Chapter 20 of Ghost in the Machine
One hour before the attack on Therum.
“Left or right?”
Dolneon’s impatient voice echoed rudely in the ancient hallway and Liara winced.
“Hush,” she said. “I need a moment.”
Everybody stilled. She looked around, chasing the patches illuminated by their flashlights, moving about at random. These floors had not been walked for more than fifty thousand years. These walls had not seen light since the Exodus. The last creatures to breathe this air had been living Protheans. Goddess!
The notion made her dizzy. Or perhaps it was the air, thick and heavy with underground fumes. And, Liara thought, with memories as well. She stepped forward, leaving footprints in the millennial dust, and touched the far wall. Cold and featureless under her fingers. She waited, but it had nothing to share. And it was the same in every direction.
“Right,” she said.
One by one, they stepped in, curious and careful. The padding of their feet, their sighs and whispers soon filled the hallway, and the feeling that they were committing some sort of heresy began to wane. She walked at the rear of the group as they ventured farther. Dolneon had brought three students with him: a tall turian woman named Nimui, with facial markings painted in a nice shade of violet; an asari young even by Liara’s standards, named Ilena, who seemed to be markedly uncomfortable most of the time; and, curiously, a human named Ronald, proportioned like a volus, but wearing an attractive aura of quiet confidence. They all looked eager, if not exactly used to field work. Fascinated, yet uncertain, perpetually gaping around and worrying that one wrong move would crash the entire dig atop their heads. But there was passion in their glittering eyes, and Liara was reminded of a time when she had been as wide-eyed and slack-jawed. When she had been absorbed in her work to the exclusion of everything else.
Oh yes. Dealing with interstellar bureaucracy and managing a project of this scope had changed her outlook during the past few years. And now other things were on her mind. Grim thoughts and vague fears.
The news about the raid on Eden Prime – news Liara had procured a full day before it had hit the extranet – had made all the senior staff nervous. Some had even picked up their things and left the site, and Dolneon had been one of the few to return after the vacation season. Liara could not blame them. The entire Prothean research community had been feeling the pressure lately. Archeology was not supposed to be a high-risk profession but that was exactly what it was turning into with the ever-increasing rate of raids and robberies. The general public was blissfully uninformed, of course, apart from the growing awareness that even the most insignificant Prothean artifacts had become incredibly valuable. And it took more than that to obtain the sort of financing required to secure the scattered sites effectively, and in a way that would be acceptable for all the involved parties. For it would surely be unthinkable to bring a team of human mercenaries to a turian world, or, Goddess forbid, a team of krogan mercenaries to a salarian world. Yet neither the Council nor the Systems Alliance seemed prepared to supply their own troops in the interest of keeping the field alive.
Perhaps it had been cruel of Liara to hope that this would change after Eden Prime, but nothing seemed to come out of it. The humans working in the mines seemed largely unconcerned, and the representative of EAE nodded sympathetically to Liara’s heated explanations and risk projections, but did not make even a token effort to increase security. Rotten bastard. Since day one, he had been sabotaging every effort the research team had made to find support with the colony authorities, and more importantly, their pleads for more time before the Company defiled the entire site. Humans are greedy, Mother whispered from the well of memory. Also impatient and disrespectful, and altogether foolish, Liara added silently.
Mother. The thought brought about a vague anxiety rather than the familiar resentment. Nobody had heard from her in a long time, and while Liara certainly did not miss her, the idea that she was out of reach was unsettling. Liara had been trying to get information on her current location and intentions for several weeks now. She had even stooped as low as to offer some of the discoveries her team had made here to none other than the infamous Shadow Broker, in trade , but it had all been in vain. There was simply nothing to be had. That most of Mother’s faithful flock had picked up and left Thessia with her was a well-known fact, but after the Parnitha relay their trail went cold as quickly and surely as the dark side of an airless moon. Surrounded by her followers, it was doubtful she would find herself in danger, but still. It was unlike Mother to… disappear.
“Dr T’Soni?” Nimui said. “We’ve reached the circular chamber.”
That got her attention. The circular chamber was the largest intact structure their scans had revealed on the site, and it had featured prominently in the two major project proposals that kept the excavation running. Finding a safe way inside had been the focus of Liara’s work for almost two years. Because those same scans made it clear from the very beginning that one wrong step could easily cost them not only the entire site, but their lives as well. The dig was sitting right on top of a fault line, and once the risks of destabilizing it had been calculated, even the greedy humans had stopped digging deeper than was strictly necessary. They had been expanding their operations laterally instead, leaving Liara and her colleagues to uncover the buried treasures armed with hardly anything but soft brushes and patience. Lots of patience.
But it was well worth it. If not for the distracting restlessness that had gotten under everyone’s skin after Eden Prime, they would have been celebrating this breakthrough. And we will, Liara decided, stepping between them. She could almost smell the excitement in their shallow breathing, hear it in the reverent silence. Her heart was beating loudly and she swallowed, then turned on the flashlight on her omni.
The light-cone ignited the dust they had disturbed after thousands of years. It was dancing in the beam like snow drifting in a fickle winter breeze, caressing the ancient structures inside. Structures? Liara took a step forward, shining her light on the wide column in the center of the room, running from floor to ceiling and concealing the far side from them. The way to the left was closed off by a veritable mountain of rubble. Yes, yes, they had seen it in the scans. But the preliminary analysis of the composition indicated materials alien to Therum, similar to the reinforced stone the Protheans used for some classes of buildings elsewhere, so it was probably removable. To the right, the tiled wall from the hallway continued in an elegant curve.
While she had been looking around, the others had stepped in as well. Dolneon was doing a spectral analysis on the rubble, and Ronald seemed to be filming. Liara absently smiled. They could have brought a hover-cam. Nimui went over to the central column, and after glancing at Liara, Ilena joined her.
“It stands out, does it not?” Liara said, and the students turned to her. She indicated the column with her chin. “I have seen such architecture at other sites. It is not made of stone.”
“It feels metallic,” Nimui offered. She was tapping her talontips on it, producing a faint clinking. Liara nodded. But then Ilena placed a hand on the column and snatched it back with a start that made everyone jump.
“What?” said Liara.
“It can’t be,” Dolneon said, his huge eyes blinking rapidly. He stepped forward, taking off a glove before reaching to touch the column himself. Liara bit her lip. If it was warm, it could only mean that… “It’s still powered.”
They all stood still for several beats, exchanging nervous glances, and then everyone moved at the same time. Ronald and Liara stepped forward to feel the column as well, Dolneon moved back and brought up a menagerie of holos, looking for EM and ME activity. Ilena maneuvered to position herself behind Liara; even in the weak light, her pallor was apparent. She had taken a good fright there. Nimui, on the other hand, seemed captivated, and pressed a cheek against the column for a moment, as if to listen to it.
It was warm to the touch. Liara allowed herself a taste of the excitement she had been holding back on account of being a senior scientist on the site. Goddess! Working Prothean technology!
That gave her an idea.
“Kill the lights,” she said.
Everyone froze, looking at her, but nobody moved to do as she had said. So much for being a senior scientist on the site.
“Turn off your flashlights for a moment? I want to check something.”
Finally they turned their lights off.
“The omni too, Dolneon.”
“Sorry,” he said, collapsing his holos and clearing his throat. “So. What are we looking at?”
“Give it a moment,” Liara whispered. “While our eyes adjust.”
The darkness was so complete that for many seconds she was not sure if her eyes were open at all, and despite the historical significance of the situation, she could not resist the urge to wave an invisible hand just in front of her nose, childishly. Almost a whole minute passed before Dolneon gasped, and Liara smiled even though it took her a few more breaths to catch it herself.
Tiny green lights traveled over the column in narrow streams, forming geometrical patterns of astonishing complexity and undeniable beauty. When she tried to swallow she found her mouth was dry with dust. Her eyes were wet with tears of elation. She blinked them away, stifling an excited giggle. She had never been to Mars, but she had seen some footage, obtained at a great price, of the working Prothean data core the humans had uncovered. It looked… just like this. And now she had her own. Goddess!
“Goddess,” Ilena voiced. “What is that?”
“Status indicators of some kind,” Ronald offered. “I’ve seen things like this on Mars.”
Liara snorted. Sure you have; right after signing the infamous “Martian Archives” non-disclosure agreement, rumored to have more restrictions than the Council Act on Genetic Engineering and all its amendments together. Not that she was jealous. Not at all.
“Let us see what’s inside,” she said, turning the light back on. Their footsteps filled the room with echoes and their lights painted everything with a silver sheen that made the inner wall look as inanimate as ever. It ended at an elegant arch leading into the sanctum. Another circular room, also quite empty, save for the strangely intricate carving on the floor – and the thing standing erect in the very center.
“Liara?” Dolneon gasped. “Do you see what I see?”
“Yes,” she whispered. This time she did not need to tell them: all of them turned their lights off, and after a second of electrified silence, they saw the network of green lights outlining the miniature replica of the Citadel Tower. “It’s a beacon,” she said, and then laughed. “It’s a powered beacon!” She turned to the students, marginally aware of how futile it was, in the pitch black darkness. “Do you realize what this means?”
“Well,” Ronald started after a few awkward seconds, “we know that the beacons were a part of an Empire-wide communication network.”
“Supposedly independent of the mass relays, if you’re to believe the speculation of V’Naro and her group,” Nimui continued. “Possibly an experimental new technology?”
“And very rare,” Ilena concluded, bringing up the most interesting aspect. “Only three recovered so far, in various stages of disintegration. Not a single one functional.”
“And all of them in private collections,” Dolneon muttered as he brought up his omni, illuminating the sanctum in a spectrum of vivid colors. Liara gave him a questioning glance, but he did not seem eager to continue that line of thought. What he left unsaid was that two of these private collections had been robbed in the last year.
Liara turned to look at her discovery. She covered her flushed cheeks with ice-cold fingers, trying to absorb the unbelievable significance of what they had stumbled upon. A find like this had the potential to change not only the face of all Prothean research, but maybe the face of galactic society. Instantaneous communication! Instantaneous telephatic communication! Which would give her people another convenient advantage over the other space-faring races, but that was a concern for another day. Liara had no doubt in neither instantaneous nor telepathic. V’Naro was well-respected, though her insistence on traditional – some would say, outdated – methods had made her less than popular with the younger generation of researchers. But Liara had been brought up to respect tradition, and she had never thought V’Naro’s work was speculative or sensationalistic. At the time she had been a stuttering graduate, securing a place on V’Naro’s team had been her most cherished dream. Yet here she was now, making a discovery V’Naro could only dream of.
She could almost hear the beacon. Whispering promises of delightful revelations. She could barely keep herself from approaching and touching it, and out of the corner of her eye, she saw that she was not the only one. Ilena was walking towards it as if hypnotized.
“Do not go near,” Liara warned. Her voice rang between the metallic walls almost hurtfully.
Ilena froze, then gave an apologetic smile. “I wasn’t going to-”
“It might be dangerous.” Liara cleared her throat to intone in her best stern-teacher voice: “Nobody goes near the artifact, or, Goddess forbid, touches it. Understood? We do not need another barrier incident.”
Dolneon chuckled, and the students murmured reluctant acknowledgment. They did not ask what the ‘barrier incident’ was; either they were too excited by the matter at hand, or they had already heard of it from Dolneon, who still seemed to think it was very funny. Of course, Liara had been the perpetrator. With her luck, it would become one of those undying anecdotes retold to countless generations of young archaeologists.
Farther down the room, Ronald had started filming again. This time, Liara did not smile, but made a mental note instead. He would likely be signing a new non-disclosure agreement, and very soon. Therum Archives. Liara chuckled.
“Aaaand, it’s official,” Dolneon announced. “This entire room is powered by a functional-”
“What was that?” Nimui said, and the alarm in her powerful voice was more than enough to make everyone shut up in an instant. “Do you hear that?”
“What?” said Ronald, speaking for them all.
Liara could not hear a thing, except her own nervous heartbeat. But Nimui raised a hand to cut off any further questions. Her face assumed an expression of studious concentration, amber eyes slashing this way and that, but obviously looking elsewhere. Then her mandibles started flicking in a way that could not be mistaken for anything other than fear.
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