The Ghost

Chapter 18 of Ghost in the Machine

It was very dark and cold in this part of Sovereign. Saren had never been here before; or if he had, he had no memory of it. Which would be no surprise at this point. He had gotten used to the idea that he was forgetting some of the things that he’d done, the same way he was remembering various things he hadn’t.

Closing his eyes was sufficient. Silver spires touching the uniform, gray clouds in the distance. Silent, empty fountains on the terrace, naked pipes that somehow defile the familiar sight, revealing the mechanics behind the illusion. The soft white cover doesn’t reach the entrance: there’s barely some around the railing, piling up in the recesses.

Saren had been in the Temple of Athame several times, but not during winter. He had never seen snow on Thessia, yet there it was, furling and drifting and melting on the five fingers of his thin, blue-skinned hand.

Not all memories were so easy to tell apart. A long day in the courtroom. Wishful glances through the tall windows at the spectacular blue sky outside. Fighting drowsiness while the elcor representative is delivering the closing word for Forey-Dar’Akhus Pharmaceutics. There’s a slender turian woman sitting in the first row, partly turned, looking at him. His people have already checked her out. So he gives her a half-smile. Vague echoes of rhythms and moans. Not enough time to enjoy the afterglow.

Forey-Dar’Akhus Pharmaceutics had lost the legal battle that day. Their assets had been divided between three smaller companies that had disappeared, leaving no more than a footnote in the economic history of Outer Council Space, more than three hundred years before Saren was born.

The rustle of soft footsteps awoke him from the reverie and his eyes shot open just in time to see the shadow move.

“Stop right there!” he said, infusing the shout with all the well-learned, well-earned authority he could gather. The figure ignored him and darted around the corner, the back of its long, violet robe trailing behind its feet. Saren growled and hurried behind it.

It wasn’t Benezia. He knew her scent, her steps, her sounds, her very thoughts. No. It was somebody else. An alien. A spy. Perhaps it was Nihlus. Saren could no longer be sure of anything.

Even if he were to disregard the dark doubts about being affected, he couldn’t deny the severity of the blow he’d taken when they’d stripped him of his Spectre privileges. It was crippling. Blinding and deafening and disfiguring. He had been preparing for that eventuality for years, building his own networks, securing his own resources, so the practicalities were of no particular concern. Other, abstract things were at stake, though they shouldn’t have been. Like his sanity. His struggle to suppress the horrifying feeling of being set adrift, of becoming permanently, finally detached from everything he’d been working so hard to preserve, was growing disorganized, desperate. There was a constant burn in his chest, eating away at him, reducing him to nothing from the inside like some slow-acting acid, and none of his careful rationalizations seemed to be effective against it. In taking away his status, they had diminished him, and he was helpless in front of the black tide of hate and anger. All the years, all the sweat and blood he’d invested in studying, training, fighting; all the unspeakable things he’d seen and done to make sure they could frolic in the silken comforts of their safe cocoon – all of that somehow held less weight in the eyes of the Three than one archaeological outpost on one human colony.

And then there was the black pit of certainty that they would have turned a blind eye to it – like they had done so many times during his long service, and in face of far greater terrors – if Nihlus hadn’t sided against him.

Saren clenched his teeth and hurried forward, following the shadow deeper into the bowels of the ship. No, he concluded, he had never been to these particular halls. They were frigid and empty and lifeless, much more so than the other parts of the ship, where there were lights, and motion, where there was something happening, something to confirm that time was indeed still flowing. It was getting darker and darker the deeper he went and eventually his cybernetic eyes switched to night mode, painting the world in monochrome green. The halls were growing smaller, turning into tunnels. But other than that, it all looked the same in every direction. It would be easy to get lost inside Sovereign. Get caught in some loop where no photons dared fly and where his night-vision would be useless. Walk in circles, blind and hungry, touching the cold metal until his blood went cold as well.

Movement in front. This time he was ready. “I said, stop!”

He ran forward. But when he reached the corner, there was no one there. It couldn’t be Benezia. Benezia was shorter and much leaner and certainly didn’t have the profile of a grown turian. What if it was Nihlus? What would he do if he caught him? Perhaps it would be better not to?

As the treacherous thought flashed through his mind, the familiar pain flooded his senses so that he had to lean against the uneven, hard wall until it passed. The most horrible feeling. Like swallowing fuel on fire, flames licked the back of his throat before spreading downward and outward, sweeping through his chest and guts and finally covering the entirety of his skin in hot, burning sweat. It was getting worse. Each time, there was a new component to the sensation, a new flavor, something fresh and unexpected so he couldn’t possibly get used to it, learn to filter it, ignore it. Sovereign would not be ignored.

Saren lifted a hand to the back of his neck and felt the amplifier behind the right mandible. It was so hot it burned his finger, and the flesh around it was blistered. A careful touch – yes, the other one too. He swallowed through a dry throat and let his head roll back against the wall. The idea that Sovereign was acting as if it was jealous of his affection for Nihlus made him grin despite the fear and the echoes of pain. There was something strangely rewarding in the way it would always evacuate from Saren’s processes when he experienced strong emotions, like fear, or pain, or…

Could the brass god have… feelings? It would be the ultimate cosmic irony.

Very little in the way of cosmic ironies could surprise Saren. He opened his eyes, pushed himself away from the wall and tested his knees. Just in time. The shadow was moving again.

“Nihlus,” he shouted, but his voice broke on the name. “Show yourself!”

He was ready to leap forward, but then the figure turned, and Saren glimpsed the face under the hood. A mirror of his own, with dark stripes of color running under black-hole eyes like bloody tears.

Saren froze in mid-motion, as if splashed with liquid nitrogen.

It wasn’t Nihlus.

Precious seconds passed before he regained a measure of control. Before he found his voice and begged the figure to stop. Before he found his strength and ran forward into a patch of complete darkness. His vision became blurred, outlines slowly drowning in the thermal noise. Something like a prayer was ringing in his mind, words of faith, repeating over and over again. Impossible. Impossible. This is not happening. Please, please. This is not happening.

And then he turned another corner and laid his hands on something that stood in his way. Someone. A high-pitched female scream, a short-lived outburst of light, a tinge of biotic sparks on his skin.

“Saren! Stop that!”

He turned the figure around. And sure enough, now it looked just like Benezia. It shone a flashlight into his face and for an instant, the world became sickeningly white as the sudden flare saturated his high-efficiency optics. He slapped her hand away, and she staggered back, reaching for the wall to steady herself. The flashlight hit the floor with a painfully loud clank that continued ringing long after the offending ray blinked, stuttered and went out.

“Where did he go?” Saren growled, stepping forward. If she was here, the intruder must have gone another way.

“Who?”

“You must have seen him. He went past this junction a second ago.”

“I have seen no one but you.”

“Don’t lie to me.”

He could hear her swallow. Of course she’d seen the ghost. Why else would she be here?

“Speak!”

“I saw something,” she hissed between her teeth. “But it was not what you think.”

“What do I think?”

Her breathing came to a halt. He could almost taste her fear, like a cloud of fine vapor, enveloping them both. Her mouth was working, he could hear every moist slide of her tongue over her dark, fleshy lips. She couldn’t see a thing, he realized. Her eyes were sampling the space in wild, wide arcs, chasing after the echoes of his words.

“What do I think,” he repeated in a lower, subdued voice.

“Goddess, Saren,” she breathed, her unseeing gaze fixating on something roughly half a meter to his right. “I remember him too. Not his face or voice. I remember the memory.” Her eyes closed and she continued in a whisper. “Standing in the water. Green breeze on my face. The path is still there but the bridge is not to be used. So says the sign. I crossed anyway. Silver fish around my legs, swimming upstream. Unafraid, because I have not moved for hours.”

She fell silent and they stood motionless for a long time. Then she moved, blindly, a shaking hand reaching for his face. Her aim was off but he took a step back just in case. The urge to simply leave became overwhelming. He picked the flashlight up and put it in her searching hand.


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