The Cipher

Chapter 33 of Ghost in the Machine

The message caught him on the way down to the lair; everybody stopped at the rude buzzing of his omni.

It was from Benezia. Perhaps the last message he’d ever get from her. He signaled Shiala to wait, and then lingered. As if the act of reading it had the power to sway the outcome of the inevitable encounter. Which way would it sway?

Read.

Yes. No time to waste. He tapped the message.

“Saren.

It’s me, Nihlus.

I regret to inform you that the great Matriarch who spoke of you as a friend to the bitter end lies dead. Thankfully, not by my hand, though it could have easily turned out that way. Wouldn’t want the blood of someone who lived a thousand years on my hands with no good reason. An entire millennium of experience and creativity and wisdom — wasted. Gone forever. And why?

That’s what I’d like to know, Saren. Why?

Before she died — and I believe she’d have wanted me to tell you that she embraced her end without fear and regret — she said you are not to blame. She said there’s some mind-altering device aboard that ship you command. Or that commands you, as it might turn out. Being the meticulous, paranoid son of a bitch you are, I bet you’re well aware of this… indoctrination thing. But you’re also an arrogant bastard who probably thinks he’s so fucking special that he won’t be affected.

Wake the fuck up! It was too late for Benezia, but maybe it’s not too late for you. Just get the fuck out of there and we’ll find a way to deal with this mess, like we always do. Together.

I’m not asking you. I’m giving you an ultimatum.

Either surrender — or I’ll make you.”

Saren read and re-read, breathing deeper and deeper, clenching his jaw harder and harder. Yes, Nihlus. That is what I would l like to know too. Why? Why did you have to kill her — before she could complete her mission? It was you who shed that thousand-year-old blood with no good reason, not I. My reasons —

Our reasons.

— yes, our reasons — but why bother trying to explain something you can never comprehend? What is one life, one thousand years, compared to the future of the entire galaxy? So quick to judge, so slow to understand! Without the coordinates, the people you are so bent on saving will die stupid, meaningless deaths. As will you. Damn it to hell and back, Kryik!

“Sir?” Shiala said, cautiously.

It was unnecessary. The pain had already warned him: talontips breaking through the palm of his combat glove, biting into the mangled flesh below. He snarled at her, the desire to strike her almost more than he could bear. It was her fault too. Why hadn’t she stayed with Benezia? It wasn’t like he had been in need of help and protection. Shiala might have turned the tide, might have slowed it, might have made the sacrifice meaningful.

The echoes of his growls rolled back to him from the damp walls around them like the gurgling of lava under the surface of black, cracked stone. It was unacceptable, this unstable behavior, swinging between rage and sentimentality; a volcano just waiting to erupt. He was losing grip, and of all the times when it could have, or had happened, this was the most inopportune. With hardly any allies surviving, he could not afford to be out of control.

Focus.

Yes. He needed to focus. To get busy, to make progress. That was what he had always been good at, after all. More than good. The best in generations. Why he had been chosen, and not someone else. Because he could set his feelings aside and get the job done, regardless of the cost.

It will be worth it.

Yes. He cleared his throat. Shiala was looking at him, something annoyingly reminiscent of worry breaking through her serious expression, reminding him of Nihlus in his deceptively submissive moods.

“Nothing that concerns you,” he said. “How much further?” Floor after identical floor, the moldy concrete staircase seemed to go on infinitely and the slowly diminishing light had been the only indication of their progress. And Saren was fresh out of patience.

“It’s right here, sir.”

She led the way through a dark passage and into a circular shaft that ran the height of the spire. Gray daylight was beaming from a pinprick of painful whiteness far above, and suffocating in the dusty darkness below. The Thorian was suspended in the center. A huge, shapeless mass like a monstrous, gnarled root, hanging from clusters of torso-thick tendrils attached to the walls.

Whatever Saren had expected, it wasn’t this. He sniffed the stale air, pressing his mandibles close together to ward off a display of disgust. A survey of the creature and the surroundings revealed a number of ways to threaten or destroy it. Fire would do. Cutting tendrils. Letting the geth crawl atop its body and cut their way inside if his foul mood persisted. He glanced down the dim abyss, imagining how the humans would have screamed, had he had the foresight to execute them here by throwing them in, one by one.

If he were to throw himself over the edge… would he embrace his end without fear and regret? To just shut his eyes and rest. Lean back. Be free of responsibilities and expectations, once and for all. He had never asked for this. Never wanted to be a savior. He had never…

No other could do it.

Yes. With each ally we lose, it seems more and more like it.

He opened his eyes and stared defiantly into the depths. He would take that plunge sooner or later. Benezia’s demise was as inevitable as his own. It was her failure that was making hims angry and distraught. To die was one thing. To die for nothing…

A silent oath, a voiceless whisper: I will not fail.

We know.

“Have you spoken to it yet?” The echoes of his question undulated up and down through the shaft.

Shiala walked to a place where a cluster of tendrils was growing into the wall. Saren followed, after signaling the geth to remain at the entrance.

“I have only touched the surface, sir,” she said as she put a hand on one of the roots. The creature reacted, producing a deep groan that was felt rather than heard, reverberating through the walls. “But I know it will cooperate.”

The Thorian made a noise of a higher pitch, then grew quiet.

“Tell me everything.”

“Yes, sir. May I?”

Saren nodded and they both sat down on the cold stone floor.

“The Thorian learns by absorbing. It needs to consume the consciousness of a being in order to control others of its kind. This one has consumed many humans, and before that, Protheans.”

“Can it tell us where to look for the beacon?”

“It can do a lot more than that, sir. The Thorian stores everything it eats. It possesses the intact memories of living Protheans. The knowledge it needs, the knowledge it has, is the sum and essence of their species, of their culture, views, beliefs, everything! It calls this knowledge the Cipher.”

Saren narrowed his eyes at her. “The Cipher.”

“Sir,” she whispered, leaning closer. “It can make you see through the eyes of a Prothean.”

He blinked, then looked at the knotted mass with a newfound appreciation. “It can help me understand the message. But how?”

“Through me,” she said, eyes sparkling with excitement. “The Thorian is telepathic. I can communicate with it almost without effort and… Sir, it has been craving for the company of someone like that since the Exodus. It will give you everything you need, if… if you agree to leave me here with it.”

She sounded almost like she wanted it, and Saren frowned, observing her with more care. The ExoGeni scientists said it took a week or more for the spores to take over a human mind, but perhaps it was faster with the asari. Perhaps Shiala was susceptible to the Thorian’s control the same way Benezia and all her followers had turned out to be intolerant to Sovereign’s indoctrination.

Would it be a gentler fate? To be left at the mercy of the Thorian — instead of slowly losing her mind and eventually turning into nothing more than a husk? What would Benezia have wanted for her?

A strange turn of thought, and he began to wonder what Benezia would have wanted him to do if he met her daughter as an enemy. Kill her swiftly, with the mercy that he had not been able to bestow on Nihlus … or introduce her to Sovereign? As a replacement? To walk in her mother’s steps? Like he was walking in his brother’s?

Irrelevant.

Yes. Indeed. Benezia was dead, and her wishes were of as little consequence in this matter as were Shiala’s, or his own. Or this creature’s. “It will give me everything I need one way or another,” he said in a voice that carried, wondering if it could hear and understand.

“Yes, sir,” Shiala smiled nervously. “But perhaps… Sir, when I touched its mind… I saw the Reapers. They are… it was…” She seemed to be struggling for words, or for the ability to utter them. Saren’s frown deepened as she tried to explain through helpless gesticulation.

“What?”

“They lie, sir,” she managed at last, eyes filling with tears of effort. “Sovereign… it’s lying to us.”

Nonsense.

“Nonsense.”

She shook her head, striking the violet trails from her cheeks. “I’m sorry, sir. It’s difficult to explain. It is like… deeply seeded… one idea and… change this… sense, am I?”

Saren blinked at her, then glanced down at his omni. A translator glitch? Her lips were moving but the words weren’t getting to him. Instead, he could feel the familiar warmth rising up his spine, spreading inside his chest, under his arms, between his legs, as if someone was pouring acid down his main artery. What now? Why? He swallowed, pushing back the rush of panic.

“What?” he repeated, and his own voice sounded distant, as if he were speaking from behind a semi-transparent mirror, locked away inside a padded interrogation room. Scream and beat all you like. No one can hear you.

“I said… single thought… that is how it… just turn… switch on or off. Sir? Are you alright?”

Am I? His entire body had become rigid in the anticipation for pain, every fiber pulled taut, throat dry and sticky, heart beating wildly. He had to remind himself to breathe. But the pain didn’t come. He managed to relax.

He hadn’t heard a damn word. He started to ask her to repeat, but his mouth clicked shut.

The Cipher.

Yes, of course. That was why they were there, wasn’t it? He nodded, although he was far from satisfied. First the arm, and now the translators? If only he could disassemble his body, take out all the implants, check and clean them the way he cleaned his weapons after every use, perhaps he wouldn’t have found himself thinking about it as if it were an unreliable piece of equipment.

“I’m fine,” he said with a raspy voice. “Let us do this.”

Shiala positioned herself so that she could lay one hand over the tendrils. The other she offered to Saren. “Have you done this before, sir?”

“Yes.”

He hesitated for another moment, then took off his right glove and gave her his hand. Her skin was warm and soft, alive. How long had it been since he touched another living thing with his bare hand? And what did it matter? Nonsense, nonsense all around. He closed his eyes, opening his mind to the intrusion. How long had it been since he touched the soul of an asari?

The thing he touched had nothing to do with Shiala’s soul.

It hit him like a fist in the face, leaving blotches of fluorescent paint inside his eyelids and a dull ringing echoing through his skull. The same malignant force that burned the Prothean message into his cortex was now overloading all his senses with alien input and it burned, it burned! Worse than the beacons, much worse, and longer, long enough to throb and pulse, as if the entire Sovereign’s mass effect drive had somehow been collapsed and stuffed inside his head and now it was expanding to its original size again, droning and rumbling and sending all other sensations to oblivion. He was dimly aware of biting down on his tongue, of his mouth filling with blood. A strange wish to gouge his own eyes out made him lift his left hand up because it couldn’t be taken, it couldn’t be taken!

It stopped as suddenly as it had started, or perhaps he was losing consciousness, or perhaps he had lost it already. He was drifting away and above. One of those priceless moments of complete serenity, complete clarity. His spirit became unhinged from his body and he was flying on the wings of unblemished euphoria, navigating the forest of living spires with dreamlike ease. Thousands of windows, lighting up to greet the evening. The Prothean megalopolis, teeming with life, hope, and endless possibilities. A bloated, orange sun setting over it, caressing it with the last rays of a dying day.

Until something eclipsed it. Something descending at a supersonic velocity. The shock wave stole the air from under his wings a split second before the red eye of a Reaper looked his way. And the dream combusted.

Saren opened his eyes, wondering if he had shouted out loud. Traces of euphoria still lingered inside his mind. Spirits of the Winds! The pain it had started and ended with was nothing compared to that magnificent feeling, the freedom, the flying! He could see now why Shiala would want to stay. He could see…

Several things.

The geth were burning the Thorian’s tendrils with flamethrowers. The creature was producing desperate, pained sounds that were making Saren’s vocal cavity resonate in a sickening way. Who told them to do that?

He turned to look at Shiala, but she wasn’t located where he had expected her. She was to his left now. Hanging limply from his hand, his fingers curled around her neck. He released her immediately, but of course it was too late. Her body hit the floor like a sack of omnigel. Saren didn’t need to check her pulse to know that she was dead.

Then he noted the smell of burnt flesh. The Thorian hadn’t been on fire long enough for the smoke to reach the spot where Saren was standing. The smell was coming from behind him. When he turned, the movement hurt. He hurriedly wormed a finger under his cowl. The primary biotic implant, hidden just under his right mandible, stung his finger when he touched it. It had shorted out and fused with the amplifier, incinerating a good bit of surrounding tissue.

Two bundles of tendrils that had been holding the Thorian aloft came undone at almost the same time. Saren watched it sway on the last one for several long, agonizing beats, then fall off without another sound. The geth lowered their weapons. Many seconds of utter silence passed before the sound of the creature’s immense body, splattering against the unseen bottom of the spire, came echoing up the shaft.

Saren swallowed the bile that shot up his throat and marched out of the chamber without once turning back.


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