the screeching stopped, he turned back to the woman.
She swallowed, huge, watery eyes wide with shock and unblinking, and started to talk.
“The Thorian exerts influence over people in its vicinity by spreading spores. After a certain exposure level, the spores make the subjects susceptible to mind control and then the Thorian trains them to serve it.”
“How are the spores transmitted?”
“In the air.”
“How long before it can take control?”
“Weeks. But we only tested on humans.”
Saren snorted. They only tested on humans. ExoGeni had built a colony on top of some alien monstrosity, knowing what it would do to their people, their brothers, knowing it would consume them, while they sat watching and gathering statistics. And they called him ruthless.
He tapped his earpiece.
“Find out where that thing is hiding,” he said. “I’m coming.”
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